An Adoptee’s Reflection on Trauma, Love, and Adoption

Every Thanksgiving, one of the most wonderful and emotional traditions in my family is to light a candle for the people who aren’t there: for those who have died, who are alive but far away, who aren’t with us for whatever reasons. Sometimes the person lighting the candle says the names out loud of the people he is thinking about and missing. Sometimes the person just lights the candle, then smiles, or tears up. We leave the candles on through the meal.

Adoption, for all its joy, happens only through loss. Children have lost or lose their first family in order to be adopted. That can be necessary, if the child was in danger or had been abused or neglected to the point of needing a new family. But it’s still loss: loss of what could have been, or should have been, or would have been if only…

Adoptive parents, you can love your child deeply. Your child can love you deeply as well, and also feel grief and trauma that are real. It’s okay. It may manifest in different ways over time, in angry words or silent tears. There may be what seem puzzling outbursts at certain times of year—traumaversaries are real too. Join your child on the journey: encourage conversation, honor their grief, know that every child is different, love them, be silent with them, respect their realities at 3 or at 30.

I am a mother because of adoption. I love my children more than I can possibly put into words. Each of my children has been affected, in different ways, by the fact of being adopted. I am a firm believer that the stories (events, memories, traumas, happiness) they have lived through are theirs alone to tell.

My daughter Aselefech Evans has chosen to tell her truth today, to share her lived experience. This is a beautiful, poignant, and powerful essay. Please read, reflect, share.

The Unwanted Arrival of Trauma in Adoption

 

And maybe light a candle to keep warm the realities of those who are both present and absent in our lives.

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

 

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,

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. 

 

 

Adoptive Parents: How Can You Best Participate in National Adoption Awareness Month?

By insisting on letting the voices of adoptees and of first/birth parents be heard.

November is National Adoption Awareness Month, an event which, like adoption itself, is far more complex that it may seem on the surface.

The word “awareness” is pivotal. Originally, the month was intended to bring focus to the need for adoptions from foster care. That focus, like the original intent of the adoption tax credit, has grown much larger, blurrier, and even controversial. What could be controversial about adoption, you ask? Children in families, feel good narratives, tear-jerker holiday specials, cute videos, win-win. Here’s the thing: there are valid elements in all that. There are also harsher realities that are often excluded in the understanding of the adoption mainstream, and we all have to be willing to look at and acknowledge them, perhaps especially this month.

Photo © Maureen McCauley

So, as an adoptive parent myself, I urge adoptive parents to look for and listen especially to the voices of adult adoptees and of first/birth parents this month.

Here are a few sites, in random order. There are many more. I’ll be posting more though the month, as well as interviews with adult adoptees and with first/birth mothers.

Dear Adoption (Essays by adoptees)

Lost Daughters generally, and about #flipthescript specifically (A collective of women writers who were adopted or fostered)

AdopteesOn (Podcasts of interviews with adopted adults)

The Adopted Life (Blog and more by a U.S. transracial adoptee; subject of Closure documentary)

I Am Adoptee (Resource group created by adoptees for adoptees)

Musings of the Lame (Blog by a U.S. birthmother)

Saving Our Sisters (Family preservation site working with women considering placing their children for adoption)

Anti-Adoption (Facebook group focused on publicly exposing the problems in adoption)

Only Black Girl (Blog of U.S. transracial adoptee)

Adoptee Rights Campaign (Advocating for U.S. citizenship for all international adoptees adopted to the U.S.)

First Mother Forum (Where first/birth/real/natural mothers can talk and vent)

There are many more. I urge adoptive parents to use this month to learn, to feel uncomfortable and challenged, and to seek ways to educate themselves and others about the full breadth of adoption.

Ethiopia Moves to Officially End International Adoption

Several Ethiopian news sources have reported that the Ethiopian Parliament is considering a new draft bill amending current law to end the adoption of Ethiopian children by foreigners. What are the reasons? No doubt there are many. Ezega news reported that the “inability by biological parents to trace their children and adoptees being denied the chance to communicate with their biological parents have been major issues that have been echoed in parliament.”

Those two reasons—Ethiopian parents being unable to learn anything about their children post-adoption, and adoptees being unable (due to adoptive parents’ refusal?) to contact their Ethiopian parents—exemplify deceitful practices by adoption facilitators who promised Ethiopian parents they would have contact with their children after adoption, though there was no guarantee of that since adoption permanently severs ties legally. The reasons also represent lost opportunities for adopted children (who grow up, and who I hope will learn their truths) to know their Ethiopian parents, even as they were raised by adoptive parents in the United States and elsewhere.

According to U.S. Department of State statistics, over 15.000 children were adopted from Ethiopia to the U.S. between 1999 and 2016, and of course thousands of others to Canada, Europe, and Australia. About 50% were three years old or younger at the time of adoption. In 1994, when my twin daughters arrived at six years old, there were 54 other Ethiopian children adopted to America. Adoption from Ethiopia has been fraught for years with so much: the murder of adoptee Hana Williams, the federal indictment of the adoption agency International Adoption Guides for fraud and corruption, and at least two temporary suspensions of adoptions by Ethiopia. At least three Ethiopian adoptees, from Netherlands and Denmark, annulled their adoptions. Many families discovered that the children they adopted were not orphans at all, but children who had clear and vivid memories of their mothers and families. Many families traveling back to Ethiopia with their adopted children encountered Ethiopian mothers desperately searching for their children. Adult adoptees have traveled to Ethiopia in search of their original families and have sometimes found them, finding also that their Ethiopian families had been deceived into placing them for adoption. Some have been unable to locate their original families, despite great efforts to do so.

While there certainly have been new families formed for children who needed them, there have also been multiple scandals and heartaches.

The Ezaga article notes that “due to problems especially with foreign adopters, over the past few years the issue of adoption has been stirring heated debates among various members of the community, including MPs (Members of Parliament).”

Ethiopian officials have been watching closely what has happened to the children adopted from Ethiopia. So have Ethiopians in the diaspora, as well as those in cafes in Addis, or in Hawassa, Shashemene, Gambela, and elsewhere.

There are many reasons for ending adoptions, especially those adoptions that resembled trafficking much more than any ideal of child welfare. Maybe the precise reasons don’t even matter, though I am not dismissing the tragedies of families deceived and the losses of children who were never orphans.

That said, what also matters now is what happens to the children who genuinely need families, and especially those who need medical care that is not available or not provided in Ethiopia.

Ending adoption does not mean that children don’t still need help, safety, and families. I often wonder about the children in Russia after Putin ended adoptions to the US, and in Guatemala after adoptions ended there. The needs of the children remain as extensive as ever.

So yes, let’s hope that domestic in country adoption will be a priority. Let’s hope that family preservation will flourish, and that there will not be more children dying, or begging in the streets, or suffering in isolation. As the Ethiopian officials have watched adoptive families, let’s hope the world watches and helps them to care for Ethiopian children. Perhaps Ethiopia will establish adoption programs for older children and for children with special needs, rather than ending all adoptions. Perhaps efforts like this campaign to help an Ethiopian child with a rare, painful disease, difficult to treat in Ethiopia, will gain more support–it’s a great example of family preservation. Please help if you can.

Sofoniyas and his mother

 

Let’s hope that the community of adoptive parents will rise up. In so many ways, we should be the ones leading the charge to make sure that, whenever possible, children can grow up not adopted but with their original families, and within their original cultures. No more saviorism or rescuing. It’s time for us to step up and support our children’s brothers and sisters.

 

 

Let’s hope adult adoptees continue to connect with Ethiopia, and with their Ethiopian families, with the support of their adoptive families. Let’s hope that the Ethiopian families who are searching for their children, for the knowledge that their children are alive, will be able to gain information, and maybe someday, peace.

Let’s hope this is a wake up call for anyone involved with adoption about the role of money and the vulnerability of children.

And let’s do a lot more than just hope. In the next few weeks, I’ll be posting information about ways to sponsor children and to promote family preservation, for far less than the cost of even one international adoption. It’s time.

 

 

 

 

 

Why Are American Adopted Adults Denied the Right To Know Who They Are?

There is simply no good reason. As an adoptive parent of two sons born in the United States and twin daughters born in Ethiopia, I believe that adopted people have the basic human and civil right to know their original family, to know their original names, to know their medical history, and to choose whether they want to pursue a reunion, once they have this information.

Still, today, in 2017, no other group except American adult adoptees is denied the right to their original birth certificates, to know who their biological parents are, who their biological grandparents are, who their biological siblings are, what their ethnicity is, and what their genetic history is.

It astounds me how many non-adopted adults and how many adoptive parents are willing to continue to deny adopted persons access to information about who they are.

How about if we listen to adult adoptees, as well as the many organizations which represent them, as the best advocates for the right to their own birth certificates?

Right now, in New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo is being urged by 45+ national and international adoptee organizations, as well as hundreds of individuals, to veto a bill that is costly (Adoptee Rights Laws estimates a cost of $6 million),  convoluted, and thoughtfully opposed by organizations such as the New York-based Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI). Read the article “Give adopted people unencumbered access to their origins” by DAI chief executive, and adopted person, April DInwoodie. Read the list of adoptee organization and individuals who oppose the bill and urge Gov. Cuomo to veto it here. Information from New York Adoptee Equality is available here.

New York, and many other states, can enact far better, less costly legislation that is fair and transparent.

One commonly touted reason for opposing access to original birth certificates is that birth parents were promised confidentiality about the adoption. However, if they were promised this by a lawyer or doctor or adoption agency worker, it was an unenforceable assurance. There has never been any law that guarantees that birth parents would never be contacted by their children. It simply does not exist. In fact, adoption records were largely public until about 60 years ago. Records were sealed largely because of the stigma of illegitimacy then, but not to prevent people from contacting each other. Records have been unsealed in many states since, and judges can unseal records in emergencies. We have moved in the adoption community away from shame, secrecy, and lies, toward transparency, openness, and fairness. The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s report An Examination of the History and Impact Of Adult Adoptee Access to Original Birth Certificates provides detailed information.

Another common rationale is that allowing access to adopted persons will increase the number of abortions. There is little evidence for this claim. Further, abortion is an alternative to pregnancy, not to adoption. Adoption is an alternative to parenting. “The abortion rates in both Alaska and Kansas, states which grant adult adoptees unconditional access to their original birth certificates, were lower than the national average as a whole – 14.6 and 18.9 abortions, respectively for every 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 44, compared to the national rate of 22.9 (Source: Alan Guttmacher Institute http://www.agi-usa.org/pubs/journals/3026398.html). More information on this is available here and here.

A few U.S. states currently allow full access, though many states require adopted adults–not children anymore–to undergo mandatory counseling, to work with state-employed intermediaries, and to pay high fees. These requirements essentially infantilize adopted persons, treating them as children, buying into the narrative that adoptees should simply not be curious about who they are. Understanding who we are is a basic human pursuit and instinct.

I would be remiss if I did not note that DNA testing has affected search and reunion in adoption on a local, national, and global scale. Mothers are locating the children they placed for adoption; siblings and cousins are finding each other. Facebook groups provide astonishing amounts of support and guidance for adoptees to locate their birth family members. Among the many resources are DNA Detectives, DNA Adoption Community, and the Global Adoption Genealogy Project. Amazon Prime has sales on DNA kits today. All that said, adult adoptees should still have the legal right in the U.S. to access their own records, just as every non-adopted person does.

Adoptees raised in loving homes by loving adoptive parents have the right and perhaps the need to know as much as adoptees who had miserable adoptive families. The issue of gratitude is a volatile one in the adoption community, but being happy or grateful that one was adopted does not seem to me to be a reason not to want (or deserve) to know one’s original family.

Foster children who are adopted have their personal histories, their medical histories, and their names. Many international adoptees have their original birth certificates.

But American adults adopted as babies are denied the basic human and civil right to know who they are, a right which should be held higher than an ostensible promise of privacy. Only nine states in the U.S. currently allow total access to original birth certificates. Other countries around the globe allow far better access for adopted persons to their records. American adult adoptees should be allowed to know who they are.

 

An Academic Analysis of Ethiopian Illegal Adoptions: A Sobering Roadmap

“Children for Families: An Ethnography of Illegal Intercountry Adoption From Ethiopia,” an article by Daniel Hailu, Ph.D., in Adoption Quarterly, provides a stunningly clear road map of how illegal adoptions have occurred in Ethiopia. His research corroborates many anecdotal experiences, discusses the impact of Ethiopian sociocultural views, and offers suggestions for reform.

The issue of illegal adoptions from Ethiopia has been simmering for years. I don’t think anyone has statistics on how many adoptions have been legal or illegal. Families have shared stories on Facebook. Adult adoptees have learned, after search and reunion, that their adoptive parents were not told the truth about why adoption was needed. Birth/first families were deceived or coerced into placing their children in an orphanage. Blame can be focused on many people: adoption agencies, police officers, brokers, government workers, adoptive families, first/birth families, and almost anyone involved with adoption and fees.

Adoptions from Ethiopia have declined dramatically in recent years. In May of this year, the Ethiopian government suspended adoptions, though it appears that children who were in the legal custody of their adoptive parents have been allowed to leave Ethiopia. I posted recently about the upcoming sentencing hearing of three International Adoption Guides’ officials, who have pled guilty to charges involving fraud and corruption in Ethiopia. A frequent source of debate on Facebook among adoptive families is whose adoption was fraudulent, whose adoption agency was checked out thoroughly, whose adoption was “clean.” Some prospective and new adoptive families discount the stories of families who have discovered lies and deceits in their children’s adoptions.

Dr. Hailu’s article describes how illegal and unethical adoptions occur. He interviewed 54 “informants,” people intimately engaged in adoptions in Ethiopia. He writes:

“At the root of illegal adoption are fabricated documentation and false testimonies that establish the legal basis for the subsequent adoption processes. Informants reported that these bases could not be established without the support and protection of local authorities, including some police officers.

An orphanage involved in illegal adoption perceived four major advantages in involving local authorities, as summarized by an informant:

First, local authorities facilitate identification of brokers from within the local community where orphanages have no other trusted link.

Second, officials in clandestine support brokers in recruiting children: The authorities identify children for potential adoption and also coax parents and guardians into giving their children away for adoption.

Third, the official expedites issuance of a letter of testimony that the orphanage needs from the kebele (neighborhood or ward) administration or the social court in order to take the case to the First Instance Court.

Fourth, the officials buffer the orphanage from any allegations that may be posed by any higher authority against recruiting an ineligible child.”

No one disputes, I hope, the role that money has played and continues to play in adoption. Between 1999 and 2016, some 15,300 Ethiopian children arrived in the U.S. Using a fee of $30,000 per adoption, some $459 million went from the U.S. to Ethiopian adoptions. Granted, not all of it went to Ethiopia. Still. Millions of dollars poured into Ethiopia from adoptive families, not just to the adoption agencies, but also to the orphanages, and to others working in the network to secure children for adoption.

Here is one matter-of-fact and chilling quote:

“The following description of a country representative of an adoption agency regarding the relationship between adoption agencies and orphanages is shared by several other informants in the industry:

‘Take my case as an example. I have entered adoption agreement worth millions. Neither UNICEF nor any government subsidizes me. Rather I get the money from adopting families. They expect me to give them babies. My boss expects babies. So, I expect the babies from the orphanages to whom I agreed to give part of the millions. It is a clean supply and demand relationship that exists among adopting families, adoption agencies, and orphanages. Essentially, we are providing children for families rather than finding families for children without parental care.’ ”

And how would country representatives or brokers convince families to place their babies and children in the orphanages, and thus for adoption?

That method, according to Dr. Hailu’s article, is also matter-of-fact and chilling.

“Three techniques were identified that brokers applied to coax parents and guardians into voluntary relinquishment of parental rights. The first was to appeal to the natural wish of parents for the future well-being of their children.

An informant explained:

As a first strategy, “Brokers would convince parents/guardians that it was better for the child to grow under better care than suffer with them: They promise that the child would be sent to [a] good school, eat well, [and] wear nice clothes and would generally live comfortable life. The brokers also give them the false promise that they would get to see the child once in a while whether the child is adopted locally or internationally.”

These promises have generally proven false, of course. Many adoptive parents and adopted persons have encountered Ethiopian birth parents who beg them to find out about the children they lost to adoption and have never heard from, despite the “promises” they were given. One important resource is Beteseb Felega—Ethiopian Adoption Connection, which has reunited many adoptees with their Ethiopian parents. Whether the adoptive parents had made the promise or not, many Ethiopian parents were told there would be contact. I’ve heard of adoptive parents finding out that the Ethiopian parents hoped to know if their children were alive and well—and the adoptive parents refused to respond. I hope they can face their adopted children and tell them this someday, as the children will grow up and likely find out their truths.

The second strategy of brokers to acquire children is to draw the attention of parents or guardians to their poverty and entice them with a promise of economic gain that they would potentially accrue by giving their child away for eventual adoption.

Another informant explained:

“The broker calls the attention of guardians to the financial assistance and visits that some guardians who have previously given away their children may have obtained from adopting families. There may be many such stories known to the people that brokers use for their purpose. For example, adopt[ive] parents of a child had sent money to the biological parents in our area, who used it to open their own beauty salon. Some guardians have reported to have come to the orphanage for the purpose of giving their bank account number to the adopting family in anticipation of transfers.”

The issue of how, whether, and how much adoptive families contribute to the financial support of their children’s Ethiopian families is a hot button topic. Some people feel it encourages other Ethiopian families to place their children for adoption, hoping to get a financial return, a concern borne out by Dr. Hailu’s article. Other parents feel it is their ethical right and responsibility to send their child’s siblings to school, or to buy a goat, or to wire money on a regular basis. It’s complicated. There is no question there has been an impact, in any case. I hope there will be more studies done, by the Ethiopian government or by academics, on the financial contributions to birth/first families.

In the third strategy, the broker capitalizes on the socially constructed prestige that could be accrued out of having a child living abroad.

“A related enticement is the social prestige that can be derived out of forging familial linkage with a ferenji (i.e., a white person). Although guardians are the main targets, these coaxing rhetorics have a stronger influence on older siblings of the child being prepared for adoption, who consider this a special opportunity presented to their younger siblings. This is due to increasing globalization that is creating an image of opportunities and affluence that may be available in the freng hager (i.e., the country of white people).

Consequently, in addition to persuasion by brokers, siblings who are too old to be adopted put pressure on their parents to place their younger siblings in the hope that the above reported social and economic benefit may eventually trickle down to them as well.”

Many adoptive parents have been told their children were abandoned. Dr. Hailu’s informants describe how the abandonment is staged.

“Staged abandoning of a child takes the form of a play in the theater. The play is written and directed by the broker. He also casts the characters and assigns them roles. In this drama the parents/guardians are coaxed into leaving the child at a predetermined place and time that is out of public view.

Soon after the child is seemingly abandoned, an assigned person reports the case to a predetermined police officer. The police officer who is ready to take on his role goes to the site and takes the child to the police station where all necessary records are made. The police officer then takes the child to the temporary custody of the orphanage on whose behalf the broker has directed the drama. The case is then taken to the First Instance Court.

Abandoned children pose much less procedural and legal challenges for orphanages. To begin with, the strategy is, informants reported, generally applied with infants who had not yet developed verbal capacities lest the child leak information regarding his or her guardians or the staged abandoning.”

While there is much information in this article to process, some of which is familiar to many, some of which will be eye-opening and jaw-dropping, Dr. Hailu also offers some solutions.

A referral system could enable unparented children to benefit from NGO services, and hence avoid institutional care and intercountry adoption. Hailu writes that “In Ethiopia, there already exist thousands of NGOs that provide community-based services to children. For example, 275 NGOs that are operational in Addis Ababa in 2013 had implemented more than 291 child-focused projects investing Birr 703, 641, 865 (Hailu, 2013). But there is currently no referral system to connect the children in need to the services that could be provided.”

Dr. Hailu also writes that “Informants reported that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, when making decisions based on the recommendations of its regional counterparts, generally does not undertake an independent investigation about the child’s social economic status. This is partly because it lacks the institutional capacity to travel to the child’s locality of origin to conduct the investigation, and partly because regional governments could construe the attempt at independent investigation by the federal government as interfering in their autonomy.”

I believe Dr. Hailu is suggesting here that independent investigations by MOWA, if feasible and done with transparency, could provide oversight and confirmation of accuracy of reports from the regional governments.

Changing sociocultural attitudes about adoption in Ethiopia could also, Dr. Hailu suggests, help to minimize illegal adoptions.

In testifying that a child is an orphan or abandoned, “witnesses see their false testimony as an act of benevolence, or even socially required action, to both the child and family. If they refuse to falsely testify, they could be regarded as miqegna (literally means one who does not wish the good of others), with potential negative social repercussions. Therefore, transforming the cultural and social-psychological allure within local communities is a critical strategy to minimizing illegal intercountry adoption.

This may involve preventive interventions of systematic and sustained public education regarding child rights, the adverse impacts of institutional care and intercountry adoption on children, and legal adoption processes. It also requires protective interventions of strict legal enforcement against participation in illegal intercountry adoption.”

In terms of the financial incentives inherent in international adoption, Dr. Hailu writes that “criminalizing direct adoption-related transactions between adoption agencies and orphanages” could be effective. “This will require setting up a centralized agency under a relevant ministry managed by a public/private partnership. The agency may be part of a national social welfare system that may be mandated to undertake individualized assessment of each unparented child and refer the child to various alternative care options including intercountry adoption.

As part of the welfare system, institutional care providers may be given subcontracts or grants by the centralized agency (and not by adoption agencies) to provide institutional foster care until a better placement is found for the child. Measures to ensure accountability and transparency in the operations of the agency need to be put in place in order to prevent officers of the agency from establishing corrupt relationships with adoption agencies and orphanages.”

There are many possible ways to curb or perhaps end fraud in adoptions from Ethiopia. They require diligence, funding, infrastructure, marketing, training, and sustainable capacity. I know many people and organizations argue that ending international adoptions is the only way to end the fraud and corruption. I know others who say that adoptions should continue only for children with special needs who cannot get appropriate (life-saving) care in Ethiopia. Others argue that adoptions, not life in abject poverty in an orphanage, would be best.

I’d argue that family preservation, orphan prevention, and in-country adoption are goals that everyone who cares about Ethiopian children should prioritize. I’ve written about the many ways to help children in Ethiopia: If Adoptions Decline, What Happens to the Children?

I hope Dr. Hailu’s article, which is available here (a paywall), will be widely read by anyone connected with Ethiopian adoptions, or who has an interest in child welfare. Although I was familiar with much of this information anecdotally, it is quite powerful to see it set in academic terms.

Ultimately, of course, it is Ethiopia’s decision to decide how to end fraud in Ethiopian adoptions, and how to make enact policies that best help children. I believe there are many in the adoption community who are watching the next steps carefully, and who are willing to help. I hope that, in addition to the usual government workers or international lawyers or lobbying groups, Ethiopian adoptees and birth/first families play a vibrant role in any discussions.

“Rematriation” Through Art: Mothers’ Voices

Please consider supporting the work of Daniel Drennan ElAwar’s powerful art, “Mothers’ Voices: A ‘Rematriated’ Adoptee’s Art Residency.” Born in Lebanon, adopted to the United States, Daniel is a writer, artist, and advocate for conscientious and provocative examination of history, dissidence, and activism. In his Kickstarter information, he says he believes “this project is of particular interest to communities of all kinds affected by dispossession, displacement, and disinheritance” of Southwest-Asian women, especially mothers.

The art he is creating–a series of prints with Arabic calligraphic quotations, poetry, and proverbs–“will portray women at the very limits of a society’s allowance of their expression; capturing moments of righteous anger that break through the stasis of the status quo and reveal an unmatched latent power; a literal creative energy and force. For example, the Palestinian woman fighting off the soldier abducting her son; the Bahraini mother exclaiming to neighbors that she refuses to cry despite being delivered the clothes of her son executed by firing squad; the Syrian mother breaking through a border fence of barbed wire; the Lebanese woman reacting to police preventing her from protesting for her kidnapped son’s return.”

In Daniel’s work, there is joy, sorrow, and controversy, linked together in the challenging way that adoption itself often is. I am a big believer in the power of art to challenge our thinking, to make us uncomfortable, to evoke dialogue. Daniel’s writings always give me much to think about, and I have no doubt this art, and his memoir, will do so as well.

As an aside of sorts, this is a more volatile, controversial time in adoption than I have seen in the last few decades. More adoptee voices are being heard in expressing their truths, often to the discomfort or resistance of adoptive parents. More first mothers, in the US and globally, are speaking out, and are being encouraged to do so, slowly, yes, but it is happening. Here’s hoping we hear from first fathers and siblings and grandparents as well. An adoptive parent of two children from Korea has called for an end to international adoption. I’m going to post my response to Margie’s thoughtful, heartfelt post soon, but am still sifting through my thoughts.

In the meantime, please take a look at Daniel’s project. I wish him well in this project, and in his next venture, teaching at Emily Carr University in Vancouver, BC.

 

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.
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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?