Research on Ethiopian Birth Families: A Must-Read

As an adoptive parent, I feel very strongly that the voices of birth parents need to be heard and listened to, in our own families as well as in adoption legislation and policy.

A few salient quotes from an academic research report, Birth Families and Intercountry Adoption in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia:

“70% of adopted children have a surviving birth parent in Ethiopia, making it painstakingly clear that most of these parents are not offered other types of assistance…

The conceptualization behind intercountry adoption obscures focus on the most inexpensive and highest quality option–enabling a child to remain with his/her living birthparent and assisting that birthparent to make a local plan for after his/her death…

Some of the most impoverished communities in Africa have proven capable of caring for orphans and vulnerable children, even in the context of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, when nurtured by programs that identify and seek to repair the holes in the safety net…”

These excerpts are from a 2010 thesis written by (US citizen) Sarah Brittingham for her M.A. in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.

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Despite their obvious and vulnerable role in international adoption, birth/original/first parents have received too little attention in terms of academic work, and certainly in terms of post-placement services. This thesis sheds additional light, along with the MSW work of  Kalkidan Alelign. You can read Ms. Alelign’s important thesis in my post, Ethiopian Birth Mothers After Relinquishment: MSW Research from Addis Ababa University.

Sarah Brittingham’s research has an extensive amount of references, including research on Marshall Islands’ adoptions that is remarkably relevant to Ethiopia: “If I Give You My Child, Aren’t We Family? A Study of Birth Mothers Participating in Marshall Islands–US Adoptions.” Brittingham’s research echoes that of the Marshall Islands, in that “Few (Ethiopian) participants showed an understanding of intercountry adoption as complete severance of ties with their children. Instead, adoption seems to represent ‘a link between two families creating a relation of kinship for support and expanded rights.'”

That notion of “a link between two families” is challenging to define, as it is a form of open international adoption. I believe that will be the model for the future of inter country adoption, a model that relinquishes fear and falsehoods. If adoptions are to continue, they must be ethical, transparent, and fair.

Here is a quote from an Ethiopian birth mother, comparing her experience to that of a close friend’s:

We both gave our children through the same agency, but I don’t hear about my children. When I went to the agency to demand information, they told me contact is based on the adoptive parents’ willingness and personality. Some want a picture, calls, etc., and some don’t, and they can’t do anything about it. It is up to the adoptive parents. But I think that if it is the same agency and the same law, it should apply to all parents…

I would love to hear the insights of adoption agencies on this, on what the agreements or inferences were and are regarding post-placement contact. My sense, based on anecdotes, is that increasing numbers of adoptive parents are reaching out and contacting Ethiopian birth families on their own, but I have no hard research on that.

I do feel certain that enormous confusion exists over what information the birth families were promised, following the placement of their children. There is great hope, even expectation, among many Ethiopian birth families that their children will go back to Ethiopia, and contribute to the country, and perhaps to the birth family as well.

One participant in the Brittingham thesis says “I wish for God to give me a long life so that I will be able to see (my children).” An adoptee “believed that intercountry adoption was the best way to help her mother, stating, ‘it’s better we go outside, and when we have something of our own, we will help you.’ ”

We–adoptive parents, adoption agencies, and adoption policymakers–need to hear these voices of Ethiopian original parents and of adopted persons.

We need to insist on additional research on intercountry adoption outcomes, especially as related to birth families.

We need to insist on improved, equitable services for all involved.

Many thanks to those who are researching these issues.

May those who are proposing new laws, policies, and funding genuinely hear the voices and the needs of marginalized first families.

 

 

 

 

CHIFF: LGBT Parents, Censorship, and the Disintegrating Umbrella

We all agree that all children deserve and need safe, loving families. Supporters of the Children in Families First legislation make very clear that this is their unqualified position, the umbrella which supporters hold over themselves.

Unfortunately, there are some serious holes in the fabric of that umbrella. The voices of many significant adoption groups are missing, especially those of adult adoptees. The voices of first/birth parents are missing completely.

And now, CHIFF is okay with supporters who oppose allowing LGBT people to be adoptive parents.

I’d guess that many of the adoption agencies and adoption attorneys who are CHIFF supporters have placed children with LGBT adoptive parents. No, I know they have.

Thousands of LGBT people have adopted thousands of children (children who needed families) through the US foster care system and internationally. Good people. Also, thousands of straight parents have adopted (and given birth to) children who are LGBT. Good people. There are LGBT parents and LGBT adopted persons.

Children deserve and need families, right, CHIFF supporters? 

Today marks the first time I’ve had a comment deleted on Facebook. Why? Because I challenged the welcoming to CHIFF supporters of Rep. Alan Nunnelee, who is on record opposing gay marriage and adoption of children by LGBT parents.

CHIFF admins would have us ignore these realities, and just keep smiling. Let us bring everyone under the umbrella of children and adoptive families and happy ever after.

Here’s the initial post on the CHIFF page:

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Here are comments (including mine, since deleted) on the post this morning, which I did not screen save, but copied:

Gina Murphy Pollock: YIKES! Not sure I’d be bragging about that sponsorship, isn’t the Congressman who stated: “I am proud to have pushed the statutory language prohibiting same sex couples from adopting as well as the Constitutional Amendment prohibiting same sex marriage in Mississippi.”? Is CHIFF going to advocate for similar prohibitions in intercountry adoption? Like · Reply · 2 hours ago

CHIFF – Children In Families First: That’s the beauty of CHIFF — it has united the most unlikely combination of supporters from the Left and Right. Very little does that in a polarized Washington, but the need of every child for a family draws together an amazing coalition that might agree on little else! Like · 2 hours ago

Maureen McCauley Evans: The “beauty of CHIFF” is that the creation of family should not include gay people as adoptive parents? Like · about an hour ago

CHIFF – Children In Families First: Please, friend, that’s unhelpful. Unlike most issues in Washington, CHIFF is bringing together so many remarkable people of diverse backgrounds. There is room here for a variety of perspectives, but let’s not fall into the typical DC sniping when most people of goodwill can agree on the simple truth that children need families. Like · about an hour ago

Here’s the CHIFF page screen save now with my comment deleted:

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I’m a nice, straight, white adoptive parent of children (now adults in their 20’s) through private US and through international adoption, all transracial. I became the foster parent of a young woman when she was 16. I’d seem to be a good candidate to support CHIFF. My comment, though, was “unhelpful,” and has since been deleted. Censored, one might say, to avoid any semblance of a lack of unanimity and good fellowship. To cover over bigotry.

I’m aware it was not so long ago, here in the US, that my family would have been illegal to create. That the first parents of my racially mixed children would have been criminals. That my children could have legally been denied housing and education, and not marry people of other races. Enough.

The condescension my remark elicited–and its subsequent deletion–mirrors perhaps what adult adoptees and first/birth parents receive when they question and push back on adoption policy.

I have been on record opposing CHIFF since September 2013. I’ve made my opposition clear, and thought I’d stop writing about it. Yet here I am again.

We all agree that children need families. That’s an excellent Talking Point, and it’s the umbrella that CHIFF supporters hold over themselves. The umbrella, friend, is leaking badly.

Adoption and Tragedy: Requiem for Hyunsu

A child died recently, a 3-year-old boy, adopted last October from Korea. His adoptive father has been arrested for the murder. (Read more here: Washington Post) It is a tragedy, and it is an adoption issue. His name (because names matter): Madoc Hyunsu (also spelled Hyeonsu) O’Callaghan.

As an adoptive mother, my heart aches for Hyunsu. I think about his first mother, his Korean family. There have been powerful vigils held in Seoul, led by adult adoptees and others, bringing all kinds of people together for reflection and prayer about the loss of this little boy.

Via Jane Jeong Trenka www.adoptionjustice.com

Via Jane Jeong Trenka
www.adoptionjustice.com

There is much powerful information here at Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea.

There is a Facebook page In Remembrance of Hyeonsu. There is a virtual vigil taking place today, hosted by Adoption Links of DC. So many people, around the globe, are embracing this child.

An adult adoptee from China wrote an insightful, eloquent post on the great blog Red Thread Broken: “Honoring the Life and Death of Hyunsu O’Callaghan.” It’s so important to hear the perspectives of adult adoptees, especially perhaps around the death of an adopted child; their insight cuts close to the bone.

Here’s an excerpt from Red Thread Broken:

“Whenever there is an outpouring of outspoken voices in the adoptee community, dismissive comments from observers are sure to follow. These are some of the common thoughts that seem to be in question:

  • “Doesn’t it make you glad you didn’t get up in a home like that one?” – No, it doesn’t make me glad or extra grateful. Because my family came together in an alternative way, I shouldn’t have to feel appreciative my parents didn’t murder me. It should be my right, not a privilege to be in a safe home.
  • “Biological parents abuse/neglect/murder their kids, too.” – That’s a correct statement, but that fact shouldn’t allow us to ignore the severity of the same problems in adoptive homes.
  • “Adoptive homes actually have a staggeringly low rate of abuse … I mean crazy low…when compared to biological families.” – There is actually a long history of abuse and filicide in adoptee’s homes. However low you claim statistics to be, no child should be subject to abuse in their home. The fact that it’s happening at all means that it’s an issue.
  • “This is NOT an adoption issue.” – Hyunsu had no agency in what happened to him. He was placed for adoption in Korea. The agency matched Hyunsu with the O’Callaghan’s. Adoptive parent screening and home studies are not extensive enough. Adoption is what placed him in the hands of a murderer. This is most definitely an adoption issue.

It’s sickening to me that when a tragedy like this ensues and explicitly shows the brokenness of the international adoption system, people continue arguing the ways in which adoption is a miracle, a blessing, a glorious, romantic practice when it obviously had deadly consequences for this boy. It seems that many would rather spend their time justifying the adoption system and their way of parenthood than acknowledging the atrocities that could allow us to move forward with real reform to the system. A child who “loved his dogs, his big brother Aidan, and anything his parents made for him to eat” is dead because of the defective international adoption system. “He wasn’t dealt the simplest hand in life, but he found something to love in it every day,” the obituary said. Hyunsu’s short life should be honored, and sticking to the status quo by promoting an idealized culture around adoption certainly won’t do that.”

I added the bold to the words above.

My friend and fellow adoptive parent Margie Perscheid wrote this important and provocative post about why Hyunsu’s death is an adoption issue. There’s often a tendency in the adoption community to see these adoptee deaths as tragic and isolated, not linked with adoption. Margie explains, with compassion and fire, why Hyunsu’s death, and those of other adoptees, is indeed “an adoption issue.”

Hyunsu joins Ethiopian adoptee Hana Alemu, and too many others. May they rest in peace. May we not rest in the light of these tragedies. They are painful to think about, and it’s so tempting to pause, shake our heads, and then sweep the tragic event away. May justice be served. May we face terrible truths without fear, and work for genuine change, especially for vulnerable children.

Here are two of my posts about the changes needed: Reflections on Hana: Acknowledging the Failure of the Adoption Community, and It’s Time to Oppose CHIFF.

US Grand Jury Accuses Adoption Agency of Fraud in Ethiopia

The US Department of Justice announced today that 4 adoption agency employees have been charged with fraud in connection with Ethiopian adoptions. International Adoption Guides (IAG) has been working in Ethiopia for several years. This could be a very big deal, one that hopefully begins to punish those who are responsible for fraud and corruption in Ethiopian adoptions. 

justice.gov web page

justice.gov web page

Here’s the full press release from the US Justice Department:

“Four current and former employees of International Adoption Guides Inc. (IAG), an adoption services provider, have been indicted by a grand jury in South Carolina for allegedly conspiring to defraud the United States in connection with IAG’s adoption services in Ethiopia. IAG is a South Carolina company that identified children in Ethiopia for adoption and arranged for their adoption by U.S.-based parents.

Acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney William N. Nettles of the District of South Carolina and Assistant Secretary Gregory B. Starr of the Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security made the announcement.

“The defendants are accused of obtaining adoption decrees and U.S. visas by submitting fraudulent adoption contracts signed by orphanages that never cared for or housed the children, thus undermining the very laws that are designed to protect the children and families involved,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Raman.  “As today’s indictments show, the Justice Department, alongside its partners both here and abroad, will respond vigorously to these criminal schemes and will act to protect the many families and children who rely on the integrity of the adoption process.”

“The Bureau of Diplomatic Security uses its global presence to vigorously investigate any fraud related to the acquisition of U.S. visas,” said Assistant Secretary Starr.  “The Department of State’s Bureaus of Consular Affairs and Diplomatic Security are firmly committed to working with the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate and bring to justice people who victimize children and families by abusing inter-country adoption system and bribe officials to facilitate their actions.”

The international program director and coordinator for IAG, James Harding, 53, of Lawrenceville, Ga., was arrested today in Georgia.  Alisa Bivens, 42, of Gastonia, N.C., who oversaw the Ethiopian operations from the United States, is scheduled to make an appearance at a later date in U.S. District Court in Charleston, S.C.   The company’s executive director, Mary Mooney, 53, of Belmont, N.C., was apprehended in Belize by Belizean authorities and transported to the United States.  Haile Mekonnen, age unknown, an Ethiopian national who ran IAG’s operations on the ground in Ethiopia, was also charged in the indictment.

According to the indictment, the defendants allegedly engaged in a five-year conspiracy to violate laws relating to the adoption of Ethiopian children by U.S. parents.  The scheme involved, among other things, paying orphanages to “sign off” on contracts of adoption with the adopting parents as if the children had been raised by those orphanages — even though the children had never resided in those orphanages and had not been cared for or raised there.  These orphanages could not, therefore, properly offer these children up for adoption.  In some instances, the children resided with a parent or relative.

As part of the charged conspiracy, the defendants then allegedly submitted or caused to be submitted these fraudulent contracts of adoption to Ethiopian courts in order to secure adoption decrees, and submitted or caused to be submitted the fraudulent contracts of adoption and the fraudulently procured adoption decrees to the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia in order to obtain U.S. visas for the children to travel to the United States to be with their new families.  The indictment also charges that the defendants’ scheme involved paying bribes to an Ethiopian government official and agreeing to create counterfeit U.S. Customs and Immigration Service forms that were to be submitted to the Ethiopian government.

The charge of conspiring to defraud the United States carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine of the greater of $250,000 or twice the value gained or lost.

The charges contained in the indictment are merely accusations, and the defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.

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.”

The US State Department issued a brief statement about IAG here.

Note that while the IAG program director is named James Harding, he is not the same James Harding that was affiliated with Christian World Adoption, an international adoption agency that declared bankruptcy suddenly in 2013. CWA had also worked in Ethiopia, and was featured in an Australian Broadcasting Company 2010 report Fly Away Home, alleging substantial fraud.

The Department of Justice does not rush lightly into indictments; this one appears to have involved five years of investigations, many interviews, many lawyers, and many inquiries about fraud and corruption. These arrests and the indictment must be making many adoption agencies look carefully at their own records and activities, here in the US and in Ethiopia. I hope policy-makers, especially those involved currently with the Children in Families First legislation, are also pondering the implications.

I’m sure many adoptive parents are also looking at their own children, and wondering if their adoptions were indeed ethical. Many adult adoptees have learned a great deal about the realities of their becoming available for adoption. Many Ethiopian families may learn what truly happened to their children. May justice be served, for everyone.

It’s Time to Oppose CHIFF

CHIFF–the Children in Families First legislation–at first glance seems a no-brainer. Shouldn’t all children, especially orphans, have permanent, safe, caring families? Absolutely. I am an adoptive parent (US and Ethiopian adoptions, infant and older child adoptions, transracial adoptions) of 4 now young adults. I believe in adoptions that are done with integrity and transparency, that meet the genuine needs of the child (not the wants of the adoptive parents), and that treat everyone involved equitably and respectfully. I also believe family preservation should always be a primary goal.

And I oppose CHIFF.

I hope you will join me in raising your voice in opposition to this legislation.

Several current, glaring problems in the international adoption community must be solved before CHIFF is even considered. One example is the failure of the US government to provide citizenship for all international adoptees. Adoptees have been deported to Brazil, Korea, India, Germany, and elsewhere. Adoptive parents: make sure your children have the Certificate of Citizenship and full US citizenship documentation. Read more here.

I hate to think that CHIFF supporters would include the deportation legislation–which has been shamefully languishing for years–in the CHIFF bill, as a means of forcing adoptee support for the bill. I hope they have the backbone to move the citizenship legislation through Congress quickly and unencumbered, as it is a humane, overdue legislative need. I would hope that all these supporters of international adoption would be deeply motivated to demand that the US citizenship legislation, in the name of fairness and integrity, be enacted without linking it to an enormous piece of expensive, controversial legislation.

This and other issues must be addressed fully before undertaking new legislation using millions of dollars and creating a new bureaucracy.

Please join me in writing to Secretary of State Kerry, as well as to the main sponsors of the legislation: Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) at the US Senate, Washington, DC 20510, and Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), at the US House of Representatives, Washington, DC 20515.

Here is a modified text of a letter I sent to Secretary of State John Kerry, US State Department, 2201 C St. NW, Washington, DC 20520.

January 6, 2014

Dear Secretary Kerry:

I write with a respectful request for Congressional hearings and a thorough review of the proposed Children in Families First (CHIFF) legislation.

As an adoptive parent of 4 wonderful children, now all young adults, I fully support the goal of all children growing up in loving, safe families. I support adoptions that have integrity and transparency, that genuinely meet the needs of the child, and that are respectful to all members of the first and adoptive family (and to the child, of course).

However, I (and many others) believe that CHIFF is arguably well-intentioned, but in reality falls shockingly short of identifying and meeting current gaping needs for children and families involved in international adoption. Many of the arguments for the legislation are based on an inadequate understanding of current adoption realities.

Thoughtful, thorough oversight hearings should take place as soon as possible, and certainly before any consideration of CHIFF or other adoption-related legislation.

I further recommend that the following issues related to international adoption policy first be resolved. Then, pending the results of Congressional hearings, CHIFF might possibly be reviewed.

  1. Examination of currently existing needs in the international adoption community, such as adequate post-adoption resources for families and children.
  2. Ensuring that all individuals brought to the United States for the purposes of adoption have US citizenship.
  3. Establishment of equity in the services provided to the first families (sometimes referred to as birth families) of children placed for international adoption.
  4. Examination of the current use of the adoption tax credit, on which the United States government has spent almost $7 billion, primarily reimbursing adoptive parents for the costs of international adoption (hotels, meals, travel, etc.).
  5. Identification of already existing NGOs and non-profit organizations currently involved in family preservation, so as not to create even more bureaucracy and waste additional money, time, and resources.

The proposed CHIFF legislation is not timely or appropriate, as it ignores current existing needs in the international adoption community. CHIFF supporters are primarily adoption agencies and attorneys–who have a clear financial stake in the success of this bill, though I don’t argue that many are deeply concerned about children–as well as academics and adoptive parents.

The CHIFF legislation does not have the support or endorsement of any significant groups of international adult adoptees. Thousands of international adoptees (Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, Russian, Colombian, Ethiopian, Chinese, etc.) are now adults. They are actively engaged in adoption policy, asking for a place at the table in adoption policy discussions. CHIFF does not include them or their views. That alone is an outrage, and reason to put the brakes on this bill.

Here is a list of some adult adoptee organizations that could have been included, but are noticeably missing from CHIFF supporters:

Adopted and Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora, Adoption Policy and Reform Collaborative, TRACK- Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea, Adopted Vietnamese International, Hong Kong Adoptees Network, Gazillion Voices, AdopSource, and more. Additionally, there are dozens of international adoptee professionals who would be insightful in these discussions, but none appear on the list of CHIFF supporters and certainly not on the CHIFF Executive Committee.

CHIFF does not have the support of adult adoptees, the people most affected by international adoption legislation and policy. Nor are the voices of first/birth parents present in any meaningful way.

Another glaring example is the failure of CHIFF to address currently existing enormous problems in the international adoption policy arena. Each of these should be addressed before CHIFF is considered.

(1) It is shameful that the US government still does not provide automatic citizenship to those brought to the US as babies and children for purposes of international adoption. Congress has had this matter before it for years, and it is still not resolved. Meanwhile, international adoptees brought to the US as minors (prior to the Child Citizenship Act of 2000) by US citizens for purposes of adoption face the possibility of deportation.

(2) It is shameful that some adoptive parents “re-home” their adopted children through methods that are illegal and/or unethical at best. CHIFF proponents would do well to demand better pre-adoption screening and vast improvement of post-adoption services to ensure that all internationally adopted children are safe and cared for appropriately, subsequent to being adopted.

(3) It is shameful that first parents in the countries from which adoption agencies place children receive services that are marginal at best, that often prey upon economic inequities, that are increasingly shown to be deceitful, and that have no post-adoption resources whatsoever.

Further, please consider the use of funds by the US government for the adoption tax credit (ATC). Originally designed to encourage the adoption of children from the US foster care system, the adoption tax credit is now used primarily for international adoption, to reimburse parents for hotel, airfare, meals, legal costs, and so on. Many CHIFF supporters lobbied assiduously for the adoption tax credit.

According to a GAO report, “Since the original provision was enacted in 1996, taxpayers have claimed about $4.3 billion in adoption tax credits.” That report (GAO-12-98) was issued in October 2011. Estimates for tax year 2011, according to Joint Tax Committee reports, are $1.2 billion.

The US government has dispersed somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.5 billion (yes, billion) as reimbursement primarily to adoptive parents for international adoption expenses.

 US foster care adoptions cost very little. In stark contrast, international and private adoptions are far more expensive (ranging between $10,000 and $60,000).

A Child Trends Research Brief (Publication #2007-24) looked at 1999-2005 data from the US Treasury to see who used the ATC. The results are significant:

  • The vast majority of tax credit recipients were for international or private adoptions, not foster care adoptions.
  • Nearly all international adoptions were supported by the tax credit.  Only 25% of US foster care adoptions were supported by the tax credit.
  • Children adopted from foster care in 2004 represented only 17 percent of the money spent on the tax credit.
  • Nearly 90% of ATC tax filers with incomes above $100,000 adopted internationally or privately.

While the tax credit eases the ostensible burden of the costs of international adoption for adoptive families, it does nothing to provide resources, counseling, or any other equitable services for first/birth families around the globe. These are among the most marginalized, powerless people anywhere: the original parents (grandparents, siblings, aunts, cousins) of internationally adopted children. They receive no follow-up counseling or support after placing their children. Increasing numbers of adult international adoptees are searching and reuniting with their original families, and finding that the families were devastated by the loss of their children through fraudulent or corrupt practices.

Is the adoption tax credit, then, really helping vulnerable orphans, whether in the US or around the world? No, because many of the children placed for international adoption are not true orphans, in any traditional sense. They may have living family members, though they may be poor, ill, or otherwise unable to help. The children may have unrelated community members willing to raise them. The word “orphan” is used far too loosely and inaccurately in adoption policy discussions. It is emotionally powerful, nonetheless. And it has been used extensively in support of CHIFF.

CHIFF would have the US government using even more funds to place children for international adoption, without adequately meeting (or even calling attention to) current needs.

One alternative is that the funds currently used for the adoption tax credit could be used to improve pre-adoption and post-adoption services, including for first/birth parents. I have not yet heard any CHIFF supporters endorse such a use of the adoption tax credit.

Further, and this is a potentially valuable part of CHIFF, I urge you to ensure that international family preservation efforts genuinely focus on keeping families together. Efforts to encourage local adoption in-country deserve far greater attention and funding than what currently exists. I respectfully suggest an evaluation of already existing family preservation and reunification programs, and then funding them in a meaningful, sustainable way. There are multiple examples, around the globe. One solid, effective model is ReuniteUganda, which has had much success in keeping families together and in reuniting children wrongly separated from their parents. In Ethiopia, where my now 25 year old twin daughters are from (they were 6 when they were adopted), three organizations come to mind that are deeply involved in effective family preservation: Selamta, Bring Love In, and AHope for Children.

CHIFF has bipartisan cosponsors, suggesting at first glance that Congress is aware of the huge challenges surrounding international adoption. Unfortunately, many eyes need to be opened far more widely to the current needs of the international adoption community. It is easy to give blind support to the notion of “helping vulnerable orphans.” The issue, however, is far greater than that.

Thank you for your concern and attention to the realities of the world’s most vulnerable children, as well as their families.

Sincerely,

Maureen McCauley Evans

Maureen McCauley Evans is the adoptive parent of 4 children, now young adults all in their 20’s, adopted from the US and from Ethiopia. While she has not worked professionally in adoption for many years, she was the first executive director of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, and worked for two adoption agencies, The Barker Foundation and Children’s Home Society and Family Services-East. She writes about adoption, art, and family issues on her blog, lightofdaystories.wordpress.com, which has received over 110,000 views since she began writing 9 months ago. She is passionate about the needs of vulnerable children and families, and insists that the voices of adult adoptees and of first parents be heard in adoption policy.

 

 

Not Chuffed About CHIFF: Pushing Back On International Adoption Policy

“Chuffed” is British slang for being pleased, mixed with a bit of proud.

CHIFF is the Children in Families First Act. I’ve written here about Why CHIFF Will (and Should) Fail, and here about What CHIFF Lacks, And Why It Must Be Abandoned.

I am not chuffed about CHIFF. Those two posts above explain why.

Not surprisingly, I’ve gotten some pushback from folks at adoption agencies about my views.

Why am I opposed to helping children who need families?

I’m not, it turns out. I believe adoption is a potential, positive option for children in genuine need of families. I agree that children are better off growing up in safe, loving families rather than in institutions. As is often the case, however, this is far more complicated than a warm and fuzzy scenario of homes for orphans. CHIFF is about a new bureaucracy, plus misplaced funding that ignores existing needs, and a blatant failure to include those most affected.

Many years ago, when I was working for the Joint Council on International Children’s Services (I was there from 1995-2000), we worked on several pieces of significant adoption-related legislation. One was the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. Two others were part of the immigration bill in 1996, one requiring immunizations prior to immigration to the US, and the other mandating deportation of non-US citizens who were convicted of a felony. The immunizations issue was settled fairly easily, with prospective adoptive parents having to sign a form saying they would get their children immunized here (or get an exemption for religious reasons, for example).

The deportation issue, though, was far more complex. Adult international adoptees who had not acquired US citizenship and committed a felony were deported, regardless of having been brought here by US citizens for adoption, having been raised here their whole lives, and having no connection (language, family, school, religion, etc.) with their country of origin. This absurdity was part of the impetus behind the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, which gave (relatively) automatic citizenship to internationally adopted children. More information is available here, in my posts All They Will Call You Will Be Deportees and Citizenship Isn’t Automatic for Internationally Adopted Children to the US?.

All those legislative issues were complicated, and we are still feeling the implications certainly of the Hague Convention and of the deportation/citizenship law. When I think back of my involvement with both, I am aware of two glaring omissions from the discussions and implementation of both: very few adult adoptees or first parents were involved.

By far, it was international lawyers, adoption agencies’ staff, and adoptive parents who were the forces behind the legislative process: the same (mostly white, well-educated, politically savvy, well-off) demographic of those who are supporting CHIFF.

Had adoptees and first parents genuinely and fully been invited to share their experiences  around adoption, perhaps the Hague Convention would have been more smoothly implemented here in the US. Perhaps the Council On Accreditation would have more effective criteria for the accreditation of adoption agencies under the Hague. Perhaps consultation and input from adopted adults would have been more convincing about the need for appropriate and fair citizenship legislation.

I include myself in falling short on insisting that adoptees and first parents have a place at the table during those legislative processes. That’s why I am speaking out as loudly as possible now.

As I look at the supporters of CHIFF, I see a list comprised almost entirely of adoption agencies. Adoption agencies are not focused on family preservation–let’s be clear about that. Theirs is a different mission and focus. Family preservation is expensive, complicated, and labor-intensive. Adoption work can similarly described, though it requires different staffing, skills, evaluation, and funding than family preservation. It’s also easy to see how conflicts of interest could occur, if an agency pursues both.

Look at this, from the CHIFF Facebook page:

The CHIFF Working Group Executive Committee

American Academy of Adoption Attorneys
Both Ends Burning
Center for Adoption Policy
Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School
Christian Alliance for Orphans
Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute
EACH
Joint Council on International Children’s Services
Kidsave International
National Council For Adoption
Saddleback Church

CHIFF also has the support of dozens of individual adoption agencies. Why is that, if CHIFF emphasizes family preservation?

About the pushback I’ve received: I heard from one of the above agencies, saying I’d rattled a few cages. Good.

Because here’s the deal: Adoptee groups are more common, more vocal, and more effective than when I was at JCICS and other organizations. I’m not excusing my failure to include them at the time. I am saying, though, that there are plenty of organized groups now across the adoptee spectrum. There are amazing, thoughtful adoptees who are Ph.D’s and MSW’s and LCSW’s who could offer great insights into this legislation, but I don’t see their names or their affiliations on the list of CHIFF supporters. That speaks volumes to me, that the CHIFF Working Group Executive Committee and its list of supporters are predominantly adoption agencies and adoptive parents.

Interestingly, the “Likes” on the Facebook page of the Children in Families First group is 2439. The “Likes” on the “Stop CHIFF” Facebook page is 2507. A few years ago, before the empowerment that is social media, the balance would not have been so close. It’s all changing now.

Here’s another important reality that currently is often ignored. There are plenty of adult adoptees who love their adoptive parents, who are grateful to have been adopted, who recognize that their lives would have been totally different (certainly economically and perhaps otherwise) had they not been adopted. These are among the most powerful adopted adults who are speaking out, demanding change in the international adoption process, These adult adoptees love their adoptive families and they had happy childhoods. They are also speaking out about adoption, seeking change in the international adoption process, demanding transparency and integrity, and insisting on a role for themselves and for first/birth parents in the future of international adoption.

As to the notion that some of the adoptee groups don’t play well with others, and so are not invited to this sandbox: Enough. There are many, many adult adoptee groups and adoptee professionals working in adoption. If the adoption agency groups have insights and inroads to the politicians–and it surely looks as though they do–why don’t they share their skills and experience with adoptee groups?

Is anyone else struck by the fact that some adoption agencies and adoption-related organizations don’t want to hear from, talk with, or work with some adopted adults who are now speaking out? These adoptees were brought to the US by these agencies and organizations.  Have the agencies no ethical responsibility to find common ground? Even (or especially) with adopted adults who’ve struggled mightily with loss and grief, who had horrific childhoods, or who view their adoption as a painful life event?

Is anyone else struck by the fact that the international adoption agencies and adoption-related organizations are not reaching out to first parents to provide post-adoption services to them, the way the services are provided (or at least offered) to US adoptive parents? Where is the integrity in that? For that matter, I’d love to see an evaluation of the pre-placement services provided to international first parents. Do the services match what is available to US birth/first parents? If not, why not?

Is anyone else struck by the fact that CHIFF is “about reallocating a small portion of the $2 billion the US Government already spends on assistance programs for children internationally” but doesn’t say how much that “small portion” is? The US government currently provides billions in the adoption tax credit, a fragment for the adoption of foster care children but primarily allocated to international and private adoptions. Your tax dollars are already hard at work reimbursing relatively well-off adoptive parents for travel and hotels overseas. We are talking huge amounts of money here, that could be spent far more responsibly.

Is anyone else struck by the fact that adoptive parents of internationally adopted children are often able, after placement, to quickly find out the true backgrounds of their children, backgrounds that are all too often not what the agency told them? Should we ignore the fact that increasing numbers adult adoptees travel back to their country of origin and find their truth is very different from what the agency told them, their first parents, and their adoptive parents?

Is anyone else heartbroken about the fact that internationally adopted children are “re-homed” in an underground Internet system, that internationally adopted children are showing up in increasing numbers in the US foster care system, and that some internationally adopted children adopted as teens to the US are thrown out of their families when they reach 18?

I am well aware that adoptive parents and adoption-related organizations hold the most power in adoption policy–for now. I am aware that some (though not all) adoptee groups are adversarial, even hostile. But let’s not dismiss the realities experienced by so-called difficult adoptees. (Arguably, we do that all too often as shown by the dearth of appropriate post-adoption services for adopted children and teens. There could be a correlation.) Let’s not hope that they just go away, now that they’ve grown up. Collaboration, not further marginalization, is the only way to move toward well-grounded adoption policy and reform.

Let’s invite adult adoptees and first families to the table, and stop repeating the same mistakes. Let’s not pour more money and time into international adoption policy that does not adequately meet the needs of current adoptees, prospective adoptees, and constantly-marginalized first families.

 

What CHIFF Lacks and Why It Must Be Abandoned

I wrote a couple of days ago about the Children in Families First (CHIFF) Act, recently introduced in the US Senate as S.1530: Why CHIFF Will (and Should) Fail.

My main arguments were (1)  the legislation fails to include the voices of adult adoptees and of first/original international parents, and (2) the main supporters are adoption agencies, who have a significant economic stake in international adoption. Those 2 reasons are significant enough to suggest the bill is poorly grounded and inadequate (while being very expensive), and should be abandoned.

If that though isn’t enough, this post discusses additional reasons that CHIFF should be discarded.

It’s not because international adoption policy does not need to be reformed (it does), nor because children around the globe don’t deserve safe, loving families (they do), nor because family preservation should not be an essential priority (it should).

CHIFF should be discarded because it fails to include the perspectives of vital stakeholders (adoptees and international first parents) directly impacted by and knowledgeable about international adoption, though with nothing to gain financially from it, unlike adoption agencies, the bill’s current main supporters. Further, CHIFF should be discarded because it fails to acknowledge the astonishing problems facing us here in the US, while explicitly using substantial USAID and other taxpayer funds “to jumpstart implementation of a National Action Plan in 6 countries over 5 years.”

CHIFF In a Nutshell

Here’s a brief summary, drawn from their website, of the goals of CHIFF:

CHIFF “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.”

Specifically, CHIFF establishes a new bureau in the State Department (transforming and enlarging the current Office of Children’s Issues, apparently), as a “foreign policy and diplomatic hub on child welfare.” The new bureau will still be the Hague Convention’s Central Authority “for diplomatic purposes,” but “operational responsibilities will be under US Citizenship and Immigrations Services,” (US CIS) which is under the US Homeland Security Administration.

It “streamlines, simplifies, and consolidates responsibility for intercountry adoption cases under US CIS,” thus under the Department of Homeland Security, except for final immigrant visa processing, which remains with State. Adoption service provider accreditation will now be under Homeland Security too, not the State Department.

The new bureau is tasked with “building international capacity to implement effective child welfare systems, with particular focus on family preservation and reunification, and kinship domestic, and intercountry adoption.”

The CHIFF infographic cites adoption in 2 of the 3 potential intended results of the bill, with the third being a realignment “of foreign aid with American values.”

Here are additional reasons that CHIFF will and should fail:

CHIFF does not meaningfully address current needs here in the United States regarding international adoption policy, yet it would use USAID and other taxpayer money to increase international adoptions, to create new bureaucracy here, and to establish new programs around the globe, instilling American values.

It turns out we have plenty of work that needs to be done here at home.

  • CHIFF does not address the huge, gaping need for genuine, rigorous pre-adoption preparation nor for substantive, effective, accessible post-adoption counseling and resources here in the United States. We can craft adoption policy far better, in terms of preparation and counseling of birth/first parents and of adoptive parents prior to adoption, and in terms of post-adoption resources and services for everyone. I’d like to see some degree of equity in counseling and services (before and after placement) for international birth parents as compared to US adoptive parents. I’ve recommended re-vamping the US adoption tax credit as one means of doing this and wrote about it here.  No new money–just an equitable, sane distribution of revenue (billions of dollars) that the US federal government is already providing to adoptive parents.
  • CHIFF does not address the great, grim cloud of corruption and fraud in international adoption. Many US families have brought children to the US only to find out the children have families who wanted to keep them, but were trafficked or otherwise brought to the US in unethical circumstances. Adult adoptees have traveled back to their home countries and learned very different stories from what the agencies told their adoptive parents. One of the reasons for the slowdown in international adoptions is that adoption agencies and governments are now doing investigations about the truths of children being placed for adoption. It’s an effort by the agencies, arguably late in the game, and it’s costly and time-consuming, though perhaps will ensure more ethical adoptions. In any case, CHIFF minimally acknowledges the corruption that exists in international adoption. The fraud and corruption should be acknowledged, researched thoroughly, and (ideally) eliminated as a first priority.
  • CHIFF does not address the tragic and disturbing practice of “re-homing” here in the US, recently cited in the powerful Reuters series which looked at re-homing practices over 5 years. There are numerous reasons that re-homing has occurred, and perhaps some have been valid. But better preparation and better post-adopt services (including respite, training, access to therapists who understand adoption, trauma, and related issues) surely would have prevented some of these tragic cases.
  • The impact of the re-homing news has begun to create a global backlash. China is outraged. This article “China adoption agency furious over ‘child exchange’ report” quotes the China Centre for Children’s Welfare and Adoption as saying, “As to the report that refers to American families who are using the Internet to relocate children they have adopted and are not willing to keep raising, we are very shocked and furious.”
  • Further evidence of the global rippling effect: The Democratic Republic of Congo has just announced a 12 month suspension of adoptions, and specifically cited the re-homing of children as one significant reason. Here is a quote from the US State Department notice about the DRC’s decision: “This suspension is due to concerns over reports that children adopted from the Democratic Republic of the Congo may be either abused by adoptive families or adopted by a second set of parents once in their receiving countries.” Other countries likely have deep concerns about US adoption practices, and I would guess we will hear more in the near future.
  • CHIFF does not address the concerns of many in the adoption global community about what the Congo suspension alludes to: children being abused or killed by their adoptive parents. I have written dozens of posts about the recent Washington State trial and conviction of the adoptive parents for the murder of Hana Williams, an Ethiopian adoptee. The parents were convicted as well of first degree assault of Immanuel, also an Ethiopian adoptee. These tragic cases are not common, not representative of the vast majority of adoption, and not acceptable on any level. Note above that CHIFF specifically calls for “programs funded with US tax dollars to…increase the capacity of other governments to better protect their own children.”  Hindsight may suggest that the deaths and abuses here were preventable, but we need to be more proactive than ever in demanding rigorous scrutiny of prospective adoptive parents and in providing oversight and assistance to families in trouble. I wrote here about how the adoption community failed Hana. I also found the CHIFF FAQ answer cold and dismissive about these tragedies. I can only imagine what the perspective is of the families and governments of origin regarding these children.
  • CHIFF does not address the plight of international adoptees who are now in the US foster care system. Those numbers are difficult to know for sure, but there is clear evidence and research that many international adopted children end up in US foster care. They, like US-born foster care children, often age out and face difficult next steps. Nor does CHIFF address the international adoptees who are now legal adults and legal US citizens and who have been who have been discarded by their adoptive families, and are now struggling in “underground” communities. Many did not meet the families’ expectations (and again, this would seem to me to indicate poor preparation, or inappropriate placements, or inadequate post-adoption resources). I wrote about some of these concerns in my Case Study: Part 2, regarding the role of agencies.

There are other concerns, and I’ve no doubt other people will be writing about them. I would argue that, before we work toward increasing the numbers of internationally adopted children, and before we venture into other countries to tell them how to protect their children, we address the needs of current adoptees and their families here in the US.

Before anything like CHIFF goes forward, before we use additional funds and resources to increase the numbers of internationally adopted children, we need, at a minimum, the following:

  • Good data, solid research, and substantive information about current realities in the US international adoption community.
  • Good data, solid research, and substantive information about fraud and corruption in international adoption practices.
  • Inclusion and buy-in from adult international adoptees and from international birth/original parents, and not solely from adoption agencies and adoption attorneys.
  • Funding and training for pre-adoption and post-adoption resources that are effective and accessible.
  • Legislation and/or other resources that provides guidance and oversight for families in crisis, with transparency for adoption disruptions and services for children.

CHIFF excludes vital stakeholders, is expensive, and ignores genuine needs in the US and international adoption community. It should not move forward. Surely we can do far better than this.

Why CHIFF Will (and Should) Fail

CHIFF is new US legislation related to international adoption. Its full name is Children in Families First. You can read about it on their website.

The ostensible goal is something most humans can agree on: children should grow up in loving, safe families.

CHIFF, however, would like to change “US policies and investments” to do this. That’s where things begin to fall apart.

Why will and should CHIFF fail?

Because it is essentially the product of a union between the US Congress and adoption agencies, with some adoptive parents mixed in as well.

Look at the list of CHIFF Working Group Executive Committee:

The CHIFF Working Group Executive Committee

American Academy of Adoption Attorneys
Both Ends Burning
Center for Adoption Policy
Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School
Christian Alliance for Orphans
Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute
EACH
Joint Council on International Children’s Services
Kidsave
National Council For Adoption
Saddleback Church

Look at the list of CHIFF’s Supporting Organizations:

Buckner International
Dillon International
Futuro de los Ninos
International Child Advocacy Network
Gladney Center for Adoption
University of Minnesota, International Adoption Clinic
Golden Cradle Adoption
Children’s Home Society and Lutherans Social Service of Minnesota
All God’s Children International Children’s Hope
MLJ Adoptions
Adoptions of Indiana
Lutheran Social Services of the South, Inc
Michael S. Goldstein, Esq., LCSW
WACAP (World Association for Children and Parents
Children’s House International
Miriam’s Promise
European Adoption Consultants
Rainbow Kids

Who’s not on either of these lists?

Advocates who give voice to International Adoptees and First Parents. Here’s a sampling.

Click on any of these links for further information about the organizations:

Land of Gazillion Adoptees/Gazillion Voices

Pound Pup Legacy

Lost Daughters

Lost Sarees

Adopted and Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora

Adoption Reform and Policy Collaborative

GOA’L–Global Overseas Adoptees Link

Reunite Uganda

ALARM–Advocating Legislation for the Adoption Reform Movement

ACT–Against Child Trafficking

Whether any of these groups (and many others like them) were consulted in the formulation of CHIFF, I do not know. I doubt it, since none is listed as a supporter. The above list runs something of a gamut in terms of advocacy and attitudes towards adoption.  I acknowledge that an extraordinarily talented facilitator would be needed to guide a discussion among them and the supporters of CHIFF.

Here’s the point: CHIFF is lauded by the US House and Senate sponsors, along with some big names in adoption agency work, as an important, significant piece of adoption reform legislation. There may be some good policy ideas in it. But adoption agencies (and adoption attorneys) have a substantial economic stake in this, though some may also have a moral and ethical stake.

The fact that there was no consultation nor buy-in from significant international adoptee or first parent groups, and that there is no public support from these groups, is revealing.

It’s also outrageous.

And that is why this legislation should fail.

Until our US government takes seriously the range of views of international adult adoptees and until it engages those adoptees and international first families in a transparent and public way, there can be no genuinely meaningful international adoption policy.