Friday, February 20, 2009

Abuses in International Adoption: The Lie We Love

"Ethical and effective legislation and policy create families...reads the line under the flier for the Center for Adoption Policy's Sixth Annual Conference to be held March 6 at New York Law School.

You can believe they are not talking about the families the birth mothers create: they are talking about the big business in "creating" families by taking children away from their mothers, their countries, their culture. Elizabeth Bartholet, high priestess of the international kid-grab and a feminist law professor at Harvard, is the key note speaker; Joan Hollinger, of the University of California at Berkeley, and the reporter who wrote the proposed Uniform Adoption Act that included the wonderful provision that an adoptee's original record would not be open and available for 99 years--yes, you read that right--is moderating a panel of folks from the State Department; another panel is loaded with adoption attorneys and agency folks. Funny, I don't see anyone from any of the organizations that, ahem, think that maybe moving kids around the world is less than a stellar idea and leads to all sorts of abuses.

Missing from the speaker line up at NYU are triad member organizations or independent advocates for adoption ethics and reform such as Ethica, notes Gina Pollock, president of Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform (PEAR), which is sending three of their board members to be present in the audience. PEAR is hoping others with an alternative point of view, including some adult international adoptees will attend as well. (For more information, see http://www.pear-now.org/.

There's a part of me that would like to go and raise hell, but a) I'm not an expert on international adoption, and b) having been an "alternative" voice from the audience over the years, I know that it is extremely frustrating to sit there and then, when you do get to speak at last, be looked upon as something who just flew in from outer space. A voice from the audience is like a voice in the wilderness: not taken seriously. The best thing would be a group of international adoptees and birth parents to disrupt the whole proceeding. Now that would make news.

Yet there is hope that an alternative opinions regarding international adoption are beginning to be heard. E.J. Graff, associate director and senior researcher of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University wrote the following in the November/December 2008 issue of Foreign Policy:

Westerners have been sold the myth of a world orphan crisis. We are told that millions of children are waiting for their “forever families” to rescue them from lives of abandonment and abuse. But many of the infants and toddlers being adopted by Western parents today are not orphans at all. Yes, hundreds of thousands of children around the world do need loving homes. But more often than not, the neediest children are sick, disabled, traumatized, or older than 5. They are not the healthy babies that, quite understandably, most Westerners hope to adopt. There are simply not enough healthy, adoptable infants to meet Western demand—and there’s too much Western money in search of children. As a result, many international adoption agencies work not to find homes for needy children but to find children for Western homes.

Since the mid-1990s, the number of international adoptions each year has nearly doubled, from 22,200 in 1995 to just under 40,000 in 2006. At its peak, in 2004, more than 45,000 children from developing countries were adopted by foreigners. Americans bring home more of these children than any other nationality—more than half the global total in recent years.

Where do these babies come from? As international adoptions have flourished, so has evidence that babies in many countries are being systematically bought, coerced, and stolen away from their birth families. Nearly half the 40 countries listed by the U.S. State Department as the top sources for international adoption over the past 15 years—places such as Belarus, Brazil, Ethiopia, Honduras, Peru, and Romania—have at least temporarily halted adoptions or been prevented from sending children to the United States because of serious concerns about corruption and kidnapping. And yet when a country is closed due to corruption, many adoption agencies simply transfer their clients’ hopes to the next “hot” country. That country abruptly experiences a spike in infants and toddlers adopted overseas—until it too is forced to shut its doors.

Along the way, the international adoption industry has become a market often driven by its customers. Prospective adoptive parents in the United States will pay adoption agencies between $15,000 and $35,000 (excluding travel, visa costs, and other miscellaneous expenses) for the chance to bring home a little one. Special needs or older children can be adopted at a discount. Agencies claim the costs pay for the agency’s fee, the cost of foreign salaries and operations, staff travel, and orphanage donations. But experts say the fees are so disproportionately large for the child’s home country that they encourage corruption. (Italics mine.)

To complicate matters further, while international adoption has become an industry driven by money, it is also charged with strong emotions. Many adoption agencies and adoptive parents passionately insist that crooked practices are not systemic, but tragic, isolated cases. Arrest the bad guys, they say, but let the “good” adoptions continue. However, remove cash from the adoption chain, and, outside of China, the number of healthy babies needing Western homes all but disappears. Nigel Cantwell, a Geneva-based consultant on child protection policy, has seen the dangerous influence of money on adoptions in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where he has helped reform corrupt adoption systems. In these regions, healthy children age 3 and younger can easily be adopted in their own countries, he says. I asked him how many healthy babies in those regions would be available for international adoption if money never exchanged hands. “I would hazard a guess at zero,” he replied.

ALEXANDER MARTINEZ/AFP/Getty Images


This is only a part of the delights that awaits at the site. Thank you E. J. Graff--and I will be posting more about this in the next couple of days. Follow this link to see an interactive map of which countries supply babies and which countries buy them on the open market. And be sure to check out the related photo essay. It will break your heart and...goes right to the heart of those celebrity adoptions so, ahem, dear to our hearts. You can also read the story at Reality Check and post a comment.

The other piece of good news is that the Buffalo Human Rights Law Review recently published a piece to counteract Bartholet's thesis that few abuses (i.e., kidnapping, baby selling) occur in nations that export most of the kids. One of the authors is the founder and former president of Ethica, Trish Maskew. We'll get into that piece later.

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