Fisseha Sol Samuel: “Irreplaceably Marvelous”

He was not my son, but I see Sol Samuel in many people that I love. Born in Jimma, Ethiopia, in 1994, Fisseha was adopted 10 years ago by the writer Melissa Fay Greene and her husband Don Samuel. Fisseha became Sol Samuel, one of 9 children in a loving, active family. He was an amazing athlete, gifted at soccer, a handsome young man with a warm smile and loads of friends.

He ended his life on October 9.

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He was not my son, but I see the spirit of the vibrant, living Sol Samuel in many Ethiopian and other adoptees that I know and love. Survivors, resilient, charismatic. Great smiles. Most succeed mightily in light of day, overcoming hard pasts, interweaving two distinct realities of Life Then and Life Now. A few who struggle in the night, with painful memories, gnawing fears, and desperate desires to please others, to fill gaps, to know truths, and to trust that life won’t again fall apart.

Most, of course, carry on and do well. They occasionally stumble, but most adoptees, like the rest of us, live out their lives without despair.

Here is a cynical but factual comment I read recently: Adoption and suicide are both permanent solutions to temporary situations.There is sobering research that says that adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide. It’s here in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Not lightweight stuff, and even more startling in that the mean age of the 1000 participants was about 14. Out of the total group, which included adoptees and biological children, 56 had attempted suicide; 47 of those were adoptees.

Sol was Melissa Fay Greene’s son. I met Melissa via phone in 1999 or maybe 2000, when she interviewed me for an article she was writing about Dr. Jane Aronson. Melissa and her husband had 4 children at that time, and were in the midst of adopting a son from Bulgaria. They went on to adopt a total of 5 children, 4 of whom were from Ethiopia. Melissa has written several powerful books, including “There is No Me Without You,” about an Ethiopian woman who took in AIDS-orphaned children. More recently Melissa wrote “No Biking in the House Without a Helmet.” I may have had one conversation with Melissa since that first one some 15 years ago. My impression of her when we first talked and since then is that she is a smart, talented, warm person with a fierce devotion to her family.

She wrote a number of times about Sol, including in 2004 about his amazing athletic abilities evinced just one day after his arrival at 10 years old in the United States. In “The Flying Son,” she wrote of him, “When Fisseha ran, ambition fell away. When he ran, he was a ballet dancer alone in a studio, whirling. He was a painter dipping a brush into oil paints. He was a greyhound, flashing over the ground out of its deepest nature and joy. When Fisseha ran, he was Peter Pan, who knew how to fly.”

He was not my son, this beautiful boy will now remain forever 20 years old. So young, so terribly young. The funeral service yesterday was recorded; it is filled with prayers, with the sound of rain, and with steady, wrenching crying. Among the speakers are two of Sol’s siblings and Melissa. Besides deep grief and deeper love, in their voices there is a sense of puzzlement: How could this be, that they are eulogizing their brother, their son? How could he leave? How can he be gone?

Some adoptee suicides get a great deal of press, as in the case of L’Wren Scott, written about powerfully here. Some get very little attention. Much more research is needed in the area of adoptee mental health. Native American adoptees are said to have a high rate of suicide; certainly many struggles have been documented. Deanna Doss Shrodes of the insightful blog Adoptee Restoration has a challenging post titled “When Adoptees Want to Die.” Tough title to see in print, isn’t it? Tough post to read, speaking as an adoptive parent. Incredibly important to read, and think about, and talk about.

We are not very good as a society at talking about mental illness, or depression, or suicide. We need to learn how to talk about it better. Suicide is not often listed as a cause of death: that someone “died unexpectedly” is the phrase used in some obituaries. Unexpectedly, indeed. The shock, the heartache, the questions left behind for loved ones to handle after the beloved has ended his life are unexpected, and enormous.

I have no insights into Sol’s mind or heart, no knowledge of whether he struggled with depression or anything else. I wept as I listened to the eulogy. I feel completely confident that his was a family that would have provided (and may well have) every possible resource to help any of their children, including Sol.

My impression is that Sol’s death was nothing short of a cosmically confusing event. No warning, no overt signs. Was it something about sports, something about adoption, something about relationships? My heart aches for him, his family, his teammates, and his friends, who will now not only grieve but revisit conversations and events for clues, for explanations of the unexplainable. As a parent, as an adoptive parent, I am mindful of the fragility and the strength of our children–how much we know, and don’t know. How much we love, how little we control, how we need to keep trying and reaching out to those we love. Tomorrow is not promised to us.

It may mean nothing that Sol’s suicide occurred in October. Whatever his demons were, they did not operate on any timetable other than some tortured sense of urgency all their own. Another Ethiopian adoptee, the British poet Lemn Sissay,  wrote this on his Facebook page October 9, coincidentally the day Sol died: “When October arrives part of me leaves. I want what leaves to come back. Now.” I can imagine each member of Sol’s grieving family is saying, “I want Sol back. Now.”

Sol was Melissa and Don’s son, and his Ethiopian parents’ son, and the brother to many. Sol and every one of his siblings have a tattoo “1/9th,” said his brother Lee in the eulogy. Each child in the family is 1/9th of the child pie. Lee also said the name “Fisseha” means happiness. Melissa called Sol “irreplaceably marvelous,” “a genius of the heart,” “a natural-born athlete of joy.” May Sol-Fisseha rest in peace. May his family find strength and healing. Lemn SIssay wrote in June last year, “I’m not defined by my scars but by the incredible ability to heal.” May all of us draw strength from that.

Baruch dayan ha’emet: Blessed be the True Judge. This is a Jewish blessing (the Greene-Samuels are Jewish) said at time of death or other difficult time. Rabbi Louis Rieser says the blessing has this meaning: “In the presence of death, filled with a range of emotions (including anger), I cannot understand anything more than my loss at the hand of some power beyond my control. I can, if I must, acknowledge the power, even if I cannot endorse it at that moment. Even in my grief, I can note God’s Presence. …at this dark hour when we feel the loss deep within our being, this blessing asserts God’s Presence alongside the mourner. We are not abandoned, though we feel very much alone. We are not without consolation, though it is hard to hear any words. God stands with us as we face the mystery of death.”

Baruch dayan ha’emet.

Sol’s obituary is available here.

Update: Yesterday (October 15), Melissa Fay Greene posted this lovely message on her Facebook page. Warm wishes for continued healing.

“Thank you all for the messages of condolence. I can’t write much here yet, but will say that, although Sol took his own life, he was joyful, generous, ebullient, kind, and funny every day of the ten years we knew him, basically until last Thursday. Suddenly, inexplicably depressed over soccer, he made the worst mistake of his life. In our son Lee’s eulogy, he described Sol as the most “down for any adventure” person he’d ever met. There is no way Sol actually meant to miss out on every bit of fun he had planned for the coming year (Thanksgiving with family in Florida, his 21st birthday in January, a return to Ethiopia next summer, intermixed with the endless playfulness and fun of his everyday life), much less miss out on the infinite joys awaiting him across his lifetime. We are grateful for everyone’s loving visits, messages, and bagels. We assure you: he was the gleeful, glorious boy you knew, and the 600 or 700 or 800 people sobbing in the pouring rain at his funeral knew that, too.”

 

 

 

Of Birthdays and Memories, Friendship and Love

My dad will be 85 this December. He’s in terrific physical shape, and is still quite proud he has hair and that much of it is not yet grey. He is in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease, with very little short-term memory. Much of the time he is in good spirits, and I am forever indebted to the people who care for him at Putnam Farm in Danvers (MA), an assisted living facility. Every Friday, Dad and I Skype, no matter where in the world I am. Our conversations are similar, week to week. Yes, everyone is in good health. No, none of the kids are married.

Alzheimer’s disease takes away the brain’s abilities to think, to remember, to reason. You can use a metaphor of file cabinets. Those of us without the disease can pull files out and open them easily, chatting about what we had for lunch, aware of whom we are talking to, able to know where we are–not just the room, but the decade and the season and the time of day. People with Alzheimer’s can pull out some of the files, but they’re often not in good order, or seem written in a foreign language. Some pull out the same, familiar file and go with that. Over time, the files become hard to open, and are sometimes locked.

Dad, a Boston College grad, a writer of poetry who once handled crossword puzzles with ease, can still open a bunch of files. Some Skype visits are great, and he’s animated and able to chat easily. Words flow in the right order. The jokes he’s told a million times are delivered easily. He thanks God for good sleep. He thanks God 3, 4, 5 times for good sleep in any conversation. Sometimes, though, the words almost make sense, but one or two aren’t the right ones, and I am not sure what he’s saying. He’s alert enough to recognize that, and gets embarrassed, trying to figure out what to say to move the conversation along. He often finds a way at points like that to thank God for his good sleeping, and we all take refuge to that well-trod territory.

I don’t tell Dad anymore about any of my kids’ birthday, or mine, which is tomorrow. I used to, and he would feel badly that he hadn’t remembered, and hadn’t sent a card. He and my mom were great card-senders. In their last years together, before Mom died in 2003, they were amazing in their careful selection of cards, their use of stickers and colored pens (even when I was well into my 40’s), their thoughtful messages, their tenacity to put the cards in the mail well in advance of events. Dad did okay in remembering birthdays, and often sent cards, for a few years after Mom died.

I have had no expectation of a birthday card from Dad in recent years, and that’s fine. So when I received a card yesterday in the mail with his return address on the envelope–though the writing was my friend Sheila’s–I wondered what was up.

Sheila and I have known each other since before we had drivers’ licenses, when we rode our bikes from Danvers to Peabody along Route 114. You’d never let your kids do that today. Yet here we are, still alive, still very good friends. She had visited Dad this week.

Sheila included this note to me in the envelope: “When I visited with your dad yesterday, we were talking about age, birthdays. I mentioned your birthday was a week away, and your dad panicked. I went out and asked a nice aide if there were any extra greeting cards–hurray, she found one.

“I gave Dad the card and he very intently began writing. He twice asked me about spelling but he was fine. I never spoke while he wrote. At one point he said ‘My handwriting is awful.’ Said I, ‘It’s always been awful,’ and we smiled.

“It took your dad nearly 30 minutes to write his message to you. I took a cell photo for your memory book as this is such a precious gift from him.

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“While your dad may have forgotten much, his always strong love for you remains true and devoted. This is the gift that keeps on giving.

Your Dad is amazing.”

Here’s the message Dad wrote to me in the birthday card:

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That is the most beautiful, perfect present ever. I tear up a bit every time I look at it. What a gift. Thank you, Sheila, for helping Dad send me this card. I am so very grateful to her for her warmth, her thoughtfulness, and her compassionate heart, as we walk this journey with my Dad, who loves her very much also.

When I Skyped with Dad yesterday, he didn’t remember Sheila’s visit, and he didn’t remember it was almost my birthday. It doesn’t matter at all. In that moment when he was writing the card, Dad was writing with memories and love. That’s all that matters.

 

 

 

Running to Keep Ethiopian Families Together

On August 17, exactly 3 months from today, my daughter Aselefech, adopted at 6 years old from Ethiopia, will run a half-marathon near where she was born. She is doing this to raise money so more children in Ethiopia will have safe, loving families.

Please join her on this journey. You can donate or join her team by clicking here. All donations are tax-deductible, and the money goes directly to the charity she has chosen: Bring Love In, an organization in Ethiopia that unites widows and orphans to create new families, and prevents children from going into orphanages.

Zariyah and I will be with Aselefech in Ethiopia to cheer her on; we are hoping that members of her Ethiopian family will be there too! The half-marathon is sponsored by Ethiotrails, and will take place at the Abijatta-Shalla Lakes National Park, in the Rift Valley.

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Our family was created through adoption. My children are my joy, and I love them more than I can ever say. I believe in adoption, and want all children to have safe, loving families.

I also believe that, whenever possible, children should stay with their families, and in their home country. Bring Love In helps children who have lost their parents to AIDS or other causes to have families again, and they help widows to love and care for children who need moms. The children can keep their language, culture, and heritage, and grow up safe and strong. Families are created and preserved in a powerful way, breaking a cycle of poverty and providing hope and possibility.

Family is a big deal, and is created through ties of blood, adoption, and love.

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Please support Aselefech in her efforts to keep families together, to create new families from widows and orphans, so that all children might grow up safe and loved. Many thanks!

 

Interchangeable, Replaceable: A Reality for Adoptees?

We adoptive parents are often taught (and teach) that adoption is win-win: a child who needs a family gets one, and an adoptive family who wants a child gets one. And that’s often true. My own family was formed through adoption, and I love my children more than I  can say.

The story goes on, though, and this is where it gets complicated. For us adoptive parents to win, someone had to lose. Through poverty, illness, or a complicated (perhaps temporary) situation, someone had to agree to hand over their child, to lose their child, possibly forever.

That’s a painful reality for adoptive parents to face. It’s even harder, I would guess, for adoptees and for first parents.

Mila Konomos, a Korean adult adoptee (who loves and is loved by her adoptive family), has written a powerful, insightful essay about the loss, the complexity of it all. It’s called “I didn’t need my biological mother–I just needed a mother.”

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Adoption, Mila writes, too often suggests that adopted children are supposed to never look back. “I was supposed to be so grateful to have a family that losing my family was supposed to be a negligible event with very little effect on my life or identity.”

Adoption, she continues, “is built on the presumption that families are interchangeable or replaceable, that parents and children are interchangeable, and that ultimately, family has nothing to do with flesh and blood, or DNA and biology, but that it’s all about proximity, exposure, and amount of time together.”

She challenges us adoptive parents: “If the bond of one’s own flesh and blood ultimately doesn’t matter, then how much less of a bond, of a commitment, does friendship or marriage carry with it?”

Take time to contemplate that, as it is a hard-won and very real insight.

It’s a painful one for adoptive parents to consider. We go through a lot to adopt a child, we prepare to love them before they arrive, and we do our best to love them deeply when they are in our family. (Most do. I recognize this is not a universal truth.) It’s hard to think that we became parents of a beloved child because someone else had to give that child up. And it’s so important that we think long and hard about that truth.

Yes, of course, there are cases where the first parents were abusive toward, neglectful of, or dangerous to their children. I’m not arguing that adoption plans aren’t needed in this world. I’m joining Mila on the journey of acknowledging that adoption is rooted in loss.

I’m reading with eyes wide open her statement that “If you believe that…your role in a relationship is disposable, then you behave in such a way that those friendships and relationships don’t last, which you then use to confirm that indeed relationships do not last and that you ultimately do not matter.”

For some (not all) adoptees, that’s a complicated, lifelong challenge. I think of a baby who at four months learned to stop crying to have needs met, because those needs were not met in a loving way. I’ve seen this challenge manifest in an adult adoptee who, while charismatic, bright, and loved, often pushes his adult relationships to a messy end, in a self-sabotaging and self-fulfilling effort to prove that relationships don’t last. I’ve known adult adoptees who struggle with trusting that others will love them and not leave, who choose not to love so they can avoid being left, avoid being replaced.  Again.

Mila concludes her essay by saying that adoption has taught her “that family is inconsequentially interchangeable and replaceable. I’ve had to spend my adult life trying to unlearn this lesson and its implications, because I realize that ultimately (was) wrong. I realize now that flesh and blood connections absolutely matter, and when they are severed, there are serious psychological and social consequences.”

What’s the takeaway from all this? To me, as an adoptive parent, it’s this:

Listen to adopted children, and let them grieve the loss of their first family, in all the manifestations that grief can take. Talk about, wonder about, write letters to, connect with their first parents in whatever ways are appropriate for your family. I remember how one of my children used to weep hot tears on Mother’s Day, not being able to recall deeply important memories. We can’t always remove the pain, and it’s hard knowing that our actions are intertwined with the pain. Sometimes our best help is to let those tears flow, and not try to make them disappear right away.

Listen to adult adoptees, whether they are in your own family or they are writing and speaking out in various forums. Mila speaks of her struggles, and also of the love of her husband and the joys of her two young children. There’s a big picture here. It’s valuable.

As adoptive parents, may we revel in the joy of parenting, and become comfortable with the reality of loss and grief. But not too comfortable. May we be willing to lead or to follow, as needed, to help our children–whether 10 years old, or 16, or 30–understand who they are, where they came from, why they may feel replaceable, even as we could never replace them.

Adoption is not an end. It’s merely a part of a path that can be alternately convoluted and smooth, with very few signs to guide us. We can’t change the past, and we must not deny its realities. We must keep moving forward, together: adopted persons, adoptive parents, and first parents. That is the only way that we can effectively improve adoption policy and practice, and outcomes for children. Adopted children grow up! May we adoptive parents be their allies, always.

Please read Mila’s post carefully, wherever you are in adoption. This video of her reunion with her Korean mother is also evocative and valuable. Many thanks to Mila, and to other adoptees who share their journeys with open hearts.

 

 

 

Going Back, Giving Back: An Ethiopian Adoptee Runs For Ethiopian Orphans

My daughter Aselefech–an Ethiopian adoptee, part of the African diaspora, a mother herself–will be running a half-marathon in Ethiopia this August. And head’s up–she is doing so to give back to her country, by raising funds for an organization that is dedicated to family preservation, finding families in Ethiopia for Ethiopian orphans.

How beautiful and wonderful is that?

Aselefech and her twin sister, adopted at 6 years old, now 25 years old, have reconnected with their first family in Ethiopia. Aselefech wrote about her journey here: Far Away, Always in My Heart.

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One of their older Ethiopian brothers now lives in Seattle; the siblings have gotten to know each other well, again.

Aselefech with her brother (reunited in 2009) and her daughter. Photo: December 2012

Aselefech with her brother (reunited in 2009) and her daughter. Photo: December 2012

Aselefech is finishing up her undergraduate degree, and moving toward a master’s in social work. She writes honestly and powerfully as a columnist for Gazillion Voices, sharing her experiences with racism, with grief, with love, with loss. She’s done webinars, YouTube videos, conference workshops, and adoptee seminars, talking about the joys and the challenges of being adopted, internationally and transracially.

And now she will return to Ethiopia for the third time. Her daughter and I will be there too. We will visit with her Ethiopian family. My granddaughter will meet her Ethiopian grandmother, and play with her cousins there. Aselefech will run 13 miles with Ethiopians and others in her home country, to raise funds (via Crowdrise; please stay tuned) for Ethiopian family preservation.

Konjo. Beautiful. From sorrow and loss, we can find joy and hope.

Does “Adoption” Really Equal “Trauma”?

Yes.

To some people, this is old news (“The Primal Wound” came out in 1993.) To some, it’s a startlingly new concept. I’d argue, though, that “adoption as trauma” exists on a spectrum, as does trauma itself: some people recover well and easily, some people are forever wounded, and most are somewhere between.

A mainstream view is that adoption is a happy event: a child needing a family gets one. How, then, is adoption a trauma? That sounds so negative and scary, especially to an adoptive parent, and to an adoptee.

As an adoptive parent, I believe that adoption is all about gains and losses, joy and grief, a balance that shifts often throughout life. I also believe if we took a deep breath and viewed adoption as trauma—trauma that can be overcome, trauma that some people may experience to a small or large degree—we would be better able to help adopted children heal and grow healthy, sooner than later. I think we adoptive parents need to acknowledge trauma as part of adoption, not only for our children, but also for their first mothers (and fathers and grandparents as siblings).

I’m hardly the first to be aware of this, or to write about it. In candor, though, I’m just beginning to fully understand and accept it. Adoptive parents who have worked hard to bring a child into their lives through adoption don’t want to think that this action is in fact rooted in trauma.

I wrote in February about a yoga retreat I attended, all about healing from trauma, through yoga, writing, and nutrition. I shared a list of items that cause trauma, and I suggested that they all describe reasons children are placed for adoption.

Much research acknowledges that separation from one’s mother is trauma. Think Harlow and the baby monkeys; think Primal Wound. In the case where the separation is the result of neglect, abuse, or death, the trauma is intensified. The American Academy of Pediatrics wrote a report called “Helping Foster and Adoptive families Cope with Trauma.” Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy, a birth mother and powerful writer of the blog “Musings of the Lame,” wrote about the AAP report in her post “Assume There Is Adoption Trauma in Adoptees.”

We are hardwired to need and depend on our mothers for survival. If there is an end to that basic relationship, children suffer—even if they are infants, even if there is a new (loving, overjoyed) mother or mother-figure.

So it’s not only neglect or abuse that contribute to trauma, though please don’t minimize those challenges.

Adoption itself is trauma.

If we acknowledge that separation from one’s mother is a trauma, then we also must recognize that separation from one’s child is a trauma. When my granddaughter turned 6, I couldn’t help but think that was the age when her mother (along with her twin sister) arrived here in the US for adoption. I thought about their Ethiopian mother, and the loss of her 6-year-old twins.

Part of that thinking acknowledged the total lack of any counseling, follow-up, or therapy that is provided to many first mothers (and fathers, etc.), in the US but perhaps even more so around the globe. Providing equitable services to adoptive and to first parents must become a priority in adoption policy.

Some people, adoptees or otherwise, heal just fine from the trauma of separation. Some struggle with trust issues throughout their lives, and have a hard time beginning or ending relationships. Some are challenged with depression, anxiety, and more, throughout their lives. I want to stress that point: there is a spectrum of resilience among adopted people, and no doubt among first parents. The spectrum does not negate the need for equitable, timely services.

If adoptive parents could accept trauma as part of their newly adopted child’s reality, might they approach attachment and bonding differently? Might they see some of the post-honeymoon (the time after the adoptive placement) behaviors as grief, due to trauma? Even infants grieve.

What if pediatricians gave new adoptive parents brochures about trauma, as well as developmental checklists?

What if agencies had prospective families listen to experienced parents whose children have struggled, instead of the parents with the cute toddlers? What if agencies had adopted adults speak of their experiences around trust, stealing, lying, and depression, as well as identity and race? What if agencies acknowledged the need to provide equitable services to international first parents, to help them deal with their losses and grief?

What if we normalized trauma, as an inherent part of adoption? What if we accepted that possibility calmly, and gathered resources for our children?

I would have done a few things differently when raising my children, had I been more willing to consider trauma when they were little. Maybe I could have made their paths smoother.

Deanna Doss Schrodes is an adoptee, Christian pastor, and the writer behind “Adoptee Restoration.” Corie Skolnick is a therapist and author. Both Deanna and Corie are contributors to the excellent anthology, Adoption Reunion in the Social Media Age, edited by (adoptee, expat, writer) Laura Dennis. Deanna and Corie had a conversation via Deanna’s blog, about the subject of adoption and trauma, and it’s well worth reading and contemplating (“Ask a Therapist: How Is Trauma Part of Adoption?“).

It’s coincidental that Claudia, Deanna, Corie, and I should be writing about adoption and trauma. As I noted at the start of this post, we are hardly the first to consider it.

Still, here we have agreement among a birth/first mother, an adopted adult, a therapist, and an adoptive parent on a significant adoption issue: adoption is a trauma. Imagine what would happen if more of us talked together about challenging adoption issues.

Tremendous fights and fractures are occurring in the world of adoption right now, in terms of policy and of whose voices are being heard. Adoptive parents and prospective parents continue to dominate. It’s rare we (adopted adults. first parents, adoptive parents) all sing from the same song sheet, and there are lots of people with lots of microphones singing many different tunes. Still.

Acknowledging that adoption is trauma, understanding that trauma manifests differently in different people and over time, and allocating resources for treatment and support: that would be a positive step toward healing.

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NPR Talks With Transracial Adoptee Chad Goller-Sojourner

Today, Chad Goller-Sojourner talked with NPR host Rachel Martin about the experience of being transracially adopted. Born in 1971, he was raised in Tacoma, Washington. It wasn’t until college, Chad says, that he underwent a “descent into blackness and out of whiteness. He describes it as a journey, giving up the privileges he claimed as the child of white parents and learning to accept his identity independent of them,” according to NPR’s website.

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The NPR show, called “Growing Up ‘White,’ Transracial Adoptee Learned to Be Black,” is available here. You can listen to the show, read NPR’s description, and submit a comment.

Two weeks ago, NPR’s Sunday Conversation on Weekend Edition featured the white adoptive mom of 3 black preschoolers. NPR says that conversation “drew a lot of responses.” Indeed–well over 200 comments on their website, most of them criticizing, not complimenting, the show. Many people in the adoption community (including me) took to Twitter and blog posting, frustrated and disappointed by the show, especially because it did not include the real-life experience of someone most affected by transracial adoption: the adopted person.

I’m glad NPR listened to the concerns, and took seriously the call to broaden the perspective on transracial adoption by not further marginalizing adult adoptees. Chad Goller-Sojourner’s experience will no doubt resonate with many transracially adapted persons. Little children grow up. Adoption is a lifetime of revisiting love and loss. As Chad reflects on the show, figuring out one’s identity is complex, and sometimes painful. We adoptive parents, and anyone involved with adoption, need to listen carefully to Chad’s insights.

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Chad is an award-winning solo performer, based in Seattle. According to Artist Trust, Chad’s show Riding in Cars with Black People & Other Dangerous Acts: Memoirs of a Post Honorary White Childhood “seeks to explore the dangers, complexities and occasional hilarities associated with navigating black adult maleness in America, when your only compass is eighteen years of honorary white citizenship and suburban privilege.” Read further here.

Learn more about Chad’s work: Riding in Cars With Black People, and his earlier show, Sitting in Circles With Rich White Girls: Memoirs of a Bulimic Black Boy.

My Thoughts on “The Perilous Journey”

The CBS show “48 Hours” last night focused on a small Florida adoption agency, Celebrate Children International (CCI), and two adoptions that the agency handled (mishandled) in Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Click on Perilous Journey to watch the show. (I’m not sure the link will work outside the US.)

There is so much I could say about The Perilous Journey. I’m going to make a few points, and hope that discussions will continue.

CCI, the Hague Convention, and the Universal Accreditation Act

CCI, the agency under the spotlight on “48 Hours” will likely be out of business soon, though not because of this show. In July 2014, all US adoption agencies must comply with the Universal Accreditation Act, in order to facilitate international adoptions. 

There is a global treaty called The Hague Convention on International Adoptions. The US signed (in 1994)  and ratified it (in 2007). The intent is to protect the rights and responsibilities of everyone involved in an adoption: birth/first parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees. The Convention is not without its critics.

To work in countries that have ratified the Hague Convention (such as China), adoption agencies have to become “Hague-accredited,” or approved,  a lengthy process overseen here in the US by the Council on Accreditation. Not all agencies have chosen to become accredited. Non-accredited agencies could still work in countries that had not ratified the Hague Convention.

The UAA requires them to become accredited or approved, whether they work in countries that have signed/ratified the Hague Convention or not. Ethiopia, for example, has neither signed nor ratified the Hague Convention; the Republic of Korea has signed but not ratified. You can see a list of current Hague Convention countries here.

Before the UAA, agencies like CCI which were not accredited under the Hague Convention could work in countries that had not ratified the Hague Convention. That would include Ethiopia, Congo, and Nepal, for example. Once the UAA is implemented, all agencies must be accredited or approved under the Hague Convention no matter what countries they are placing children from.

Right now, CCI can work in Congo and Ethiopia, as shown in the “48 Hours” show, but not in China. CCI was denied Hague accreditation in 2008 and in 2012. See the list of agencies (including CCI) denied Hague accreditation here. I cannot imagine that CCI will receive approval under the Universal Accreditation Act.

The UAA is a big deal, with huge ramifications for the future of intercountry adoption. Will it solve all problems? No. Will there be fewer adoption agencies working in international adoption? Yes. Will fewer children be adopted internationally? Yes, at least initially.

Will hundreds of thousands of children around the globe still be in need of safe and loving families? Yes.

Will the damage already done by fraud and corruption in international adoption be changed by the new law? Not at all. Whether the fraud and corruption was done by the adoption agency, by the agency’s staff in-country, by the original family, by child traffickers in the shadows, by the adoptive family: it is damage that can perhaps be mitigated but not erased.

I am no lawyer, and my discussion above barely skims the surface of international adoption complexity. Anyone looking to adopt needs to be aware of the UAA, and talk with their adoption agency about it. The US State Department’s information about the UAA is available here.

Here is an Orlando Sentinel article about CCI.

Additional Thoughts on The Perilous Journey

The fact that “48 Hours” focused an investigation on one agency is due to the approach of “48 Hours,” not because only one adoption agency is problematic. The complex problems remain, and many do not have the drama, thumping music, and races to the airport of last night’s show.

May we keep our eyes, minds, and hearts open to improving the international adoption process.

Watching the little girls traveling from Congo to Kentucky, thinking about the fact that their world has changed in astonishing ways, I was reminded of my twin daughters’ arrival from Ethiopia to Maryland in 1994, at 6 years old. We (their adoptive parents and brothers) had waited so long, planned so much, and had so many frustrating ups and downs along the process.

Over time, it dawned on me what the journey meant to them: trauma. One day you are a small child in a familiar world. The next day you are a small child in a different galaxy, where people look totally different, want to hug you lots, don’t speak your language, and have an abundance of material wealth (toys, clean bed linens, space, food, so much of everything). I am in awe of what we expected from the girls, and of their resilience. We’ve dealt with joy, love, grief, denial, loss, laughter, sorrow, and healing, all of us, and we continue to do so.

May the reality of a child’s trauma in moving from one country to another–even as it may be “better” for the child–not be minimized. May we adoptive parents in our joy not lose track of what our children have left behind, both bad and good.

No adult adoptee voice was featured in this show, with the exception of the reporter Maureen Maher, a US adoptee.

May the voices of adult international adoptees  and first/original families be fully included in conversations (including TV and radio shows) about international adoption.

I smiled seeing Mrs. Owen using her flat-iron on her hair as she commented on the adoption process. She will now be caring for two daughters whose hair is different from hers. Hair and skin care is not a trivial subject in transracial and international adoption. It is a complex, emotional issue of beauty, identity, and culture.

May we all look to understand what beauty means and involves, outside of our own perspective.

Shows like “48 Hours” evoke a lot of emotional responses, and exist forever on-line and in people’s minds. I always wonder about the privacy of the children. They deserve a voice, especially in cases of fraud, corruption, and trafficking. They also deserve privacy and respect. I acknowledge that I am playing a part in spreading these children’s stories by my post here. I am always seeking balance, and it’s not easy.

May we find a proper balance between meeting children’s needs and exploiting them. May we take seriously the information we share, and recognize the ramifications.

Seeing Fernanda with her mother and siblings, seeing Betsy Emanuel’s conflicting emotions–that was hugely powerful on last night’s show. So much to think about.

There are no quick fixes in international adoption, no magic wands. The economic imbalances between adoptive parents and original parents loom so large to me.

May we keep working together, even as we hear and see what we wish would go away. May all children have safe and loving families.

My July 2013 post “Reflections on Hana: Acknowledging the Failure of the Adoption Community,” may be of interest.

May all of us involved in the adoption community take responsibility, and work together, to help vulnerable children (who grow up!) and families in respectful, ethical, transparent ways.

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New Gazillion Voices: Powerful and Free

Gazillion Voices, the only online adoptee-led, adoptee-centric magazine, published its 6th edition today–and all content is free for the week. There are essays, videos, a podcast, and articles about Positive Adoption Language, the LGBT community, poetry, and much more. Congratulations to everyone affiliated with Gazillion Voices for the successful launch and now 6 months’ worth of publication. Well done.

Among the articles is one by my daughter Aselefech, “On Closure and Loss.”  Click here to access that essay, and the rest of the magazine. You’ll see why I, as an adoptive parent, feel so strongly about the need for the voices of adopted persons and of original/first parents to be heard and honored. The journey of adoption is complicated, ongoing, and profound. My thanks to Aselefech, and to each of the writers who share their stories and tip their hearts so generously.

Aselefech with (part of) her Ethiopian family: her father and two brothers.

Aselefech with (part of) her Ethiopian family: her father and two brothers.

The Band-Aid of Heritage and Culture Camps: An Adoptee Perspective

“I had the privilege of attending this summer’s Ethiopian Heritage and Culture Camp in Virginia as a guest speaker. The camp is wonderful. It is designed, not only for families with adopted Ethiopian children, but for Ethiopian-American families as well. Nevertheless, most of the families there looked like mine did when I was a child. While I loved seeing the little kids and enjoyed Ethiopian food, crafts, and clothing, it was through dialogue with many adoptive parents that I was better able to understand where adoptive families stand in regards to grasping the responsibilities of raising a child of color, and how much or how little agencies prepare families…”

That’s an excerpt from a powerful article called The Band-Aid of Heritage and Culture Camps, and What They Cover Up by Aselefech Evans, an Ethiopian adult adoptee, writing as a columnist in the current issue of Gazillion Voices.

I wrote about the Ethiopian Heritage and Culture Camp here and about the Ethiopian panelists (which included Aselefech) Speaking Their Truth here.

(L-R) Nunu Worke, Aselefech Evans, Adanech Evans

(L-R) Nunu Worke, Aselefech Evans, Adanech Evans

Full disclosure: Aselefech is one of my favorite people in the world. She is also my daughter, adopted in 1994 along with her twin sister Adanech, when they were 6 years old. (Adanech is another of my favorites, along with my sons and granddaughter.) Aselefech has reunited with her Ethiopian family, and wrote one of the most viewed posts ever on my blog, Far Away, Always in My Heart. She’s presented workshops and webinars about her experiences as a transracial, older, international adoptee. She speaks candidly, and from her heart. I’ve always encouraged my children to speak their truths, and they have. That can seem like a mixed blessing perhaps, if your children are writing and speaking out about their experiences as adoptees, and as people of color, and those experiences have not always been positive.

Therein, though, lies the genuine blessing: what a gift to be able to witness the honesty and reality and insights of my daughter. She demonstrates, I believe, the fundamental truth of adoption. It is often filled with both love and loss, held together at the same time, tilting one way or the other at other times. We adoptive parents decide to bring children into our lives, and in so doing, we are part of the lost life they might have had, with the family (and culture, language, heritage, race, traditions, history) into which they were born, into which (for good or bad) most children stay. Aselefech loves her dad and me, and we love her. Now 25 years old, Aselefech has struggled with the complexity that is transracial, international adoption. We (her adoptive parents) cannot take that pain away, but we can be open to her journey, joining her sometimes, knowing that the journey is hers alone.

Another excerpt from Aselefech’s article in Gazillion Adoptees:

“As an adoptive parent, when you choose to adopt internationally you must understand the cultural ramifications of removing a child from his or her culture. You must take on the overwhelming responsibility to keep them connected to their country of origin, the place from which you have taken them. You must surround them with a variety of people who look like them. Children’s attitudes towards their own race are deeply influenced by their interactions and observations of those around them. Will most of the children muddle through and eventually form a decent racial and cultural identity if you don’t offer all of this? Maybe. But what right do you have to make them pay that price?”

Powerful words. Aselefech has gotten some pushback, asking if she’s “anti-adoption.” She’s also gotten some wonderful, positive response for her courage and candor. I’m very proud of her. Like many adoptees these days, she provides a voice from a diaspora. I hope the world listens.