Dance, Depression, and Poetry: Speaking Out

Yesterday, my friend T posted on Facebook about N, someone T didn’t really know well at all, who had posted and then deleted some frightening comments. T asked anyone who knew N to reach out to N, to see if she was okay. Word spread, and a friend of N’s headed to check on her. N is alive, is getting help, and is stable now.

I am glad (in a bittersweet, sad way) that N posted on Facebook. I am grateful that T saw the comments, saw that the comments were then deleted, and–even though N is only an acquaintance–reached out to others, who also spread the word of concern for someone they did not know at all, but who maybe knew friends of N’s friends.

I wish N well; I don’t know or need to know any other details. I am inspired, heartened, encouraged by T’s actions. I am not overstating to say she reminded me of my faith in the strength and power of the human spirit.

Depression is a cruel and real beast.

As it happens, today a video came across my Facebook feed by Ryan Smith, a young man from Bowie, Maryland, in Prince George’s County, where my kids grew up. I give Ryan credit for his artistry, his dancing talent, his poetry, and his courage in speaking out about what depression has felt like for him.

 

Some excerpts:

Do you know what depression feels like?

It feels like a thousand pound weight holding your body down in a pool of water, barely reaching your chin, so no matter how bad your neck hurts, you gotta keep your head up to survive.

It’s like looking at the sky and seeing how far away heaven is for you right now.

It’s pushing everybody who loves you as far away as possible. I don’t deserve them. Desert them, before they desert me.

It’s pretending everything is cool and content, When you know you will explode any minute.

I can get 100 hours of sleep and still feel tired as hell, Searching for a clear definition of self.

It’s being afraid of being alone with your own thoughts in your empty apartment, But not wanting anyone around you.

It’s tears that will never fall from your cheek, Fear of adding to the water I’m already chin deep in.

Ryan sums up a complex part of depression this way: “It’s the ‘thanks for nothing’ look you give to people who tell you to pray and everything will be okay, but the only explanation is crazy, but you wouldn’t call me crazy if you knew how much I hate me.” He recognizes that despair, and also refers to Romans 8:18  and Isaiah 14:27 on his Facebook page, relying on his faith but also knowing that, for some people, prayer must be accompanied by therapy, treatment, and counseling. And there is no weakness around that, only strength.

I write fairly often about depression. I have had my bouts of sadness, though usually in connection with a big loss, such as my dad’s death. That said, I have seen many beloved friends and family members in the vise-like grip of depression. I admit I have sometimes dismissed them as being overly sensitive or dramatic. I have learned how painful and real depression can be, even though as a society we don’t want to talk about it much.

Depression does not discriminate by age or race or income or gender or religious faith or being loved by many people. It’s real. It is treatable. It can cause great heartache and death. We need to listen to the stories of those struggling.

Thank you to N for reaching out for help, and to T for not being complacent, even as she didn’t know the full story. Thank you to Ryan for sharing a video that he hopes will be a blessing to others–what courage to share the pain, and to be an inspiration for others. Keep on dancing.

A few resources around depression:

National Network of Depression Centers

Depression Basics–National Institute for Mental Health

“We Are Not Well: The Affects of Stress, Racism, and Depression”–blavity.com

“After battling depression and surviving a suicide attempt, Mike Sweetney is spreading positivity” (Sweetney is, like me, a Georgetown grad. Unlike him, though, I never played in the NBA.)

Suicide Prevention Lifeline

 

“Rematriation” Through Art: Mothers’ Voices

Please consider supporting the work of Daniel Drennan ElAwar’s powerful art, “Mothers’ Voices: A ‘Rematriated’ Adoptee’s Art Residency.” Born in Lebanon, adopted to the United States, Daniel is a writer, artist, and advocate for conscientious and provocative examination of history, dissidence, and activism. In his Kickstarter information, he says he believes “this project is of particular interest to communities of all kinds affected by dispossession, displacement, and disinheritance” of Southwest-Asian women, especially mothers.

The art he is creating–a series of prints with Arabic calligraphic quotations, poetry, and proverbs–“will portray women at the very limits of a society’s allowance of their expression; capturing moments of righteous anger that break through the stasis of the status quo and reveal an unmatched latent power; a literal creative energy and force. For example, the Palestinian woman fighting off the soldier abducting her son; the Bahraini mother exclaiming to neighbors that she refuses to cry despite being delivered the clothes of her son executed by firing squad; the Syrian mother breaking through a border fence of barbed wire; the Lebanese woman reacting to police preventing her from protesting for her kidnapped son’s return.”

In Daniel’s work, there is joy, sorrow, and controversy, linked together in the challenging way that adoption itself often is. I am a big believer in the power of art to challenge our thinking, to make us uncomfortable, to evoke dialogue. Daniel’s writings always give me much to think about, and I have no doubt this art, and his memoir, will do so as well.

As an aside of sorts, this is a more volatile, controversial time in adoption than I have seen in the last few decades. More adoptee voices are being heard in expressing their truths, often to the discomfort or resistance of adoptive parents. More first mothers, in the US and globally, are speaking out, and are being encouraged to do so, slowly, yes, but it is happening. Here’s hoping we hear from first fathers and siblings and grandparents as well. An adoptive parent of two children from Korea has called for an end to international adoption. I’m going to post my response to Margie’s thoughtful, heartfelt post soon, but am still sifting through my thoughts.

In the meantime, please take a look at Daniel’s project. I wish him well in this project, and in his next venture, teaching at Emily Carr University in Vancouver, BC.

 

Phillip Clay’s Funeral: Grieving for Him and For So Many

I never knew Phillip Clay, a Korean adoptee. I had never heard of him until reading about his suicide. I now wonder if his legacy, rooted in sorrow and tragedy, will be to awaken our own U.S. government to the travesty that is the denial of citizenship to all international adoptees.

The Korean television channel MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Company) aired footage from Phillip’s funeral. If this doesn’t break your heart, I am not sure what would. You will see other Korean adoptees, including Adam Crapser, who speaks eloquently about Phillip’s life and death. The video from the funeral is available here. My heart aches for Phillip and those who loved him. May he rest in peace and in power. 

Phillip Clay’s Funeral

What a price Phillip paid for having been adopted from Korea to the United States, an action that is supposed to be one of joy and a better life. Our American government deported him, because it does not automatically provide citizenship to adoptees who were under 18 as of 2001 (the year the Child Citizenship Act took effect), and whose parents failed to get citizenship for them.

Adam Crapser, one of many adoptees at Phillip Clay’s Funeral Service

Our American government, which approved Phillip’s adoption from Korea, which had all paperwork from the adoption agency Holt International and from his American adoptive parents, still  stands by and lets other adoptees be deported. Understand that those who were deported committed crimes for which they served time in U.S. jails.

 

Then, having been fully and legally adopted by U.S. citizens, they were deported, because they did not have U.S. citizenship, through no fault of their own.

Outrageous on every level. Unethical, irresponsible, and cruel.

I can only imagine that the countries of origin think about this. The U.S. has deported international adoptees not only to Korea, but to Brazil, German, India, Mexico, and many others. What kind of country sends back internationally adopted people to a country where they don’t speak the language, have no family and no connections, and can never return to the U.S.?

Here’s a thought for sending countries (as well as adoption agencies, nonprofits, government officials, and prospective adoptive parents–all those who are concerned about the decline in numbers of internationally adopted children): How about demanding that the U.S. government provide retroactive citizenship to all international adoptees before any other children are brought to the U.S. for adoption?

Many adoptees are angry with Holt, which I have been told had legal guardianship of Phillip. That is an arrangement I have never heard of, though it could well be accurate. In any case, there is increasing anger and action against Holt and other adoption agencies, which could be seen as complicit in the deportation of adoptees. The agencies may or may not have been adamant in insisting that parents get citizenship for their children. Adoptive parents must be held accountable for failing to get citizenship for their adopted children, whether through ignorance, neglect, or willful and cruel refusal.

For years, the U.S. Congress has been sitting on legislation to provide retroactive citizenship for all international adoptees. Will they shake their heads, saying, “Yes, it’s sad, but we can’t do anything,” or will they say that adoptive families are legal and genuine families who deserve the same protections as other families?

Will it take more deaths to provoke action that grants citizenship to all adoptees?

Phillip Clay’s Funeral Service

 

More information about adoptee citizenship issues is available at Adoptee Rights Campaign.

I want to acknowledge Dear Adoption for sharing the video of Phillip’s funeral. I highly recommend Dear Adoption as a site for anyone open to learning about adoption from the perspective of adopted people. Brilliant, powerful essays available there.

 

 

 

Ethiopian Adoptee Gabe Proctor, NCAA Champ, Died By Suicide

Earlier today, I wrote about the death by suicide of a deported Korean adoptee, Phillip Clay. I am deeply saddened to report another adoptee suicide.

Ethiopian adoptee Gabe Proctor was just 27 years old, and died by suicide this past Saturday at his adoptive parents’ home in Vermont. The obituary shared by his family said he had struggled with depression from which he could find no escape.

Originally from Mekelle, Ethiopia, Gabe was adopted along with his to Ethiopian siblings in 2000. They grew up in Vermont. He graduated from Western State Colorado University, where he was a world-class distance runner. He was a professional runner in the marathon and half marathon.


A runner friend shared her memories about Gabe here.

Donations in honor of Gabe can be sent to Hope for Youth Ethiopia. The address and more information are available here. His funeral service will be held in Vermont on Friday, May 26.

How many more times can we hear about these deaths, and not work harder to learn about depression and suicide prevention, especially among adopted persons?

My small contribution is to post fairly often about this painful reality, to share information about the trauma of adoption, as well as to provide suicide prevention resources for individuals and families.

I hope that more adoption agencies, counselors, and therapists will take note of the role of depression, trauma, and suicide prevention as they relate to adoption.

Depression can be oppressive. It is very real. It is an illness which can affect people no matter their circumstances.

My deep condolences to Gabe Proctor’s friends and family. I cannot imagine their sorrow.

 

 

 

Phillip Clay, Deported Korean Adoptee, Reported to Have Died By Suicide

I have seen this tragic news on several Korean adoption-related sites, including ASK Korea and Global Overseas Adoptee Link in Korea, which issued this press release on Facebook:

“PRESS RELEASE BY GLOBAL OVERSEAS ADOPTEES’ LINK 2017 MAY 23RD

Phillip Clay, a Korean American adoptee, who was deported back to Korea in 2012, was found dead on Sunday (21st) around 11:40 PM outside of an apartment building in Ilsan downtown about 35 minutes away (by bus) from his place. CCTV shows that he was alone in the elevator when he went up to the 14th floor from where he jumped.
His American adoptive parents as well as the US embassy have been notified.
All research shows that adoptees are overrepresented in statistics on mental health issues and suicide.

The funeral is hosted at Myungji hospital by Holt Adoption Services, the adoption agency that facilitated his adoption. Representatives from Korea Adoption Services (중앙입양원) and the Ministry of Health and Welfare 보건복지부 as well as several representatives of overseas adoptees from NGOs working with adoptees paid their respects.

“Philip was not well known in the community of overseas adoptees living in Korea and did not have a lot of friends here but his suicide affects us all deeply as we all came from the same circumstances and it could be anyone of us who chose to take our own life. Choosing to take your own life because you do not see any other way out to ease your pain and to die alone like this MUST affect anyone who hear about it,” said AK Salling, Secretary General for Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link (G.O.A’.L), an NGO run by adoptees in Seoul. “Sadly, adoptees didn’t get a chance to be involved in the funeral arrangements but we do urge adoptees to attend the funeral to pay their respects. The coffin will be carried by adoptees so at least in his death he will be surrounded by people who understood him, his own kind.”

He had a difficult life but this is not an isolated incident and must not been treated like an isolated case. Hopefully his tragic death will bring about some positive change in the outlook on adoption, post adoption services and the impact deportation has on an individual.

Adam Crasper, another deported adoptee, who arrived in Korea last year, also paid his respects today: “I am grateful to be part of a small group of adoptees and likeminded souls contributing to the betterment and welfare of the Korean adoptee community. I am because we are.”

(명지병원 3호선 화정역 line 3 Hwajang station area)
Although Philip was not a practicing Christian, Wednesday May 23rd at 1:00PM there will be a Christian ceremony at the hospital.

Any adoptees who wish to attend can gather at the G.O.A’.L office 10.30am and go to the hospital together. After the ceremony, at 5pm, G.O.A’.L will have a small wake at the office in Digital Media City, Seoul, Mapo-gu, Worldcup-bukro 44gil 37, 5th floor.”

 

I do not know what demons Philip Clay may have struggled with. The American Academy of Pediatrics did a study finding that adoptees are four more times like to attempt suicide than non-adoptees. Many people have written about the connection of adoption, trauma and suicide.

Neither do I know why Phillip Clay was deported. It is likely that he committed a felony (and served his time), did not have U.S. citizenship, and thus was deportable under immigration law. He did not have citizenship perhaps because his adoptive parents failed to get it for him. I understand he was in his early 40’s, so likely arrived here in the 1970’s, well before 2000, when citizenship became automatic for adoptees 18 and younger (though there is still significant paperwork involved). I have written many times about the need to provide all international adoptees with citizenship, to keep them from being deported. Korean adoptee Adam Crapser was the one most recently in the news, but there have been dozens deported from many countries. There are estimates of thousands of adoptees without citizenship. An adoptee from Guatemala recently learned she was not a U.S. citizen when she applied for a driver’s permit. All adopted persons need to have their Certificate of Citizenship.

The United States has failed far too many internationally adopted children (who grow up!) by not automatically providing citizenship to them. Legislation has been pending in our U.S. Congress for quite a while to confer citizenship on adoptees who arrived in the United States prior to the Child Citizenship Act. The Adoptee Rights Campaign and many others have been working for years to get legislation passed.

It is a matter of fairness: when internationally adopted children join their new families, they deserve all the rights and responsibilities of legal family members, as sons, daughters, sister, brothers.

May Phillip Clay rest in peace.

 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.

Update on Ethiopian Adoption Suspension: All Cases Will Be Denied

The Ethiopian Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MOWA) will resume processing of adoption cases, but will issue only denials, no matter where the adoptive parents are from or where they stage in the process.

That information was part of a U.S. State Department update today regarding the suspension of Ethiopian adoptions. State will continue to urge the Ethiopian government to allow processing of cases in the pipeline prior to the April 21 suspension. However, Ethiopian ministries are having meetings throughout May and have been unresponsive to requests to meet with State.

The full State Department update from today is available here.

I posted information about the April suspension here: Ethiopia Suspends Adoptions.

 

Remembering Hana Alemu Today, and Reflecting on the Murders and Suicides of Adoptees

Six years ago today, on May 12, 2011, 13-year-old Ethiopian adoptee Hanna Williams, born Hana Alemu, died from hypothermia and malnutrition in the backyard of her adoptive home. In September of 2013, her adoptive parents, Larry and Carri Williams, were convicted of her murder, and will be in prison for decades to come.

While many of us adoptive parents of Ethiopian children have mourned her death, I don’t think we can underestimate the impact Hana’s death has had in Ethiopia. The news of her death made headlines there, and the subsequent trial and sentencing of her adoptive parents reverberated in many corners and conversations in Ethiopia. The circumstances that led to Hana’s death–the isolation of eating outside from the rest of the family and not being allowed to participate in Christmas or birthdays, the punishments of water on sandwiches and frozen vegetables for dinner, having her head shaved for cutting the grass too short, having food withheld as punishment, being forced to shower outside, being hit for failing to stand the right way, and being locked in a small, dark closet for hours at a time–are harrowing at best. The jury at the parents’ trial agreed that the treatment met the standard of torture, and that is not an easy legal standard to reach.

Hana Alemu (Williams)

For Ethiopians in government and in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, for the average Ethiopian aware that thousands of Ethiopian children were sent each year to other countries for adoption, and for the Ethiopian parents who have placed children for adoption, the news of Hana’s life and death after only three years in America was heartbreaking and infuriating. My sense is that her death has been an undercurrent in considerations of policy changes regarding international adoption from Ethiopia.

We can say it was a rare case, and that’s true. It does not give solace. There may be some resolution in knowing that Larry and Carri Williams will be in jail for over 20 more years. That knowledge though is tempered by the fact that Immanuel, the other Ethiopian child they adopted and abused, will probably be haunted for the rest of his life by the trauma of his time with them. Their 7 biological children, who witnessed the abuse and testified about it at their parents’ trial, have also been badly damaged by the abuse and the death–which several of them witnessed–of Hana.

None of us can know what went on in Hana’s mind and heart as she endured the cruelty of the people who were supposed to love her and keep her safe. Three-year-old Hyunsu O’Callaghan, adopted from Korea, was killed by his adoptive father about four months  after he arrived in the United States. Hana and Hyunsu’s fates crush the popular narrative of adoption: the orphan in search of a family, the parents who take her in, the happy life then lived by everyone.

Another crushing blow to the fairy tale narrative is the reality and tragedy of suicide in the adoption community. Again, yes, it is rare, for which we are all grateful. Still, when we hear about the death by suicide of adopted persons, especially for example the suicide of a 14-year-old Korean adoptee just 11 days ago, all of us in adoption need to look at ourselves and what we are doing to educate and help.

I don’t know if there is a unique poignancy to the deaths of adoptees, but it feels that way. Adoption is supposed to mean a better life, right? That can be true (depending how you define “better”), but another larger and vital truth is that adoption follows loss. Loss can also be trauma. Adoption can be full of love and equally full of deep sorrow and grief. Many people struggle with depression and anxiety, and as a society, we are still reluctant to recognize those struggles as real. As an adoptive parent, I have known many adoptees, both young children and adults, who wrestle with depression that may well be rooted in having been adopted. That’s true for people growing up in deeply loving families who provide all available resources for mental health challenges, as well as for those whose adoptive parents are abusive. For those who get help, the struggle can still be difficult. For those who don’t, it can be excruciating. Add in the complexity of growing up as a person of color in our racist society (much of which does not/will not believe we live in a racist society), the bullying which has aways existed but is exacerbated by social media, the lack of racial mentors/mirrors/role models for adoptees, and a history of neglect and abuse prior to adoption, and it’s easy to see how a delicate balance can be tipped into despair and worse.

Please let me offer some takeaways from these haunting deaths:

Adoption is rooted in loss, in the cases of infants placed at birth with adoptive parents, in the cases of children removed from abusive or neglectful situations, and in the cases of adopted children who grow up with loving families. It doesn’t mean therefore all adoptees are doomed to despair and ruin. It does mean that as adoptive parents, we must be aware of the role that trauma and loss can play as our kids grow up, and even well into adulthood.

The screening process for prospective adoptive parents must include serious discussions about possible struggles with depression and anxiety for adoptees. Parents need to hear directly from adopted persons about their struggles. Anyone involved with preparation for prospective adoptive parents and with counseling of parents and adoptees must step up their services prior to adoptive placements to encourage families, after placement, to reach out for help and not live in isolation, as the Williams’ family essentially did. There is no shame in asking for help in difficult circumstances, whether children or parents are struggling.

Everyone, with or without a connection to adoption, should file away the phone number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. If the Def Jam artist Logic can release a song about it, the rest of us can surely keep the phone number, share it when needed, and learn about suicide prevention. There are many resources available to anyone considering suicide and to anyone who fears that someone may attempt suicide.

And please do not think I am ignoring the needs of first/birth parents, and the loss and trauma that they experience. While my focus here is on Hana and other adoptees after an adoptive placement, I recognize that first/birth parents also need support and resources for depression or other challenges post-placement.

I keep Hana in my heart. What happened to her should never have happened to any child. The notion of children dying by suicide is wrenching as well. I know many adult adoptees are especially grieving the loss of their young counterparts, and looking for more ways to help. We need to keep conversations open, especially around adoption, depression, and loss. We need to acknowledge the pain and complexity, to speak up for vulnerable children, and to offer help to struggling families.

 

US State Department Seeks Information About Complaints Against Adoption Agencies

The U.S. State Department seems to be looking for ways to improve the process by which adoptive families file complaints against adoption agencies. That could suggest State has concerns that complaints are not being handled well, and that agencies are retaliating against families.

International adoption is a long and complicated process, entangled with a lot of money and bureaucracy. The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption was established, at least in part, to reduce illegal practices in adoption. In the U.S., if an agency wants to provide adoptions internationally, and in particular in countries who are signatories to the Hague Convention, the agency needs to be accredited. The only accrediting body is the Council on Accreditation.

From COA’s web page:

As a status, Hague Accreditation or Hague Approval signifies that an agency meets the standards founded in the Convention, the Intercountry Adoption Act, and the Universal Accreditation Act.  This status indicates that COA has concluded that the agency or person conducts services in substantial compliance with the standards, and that COA monitors and oversees its performance, but is not a guarantee that services in any specific adoption were or will be provided in full compliance with the standards. (Emphasis mine.)

So–no guarantees.

From COA: “We are honored to work with the U.S. Department of State to make certain that adoption service providers (ASPs) have put in place safeguards to ensure intercountry adoptions take place ethically, in the best interests of children.  Since 2006 COA has served as the only national accrediting entity authorized by the U.S. Department of State to provide Hague Accreditation and Approval. Currently COA accredits around 200 adoption service providers.”

When adoptive or prospective adoptive parents have complaints about their ASP, they have some options. They can start, of course, with the agency itself. They can contact the state licensing board. They can contact COA to report concerns about an ASP who is Hague-accredited by COA.

They can also file a complaint with the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions Complaint Registry at the State Department. “The U.S. Department of State is committed to upholding the ethical standards, professional practices, and principles set forth in the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, the Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000 (IAA), and the Federal implementing regulations. The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions Complaint Registry will forward your complaint to the appropriate Accrediting Entity for action, and the Department will monitor complaints about accredited agencies or approved persons after receiving information from you.”

Recently, the State Department has reached out for more specific assistance, it seems, in handling complaints about agencies.

Did you file a complaint with the Council on Accreditation regarding an adoption agency (Adoption Service Provider) between October 2013 and December 2016? If so, the U.S. State Department would like your feedback. If you fall into that timeframe of having filed a complaint with COA, you can fill out their survey here.

I am not sure why State is looking into that particular timeframe. It does include the years when the U.S. Justice Department was investigating the fraud and corruption crimes committed by International Adoption Guides, whose indicted staffers are now awaiting prison sentencing. Many families filed complaints with COA about IAG. It also includes the time when the Democratic Republic of the Congo suspended adoptions and families in the U.S. protested widely, when the Joint Council on International Services closed, when Hana Williams’ adoptive parents were convicted of her death (and whose agency Adoption Advocates suddenly closed due to bankruptcy), when the number of adult international adoptees being deported has increased, and when more adoptive parents have become aware that the stories told to them about their children’s histories (and reasons for needing to be adopted) were false.

The survey itself is fairly straightforward, focusing on the behavior of COA when complaints were filed, how easy it was to file the complaint, how helpful COA was, how long the process took, that sort of thing. Two questions stood out to me: Did the agency retaliate after the complaint was filed? and, Knowing what you now know, would you file a complaint on the Complaint Registry?

Many adoptive parents don’t complain during the process, probably because they are concerned about provoking the people who may provide them with a child. I think it’s important that adoptive parents know that there are options to complain, and, that by complaining, perhaps some change will occur.

In recent decades, I would guess that the number of complaints (justified and unjustified) against adoption agencies has increased, for many reasons: we are an increasingly litigious society overall; adoptive parents who felt since they were paying so much money they could make unrealistic demands and ignore laws/policies that they found unsatisfactory; agency workers cut corners or failed to take the time to complete due diligence in the U.S. and in the countries where they were working; the belief by agency workers that they were doing God’s work and thus could gloss over legal requirements; adoption agency staff in sending countries who were not properly trained or supported by their agency; adoption agencies who lied to their clients (the adoptive parents); and adoption agencies that stopped returning client phone calls, later abruptly closing. There are no doubt more reasons.

In the future, I would not be surprised if adult adopted persons will complain or litigate as a class with the State Department and/or the Council on Accreditation. And imagine if first/birth parents were allowed a role in voicing their treatment before, during, and after an adoptive placement. Imagine a complaint process registry, in their global and local languages, were available that prompted an inquiry into the actions of an agency, accrediting entity, or government.

For now, I hope many people will respond to the State Department survey, and that State will share the results as soon as possible.

 

 

 

 

Today’s State Department Call About Suspension of Adoptions in Ethiopia

The U.S. State Department held an hour-long, public conference call today “to discuss the current suspension of intercountry adoptions in Ethiopia.”

IMG_5016

Ethiopia suspended adoptions to all countries as of April 21, 2017. I wrote about it here. The State Department officials on the call were clear that the Ethiopian government has not yet released the reasons for, or the potential length of, the suspension. State emphasized several points:

  • The State Department is working with adoption-related Ethiopian government officials to move the adoption cases which had children matched with parents as of the date of the suspension, but it is unclear what will happen to those cases.
  • The State Department will continue to promote intercountry adoption. The U.S. will continue to work on processing adoptions on the U.S. side but cannot control what the Ethiopian government will or will not do in terms of processing on their side.
  • The Ethiopian government recently approved a policy to promote adoptions within Ethiopia. The State Department is getting more information about this.
  • Families in process (those who have had children matched with them) are encouraged to send their case information to the State Department at adoption@state.gov and consadoptionaddis@state.gov. The State Department will try to help those families by providing information and working to move their cases through the system, even as the Ethiopian courts are apparently not hearing adoption cases anymore.
  • The State Department urged families to work with their adoption agencies (adoption service providers). State cannot provide legal advice as to what legal or political steps families should take.

The State Department answered questions from about 20 people who called in. The majority were prospective and adoptive American parents of Ethiopian children whose legal status is in flux as a result of the suspension. My understanding is that some of the children could be the legal children of their adoptive parents, but who do not have, as a result of the suspension, the Ethiopian government signatures needed to get the documents (passports, birth certificates) to leave the country.

One parent asked about contacting Congressional representatives for help. State noted that parents were of course welcome to do so, that State cannot advise parents about doing that, and that the Congressional offices often reach back to State for information. Another parent asked in vague terms about taking legal action against Ethiopia. State reiterated it cannot give legal advice, and suggested folks seek the advice of a local attorney. My sense is that we Americans often lean toward hiring lawyers and pressuring our way into getting the outcomes we feel are deserved: sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. I would think there is little that American lawyers could do to pressure Ethiopian government officials, given the complexity of international law and the differing political philosophies of other countries. My hope is that everyone is transparent, and looking for the best outcomes for the children–that may be overly optimistic, I realize.

One caller said she had heard there are some 225 cases “in the pipeline.” State did not comment on that number. State reiterated their suggestion that all families with matched children are the priority right now, and to contact them at adoption@state.gov with information and questions. They noted that the cases of matched children have the best chances of being acted upon by the Ethiopian government.

There was a question about a “soft match,” cases where prospective parents have identified/selected a child they would like to adopt via an agency’s list of children, but legal formalities (including a home study) have not been completed. State suggested, given that there is no concrete information on how long the suspension will last, that the family send their information to adoption@state.gov so they can look at the situation more specifically. State sympathized with another caller who asked about families who are in the process but not yet matched, and suggested they work with their adoption service provider who may be in the best position to guide them.

I asked if the State Department would consider urging the Ethiopian government to invite adult adoptees to share their perspectives and experiences with the government. My personal hope is that the Ethiopian government would do this on their own, in some way reaching out to the thousands of adult adoptees around the world to hear their stories. Would it be possible for the State Department to suggest this? State said it was a good suggestion, and they are interested in hearing the views of all stakeholders.

One large and unfortunately realistic fear is that American and other adoptive parents will have legal custody of and responsibility for Ethiopian children, but not be able to take the children out of Ethiopia, for months or longer. I hope that the Ethiopian government will move these pipeline cases quickly. If the receiving country’s paperwork is all in order, and if the Ethiopian government has signed off on the adoptions far enough to give the adoptive parents custody, then let’s not leave these children in a legal limbo for months or years, unable to be adopted by anyone else, and unable to be with the parents whom the Ethiopian government has approved to raise them.

I applaud the Ethiopian government’s possible plans to increase in-country adoption. I also know that is a very long road to fruition, potentially involving intense, expensive, and long-term staffing, outreach, and education, if such an initiative is to succeed. Family preservation has to be a centerpiece of any effective child welfare policy, especially in a country where so many children in orphanages are not orphans at all.

So many emotions, laws, precedents, and policies are in play right now. So much money entangled in the business that is adoption, money flowing from parents to adoption agencies to comparatively impoverished countries. In the middle of it all: vulnerable children.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Art Imitating Life in the Dystopian Delivery (Adoption?) of The Handmaid’s Tale

I read The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, a few years before my first adopted child was born. Today, as an adoptive mother who dealt with infertility, whose children are all adults, I find it hard not to watch The Handmaid’s Tale through the lens of adoption, taking in the inequity of it all, the oppression of the fertile handmaids, the desire and need for children to keep the dystopian world of the novel functioning, the distorted imbalance of wealth and power. It’s a surreal world–and yet it’s not at all.
I recently watched the first three episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the book by Margaret Atwood and now available as a miniseries on Hulu. The handmaids are fertile women, who may have had their children taken by the corrupt government or may get pregnant (via state-sanctioned rape) by the Commander to whom they are assigned. The commanders’ wives are infertile, and healthy babies have become a rare commodity.
There is a provocative scene in the episode “Birth Day,” where a handmaid goes into labor, surrounded by other handmaids. Meanwhile, the Commanders’ wives surround one wife who stages her own false labor of sorts, in the comfort of her lovely home. The wife sits behind the handmaid as she gives birth. When the baby girl is born, she is placed immediately with the wife, who rests with the baby, surrounded by the other wives.
 IMG_4850
This is, of course, fiction, right? Yet it is uncomfortably close in some ways to current adoption practices. In the US, some adoptive parents are present in the delivery room when their to-be-adopted child is born, and they take the baby home from the hospital. We always hope that the birth/first mother has received thorough and appropriate counseling, before and after her decision to place her child. For the record, I am opposed to in-hospital placements. I believe the mother should have adequate time to let medical and emotional issues to settle after her child is born. The amount of time during which a mother can revoke consent to adoption varies widely by state.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, there is no time given to the handmaid. There is no notion of consent. She is subjugated, oppressed, essentially enslaved. Her fertility keeps her viable.
In our current world, economic disparity exists in a daunting way between mothers who place their children for adoption and mothers who become adoptive parents. I wrote about it in my post “International Women’s Day and Economic Equity in Adoption.”
Liz Latty, an adopted person, recently wrote a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay about economic issues and feminism in adoption in The Establishment: “Adoption Is A Feminist Issue, But Not For the Reasons You Think.”
In adoption, the scales are clearly tipped, in terms of money, education, stability, insurance, and more, in favor of adoptive parents. We, after all, are the ones who can provide a “better life.” Indeed, that can be true. “Better,” though, is a relative term. If life is better solely due to annual income, well then, all children should go to our wealthiest citizens. No one would buy that possibility. Right?
In the Birth Day episode of The Handmaid’s Tale, the handmaid is kept in the commander’s house to nurse the baby. She calls the child Charlotte, though the commander’s wife has named her Angela. The handmaid literally bites the wife’s hand, when the wife takes the baby away too soon. The handmaid loses her grip on reality.
In our current world, some adoptions are open, with ongoing communication (letters, Skype, visits, birthdays, emails–many variations). The adoptive parents hold the power here, as there is no legal enforcement for any openness arrangements once the adoption is full and final. The arrangements must operate on everyone’s good faith.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, any babies born are the biological children of a commander and a handmaid, so there is a genetic connection for both, unlike a surrogate mother, for example. The wives (adoptive mothers?) are considered the only mothers, and the handmaids are essentially forgotten–until they get pregnant.
In our current world, the United States ranks 142 in terms of fertility. Of the top 15 countries, 13 are in Africa. (Of course, child morality rates and poverty levels there are high as well.) Adoption policies are in flux. International adoptions have declined dramatically. More adopted persons and birth/first mothers are speaking out. More laws are changing to allow access to adoptees’ original birth certificates. DNA technology is the ultimate game changer. I doubt many people envisioned the role of DNA testing in adoption even a decade ago. At the same time, some states are considering changing the amount of time a birth mother has to revoke her consent to adoption. Those times can vary from
 In The Handmaid’s Tale, the main character (played by Elisabeth Moss) keeps her memories of her daughter Hannah close at hand, as she works to cope with her status in the odd oppressive new world. You’ll have to read the book or watch the whole miniseries to see what happens.
It’s easy to see The Handmaid’s Tale as a story of oppressive patriarchy, of feminism under attack, and of reproductive justice gone harrowingly wrong. It’s easy to dismiss it as fiction. The handmaids’ voices are limited, and their conversations filled with religious phrases like “Praise be,” and “Blessed be the fruit,” and “May the Lord open.” The handmaids are the hope of the future of the wretched state, and the most disdained.
It’s just a disturbing, intriguing science fiction story, right?