Another Adoptee Suicide: So Much Heartache

Suicide is the second leading cause of death (after accidental injuries) for people between 10 and 34 years old. It is the fourth leading cause of death for people between 35 and 54 years old. And the numbers have been on the rise in the last decade.

When an adoptee dies by suicide, there is a special poignancy and pain in the adoption community. We all have our own reasons for our reactions. As an adoptive parent, I cannot imagine the pain my children would have endured to die by suicide; nor can I imagine the pain of survivors.

Here’s the bigger lens on that poignancy and pain: The traditional and widely accepted adoption narrative is that adoption means a better life than a child would otherwise have had. That’s certainly the intent. “Better” is a relative term: better because of economics, education, safety, or what? That can be a contentious bit of defining.

When an adoptee dies by suicide, especially at a very young age, there is an extra layer of wondering. Adoption is supposed to mean a better, happier life: why would an adoptee kill himself? Adoptive parents are supposed to be the better option: what happened? (And of course, sometimes there was nothing that any parent or anyone else could have done to prevent the death.) How does an adoptee’s death by suicide affect the birth parents, who (we hope) placed their child legally and transparently, in the hope that the child would be better off?

Such sorrow. A loss like no other. No easy answers.

I recently heard about the death by suicide of a young Ethiopian adoptee. Upon reflection, I have edited this post to delete personal information. If I caused more pain, I deeply apologize.

I am hopeful that the rest of us will continue to learn about suicide, even as it is so deeply difficult to think about. Talk about it, especially if you have pre-teens or teens. Please learn, and help your family learn, about suicide prevention. About trauma. About depression. About how all that can sometimes play out in adoption.

Please learn also about the role of race in adoption, about how important it can be for adoptees to have racial mirrors, mentors, and role models. I get a lot of pushback about this, but I am convinced that adoptees raised in racial isolation—without others who look like them—suffer in terms of identity and otherwise, no matter how deeply loved they are by their adoptive family. I do not understand families who bring children from around the world and raise them in racial isolation. If the child had to move, maybe the family has to move too.

Learn from adult adoptees. Read the essays of Dear Adoption. Look through books written by and recommended by adoptees at AdopteeReading. Here’s a list of Best Adoptee Blogs. That’s just one list, and there are many other wonderful adoptee blogs. Twitter can connect you with an abundance of adoptee bloggers and writers. Read Karen Pickell’s Adoptee Lexicon, for one example, about the words we use during National Adoption Month (November, every year).

Most adoptees are resilient. The vast majority do not attempt or die by suicide. I do not want to pathologize adoptees or adoption. Nor do I want to minimize the very real and painful struggles some adoptees go through.

I’ll close this post with an article by a resilient adoptee who offers many valuable insights: “I’m Adopted, But I Won’t Be Celebrating National Adoption Month.” Thank you, Stephanie, for sharing your story so openly and powerfully.

May all those who leave this world by suicide rest in peace and in power. May their families find healing. May we all do better in this world.

Some Additional Resources:

One important takeaway: it is a myth that talking about suicide will plant the idea, or cause someone to attempt it. Take a look at It’s Time to Talk About it: A Family Guide For Youth Suicide Prevention. A quote: “Talking about suicide does not cause suicide. In fact, by asking questions, you may prevent suicide by showing the  youth that you care and are there to help.”

Talking to kids about suicide is hard. Here’s a good resource about doing that, as well as about warning signs, about helping a child after a friend has died by suicide, about cyberbullying, and more: Talking To Your Kid About Suicide

Risk of Suicide in Adopted and Nonadopted Siblings  This is the often-cited study by the American Academy of Pediatrics which showed that adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide (not die by suicide) than non-adoptees.

The Mental Health of U.S. Adolescents Adopted in Infancy  

Healing Series: Suicide A podcast by the stellar AdopteesOn. The presenter is Melissa K. Nicholson.

In Newport, Thinking of the Hart Family

National Adoption Awareness Month, 2018

The horrific story of the Hart family plunging off a cliff last March made headlines around the world, perhaps most searingly in the adoption community.

Adoptive parents Jennifer and Sarah Hart drove their 6 children down the west coast, from Washington state through Oregon on to California. Their journey began on March 23, 2018, and ended in death three days later.

Based on cell phone pings, the family was in Newport, Oregon, on March 24. I’m in Newport now, at a conference/retreat totally unrelated to adoption or the Harts.

That said, as I was driving here, I had the family on my mind. In part, that’s because November is National Adoption Awareness Month. I had all 6 adopted children—Davonte, Hannah, Markis, Jeremiah, Abigail, and Sierra–in my heart and on my mind.

Newport was one of the last places where the Hart family was known to be. Did they stop to look at the stunning ocean here at Nye Beach? Did they get coffee at the Human Bean or the Starbucks drive-through? Did the kids stretch their legs and poke around the Bayfront?

Where’d they sleep? Did they sleep?

They were all dead two days after they were here in the town where I am now.

The bodies of Devonte and Hannah Hart have still not been found.

May they all rest in peace.

Nye Beach, Newport, OR Photo by Maureen McCauley. November 2018

Further Reading:

JaeRan Kim, Ph.D., an adopted person, wrote on her blog, Harlow’s Monkey: Thoughts About the Hart Family.

Stacey Patton, PH.D., an adopted person, wrote this for Dame magazine: “Why Jennifer and Sarah Hart Killed Their Adopted Children”

Michele Sharpe, an adopted person, wrote about the family here: “The Hart Children: Curse of the Adoptee.”

On the Eve of National Adoption Month

Did you know that National Adoption Month (NAM) ( originally National Adoption Week; now also known as National Adoption Awareness Month NAAM) was established in 1976? More importantly, its original purpose was to create awareness of the needs of children in foster care, and to get those who were eligible into permanent, safe families. That is still an extremely important purpose, one that deserves promotion and understanding.

NAM has morphed quite a bit since the late 70’s, as has adoption practice and the onslaught of the Internet. For many years of NAM’s existence, adoptive parents were the main people talking about their minor children, often sharing the children’s stories, and generally showing the traditional adoption narrative: win-win for everyone, Hallmark moments, little recognition of the complexity of adoption, loss, and trauma. Yes, adoption can be life-saving for some children, and a positive experience overall. We can acknowledge that without dismissing the complexity, the problems, and the struggles that may also occur.

Recently, the volume of adoptive parents during National Adoption Month has been decreased. As an adoptive parent of 4 now-adults, I applaud that decrease. The #flipthescript hashtag and movement started a few years ago has successfully moved the voices of adoptees to the front, to shine a much needed spotlight on the real-life experiences and honest truths of adopted people, the ones who are the true experts in adoption.

My intent during National Adoption Month 2018 is mostly to read and learn from the adoptees’ experiences. I hope that the voices and stories of birth parents, in the U.S. and around the globe, are thoughtfully heard as well.

Also for National Adoption Month, I am going to post on my blog about the MANY adult adoptee blogs, podcasts, and books that are currently available. Some I’ve cited several times over the years; some will be brand new. I am also going to post some interviews I’ve had with adult adoptees, and share their stories, personalities, and books. I will also be posting about birth parents’ blogs and books. There may be a few surprises along the way.

Please join me on this journey!

Inverted image of spider web. © Maureen McCauley

 

US Embassy-Addis and US State Department: No Role In Post-Adoption Support?

I had an idea: Ask the US Embassy in Addis if they would be interested in an event focused on adult Ethiopian adoptees who are now Americans.

They said no. I then asked the Office of Children’s Issues at the State Department. Nope.

Should our US government, the entity responsible for oversight of international adoptions to the US, have any role in post-adoption support? International adoptees are here  because the US government allowed them to enter, coordinated the adoption process, researched the background of the child and birth parents, and signed off on visas and other documents. Those are all enormous, significant, life-changing responsibilities. Does our government then close the door on adoptees when they grow up?

Since 1999, the US Embassy in Addis Ababa has processed some 16,000 adoptions. While the legal procedure has had some changes, US State Department staff at the Embassy handled a great deal of adoption paperwork; listened to many adoptive families, adoption agencies, and birth families; and worked hard to make sure all those adoptions were legal and appropriate.

The US Department of Homeland Security, of course, plays a large role in intercountry adoption as well, including issuing Certificates of Citizenship. I believed the U.S. Embassy in Addis would be a more appropriate possibility for an in-country event with adoptees, and hence I contacted them.

Adoptions have closed now from Ethiopia, for a number of reasons.The history of adoptions has been rife with challenges and controversies. That said, the US Embassy has signed off on thousands of adoptions from Ethiopia. They have been closely involved with adoptive parents and adoption agencies for decades.

I thought, perhaps naively if optimistically, that an event like this might be a chance for our U.S. government working in Ethiopia to welcome back Americans who began their lives in Ethiopia, who could provide a unique perspective on their experience as adoptees, and could provide a tremendous bridge between our two countries. Healing, transparency, communication, connections. Why not? I emailed the Embassy last May.

After several weeks, they finally wrote: “Unfortunately, we generally do not go as far as organizing conferences for groups from outside Ethiopia as our programmatic resources are focused in-country. That said, we…recommend that you reach out to adoption advocacy groups and/or Ethiopian media if that’s of interest to you.”

Huh.

After that first turndown from the Embassy, I tried again. I can share the full exchanges with anyone interested, but here a snippet.

From me to the Embassy: “I applaud the Embassy’s efforts to fund proposals that empower women, youth, and underrepresented voices, as well as to strengthen independent media through media literacy. We all believe, as Ambassador Mike said, that when Ethiopia succeeds, when it taps the potential of all its people, not only Ethiopia but the region, the United States, and the world also benefit…We have a tremendous opportunity to bring fact-based information about adoption, and to heal some of the misinformation around adoptions. You brought the Eastern Shore Network for Change to Ethiopia during Black History Month 2018 to heal history and promote constructive change, an outreach to the next generation of Ethiopian leaders. Partnerships like that one and the many others that you promote can, indeed, improve understanding and provide hope for a more equitable future.

Beautiful, complicated Ethiopia. © Maureen McCauley

A program with adoptive parents and especially adult Ethiopian adoptees would bring accurate information around a subject that has had a great deal of misunderstanding. It could promote important connections. It could build astonishing partnerships among young Ethiopian and American leaders, and between the US and Ethiopia.”

They were not interested:

“The role of the Embassy in intercountry adoption is to facilitate the lawful placement of children with American adoptive families. We do support the inclusion of all voices as you pointed out, but we hope you understand that that does not mean we can create a program for every proposal that we receive. And while we certainly think there is value in having Ethiopian adoptees share their stories and be involved in their home communities, we do not see that as an appropriate space for us to take the lead. That said, there is nothing at all preventing adoptees from organizing such outreach on their own – one potential avenue might be to reach out to adoption placement agencies that have been working in Ethiopia – and we wish you every success should you choose to do so.”

I then tried the Office of Children’s Issues (OCI) at the US State Department, the one that is the Central Authority under the Hague Convention to oversee adoptions.

Their 21 full-time OCI employees have several adoption-related responsibilities, including this one: “Working with U.S. embassies and consulates on diplomatic efforts with host governments about adoption laws and procedures.”

OCI, however, had no interest in my idea either. They noted that their focus and that of the Embassy was to complete pending cases.

“Although we understand the Embassy is currently unable to get involved in this particular event, we certainly support and encourage the involvement of private individuals and organizations in promoting these positive stories. As the Embassy mentioned, you may want to consider contacting adoption advocacy and/or child welfare organizations in Ethiopia to support these efforts. We would appreciate learning the outcome of any events you should organize.”

My response to OCI: “I understand the focus of both the Embassy and State in recent months is to complete pending cases. You note that the processing of the current cases is the focus of the Embassy. You don’t cite any other reasons to oppose this idea.

Thus I conclude that once the current cases are resolved, the Embassy and State would then be open to considering an event of some sort. Am I correct? That would be wonderful.”

The OCI response to me: “We would refer you to the Embassy’s public affairs section for the answer to that question.”

And that’s a wrap.

A few final thoughts:

Why the suggestion of working with adoption agencies is naive at best:

When the US Embassy suggested working with adoption agencies, I realized we were at an impasse. Many adoption agencies these days have slim budgets and are struggling, especially in light of the decline in international adoption. Adoption from Ethiopia has ended. Some agencies are not interested in providing post-adoption services to adult adoptees without charging fees, if they in fact offer post-adoption services at all to adopted adults. Among the reasons adoption from Ethiopia ended was because of adoption agency behavior: One adoption agency, International Adoption Guides, had its staff indicted for fraud, bribery, and corruption in Ethiopian adoptions. Another big agency, Christian World Adoptions, was the subject of a powerful expose for possible trafficking in Ethiopia; CWA suddenly closed it doors due to bankruptcy. The death of Hana Williams at the hands of her adoptive parents in Washington state is one reason that Ethiopian adoptions closed. AAI, the agency that placed Hana and hundreds of other Ethiopian children, is out of business. Many other agencies working in Ethiopia have also closed for various reasons. The new accrediting entity, IAAME, has suspended or evoked accreditation for several agencies. 

No, adoption agencies would be unlikely partners.

What the U.S. Embassy-Addis did for Black History Month:

In February 2018, for Black History Month, the Embassy sponsored three speakers from the US, specifically from the Eastern Shore Network for Change, to visit Ethiopia for a week “to heal history and promote constructive change, an outreach to the next generation of Ethiopian leaders.” The folks from the Eastern Shore (MD) organization spoke at Addis Ababa University, the African Union, the Nativity Girls’ School, the Jesuit Refugee Center, and St. Mary’s University. They held a roundtable with the Ethiopian Women’s Journalists Association, and did live broadcasts on Facebook that reached some 11,000 people. They went to a reception at the US Ambassador’s home.

As a result of seeing all the press and support that the Embassy gave to this visit, I thought they might be open to something similar for American citizen Ethiopian adoptees. I was wrong.

The idea for an event is not dead, by any means. We are pursuing other options.

I wish, though, that the US Embassy in Addis and the US State Department’s Office of Children’s Issues, having been involved with thousands of adoptions, had embraced the idea of supporting adult Ethiopian-American adoptees. Instead, they turned down the opportunity, as I see it, to promote healing, listen to adult adoptees, and advance understanding.

 

 

 

 

Nicole Chung’s Memoir “All You Can Ever Know” and the Future of Adoptee-Focused Literature

“All You Can Ever Know,” a beautiful memoir by Nicole Chung, was published October 2 and is already in its fifth printing. The book had been glowingly reviewed all over the map: the New Yorker, Boston GlobeSeattle Times, Buzzfeed, NPR,  and many more, including starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and from Library Journal.

Nicole is on a book tour that includes chatting with Trevor Noah TONIGHT on The Daily Show. Seriously. I am guessing she is the first transracial adoptee to be on the show.

It’s all off the charts, really. And here’s the thing: it’s well deserved for a book that is nuanced and elegant, telling a story that is woven carefully around family, race, adoption, and the complexities thereof. As the Washington Post noted, “Chung’s search for her biological roots, after being raised in Oregon by white parents who adopted her from Korean parents, has to be one of this year’s finest books, let alone memoirs. Editor in chief of Catapult and former editor of the Toast, Chung has literary chops to spare and they’re on full display in descriptions of her need, pain and bravery.”

There’s not really much I can add to what so many others have already said.

Still, as an adoptive parent (and we ap’s are really good at holding the mic in the adoption community), I will offer this: It’s a beautifully crafted memoir, a carefully balanced story of an adoptee’s efforts to find her way in the world, and especially to find her truth. Nicole’s reflections on her pregnancies, her birth mother, her adoptive mother, her daughters, and her sisters are candid and heartfelt. There are questions and loose ends and tangles and more questions. She’s a Korean adoptee not born in Korea. She loves her white adoptive parents and has struggled with racism and privilege. Perhaps the best part of her search and reunion journey has been the deep bond with the sister she found as an adult.

The memoir reminded me that, as an adoptive parent, as much as we deeply love our children, if we are not adopted ourselves, we cannot fully understand what it means to be adopted. If we are white, we cannot fully understand what it means for our children to be and grow up as people of color. We must acknowledge and not dismiss or minimize those truths. We must listen and learn—and read and talk.

That the book has been wildly successful does not surprise me: Nicole is a highly accomplished writer and editor. (Full disclosure: she was my editor at Catapult for my article “How My Daughter’s Pregnancy Made Me Rethink Adoption.”) The reviews, the tour, and the acclaim are deserved.

Here’s my hope: Nicole’s book (and all the accompanying attention) will open even more doors for adoptees to write and publish their stories, whether they are happy, frightening, shocking, sad, or even mundane. “All You Can Ever Know” will find a solid niche as Asian-American literature as well as adoption literature as well as mother lit and memoir. Some adoptees will embrace Nicole’s story as resonant for them; some will have had a polar opposite experience. We all need to hear the wide and fascinating range of adoptee stories, told not by their adoptive parents, but by the adoptees themselves.

I’d be remiss if I did not say that there will soon be news about the anthology by Ethiopian adoptees from 7 countries,  “Lions Roaring, Far From Home.” I am one of the editors, and while there have been significant, unanticipated delays, we are moving ahead toward publication.

Brava, Nicole! Your book is a gem. I hope you get some rest along the roller coaster of a book tour. I hope John Cho loved the memoir. I hope you continue writing (I know that’s not an issue), and I know that the rest of us will continue enjoying and learning from your stories, your candor, and your generous soul.

With Nicole at her reading at Seattle Public Library, October 4, 2018.

Tell Trevor I said hello.

 

 

 

While “All You Can Ever Know” has received amazing attention and reach, there are many other books written by adoptees as well, and hopefully even more in the future. Be sure to check out AdopteeReading.com for “books written and recommended by adoptees.”

How great if we had a large collection of books by birth mothers and birth fathers as well, from around the world,

When International Adoptees Grow (Way) Up—and Apply For Medicare

For international adoptees now in their 50’s and 60’s, here’s a potentially disastrous concern:

When applying for Medicare, naturalized citizens (such as international adoptees) need to present their naturalization documents and birth certificate to the Social Security Adminstration.

Why could this be a problem? Some international adoptees nearing Medicare age (65) do not have U.S. birth certificates. They may not have needed them as kids the way that schools and sports teams require them today. Their adoptive parents may not have applied for one for them.

And then, of course, there is the much larger issue for international adoptees whose adoptive parents failed to get them U.S. citizenship.They do not qualify under the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, which provided citizenship only for adoptees 18 and under at the time of enactment. Some international adoptees could have great difficulty getting enrolled in Medicare when they are in their 60’s and older, and in need of prescriptions, surgery, and other medical care. As U.S. citizens, they are entitled to apply for Medicare like everyone else: if they have the right documents.

My experience around immigration-related issues and the Social Security administration is that different federal offices in different states can have different requirements for paperwork. It’s not unusual for one person to need documents in one state that are not requested in another state, or even within the same state. Very frustrating, and not unusual.

Here is advice from licensed Medicare broker, and Korean adoptee, Kara Min Yung, who alerted me to this issue:

“Please start the process at least 3 months prior to the month you will turn 65. Don’t wait, in case you are required to do anything additional. You must start part A. You can also start part B, but there is a premium. You can opt to delay part B until coverage through an employer ends. Then choose either a supplement plan and a drug plan, or a Medicare Advantage Prescription Drug plan. Don’t wait. There are certain late enrollment penalties you will want to avoid.”

Kara recommends that adoptees nearing 65 make sure they have their U.S. birth certificate and their naturalization/citizenship papers. She has helped naturalized citizens who have had problems getting Medicare, whether adoptees or not. You can contact Kara at Kruh@seattleinsgroup.com.

Korean adoptees first began arriving in the U.S. in the 1950’s. Many are in their 50’s and 60’s (or older) now. They and other international adoptees are applying for Medicare benefits now, and some are encountering unanticipated problems. This will only continue as the adoptee population continues to age.

You can check out the Medicare site for further info.

Adoptees and parents of minor adoptees should check with the Social Security Administration to be sure they are listed as U.S. citizens. Our federal government agencies don’t share databases, so even if you have a passport (U.S. State Department) or a Certificate of Citizenship (U.S. Department of Homeland Security), the SSA may not have you listed as a U.S. citizen.

Additional Resources on Citizenship for All Adoptees: Adoptee Rights Campaign

I am calling on the U.S. Congress, the U.S. State Department, and the U.S. Social Security Administration to perhaps finally understand the need for U.S. citizenship for all international adoptees. Deportation is a risk. Criminal charges for (unknowingly) voting without citizenship is a risk. Being unable to apply for financial aid is a risk. Being unable to access Medicare if you are applying at 65 is a risk. It’s an outrage.

 

Why Are Adult Adoptees So Often Afterthoughts In Adoption?

It’s a pattern of sorts. An issue arises around adoption, domestic or international. Adoptive parents, most often white and well-off, are featured prominently, if not exclusively, in media. Most have very young children. No one apparently thinks that maybe adult adoptees should be included in the conversation.

A recent Twitter dustup reflected this reality. Elizabeth Archer, a British mother of two young children (one by birth and one by adoption), tweeted that she was putting together a series of books, called Attitudes to Adoption, for prospective adopters.  She asked for contributions from grandparents, mothers, fathers, birth families, professionals, and foster parents. “All have an adoption story to tell,” she wrote.

Except, apparently, adoptees.

When Archer was called out for the exclusion of adoptees, she tweeted, “At present I don’t feel I have the resources to do a book about adoptees but if you know of enough people who are willing to contribute then I will take this back to my publisher!” Here’s the problem: she’s not a grandparent, a birth parent (who placed a child for adoption), or a professional either, but she had the resources for those categories.

She got pushback from several adoptees, and I (an adoptive parent) chimed in as well. Archer responded to the comments, saying “I’m just an ordinary mum trying to write some books. I’m raising my own little adoptee so I would never be against sharing their views.”

Adoptees tweeted to her. @housewifeabroad wrote, “To write books about adoption with no input from adoptees will set these further families up to be blindsided by feelings and behaviors which are completely predictable.”

@SheWolfofEng wrote, “Isn’t the most important voice in adoption the voice of the adoptee?”

@neithskye wrote, “This wasn’t an ‘oversight’ at all. This was deliberate silencing. They might not like what we have to say. *How* do you discuss adoption and ‘forget’ about adoptees?”

@SunnyJWriter wrote, “It might be best if you considered the voices of #adoptees. For many years, we’ve been overshadowed by perspectives such as the one you’ve shared. You have an opportunity to help an enormously misunderstood and marginalized population, instead of ones already covered.”

Several adoptees were reported and blocked on Twitter by Archer and others.

After the Twitter pushback, Archer posted on her Facebook page, “I never realized until now what cyberbullying could feel like,” with a sad face emoji. “Guess I underestimated the hate that is out there aimed at adopters from adult adoptees. Feeling a bit vulnerable.”

She was consoled by many, who offered big hugs and condolences. “It’s so easy for cowards to sit at a keyboard and spout utter rubbish to make themselves feel better. Rise above it…you have a life & clearly they don’t.” Archer notes that she “blocked and reported the most venomous ones.” Another supporter wrote, “They’re from a different generation—much has changed since then, not least of all the type of children needing families.” Archer wrote, “I really do feel for the adoptees. Their adoption journey must have been one of great sadness & heartache to live them feeling so full of hate.”

As it turn out, Archer now has an “Adoptees” book in the mix of the “Attitudes to Adoption” series. The missing resources she had tweeted about earlier in the day were found.

Yesterday on her Facebook page, Archer wrote that she is “currently taking a break from Twitter after being targeted by a group of (mainly American) Adoptee Activists.”

I am not sure why citizenship mattered, but there we are.

Archer earlier deleted several comments by adoptees on her Facebook page, though to her credit, she left a post by Holly Lysne, an adoptee who is also an adoptive and biological mother, directing Archer to the podcast Adoptees On, which is a wonderful (based in Canada) resource for adoptees to share their experiences, and for adoptive parents to listen and learn. I recommended Dear Adoption, which is also a tremendous resource. Catherine Johnston, an adoptee and adoptive parent, recommended The Lost Daughters, also a brilliant resource, but Catherine’s comment was deleted from Archer’s page.

Other vibrant adoptee-centric sites would be The Declassified Adoptee, The Adopted Life, I am AdoptedI Am Adoptee, Adoptee Restoration, The Rambler Adoptee Podcasts, Adoptees Connect, and Adoptee Reading. These are U.S.-based, I realize, but, Internet. Out of the Fog is based in Canada.  Intercountry Adoptee Voices is based in Australia, and includes a long list of global adoptee led groups, including in the UK. The writings and talks by Lemn Sissay come to mind, of course, for a British adoptee.

My list is by no means exhaustive. Please feel free to add your recommendations in the comments. I am not trying to omit anyone—just want to get this post out there.

So here’s the point. There is no shortage of information, perspectives, insights, and resources by adult adoptees, but all too often, adoptive parents and media ignore them, or don’t know about them (!), when discussing adoption. That has to stop.

A few final thoughts:

How is it that adoptive mothers of young children are considered experts on adoption? Nope, sorry. You need to have a couple of decades of parenting under your belt to truly understand what it means to be an adoptive parent.

We adoptive parents must stop clutching our pearls when we hear about negative, difficult perspectives on adoption as spoken by adoptees. Dismissing them as cowards or venomous doesn’t make their experiences any less valid; it slams the doors on some really important conversations.

Many adoptees had great childhoods, deeply love their adoptive parents, their parents love them, and still the adoptees struggle with the losses in adoption, which can manifest in many ways over a lifetime. Other adoptees had horrific experiences. All these voices have been marginalized for much too long around the globe.

Thick skin is needed for anyone speaking out or writing in Adoption Land. If Ms. Archer felt she was a victim of cyber bullying and needed to block adoptees (plus get consolation and hugs), she ain’t seen nothing yet.

Adoption and raising adopted children takes a commitment to deep listening and learning,  especially to those who have been adopted.

 

(Need more examples? You can find my posts about the exclusion of adoptees by NPR here and here. My post about a White House international adoption petition that had little inclusion of adult adoptees is here.)

Think Twice Before Signing That Petition About International Adoptions

Why wouldn’t everyone sign a petition to increase international adoptions? Don’t we all want orphans to have families?

Well, there are many reasons not to sign.

One is because many of the children in orphanages (and placed for adoption) are not in fact orphans at all.

Another is that there are multiple ways besides international adoption to help vulnerable children, many of which are far more cost efficient and could help many more children.

Another reason is that essentially emotional petitions like this ignore the horrific treatment of too many first parents, who were often misled about the realities of having all rights severed, and in any case receive no post-adoption counseling or resources whatsoever from the adoption agencies who support the petition.

I’m going to argue, though, that the main reason not sign this petition is this.

You shouldn’t sign the petition because of who is behind it: adoption agencies and adoption lawyers. I am not attacking them. It is, after all, in their interest to increase international adoptions, and some indeed have a genuine desire to help children.

My focus is on the fact that there are virtually no international adoptee groups who support this petition. There are no international birth parents.

That’s right: No adult adoptee groups have endorsed the petition, with the exception of a small, inactive group that is affiliated with the adoption agency previously headed by the main person behind the petition.

I understand the obvious difficulties in logistics of having birth/first parents participate. It’s not impossible, though. As it is, international birth parents are not even mentioned in this ostensible effort to promote international adoptions. That is very telling, and may be the biggest reason not to sign the petition.

Until there is vocal, vibrant support from international adult adoptees and from birth parents, why should any of us support a petition to increase international adoptions? This petition is merely the product of adoptive parents, adoption agencies, and adoption attorneys, and that is not acceptable.

If you need additional reasons not to sign, here are a few more.

The petition fails to even mention one of the most burning issues in international adoption today: the need for retroactive citizenship for all international adoptees. Imagine if all these website owners, adoption agencies, and adoptive parents put their money, time, and energy into demanding that all international adoptees be granted citizenship. Imagine.

The petition fails to mention another burning issue in the adoption community: the re-homing of internationally adopted children, whether done illicitly, or through Second Chance adoptions, or via the US foster care system. How can adoption agencies and adoption attorneys call for more adoptions when there are children whose adoptions are being dissolved and who are being re-traumatized by losing another family?

The petition also fails to mention the ongoing incidents of fraud and corruption in international adoption. Agencies have been investigated, indicted, shut down. Adoptees have found that they were not orphans, contrary to what the adoption agencies told the adoptive parents. How has the industry addressed these realities, even as they are calling for more adoptions?

The petition itself was created by Nathan Gwilliam, the founder and CEO of adoption.com, and Board member of the National Council For Adoption. You’ll see the initials “N.G.” on the petition site. Though not personally connected to adoption, he has used his site to heavily promote the petition, as well as appearing on conservative venues such as the Lars Larson show. Gwilliam also appeared recently on the Glenn Beck show with Ron Stoddart, who is touting the petition heavily on the site Save Adoptions.

The petition is the result of the simmering disputes between the State Department and international adoption agencies. The simplified bottom line is this: The State Department wanted more rigorous standards for adoption service providers. The erstwhile accrediting entity, the Council on Accreditation (COA), felt that the standards were too burdensome/unnecessary, and announced it was withdrawing from accrediting under the Hague Convention. The State Department designated a new entity, IAMME, which will charge more and have 20 paid staff (COA had 4 staff people, and used volunteers from adoption agencies to facilitate the accreditation of other agencies). Adoption agencies and State have been at loggerheads for months over the standards and the fees. Agencies argue that State is trying to end international adoptions, and State argues that more stringent standards are necessary and that the fees will not be as burdensome as the agencies suggest.

Here’s the petition’s mission statement:

We the People, recognizing a child’s right to a family when one is not available in his/her birth country and the loving character of American families, ask President Trump to investigate the causes of the 80% decline in intercountry adoptions since 2004 and to solve the U.S. international adoption crisis. The leadership of the Office of Children’s Issues (at the US Department of State) has been unresponsive to collaborating with the adoption community to solve problems and continues to reinterpret regulations in ways unintended by Congress in the Hague Intercountry Adoption Act. We need pro-adoption leadership who will increase the number of ethical adoptions. The adoption community stands ready to work with the Administration to implement various achievable solutions to help orphans find loving, permanent families.

Ron Stoddart is listed on Save Adoptions as the Contact for the petition. Stoddart is an adoptive parent, is an attorney, and was the executive director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, an adoption agency licensed in several states. The agency is Hague-accredited, and offers domestic adoption services as well as international adoption programs in 18 countries. They also offer Snowflakes, their frozen embryo adoption/donation service. Stoddart is currently on Nightlight’s Board of Directors.

Ron Stoddart of Save Adoptions

Among the Partners listed on Save Adoptions web page are some 80 adoption agencies and attorneys. The lone adoptee group is Adopted For Good—The Coalition of Adoptees. It is clearly closely affiliated with Stoddart’s agency, Nightlight Adoptions. Stoddart is on the group’s Board of Directors, along with the VP of Operations for Nightlight. The group itself appears inactive. The last post on its Forum was in 2015. That’s it for international adoptees as “Partners.” I found no indication that there are any international birth parents as partners for Save Adoption.

Also, at least three adoption agencies listed as Partners are no longer accredited for international adoption: Amazing Grace Adoptions, Faith International, and Adoption S.T.A.R. The State Department announcements on these and four other agencies whose accreditation has expired is available here and here.

International adoptions have declined, not just in the U.S. but around the globe, for many reasons. Several sending countries (for example, Russia, Guatemala, Ethiopia) have closed or cut back on the number of children sent abroad for adoption. Fraud and corruption have grabbed headlines. Sending countries have expressed grave concern that the U.S. does not grant citizenship automatically to all international adoptees, and indeed has deported some. Some countries are working to promote in-country adoption. Evangelical Christians who once heavily promoted adoption are now revamping their approach toward orphan prevention. The abuse and deaths of internationally adopted children have made sending countries deeply troubled about the well-being of their children. The failure of adoptive parents to send in post-placement reports has caused sending countries to slow or end adoptions.

None of that is mentioned in the rationale for the petition.

Instead, the petition declares that the cause is the Office of Children’s Issues, a narrow focus indeed. This fight between State and adoption agencies may not be settled for a long time. IAMME needs time to do its accreditation work, even as more adoption agencies seem to be opting out of accreditation and adoption every week. The State Department is throwing down more gauntlets around adoption practices such as soft referrals, and agencies are pushing back. State, IAMME, and adoption agencies are scrapping over the new fees that IAMME is implementing. Regulations for monitoring and oversight are especially contentious, which is no surprise, given the vagaries and history of intercountry adoptions. One of the hardest and most important responsibilities of adoption agencies is ensuring that they are closely monitoring their staff on the ground in the countries from which they are placing children.

To wrap up: (1) We all want to help vulnerable children, and we all agree that children deserve safe, loving families. Adoption is not the right solution for all children by any means. The far greater emphasis should be on family preservation, sponsorship programs, literacy, clean water, electricity, job training, medications, and all the other benefits of life in the countries to which children are adopted because they and their families don’t have those benefits in their home countries.

(2) This current debate has the echoes of CHIFF, 2015 legislation ostensibly designed to streamline the adoption process. The CHIFF proponents are almost all the same folks now clamoring for this petition. CHIFF failed miserably for many reasons:  Adoptees and birth parents were not included in policy discussions or as supporters. CHIFF proponents hammered away at the State Department through personal and emotional attacks, ultimately alienating many people who could have been partners. Apparently, the petition folks did not draw any lessons from the CHIFF debacle.

(3) Don’t sign the petition. Until the adoption community genuinely places adoptees and first/birth parents on the same plane as adoptive parents in terms of resources, respect, and visibility, and until the adoption industry addresses issues such as citizenship, re-homing, fraud, and corruption, we cannot move ahead to meaningful policy in international adoption.

The petition, by the way, is aiming for 100,000 signatures; they have about 30,000 now, with one more week to get the remaining 70,000.

 

Post script: For more information about the current tensions between the Department of State and adoption agencies, please take a look at adoptionintegrity.com for several detailed explanations about these and other issues. They have several solid analyses about accrediting entities and an informative, balanced video about the tensions. 

 

 

What NPR Got Wrong in its Story About Ethiopia’s Adoption Ban

NPR recently did a soft story: “In Ethiopia, A New Ban on Foreign Adoptions Is About National Pride.”

Here’s what went wrong with it:

In a story about Ethiopian adoptions, not one adult adoptee was included for perspective. Nor was an Ethiopian birth parent quoted, if any were even consulted.

The tragic death of Ethiopian adoptee Hana Williams was glossed over. Her murder by her adoptive parents was considered homicide by abuse, and roiled the Ethiopian adoption community as well as Ethiopians in Ethiopia and in the diaspora.

Fraud and corruption didn’t even get a mention in this story. Staff from one agency were indicted by the US Justice Department, pled guilty, and were given jail time. That’s not insignificant. Many adoptive families and adoptees from Ethiopia have learned that the reasons that adoption agencies provided for their adoption were not true or accurate. For example, many adoptees have living birth family members, though the adoptive parents  were told the children were orphans. A conversation with adult adoptees who have searched and reunited with their Ethiopian parents would bear this out multiple times.

Further, there are Ethiopian adoptees who have been “re-homed” when the adoptive family cannot or will not care for them anymore. There are Ethiopian adoptees in the US foster care system. Ethiopian adoptees have annulled their adoptions.

There are many ways to help vulnerable Ethiopian children and families that do not involve adoption.

Oh NPR. You’re certainly not the only news service to omit adult adoptees and birth parents when discussing adoption issues. The impulse apparently is to engage adoptive parents, and that’s it. Well, sometimes prospective adoptive parents are also interviewed. Birth parents and adult adoptees are afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

And that tired narrative, that lazy approach, has to stop.

Media: Don’t give the mic solely to adoptive parents. And maybe not to them at all.

The main person interviewed and photographed for the story by NPR East Africa  Correspondent Eyder Peralta is a white woman from Ohio who has adopted two Ethiopian children, the second one in January when the Ethiopian Parliament passed a law ending international adoptions.

Thus the only person with a role in adoption who was interviewed to talk about Ethiopian adoption was a white woman of very young children. Not an Ethiopian adoptee, nor an Ethiopian birth parent, either of whom could have provided far more insight into the impact of the ban on adoptions in Ethiopia than a new adoptive parent. I say that as an adoptive parent whose Ethiopian children are now 29 years old.

Why Ethiopia ended adoption: (1) Failure of adoptive parent to keep children connected with their heritage and culture

The first point here, and it is not a part of the story at all, is that Ethiopia has the right to make decisions about its children. The rest of us can disagree, but recognizing the Ethiopian government’s rights as a sovereign nation is important.

The reasons the Ethiopian government provided for the ban on adoption had to do (1) with the adopted children losing their heritage and connection with culture and (2) the response to the murder of Hana Williams.

In the NPR story, Peralta writes about Niki and Brad Huelsman, the white parents who adopted their Ethiopian son in January, saying “They want Girma and his 6-year-old sister to learn about their heritage.” Unfortunately, there is no discussion or insight here about how complex that learning can be, how deeply racism impacts black Americans, and the fact that the Huelsman family’s village of Morrow, Ohio, is 96% white. Are these two Ethiopian children a significant part of the 0.4% of African-Americans in the tiny town?

That sort of pointed question is a valid one in the context of Ethiopian adoptions, and especially when, as Peralta writes, Ethiopian lawmakers ended adoptions because they were “worried that Ethiopian children taken abroad could suffer identify crises and psychological problems.” The adoptive parent confirms those fears of the Ethiopian lawmakers. The children featured in the article will be raised in a small, white village in Ohio, and unless the family is moving to a far more diverse area, the children will likely grow up loved and also lacking in a genuine sense of what it means to be Ethiopian, black, and Ethiopian-American—exactly one of the fears of Ethiopian lawmakers.

Why Ethiopia ended adoption: (2) The death of adoptee Hana Williams and abuse of adoptee Immanuel Williams at the hands of their adoptive parents

The Ethiopian government was also concerned with the physical abuse of their children. I was deeply disappointed when Peralta referred to Hana Williams but did not say her name. In fact, all he said was that the “Ethiopian child from Seattle died after she was left outside in the cold,” a description that is dismissive, disrespectful, and insufficient.

Hana died from hypothermia and from malnutrition, having wasted away to a weight (78 pounds, at age 13) that was less than what she weighed on arrival from Ethiopia three years prior to her death. She died from abuse and torture she endured over a period of months, having been locked in closets, made to eat outdoors, being given frozen food to eat, being forced to shower outside, having her head shaved because she cut the grass too short, and otherwise slowly abused to death. Her adoptive mother was convicted of homicide by abuse. Her adoptive father was convicted of manslaughter.

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana died, and her adopted Ethiopian brother Immanuel also was abused; he will bear the lifelong scars. Hana’s tragic death in 2011 at the hands of her adoptive parents horrified Ethiopians around the world. It horrified many people, including adoptive parents like me, as well as adoptees and of course birth parents in Ethiopia.

Yes, it is an isolated incident. We all understand that. But the fact that it happened was jarring at best for anyone who had previously thought that Ethiopian children were being adopted to a better life. We cannot talk about the adoption ban without consideration of that mindset.

The Bigger Picture on Adoption

The NPR story ended with a wistful, naïve, narrow note:

“The Huelsmans made it back to the United States in January with Girma in their arms ‘This transition is about as good as it could have gone,’ Brad Huelsman said. Big sister is a little jealous, but Girma has learned to love the family dogs and has even adjusted to the cold. ‘Sometimes I look at him even now and think I can’t believe he’s home,’ Niki Huelsman said.

But it’s a shame, they say, that other American families won’t know this joy.”

The naiveté is the notion that adoption is about bringing joy to American families. NO. Adoption from Ethiopia is/was not about bringing joy to American families. It was, and should have been, about finding families for Ethiopian children who have endured loss and trauma, and who genuinely have no other options.

Adoption also has to be about acknowledging the losses by the Ethiopian birth families, and the fact that adoption agencies offered them virtually no follow-up or counseling post-adoption, in marked contrast to what is offered to adoptive parents. In my trips to Ethiopia, and I’ve heard this from other visiting adoptive families, it is not at all unusual to have Ethiopian birth parents show tattered photos and ask adoptive parents, “Do you know where my child is?” Unlike American adoptive parents, Ethiopian birth parents rarely have received any sort of counseling or post-adoption services from the adoption agencies, or even any information about their children, though oftentimes they had been promised they would get news. An important resource has been Beteseb Felega, Ethiopian Adoption Connection, which has reunited many Ethiopian birth parents with their children.

For my final note here, I will say that while there will be no more adoptions for the foreseeable future, adoptive parents and others can still help vulnerable children in Ethiopia. The NPR story, like so many that follow only the tired narrative, seems to suggest that only adoption can help the children, and that is simply not true. There are sponsorships available, for some $30 or $50 a month, far less than the $50,000 for a single adoption, that will allow children to go to school, to have decent meals, to receive much needed medications. Roots Ethiopia provides (among other resources) supplies for children with Down syndrome.

Here’s a post that skims the surface of the multiple ways to help Ethiopian children and families.

We need to stop romanticizing adoption as a delightful fairy tale and acknowledge the losses as well as the gains. We need to insist that the voices of adult adoptees and of birth parents be at least equal with those of adoptive parents; I’d argue they should be considered the ones with greatest insight in adoption. And we need to stop throwing up our hands and acting as if international adoption is the only way to help vulnerable Ethiopian children.

Here’s hoping media catches up with this reality, and stops promoting stories that don’t begin to tell the full story.

 

Post script: Be sure to take a look at an Ethiopian adoptee’s comments on Twitter: @AselefechE

Consider emailing Eyder Peralta, the writer of the NPR story, at eperalta@npr.org, or tweeting your comments about the story to @NPR and to the writer, @eyderp.

Four International Adoption Agencies Lose Accreditation Status

Update: Another international adoption agency, Chinese Children Adoption International (CCAI), has had its accreditation temporarily suspended, according to a March 15 email from the U.S. State Department.

The US State Department announced today that two international adoption agencies (Journeys of the Heart and La Vida International) have failed to renew their Council on Accreditation (COA) accreditation under the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. State also announced that Voice for International Development and Adoption (VIDA) has had its COA accreditation cancelled, and Adopt Abroad Inc has been temporarily suspended by COA.

That’s a lot of loss in international adoption business. Is it a trend? An augur?

COA had announced last October that it was no longer going to accredit adoption agencies under the Hague Convention. The State Department has been working with a new accreditor, IAAME, which is supposed to be up and running soon. IAAME’s website can be viewed here. There has been a lot of tension among IAAME, the adoption community, and the State Department over the accreditation process and its costs. The news today that four agencies have lost or not sought renewal of accreditation is daunting. It arguably decreases the pool of adoption agencies who will be accredited under IAAME, and that could have an impact on international adoptions, as well as the costs overall and the work of the new accreditor.

State Department announcement about Journeys of the Heart and La Vida International

State Department list of agencies debarred or cancelled for Hague (needs to be updated)

National Council For Adoption information about advocacy on accreditation

Article  “Tension Between State Department, Accreditor over Intercountry Adoptions”

COA website information about accreditation