Sunday, March 3, 2013

We Can Do Better: A Call to Move Beyond Adoption as We Know It

There was a time in history when children without parents or extended family members to care for them ended up in poor houses, orphan asylums, or baby farms, all of which were pretty horrid places. One could certainly argue that the societal shift from viewing unattached children as potential sources of labor, as in indentured servitude, to viewing them as children to be raised as one's own offspring represented a clear improvement. But the horrors of the past do not excuse us from looking critically at the institutions of the present. We can focus on moving forward, rather than back. We do not have to accept the status quo as merely "better than before" or "good enough." We can do better.

The fact that so many of today's grown adoptees report having experienced pressure (sometimes subtle; sometimes overt) to feel "grateful" for our "better" life demonstrates something important about residual cultural attitudes towards bastard/orphan/unwanted children. Lingering beneath all the warm fuzzy rhetoric of modern adoption lies this unpleasantness: we are still held by many as less deserving than those raised by their own biological parents. We should be grateful for what we got. We should not complain.

But let's take a clear look at adoption as it exists today. Is it an institution that truly exists to meet the needs of children who lack parents or other family members to care for them? In the foster system there are certainly a number of children who are in need of the love and permanency that adoption can provide, but there are also many who might not have ended up there in the first place if our social structures were different. Many at-risk families could benefit from family preservation/strengthening services early on, before kids come into state care, but this is not an area where our society chooses to place funds. Also, many of today's adopters are not drawn to adopt the older, traumatized children found in the foster system.

Instead, they want babies -- and the current domestic infant adoption system can hardly be said to be primarily about finding parents for children who need them. There are far more prospective adopters than there are available infants. This situation has led to an industry rife with corruption and coercion. The desires and dollars of prospective adopters, combined with cultural biases against young parents and a societal structure marked by an ever widening gap between age of sexual activity and age of financial stability, have lead to an untenable situation. These are not the orphans of yesteryear. These are "orphans with parents,"  who also happen to be valuable commodities. Unethical adoption agencies, rather than serving the true needs of children, have become have become agents in the creation of "parentless" children, at times using highly questionable methods to separate children from living parents and place them (for a substantial fee) with others.

In inter-country adoption, it can be nearly impossible for prospective adopters, however well-intentioned, to distinguish true orphans from those obtained from biological families without their full, informed consent and even from those who were outright kidnapped. And even in situations in which the child's parents are actually deceased, the complete separation of the child from his or her culture, language, and birth identity is an extreme measure. Is this truly in the best interest of the child? (Many adult international adoptees would argue that it is not.)

Are there some children who are helped by adoption? Are there some end up in situations that seem better than what they might have otherwise experienced? Are there agencies that are more ethical than others? Are there adoptive parents who are compassionate, moral, and committed to supporting their adopted children as they process loss and find their way in the world as members of more than one family? Yes.

Does any of that excuse us from the responsibility of looking at the flaws in the current system and seeking ways to move forward to something better? Absolutely not.

Stuart Miles


  1. Amen.


  2. Very good piece, filled with informative facts rather than the rainbows and sunshine propaganda everyone wants to hear about. I hope people don't label your blog a "vile anti-adoption blog" as I read somewhere yesterday, but rather a blog that speaks the truth about how adoption affects those of us who feel marginalized and oppressed in the process.

  3. Rebecca, you make some very insightful arguments about the ethical collision course of adoption. Thank you so much for your voice!

  4. I heard of someone who was interested in adopting internationally precisely because "American children aren't grateful" and this person wanted a child who was grateful to her for rescuing them from a presumably horrid life. Ugh.

    I so agree. Just because adoption is better than it used to be and not everyone involved is horrid doesn't mean that we don't still need to look with a critical eye!

  5. "These are "orphans with parents," who also happen to be valuable commodities." -- The moment we remove the financial "incentive" for adoption, well that's when I think we'll see a change in the way it is practiced. Then, organizations, governments, adoptive parents, birth parents can start focusing on the child. Thanks for this, Rebecca!

  6. So true: "the horrors of the past do not excuse us from looking critically at the institutions of the present."

    We should always strive to do things better.

  7. Very good piece. I may remind your readers, however, that adoption is never an option, ever. Why? Because adoption means that not only is the child removed from the family of birth, but her birth certificate is sealed and a new one issued to replace it - upon the finalization of adoption. Removing the financial gains of people employed in the adoption industry is just one goal. Ultimately, we need to promote family preservation as you said, and also guardianship in cases where the child is in need of a family. Guardianship preserves the child's birth identity, place in family, visitation with parents and siblings and grandparents while securing a home with adults who will love and cherish that child. It is vitally important that we get away from the mantra - "adoption, the loving option." When grandparents, for example, adopt their own grandchild, that child's parents then become aunts and uncles, and grandparents are now parents. This does not make sense to a young mind. This causes emotional problems and cognitive distortion which forces a child to believe something that she knows is not real. And that child becomes an adult with identity confusion. Adoption by total strangers or other family members is not an option, either. Guardianshiip needs to replace adoption when a child is in dire need.

  8. Guardianship lacks a sense of permanency. If you introduce uncertainty on the part of the people caring for the child, the child will sense it. The children we adopted were not placed with family because no one was deemed fit to care for them.

    I don't think this needs to be a black and white issue.

  9. I disagree, Joan. If a child is told the truth in a family adoption, he/she can understand that roles have changed, but that blood relations are still the same (brother and uncle) (father and grandfather). As Jamie mentions, guardianship lacks permanency. There is so no permanent safety with guardianship for the child to be secure in the family.

    Guardianship does not guarantee visitation for anyone. Parents have exclusive rights to say yay or nay to any visitation by anyone in the family. There may be a few grandparents who have some rights in some states, but for the most part, guardianship does not guarantee rights. Someone has to be deemed a legal guardian (through custody or adoption) when birth parents are not available.

    As a family member who adopted, we made this decision to protect our family member. Our child's role and blood relations are in tact and she is fully aware of what they are. Adoption by family members is a form of family preservation, and an option for some families who don't want non-relatives to raise their kids.

  10. A very good thought provoking article!
    Of course, as societies advance their social structures change, but we still live in an imperfect world; there is no one-way approach to anything. Adoption, in one form or another, will always be a part of the social fabric of humans, for no other reason than we need to take care of the 'children' that, for better or worst, the 'family' cannot care for. The same can be said for the elderly, the long-term sick, disabled physically and mentally. Not every 'family' can care for and KEEP that elder, that sick, that disabled, that mentally impaired, person in the home. At some point, sooner or later, they have to be PLACED in a facility that will care for them!

    For someone, like forbiddenfamily, to state a personal opinion...'that adoption is never an option, ever.'...does NOT address any of the real concerns that adoption DOES pose and doesn't leave any room for improvement. As such that opinion/view does not present anything close to a balanced picture; it is a totally 'closed book/mind' postion and that's dangerous.

    For more info see my posts and thank you. my family has been touched by adoption; both positive and negative aspects by Gert McQueen on January 13, 2013, as alternative to adoption, doesn’t work in the real world; its just another one of Joan Wheeler’s fantasies! on March 6, 2013

  11. "ever widening gap between the age of sexual activity and the age of financial stability." OMG is that true or what?


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