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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Celebrating some positive signs in the world of adoption reform

There have been several articles and events to celebrate in the world of adoption reform these past few weeks.  On April 24, the Atlantic published a story by Emily Matchar entitled: "Adoptees Shouldn't Have to Use Facebook to Find Their Birth Parents."  It's rare to find a mainstream article that champions the rights of adopted people like this one does.  It's brief but compelling, and features promising quotes like these:

From Claudia Corrigan D'Arcy:  "Imagine a world where adult adoptees could access their birth records like EVERY other American and know the name they were given," she writes. "Then they wouldn't have to post pictures of themselves on Facebook holding signs with personal information all over. Then they wouldn't have to beg for strangers for shares in order to find out who they look like and if cancer runs in their family."

From the Adoptee Rights Coalition:  "Adult adoptees in most of the advanced, industrialized nations of the world have unrestricted access to their original birth records as a matter of right.  In contrast, adult adoptees in all but six states in the U.S. are forbidden unrestricted access to their own original birth certificates, due to archaic laws that are a legacy of a culture of shame that stigmatized infertility, out-of-wedlock birth and adoption."

From the US Administration for Children and Families, part of the Department of Health and Human Services:  "Placing a child for adoption can cause a sense of loss that is all-encompassing. Some birth parents experience longstanding grief, that is, grief that lasts a very long time and may continue to actually interfere with a birth parent's life many years later."

Matchar's story to date has generated 235 comments, most of them supportive of the adoptee rights movement.  The Atlantic story was a nice surprise.  So was the recent MSNBC coverage of Kathryn Joyce's new book, The Child Catchers; adoption corruption in Ethiopia; the Indian Child Welfare Act and why it is needed; and the urgent need for more oversight and regulation of the adoption industry.

I didn't realize that Melissa Harris-Perry would be featuring Kathryn Joyce on her MSNBC show April 28, along with Tarikuwa Lemma, a young Ethiopian woman whose family thought that at age 13, she was going to the United States for an educational exchange program, when in reality an unscrupulous agency had arranged for her to be adopted.  Other participants on the panel included Karen Moline, an adoptive mother and Board member of Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform; Jacqueline Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians; and William Jelani Cobb, a University of Connecticut historian.

Ironically, I had just finished reading Joyce's book a few days before when I happened to tune in to the Melissa Harris-Perry show.  I nearly jumped off the couch and started to cheer when I saw one professional after another getting to air -- in prime time -- some of the profound problems with the business model that drives the adoption industry.  This is a subject that mainstream media usually avoids, partly because adoption agencies and their lobbies have driven the adoption narrative for so long.

Joyce makes it clear in her book and in person that many of the people motivated to adopt have the best intentions.  They may not, however, be aware how rife with abuse transnational adoption has been, and in some countries, continues to be.  I'll provide a link to the show at the bottom of this post.  Here are some of the most important points made by panel participants:

From Kathryn Joyce: "There is so much emphasis on and enthusiasm for adoption in the United States. When adoption agencies prey on families' desire to 'help' children they believe to be in need, there have been lies and misinformation seeded in from the very beginning."

Joyce explains that adoption agencies started to turn overseas when domestic adoption rates started to plummet.  In the US, there are many more couples wishing to adopt than there are infants available for adoption.  It costs an average of $30,000 to adopt a child from abroad, says Joyce, and there is little oversight as to where that money is going.  When countries tighten regulations, adoption agencies go out of business, so there are financial incentives for operating in locations with little oversight.

From Tarikuwa Lemma:  "I was angry and grieving when I came to understand what adoption was because I already had a family at home.  The adoption agency had given my adoptive parents false information.  They thought they were saving me from a horrible life in Africa."

From Karen Moline: "Staggering sums of money are paid to these countries, and there is no transparency."  Adoption is "an emotional process coupled with a business model," and many people just can't believe that entities who insist they have the best interests of children at heart would be dishonest or manipulative,  "They can't believe it, so they won't believe it."

Of course some evangelicals have reacted to Joyce's recently-published book defensively, immediately writing the author off as a far-left extremist, but others have had a more measured approach and have opened up discussions for further dialogue and learning.  For example, Dana, whose family includes an adopted son from China, recently posted an article on her blog entitled "Orphan Fever: Are Christians Naive?"

In it, she refers to a summary of Joyce's book that had been published in Mother Jones, that as she says, "paints a pretty unflattering picture of both evangelical Christians and the international adoption business.  Since I'm an evangelical Christian and an adoptive parent, I decided to read it," she continues, "and I encourage you to take a deep breath and read it too."

Dana cautions her readers to "resist the urge to be defensive," and instead read the article with an open mind.  "Why not give our critics a respectful hearing?" she writes.  "Why not see if there's anything to be learned?"  Like Dana, I try to enter discussions about adoption in a respectful way.  It is an emotional subject, and one that easily leads to hurt feelings and misunderstandings.  The correct questions, in my view, are "Where can we find common ground?  What can we do together to make adoption better?"  In her post, Dana asks, "How can we, as Christians, work to better serve orphans and widows and needy families worldwide?"

Encouraging us all to look at both sides,  Dana refers her readers to an article written by an adoptive dad:  "Is the Left Launching an Attack on Evangelical Adoption?"  While I thought the writer was overreacting to the points made in Joyce's book, I can see why, as an adoptive parent who dearly loves his children, he might feel defensive.  I read through the comments to his article and felt discouraged as they deteriorated in many cases to a kind of left versus right culture war.

But I had the opportunity to make several comments of my own, and who knows who might read or understand them?  At one point I said this:  " I am happy to say that I loved my adoptive parents, and they loved me, but I do not love the system of adoption that continues to treat me by law like a perpetual child incapable of managing my own affairs. My original family is a part of me, and wanting to know my own history is in no way related to the love I have for my parents (now deceased). Incidentally, when I was being treated for a life-threatening illness, I was turned down for a medical trial because I had no access to family health history. Evangelicals should be leading the way to fight for adult adoptee access bills. Instead, they too often stand in the way."

Later, I make this point: "As adoptees, our perspectives are constantly being drowned out by the prevailing narrative that 'adoption is wonderful.' Was I grateful for my parents, who I loved very much? Of course. But I am not grateful for the system of adoption, which unnecessarily prevents many adoptees from knowing even the most basic facts about their own lives. And when we become educated in the realities of adoption, we learn that sealed records are not necessary -- in fact they have been extremely hurtful to countless original mothers and adopted people -- but some adoptive parents, through fear, I'm guessing, continue to advocate for them. Adult adoptee access to original birth certificates is a no-brainer, were we just to pay attention to established data. But adoption mythology, fear, and the agenda of some adoption agencies continue to get in the way."

I am not deluded enough to think I am making a big difference here, but I welcome the dialogue, and I appreciate the efforts that Dana and many other adoptive parents are making to listen to the divergent voices, increase understanding, and make adoption better for their children.

Working to improve adoption practice is exhausting work, and one reason for that, I think, is that people want to hold on to the notion that adoption is a win-win for everyone, an idea that the adoption business happily promotes.  And the adoption business, through several influential lobbies, drives adoption legislation from the federal level right on down through the states.

 Adoption -- when it is done ethically, with honesty and transparency, can be a very good thing.  But in my view, it should be a last resort, not a first response.  For many, there are profound losses involved, and that is a reality that many people would rather not acknowledge.

Sometimes I get tired of all the rancor surrounding adoption dialogue, and I have to drop out of the conversation for a while to rejuvenate myself and focus on all that is good in my life: my husband and daughters, my six precious grandchildren, my dear friends, my garden.  Amanda over at Declassified Adoptee spoke to this need recently in a post entitled "20 Quick Tips to Better Advocate for Yourself and Others."

Amanda reminds activists for social justice how important it is to take breaks and to hold onto hope, even when legislative bills that would restore equal rights repeatedly get thwarted and defeated.  "You never know how the seeds you have planted with your message will grow," she writes.

The fact that the adoption media coverage these past few weeks has stimulated some important conversation gives me hope.  So does the fact that the Catholic Conference in Ohio and the Right to Life chapter there have recently testified in favor of an adoptee rights bill.  Maybe, just maybe, some of those seeds that so many good people have been planting for so many years are finally starting to take root.

You might also like:

Adoptees Shouldn't Have to Use Facebook to Find Their Birth Parents

Adopted against her will: One woman shares her story

Orphan Fever: Are Christians Naive?