Every few years, the horrifying details of a new scandal around U.S. international adoption grab headlines: children snatched from disaster zones, children “returned” from the U.S. to airports in their home countries with notes pinned to their clothes, children stuck in abusive orphanages overseas while their U.S. adoptions founder in a mass of red tape. We’re in such a moment again with the publication of Kathryn Joyce’s revelatory new book on international adoption, The Child Catchers, along with a recent investigation by Reuters into the practice of “rehoming” — quietly and extra-legally moving adoptive children with behavioral problems, often caused by abuse or trauma, to new families.
In the cyclical uproar about international adoption, domestic adoption can appear by default the more ethical option. However, the debate sparked by The Child Catchers has also shed light on a burgeoning domestic-adoption reform movement. The conversation has been fueled by the recent high-profile case of “Baby Veronica,” in which a birth father sued for custody under the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Many of the concerns raised around domestic adoption mirror those regarding international adoption: a profit-driven industry, lack of protections for birth parents, and fundamental questions around improving a child’s lot in life by transplanting her across class, race and culture lines.
In These Times brought together three adoption experts to discuss these issues: Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy, who has been writing on her blog about adoptee rights and adoption industry ethics since 2005; Megan Lindsey, director of public policy and education at the National Council For Adoption; and Liberty Ferda, an adoptee who writes about race and adoption at the website Lost Daughters.
What are the problems with how domestic adoption works in the United States?
Claudia: Money and profit. The battle is not pitting adoptive families against birth families. We’re all used — adoptees, adoptive families, birth families — by an industry that needs all of us to bring what we have to the table in order to reap a profit. Adoption [and child welfare] is a $13-billion industry.
Megan: There’s more to adoption than people in the general public realize. It’s not a no-cost system. The services provided to counsel pregnant women do require funding.
Claudia: I hate to be a stickler, but I love to spend my time looking at the 1099s of non-profit agencies. There was one big non-profit agency — their counselors and social workers, who are really doing the work and should be paid a decent standard of living, are making like $25,000 to $30,000 a year. Meanwhile the CEO was making six figures and had a 401(k).
A birth-mother counselor in an agency is being paid, and that agency has to pay its rent and salaries by making sure there are a certain number of successful adoptions.What the agencies tell the birth parents — if it fell under advertising laws — would be false advertising. I was 19 and unmarried when I gave my son up for adoption in 1987. Looking back there’s real information that I was not told. The three things birth parents today always tell me are: “Oh my god, I didn’t think it would be this painful,” “Oh my god, I wouldn’t have done it if I thought they were going to close the adoption and I’d lose contact with my kid,” and “Oh my god, I didn’t know that my child could be negatively affected — no one told me.”
Megan: Adoption professionals are not in it to cause harm to anyone, but to provide a positive option for women and to ensure that kids all end up in a safe place. But to the extent there’s still a culture of shame and sweeping things away and not giving full information — it’s completely unacceptable. Pregnancy counseling should be complete information about all three options: about how good and how hard parenting is; about the positives and negatives of abortion; about the positives and negatives of adoption. And that should come from a neutral source who is comfortable talking about all three.
What legal changes do you advocate?
Liberty: Birth certificate access is a huge one that a lot of advocates for adoptees fight for.
Claudia: Yes, they’re the only classification of people in the United States who can’t access their original birth certificate.
How does race factor into adoption?
Liberty: In domestic adoption, one of the icky things is that a white infant [can] cost 10 times as much as a minority child. I appreciate when adoption agencies, like some here in Pittsburg, really try to give cultural training to adoptive parents and racially match families with children. My birth father was of African-American descent, so I was a mixed-race child, which my adoptive parents didn’t know. My adoptive parents specifically wanted a white infant. I’m light-skinned, and my parents were in denial [that I was not white]. Every African-American child encounters, at some point in their lives, some kid on the playground calling them the N-word. When that happened to me, it dismantled my world and I did not have my parents to go to.
Megan: Agencies should do as much as they can to prepare families and also should be there for post-adoption support.
How about class? Poverty is a typical reason children are given up for adoption — is that problematic?
Liberty: A lot of times with adoption, you jump class. I think that is not bad. [But] I do know adoptees who have grown up with that privilege and still struggle. The attitude that this kid will be provided for and everything will be OK — it sort of shuts down the opportunity for the adoptee to express feelings that don’t mesh with that.
Claudia: I see a lot of open adoptions where the kids are now 12 or 14 and have been given all these monetary things, and the [birth] mothers are saying, “I wanted my child to have all these opportunities that I couldn’t give them at the time — but wow, looking back, even with what I didn’t have, ew, I wouldn’t have raised them to be that materialistic.”
Do you think open adoptions are a good solution to some of these problems?
Liberty: They could be. But open adoption isn’t regulated, and sometimes parties don’t follow through. A friend of mine who is a birth mother, she had her son in the auspices of an open adoption and that family was supposed to be in touch twice a year. And after her son turned 6, she lost all communication.
The Baby Veronica case has brought up another debate: What legal rights should birth fathers have?
Megan: We think birth mothers and birth fathers should have equal parenting rights.
Claudia: I didn’t want to talk to my son’s father, and the agency should have said, “Hey listen, we understand that, but you have a moral, ethical and legal responsibility to let him know that you don’t want to relinquish his child.” And they didn’t. They instructed me, “Don’t name him on the birth certificate, so we’ll just put an announcement in the newspaper.” And that is how he got his rights relinquished to his only child. Ever.
Liberty: In 1981, my father was not given consent. They put this quiet little ad in the pennysaver downstate. So when I found him and his family, they were shocked. He’s a single dad with mental health issues and maybe the best decision wouldn’t have been to raise me. However, his extended family are a tribe: my whole collective black family. They all raised each other, and all my cousins grew up together. It could’ve been that I still would have been adopted, but maybe not — there was a loss and a possibility there.
Claudia: Adoption can’t be about profits; it needs to be about children.
Liberty: The conversation about adoption is often dominated by the perspective of adoptive parents. That’s of course a valid perspective, but the voices of birthmothers and adoptees— who are in some ways the weaker counterparts in the equation — their voices are often not heard. When you keep someone’s origins a secret, it automatically demonizes them. This plays out in adoptee’s lives when they’re overrepresented in mental health care and prisons.
Megan: The advocacy community surrounding adoption is very much with you on many of these thoughts. Many things need to be improved. But you don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. I work with a lot of people on a daily basis who had a good experience because of adoption. Adoption is good. It creates safe families; it creates safe places for children.
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Jessica Stites is Editorial Director of In These Times, where she runs the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and edits stories on labor, neoliberalism, Wall Street, immigration, mass incarceration and racial justice, among other topics. Before joining ITT, she worked at Ms. magazine and George Lakoff’s Rockridge Institute. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Ms., Bitch, Jezebel, The Advocate and AlterNet. She is board secretary of the Chicago Reader and a former Chicago Sun-Times board member.