New Research Recommends Big Changes In Counseling For Expectant Parents Considering Adoption

The Donaldson Adoption Institute has released an important new study by Baylor University advocating substantive improvements to the current ways expectant mothers are counseled about adoption.

A team of researchers worked with 223 birth/first mothers who had placed a child for adoption within the last 25 years, as well as with 141 adoption professions who counsel and facilitate adoptions. A second phase of the research included interviews and more detailed analysis with a smaller group.

A few of the findings, according to a Baylor University press release:

  • It was common for birth mothers to express concern about their lack of financial stability during their pregnancies. Financial concerns were often cited as reasons why birth mothers first considered, and ultimately elected, adoption.
  • While some of the women had very positive experiences during their decision-making and relinquishment process, others indicated that the information and support they received from the agency or attorney was insufficient to help them fully consider their options and make the best choice for their child. For these birth mothers, the decision to place their child has had a lifelong impact on them and is one they greatly regret.
  • Much of the information that adoption professionals reported discussing with new expectant parents focused on adoption-related concerns rather than full consideration of all of the parents’ options. Less than half of adoption professionals specifically mentioned discussing information related to parenting their child or methods for helping expectant parents problem-solve how this might occur.

The Baylor report, based on two years of work, provides several policy recommendations, including these:

• Mandate adoption agencies and adoption attorneys to develop and/or provide free access to pre- and post-relinquishment services for expectant and birth parents. These services should include individual and family counseling provided by a licensed clinical professional.

• Mandate that adoption agencies and adoption attorneys must provide expectant parents with a standardized, informed consent that details the possible outcomes associated with relinquishing parental rights to a child for adoption, as well as potential outcomes that the child may experience.

• Increase and standardize education for expectant parents and prospective adoptive parents about the strengths, limitations and legalities of post-relinquishment contact, including the rights of adoptive parents to decrease or eliminate contact in some states.

• Mandate biannual ethics in adoption continuing education for adoption professionals. This curriculum should address ethical challenges related to working with expectant parents, birth parents, extended family members, prospective adoptive parents and other adoption professionals. The curriculum should also emphasize the importance of options counseling, including full informed consent and access to supportive services.

The adoption professionals themselves called for additional training on grief and loss related to relinquishment. That is revealing.

The Baylor press release quotes one birth mother who “felt pressure to sign papers immediately after having the baby. ‘It was horrible,’ she said. ‘I can tell you right now, if the lawyer hadn’t shown up in my room when I was in kind of a haze from giving birth, I don’t know if I would’ve signed the papers. I should’ve had time.”

U.S. states vary on the amount of time parents have after birth to give consent to placing their child for adoption: 16 states allow consent any time after the birth; 30 states have a waiting period of 12 hours to 15 days before the consent can be given. There is a lot of variation among the states.

“Revocation of consent” refers to the ability of the parents to change their minds about placing the baby for adoption. The time period also varies among states, from 3 days to 180 days. More information on consent and revocation times is available here.

I am on the record opposed to birth mothers signing papers in the delivery room and handing their baby over to the adoptive parents without a decent time to recover after birth and ensure that adoption is the right decision. I’d challenge anyone who has given birth or had any significant surgery/medical procedure to consider whether they’d feel fine about signing significant legal papers right after the delivery or surgery, especially if they were pressured to do so, and especially if the papers related to one’s child being permanently removed, oftentimes with no further contact ever.

As an adoptive parent, I find this university study and the policy recommendations a breath of fresh air in adoption practice. I hope that this information gets to many of the law firms and adoption agencies working with expectant mothers, and that prospective and current adoptive parents insist that the law firms and adoption agencies are aware of this research.

I believe adoption can be a viable option, and the right decision for the first/birth parents, the adoptee, and adoptive parents, if it is done with transparency and integrity. Acknowledging the power (economic, in particular) in adoption held by adoptive parents is critical.

We have a long way to go in improving services and counseling to expectant mothers in the U.S. who are considering adoption, and especially those who are in a temporarily difficult situation but could keep their children if they had better (any) counseling and better awareness of other resources.

And imagine if this level of services and counseling were mandated to be provided to mothers around the globe who place their children for international adoption–because we are way behind on equitable treatment for them.

 

If you missed the link at the beginning of this post, the Donaldson Institute-Baylor University study Is available here.

 

 

http://www.adoptioninstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/Understanding-Options-Counseling-Experiences-in-Adoption-Qualitative-Study.pdf

The Long Road to Sentencing For International Adoption Guides: Still Not There

In February 2014, four employees of International Adoption Guides were indicted by the US Department of Justice for bribery, falsification of documents, and more, based on a multiyear investigation of Ethiopian adoptions. James Harding, Mary Mooney, and Alisa Bivens, the three American IAG defendants, all pled guilty to various counts about two years ago. They are still awaiting sentencing, three years after the indictment. The one Ethiopian defendant, Haile Mekonnen, as best I know is still in Ethiopia and has not been in court.

According to the 2014 DOJ press release, ” ‘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.’ ”

Behind that legal language is astonishing loss and heartache for many children and their families in Ethiopia and in the United States.

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I recently came across a website, justiceformary.weebly.com, which seems to be written by Mary Mooney. While it mostly has password protected pages, it has a long list of the court documents from 2014 to 2016, including the plea agreements from the three defendants, as well as transcripts of several court appearances. The site mentions a court date in January 2017, but I have yet to see anything to confirm that.

In May 2016, the government recommended a sentence for Mooney of 51 to 60 months of incarceration, per this Memorandum in Aid of Sentencing.

A sentencing hearing was held in August 2016.

In November 2016, there was an order filed on Mary Mooney‘s case. My understanding, as a non-lawyer, is that in January 2015 Mooney had made a plea agreement: she pled guilty to making false statements for the agency’s Council on Accreditation process, and the government then dropped other charges, including those related to Ethiopia.

Mooney could, however, face a conviction on charges related to adoptions from Kazakhstan. Mooney’s co-defendant James Harding had operated World Partners Adoption, located in Georgia; he is an adoptive parent of children from Kazakhstan. WPA lost its accreditation to handle international adoptions in 2008. Harding and Mooney then arranged for Harding to take over at IAG, which still had accreditation at that time. Apparently IAG also has charges against it in relation to adoptions from Kazakstan, and Mooney could face a conviction as a result of those.

Any lawyers who want to weigh in would be welcomed. It is not clear to me whether this means that Mooney will face no punishment in regard to the bribery and falsification of documents in Ethiopia, but that could be correct.

Every month or so, I have called the office of Judge David Norton in South Carolina, the judge handling the case. A pleasant court official consistently tells me that, no, there’s nothing on the sentencing yet. He can’t comment on whether that’s unusual, or on any reason as to why sentencing would not have taken place. He says he will send my inquiry on to someone who might have more information. I’ve never heard anything back.

Unless I’ve missed it, I have not seen any outcry about this case from adoption agencies or from the National Council on Adoption.

The three defendants are, I believe, not in jail. I understand and applaud the value of a full and fair legal process. Still, I can’t help but feel deep disappointment in the slowness of this case, especially when the defendants pled guilty. Will the final sentencing be minimal, with the defendants getting jail time reduced?

I also can’t help but feel this long delay for sentencing is a slap in the face of the Ethiopian adoptees brought here via lies and deception. They have gone through so much, as have their families, in Ethiopia and in the US. What is the message for them about the American court system?

Where is the justice for the innocent victims?

 

 

The Beginning of the End of Global International Adoption?

Is there a perfect storm brewing that signals the end of international adoptions?

What would that mean for children who are genuine orphans, who need safe families, who have medical conditions that are untreatable in their home country?

Some facts/omens/bellwethers:

(1) International adoption has been on the wane for about a decade. Priceonomics published an overview asking “Why Did International Adoption Suddenly End?” It hasn’t ended, but it has definitively declined.

According to the Priceonomics article, he US, Canada, several western European countries, and Australia/New Zealand received some 40,000 children for international adoption each year from 2003 to 2007. In 2012, the global total was under 20,000. The decline has been significant around the world.

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(2) This week, an advisory group for the Dutch government said that “The Netherlands should stop allowing people to adopt children from abroad because it is not in the best interests of the child.” New recommendations state that “the interests of the child should always be paramount and these are better served if the child grows up in their own country with their own culture. Instead, more should be done to help the child’s biological parents ensure continuity of care.” Read the article from Dutch News here.

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The Netherlands adopted about 1200 children annually in the early 2000’s. In 2015, the total was 304, of whom 37 were from the United States, according to the US State Department FY 2015 report, Table 3.

Th Netherlands’ consideration of this approach is a big development, and one that bears monitoring closely.

 

(3) International adult adoptees have gone to court to annul their adoptions. Read more here.

(4) US adoption agencies have had their Hague accreditation status permanently suspended. One US agency has been indicted for fraud and conspiracy by the US Department of Justice; the staff people pled guilty and are awaiting sentencing.

(5) The US State Department has proposed new rules regarding intercountry adoption. Their summary: “The Department of State (the Department) proposes to amend requirements for accreditation of agencies and approval of persons to provide adoption services in intercountry adoption cases. The proposed rule includes a new subpart establishing parameters for U.S. accrediting entities to authorize adoption service providers who have received accreditation or approval to provide adoption services in countries designated by the Secretary, which will be known as “country-specific authorization” (CSA). Adoption service providers will only be permitted to act as primary providers in a CSA-designated country if they have received CSA for that particular country.

The proposed rule also strengthens certain standards for accreditation and approval, including those related to fees and the use of foreign providers. In addition, the proposed rule enhances standards related to preparation of prospective adoptive parents so that they receive more training related to the most common challenges faced by adoptive families, and are better prepared for the needs of the specific child they are adopting. These proposed changes are intended to align the preparation of prospective adoptive parents with the current demographics of children immigrating to the United States through intercountry adoption. Finally, the proposed rule makes the mechanism to submit complaints about adoption service providers available to complainants even if they have not first addressed their complaint directly with the adoption service provider.”

(6) Adoption agencies are pushing back against the proposed new rules. The National Council For Adoption has information here.

International adoption is an enormous, complicated issue. The convergence of children, money, reproductive rights, bureaucracy, international and state laws, money, race, immigration, economic inequity, health care access, and money is overwhelming. There are folks who see adoption as nothing less than trafficking. There are folks who just want to give a child a home. There are adult adoptees who are increasingly vocal on social media and in books, articles, and podcasts about their realities. We rarely hear from first/birth parents about their perspectives, but when we do, it’s often heartbreaking.

So what to do? Even if international adoption continues to decline, there will be children in need. Adoption may be a solution for some of them, but the costs and the controversies are daunting. I’ve made suggestions here: Lamenting the Decline in International Adoptions? Take Action.

And keep an eye on the brewing storm.

 

 

National Adoption Awareness Month Brings New Adoptee Voices

Increasingly, adult adoptee voices are being included in National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM), and this year is no exception. Today is the first day of NAAM, and two new resources have launched today.

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Reshma McClintock, an adoptee from India as well as a writer, producer, and subject of the documentary Calcutta Is My Mother, is the creator of Dear Adoption, a new site dedicated to “giving voice to those most affected by adoption: adoptees.” It debuted today, and has three compelling stories by adoptees, with the promise of many more to come. The site also has resources for adoptees (books, art, websites, films) and a section for adoptive parents. I hope the site gets lots of traction and attention.

 

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Also debuting today is Black Anthology: Adult Adoptees Claim Their Space. “A diverse exploration of the black adoptee journey,” the book is a collection of 16 essays by both domestic and international adoptees. from the US and other countries. Ruth McCoy, Ph.D, says in her review that the “writers’ visions, perspectives, and personal reflections truly provide excellent insight and awareness to all who have been personally touched by adoption.” I know several of the writers in the anthology, and look forward to reading everyone’s essay.

 

 

 

Al Jazeera’s Lost Opportunity on International Adoption

It could have been a compelling show about identity from an adoptee-centric perspective. Instead, it fell far short.

Here’s what a producer wrote in an email to Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora on September 22: “I’m with Al Jazeera English’s live daily show “The Stream” and working on a show about adoptees who return to their motherland to live for a short period or even for the rest of their lives. The show is next Thursday, Sept. 29 and airs live at 3:30 p.m. EST.
I wanted to find out if you know of any Ethiopian adoptees who decided to live in Ethiopia. Better yet, if they are still in Ethiopia.”

Great! A show about a rarely considered perspective in adoption, and a show intentional about having actual adult adoptees speak about their experiences. Ethiopian adoptee Heran Tadesse, who was raised in The Netherlands and now lives in Ethiopia, was chosen as a guest. She has a fascinating, important story.

The show, The Stream, tweeted a link to a New York Times article about Korean adoptees who have returned to live in Korea: “We’ll discuss more stories,” said the tweet. Two Korean adoptees, Hollee McGinnis (raised in the United States) and Kasper Eriksen (raised in Denmark), who have spent much time in Korea, were the other adoptee speakers.

When the show aired on September 29, the angle had apparently changed. It was billed on the website as “The challenges of international adoption: What happens when adoptees can’t adapt.”

What does that even mean?

Elizabeth Bartholet, a lawyer, adoptive parent, and founder of the Child Advocacy Project at Harvard Law School, was the fourth panelist. She is often noted as an advocate for adoption agency-supported legislation such as the Children In Families First (CHIFF) bill.

In fact, Bartholet’s Child Advocacy Project recently received $250,000 from Children of All Nations, a division of the Great Wall China Adoption agency. Great Wall has adoption programs in 15 countries. That quarter of a million dollars, from an adoption agency, will be hugely helpful to Bartholet’s mission, a press release said.

The show itself, which you can watch here, turned into breathless questions from the two hosts (Tell us a “nice, juicy story!”) that jumped around topics and had little focus. They showed a photo of Mia Farrow’s family, a photo that included Woody Allen. One of Mia Farrow’s adopted sons recently committed suicide, but that wasn’t even acknowledged. They showed a photo of Angelina Jolie.

Despite the original intent, the show lost the opportunity to discuss the interesting, evolving topic of adoptee identity as experienced by adoptees themselves.

Instead, we heard Professor Bartholet (not an adoptee) asked how she related to an adoptee’s struggle for identity. We heard her say to adoptees that she is “not somebody who thinks that there are major sorts of traumatizing, psychological issues built into the idea of being adopted.”

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L-Elizabeth Bartholet. R-Heran Tadesse

Heran raised the issues for international adoptees not knowing their names, their background, their parents, their culture: “I think this is not to be underestimated.” She noted that many children in orphanages in Ethiopia are not orphans at all, and called out the Western demand for children, along with the West’s wealth, as vital factors in problems in international adoption.

Having selected Heran for her perspective, the show never addressed the story of why she returned to her motherland to live after being adopted to Europe. Indeed, toward the end, one host asked Kasper Eriksen, “What are we missing” in what was discussed today? “Probably many things,” he answered.

If and when Al Jazeera’s The Stream does a follow-up that genuinely and effectively looks at the issues in adoption, perhaps they will take the time to hear Heran’s story, as well as those of other adoptees who have re-connected with their homelands.

Perhaps they could also include the perspective of the birth/first mothers in any show about international adoption. Their voices are even more marginalized than those of adult adoptees, and this show was no exception.

 

You can comment on The Stream’s page. I hope more adopted persons comment, as there are many adoptive parents who have weighed in. You can tweet to @AJStream and @AlJazeera.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sentencing Hearings on IAG’s Fraud, Bribery (Finally) Held Today

Update: On October 20, 2016, I spoke with a clerk in Judge David Norton’s office who said that sentencing would not occur for at least another month. The clerk said that was because a different judge had originally heard the case. That judge has passed away, and Judge Norton “inherited” the case and apparently needs more time to decide on sentencing. The three defendants pled guilty about two years ago. The sentencing hearing was held August 29. The clerk said it is unusual for sentencing to take so long, but it was due to the previous judge’s death and a new judge in charge of the case. I am so sorry for all the families caught up in this. No such thing as closure.

 

More than two years after the staff of International Adoption Group (IAG) were indicted for fraud and bribery by the U.S.Justice Department, the three defendants finally faced a judge today for their sentencing hearing. Mary Mooney, James Harding, and Alisa Bivens, all of whom had pled guilty, appeared in court today before District Court Judge David Norton in Charleston, South Carolina. Judge Norton could make a decision on sentencing within the week, though the exact time frame is unclear.

Camille Smicz and her family are among the victims of IAG. Camille was present in the courtroom today, and provided a victim impact statement. Camille’s voice spoke for the many families, in the U.S. and in Ethiopia, harmed by the criminal actions of IAG.

Today, according to Camille, the judge mentioned his concerns with the delays in this case, including Mary Mooney’s effort to change her plea from guilty to not guilty, (That attempt was denied.) Minimum sentencing could be probation. Maximum sentencing would be five years in a federal prison. Once sentenced, the defendants have 14 days to appeal the decision.

The prosecution in this case called a forensic financial analyst as a witness, who spoke about the finances of the victims due to IAG’s actions. The prosecution is asking for restitution for some of the families. It is unclear how or whether that will happen.

Camille noted that Alisa Bivens had been a youth pastor at a church up until last month,  and recruited 26 people from her church who wrote letters on her behalf. There was at least one person from the church who plans to report back to the congregation regarding the sentencing hearing.

While it has taken an inordinately long time to reach this point, the case seems to finally be moving toward a sort of closure. I know families are exhausted from the emotional toll this has taken. The extent of the corruption, fraud, and bribery done in the name of helping children is unconscionable.

My thanks to Camille Smicz for sharing this information, and for speaking out for the victims. I urge you to read Camille’s victim impact statement.

As soon as I hear the judge’s decision, I will post again.

Podcast on Preventing Disruptions and Dissolutions in Adoption

Disruption and dissolution are such gentle words for the process by which an adoption is ended, either before or after legal finalization. A child moves out of the adoptive family, back to foster or private care, and a new family must be found. Disruption and dissolution  have the potential for a tremendous amount of trauma for everyone, most especially for the child, who’s already lost his original, first, biological family, and now has lost permanency yet again.

The likelihood of a disruption or dissolution increases when children are older at the time of adoption. When adoptive parents aren’t adequately prepared, are unrealistic about parenting a traumatized child, or fail to access resources for parenting, the odds increase as well.

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“The Truth About Preventing Adoption Disruptions” is a new podcast by Add Water and Stir. AWAS focuses on promoting foster care and adoption within communities of color, especially within the African-American community. The main speaker on the podcast is Beverly Clarke, LCSW-C, LICSW, the director of Project Wait No Longer, a program of The Barker Adoption Foundation. Per the website, Project Wait No Longer’s main goal is to find permanent, adoptive families for older children in public foster care. Most of the children are 10–17 years old, but some younger waiting children are part of larger sibling groups (three or more children) who desperately wish to stay together.

 

The interview with Bev starts about 8 minutes into the podcast. I’ve known Bev for many years, and, as usual, she is insightful and pragmatic. The key here is preventing disruptions, not waiting until too much damage is done.

 

 

Disclaimer: I worked for the Barker Adoption Foundation as interim executive director over a decade ago.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sentencing Hearings for International Adoption Guides (IAG)

Update July 13: The sentencing hearings have again been rescheduled. Now they are supposed to take place August 29. Unbelievable.

Update June 20: My understanding is that the IAG sentencing hearings are now scheduled for July 13 and 14. What a long, hard road this has been for the victims.

Update: I have heard from someone connected with the trial that the June 16 and 17 sentencing hearings have been postponed, yet again. How frustrating and disappointing this whole process has become for the adoptees and their families. When I have more news, I will post again.

Three International Adoption Guides officials could be sentenced, finally, next week.

They were indicted by the U.S. Justice Department in February 2014, after lengthy investigations. They are scheduled for sentencing next week, having pled guilty over a year ago to charges of conspiring to defraud the United States by bribery and fraudulent documents, all involving several Ethiopian adoptions.

The sentencing hearing for Mary Mooney (IAG’s executive director) is scheduled for 11am on June 16. Mooney had pled guilty in January 2015, then changed her plea to “no contest” several months later. In August 2015, the judge ruled against the “no contest” plea, and the guilty verdict was reinstated.

For James Harding (IAG’s director of international programs), sentencing is scheduled for 10am on June 17. Harding had entered a guilty plea in January 2015.

For Alisa Bivens (IAG’s Ethiopia program director), sentencing is scheduled for June 17 at 10:30am. Bivens had entered a guilty plea in August 2014.

Each of these hearings will take place before Judge David Norton in Courtroom 2, J. Waties Waring Judicial Center, 83 Meeting St, Charleston, SC.

There is a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine up to $250,000 for the original charges, according to the February 2014 press release by the Department of Justice when the indictment occurred.

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My guess is that the sentencing hearings will be fairly brief. Many details have probably been worked out by attorneys in advance. It’s possible that victims of these cases will speak at the hearings.

I have no insights as to why there has been such a long time between the guilty pleas and the sentencing. I thought, and was told by others, that the sentencing would take place within months after the guilty pleas. Clearly I was wrong about that. As I (a non-lawyer) understand it, there can be a number of reasons for delays: courts are overloaded with cases and everything just takes a long time; the guidelines for sentencing can be contested by the defendants; pre-sentencing investigations can be lengthy; lawyers can ask for continuances; and other reasons that a lawyer could no doubt better explain.

It’s not clear to me whether the three defendants have been in jail awaiting sentencing, but I don’t think that’s the case. My understanding is that defendants can earn reduced sentences by cooperating with the process and, of course, not getting into any further trouble. That could mean, given the lengthy time between convictions and sentencing, that the three defendants’ actual time in jail, if any, would be reduced.

What a long, hard journey this has been for the Ethiopian children adopted via bribery and fraud, for their Ethiopian families, and for the adoptive families. This case represents so much that is wrong in international adoption, so much that is heartbreaking for innocent victims. Here’s hoping that justice is done in the sentencing next week.

 

 

 

 

“Racial Identity” Is a Safety Issue for Children of Color Adopted by White Parents

Prior to adopting, should white parents be able to show proof that they can provide a strong, genuine sense of racial identity to their adopted children of color? Should “strong racial identity” be considered a standard of safety for transracially adopted children?

I know children of color can thrive even when raised in all-white areas, if the white parents are genuinely willing to do the hard work involved. I also know of way too many cases of adoptees of color who have struggled mightily with their racial identity, to the point of depression and worse. Some examples are here, here, and here. The recent, highly publicized case of the black adoptee in rural Idaho is especially tragic.

Bullying based on race, micro aggressions, racism directed at the individual and the larger racism imposed on the racial group–these are huge realities for children of color, and can be overwhelming. Many times, white adoptive parents do not become fully aware of the realities of racism until their children of color are school-age or older. A lot of damage can be done by that time.

Permanency–a permanent family–is a legitimate, important goal in child welfare advocacy. Children need families. Permanency and safety, though, go hand in hand.

To me, “safety” should mean that white adoptive parents of children of color, as well as the children themselves, deeply understand what it means to be a person of color in America. They should have multiple resources nearby, including racial role models and mentors, and have access to appropriate therapies and options for adoption- and race-related trauma, behaviors, and questions. The children may not be safe if they do not have a strong sense of racial identity and awareness.

Consider these child welfare definitions, the standards by which children are deemed to be safe or unsafe.

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” ‘Safety threat’ means family behavior, conditions, or circumstances that could result in harm to a child,” according to Oregon’s Department of Human Services, which, similar to other states, oversees and advocates for vulnerable children.

Could not having role models and racial mirrors result in harm to a child?

” ‘Unsafe’ means there is a safety threat to which the child is vulnerable and there is insufficient parent or caregiver protective capacity to protect a vulnerable child from the identified safety threats.”

Does an unstable, shallow, or nonexistent racial identity make a child unsafe, especially if the child is racially isolated?

” ‘Vulnerable Child’ means a child who is unable to protect him or herself. This includes a child who is dependent on others for sustenance and protection.”

Are children of color who are adopted and raised by white parents “vulnerable” if they have no contact with people who look like them, or no contact with the culture/country into which they were born?

Are the children “vulnerable” if the parents provide only white privilege and/or white fragility?

What would happen if we made “racial identity” a focal point from which children of color are placed with white parents in non-diverse areas, and demanded it as a matter of safety?

Would it mean we would work harder to better prepare and screen white adoptive parents, or to recruit more families of color for children of color, or what? Would it mean that fewer children of color would be placed with white families? Would it mean that fewer children would be adopted? Would it mean that child welfare policies would insist that white parents immerse themselves in communities of color before they had a child of color placed with them?

I say all this in full awareness of my white privilege and my own biases and failings. It’s a lot to think about, and it needs to be thought of well before adoption, for the safety of a vulnerable child.

More often, though, a child of color adopted by a white family is safe within that family, and then encounters a new, harsh world as a teen and adult outside of that bubble, a world which sees him or her only in terms of race. In our current racial climate in the U.S., that child had better be genuinely prepared to grapple with, fend off, and heal from racist assaults, large and small. Otherwise, that child is not safe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Small Town Football, Schizophrenia, and Transracial Adoption: A Devastating Perfect Storm

In the U.S., we have lots of small towns where high school sports are entrenched. There are many traditions, and much enthusiasm, for the games, the players, and the coaches. Playing high school football is tough work: memorizing dozens of plays, completing and repeating complex drills, working through pain, following instructions that are yelled, living up to history and traditions of the team. Sometimes there is also character building, camaraderie, and excellence in sportsmanship.

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Dietrich High School football team practice

I can understand why young men in high school, especially in a small town, would want to be on the football team. I can understand why those who didn’t play sports would feel like excluded outsiders. Take tiny Dietrich, Idaho, for example. Why not try out for the Blue Devils team? The whole town (all 330 people) would know and maybe love you.

 

If you were part of an unusually big (25 kids) family, your family was the main reason the town had a black population at all, and you were a black 17-year-old who wanted to be part of the team and the town, maybe you’d try out for football. Maybe your only role models for black men were pro football players that you’d seen on tv. Maybe you’d hope to fit in, be part of a community where, as a transracial adoptee, you felt like an outsider, an “other.”

I get that.

What I don’t get is why a teen with disorganized schizophrenia would be considered by his parents or his coaches as a good candidate for lineman on a small high school football team.

The adoptee’s mother has said in news reports that her son, adopted at age four, was exposed to drugs and alcohol (Fetal Alcohol Effect or Syndrome?) before he was born, and was diagnosed with disorganized schizophrenia. “He struggles to carry out tasks that involve a sequence. When writing the first sentence of an essay, for instance, he may forget the point of the project. He carries this huge backpack” full of all his books so he can be sure to have the one he needs, the teen’s adoptive mother told news media.

People with disorganized schizophrenia have disorganized speech and thinking, and grossly disorganized behavior, They often have a flat affect, and inappropriate emotions and facial responses. Treatment for disorganized schizophrenia is more difficult than most of the subtypes of schizophrenia. They can be successful in life, of course–with support.

A teen with disorganized schizophrenia would not likely be safe or successful on a high school football team, unless appropriate safeguards and resources were in place, where people (coaches and teammates) were willing to work with him closely and intensely.

For this teen, playing football had to have been a nightmare. “As a lineman with the football team, the teen could seldom avoid jumping offsides; the quarterback’s play calls confounded him,” say news reports. Imagine–under the best circumstances–how that affected the teen himself, and imagine the responses of his coaches and teammates.

Add to that baseline the horrific racist taunting that (apparently) the coaches and the high school staff knew about and condoned. Add to that physical bullying in the locker room. Add to that being humiliated by teammates taking naked pictures of him on the team bus.

Add to that sexual assault by 3 teammates–a coat hanger in the rectum.

I hope that the alleged criminals–his teammates–are prosecuted to the full extent of the law, for “forcible penetration by use of force or a foreign object,” and for every possible charge. The federal criminal lawsuit will take time to wend its way through the system, as information is gathered and witnesses deposed. I wonder if one of the witnesses will be Hubert Shaw, who owns Dietrich’s feed lot, and is related to the main defendant, John Howard. Shaw is quoted saying about Howard and the other two defendants: “They’re 15-, 16-, 17-year-old boys who are doing what boys do.”

The adoptive family has filed a $10 million civil lawsuit, and that will no doubt take a long time to settle as well. The Dietrich school system has a $2 million annual budget. Maybe they have a lot of liability insurance. I don’t know how that works. I am heartened that the Dietrich School coaches, principals, and other staff members are explicitly named in the suit. They must be held accountable. Everyone who let this teen down in such a cruel, traumatizing way must be held accountable.

The mentality of small town sports can be overwhelming and consuming. Football is a tough, unforgiving, complex sport.

Adoption is complex, and can be traumatic. Children adopted at older ages (and 4 is older in adoption) have likely gone through some difficult experiences, or otherwise would not be placed for adoption. Adoptees often need and can benefit from clinical and other support services, especially in the teen years.

Transracial adoption has its own challenges. A good adoption agency and any adoption-competent licensed therapist would recommend that families have access to resources, role models, racial mirrors, same race mentors, and a deep understanding of racism (both on an individual and systemic level).

Treatment of mental illness often involves medications, therapies, counseling, and other services. Schizophrenia is particularly serious. I agree that stigma needs to be removed from mental illness. But mental illness is real, and should be treated with appropriate care.

There’s so much misunderstanding of special needs and of mental illness, of the realities of racism for people of color, and of the complexity of adoption. What a devastating perfect storm for this teen in Idaho.