Reflections on the American Adoption Congress Conference: Educate, Advocate, Legislate

I was in Cambridge, MA, recently for the national conference of the American Adoption Congress. Most of the people at the AAC conference looked like me, a white woman. I could easily have been mistaken for an adoptee from the Baby Scoop Era, or for a mother who placed a child during that time. Those two descriptions would fit most of the people there: adoptees or first/birth mothers. As an adoptive parent, I was in the minority. As a middle-aged white woman, I was in the majority.

The AAC has been around since the late 1970’s. Its legislative advocacy has been focused on open records/access to original birth certificates for adoptees. Some AAC members have been working on that goal for decades, and I am in awe of their dedication and determination. Certainly there has been major progress (see Ohio, most recently), though work remains to be done.

I first attended an AAC conference some 20 years ago, in Virginia, when Bill Pierce of the National Council For Adoption was still alive and intensely fighting open records. (This link is to all Bill’s NCFA files on closed records and more, papers which reside now at the University of Minnesota.) Bastard Nation was emerging. Activism then did not have the current (and relative) ease of social media.

Social media has of course changed everything in terms of advocacy, for open records and for many other important causes. One takeaway for me from the AAC conference was this: While opening adoption records and increasing access to original birth certificates remains a priority for AAC, the fight in state legislatures is slowly becoming moot. That’s not because more people are understanding the need for open records. It’s because Facebook is connecting adoptees and birth parents, and because old opponents of open records are retiring or dying. Also, technology around DNA is reducing the need for legislative access–people are finding their previously unknown family members via  databases (genetic genealogy) such as Family Tree DNA, 23andme, and ancestry.com.

Well.

That changes the landscape in a very big way, and suggests that the AAC conference slogan of “Educate, Advocate, Legislate” must open to new possibilities. The fight for open records on the state level remains, and is incredibly important. However, other issues in adoption are vital as well, though I heard about them mostly in conversations between sessions:

  • Rehoming of adopted children (US and international)
  • Retroactive citizenship for international adoptees
  • The adoption tax credit
  • Overhaul of the home study evaluation process
  • Support and resources for transracial adoptees, whether from the US or elsewhere
  • Support and resources for first/birth/original mothers and fathers
  • Support and resources for late discovery adoptees (I met three at the AAC conference, who had found out they were adopted at 18, 35, and 43 years of age.)

All of these are important, and deserve the time and attention of organizations like AAC and others. For what it’s worth, I don’t see these issues explicitly on the schedule for the June conference of the National Council For Adoption and the Joint Council on International Children’s Services. Hmm.

Beyond the policy and legislative actions, there are at least two additional related and complex issues must be addressed, openly and boldly, by all adoption-related organizations: racial realities in adoption and suicide in adoption.

Racial Realities in Adoption

The AAC appears to be making a solid effort at acknowledging transracial adoptees and interracial adoptive families. They have two transracial adoptees on their Board of Directors, Susan Harris O’Connor and Krista Woods. Two of the four keynote speakers were people of color: Rhonda Roorda and Rev. Dr. Nicholas Cooper-Lewter. One of the documentaries shown was You Have His Eyes, the story of transracial adoptee Chris Wilson. April Dinwoodie of the Donaldson Institute on Adoption presented a workshop called “What My White Parents Didn’t Know and Why I Turned Out Okay Anyway.” Mi Ok Bruining, a Korean adoptee, presented a workshop on “The Poetry of International Adoption.” Katherine Kim and Noel Cross facilitated a workshop on “Mixed Race Adoptees;” both are mixed race Korean adoptees. The Adoption Roundtable” featured 4 transracial adoptees. (The audience for this group was unfortunately quite small, though I get it. The potential audience might have been transracial adoptees and white adoptive parents. Neither group was significant in the conference attendees.)

The panel that got a large audience and generated a lot of conversation was “Lost Daughters: Diverse Narratives Within the Collective Adoptee Voice.” This panel included 10 of the women from the online writing collective Lost Daughters, and included same race and transracial infant adoptees, a Korean adoptee, an Ethiopian adoptee raised in Canada, a foster care transracial adoptee, and a Native American adoptee. Given that most of the AAC conference attendees are female adoptees and first mothers, it’s not surprising that the Lost Daughters panel was well-attended.

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The Lost Daughters panel at the 2015 American Adoption Congress conference

 

One of the panelists, Amira Rose, wrote a powerful article on the Lost Daughters site reflecting on her experience at the AAC conference. Her post, “Sight Unseen: Navigating Adoption Spaces as an Adoptee of Color,” is insightful, and invites thoughtful reflection.

My sense is that AAC is moving toward inclusion of adoptees and first mothers of color, and I hope they do so. The challenge is bringing people of color into a group with few people of color: who wants to be the “other,” the “only,” the token? (See Amira’s article above.) I recognize that it is my white privilege that suggests this be done, and that it could be. As the white adoptive parent of 4 black adoptees, I know there is much to be learned from adoptees and birth/first parents of color. We all need to be talking together about realities of race and racism.

Suicide in Adoption

This was not a topic of a panel or keynote, but it needs to be, and at every adoption-related conference. At the AAC conference, an adult adoptee from India talked about having been a mentor to a 16-year-old Indian adoptee who had recently committed suicide. Wrenching and heartbreaking. It’s so tempting to pause, provide sympathy, and then move on. And we can’t do that anymore. Trauma is part of adoption; depression is a reality for many people. Genetics can provide some clues, but too often adoptees do not know their own medical history. Adolescence for adoptees can be difficult in the best circumstances; add the intensity of current climate of bullying and racism, and it’s a dangerous world. The American Academy of Pediatrics published a report saying that adoptees are more likely to commit suicide than non-adoptees. I have known and heard of far too many adoptees, especially in their teens, who have considered, attempted, and committed suicide.

Educate, Advocate, Legislate. The AAC conference provided me with much food for thought (this is just a morsel), plus the joy of meeting old and new friends. I have little doubt that young adopted adults will lead the way in changing adoption policy, and I am heartened that first/birth parents are less marginalized as well. We adoptive parents need to be involved and engaged as well. And we all have to be unafraid of the hard conversations.

Mothers of Loss: Noting the Privilege of Grief and Support

The adoptive mother of an adoptee killed in a car accident has written several powerful, sorrowful posts on Facebook. She has received the support of dozens, in some cases hundreds, of people, and has shared the funeral service, photos, anecdotes, and memories. She has been supported in her grief by her family, her friends, her church, and  her community, both local and online.

How do people recover from the death of a child? Slowly, painstakingly, and maybe never.

How do mothers recover from the more ambiguous loss of a child through adoption? One day the child is here. The next day the child is gone, alive but perhaps never to be seen again.

When someone loses a child to death, we rally. We prepare meals, we pray, we attend services, we send cards, we read Facebook posts, and we type comments of gratitude and support. The parents often receive counseling, medications, and group therapies.

What do we do for the mothers who lose their children to adoption, even when the decision is one of transparency and integrity? How do we as a community support them, through rituals and time? How do we acknowledge their loss?

What about when the loss is one of coercion, or fraud, or shame? Do we show compassion, or do we push their grief and loss out of our minds?

Surely it is yet another manifestation of our privilege that adoptive parents, as citizens in a wealthy society, that grief is shared. In the event of the death of a child, the parents can mourn and share and grieve in both private and public. They can get–as is right–heartfelt support from family, friends, and strangers. People inquire how they are doing, and pray for them, and embrace them in a time of deep, unfathomable loss.

I have never experienced the loss of a child. When my beloved granddaughter turned 6, I couldn’t help thinking that was the age at which her mother had been placed for adoption with our family. I was stopped in my tracks at the idea of losing this child forever, at 6 years old, never knowing where in the world she was. The grief would be overwhelming. I can’t begin to imagine the pain of the loss.

Surely it is yet another manifestation of the inequity in adoption that a first/birth mother placing her children forever does not get the resources and platform of an adoptive mother who loses her child to death. Don’t both experience what we acknowledge is an enormous loss–a child gone forever?

How many first mothers, after placement, never learn if their children are dead or alive?

To lose a child is to lose a part of one’s heart and soul. We in the adoption community must acknowledge the grief and loss of the mothers whose children are placed for adoption, because they have lost a child. To the impoverished Ethiopian and other international mothers walking back to their villages alone and never hearing again about their beloved children–mothers who experience depression, scorn, loneliness, and worse–we must offer recognition and compassion, and provide ongoing services to them. To the mothers who were coerced as teens into relinquishing their children, we must partner with them in their grief, not shame or dismiss them, suggesting they “Get over it. It was a long time ago.” To any mother who has lost a child, we must reach out, acknowledge the loss, and help with the healing. All mothers deserve this. All of them.

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International Adoption in 2030: Predicting the Future

Although my workshop proposal for the Joint Council on International Children’s Services and the National Council For Adoption conference was rejected (read about it here), I was invited to participate on a conference panel called “Predicting the Future in Intercountry Adoption.” This post is a starting point for my remarks. I would welcome the thoughts of others, especially adult adoptees, on their predictions.

Here’s a glimpse into the future of international adoption, even as soon as 15 years from now: Adult adoptees hold the microphone in terms of adoption policies and practices. Part of their involvement will be insistence on improved post-adoption services. Transracial adoptees continue to deal with racism in a world where too often racism is dismissed. Thousands of adult adoptees, many raised by white parents, return to visit and to live in the countries where they were born. Many find out that the information their adoptive parents were given is wrong. Many who were told they would never find their first/birth family do, in fact, find them. The unadopted siblings (those who stayed with the birth/first family) of international adoptees search and find their adopted sibs via Facebook or vk.com or other Internet connections. Birth/first/natural mothers and fathers will begin speaking out and sharing their truths, and their stories will be translated, preserved, and honored.

How prepared is the adoption community for these changes? How well are agencies and others addressing the realities of racism, identity, and grief after adoption?

A glimpse at the past, from which we are supposed to learn: “Adversity, Adoption,and Afterwards,” a longitudinal report by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, looked at the lives of about 70 women adopted from Hong Kong to Britain in the 1960’s. The average age of the women in the study was 48. Most did well. Still, “The majority of the women encountered racism not just in childhood and adolescence, but also as adults in current day Britain. Some said that they were able to seek support from their adoptive families, or others close to them, in coping and managing racist incidents, while others described feeling isolated and not able to share this with anyone. For some it was not easy living with the fact of being from a different ethnic background and visibly different from their adoptive families. This could result for some having a sense of not belonging or not feeling able to identify with either white British or Chinese communities. By mid-life most of the women who experienced this had found ways to adequately deal with such feelings, which is not to minimise how difficult this had been for some.”

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While it’s good that by mid-life (!) most of the adoptees had found ways to adequately deal with feelings of not belonging and not identifying with their communities, that’s a long time to endure those feelings.

Recently, the global adoption community has been rattled by two mainstream media articles about adult adoptees. One was Shaaren Pine’s article in the Washington Post, “Please Don’t Tell Me I was Lucky To Be Adopted.” Another was the New York Times magazine cover story, “Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea.”

There are some 250,000 Korean adoptees all around the globe. They are the oldest ones, in their 50’s and 40’s, many in their 20’s and 30’s. They are the bellwether activist adoptees in many ways. Fifteen years ago, in 2000, the Donaldson Adoption Institute published an insightful report based on the first Gathering of Korean adoptees in 1999. In the section on Experiences with Discrimination,”The majority of respondents reported that they had experienced some form of discrimination while they were growing up.” Race (70%) was cited more often as problematic than was adoption (28%). As we continue to struggle with race in the US and around the world, helping transracial adoptees negotiate the world as people of color is vital. When will we learn?

International adoption numbers have declined in recent years. While that may likely continue, there were about 250,000 international adoptions between 1999 and 2013; many were under a year old. We would do well to look at adoptees who will be young adults in the next decade or so. One example: Between 1999 and 2013, about 14,000 Ethiopian children were adopted to the US. Between 2007 and 2012, some 11,000 Ethiopian children arrived here from the US, about 80% of the total number between 1999-2013. (Statistics from the US Department of State) They will be entering adolescence and early adulthood around 2030. Those high volume years (2007 to 2012) have been cited as having a high degree of fraud and corruption.

Many Ethiopian adoptees here in the US and around the globe are still young children, and many of the families have already found inaccuracies in their child’s stories: Ethiopian mothers are still alive, children were not orphans, documents were falsified. Blame can go all around, but the point is: How will the adoption community best help these thousands of now-children who will be adults in the next 15-20 years?

My hopes for the future include these:

  • Adoption agencies will actively reach out to and welcome adult adoptees from around the globe to share their experiences, so as to better prepare for the upcoming wave of young adult adoptees in the next decades.
  • Adult adoptees who choose to do so will continue to speak out about their good and bad experiences. Adoptive parents and all others in the community will listen, without dismissing or marginalizing them as “angry,” “ungrateful,” or any other pejorative terms.
  • Appropriate, equitable services will be provided to birth/first parents around the globe, including provision of short-term and long-term resources and communication.
  • The adoption community will acknowledge and proactively address the realities of racism. This is complex and vitally important work, and we haven’t done a good job so far.
  • Here is a vision of past and future: the Adoption Museum Project, a physical space that explores the story of adoption, and a website and off-site programs that expand the work. How exciting is this. The Grand Opening event on April 16 in San Francisco will be “Operation Babylift: Adoptee Voices,” about the 1975 airlift (40 years ago!) of 2,000 Vietnamese children. The panel discussion will be moderated by the poet Lee Herrick, an adoptee from Korea.

IMG_8517Please join me in predicting the future. More importantly, please join me in creating a future  of international adoption that honors the realities of all those involved, and insists that no voices are marginalized. I welcome your thoughts and ideas.

 

The Deportation of International Adoptees Must Stop

Do you think that internationally adopted children should be considered genuine family members, with the rights and responsibilities of other children here in the US? The US Congress appears to disagree. If an adoptee’s parents fail to get citizenship for the child, current immigration law says that the child could be deported when he or she grows up.

Imagine a family which has two boys, one adopted and one biological. Imagine that the sons, as adults, are convicted of the same crime. Both are subject to the criminal justice system and serve their time. The adopted one could then be deported. This has to stop.

Until 2000, citizenship was not automatic for internationally adopted children, when the Child Citizenship Act (CCA) was signed into law. (There are still legal processes to follow, depending on the type of visa.) However, the CCA doesn’t protect those who were adopted prior to 2000, if their parents, for whatever reasons, did not get them citizenship.

Yes: an adoptee, legally brought to the US for adoption by US citizens, CAN BE DEPORTED, never to return to the US again.

Do you know anyone who has messed up and gotten caught smoking weed, or driving drunk, or writing a bad check, or punching someone? Maybe you, or a family member. Maybe your son or daughter has, or will someday.

What if the punishment included deportation, to a country thousands of miles away, where your child had no family or friends, didn’t know the language, and had been in only when he or she was a small child, even a baby?

Immigration laws passed some 20 years ago included provisions allowing deportation of non-US citizens for certain crimes, even after they served their time. International adoptees, brought here for purposes of adoption by US parents (forever families!), surely were not the intended targets of this policy. We all agree that people who commit crimes should be punished and serve their time. It is highly unfair, though, to further punish adoptees because their adoptive parents failed to get them citizenship.

Dozens of other adoptees have faced deportation, to Thailand, Guatemala, Korea, India, Germany, and elsewhere. I’ve written previously about this injustice in “All They Will Call You Will Be Deportees.”

Here are two examples. Joao Herbert was adopted at 8 years old from Brazil, and raised in Ohio by loving parents. Two months after his high school graduation, he sold 7.5 ounces of marijuana to a police informant. For that first time offense, because he had not been officially naturalized as a US citizen, he faced deportation.

From a Washington Post article subtitled “For Children Adopted From Abroad, Lawbreaking Brings Deportation:” Through the thick glass of the visitation cubicles at the county jail where he’d been held since last March, he’d plead with his mother: “I’m your son, right? They can’t take me away, can they? Show them the adoption papers.”

The adoption papers, though, didn’t matter. Joao was deported when he was 22, for the rest of his life. His life ended four years later, when he was shot and killed at 26 years old, in Campinas, Brazil. You can read more here.

Adam Crapser was adopted from Korea in 1979 when he was four years old. His first adoptive family in Michigan subjected him to sexual and physical abuse, and he was placed in foster care at eight years old.  When Adam was 11, he was adopted by the Crapser family in Oregon. Five years later, these adoptive parents accepted plea deals for sexual and physical abuse. You can imagine what Adam’s childhood was like. He talks about it in a Gazillion Voices podcast here. It’s heartbreaking. No child should endure what he went through.

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Childhood photo of Adam Crapser from Land of Gazillion Adoptees

Adam has committed crimes, including breaking into his adoptive parents’ home to get the Korean bible he arrived with. Neither of Adam’s adoptive families got US citizenship for him. Now he faces deportation, like Joao, to a country where he does not speak the language and has no friends or family. Now almost 40 years old, Adam is married and has children. He is remorseful for his crimes, and has served his time. It is an outrage that he should be deported.

You can read more about the Child Citizenship Act of 2000 here. It applies to adoptees who were under 18 as of February 27, 2001, when the law went into effect. For older adoptees, there is no automatic citizenship. Some find out when they go to register to vote or apply for college loans. Some find out when they have been convicted and served time–and are subject to deportation.

Adam has a deportation hearing on April 2. Please listen to the podcast, and share this post. Contact your federal representatives in Congress, and ask them to support an amendment to the Child Citizenship Act that so that adoptees are treated fairly, even if their parents failed to get US citizenship for their children.

Update: There is now a petition to request administrative closure on Adam’s deportation case, which would allow Adam to get his green card and move toward citizenship. Please learn more about this petition here. Already over 7,000 people have signed it, which is great news.

Adoptive families deserve to be treated like other families legally, and adoptees deserve to be treated like the family members they are–not perfect, but protected under the law.

Please help spread the word. Many thanks.

 

 

RIP CHIFF. Hello CAPP? (Part 2)

CHIFF focused heavily on international adoption, and not so much on family preservation and empowerment. CAPP focuses heavily on improving outcomes for vulnerable children and families around the globe. Adoption, both domestic and international, will always be part of child welfare policy. As a community concerned with children, can those of us involved with adoption find common ground that both strengthens families and includes ethical, transparent adoptions? This post looks at one angle of the legislative conversations. There’s so much to say.

The information in RIP CHIFF. Hello CAPP? (Part 1) is not exhaustive regarding all that is happening with the implementation of the Children in Adversity report (APCA). So many agencies and acronyms. Public and private partnerships. Lofty goals with complex implementation. Millions of dollars. An enormous undertaking. I cannot disagree with the goals: vulnerable children and families deserve support and resources all around the globe.

CHIFF and CAPP Proponents: Overlap?

International adoption was a huge part of the failed Children in Families First (CHIFF) bill. It seems to be a tiny part of CAPP, the Children in Adversity Policy Partnership. What overlap is there between the proponents of the two?

The Joint Council on International Children’s Services is at the forefront of CAPP, as it was of CHIFF. JCICS, however, has been moving steadily away in the last 10 years or so from focusing on adoption agency services, and moving steadily toward a much broader mission of international child welfare. It still has adoption agencies as members, but fewer than was once the case (far fewer than when I worked at JCICS, from 1995-2000, certainly).

One of the biggest proponents of CHIFF, Both Ends Burning, does not seem to be involved with the CAPP. Peter Leppanen, BEB’s Strategic Advisor, is listed as a member of CAPP in a July 2014 Child Policy University Consortium document. His affiliation with BEB is not noted there. Many adoption agencies (and CHIFF supporters) are also listed as members of CAPP. The membership list may well have changed in subsequent months, and current CAPP information does not include BEB, as far as I can tell.

How much should we read into the fact that one of CHIFF’s biggest proponents is not involved significantly with CAPP? BEB has always been first and foremost an international adoption advocacy group. In November, they hosted a Global Symposium on permanency options for children. Looking from the outside, my impression is that BEB is intent on following its international adoption goals, and not committed, as least explicitly, to partnership with the Children in Adversity crowd. I hope, as BEB forges on, they will include the significant, genuine involvement of adult adoptees and first/birth parents.

The National Council for Adoption does not figure in CAPP either. NCFA supported CHIFF: “Chuck Johnson President and CEO of the National Council For Adoption said: “Children all over the world are languishing outside of family care…CHIFF re-aligns existing resources and re-prioritize how the U.S. Government serves this population of vulnerable children. NCFA enthusiastically supports CHIFF.” NCFA’s endorsement of CHIFF, as well as that of JCICS, Both Ends Burning, Christian Alliance For Orphans (CAFO), and others, is here.

In its January 2105 listing of legislative priorities, NCFA does not mention the CAPP, though they refer to CHIFF. This is not surprising: their primary focus is on US and international adoption issues.

CAFO posted its own support for CHIFF here. Jedd Medefind of CAFO has also endorsed the goals of the Children in Adversity report per this USAID press release.

Intercountry adoption is a much smaller part of CAPP than it was in CHIFF. There is minimal mention of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption in the APCA. Clearly CAPP has a broader goal. And a cast of thousands, if not millions. It is an astonishing configuration of government, public, and private organizations. It makes my head spin.

I have no doubts that CAPP, the Global Alliance, and the attendant organizations, policies, and proposals have their fair share of challenging problems: the role of US AID, the failure of the US to approve the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the abilities of countries receiving assistance to have a role in that assistance, and so on.

Still, given the laudable goals of CAPP to improve early childhood outcomes, to preserve families, and to protect children from exploitation, will the need for international adoption be diminished?  Given the huge decline in the number of children being internationally adopted, for whatever combination of reasons, perhaps an approach that looks to achieve those laudable goals is timely.

Implications

So who doesn’t benefit from CAPP? Many of the same people who didn’t benefit from CHIFF.

CAPP does not, as far as I can tell and I would be happy to be incorrect about this, prioritize funding for pre- or post-adopt resources for internationally adopted children, nor for the birth/first parents of internationally adopted children. NCFA includes Post-Adoption Services on its list of legislative priorities. I have to wonder, as international adoption declines and agencies close, who will be responsible for providing post-adoption services to adoptees and their families, here and around the world. JCICS member agencies placed many of those international children, and they are rapidly changing their focus away from adoption services. Will NCFA step up?

Further, like CHIFF, CAPP does not address retroactive citizenship for all international adoptees. To its credit, NCFA does list “Citizenship Equality Intercountry Adoption” as one of its legislative priorities.

The issue of re-homing here in the US is not a part of CAPP, and nor was it part of CHIFF.

Retroactive citizenship and re-homing are admittedly complicated issues. They require a lot of collaboration and consensus to move at the federal level. The citizenship issue means tangling with immigration foes in Congress. On re-homing, some states have begun to look into and pass legislation on re-homing, but many international adoption advocates would like to see a uniform federal law.

Collaboration and consensus will be needed to move legislation and policies around improvement of pre- and post-adoption matters such as improvement of home studies, increased funding for adoption competent therapists/social workers, and better access to effective post-adoption resources. Providing pre- and post-adoption support to first/birth parents is especially complicated, because those parents are geographically and linguistically far removed; most cannot pay for services. None of this means we should advocate any less for them.

CAPP, it seems to me, is moving ahead with the support of far-reaching US government agencies, big name foundations, child welfare experts, and a variety of advocates. CAPP will probably have little impact on specific adoption policies in the US; certainly it appears not to have CHIFF’s intense focus.

I hope that CAPP will do or has done what CHIFF did not: Include the experiences and insights of those vulnerable children who have grown up, including adoptees and orphans. Include at the table the voices and realities, if not the actual presence, of first/birth parents who lost their children unfairly to adoption, due to poverty, corruption, fraud, social stigma, or other reasons, and prevent such tragedies from happening again.

So many important issues are hanging in the balance for internationally adopted children, and for those who are now international adult adoptees, and their families. Perhaps it will be those adult adoptees who will lead the way. Recent high level media news articles such as the New York Times “Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea” and the Washington Post’s “Please Don’t Tell Me I Am Lucky” give anyone connected with adoption plenty to consider.

Will future advancements and policy decisions regarding adoption be the result of genuine collaboration and consensus, acknowledging the spectrum of experiences among adoptees, birth/first parents, and adoptive parents, and moving ahead to effectively help vulnerable children and families? I hope so. Let’s keep talking–and listening.

CHIFF Is Dead: A Post-Mortem

The Children in Families First (CHIFF) bill emerged in autumn 2013, during the 113th session of the US Congress. Its supporters and sponsors surely saw its chances for success as a no-brainer: Who doesn’t agree that all children deserve families, and especially children in impoverished nations?

The Little Engine That Could unfortunately began wheezing and sputtering in the spring of 2014, and by summer 2014 was ominously quiet. The CHIFF website stopped posting News in June. Their Twitter feed stopped chirping in July. No action was taken on CHIFF by the US Congress, so CHIFF died when the 113th session ended in December 2014.

Thousands of hours must have been devoted to this bill by dozens of staff people, such as those on CHIFF’s Executive Committee, including the Congressional  Coalition on Adoption Institute, Both Ends Burning, the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, and the National Council on Adoption.

In the world of adoption, those are some heavy hitters. What happened?

CHIFF proponents underestimated their opposition. It’s a brave new world in adoption policy these days, comprised of advocates who span a vocal, volatile spectrum.  The spectrum ranges from those who are vehemently anti-adoption to those who support adoption but not the way it’s being done now. The days of adoptive parents and adoption agencies leading the way are gone. Adult adopted persons are increasingly well-organized and, well, loud. Some are politically active. Some are wizards of social media. Some are telling their stories in public, compelling, and evocative ways.

CHIFF advocates failed to include a place for them at the table.

CHIFF proponents also hammered away publicly at the US State Department for various reasons, alienating them or at least, it seems to me, ensuring State’s lack of support for CHIFF. CHIFF also failed to garner the support of established, successful family preservation organizations around the world. Thus, the CHIFF proponents’ claims of working to preserve and reunite families–a big goal for many of us–lacked credibility.

A July Congressional hearing on Africa’s orphans was a chance for CHIFF proponents to insist that an adult adoptee (orphaned as a child) speak. They could have provided testimony from African birth parents on how to help with the orphan crisis. They did not do these things. I wrote about it here: Both Ends Burning and CHIFF: Losing Credibility, Spurning Opportunities.

Those of us on a grassroots level who criticized CHIFF were often dismissed as angry and bitter, as not caring about children, as not wanting to help orphans, and as not truly understanding what CHIFF wanted to do. That dismissal fundamentally led to the demise of CHIFF. CHIFF’s opponents–speaking for myself–do care about children, do want to help orphans, and did understand CHIFF. And many of us spoke out. Maybe we weren’t holding meetings on Capitol Hill, or spending organizational money and time to lobby Congress. Nonetheless, the insulated nature of CHIFF’s proponents plus the failure to include adopted adults and first/birth parents–and hence their concerns and realities–are enormous reasons as to why CHIFF is now dead.

CHIFF, when examined closely (beyond the photos and rhetoric), failed to meet current needs in adoption policy. These were CHIFF’s goals:

“CHIFF calls for the redirection of a modest portion of the $2 billion the United States currently spends on children living abroad toward ensuring that all children grow up in a family. What’s more, it calls for programs funded with US tax dollars to focus on reducing the number of children living without families and increasing the capacity of other governments to better protect their own children…CHIFF would streamline, simplify and consolidate responsibility for all processing of intercountry adoption cases.”

These may well seem reasonable if complicated goals, at least at first blush. But here are current, glaring needs that CHIFF did not include:

* Federal legislation to correct a grievous flaw in citizenship for adoptees. Read more here.

* Federal legislation on “re-homing” of internationally adopted children. Read more here.

* Much needed funding for improved pre-adoption and post-adoption resources, to prevent re-homing, to strengthen families, and to protect children.

* Equitable pre- and post-placement resources, counseling, and information for international first parents. All too often these families receive no support after placement. That is unconscionable.

* Emphasis on family reunification and family preservation. Yes, this was an ostensible part of CHIFF. The fact that the overwhelming percentage of endorsing organizations were adoption agencies undermined that claim.

So much money, time, and energy went into lobbying for CHIFF. Certainly the federal indictment and recent guilty pleas by international adoption agency staff for fraud and bribery didn’t help.

Where do we go from here?

There are rumblings in the adoption community–not just on Capitol Hill or in lobbyists’ offices–about pragmatic, meaningful ways to meet current needs in adoption.

We won’t see anything quite like CHIFF again. We will see ideas and collaborations that acknowledge the realities of adoption and of adopted persons, that are unafraid to address the huge gaps in services to birth and adoptive families, and that are inclusive and open to the voices of all those affected by adoption.

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Moving From TV Shows to Legislative Reforms in International Adoption

TV shows and media reports often create a big emotional response with calls to action. The recent Dan Rather show “Unwanted in America” is no exception. Since the show aired on December 2, there have been 3 Gofundme sites, dozens of Facebook posts, a Facebook page “Unwanted in America,” a big meeting at the Ethiopian Community Center in Seattle, and no doubt many other events. I wrote yesterday about the Convergence of Concern Around Seattle Adoptees. Per that post, Julie and Rich Hehn, the adoptive parents of the Seattle adoptees featured on the show, declined to comment regarding “Unwanted,” so their views are not available.

Beyond efforts to help the young people featured in the show, there has also been much outcry to reform international adoption policies. This interest is not new in itself. In recent years, there has been a huge demand for change, from many different quarters: adult adoptees, Congress, adoptive parents, governments around the world, adoption agencies, family preservation groups, first/original parents, and concerned advocates. The outcry has reached a critical mass as everyone shares many of the same concerns, but sees solutions very differently. The Children in Families First act (CHIFF) is just one example of legislation that sounded good but fell far short, for many reasons.

“Unwanted” is the latest media event to use the stories of various adoptees to shed light on several troubling occurrences in adoptive families. I will describe 4 practices here. All are happening with increasing frequency.

One is a practice called re-homing, where adopted children are moved from one family to another without a full legal and transparent process. A Reuters series detailed the problems with re-homing, and many state and federal legislators have begun looking at possible legislation.

It’s deeply troubling that a child could be transferred via a Yahoo group to strangers, with maybe a notarized letter about power of attorney. What sort of help did the adoptive parents seek and receive, before letting their children go? What legal protections does the child have in these circumstances?

Some states have already taken action. Louisiana and Wisconsin have passed laws already. Rhode Island, Ohio, Colorado, Florida, and other states are moving in that direction. The federal government has held at least one hearing on re-homing, and more will be happening next year. This is all good news. That said, any actions in response to re-homing will, I hope, insist on increased resources and services for struggling families and children.

Another area of concern to many involved in adoption is that far too many internationally adopted children are being re-placed into new adoptive homes. This process may be arranged by an adoption agency or through lawyers, and is essentially the same as the first adoption: the (first adoptive) parents’ legal rights are terminated, and new parents become the (second set of) legal parents. On the Dan Rather show, author Joyce Maynard spoke extensively about her decision to dissolve her adoption of two Ethiopian girls who now live with a new family. I have written about internationally adopted children who are now available for adoption through our US foster care system.

While this has legal transparency and protections, there is great concern about why these second adoptions are needed. Was there insufficient preparation of the first adoptive parents? Was information about the child incomplete or inaccurate? Were there resources provided to help the child and the parents? What is the responsibility of the adoption agencies?

A specific concern raised by the Dan Rather show was the size of the adoptive family. of which 3 children are homeless now. Seattle-area’s Julie and Rich Hehn have 25-30 children, depending on what news article you read. Most of the adopted children (20?) were from Ethiopia. Some of the children had/have special needs. Some were placed with the Hehns after having been adopted and then given up by other families.

Regardless of those realities, I don’t know anyone whose jaw hasn’t dropped in response to the number of children adopted. Common reactions I’ve heard are these: How were the Hehns able to adopt 20+ children? How does that fit with best practices of child welfare? Is that a family, or a group home? Children with defined special needs, with serious medical and/or developmental issues, and with histories of loss and trauma absolutely need families. These children might also especially need more individual parental time and attention, and lots of it. In terms of adoption practice, placements of 20+ children require many resources and supports to be successful.

Large families have of course always existed, and many thrive. A big family can be a positive situation for children who have spent time in an orphanage, used to the rigors and camaraderie of being surrounded by others. Still, one hopes that any family taking in dozens of children is adequately prepared and supported in raising adopted children.

A note: many people have wondered why adoption agencies don’t follow up with families after the placement. Here’s the reason: once the adoption is finalized, the adopted child is the family’s child just like any other child. The family has every right to ignore an agency’s inquiries after the child is legally with the family. Some families want nothing to do with the adoption agency after the placement. Some call on the agency for help and support. This is why pre-adoption preparation is so vital, so that families can anticipate challenges and feel comfortable in seeking help. 

A fourth area of concern is adopted children who are thrown out of their adoptive families, and who sometimes end up homeless. That has been the case for at least 3 of the children adopted by the Hehns, according to the Dan Rather show. Among other heartbreaking parts of the show was the information about how many adoptees are at a homeless shelter in Minnesota. I have no doubts that additional research will show that this is true at other homeless shelters as well.

And, yes, I know that homeless shelters are filled with people from biological families. But there has been a definite uptick in adoptees being displaced from their families as minors or as legal adults. We need to understand why this is happening.

In response to some horrific cases of abuse and worse of foster and adopted children, in 2012 Washington state produced a powerful report with many excellent suggestions for reforms in adoption practice. Regrettably the state legislature has not yet approved the needed recommendations, but advocates are hopeful that there may be progress next year. Other states and the federal government are considering legislative improvements as well.

Bottom line: Let’s watch the TV shows and read the articles about tragedies happening in adoptive families. Then let’s put far greater energy, attention, and funding to pre-adoption screening and services for prospective families, to being open to the experiences and insights of adult adoptees, to including first/original parents in adoption policy discussions, and to providing viable, effective post-adoption resources.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trial Scheduled for International Adoption Guides: Victims, Speak Up

In February 2014, four employees of the US adoption agency International Adoption Guides (IAG) were indicted for fraud by the US Department of Justice. Three former IAG staff members–Mary Mooney (IAG Executive Director), James Harding (IAG International Programs Director), and Alisa Bivens (IAG Ethiopian program director in the US)–were arrested. Haile Mekonnen, the IAG program director in Ethiopia, remains in Ethiopia and has not yet been arrested.

Mooney and Harding’s trial (before Judge Sol Blatt in US District Court, Charleston, SC) is scheduled to begin September 16. Alisa Bivens will go to court (also before Judge Blatt) on August 7 and plead guilty.

I’m not a lawyer, but this looks to me like Bivens has agreed to plead guilty so as not to go to trial and perhaps will now receive a lesser punishment. I have no insights as to whether she provided information about the other defendants, or if they provided it about her, but that is not an uncommon scenario. Also, many criminal cases these days never go to trial, but are resolved through a plea agreement. That could certainly happen in regard to Mooney and Harding, right up to the time the trial is scheduled to begin.

What did all these people do, between 2006 and 2011, according to the Department of Justice?

  • Fraudulently procured adoption decrees
  • Misrepresented relevant information relating to the adoption of children
  • Fraudulently signed off on adoption contracts
  • Misrepresented to the US State Department and the US Department of Homeland Security that the children had been lawfully adopted
  • Submitted counterfeit forms (Form 171-H) so that adoptions would be processed more quickly
  • Instructed prospective adoptive parents not to talk about their adoptions during the process
  • Made corrupt payments, gifts, and gratuities to Ethiopian officials

They also damaged the lives of many families in the United States and in Ethiopia. Allegations like these, drawn over years from the interviews and experiences of many IAG clients, are tragic in their impact.

The Department of Justice encourages victims to speak up. This is from the DOJ press release in February:

“If you believe you have been a victim of this crime involving the named individuals or International Adoption Guides, please call 1-800-837-2655 and leave your contact information. If you have questions or concerns about adoptions from Ethiopia in general, please contact the Office of Children’s Issues at the Department of State through the email address AskCI@state.gov. If you have specific questions about an adoption from Ethiopia that IAG facilitated, you should contact the Office of Children’s Issues at the Department of State through the email address IAGadoptioncases@state.gov. 

This ongoing investigation is being conducted by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.   The prosecution is being conducted by Assistant United States Attorney Jamie Schoen of the District of South Carolina and Trial Attorney John W. Borchert of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section.”

Victims–anyone affected by the alleged fraud of IAG–are strongly encouraged to speak up. Victims will be allowed to speak at Alisa Bivens’ plea hearing. I hope that many will be able to do so, either by actually being in court August 7, or by contacting the Department of Justice and the Office of Children’s Issues. Additional charges could be filed against Harding and Mooney, so it’s not too late for anyone to offer information. Please speak up.

The bribery, fraud, counterfeiting, and lies are almost overwhelming. How deep did all this corruption spread in the US and in Ethiopia? How can international adoption continue under clouds like these, along with what happened to Hana Williams and the Barbour children, as well as Tarikuwa Lemma and too many others?

What more do we need to know to demand that international adoption policy be overhauled if we are going to genuinely meet the needs of vulnerable children and families?

justice.gov web page

justice.gov web page

 

 

 

 

 

Interchangeable, Replaceable: A Reality for Adoptees?

We adoptive parents are often taught (and teach) that adoption is win-win: a child who needs a family gets one, and an adoptive family who wants a child gets one. And that’s often true. My own family was formed through adoption, and I love my children more than I  can say.

The story goes on, though, and this is where it gets complicated. For us adoptive parents to win, someone had to lose. Through poverty, illness, or a complicated (perhaps temporary) situation, someone had to agree to hand over their child, to lose their child, possibly forever.

That’s a painful reality for adoptive parents to face. It’s even harder, I would guess, for adoptees and for first parents.

Mila Konomos, a Korean adult adoptee (who loves and is loved by her adoptive family), has written a powerful, insightful essay about the loss, the complexity of it all. It’s called “I didn’t need my biological mother–I just needed a mother.”

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Adoption, Mila writes, too often suggests that adopted children are supposed to never look back. “I was supposed to be so grateful to have a family that losing my family was supposed to be a negligible event with very little effect on my life or identity.”

Adoption, she continues, “is built on the presumption that families are interchangeable or replaceable, that parents and children are interchangeable, and that ultimately, family has nothing to do with flesh and blood, or DNA and biology, but that it’s all about proximity, exposure, and amount of time together.”

She challenges us adoptive parents: “If the bond of one’s own flesh and blood ultimately doesn’t matter, then how much less of a bond, of a commitment, does friendship or marriage carry with it?”

Take time to contemplate that, as it is a hard-won and very real insight.

It’s a painful one for adoptive parents to consider. We go through a lot to adopt a child, we prepare to love them before they arrive, and we do our best to love them deeply when they are in our family. (Most do. I recognize this is not a universal truth.) It’s hard to think that we became parents of a beloved child because someone else had to give that child up. And it’s so important that we think long and hard about that truth.

Yes, of course, there are cases where the first parents were abusive toward, neglectful of, or dangerous to their children. I’m not arguing that adoption plans aren’t needed in this world. I’m joining Mila on the journey of acknowledging that adoption is rooted in loss.

I’m reading with eyes wide open her statement that “If you believe that…your role in a relationship is disposable, then you behave in such a way that those friendships and relationships don’t last, which you then use to confirm that indeed relationships do not last and that you ultimately do not matter.”

For some (not all) adoptees, that’s a complicated, lifelong challenge. I think of a baby who at four months learned to stop crying to have needs met, because those needs were not met in a loving way. I’ve seen this challenge manifest in an adult adoptee who, while charismatic, bright, and loved, often pushes his adult relationships to a messy end, in a self-sabotaging and self-fulfilling effort to prove that relationships don’t last. I’ve known adult adoptees who struggle with trusting that others will love them and not leave, who choose not to love so they can avoid being left, avoid being replaced.  Again.

Mila concludes her essay by saying that adoption has taught her “that family is inconsequentially interchangeable and replaceable. I’ve had to spend my adult life trying to unlearn this lesson and its implications, because I realize that ultimately (was) wrong. I realize now that flesh and blood connections absolutely matter, and when they are severed, there are serious psychological and social consequences.”

What’s the takeaway from all this? To me, as an adoptive parent, it’s this:

Listen to adopted children, and let them grieve the loss of their first family, in all the manifestations that grief can take. Talk about, wonder about, write letters to, connect with their first parents in whatever ways are appropriate for your family. I remember how one of my children used to weep hot tears on Mother’s Day, not being able to recall deeply important memories. We can’t always remove the pain, and it’s hard knowing that our actions are intertwined with the pain. Sometimes our best help is to let those tears flow, and not try to make them disappear right away.

Listen to adult adoptees, whether they are in your own family or they are writing and speaking out in various forums. Mila speaks of her struggles, and also of the love of her husband and the joys of her two young children. There’s a big picture here. It’s valuable.

As adoptive parents, may we revel in the joy of parenting, and become comfortable with the reality of loss and grief. But not too comfortable. May we be willing to lead or to follow, as needed, to help our children–whether 10 years old, or 16, or 30–understand who they are, where they came from, why they may feel replaceable, even as we could never replace them.

Adoption is not an end. It’s merely a part of a path that can be alternately convoluted and smooth, with very few signs to guide us. We can’t change the past, and we must not deny its realities. We must keep moving forward, together: adopted persons, adoptive parents, and first parents. That is the only way that we can effectively improve adoption policy and practice, and outcomes for children. Adopted children grow up! May we adoptive parents be their allies, always.

Please read Mila’s post carefully, wherever you are in adoption. This video of her reunion with her Korean mother is also evocative and valuable. Many thanks to Mila, and to other adoptees who share their journeys with open hearts.

 

 

 

Stanford Law Review: CHIFF Overlooks Best Interests of the Child

Along with many others in the adoption community, I have written about the extensive flaws in CHIFF, the Children in Families First Act. No one disagrees that all children deserve safe, loving families. Much disagreement exists about whether CHIFF genuinely meets the problems that exist in adoption today.

A new voice has spoken about CHIFF’s deficiencies. A recent article in the Stanford Law Review by Nila Bala, a Yale Law School graduate and current Public Interest Fellow, addresses the bill’s various shortcomings.

Here are a few excerpts from “The Children in Families First Act: Overlooking International Law and the Best Interests of the Child.”

Unfortunately,…many government leaders are supporting the Children in Families First Act (CHIFF), new legislation that hopes to increase the number of international adoptions, without addressing the problems that currently exist.

CHIFF puts children at risk by weakening the Intercountry Adoption Act (IAA) and the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-Operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, (Hague Convention), which have at least provided for some pre-adoption protections. Additionally, like the IAA, CHIFF fails to provide for post-adoption assistance.

CHIFF hopes to reappropriate about sixty million dollars per year to establish the new Bureau of Vulnerable Children and Family Security in the State Department and to establish a USAID Center for Excellence for Children in Adversity.

If millions of dollars are pumped into incentivizing intercountry adoptions, it is reasonable to expect that fraud may increase as well. Unfortunately, the bill glosses over the very real concerns of child trafficking, fraud, and corruption.

I’ve added the emphasis above. The perspective of this highly-regarded legal publication–not an adoption agency or adoptive parent–is powerful and valuable. Let’s hope our members of Congress listen closely.

Everyone agrees that children deserve families. CHIFF needs to genuinely address several existing problems: Let’s include adoptees and first parents in the conversation. Let’s provide equitable services. Let’s increase pre- and post- adoption resources. Let’s not spend $60 million without acknowledging current, painful realities around re-homing, citizenship/deportation, fraud, and corruption. Let’s emphasize family preservation first.

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