Rape, Race, Education: How Justice Failed a Black Adoptee

The judge says it was not a rape case, nor was it about racial bias. While the determination of rape may be legally correct, the case was assuredly about race.

On February 24, Idaho Judge Randy Stoker sentenced a white high school football player, John RK Howard, to probation and 300 hours of community service for an attack in which a black, developmentally disabled teen (also on the football team) was lured into a hug with a teammate, and then another teammate shoved a hanger in the teen’s anus. Howard kicked the hanger further into the teen. Howard was initially charged with forcible penetration by use of a foreign object, and ultimately pled guilty to a lesser charge of felony injury to a child.

The black teen is a transracial adoptee. It’s taken me a few days to post about the case, given its tragic outcome. While there certainly can be gains in adoption, there is also loss, and this young man has lost a great deal.

I cannot imagine the psychological and physical pain the young man has endured as a result of that vicious incident. My sense is that he was struggling to fit in, as a black person in a tiny almost all white, Idaho town, thinking that the football players were his friends, putting up with bullying and taunts because he wanted to be accepted in a football-focused town.

Probation and 300 hours of community service seems an astonishingly light punishment for the perpetrator. What a message it sends to a locker room culture that tolerates, if not encourages, violence and racism.

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Equally disturbing, though, are remarks the Judge Stoker made about the case as he discussed his rationale for sentencing.

Stoker said it was not a rape case. I am not a lawyer, but I am guessing that this perspective is based on Idaho’s sexual assault laws that say rape is defined as the penetration, however slight, of the anal (or oral or vaginal) opening with a penis. Stoker said, “This is not a rape case. This is not a sex case…Whatever happened in that locker room was not sexual. It wasn’t appropriate.”

No, inserting a hanger in someone’s anus is not appropriate. It should be criminal.

Stoker also said this “was not a case about racial bias.” Speaking to Howard, the judge, a 66-year-old white man, said, “If I thought you had committed this offense for racial purposes, you would go straight to the Idaho penitentiary.”

It’s hard to see the judge’s statement as anything but naïve, disingenuous, and dangerous.

Howard and other members of the Dietrich High School football team, in a town of 335 people, had taunted and bullied the victim for months before the October 2015 event. One documented pre-season incident, not directly connected with this case, reminded me of a scene from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I wrote about it here: Battle Royal: Racism, Football, and an Adoptee in Idaho.

But this case, says Stoker, was not about racial bias. Stoker may well be a qualified judge (elected to the district court since 2007). His understanding of racial bias, though, is, and I am being polite, sorely lacking.

“The coaches admitted the victim was called fried chicken, grape soda, and Kool-Aid, but only because he said he liked those things.” (You can see video of the judge’s comments here.) Judge Stoker then said, “I don’t think that’s a racial slur. If it is, I guess I’m not very educated.”

I guess not. Those are all slurs, longstanding and historic. Here are a few explanations:

Making Fried Chicken and Watermelon Racist

Judge says Dietrich locker room crime was not racially motivated.

Where Did That Fried Chicken Stereotype Come From?

The judge might want to take a look at Code Switch and Black People Are Not Here To Teach You About Race. He might have more free time to peruse these things, as there is a change.org petition with over 166,000 signatures calling for his removal from the bench.

This is not a case entirely about race, I realize, though white privilege is absolutely at its core. At the end of the day, it is about the horrific, violent way one young human being treated another young human being. It is about how power and privilege play out when racial slurs are considered nicknames, when a vulnerable youth is abused verbally and otherwise yet school officials look away, and when bullying becomes physical violence in a locker room. Make no mistake, though: race plays a central, painful role here.

Imagine if it were your child, wanting to be part of the team, who was so violently violated. Learn, act, and do not look away.

 

White Adoptive Parents of Black Children: How Uncomfortable Are You?

Given recent events, I hope you are extremely uncomfortable, and ready to take action.

Being uncomfortable is good. We white folks should be uncomfortable, and especially so if we are raising black children. We should not be dismissive or defensive. We should recognize that the slurs, racism, and worse that have happened to so many black children, men, and women can and will also happen to our beloved children.

As an American, as a white person, as the parent of transracially adopted children, I am uncomfortable, sad, grieving, confused, and at a loss about the multiple acts of violence in Louisiana, Texas, and Minnesota. Add hate-based political rhetoric, plus the onslaught of videos, tweets, hashtags and blog posts, and the whole thing is overwhelming.

We must learn to become comfortable in the difficult, challenging conversations about these recent violent events. We must have these conversations for the sake of our children. I get that it’s hard, and we have to support each other as we move through these hard times. (And if we white people find things exhausting, what must it be like to live the racism and conflict on a daily basis as a person of color?)

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So what do we do?

For one thing, we must understand the difference between #AllLIvesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter. Saying ‪#‎AllLivesMatter‬ is an anesthetized, self-soothing way of negating the raw realities of life in America.

Of course #AllLivesMatter. Saying that, however, dismisses the reality of black people’s history and lives. Black women have had the right to vote in all 50 states only since 1964. Black men are disproportionately represented in prison. Black children are disproportionately suspended from school, even in kindergarten. My black granddaughter was told by her white third grade classmate that the classmate’s grandpa would shoot a black person who tried to enter his home. That was the explanation as to why my granddaughter would not be going over to play at her classmate’s house. I’ve witnessed too much, on an academic and personal level, to be able to blithely say #AllLivesMatter. It’s a phrase that slams the door, loudly and firmly, on the genuine, hard, uncomfortable conversations that must take place, if our country is ever going to change.

‪#‎BlackLivesMatter: Understand and be able to speak out about this.

Resources:

“The Next time Someone Says ‘All Lives Matter,’ Show Them These Five Paragraphs”

“The Problem With Saying ‘All Lives Matter’

Uncomfortable conversations are a good first step. Reading essays and books that challenge, disturb, and rile us is good. Attending meetings, in the name of racial and social justice, where we are outsiders and uncomfortable is also good. Here are a few thoughts.

First, be intentional in seeking out writing and information on racism from black people and other people of color. White people can have a voice, but we are not the experts on racism; the value of our advice is mitigated by our privilege. Starting points might be Michelle Alexander, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Johnetta Elzie and DeRay Mckesson. There are lots more.

Recognize that it is not the responsibility or obligation of black people to educate us white people about race.

Resources:

“Black People Are Not Here To Teach You About Race”

“What Writers of Color Say We Should Read Now”

Verna Myers Ted Talk: “How To Overcome Our Biases? Walk Boldly Towards Them”

“How To Talk About Race With Your Kids”

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Second, if in this last week you did not talk with your black friends about how they are doing and feeling, you may need to accept that you don’t have close black friends. And you should, if you are raising black children.

Third, step out of your comfort zone further and attend meetings of black community organizers, meetings where you as a white person may be asked to defer to the voices and experiences of black people. To be silent. To move to the side, and listen.

It could be a great opportunity to see what it feels like to be treated differently because of your race.

If there are not any black community organizers where you live, pause and think about the role models and racial mirrors available to your child. Is he or she genuinely well-prepared for being black in America?

 

The challenge of social justice is to evoke a sense of community that we need to make our nation a better place, just as we make it a safer place.

— Marian Wright Edelman

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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Dietrich High School football team practice

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

 

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

I get that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Battle Royal: Racism, Football, and an Adoptee in Idaho

In 1952, Ralph Ellison published “Invisible Man,” a classic, highly acclaimed novel. The first chapter, “Battle Royal,” tells of a black boy in his senior year of high school. He is invited to deliver his high school graduation speech in front of “the town’s leading white citizens.” He feels honored, and wants to do his best.

Things change when he and nine other black boys arrive at the hotel ballroom.

Suddenly I heard the school superintendent, who had told me to come, yell, “Bring up the shines, gentlemen! Bring up the little shines!”

The boys are blindfolded in a boxing ring to fight each other while prominent white folks smoke cigars and yell slurs and laugh.

My saliva became like hot bitter glue. A glove connected with my head, filling my mouth with warm blood. It was everywhere. I could not tell if the moisture I felt upon my body was sweat or blood. A blow landed hard against the nape of my neck. I felt myself going over, my head hitting the floor. Streaks of blue light filled the black world behind the blindfold. I lay prone, pretending that I was knocked out, but felt myself seized by hands and yanked to my feet. “Get going, black boy! Mix it up!” My arms were like lead, my head smarting from blows. I managed to feel my way to the ropes and held on, trying to catch my breath.

The fighting doesn’t last long, but it’s brutal.

It seemed a whole century would pass before I would roll free, a century in which I was seared through the deepest levels of my body to the fearful breath within me and the breath seared and heated to the point of explosion. It’ll all be over in a flash, I thought as I rolled clear. It’ll all be over in a flash.

But not yet, the men on the other side were waiting, red faces swollen as though from apoplexy as they bent forward in their chairs. Seeing their fingers coming toward me I rolled away as a fumbled football rolls off the receiver’s fingertips, back into the coals. That time I luckily sent the rug sliding out of place and heard the coins ringing against the floor and the boys scuffling to pick them up and the M.C. calling, “All right, boys, that’s all. Go get dressed and get your money.”

When the boys return, they are told to get the coins and bills lying on the floor.

I lunged for a yellow coin lying on the blue design of the carpet, touching it and sending a surprised shriek to join those rising around me. I tried frantically to remove my hand but could not let go. A hot, violent force tore through my body, shaking me like a wet rat. The rug was electrified. The hair bristled up on my head as I shook myself free. My muscles jumped, my nerves jangled, writhed. But I saw that this was not stopping the other boys. Laughing in fear and embarrassment, some were holding back and scooping up the coins knocked off by the painful contortions of the others. The men roared above us as we struggled.

The boy is then told to give his speech.

I spoke automatically and with such fervor that I did not realize that the men were still talking and laughing until my dry mouth, filling up with blood from the cut, almost strangled me. I coughed, wanting to stop and go to one of the tall brass, sand-filled spittoons to relieve myself, but a few of the men, especially the superintendent, were listening and I was afraid. So I gulped it down, blood, saliva and all, and continued.

My source for the “Battle Royal” quotes is here.

 

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Last year, in Idaho, a 17-year-old black young man, a senior in a rural, predominately white high school in Idaho. participated in a preseason football camp. He was the only black player on the team. According to news reports, players and coaches organized fist fights to help players “toughen up.” One night, the young man and a white teammate, John R. K. Howard, were assigned to fight.

The young man was placed in the middle of a circle wearing boxing gloves to face John Howard, who was bare fisted. John Howard is much bigger and stronger than the young man, who had never worn boxing gloves nor ever participated in boxing.

Howard knocked down the young man several times before finally knocking him unconscious.

The beating of the young man was accompanied by catcalls, taunts, and racial epithets from the football players/students in full view of coaches who not only failed to prevent the abuse but actively promoted it.

On October 23, 2015, allegedly, according to news reports, after football practice, the young man was offered a hug by a teammate. As the young man wrapped his arms around his teammate, another teammate shoved a coat hanger in the young man’s rectum. John Howard kicked the coat hanger several times.

The above information is from this news article.

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A Dietrich High School football team practice

 

Ellison’s “Battle Royal” is a work of fiction, told by an unnamed narrator, a stark story that is full of violence, violation of trust, racism, and both power and powerlessness. It’s hard to read, because the high school boy is honored to be asked to deliver his speech to the important folks in the town, is then humiliated and degraded, is abused by the surprise of an electrified rug, and then is told to deliver his speech, swallowing saliva, blood, and dignity.

When I first heard about the Dietrich football team rape, I didn’t want to learn more. The young man in Idaho (unnamed in news reports) was adopted, when he was four years old, by white parents. I am the white adoptive mother of two black daughters and two black sons. The young man, this black adoptee, has been so wrongly and horrifically isolated, abused, and traumatized. I have much more to say and write from my perspective in the adoption community.

For now, for today, I cannot shake “Battle Royal” from my head, nor this young man’s experience from my heart.

 

 

 

 

A Black Adoptee in White Seattle

My daughter Aselefech, adopted from Ethiopia at 6 years old and raised near Washington, DC, and her daughter moved out here to Seattle last summer. It has been eye-opening for each of us. We all love the beauty of the trees, lakes, and mountains. We have eaten great food, gone to wonderful concerts and lectures, and, yes, enjoyed all kinds of coffee and beer. Still, my experience as a white person in liberal, progressive Seattle has been different from hers as a person of color and an adoptee, and from her daughter’s, as a child of color.

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I am thrilled that Aselefech is writing about her experience, and is sharing her insights. We’ve talked a lot about what growing up in an all-white environment might be like for transracial adoptees, as well as how racism affects people of color as individuals (for example, the microaggressions of daily life) and as part of a larger group (reactions to national news reports on black boys and men being killed by police; or how #blacklivesmatter is accepted and rejected). There are no easy solutions: just a lot of courageous conversations, plus faith that open hearts will listen and effective action will follow.

Here’s an excerpt from Aselefech’s post today. Read the whole post on her blog, EthioAmerican Daughter.

“The harsh reality of living in a predominately white environment is that your space is violated intentionally and unintentionally more often than you’d like through microagressive comments and other forms of racism. You begin to feel and internalize the weight of racial scrutiny. This is true for my child, and for me, an adult. My world started feeling unfamiliar, more intense, and I began to observe everything that made me different from the people around me: my name, my hair, my blackness. Those differences made me become more conscious than ever of my race and reality. They reminded me that racism is systemic, and that liberal empathy is an insufficient solution.”

 

 

Predicting the Future of Intercountry Adoption at the JCICS-NCFA 2015 Conference

Yesterday I attended the “Putting Families First” conference held by the Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS) and the National Council For Adoption (NCFA). My workshop proposal for the conference, “Finding Common Ground in Policies and Practice, which included three adult adoptee panelists, had been rejected, but I was invited to participate on a panel titled “Predicting the Future of Intercountry Adoption.”

The audience was standing room only. I’d guess about 100 people attended.

Adoption professionals cite the Hague Convention, the Council on Accreditation, and the Department of State as reasons for the decline in the number of international adoptions. I argued that adoptions have declined because of the following:

  • Fraud and corruption.
  • Reports of maltreatment and abuse of international adoptees.
  • The role of money in adoption: high costs to adopt; the economic imbalance between adoptive parents and first families; the adoption tax credit; online fundraisers for adoption; adoptive parents’ financial contributions to first families after adoption; and more.
  • Religion: complications and misunderstandings of Christianity, Biblical interpretations, “savior complexes,” and more.
  • Social media: bloggers and twitter campaigns, especially by adult adoptees.
  • Increasing awareness of the need for family preservation: the economics suggest far more children could be helped that way (and kept out of orphanages) than through intercountry adoption.

I argued that if you are responsible for policies that involve children of color and immigrants, you must welcome, instigate, and engage in the complicated conversations around race, racism, systemic oppression, and white privilege.

All of these issues should be the subject by themselves of future conferences and workshops by JCICS and NCFA.

I asked these questions:

Given that there are hundreds of thousands of adult international adoptees, why are so few adoptees involved in adoption advocacy?

Please pause over that question.

Why do adoption conferences and policy meetings have almost exclusively western white people, many of whom are adoptive parents?

I believe that historic marginalization of adult adoptees is the reason. I’d argue that it’s because their voices and experiences have been marginalized in the past. From my speech: “The traditional narrative has been gratitude and integration. The adoption community, dominated by adoptive parents, has not always wanted to hear the struggles and the grief of many adoptees and first families.

Many adult adoptees do not want to express any unhappiness for fear of hurting their adoptive parents, or of being dismissed as ungrateful. That said, many adult adoptees are speaking out publicly now, creating new organizations, criticizing agencies, using social media, and publishing books. It makes no sense to ignore them. If international adoption is going to continue, adoptees—the activists, the academics, the writers, the therapists, the bloggers, the researchers, the playwrights, the poets, the artists–need to be robustly invited into development of policies and practices. They are not going away. Until they have a place at the table, international adoption will continue to decline.”

Adoptions will also decline unless the voices and experiences of international first families are documented, preserved, and shared in a meaningful way, anytime that there are policy or practice discussions. Their absence at those discussions speaks volumes about whose perspective is most valued in international adoption.

Would we be okay with a conference on Christianity that had only a few Christians attending? A conference on social work that had no social workers? Why are we okay with adoption conferences and policy meetings that are missing significant segments of the adoption community?

In terms of predictions, here are my thoughts:

  • Adoptions will continue to decline unless adult adoptees and first families are included in conferences and policy discussions in advocacy groups, Congress, the Hague, and around the world.
  • Adoptions will continue to decline unless fraud and corruption are overtly acknowledged, not just discussed among agency workers.
  • Openness will be the norm in international adoption, and needs to be promoted by agencies as a positive development. That said, openness is complicated.
  • DNA technologies and social media will expand connections between adoptees and their birth families.
  • Most international adoptions will be for special needs children, another reason that pre- and post-adoption and resources must be strengthened.

While the conference goes on for three more days, I attended only yesterday. In a follow-up post, I will write about the topics explicitly missing from the conference workshops (i.e., assisted reproductive technologies, “re-homing”), and about an exchange regarding  adoption activists ( a term which apparently functions as a code word for “angry adoptees”) in Korea.

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New England winter. Photo © Maureen McCauley Evans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tempest of Rachel Dolezal

The story of Rachel Dolezal doesn’t have legs: it has octopus arms and labyrinthine twists. Its reach and longevity have been astonishing, and speak to the fragility and pain of understanding race in this world.

I wonder about giving so much attention to someone who has not brought something good into dialogue. That, of course, is too often the nature of information and media today.  The people laboring in civil rights and human rights–doing positive, life-changing work–will never get the kind of coverage that Rachel Dolezal has received.

Among the many mysteries of the Dolezal story has been the role of adoption and the meaning of “transracial.” As the white parent of four transracially adopted children, now all young adults, I’ve never been and never will be black or biracial. I believe I’ve been an imperfect ally, aware of both racism and of white privilege, aware of the need for mentors and role models for my children, aware that exclusion, indignities, and micro aggressions are part of my beloved children’s lives.

The novelty of Rachel Dolezal has captured many keyboards, many hours of time by many people. As someone long involved in transracial adoption issues, I hope to see conversations about race and identity continue, especially in a public forum, though not necessarily focused on one individual. We have such a long way to go, and so many people in our racial and adoptive community continue to be voiceless and vulnerable.

All that said lol, as an ally, I’d be remiss if I did not mention these articles about the realities of transracial adoptees in light of the Dolezal discussions. Important words here.

“Transracial Lives Matter: Rachel Dolezal and the Privilege of Racial Manipulation”

“Rachel Dolezal Draws Ire of Transracial Adoptees”

“Open Letter: Why Co-Opting ‘Transracial’ in the Case of Rachel Dolezal is Problematic”

 

Reflections on the American Adoption Congress Conference: Educate, Advocate, Legislate

I was in Cambridge, MA, recently for the national conference of the American Adoption Congress. Most of the people at the AAC conference looked like me, a white woman. I could easily have been mistaken for an adoptee from the Baby Scoop Era, or for a mother who placed a child during that time. Those two descriptions would fit most of the people there: adoptees or first/birth mothers. As an adoptive parent, I was in the minority. As a middle-aged white woman, I was in the majority.

The AAC has been around since the late 1970’s. Its legislative advocacy has been focused on open records/access to original birth certificates for adoptees. Some AAC members have been working on that goal for decades, and I am in awe of their dedication and determination. Certainly there has been major progress (see Ohio, most recently), though work remains to be done.

I first attended an AAC conference some 20 years ago, in Virginia, when Bill Pierce of the National Council For Adoption was still alive and intensely fighting open records. (This link is to all Bill’s NCFA files on closed records and more, papers which reside now at the University of Minnesota.) Bastard Nation was emerging. Activism then did not have the current (and relative) ease of social media.

Social media has of course changed everything in terms of advocacy, for open records and for many other important causes. One takeaway for me from the AAC conference was this: While opening adoption records and increasing access to original birth certificates remains a priority for AAC, the fight in state legislatures is slowly becoming moot. That’s not because more people are understanding the need for open records. It’s because Facebook is connecting adoptees and birth parents, and because old opponents of open records are retiring or dying. Also, technology around DNA is reducing the need for legislative access–people are finding their previously unknown family members via  databases (genetic genealogy) such as Family Tree DNA, 23andme, and ancestry.com.

Well.

That changes the landscape in a very big way, and suggests that the AAC conference slogan of “Educate, Advocate, Legislate” must open to new possibilities. The fight for open records on the state level remains, and is incredibly important. However, other issues in adoption are vital as well, though I heard about them mostly in conversations between sessions:

  • Rehoming of adopted children (US and international)
  • Retroactive citizenship for international adoptees
  • The adoption tax credit
  • Overhaul of the home study evaluation process
  • Support and resources for transracial adoptees, whether from the US or elsewhere
  • Support and resources for first/birth/original mothers and fathers
  • Support and resources for late discovery adoptees (I met three at the AAC conference, who had found out they were adopted at 18, 35, and 43 years of age.)

All of these are important, and deserve the time and attention of organizations like AAC and others. For what it’s worth, I don’t see these issues explicitly on the schedule for the June conference of the National Council For Adoption and the Joint Council on International Children’s Services. Hmm.

Beyond the policy and legislative actions, there are at least two additional related and complex issues must be addressed, openly and boldly, by all adoption-related organizations: racial realities in adoption and suicide in adoption.

Racial Realities in Adoption

The AAC appears to be making a solid effort at acknowledging transracial adoptees and interracial adoptive families. They have two transracial adoptees on their Board of Directors, Susan Harris O’Connor and Krista Woods. Two of the four keynote speakers were people of color: Rhonda Roorda and Rev. Dr. Nicholas Cooper-Lewter. One of the documentaries shown was You Have His Eyes, the story of transracial adoptee Chris Wilson. April Dinwoodie of the Donaldson Institute on Adoption presented a workshop called “What My White Parents Didn’t Know and Why I Turned Out Okay Anyway.” Mi Ok Bruining, a Korean adoptee, presented a workshop on “The Poetry of International Adoption.” Katherine Kim and Noel Cross facilitated a workshop on “Mixed Race Adoptees;” both are mixed race Korean adoptees. The Adoption Roundtable” featured 4 transracial adoptees. (The audience for this group was unfortunately quite small, though I get it. The potential audience might have been transracial adoptees and white adoptive parents. Neither group was significant in the conference attendees.)

The panel that got a large audience and generated a lot of conversation was “Lost Daughters: Diverse Narratives Within the Collective Adoptee Voice.” This panel included 10 of the women from the online writing collective Lost Daughters, and included same race and transracial infant adoptees, a Korean adoptee, an Ethiopian adoptee raised in Canada, a foster care transracial adoptee, and a Native American adoptee. Given that most of the AAC conference attendees are female adoptees and first mothers, it’s not surprising that the Lost Daughters panel was well-attended.

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The Lost Daughters panel at the 2015 American Adoption Congress conference

 

One of the panelists, Amira Rose, wrote a powerful article on the Lost Daughters site reflecting on her experience at the AAC conference. Her post, “Sight Unseen: Navigating Adoption Spaces as an Adoptee of Color,” is insightful, and invites thoughtful reflection.

My sense is that AAC is moving toward inclusion of adoptees and first mothers of color, and I hope they do so. The challenge is bringing people of color into a group with few people of color: who wants to be the “other,” the “only,” the token? (See Amira’s article above.) I recognize that it is my white privilege that suggests this be done, and that it could be. As the white adoptive parent of 4 black adoptees, I know there is much to be learned from adoptees and birth/first parents of color. We all need to be talking together about realities of race and racism.

Suicide in Adoption

This was not a topic of a panel or keynote, but it needs to be, and at every adoption-related conference. At the AAC conference, an adult adoptee from India talked about having been a mentor to a 16-year-old Indian adoptee who had recently committed suicide. Wrenching and heartbreaking. It’s so tempting to pause, provide sympathy, and then move on. And we can’t do that anymore. Trauma is part of adoption; depression is a reality for many people. Genetics can provide some clues, but too often adoptees do not know their own medical history. Adolescence for adoptees can be difficult in the best circumstances; add the intensity of current climate of bullying and racism, and it’s a dangerous world. The American Academy of Pediatrics published a report saying that adoptees are more likely to commit suicide than non-adoptees. I have known and heard of far too many adoptees, especially in their teens, who have considered, attempted, and committed suicide.

Educate, Advocate, Legislate. The AAC conference provided me with much food for thought (this is just a morsel), plus the joy of meeting old and new friends. I have little doubt that young adopted adults will lead the way in changing adoption policy, and I am heartened that first/birth parents are less marginalized as well. We adoptive parents need to be involved and engaged as well. And we all have to be unafraid of the hard conversations.

International Adoption in 2030: Predicting the Future

Although my workshop proposal for the Joint Council on International Children’s Services and the National Council For Adoption conference was rejected (read about it here), I was invited to participate on a conference panel called “Predicting the Future in Intercountry Adoption.” This post is a starting point for my remarks. I would welcome the thoughts of others, especially adult adoptees, on their predictions.

Here’s a glimpse into the future of international adoption, even as soon as 15 years from now: Adult adoptees hold the microphone in terms of adoption policies and practices. Part of their involvement will be insistence on improved post-adoption services. Transracial adoptees continue to deal with racism in a world where too often racism is dismissed. Thousands of adult adoptees, many raised by white parents, return to visit and to live in the countries where they were born. Many find out that the information their adoptive parents were given is wrong. Many who were told they would never find their first/birth family do, in fact, find them. The unadopted siblings (those who stayed with the birth/first family) of international adoptees search and find their adopted sibs via Facebook or vk.com or other Internet connections. Birth/first/natural mothers and fathers will begin speaking out and sharing their truths, and their stories will be translated, preserved, and honored.

How prepared is the adoption community for these changes? How well are agencies and others addressing the realities of racism, identity, and grief after adoption?

A glimpse at the past, from which we are supposed to learn: “Adversity, Adoption,and Afterwards,” a longitudinal report by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, looked at the lives of about 70 women adopted from Hong Kong to Britain in the 1960’s. The average age of the women in the study was 48. Most did well. Still, “The majority of the women encountered racism not just in childhood and adolescence, but also as adults in current day Britain. Some said that they were able to seek support from their adoptive families, or others close to them, in coping and managing racist incidents, while others described feeling isolated and not able to share this with anyone. For some it was not easy living with the fact of being from a different ethnic background and visibly different from their adoptive families. This could result for some having a sense of not belonging or not feeling able to identify with either white British or Chinese communities. By mid-life most of the women who experienced this had found ways to adequately deal with such feelings, which is not to minimise how difficult this had been for some.”

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While it’s good that by mid-life (!) most of the adoptees had found ways to adequately deal with feelings of not belonging and not identifying with their communities, that’s a long time to endure those feelings.

Recently, the global adoption community has been rattled by two mainstream media articles about adult adoptees. One was Shaaren Pine’s article in the Washington Post, “Please Don’t Tell Me I was Lucky To Be Adopted.” Another was the New York Times magazine cover story, “Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea.”

There are some 250,000 Korean adoptees all around the globe. They are the oldest ones, in their 50’s and 40’s, many in their 20’s and 30’s. They are the bellwether activist adoptees in many ways. Fifteen years ago, in 2000, the Donaldson Adoption Institute published an insightful report based on the first Gathering of Korean adoptees in 1999. In the section on Experiences with Discrimination,”The majority of respondents reported that they had experienced some form of discrimination while they were growing up.” Race (70%) was cited more often as problematic than was adoption (28%). As we continue to struggle with race in the US and around the world, helping transracial adoptees negotiate the world as people of color is vital. When will we learn?

International adoption numbers have declined in recent years. While that may likely continue, there were about 250,000 international adoptions between 1999 and 2013; many were under a year old. We would do well to look at adoptees who will be young adults in the next decade or so. One example: Between 1999 and 2013, about 14,000 Ethiopian children were adopted to the US. Between 2007 and 2012, some 11,000 Ethiopian children arrived here from the US, about 80% of the total number between 1999-2013. (Statistics from the US Department of State) They will be entering adolescence and early adulthood around 2030. Those high volume years (2007 to 2012) have been cited as having a high degree of fraud and corruption.

Many Ethiopian adoptees here in the US and around the globe are still young children, and many of the families have already found inaccuracies in their child’s stories: Ethiopian mothers are still alive, children were not orphans, documents were falsified. Blame can go all around, but the point is: How will the adoption community best help these thousands of now-children who will be adults in the next 15-20 years?

My hopes for the future include these:

  • Adoption agencies will actively reach out to and welcome adult adoptees from around the globe to share their experiences, so as to better prepare for the upcoming wave of young adult adoptees in the next decades.
  • Adult adoptees who choose to do so will continue to speak out about their good and bad experiences. Adoptive parents and all others in the community will listen, without dismissing or marginalizing them as “angry,” “ungrateful,” or any other pejorative terms.
  • Appropriate, equitable services will be provided to birth/first parents around the globe, including provision of short-term and long-term resources and communication.
  • The adoption community will acknowledge and proactively address the realities of racism. This is complex and vitally important work, and we haven’t done a good job so far.
  • Here is a vision of past and future: the Adoption Museum Project, a physical space that explores the story of adoption, and a website and off-site programs that expand the work. How exciting is this. The Grand Opening event on April 16 in San Francisco will be “Operation Babylift: Adoptee Voices,” about the 1975 airlift (40 years ago!) of 2,000 Vietnamese children. The panel discussion will be moderated by the poet Lee Herrick, an adoptee from Korea.

IMG_8517Please join me in predicting the future. More importantly, please join me in creating a future  of international adoption that honors the realities of all those involved, and insists that no voices are marginalized. I welcome your thoughts and ideas.