Intercountry adoption: Who are the good guys?

The January 5, 2005 CNN headline read, “Trafficking a threat to tsunami orphans.” Within days after the tsunami hit, Indonesia had begun putting into place policies which prohibited any child under age 16 from leaving the country. Why? The Indonesian Embassy’s press secretary in Washington explained that “”the government would like to protect the children from potential traffickers.” It had cause for concern – estimates of children trafficked each year range from a half a million to four million.

Is this concern sufficient to interfere with legitimate intercountry adoption? Indeed, is intercountry adoption an act of unparalleled altruism, or is it a sly way of kidnapping a poor country’s children? International child advocates are engaged in finger pointing at each other. One side confidently asserts that, but for intercountry adoptions, the few children who are saved would be destined to be untouchables in the back rooms of institutions in their native countries. The other side claims that cultural genocide and unofficial baby buying is what is really going on. So, who are the good guys?

According to the National Adoption Clearinghouse, Americans adopted 21,600 children from abroad in the year 2003. Many of them had confirmed health problems, among them HIV/AIDS, developmental disabilities, malnutrition, congenital defects, tuberculosis, and hepatitis.

Intercountry adoption raises many general questions: Are such adoptions really in the best interest of the child? Are birth parents relinquishing their babies under economic or cultural duress? Do we know, from valid studies, if the adopted child will adjust satisfactorily to a new culture? Is there an element of classism and imperialism when Americans and Western Europeans secure babies from developing countries?

Modern-day adoption statutes and international conventions balance the interests of children, birth parents, adoptive parents, states, cultures, and countries. Indeed, intercountry adoption is not a topic which can be easily divorced from the swirl of geo- politics. Intercountry adoption implicates the international reciprocal rights and duties that people claim for and from each other. But to limit human interactions to those based solely on duties and rights is to overlook the most essential aspect of being human – genuine concern for one another. Focusing on this communal aspect enhances our most human virtues.

Complicating the resolution of these general issues is the need for answers to three specific questions: Which data is really valuable in determining the best place for a child? What risks are there to a child in terms of abuse and exploitation in the care of an institution in the child’s home country versus those same risks if the child were adopted, whether it is within or outside of their home country? Is there more we can do to help the poorest countries become more efficient in finding homes within their own countries?

Given the large numbers of children who are in the care of orphanages around the world, and an intercountry total worldwide annual adoption rate that numbers only approximately 30,000 much rancor has ensued. Perhaps both sides of this debate should acknowledge elements of truth in the other’s position. When an unwanted child with or without medical or emotional problems is spared a devastating, lonely, neglected life, clearly the adoptive parents, no matter where they reside, are doing an act of great love and kindness. On the other hand, when a child is adopted by parents many thousands of miles away without the host country having made rigorous attempts to secure a permanent family for that child in its own country, there may be grounds to question whether the adoption is really in the best interests of the child or primarily in the best interests of the parents.

In order to achieve real-time positive results the international adoption community needs to have all the relevant facts and figures about the child in actual time. The ability to make decisions quickly based on reliable information is the key factor to success in the face of difficult situations faced by at-risk children. We need intelligent solutions that will provide us with relevant information and allow us to plainly see the risks and chances for success by either leaving the child in its country of birth or removing it and allowing it to be swiftly adopted.

An elementary school teacher told me the following story: She was watching the children in her classroom while they were drawing pictures. When she approached one girl who she knew had been recently adopted, she asked, “What are you drawing?” “I’m drawing a picture of love,” the girl replied. The teacher remarked, “But nobody knows what love looks like.” The girl shyly replied, “They will when I finish my picture.”

This commentary originally appeared in Policy & Practice, (March, 2005), 63 (1), 28.

Guest commentary by
Daniel Pollack, MSW, JD
Professor at Yeshiva University’s School of Social Work in NYC
Senior Fellow, Center for Adoption Research,
University of Massachusetts Medical School
Dan can be contacted at (212) 960-0836

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