Farai Chideya on Problems Within the US Adoption Industry

Michel Martin sits down with journalist Farai Chideya, who opened up about the harrowing adoption process she experienced as she tried to become a mother.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: So we turn now to an issue that links all of us and that is motherhood. One of the great joys and challenges in a woman’s life, and it’s wrapped in societal pressure and biological challenges. Women are scrutinized for how, when and if they choose to have children at all. Imagine choosing adoption, completing the process three times, once even taking home a baby only to end up without the child and $50,000 out of pocket. That’s what happened to journalist Farai Chideya. She’s opening up about the emotional rollercoaster of the adoption system in her new piece that is found on Zora.medium which is for women of color and it’s titled, “Excuse Me, May I Raise Your Child.” She sat down with our Michel Martin.


MICHEL MARTIN: Farai Chideya, thank you so much for talking with us.

FARAI CHIDEYA: I am so glad to be with you.

MARTIN: As I understand it, 140,000 children are adopted by American families every year, and African-American children are disproportionately represented. Half a million children are in foster care in the U.S. So you look at those numbers and you might think why isn’t there — why isn’t one of those kids for me?

CHIDEYA: Of course I did, or else I wouldn’t have entered this. And I also thought that it would happen relatively quickly. So I also made some life decisions about — I was trying to optimize my life to be someone who could work from home a lot. I sought out jobs that were very flexible, didn’t seek to maximize my earnings, sought to maximize my time to be with a baby and made a lot of life choices based on assumptions that didn’t turn out to be true. But I will say in all honesty, this experience has broken me many times, but also I feel like I don’t think it was fate. But I think sometimes the universe gives you assignments. And it was my assignment to understand the adoption industry. Adoption is beautiful. The industry can be very ugly.

MARTIN: But in your case though, when did you realize, you know what, this is harder than I thought it was going to be.

CHIDEYA: Well, first I went to the foster care system. And I believe that I came to the foster care system at a time when they were really transitioning from having more young children, not babies but young children, who were adoptable. Meaning that they had the parental rights terminated and they were up for adoption, to the reunification model that says we will look for any extended family and try to match the child with that. Because I entered what’s called the map training program to become certified as a foster parent with the promise that there were children that could have been adopted from that agency. I knew two different families who had adopted from that agency. And then by the time I was done with the training and got my little certificate, they were like, oh, yeah, no baby. There’s no children you can adopt. You can foster. And fostering is beautiful but it comes with the risk of reunification, that you will have a child in your home that will later be taken back. And I am — to be honest, Michel, still struggling with whether I’m willing to do the foster to adopt.

MARTIN: So but then you went the private agency route and that’s when things kind of got really —


MARTIN: Awful.

CHIDEYA: Yes. I narrowed it to three agencies. One agency went out of business and the other one told me straight up, “We can’t place enough kids with single women. Your best bet is not to work with us.” And then this agency that promised, they said, “If you want a black child, it will take an average of six months. If you want a white child, it will take an average of 12 months.” So at the same time that their contract says we don’t guarantee you a baby, they will tell you to your face that you will get a baby quickly.

MARTIN: What happened?

CHIDEYA: So after going through this adoption consultancy and choosing an agency which said, oh, you should get a black baby within six months, I didn’t do all my homework and look at how restrictive their contract was, but there were several months of training and courses and things like that. And then the first time I was matched with a family — this is an open adoption system. So I drove to another state. I met a pregnant young woman who already had two children. I met her boyfriend, her mother and her grandmother. And they were living in an intergenerational household. And they seemed like very lovely people, but the boyfriend did not want this to go through. He was very kind of offish in our first meeting.

MARTIN: Was he hostile?

CHIDEYA: He was not hostile. Like I said just sort of like —

MARTIN: You could tell something is not right?

CHIDEYA: So yes. But what happened then was that when she went into labor and my mother and I went to the hospital, he straight up told me and my mother, “I don’t want this adoption to happen.” He hadn’t said that before. He had just been distant and a little cold. But he was like, “I wish I could keep this baby. I don’t have the finances, I can’t keep the baby alone, but I want this child.” And he basically was begging me to — there was nothing I could do if the mother wanted to keep the child. But I think what happened was that the young woman’s mother wanted her to give up the child. She probably felt torn. He wanted her to keep it — them to keep it. And so I take this baby out of the hospital, beautiful boy. I named him for my grandfather who I loved very much who has been dead for some time. My mother is over the moon. This is her first and only grandchild. Still she has no grandchildren. And then let me back up. I told the social worker, this young man wants to raise his child. Isn’t this a problem? And they were like no.

MARTIN: So you took the baby home and —

CHIDEYA: I took the baby actually to a vacation rental because there’s this thing called interstate compact. So I couldn’t take the baby to my house yet. But I had the car seat and the toys and the outfits. My mother was there. Friends came from out of state. And this was supposed to be like, oh, it’s a week until you sign this paperwork to take the baby out of state. So I was not in my house, but I was in a beautiful setting by a lake with this baby, and it was like all the dreams were coming true. And then I get this call. And they said, oh, why don’t you bring the baby back to us? I was like, why don’t you come pick him up?

MARTIN: I just can’t picture what it was like for you —

CHIDEYA: I was just crying.

MARTIN: — to have this baby —

CHIDEYA: I cried for like —

MARTIN: — taken from you after you had waited and thought this baby was your baby.

CHIDEYA: I cried for a day. And when I mean — I mean I cried for months. But when I say I cried for a day, I cried when they picked him — I cried when they called. I cried when they picked him up. I cried driving back to my home state. I cried when I dropped my mother off at the train station, and I just kept crying for 24 hours. Just almost hysterical crying. I want to make it clear that the parents are not to be demonized. They were within their legal rights to revoke the adoption but they were also within their moral rights. And it took me a long time to understand that but I don’t blame them. I blame the agency for poor counseling and I felt betrayed.

MARTIN: Can you put into words what that feels like?

CHIDEYA: I felt gutted, cheated, abused by this system, not by the family, and angry. You know, I think it’s taken a lot for me to process my anger.

MARTIN: And then you went through this two more times?


MARTIN: I mean two more times —


MARTIN: — you thought that a baby was yours.


MARTIN: Two more times. What happened? Both times the parents changed their minds?

CHIDEYA: Well, yes, both times the parents changed their minds. Very different circumstances. So in the first circumstance I have met the family. Same was true in the second circumstance but I never saw the baby because I mean I knew something was going wrong. So the really heartbreaking situation there was that this woman had two children and her son offered to drop out of high school so they could keep the baby. And that began to bring me into a moral alignment of understanding that these women were being betrayed by the promise of the American dream. Like why are we the only country of developed nations that doesn’t have a parental leave policy, that doesn’t have child care.

MARTIN: And then what was the third time?

CHIDEYA: The third time was really the straw that broke the camel’s back, where there was a young woman who had had several children. I went to the hospital and then they tell me that she’s already revoked a previous adoption for another of her children. So wouldn’t that be relevant information? When I finally cut off ties with the agency, I said you claim to provide excellent service to the adoptive side and to the birth side — birth parent side, but you couldn’t tell me until I showed up at the hospital that she had revoked a previous adoption? That’s information I should have. And I can’t blame her for wanting to raise her child, but she had a much heavier lift. She was living in a motel with her children by the time this baby was born.

MARTIN: There are some who might argue that it would have been in her best interest and the child’s best interest for you to have this child to raise.

CHIDEYA: Right. No, and I’m not even going to argue on that point. Family is not just about logic. Frankly, in America, if family was about logic, there would be even fewer children than we have today. And so do I think she was logical? No. Do I think she acted out of love? Yes. It is only the fates that will determine whether she made the right choice or not, and I do think both the number of children she had and the circumstances she was in, you could certainly say logic would have dictated that perhaps it would have been a good idea to give up her child. But I mean if there’s one thing I’ve learned, I am only in so much control and also I can only judge based on what I know, and there’s so much I don’t know.

MARTIN: To talk about another sticky issue here. The cost.

CHIDEYA: Oh, yes.

MARTIN: I mean you say in the piece that it was at least $50,000.

CHIDEYA: Well, first of all, it’s not always that expensive. here are agencies that charge much less. And there are systems to get charitable subsidies. But also one of the reasons this was so high is that the agencies have a contract that’s airtight, you won’t get your money back. And the longer you stay, the more you have to renew home studies, the more you pay expenses for the birth mothers, the more you pay — so basically part of the cost I paid was that I stayed in the game so long.

MARTIN: Is there any part of you who feels that you were scammed? And if so, by whom? Because I can see —

CHIDEYA: I wouldn’t go so far as to say scammed. I would say — maybe this is a polite way of saying scammed, I was took. I was took by the rhetoric. I did not read the contract in the way that I would today. I would say to anyone considering adoption, read that contract carefully, ask them for alterations if you need to or be aware that you may be put into a system of perpetual upselling to add more and more money to stay in the game. I mean just because an agency is licensed doesn’t mean that you know the full story. And another thing is that there’s virtually no federal regulation. This is done at the state level. There’s all different rules and there’s no database that will tell you how many failed adoptions an agency has had, how many negative outcomes. That is what we’re really missing. I would advocate that in this country we need transparency about contracts and transparency about failure rates. There are many different adoption, watch dog groups, but there’s no single federal entity that’s doing this watch dog work.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. What do you think should happen as a result of what you have now learned?

CHIDEYA: Well, first of all, we just have to reform the nature of how we treat families, not just women, not just babies, but families. We do not provide parental leave. There is a bipartisan majority of Americans who want there to be a parental leave policy and we don’t have one. Canada, a woman who gives birth, gets 15 weeks paid. Why are we out in the wilderness, America the great? Why are we not supporting families? So first of all, we have to top to bottom look at why we or not supporting families. Because it means more of these women who are putting their kids up for financial reasons wouldn’t have to put their kids up. And then women like me who are career women who worry, OK, if I step off the treadmill, I’ll never get back into the lane. We would have more of a cohort of women who are able to take leave. I think that America is falling behind other developed nations in what we offer families. Fertility rates are declining which means there’s evermore desperation for adoptable children, particularly babies. And we’re kind of going into a spiral that is really about how we’re not supporting families overall.

MARTIN: There are those who would say, if you’re not willing to interrupt your career to have a child, then maybe you shouldn’t.

CHIDEYA: Well, no, it’s not about interrupting. It’s about ending. I know people who have had to switch careers entirely because their careers ended when they had a child or children and then they had to start a whole new career. And that’s just part of the playing field. So whether I was overly fearful or not, there’s a lot of evidence that you are viewed as lesser than.

MARTIN: And do you think race factors in here?

CHIDEYA: Well, I mean I had a woman say to me once that she was a white adoptive mother of a black child. And she said that the birth mother told her she preferred a white woman because she felt her child would get a better life experience being raised by a white woman, financially and socially. So perhaps. But I don’t think the problem was in the matches with the women. The problem was the women I was matched with didn’t really want to give up their kids and that the counseling was poor. I believe there are black women who would happily match with me. I do think it’s much harder for single women. It’s much harder for single women. And in fact, in some states it’s legal to say that I only want a Christian married couple. Some adoption agencies can be that specific.

MARTIN: That is just legal?


MARTIN: Well, in fact, we’ve seen some research that suggests that there’s a growing number of people who support the idea that a lot of people should be excluded from adoption, whether it’s because of race or religion, or sexual identity.

CHIDEYA: Yes. I mean there have been laws in Texas, I believe Tennessee. There’s several states in which, especially LGBTQ people, but sometimes even single people and non-Christians across the board can be prevented from adopting from agencies that work with the state. So what I’m trying to be clear about is that the state says that it has a need to place children in homes, but it’s allowing agencies that they contract with to cherry-pick and exclude large numbers of people. And one of the complicated things that’s happening is in our era of rising xenophobia — there’s a great research institute, PRRI, the Public Religion Research Institute, it’s finding that more and more Americans are actually supportive of service denials if you say it’s my religious belief that I want to not serve atheists, 24 percent of people believe that, don’t want to serve LGBTQ people, 30 percent believe that. Fifteen percent say, if I don’t want to serve African-Americans, I shouldn’t have to. So this is part of our cultural moment of — sadly some of the issues turning up in adoption are also issues reflected in the national mood.

MARTIN: Having written this piece, how do you feel?

CHIDEYA: I feel liberated. I’m still sad in many ways. But I also feel like I’ve been carrying around this little hot, steaming nugget of pain, and I’ve gotten the most beautiful notes from so many people.And whatever happens next, I believe that I will have given people food for thought, and hopefully we as a nation can pull it together and make this is a truly more family friendly country.

MARTIN: Farai Chideya, thank you so much for talking with us.

CHIDEYA: Thanks, Michel.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks to Senator Chris Murphy about gun violence. Sam Bahour discusses whether Jared Kushner’s economic plan is likely to achieve peace in the Middle East. David Friedman joins the program to elaborate on the Trump administration’s economic proposal to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Farai Chideya tells Michel Martin about problems within the U.S. adoption industry.