Ethiopian Adoptee Gabe Proctor, NCAA Champ, Died By Suicide

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

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

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


A runner friend shared her memories about Gabe here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

Hana Alemu (Williams)

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

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

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

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

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

Please let me offer some takeaways from these haunting deaths:

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

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

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

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

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

 

US State Department Seeks Information About Complaints Against Adoption Agencies

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

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

From COA’s web page:

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

So–no guarantees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

IMG_5016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

13 Reasons Why, Teen Suicide, Social Media, and Adoption

Your teens or preteens may be watching a highly popular show about a teenager who died by suicide. They could even have seen real teens die by suicide livestreamed on Facebook. We all need to open our eyes, talk with our kids, and have suicide prevention resources close at hand. This may be especially important for adopted teens.

Your kids may be watching the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why.Based on a book with the same title, and produced by Selena Gomez, it’s about a young woman who died by suicide and left 13 tapes behind to explain why she killed herself. It’s a popular show. It includes rape, bullying, grief, and graphic depiction of the dead girl cutting her arm open and dying alone in a bathtub. It’s about how her friends try to understand, and, I guess, try to do better, be kinder, in their lives now.

It’s possible to binge-watch all 13 episodes. And I would guess that most teens, and even pre-teens, could do exactly that without ever talking about it with their parents or any other caring adults.

It’s a lot to take in.

Are you aware of that suicide is the second leading cause of teenage deaths? You can read the CDC report here.

 

 

Are you aware that adoptees have been shown to be four times more likely to attempt  suicide than non-adopted teens? You can read the report by the American Academy of Pediatrics here.

Are you aware that at least two teens have live-streamed their suicides on Facebook? You can read a newspaper article about it here.

Please don’t stop reading this post, though I know it can feel overwhelming. The risk of suicide by teens is real, and horrifying. Adopted teens may well be more prone to considering, and carrying out, dying by suicide.

There are many resources available for prevention. I’ve written about them here: Resources Around Trauma and Suicide in Adoption. As parents and as people, we need to pay attention to subtle signals, keep communication lines open, and be willing to talk about suicide as we would sex and drugs.

Here’s another good resource: 10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know About Teen Suicide.

Here’s an article from Ravishly: 6 Reasons Why Our Kids Shouldn’t Be Watching 13 Reasons Why.

Here’s an article from Rolling Stone: Does 13 Reasons Why Glamorize Teen Suicide?

And here’s the 24/7 number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 Put it in your phone. I hope you never need it for yourself or for anyone else, and I hope you have it if you do.

Even kids from happy. loving families consider suicide. Even if your teen is doing fine, he or she may have friends who are struggling. Share information. Be aware of the impact of popular shows like 13 Reasons Why. Be aware of teens livestreaming their own deaths on Facebook.

Yes, it’s a lot to take in. Don’t look away.

 

Who Is Responsible for the Decline in International Adoptions?

The U.S. State Department lays the blame on adoptive parents and adoption agencies. The adoption agencies, per the National Council on Adoption, say the decline is due to overly restrictive regulations and anti-adoption advocates. The voices we are not hearing enough of in this discussion are the birth/first parents and the adoptees themselves.

Last week, the State Department released figures showing the ongoing decline in numbers of children being placed to the United States for international adoption: 5372 children in FY 2016. You can read the report here.

The State Department cited three main reasons for the decline: adoptive parents failing to send post-adoption reports to the children’s country of origin; the incidences of adopted children being re-homed; and unethical practices by adoption agencies.

Post-Adoption Reports

The reports are a reasonable requirement. Sending countries want to know the outcome of children sent abroad for adoption, and adoptive parents are supposed to send the reports. Different countries have different requirements, which are essentially unenforceable once the adoption is full and final. The adoptive parents may have an ethical obligation, but their compliance is subject to their willingness. “Several countries have conditioned the resumption of intercountry adoptions on receiving post adoption reports from parents who previously adopted children from that county,” according to the State Department.

I’d be curious as to whether State has statistics on compliance, or has done research on why parents do not send the reports in. I’d guess a few reasons: Parents have so much going on with family life that the reports fall to the wayside. The parents are mad at the agency and refuse to work with them once the adoption is done. The parents don’t believe the country will ever read the reports. The parents don’t care about whether their failure to send reports will affect future adoptions. The parents are struggling with the child (or have disrupted the adoption, or have re-homed the child) but don’t want the country to know.

Some international adoption agencies have suggested to adoptive parents that the reports would also be sent to the birth/first parents. The birth/first parents may have been told they would receive reports. When the agency failed to get the reports to the families, which anecdotally I have heard many times, parents may have stopped sending them. Some send reports directly to the birth/first family, but not to the government.

Another aspect is the country of origin’s ability to maintain the post-adoption information in an archival, accessible way. That is, a country like China, Korea, or Ethiopia would potentially have received thousands of reports over many years. Does the government have the interest and the infrastructure to file and maintain the reports? Do they scan them and keep them well-organized?  The reports from the US are in English, and I doubt they would be translated into national or local languages. It is unclear to me whether the birth/first parents would have any access to the reports. However, I would argue there is an ethical obligation for the country of origin to provide it to the birth/first parents.

Unregulated Custody Transfer (UCT)

Unregulated Custody Transfer is a benign sounding phrase, but is frightening in its manifestation. The State Department equates UCT with “re-homing,” where adoptive parents hand over their adopted children, with little or no legal process or safeguards, to other people. It has happened more often than anyone would like to think, sometimes making the news, sometimes conducted in an underground. Reuters produced a significant report on the problem. Many US states have begun enacting laws and policies to reduce re-homing. The State Department has a UCT Working Group focused on “strategic for preventing UCT and for responding to UCT situations when they occur.”

Prevention, of course, is the best approach: better pre-adopt preparation, and better post-adopt resources and services.

Internationally adopted children also end up in US foster care, a legal means of moving a child to a new family. Some are listed on Second Chance, a program of Wasatch Adoptions. Both of these (US foster care and Second Chance) are technically not “re-homing,” because they are done through legal channels. Still, a great deal of controversy exists around internationally adopted children ending up in US foster care or with Second Chance.

There is, of course, an important link between the post-adoption reports and UCT, foster care, and Second Chance. Parents probably do not send reports when their children are moved from their original adoptive placement, whether legally or illegally. “Foreign countries frequently raise concerns about UCT whenever information about a child’s whereabouts is unavailable. These concerns impact their willingness to maintain intercountry adoption as an option for children,” says the State Department.

Adoption Service Provider Conduct

This issue–illegal or unethical practices by some Adoption Service Providers (ASPs) and about countries’ ability to appropriately monitor adoption activities–is far-reaching in time and complexity. The US Justice Department’s indictment of International Adoption Guides, and the subsequent guilty pleas by the top staff, for bribery and fraud is a well-known example. Other adoption agencies have been under scrutiny as well, some closing suddenly, even with full COA accreditation (i.e., Christian World Adoptions). European Adoption Consultants, an international adoption agency in Ohio, was raided in February by the FBI, with allegations around fraud and trafficking.

Agency workers in both the U.S. and in sending countries have been accused of misconduct. Facebook has regular comments in adoptive parent groups about false information about their children’s histories; adult adoptees have traveled to their home countries and found parents they had been told were dead, or mothers who had been deceived into placing their children in an orphanage. There’s no question that adoption agencies and their staffs have been under greater scrutiny in recent years than ever before, in part because of more adopted persons’ and birth/first parents’ voices being heard.

The State Department proposed new regulations last September that would attempt to address some problems in international adoption, around accreditation and other areas. Adoption agencies have been actively opposed to the proposed regs, saying that they are unnecessary, expensive, and rigid. Chuck Johnson, the head of the National Council on Adoption, told the Associated Press in January that “it was possible that under the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, the State Department might adopt policies more to the liking of the adoption agencies.” It’s still early in the Trump Administration to see exactly what direction adoption policy will take, though the State Department’s comments on the newly released adoption numbers give us some sense. Update: While the State Department refers to the proposed regs in the narrative about the statistics, including saying they are “reviewing comments from the public on the proposed regulations,” the regs were withdrawn by State in early April. I’ll post more information when I get it.

In any case, adoption agencies frequently see administrative and regulatory policies to be more responsible for the decline in adoptions than the three issues cited by State.

Photo © Maureen McCauley Evans

The bottom line: A whole lot of work needs to be done, by a whole lot of folks (State Department, Office of Children’s Issues, adoption agencies, adoptive parents, state and federal legislators, international governments) if international adoption is going to continue in any meaningful way. Right now, there is a fairly strong current of anti-adoption momentum, via groups who view adoption as equivalent to trafficking as well as vocal individuals, primarily adult adoptees, who are demanding change.

And *if* international adoption is going to continue, adoption agencies and the U.S. State Department should make equity in pre-adoption preparation and post-adoption services to birth/first parents. Those 5372 children had families–we know that few children are actual full orphans, and many have grandparents and siblings. The birth/first families deserve excellent adoption services as much as U.S. adoptive parents do, to make sure adoption is the best option, and to encourage family preservation whenever possible.

Updated: The Stunning Ignorance of White Adoptive Parents in Ethiopia

Note: This is an updated version of my post from March 31, 2017.

My original post under this title included an adoptive mother’s recent experience in taking her son back to visit his Ethiopian family, and encountering other US adoptive families in Ethiopia. This mom, not citing anyone by name, described an evening at a cultural restaurant (a place where there is Ethiopian food and often a show of traditional Ethiopian dancing) where another American family’s Ethiopian child was sobbing, where an Ethiopian adoptee did not recognize injera, and where an Ethiopian child’s unkempt hair was chatted about.

Here’s one excerpt:

Don’t drag your kid to an Ethiopian restaurant on your first night in Addis, allow him to sob on your lap, sit there and continue to eat and then give him a video game to play while you dance for the amusement of the crowd. Your child has to process what is happening. He’s back in his country for the first time in many years. The sights, sounds, and smells are likely triggering deep emotions. Also, his deep embarrassment at you dancing is legit. You are not Ethiopian. Imagine how exposed he feels being an adoptee in that crowd.

 Here’s another:

It’s not OK to be ignorant to the issues of raising Black boys in the US. It is not OK!
First of all, do your child’s hair!!!!!!!!!!!! For the love that is all things holy, no your child’s unkempt 6 inch curls are not ‘the best hair in our town.’ ” They are a disaster. If you are going to allow your child to have long hair, you need to be prepared to pick it out. Messy is not acceptable. Both boys had hair that might be cool in the white adoptive community, but is cool nowhere else.

In other words, my original post was about a few things: how adoptive families should handle the homeland visit, as well as about the sensitivity (or lack thereof) of white parents around issues of raising black children, especially in predominately white communities and states, where racism flourishes and racial mirrors are rare.

My blog post touched a nerve for many readers. A few days after the post was published, one of the previously unnamed subjects of the post commented, identifying herself, and disputing the details of the incident in Ethiopia. Many of her friends commented as well, defending her as a mother and criticizing both me and the original poster for what we wrote.

Because the mom identified herself, she and her son are no longer anonymous. This means that her son (and friends, neighbors, teachers, strangers) could be identified as well. Thus, I decided, for the sake of the son’s privacy, to take down the original post.

The issue of bringing adopted Ethiopian children back to visit Ethiopia (sometimes specifically to visit their Ethiopian family) is more complex than many people realize. Here are just a few admittedly controversial, argument-inducing points:

  • Adoptive parents should not adopt from Ethiopia if they do not have the financial means to take the children back at least once, maybe more. When they do take the trip, it should be organized thoughtfully and flexibly, allowing a lot of space for children’s emotional, physical, developmental, and psychological needs.
  • Adoptive parents should do all they can to search for their children’s Ethiopian families, since many (perhaps most?) of the back stories provided by adoption agencies have proven false.
  • Many (if not most) Ethiopian families placed their children with the belief that they would see their children again. Many did not fully understand (or were not told) that adoption meant a permanent severing of legal ties with their children.
  • The visits with Ethiopian families are far more complex than many people realize. The visits often attract dozens of neighbors and onlookers, even in remote areas. Translators are often the people who drive the families around, good people but not experts in adoption reunion issues. A lot of nuance and actual statements are lost in the emotions of the moment and the limitations (linguistic and cultural) of the translators.
  • While Ethiopia is a polite culture, slow to criticize others, Ethiopians and others watch the way that adopted children are treated in Ethiopia. In the US, black people sometimes keep an eye on how black children are cared for by their white adoptive parents, including the children’s hair. To say that hair care is an important issue in the black community is to provide a remarkable example of understatement.
  • Some adopted children, when visiting Ethiopia, find it healing and helpful. Lots of adoptive parents post on social media about the success of their visits. Other children are affected differently, sometimes traumatically. Their parents tend not to post.
  • The impact of the trips is felt immediately and long after the actual visits, as children grow up and process the realities of loss and gains in adoption.

Many of the commenters on the original post scolded me for being negative, even citing the chestnut, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” That approach would have us all saying nothing about racism. It would have us never sharing information and resources about what experience we have gained through making mistakes, or through witnessing naiveté, insensitivity, abuse, or even cruelty.

The incident related in the original post was, unfortunately, not one-of-a-kind. Many of us, whether adoptive parents, adopted persons, or Ethiopian parents, could cite many examples of the stunning ignorance of white adoptive parents in Ethiopia. We are increasingly hearing the perspective of adult Ethiopian adoptees, and far too rarely, that of Ethiopian birth parents, who are the most marginalized of all in this triad.

My decision to leave the subjects of the initial post unnamed was purposeful, and, I would argue, valuable. Once one of them was no longer unknown, the scale tipped. I appreciate all those who weighed in on this post. I hope that everyone continues to give thought to the complexity of international adoption, especially transracial adoption, not only in childhood but well into adulthood.

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

International Women’s Day and Economic Equity in Adoption

Today, International Women’s Day, is meant to highlight the economic power and significance that women have in global economies. I struggle to honor that notion when I consider the astonishing imbalance of power in adoption, especially in terms of domestic infant adoption in the US and of international adoption.

I recently was a small part of a Twitter conversation with a new Florida law firm focused on adoption that posed this question on behalf of expectant mothers: “Can I get paid for placing my baby up for adoption?” That was the first tweet the new firm posted on February 9, so we have a good idea of their priorities and marketing strategy.

 

This law firm will indeed help with financial assistance for expectant mothers who agree to place their babies for adoption. This is legal, with variations among states. The assistance can include rent, food, cell phone, medical expenses, and “possibly more.” Depending on the contract signed between the mother and the prospective adoptive parents, assistance can continue for four to six weeks after the birth. If the mother changes her mind, she may be liable for reimbursement of expenses. There is, of course, no financial assistance from the law firm to keep the child.

The law firm I tweeted to never responded to my tweets, and has since blocked me. No surprise, no big deal. The reality is there are plenty of other law firms and agencies advertising the same way.

The Twitter exchange reminded me of the tremendous economic imbalance between adoptive mothers and expectant/birth mothers, a disparity that is too rarely discussed and has significant implications for the way adoptive parents talk about adoption and birth parents with their children.

Today, on International Women’s Day, I am struck, not for the first time, by what the disparity in economic power and leverage between adoptive mothers and expectant/birth mothers signifies for motherhood. I am well aware of that disparity, as an adoptive mother through US and international adoption. We pay significant amounts of money; they place their child with us. It is relative wealth that makes us mothers, and scarcity of funds that makes them mothers who may never see their children again. We have the legal means to ensure that outcome, as well as the wherewithal to establish geographical and emotional distance.

I recognize that women have a right to place their children for adoption, and would argue that it must be done in a non-coercive way that creates a level playing field for everyone, not just the women (and men) with money: Not when a few weeks of financial help means a lifetime of sadness. Not when adoption is a permanent solution to a temporary situation. Not when adoption agencies close and are no longer intermediaries between birth families and adoptive families, and leave no ways for the birth family or the adopted person to get information. Not when international mothers are told that their babies will come back some day and help them, and they don’t understand (or aren’t told) that legal adoption in the US means total severance of parental rights.

We adoptive mothers, on this International Women’s Day, can do much to forge equity with expectant mothers and with those mothers who have placed their children for adoption.

  • We can keep up our agreements in open adoptions. Obviously, safety is always a factor. Still, we may be able, even in difficult cases, to share information through an agency,  mediator, liaison, or family member. That would be so much better than slamming doors, because circumstances can change, children grow up, and information can change lives.
  • We can support our children’s journey to search and reunite, without fear. That might mean welcoming their mothers into our lives, or hearing about their visits, or something else. We can be with them if there are dead ends or secondary rejection. We can learn why it may matter to some adoptees to search, and why birth parents may be waiting to know if their baby is alive and well. We can support open records, and access to original birth certificates. As adoptive mothers, our voices are especially compelling to legislators. Use your power.
  • We can support family preservation efforts, here in the US and around the world. When we hear that international adoptions may be ending, for example, we can look at ways to continue to help children.
  • We can reject placement of babies with adoptive parents in delivery rooms, when women are physically and emotionally exhausted. We can be at peace with the mother having time to decide, after birth, if adoption is the right choice for them. We adoptive mothers can testify for more time for revocation of consent, for better enforcement of open adoptions, and for thoughtfully allocated assistance to first/birth families.
  • We can acknowledge that some first/birth mothers will experience a lifetime of grief. If we adoptive parents cannot bear the thought of our beloved child dying, can we understand what placing a child for adoption might mean to some first/birth mothers? Can we bring her into our lives somehow, certainly through empathy if not through actual connections?

Mother and child at Nye Beach, OR Photo © Maureen McCauley Evans

 

I am a mother through adoption, and I love my children more than I can say. I recognize that they had mothers before me, and that all of them (my children and their first mothers) have had complex, sometimes painful, sometimes joyous, events as a result of (or in spite of) adoption. I recognize that adoption can absolutely be the best decision for parents and children, and a lifesaving action for children as well. I know it can be also be a divisive, cruel, and unethical transaction.

On International Women’s Day, may we commit to working together as women and mothers in the adoption community.