There was an interesting post going around an adoptive family facebook group during National Adoption Awareness Month that I haven’t seen before. It got me inspired to share from the intercountry adoptee perspective what I would change IF we could.
The question was: “If you had the power to change any adoption laws, what would you change?” As you can imagine in an adoptive parent forum, many of the answers were adoptive and prospective parent centric. I did share a few of my initial thoughts, which unsurprisingly, in that group, not very popular. So let’s share my thoughts here as essentially this is the crux of what ICAV tries to do – we speak out to help policy makers and implementors think about what their processes and practices do to the child, the adoptees for whom it’s meant to be about. Some of the responses from ICAV members are incorporated as we did have quite an active discussion in our facebook group for adult intercountry adoptees.
If I could change adoption laws as an intercountry adoptee, in no particular order, I would:
make it illegal to traffic children via intercountry adoption and ensure a legal pathway for reparative & restorative justice — such as allowing us to return to our homeland and/or original family, if and when we desire;
make it illegal to rehome or return us;
make it illegal to change or falsify our original identity that includes DNA testing the relinquishing parents to confirm their parentage of us;
make it illegal to abuse us;
create a legal pathway to prosecute the agency for failing to adequately psychologically assess our parents to ensure no further harm is done via the adoptive family environment;
make it a legal requirement for all the actors who participate in the facilitation of adoption to provide lifelong post adoption supports that are free, equitable, and comprehensive, arising from a trauma informed model. It needs to be itemised what Post Adoption encompasses e.g., full search and reunion services, translation of documents, language courses, cultural activities, psychological counselling, return to homeland services, open access to our identity documents, etc.,
make it illegal to trick birth parents, to ensure they fully understand what relinquishment and adoption means;
make it illegal to adopt a child until it is proven beyond doubt that no immediate family, kin or local community can support and raise the child; this must include proof that the provision of a range of financial and social welfare supports have been offered;
create a legal pathway for orphanages, agencies, lawyers and judges to be prosecuted by birth families who are prevented access to their child, especially in situations where they change their minds;
create a legal pathway to prosecute countries who fail to give citizenship or deport intercountry adoptees; this includes removing these countries who accept or send deportees from any international convention;
make it illegal to separate twins;
centralise adoption, bring back full accountability of adoption to the State and remove the privatised model of intercountry adoption agencies to remove the conflict of interest and the blame shifting;
remove money and fees;
make it illegal for private lawyers to facilitate intercountry adoptions;
make expatriate adoptions go through the same process as intercountry adoptions in the adopting country rather than being able to by-pass the tougher requirements.
make all plenary adoptions illegal;
legalise a new form of care internationally that incorporates the concepts of simple adoption, kinship care, stewardship, permanent care, and guardianship models that provides for our care but not at our cost in identity and removal of connection to ALL kin;
create a law that allows adoptees the right to decline their adoptive parents as an adult if they wish;
create a pathway to ensure Dual citizenship for all intercountry adoptees that includes citizenship for our generational offspring, should they wish.
This is just a starting list for thinking about what laws would need creating or changing in order to protect the rights of adoptees! I haven’t even started to discuss what laws would be needed from our original family perspectives. It would be interesting to hear their perspective. One has to question the current bias of existing laws that are skewed and mainly protect the interests of the adopters instead of a balance between all three and prevent intermediaries taking advantage of the vulnerabilities of each of the triad members.
There will always be vulnerable children who need care but today’s existing Plenary adoption laws are archaic and outdated. We adoptees know from living the experience that there are many gaps and pitfalls in the current plenary adoption laws used in intercountry adoption today.
A statement was made while at the recent intercountry adoption symposium in Washington DC about “children at the border and how we need to get them adopted into American families“.
That statement combined with articles I’ve seen on Facebook about migrant children who have been separated from their families and are now being adopted into US families certainly stirs up a lot of negative emotions in me. It should — for all of us! These vulnerable children are now going to be further victimized by a broken system that is all too often, fuelled by greed, savior attitudes and politics.
While I agree that the Trump administration is accountable at some level, I believe there is a LONG list of accountable parties contributing to this very complicated issue. The atrocities indicated in these types of articles have been ongoing for decades under multiple administrations. It’s time we all stop and take note of the many levels in this broken system, including our own participation and how we contribute.
First off, many adoption agencies are more concerned with money, timelines and streamlining rather than the true welfare and interests of the child. I’m sure having prospective adoptive parents who are agitated from a lengthy and costly process doesn’t help, but the desire to appease disgruntled adoptive parents should never supersede the importance of a system that is both thorough and ethical. One of the hardest things for many to come to terms with, is that the adoption process has become a massive money making industry. According to statistics adoption agency revenues in 2015 were over 14 billion dollars and are now projected to reach 16 billion dollars in 2019.
The State Department is now implementing vital reforms and regulations to hold all agencies to a higher degree of accountability and do you know what I see and hear as a result? People complaining that the State Department is making it harder to adopt children in need.
As a society we tend to do this. Adoption, especially intercountry adoption, is an extremely complex matter — yet we want it to be easy, cheap, quick, and open to our demands. There is no easy or quick fix to this process and there shouldn’t be. Adoption agencies and the process to adopt must be held to a high level of accountability and it takes time and money to achieve this. If we ever hope to see intercountry adoption free from corruption, then holding the agencies and the processes they are implementing to a higher level of accountability is a good place to start!
Next, there are the government agencies such as Child Protection Services which are often over-worked, underpaid and understaffed, therefore, far too many kids are getting lost in the system or victimized by a broken system.
Another large part of the problem is adoptive parents who all too often, want to turn a blind eye to the truth. We don’t want to have to answer the tough questions because the act of adoption has somehow become a glorified act – and no matter what losses, corruption or illicit acts exist behind the scenes, the “better life” is a free pass to ignore the child’s “best interests”, which should always be to remain in their culture and with their biological families (minus situations of abuse and neglect).
Then there is what I consider to be, the largest part of the problem. The Westernized and often religious narrative of adoption. We have learned to see adoption in a romanticized light using scripture and the Christian faith to support this broken system. We use verses like “take care of the orphan and the widow” to adopt children regardless of the need for them to be adopted. We have families raising tens of thousands of dollars to adopt, while at the same time saying this child needs us to adopt them because their biological families are poor and can’t meet their basic needs.
The number one reason children are placed in the system for international adoption is poverty. Poverty should NEVER be the reason to separate a family. There is nothing godly or glorious about using money one fundraised or actually has at their disposal to adopt a child, when that money could be used to empower a family and keep them together.
We continue to support a narrative that says America is better meanwhile what I hear from adult intercountry adoptees, is that it’s not! They are losing their identities, their voices, their culture, their families and their role within those families and communities, as a result of adoption.
There are times in which adoption is the best and last solution to a complicated situation, but what we are routinely failing to do, is ensure that every possible avenue to keep the child in their culture and with extended family or community has been explored. Many times, when adoptive parents come into the picture, their emotions, both in love for the child and exhaustion from the process, tend to overshadow what is truly in the best interest of the child. We continue to ignore the voices that should matter the most because listening to adult intercountry adoptees also means admitting that we ourselves may have done things wrong.
I really hate confrontation and I truly never want to hurt someone’s feelings. Whenever I speak out on this topic, I tend to hear a lot of negativity, especially from adoptive parents, but I feel like I have to speak up. In fact, we all need to speak up.
There is nothing to get defensive about if we have adopted and have investigated to ensure that this is the best possible scenario for that child. I know many families who have adopted and have done so while truly putting the best interest of their child(ren) first. They get it. Adoption doesn’t need to be this sugar coated, rainbows and butterflies fairytale. It’s a situation brought about from a place of loss. There is nothing beautiful about the word adoption to a child who has been adopted because that word represents everything they have lost.
The real beauty in adoption comes from those who choose to do the hard work on behalf of that child(ren) because they need someone to advocate for them, love them unconditionally and constantly work at putting the child’s best interests ahead of their own.
I feel I can speak to these things because unfortunately in the past, I perpetuated these same ideals. Obviously, I did not realize the damage I was doing with my “good intentions“. Excuse my bluntness here, but my intentions didn’t matter then and they don’t matter now! What matters is my ability to listen, learn, admit when I’m wrong and then change!
My family and I almost destroyed another family, stripped a child from her culture, contributed to the trauma in a child’s life that might never have healed, no matter how great as adoptive parents we were trying to be, all while we were being praised and cheered on for “saving” a life. Not once was I ever challenged on the complicated nature of a transracial and intercountry adoption nor as to my intentions behind adopting a child who had extended family in her birth country.
From the moment I announced the truth of the corruption behind our adoption and our plans to reunite, I received so much criticism and speculation regarding Mata’s family about where they lived, what religion they practiced and the country to which I was reuniting her to. It was unacceptable! Unacceptable yes, but not surprising! Correct me if I’m wrong, but we have become a society that is outspoken, combative and divided. We tend to speak more through clicks on a keyboard and less with action. We know international adoption statistics say as high as 90% children in orphanages have been separated from their families, yet what are most of us actually doing to resolve this tragedy?
Is adopting the children in these orphanages an act of love? Or is using our time and resources to bring change to the communities they belong to and empowering their families and communities to stay together, the truer act of love?
There’s nothing wrong with sharing articles and opinions on facebook, in fact it is a great way for us all to become more aware and bring about the changes necessary both in ourselves and as a society. But let’s not just post, debate the post and leave out the most important part … action.
While I agree there’s a certain level of finger pointing that’s necessary to stop heinous acts like separating children from their families from happening, this problem is way bigger than one administration. Our desire to pick sides and the anger we feel when someone hasn’t chosen our side has become more important than becoming the difference we long to see in this world.
It’s time for the narrative around Intercountry adoption to change. Let’s not forget, it is children’s lives hanging in the balance and I truly believe we all have to take a long hard look at this complex and broken system, accept our part in it and work to correct it.
Adoptee advocacy and activism for me, is about adoptee healing and claiming back our power.
This week has been so powerful but raw on so many levels. I have travelled to America to attend the Dept of State’s Intercountry Adoption Symposium (Sept 17 & 18) which brought together all the government bodies and NGOs related to, and fulfilling, intercountry adoption processes, the accredited entities which include IAAME and the adoption agencies, and for the first time, representation from the adoption triad. After this ended, some of our American intercountry adoptee leaders and individuals who wished to be involved at government policy and practice level, met with the Dept of State (Sept 19) and had a chat about how we might interact/liaise together in the future and what our goals are and issues of concern.
The following are my thoughts after attending these past three days.
Hearing the same chants for “more adoption” that I’ve read about across the waters but got to experience for real, has been nothing short of gut wrenching.
Getting to personally understand the life experiences of some of my fellow activists has been an honor.
The question was asked to our adoptee group why few American intercountry adoptees in recent years, had until now, not risen to involve themselves at policy level.
After being in America for a week, seeing the level of anger for those who dare to voice any truth that doesn’t match the “we want more children” chant has been a massive reality check. America the land of the free! Well, I see it’s more the land of the free for those who share the dominant discourse — but it can also be unkind and lacking compassion to those who express a different story.
The scale and depth at which intercountry adoption has been conducted in America, that adds avoidable emotional damage to some adoptees, has finally helped me understand why their voices have not been at the table. The ability to rise above one’s terrible reality of adoption is a massive ask. What struck me in coming to personally understand these journeys en-masse over the years I’ve been connecting to fellow adoptees, is how much worse it is here in terms of size and scale. It is not just the historic adoptions from the 50s to 80s. I’m meeting adoptees from the 90s to 2010s and hear the same terrible experiences! I’m also not denying there are probably a ton of intercountry adoptees who have little motivation to make things better because they already had it wonderful. Their reality is not dismissed and neither should the other range of experiences across the spectrum.
Some of the audience responses were so dismissive of our struggles citing that we were just a “moment in time”, or unlucky enough to be a consequence of “a few bad apples”. As I said on day 1 in response to Laura Ingraham’s speech, one terrible adoptee experience is one too many! So please, if you really want to hear what we have to say as adoptees, believe me when I say – “these bad apple adoptions are still happening since the past 20 years”.
Hearing calls and support for “unregulation” and “streamlining” is not the answer in the face of the huge reality. What do we need governments and stakeholders to do differently that hasn’t been done, either at all, or enough? We need them to acknowledge the wrongs of the past to the present. We need full acknowledgement that the decisions made FOR us as vulnerable children, have been terribly painful, terribly damaging for too many .. we need to hear it not just once, but over and over many times so that we know you do not forget the mistakes of the past and those who have been a victim, can feel safe knowing we have learnt the lessons, or at least are trying to.
From my own personal journey of healing, I know how incredibly important it is to hear, “I’m sorry it has been a terribly hurtful experience” from a heartfelt place. Not only do we need to hear that you’ve heard and acknowledged our pain, we need you to give us time to then process that acknowledgement, allow us to move further in our journey — and then ask us to focus and work together on how we prevent it from ever happening again.
For adoptees it is terribly triggering to be dismissed, our reality denied, and our concerns brushed over with “it’s not like that now”. Yes things have changed … drastically, but they need to change more! Support services for the duration of our lifetime, need to be implemented that help us move past the damage. We need reparation that allows out of the box solutions for individual journeys of healing. We need to see that sending children back AS SOON AS WE KNOW something isn’t looking right, is totally a first option that will be supported by all the players who facilitated the adoption. Keeping the child as the only option adds further complications that we adoptees are eventually left to sift through.
People and countries make mistakes .. we are only human. What’s currently missing is the acknowledgement and the sensitivity across the SPECTRUM of players to recognise the trauma from decades (yes, 70 years!) of intercountry adoptions done poorly. The reality that the current and previous American administrations have failed to address intercountry adoptee citizenship, the basic cornerstone of permanence, continuity, and family— clearly demonstrates how little understanding and support exists for the displaced adoptee. This is brushing the wrongs of the past under the carpet on a massive scale!
I realise why adoptees have not been at the table pushing their way in. The depths of pain can be too raw and the risk of receiving further trauma by those who invalidate our experiences, is incredibly high. For a country as religious as America, it sure has little understanding of the need for the power of healing and the acknowledgement of wrong doing. All Americans should be praying not for adoptions to be increased but for the ones who are here already, to be given the right support in order for them to find healing. For the ones deported to be given the supports they need along with their broken up families.
Only once we are fully supported to heal as those who have already suffered, can we truly contemplate ethically adopting more — at least then, we can be confident that despite mistakes being made, the great America has the maturity to help the victims overcome.
My heart breaks for my American brothers and sisters who struggle to rise from out of their ashes. I found it fascinating to see the 9/11 section of the Newseum and the way in which so much compassion is portrayed for those victims, yet in intercountry adoption – I ask where is that same compassion? Is there any recognition of the collective suffering that too many generations of intercountry adoptees have been experiencing in America?!
No! They remain a blip on the radar screen, barely seen, largely misunderstood because they are cloaked with, “You should be grateful to be in this amazing country” banner which denies the tragic realities of so many!
I am compelled to lead by example and demonstrate that adoptees can find their power. My path is but one way to rise above the ashes. I have learned for myself how incredibly healing it is to turn my pains into triumphs and to attempt to make this world a better place and I always wonder what I would have achieved had I been left in Vietnam (my adoptee sliding door/ parallel universe musing). This path of adoptee advocacy is my way to make sense of my adoption and life . Perhaps I was saved to give this message — to be this voice, to truly represent the “child’s best interest” and make sure it is not shoved away?
I hope that this week has been the beginning of the start, that momentum will flow because …
it only takes one to take a stand for truth, for another to find their courage.
What a week of learning, what a week of connecting! I hope America will come to embrace the mistakes of its past in intercountry adoption and provide a safe space for the many intercountry adoptees who need healing and be given many places at the table, not just one place filled by an Australian/Vietnamese.
I also want to acknowledge the many true supporters of adoptees who came from so many stakeholders groups. It is incorrect to assume all government workers, all agencies, all adoptive parents are against us speaking our truths. Despite the intense and sometimes times painful challenging moments, I was uplifted by the volume of supporters who told us they were so happy to see us and hear our voices. I hope I live to see the day when they will become the majority AND the loudest voice we hear from.
I was told that supportive adoptive parents have sat back from the table, out of respect to allow us adoptees to take the platform, to make space for us — but I want to tell those parents and advocates, please don’t be silent in your support. We are at a critical point where intercountry adoptee leadership is emerging and we need ALL the support we can muster.
What I deeply respected was my fellow panelist, the birth mother representative who demonstrated no fear in telling her truth, nor the consequences for doing so. Whether we agreed with her views or not, I imagine her journey of overcoming the stigma, fear and trauma throughout her life has helped her realise there is little to lose, in having the courage to speak her truth. As two representatives of the adoption triad, we both know “the cost of remaining silent”.
Her ending sentence was so respectful and she said, “It should be the adoptees who you listen to the most”. I can only say how much that meant to us. This is the message we need our supporters to uphold – it will encourage us to rise above our pain and fears. Please don’t be silent — it is too open to interpretation!
Huge thanks and respect to the adoptee leaders who gave of their time, money, and energy to be at these forums.
Joy Alessi – adopted from South Korea, co-director of Adoptee Rights Campaign.
Cherish Bolton – adopted from India, co-director of PEAR, academic.
Trista Goldberg – adopted from Vietnam, founder of Operation Reunite, educator.
Marijane Huang – adopted from Taiwan, social worker in adoption and foster care, educator.
JaeRan Kim – adopted from South Korea, social worker and PhD research academic.
Kristopher Larsen – adopted from Vietnam, co-director of Adoptees4Justice.
Monica Lindgren – adopted from Colombia, barrister in family law.
Reshma McClintock – adopted from India, founder of Dear Adoption, co-founder Family Preservation365.
Patricia Motley – adopted from Peru, member of Peruvian Adoptees Worldwide.
Diego Vitelli – adopted from Colombia, founder of Adopted from Colombia, studying masters in counselling.
Hello everyone. My name is Jessica Davis. My husband and I adopted from Uganda in 2015. I would like to share my thoughts regarding a memory that appeared on my facebook timeline.
If you are at all familiar with timehop on facebook you know that almost daily either a photo, video or post from your past will show up on your timeline giving you the opportunity to reflect and share. Well, today this is the photo that popped up for me.
Four years ago today, we found out Namata’s visa was approved to come to America with us. As westerners, we tend to love pictures like this when it comes to adoption and in some ways that is understandable. If Namata had actually needed to be adopted, it would’ve definitely been a photo worth getting excited over!
The problem is that all too often, we want things to be just like this picture. Everyone smiling and things wrapped up neat and tidy. But real life, even in this moment pictured here, things aren’t always as they seem. Adam and I were definitely happy in this moment and ready to be home and begin our life together, and on the outside Namata was too. But on the inside, she was about to leave everything and everyone familiar to her, for reasons she was too overwhelmed by to even question. Thankfully, over the next year she was able to express to Adam and I her questions about how she ended up being adopted. Thankfully, Adam and I didn’t go looking for the answers we wanted to hear. We chose a road that was definitely filled with uncertainty, but one we hoped would lead us to the truth. Namata deserved that!
Intercountry adoption should never be about doing a good deed in the world or becoming a mom or dad. Yes, those reasons are normal and usually are the basis for beginning the process, but at the point when one begins the process to adopt, we need to recognize that those feelings are all about the adoptive parents and not the child or children we are hoping to adopt. Adoption for them stems from a complete loss of everything and everyone familiar to them. Recognizing this is vital to a healthy adoption process. I’m convinced we, as a society, have made adoption all about becoming a family. When we do this we tend to see adoption in this happy light that doesn’t allow the adoptee the freedom to express what adoption actually is for them — loss. There should be absolutely no focus on becoming “mom” or “dad”. While I do believe it can become a natural outcome through a healthy adoption scenario, I believe it needs to come when, and only if, the child feels that connection.
I often get asked how Adam and I did what we did when we chose to reunite Namata with her family in Uganda. While there are several factors that contributed to being able to do this, the main reason was that Adam and I had both committed to meeting the needs of Namata. Finding out that she had a loving mother and family that she was unlawfully taken from, made the decision for us. As a parent I could never have lived with myself knowing I was contributing to the Ugandan sized hole in Namata’s heart. Her family and culture should never have been taken away from her in the first place. I’m eternally grateful now looking back that even in the midst of our heartache in losing one of the most amazing little girls I’ve ever met, we were given the opportunity to make things right!
Currently, there is no legal precedent for situations like ours. There are kids here in America that have been kidnapped, their families lied to, and their adoptions produced from bribes and manipulation. There are families in Uganda, and all over the world that hope daily, just see their children, siblings, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
One way to address this madness is by fighting for intercountry adoption laws to be reformed. Another way is to help change the narrative behind intercountry adoption. Within our churches, social circles and places of business, we need to recognize that intercountry adoption has become infiltrated with money and greed. When we read the statistics that say 80-90% of children in orphanages overseas have families, we need to be doing more to ensure we aren’t contributing to a system that is actually tearing families apart. There are many Facebook groups and websites that delve into the intricacies behind intercountry adoption. Join these groups and visit these pages to learn. Appeal to legislators for change and become a person that stands up against these horrible miscarriages of justice.
Adoption is not heroism. It does not fight poverty, disease nor the root causes of inequality.
Adoption doesn’t even raise awareness about the real causes of poverty, inequality, parent-child separations, disease or social immobility. Instead it creates idolatry of those who look to adoption in a world which stigmatises infertility, disease, poverty and poor access to education.
Celebrity adoption doesn’t give adoptees a much-needed voice – rather it silences them, trapping adoptees in a pernicious web of gratitude in which life with their rich, famous and predominantly white culture, is normalised as better than the one they’d have had with their (implied inferior) families.
Celebrity adoption harms all adoptees. They’re the most highly-publicised way in which most people come into contact with adoption, and yet are least likely to highlight the voice of adoptees. Celebrity adoptions come with a literal team of agents, publicity experts, legal minds and brand managers whose job, in part, will be to keep any dissenting adoptee voices about their famous families out of the media.
In the everyday life of an adoptee minus celebrity, the media is highly effective in idolising the role of gratitude towards adoptive parents. So much so, that adoptees speaking out on social media come with a high risk of trolling and death wishes. Imagine the extra risks and isolation for a celebrity poster child of adoption.
Celebrity adoptions exacerbate a climate of silence and create an inadvertent marketing campaign for child trafficking. The outcome of showcasing only (false) saviourism in adoption is to make adoption fashionable and highly desirable to the upper and middle classes and wannabe saviours. To make intercountry adoption fashionable, with anonymising family history at its centre, this creates a commercial market for baby farms, coercion and kidnapping and provides a kind of diplomatic immunity and witness protection for all agencies and families under the magic umbrella of adoption.
Adoption is the look over there strategy of distraction from what by other names catalyses police searches, support groups, societal outrage, concern and campaigns for separated (and trafficked?) children. But in the name of adoption, society is sure that some kind of mystic lottery ticket win has been exchanged for riches and happy ever afters.
As if to prove the effectiveness of adoption mythology – I know the above will seem like shocking hyperbole to the average non-adoptee, to anyone who hasn’t spent time listening to the stories of adult adoptees who has seen adoption only through this beautiful adopter lens, and the seemingly happy adoptees in their own community (who are actually committing suicide at an alarming rate and are over-represented in addiction and depression).
But it will come as no surprise to any adult adoptees who have listened to a community sharing their experiences. It is a support circle that is part activism and part healing in response to our own search for answers and the need to shake off the mythology of adoption stories.
I’ve yet to see a celebrity adoptive parent raise the voices of adoptees. Even Hollywood writers, skilled in empathy for their character inventions (and surely now alert to the need for representation), present adoptees as one-dimensional ghosts. For some reason (alluded to herein!) the adoptees in dramas are extremely grateful for their superior adoptive parents. Searches are presented as a simple, in-the-moment decision with results in minutes and dramatic reunions which quickly morph into happy blended families. They barely touch the reality for adoptees, or the reasons adoptees hide their feelings, nor the emotional or geographical and language barriers to intimacy in family relationships. Instead adoptees’ stories are presented as a bump in the road of an otherwise pain-free life growing up in their amazing adoptive families, only slightly inconvenienced by the literal absence of medical data and not the complexity of identity in a family of strangers and belonging in biological, perhaps even racial, isolation.
In this fictional world, nurture is presented as having the power to defy nature, where every desirable trait and strength is credited to adoption.
This half-truth or just plain false story of adoption as saving children also disguises the reality of parenting adopted children. Children who’ve experienced body held trauma of separation from their most primal relationship cannot replace the never-had biological children of infertile people. The failure to address this grief in all parties and to instead speed towards wishing for the separation of babies from families, helps no-one but instead leaves everyone having to repress forbidden feelings. Something which never ends well for anyone.
The cost of supporting a family in crisis, particularly in Africa, is a fraction of the cost of adoption and lifelong parenting costs in the west. So is adoption really about saving babies?
The cost is not only financial and parent-centred, it is biological in its impact on adoptees. In the context of adoption, people frequently confuse being preverbal with being pre-feeling and pre-memory, the myth of the blank slate. In truth there are many things you learn as a baby which you don’t remember consciously — walking, talking, or laughing for example. Babies comprehend without words, a sense of safety and primal connection lays a foundation in which to form strong attachments, robust relationships and resilient immune systems. All our lives we rely heavily on unconscious memory as much as we rely on conscious memory to make decisions, learn, build relationships and sense threat.
If celebrities and royals truly want to help – they could instead work to raise the voices of adoptees. Seek answers instead of trusting in the ones entrenched in a legacy of bias. Look for the reasons behind poverty cycles, mortality rates and family struggle leading to adoption, find the best and brightest minds and put them to work. Look past discomfort to explore and educate about colonialism, identify ways to undo harm, to allow others to reclaim cultural identities and heal broken families.
Those in positions of high status and power could explore how to avoid separating a child from its family and community.
Create foundations and charities dedicated to keeping children in their culture and with biological relatives. Find ways to make intercountry search and reunion easier for adoptees, fundraise for therapy and research into the experiences of adoptees. There is still so much that adoptees and science are only beginning to understand as we gather data and experiences and we are only just beginning to be heard – this is where you can help!
I wrote this a couple of weeks after I returned from The Hague. I’d had some time to recover from jetlag and collect my thoughts and impressions after being involved at the HCCH Working Group for Preventing and Addressing Illicit Practices in Intercountry Adoption.
I feel privileged to have been invited to represent adoptees and I acknowledge I am but one adoptee, and it’s impossible to capture everyone’s varying views on such an emotional topic. I do not represent all adoptees but I did my best to ensure that the views I shared were not just my own individually, but represented the years of conversations and discussions I have had with many intercountry adoptees and adoptee leaders who have connected into the ICAV network since it’s beginnings in 1998.
One of the biggest insights I had in participating, was of the mammoth task it is to try and bring together various countries and get them to “agree and co-operate” on such a complex topic, including all the nuances within. Before attending, I had a utopian idea of what happens at The Hague level. Sitting in the reality and hearing the various views of country representatives, sometimes vastly different, I realised the important role the Permanent Bureau team plays in being the “facilitator”! Their role is to remind countries of the underpinning frameworks (the UNCRC and the Hague Convention for Intercountry Adoption), make proposals aligned with these frameworks, and ensure government representatives can speak and be heard, equally and fairly.
There can be no denying that the UNCRC and the Hague Convention for ICA are far from perfect tools, but at least they create a forum like this – where the cooperating countries get together to discuss major issues. It also became clear there are differences, country to country, on interpretation about how to implement the framework, the resources available to do so, and the limitations of existing legislation. The thought that really hit home for me was: how do we adoptees address illicit adoptions from countries that haven’t signed up to the Hague Convention? Where is the forum for that? Who do we go to in order to be heard? The answer is, there is none. We have to approach each non Hague country separately through their government. They might not have a government department that has authority in this area or there could be multiple departments.
I now understand the Hague Convention for ICA evolved with the UNCRC. They were both negotiated around the same time by almost the same countries. Together they historically reflect the journey of understanding in intercountry adoption at government levels. Back then, in it’s infancy, The Hague Convention for ICA was the minimum that could be agreed upon. Since then and through forums like the Working Group, the States are encouraged to increase their safeguards where they can. We are left with the reality that this Working Group on Illicit Practices is bound by the limitations included in The Hague Convention for ICA.
I believe it’s positive to understand the differences between the UNCRC and The Hague Convention for ICA but not to waste our energies fighting over which is better or worse. I’m pragmatic and the way I view it is, they are not going away any day soon. We have to live with what we have. There is no other international government agreed upon forum that allows these specific issues in intercountry adoption to be discussed. Wouldn’t we rather be involved discussing these things then not be there at all? In attending this meeting, it does not say I condone the pitfalls of either frameworks but says I commit to gaining a better understanding, build relationships where I can, and try to influence in whatever way I can, to improve things for my fellow adoptees.
Governments vary in their experience of implementing intercountry adoption policy and practice. Some countries signed up very early to the Hague Convention, others have just joined, and others still are still in the process. I wonder what it would take for the Hague Convention in ICA to be able to “mature” i.e., change or be superceded to ensure better monitoring and implementation? Is it possible? Does it happen in other Conventions? From what I understand, it has never happened before. All countries would have to agree and it would take a special process called a Diplomatic Session created to negotiate a new convention to supersede the existing one. Expecting most of the 101 convention countries in today’s political climate to agree to further refine the existing Convention is utopia! Historically, conventions and treaties of this nature only change when the world goes through a major war. State parties to the Convention meet every 5 years (it is called a Special Commission) to discuss the practical operation of the Convention. However, although States are encouraged to apply the decisions made during these meetings, they are not binding because only the text of the Convention is binding. So I’m not saying it’s impossible but pointing out how much more work we have to do if this is what we want to achieve.
The reality of how difficult it really is to expect governments to tackle the topic of illicit practices in adoption became crystal clear during this trip. Firstly, at this level, to get every signatory country to acknowledge that illicit practices exists is a huge task and with this working group, we are already part way there. Then to get them to agree on how to respond, even if it’s only in theory and for Hague adoptions only, is a massive undertaking. The politics involved, the legislations that bind, the limitations .. I can see why it will take some time for change to happen and it is never “fast enough” for adoptees and families who live it! But at the same time, I was encouraged to see that there were 20+ countries committed to attend the meeting and give the topic well considered time, money, thought and effort. In adopteeland, it’s easy for us to portray governments in a stereotypical way — “uninterested”, “not wanting to help”, or jump to conclusions because it’s not the answer we want/need to hear!
I believe we need to do more relationship building with our governments where it matches i.e., if legal action is not being made against them and where they show a willingness to truly understand our perspective. We can try to understand the barriers they face, be open to understanding that they may want to do something about the past historic illicit practices in adoption, but understand it’s not a simple task – legislation and politics can often be their barriers. They are but one arm in the massive government machine of each country. I hope adoptee leaders around the world will, if you haven’t already, give your Central Authorities a call – try and build a relationship with them and help them learn from your lived experience about the challenges and issues you face.
I came away from the meeting with a harsh stack of reality for how big the task is to have illicit practices in adoption addressed and acknowledged, especially historical adoptions prior to the UNCRC and The Hague Convention on ICA. But I remain positive. Many of the attendees spoke to me about how much they gained from hearing an adoptee perspective. I communicated that some of us are willing to be involved to help them understand the nuances from our perspective and talking with the participants reminded me of how important it is, to not only build commonalities amongst adoptees, but amongst all the players who have a key role in effecting change.
Dear Intercountry Adoption Board (ICAB) of the Philippines,
I’m a 33-year-old Filipino American adoptee and I refuse to be erased. I refuse to be ignored. I was born in the Philippines and it was not my choice to leave. But it is my choice to return as an adult and to regain my citizenship. Because, ICAB, I am still here. And I am a human being with civil rights and I deserve this choice.
To date, I’ve been requesting your assistance for dual citizenship and to also retrieve my Filipino birth certificate, but I haven’t heard back from you nor received support for my requests.
Why you, you ask? Why do I keep reaching out and consulting you? And, why is this important, you wonder?
I seek you out, ICAB, because you have been the keeper of my biological records. You have been the storehouse of my Filipino history and the last remains of my Filipino identity. You are the legal witness to my orphaned situation. You have been the writer and transcriber of my last remaining Filipino past. You have been the watcher, overseeing my welfare as I’d lived in an orphanage in the Philippines from infancy until I was two years old. You have been the manager of my international adoption process from the Philippines to the United States. You have been the selector, approving my very adoptive parents and sole caretakers.
You have been the landlord switching over my vacant Filipino estate to another country, transferring me to Holt International’s adoption process in the United States, for me to be naturalized. You are now my living treasury of the last of me, holding my human files, history, heritage and remaining rights of my birth country. So, please don’t ignore me now, when I need you most, to help me recover my history. You are the one that knows best, of what was lost. Please, don’t abandon me now.
I know I am just one adoptee, sharing a plea to not be erased. But one adoptee is vital to the Philippines, because one erasure, is an entire lineage of Filipino heritage and descent. One adoptee, represents all Filipino adoptees because neglecting one, is allowing a different administrative direction to take shape, and human values will be lost with this attitude and transaction of erasure. Neglecting one Filipino adoptee’s needs–will be lowering the bar for others. This action will degrade the virtues that all our adoption agencies, global humanities and civil rights reflect.
Please, grant me access to my Filipino birth certificate. Please, allow my information to be retrievable in an expedited manner, please don’t give me obstacles in my requests. Please, endorse me for citizenship since you are the only one who can prove my Filipino heritage. Please, support me. Please, listen to my needs today, and tomorrow. Please, assist me in trying to make a new pathway to citizenship and a better relation with immigration in the Philippines, because of what this action stands for. For, I am not just one Filipino adoptee, but all Filipino adoptees. And you are the last remaining world and glue holding all of our remains, together.
You, ICAB, are the keeper of all of our futures in the Philippines, and nobody else can govern our past and future citizenship but you.
Thus, today, I push for another step in reunion. Today, I push for more recognition of my human history. Today, I push for regulated acknowledgement of my civil rights. And today, I push for a pathway back to citizenship in my homeland, my motherland, my birth country from where I was born, in the Philippines.
This to date, is a vital goal as to why keeping all Filipino adoptee birth records and information legitimate, accessible and retrievable at all times is important. As in this collective, positively goal-minded action, we, together, keep ICAB erected with the intrinsic values that our global community and sense of Philippine Kapwa is built off of.
Dear ICAB, we will need to work together now, to be able to knit identity back together in the Philippines because the goal of adoption is not to give away, nor to erase, but to restructure, and to rebuild. Adoption is a positive solution, and so is this request, which aligns with the goal of all international adoptions.
The very nature of all adoption efforts combined, is compassion.
On a positive note, I can imagine Filipino adoptees able to give back what we’ve learned on our journey abroad. We are not entirely lost to the Philippines. We can relearn what it is we forgot having lived away from our birth country for so long. We can build new connections and relations with the culture of the Philippines, and regain a new sense of repurposed identity to help the Philippines become a stronger leader in diversity. We can help the Philippine and global economy. We can learn from each other. We can heal the past and that painful separation, with hope.
So please ICAB, don’t erase me. Please, don’t ignore me. Please, see me as still a part of our country, the Philippines, the homeland that had shaped my fate and the country I had been born into as a citizen, long ago. I implore you. Please, don’t forget what it is you’ve been responsible for, taking me in all those years ago. Please, don’t see my requests and questions today, as trivial. Please, don’t ignore my emails. Please, don’t ignore my heart’s calling to reinstate my civil rights to my birth country. I know I’ve been away for quite some time, but I’m still here, and I haven’t forgotten where I come from. Please, don’t give up on me, Philippines.
Because I refuse to give up on you.
Birth name: Desiree Maru
Birth country: The Philippines
Relinquishment: Day of birth in Cebu, Philippines
Orphanage circa 1985: Asilo de la Milagrosa
U.S. Adoption Agency used circa 1987: Holt International
Several comparisons have looked at social climate and economic factors to understand the motivations for why the South Korean government continues to export its children via intercountry adoption. Some individuals claim it’s due to impoverished conditions after the Korean War but I find this to be misleading. America has a long tradition of sounding a rallying cry after a great disaster such as the collapse of an economy, famine or war. Modern intercountry adoption began from South Korea and has remained popular over time. Other nations have become popular sending countries in recent years, for example China. However, South Korea still reigns as having the highest number of children sent away to a foreign country via intercountry adoption.
Korean War the Rallying Cry but Not a Major Contributor
The graph above shows the number of adoptions that occurred by year. The rally cry for South Korean adoptions may have started with the aftermath of the Korean War and for 17 years, the children did trickle into the America. The gap between the Korean War and the start of the first wave of Korean Adoptions that occurred in the 1970s was nearly a full generation after the Korean War. Therefore, there must be another driver that motivated South Korea to export its children.
If the safeguarding of the children after the War was an important driver to aid South Korean children, then one would expect to see the number of adoptions rising after the War. However, the increase in adoptions did not occur until sixteen to eighteen years after the War had ended. One argument often used has to do with the poor economy. However, the two peak periods with the largest number of children sold off via intercountry adoption occurred during the largest economic boom for Korea. Therefore, other reasons must exist that motivated South Korea to sell of its most precious asset, its children.
This essay will investigate the underlying motivation in depth for why South Korea has sent out so many children via intercountry adoption. I will draw from both my professional financial background and as a person who has lived this exporting experience.
American Adoption Trend or Preference?
The bulk of children adopted to America came from Asia and Russia and former Soviet-controlled countries. Preferential selection based on race has been cited numerous times to be the main reason for this disparity amongst the Caucasian community who adopts the majority of children into America. The article Discouraging Racial Preferences in Adoption by Solangel Maldonado summarized this context well:
“Tracing the history of transracial adoption in the United States, this article argues that one reason why Americans go abroad to adopt is race. The racial hierarchy in the adoption market places white children at the top, African American children at the bottom, and children of other races in between, thereby rendering Asian or Latin American children more desirable to adoptive parents than African American children.”
If Americans were really concerned for children involved in conflicts, then there are huge gaps in adoption trends. One would assume children from the massacres of Rwanda, Darfur and other Wars and disasters would be reflected in adoption statistics but America has a preference to adopt children that are from light-skinned countries. Ethiopia is located in northern Africa and Ethiopia has some of the lighter shades of skin color in Africa. The culture was influenced by Judaic influences as well as the middle east. The reality is Americans do have a preference, they want as many light skinned babies as possible.
In the past, I have been asked to talk about the business side of adoption. The following information is initially from an interview I did with Kevin Vollmers for an interview on Land of Gazillion Adoptees. I found a great explanation about supply and demand and how it correlates to business, to include the adoption industry.
“Supply and demand are perhaps one of the most fundamental concepts of economics and it is the backbone of a market economy. Demand refers to how much (quantity) of a product or service is desired by buyers. The quantity demanded is the amount of a product people are willing to buy at a certain price; the relationship between price and quantity demanded is known as the demand relationship. Supply represents how much the market can offer. The quantity supplied refers to the amount of a certain good a producer is willing to supply when receiving a certain price. The correlation between price and how much of a good or service is supplied to the market is known as the supply relationship. Price, therefore, is a reflection of supply and demand.”
A focus on factors that influence the supply side of the equation of adoptions from South Korea was highlighted and shows how changes in prices and the use of subsidies have made adoption a very lucrative business.
Demand Side within America for Intercountry Adoption
Some individuals are very ignorant about the large demand for children in America. For the most part, prospective parents are looking to adopt infants to allow them to experience parenting. I was surprised by the number of couples incapable of conceiving and although technology is advancing to assist conception, the barriers to use these technologies are at high costs and the toll it places on the woman’s body as compared to the trade-offs of not conceiving.
The latest information from the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) estimates the following:
“About 6% of married women aged 15 to 44 years in America are unable to get pregnant after one year of trying (infertility). Also, about 12% of women aged 15 to 44 years in America have difficulty getting pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term, regardless of marital status (impaired fecundity)”.
National Survey of Family Growth stated that 7.5% of all sexually experienced men reported receiving help with having a child at some time during their lifetime. This equates to 3.3 – 4.7 million men in America. Of the men who sought help, 18.1% were diagnosed with a male-related infertility problem. This data points out that there could be as high as 6.7 – 10.8 couples that will have problems in conceiving children and are likely candidates for adoption. This isn’t to say that infertile couples are the only ones wanting to adopt. There is evidence that families without fertility issues and families with biological children have the desire to adopt too.
In a recent survey conducted by the National Council For Adoption and their testimony before Congress on foster and adoptive parent recruitment reform; their polling concluded the following:
25% seriously consider becoming a foster parent/ or adopt;
63% believe religious leaders should do more to encourage people to become foster parents or to adopt;
76% support hiring more case workers, even if cost millions of dollars.
Besides the desire to raise a family by infertile couples, the adoption industry has been heavily influenced by the evangelical movement in America that spans nearly a decade. During this time, large established families without infertility issues have adopted in high numbers. The evangelical adoption movement also fought to lobby in Congress to keep the adoption tax credit and won in 2017 to extend the bill to support growing evangelical families.
It’s extremely hard to determine how large the demand side of adoption is, it’s true that not all infertile couples will look to adoption as part of their basket of choices and furthermore, there are large segmented groups like the evangelicals that are very pro-adoption and that too is also hard to determine but the demand side potential could be easily be in the double digit millions.
Demand Side within South Korea
South Korea has little-to-no demand for adoption within its own borders. It’s estimated that South Korea takes in around 4% of their unwanted children. Despite selling off 200,000 children, it has nearly a ten-fold increase that remains within their state-run orphanages in the past six decades. It’s estimated that more than 2 million children have been brought up by the state in South Korea. For the most part, Koreans adhere to Confucian principals and conform to staying within their own bloodlines. Therefore, the demand side in Korea is near non-existant. To understand the cultural differences, The Economist ran an article entitled “Why adoptions are so rare in South Korea“ and stated:
“Traditional Confucian notions of the bloodline family still hold sway, as do aspects of primogeniture. Women who cannot bear children face strong social stigma, as do orphans and adoptees, whose chances of getting a job and marrying are limited. Many adoptions in South Korea are concealed from family and friends—and, in many cases, the adopted child. Parents ensure that the baby’s blood type matches their own; some mothers even fake pregnancy. All this sends the message that adoption is shameful, in turn discouraging more of it. The secrecy also explains why 95% of infants adopted within South Korea are less than one-month-old: young enough to be passed off as biological children. A majority of adopted babies are girls so as to avoid difficulties over inheritance and at ancestral family rites, which are normally carried out by bloodline sons”.
Supply Side in America for Domestic Adoption
The Department of Health and Human Services produces a report every year about the number of children who are in foster care or in need of a home. Adoptionnetwork.com provides a plethora of adoption statistics to give an idea of how large the supply is within America. The site gave the following examples:
428,000 children are in foster care in the United States;
135,000 children are adopted in the United States each year;
In 2015, over 670,000 children spent time in the foster care system;
2% of Americans have actually adopted, more than 1/3 have considered it;
Around 7 million Americans are adopted;
State and federal expenditures for foster care administrative costs (placing and monitoring children in foster care) totaled $4.3 billion
In America the figures show the vast majority of children are not adopted and the system is heavily subsidized by Federal and States funds that has turned into a multi-billion dollar business.
Supply Side in South Korean for any Adoptions
The exact number of children that are available for adoption each year in South Korea is unknown and has been artificially inflated due to laws and incentives that encourage abandonment. The math doesn’t lie, its estimated that 4.2% of the 51.5 Million Koreans were either raised in state ran institutions or sent off for adoption. The real issues are glossed over when emotions are used over facts. The main reason why South Korean mother’s give away their children is because there are no social welfare programs nor civil rights that support single parenting in South Korea. A single parent receives on average 70,000 won (US$84) per child a month compared to the 1.1 million won that is spent for each child in an orphanage and this disparity helps push desperate mothers to relinquish their children.
If the support went to the mother instead of the institutions, the supply side in Korea would dry up overnight.
Despite these perverse laws, the number of children in welfare centers that house orphans has dropped considerably. In 2015, the number of children taken care of by the State declined to 12,821 from 17,517 in 2006, i.e., a 26.8% drop. Many organizations try to point to the fact that South Korea has shipped 200,000 children to other countries as an indicator of a large supply of children available for adoption but does anyone show the research for this? No because in doing so, we would understand there is not a large supply side in South Korea.
Joel L. A. Peterson is the national award-winning author of the novel, Dreams of My Mothers and he stated in a Huffington Post article in 2015:
“Instead, my research suggests that many — maybe most or all — “abandoned” Korean children were wanted and their mothers went through a horrendous, agonizing process to reach a decision that showed that their mothers cared for their welfare and did the only thing they could to give some advantage to their child by at least conferring Korean citizenship.”
He further explains why there isn’t a supply curve in South Korea by stating:
“Recent surveys conducted in Korea indicate that greater than 90 percent of single mothers desire to keep their child if their circumstances and society had allowed. It would seem that, indeed, Korean mothers are no different from mothers everywhere. Just Korean laws and the weight of Korean social norms.”
Unscrupulous Practices Decrease Input Costs
Adoption agency costs are much lower to operate in poorer developing nations. Operating costs could be much lower – a few thousand dollars to cover a year supply of expenses for lodging, food and incidentals. During the height of the baby sales in South Korea there was a large disparity in GDP per capita between America and South Korea. WIth the lower operating costs in Korea during this time period, this allowed the South Korean government to make more profit. The cost could be dramatically less if unscrupulous practices that were market driven to bring in children for foreign adoption. Other benefits to the adoption agency and the adopters include the lack of resources for poor families to look for their child or petition the legal system if the parents change their mind.
Adoption Incentives Drive Profits Upwards
The American tax incentive plays a negative roll in driving up costs in adoption. Several economists correlate the rise of College tuition with the increase of Federal grants and subsidies. This means for every dollar a student received in grants and free money – the university had increased the tuition costs and the amount of debt the same for the student. The government provided funds did not offset costs for the student. Instead, what the system did was increase the total cost of tuition. No matter how much this can be pointed out by economists and smart legislators – people will demand to get more of their schooling funded through grants and government subsidies instead of asking for ways to lower tuition costs.
The same problem holds true for those who want to adopt. Funding is available via tax write-offs, loans, and grants to prospective parents, incentivizing them to adopt.
There is no clear evidence that the input costs are being driven up or that parents are being matched with better children due to more extensive search or process. Specific adoption expenses such as adoption fees, court costs, attorney fees and travel expenses are used as a tax credit. Remember a tax credit is a dollar for dollar reduction in federal tax and not a reduction of taxable income. Furthermore, the adoption tax credit allows US$13,460 worth of tax credit for the adopted child. So, one must ask, where does this money go? Adoption agencies respond saying the increases in costs are caused by tougher regulations, longer holding times and increases in input costs (food, shelter, clothing, etc.).
An assessment was made at the financials of Holt International to determine where the funds were being distributed throughout the system.
Holt International, as well as numerous adoption advocacy sites, have used the figure of US$40,000 to be the average cost a prospective family spends on each adoption. Using this for 2010 on the number of children processed for adoption into America, the total amount of revenue earned was US$29,560,000. Subtracting the adoption fees Holt International charges to each family, the total liabilities unrecorded is US$18,756,000 i.e., 63% of the funding is unaccounted for.
A Washington Post article states that the biggest cost outside agency costs (which are separate) is legal fees that range from US$6,000 to $8,000. Much of what Holt and other adoption agencies publish is vague and the financial records change from year to year, making it hard to determine where the funds are spent and preventing transparency. In 2010, how did Holt earn an additional US$14 million worth of revenue when half the revenues came from adoption fees?
Adopt for All Children is another American adoption agency and they list a greater breakdown of their costs. They co-operate with the Eastern Social Welfare Society to place children from South Korea to America.
Smoking Gun Another adoption agency called New Beginnings that deals with South Korean Adoptions gives some insight of the greater detail of their South Korean Program Fees:
“Korean Program Fee Program Coordination $6,500 for program sponsorship and development; working with ESWS to identify a child and arranging for an adoption; receiving a referral of a child that includes the Child’s Background Study; securing the child’s legal information to present to USCIS for immigration approval; filing the documents in Korea for court approval and emigration permission, establishing the itineraries while the family is abroad for the adoption hearing, the placement of the child and the child’s travel visa. ($2,500 due at home study approval; $1,500 due at acceptance; and $2,500 due at submission of Emigration Permission).” Foreign Agency Fee and “Donation” $19,500 For child care expenses prior to the adoption, identifying a child available for adoption, securing the necessary terminate parental rights, providing the background study on the child, arranging for the finalization of the adoption and the immigration of the child (due at acceptance). Total Korean Program Fees $26,000“
The document provided by New Beginnings show that a large portion of the adoption costs gets returned back to the South Korea Government. I dislike the term that these agency use. They call it donations and that means the funds are unaccounted for. South Korean agencies need to be transparent on the funds they received and how the funding is spent. Regardless, this is the amount of funding that could have contributed to Korea’s economy: to pay for salaries to process documents, cost of care for the children and other expenses. I will refer to these numbers throught the study as the Foreign Agency Fee and Donation.
Holt Case Example It is almost impossible to obtain any real assessments from Holt’s online financial statements. Most years, Holt will publish a total number of children adopted into America vs. splitting the numbers between adoptions made from the parent country and domestic adoptions. Due to limited data I have to make some assumptions. I will assume the majority of the costs will be transferred to the American families and that the majority of costs would be for foreign born children i.e., the domestic adoptions should be cheaper to process.
In 2007, Holt listed the domestic and international adoptions to America separately and if we peel back the onion, the overall costs for the international adoptions would increase if we sliced the domestic adoptions out of the equation. I used the 2007 figures to come up with the new cost: 59 domestic and 561 foreign adoptions and this implies approximately 10% of all Holt adoptions, for an average year, are domestic.
The Federal Adoption Tax Credit was enacted in 1997. I do not have enough data to determine if the law increased these costs. I would need to look at financial statements going back to the early ’90s to make an accurate assessment but it doesn’t mean this data is totally useless either. First, the adoption fee per international child is close to what other sources are reporting. The increase in Total operating Revenue suggests the costs are passed down to the potential parents, the number of adoptions is not increasing dramatically and the annual operating funds have increased from year to year, on a whole. This may be due to inflation of 2-3%.
The annual reports also list the areas the adoption agencies are actively working. We can see numerous trends. First, they are constantly going to economically depressed areas to obtain these children. We see where they are focusing their attention and possible patterns of abuse. For instance, in recent years adoption agencies have been prohibited from doing business in Russia and Guatemala due to perceived or real abuses within the adoption process. Overall, one can assume that the policy is working well in encouraging individuals to adopt. However, other sources point out that the program is supporting foreign adoptions and not helping the domestic foster care system.
A recent Child Trends research brief uses 1999–2005 data from the US Treasury Department to determine who most benefits from the credit. In his report summary, author Rob Geen reveals that:
The vast majority of adoption tax credit recipients completed private or foreign adoptions rather than adoptions from foster care.
The tax credit disproportionately supports higher-income families.
The tax credit primarily supports the adoption of younger children.
Nearly all foreign adoptions were supported by the … tax credit but only one in four foster care adoptions were.
Estimated Size of the Adoption Industry
The adoption process is no different to other programs where federal assistance increases the wealth of those who run them. Together with increasing demand for international adoptions, the federal assistance acts to inflate costs and enables those who run the programs to become wealthier.
I went to the US Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs to get the average number of intercountry adoptions per year. The site has a database that lists the total number adoptions as 271,833 from 1999-2017. I took the average year to be around 15,101 adoptions a year and multiplied it by Adoption.com’s average intercountry adoption cost of US$35,000 to determine the size of the American market. It is US$529 million dollars a year. This does not factor in legal fees, medical fees, counseling costs and immigration costs. It also doesn’t factor in all the other developed countries that adopt abroad. Several sites estimate that Europe and all other developed countries adoptions numbers, equal that of America. Therefore, the entire intercountry adoption industry is worth at least a billion US dollars a year.
There were actually two peak periods where children were adopted out of South Korea enmasse and these occurred during the 1970s and 1980s. There was no correlation between the adoption rates against GDP per capita. If this was true, then one would expect more children being exported during the IMF crisis in the later part of the 1990s, however, this never occurred. One could argue that size of the family may have been the key driver. This could be said for the children born in the 1970s. The average household size contained 4.53 children per household.
South Korea’s birthrate stabilizes near the current rate which is below 2 children per family around 1982. However, a large number of children were still being adopted for nearly 8 years after the birthrate dropped below 2 per family household.
A better explanation for the adoptions has to do with South Korea being a patriarchal society. If a South Korean woman losses support from her partner, she is shunned and ridiculed by society. She has no support system to turn to and is given only one option to give her child a fighting chance: adoption.
Wikipedia states: “Statistics demonstrate the success of South Korea’s national education programs. In 1945 the adult literacy rate was estimated at 22 percent; by 1970 adult literacy was 87.6 percentand, by the late 1980s, sources estimated it at around 93 percent”.
In relatively a short period, South Korea greatly improved its education system which meant a larger number of women entered university. The age when women gave birth in the 1970-80s was 20-24 year old mothers and this is where a large number of children for adoption came from. The number of children born to this segment shrank dramatically after the 1980s. This was largely due to 2 factors: firstly, the use of ultrasound technology to determine the sex of the child and perform targeted abortions on female fetuses; and secondly the increased use of contraceptives and abortion by women in South Korea.
This also explains the high percentage of South Korean girls given up for adoption throughout this period. More than likely, the poorer women who could not afford to have an abortion or use contraceptives were forced to give up their child due to social pressures.
“Imbalances in the sex ratio at birth in Southeast and East Asia increased especially after the mid-1980s. We study how ultrasonic technology affected sex ratios at birth in South Korea, a country with a strong son preference. Between 1985 and 1995 fetal screenings and abortion services were widely available, though not available in the years before, and prohibited in the years after”. (Source: NIH article)
As a direct means of avoiding unwanted births, particularly after contraceptive failure, induced abortion gradually increased in South Korea especially among urban women (Choe and Park, 2005, Stephen, 2012). By 1970, abortion had become a common practice with more than 40% of women reporting having had an induced abortion to terminate unwanted pregnancies and this rate rose to over 50% by the 1980s (Chun and Das Gupta, 2009). Abortions were easy to obtain in clinics throughout the country and the operations were safe, cheap and completed without social resistance despite the illegality of the procedure (Tedesco, 1999).
Adoption used for Cost Avoidance
What could be another driver for South Korea to sell off their children? I believe we really need to look at the economic incentives. The first economic incentive is the cost avoidance. South Korea forfeited the costs to raise children in institutions from the age they enter the system until adulthood. One needs to remember economic growth in South Korea was extremely high and the average growth between 1970 to 1990 was 18.7% each year. Imagine the amount the government would have to carry as the costs of wages, food and shelter continue to rise by that amount each year?
I measured the growth by looking at the GDP per capita as an indicator. I calculated the cost to house, feed and educate a child under an institution would cost more than a family given the children need 24 hour care. I used the cost of 40% of the given years GDP per capita as the cost to raise the child for that given year. The costs could actually climb higher when factoring in the higher cost of labor to take care of infants and special needs children. I also estimated that the average child spent 16 years inside the institution. An assumption was made that the average age of the child sent to Korean institutions was 2 years old.
The total cost to the South Korean Government in terms of cost avoidance for only 20 of the 62 years that Korea was exporting children (1970-1990) is estimated to be around US$6.4 billion!
This is evidence that South Korea had an economic motive to sell off its children and supports this theory of cost avoidance. South Korea spend way less money on social welfare programs than other OECD countries which means they have more funding for other programs such as its R&D and military.
In her 2010 book, Kim Rasmussen said: the root cause of the number of adoptions out of South Korea in 2010 was South Korea’s lack of spending on its social welfare system. Rasmussen also shared that the other OECD-30 countries spent an average of 20.6% of their GDP on social welfare benefits while South Korea only spent 6.9% of its GDP on social welfare benefits. Rasmussen believes that South Korea’s promotion of domestic adoption does not address the heart of the problem and that South Korea should raise its spending for social welfare benefits.
Adoption as a Revenue Maker
In the graphs below, I estimate the average cost for the Foreign Agency Fee and Donation as a steady state (US$19,500 per child) times the number of adoptions per year in South Korea. I compare the revenue in terms of the GDP per capita and determined that in 2015, when the article was written, the cost is around 35% of the GDP per capita in America. I then took that percentage and calculate it by the American GDP per capita stated for each corresponding year. I took the information and compared it against the cost and number of barrels of oil used in Korea to determine how much adoption could have impacted the South Korean economy (if any). The Tax and South Korea’s GDP was compared to determine the strength of the economy and whether it had any effect on the number of adoptions. There doesn’t seem to be any correlation.
The price adjusted to today’s dollars of the total adoption program from 1970-1990 earned South Korea a revenue of US$3.1 billion, averaging US$157 million a year.
To understand the magnitude and impact, the equivalent to a program in America which is more than 6 times the size of South Korea, the revenue gained by selling off its children would be the equivalent to the cost of the fight on AIDS in Africa. In that program America spent roughly US$1 billion a year. Or you could equate the amount to the American national After-School Lunch Program for the entire country that fed hungry impoverished children.
The yellow line in the graph (above) takes the adjusted Foreign Agency Fee and Donation times the number of children that were adopted each year. Most of the funds went to the South Korean government as above the line profit. Articles have been published stating that the South Korean government has made money from adoption, such as this article on International Adoption of South Korean Children in Wikipedia.
A 1988 article originally from The Progressive and reprinted in Pound Pup Legacy says the South Korean government made fifteen to twenty million dollars per year from the adoption of Korean orphans into families in other countries. The 1988 news article also says the adoption of orphans out of South Korea had three effects: it saved the South Korean government the costs of caring for the Korean orphans; it relieved the South Korean government of the need to figure out what to do with the orphans and it lowered the population.
I think the amount of revenue gained from exporting South Korean children has been understated!
Due to a lack of transparency, there is no exact method of calculating how much revenue the South Korean government made during the adoption process. Holt and other adoption agencies that operate out of South Korea declare their financial statements on an annual basis and if the amounts are lower than the average adoption transaction, one could assume the difference is given to the South Korean government. Issues that make transparency difficult are that adoption agencies such as Holt change their financial statements on a frequent basis and only a fraction of the adoption companies share their financial statements with the public.
The graph below shows a comparison of Korea’s GDP Growth (grey line) in comparison to profit made from adoption (blue line), changes in oil useage (orange) and increase in tax revenue (yellow) over time.
A comparison was made of the cost of barrels of oil used during the twenty years. The amount of money made in adoption sales stays above, or at the level of oil used, when using the steady state number ($6000/adoptee) and it jumps dramatically higher when applying the Foreign Agency Fee and Donation ($19,500). The blue line would grow three fold.
Economically selling off the children via intercountry adoption has been a suicidal move because the population ultimately fell below 2.1 children per household. In developed countries, sub-replacement fertility is any rate below approximately 2.1 children born per woman, but the threshold can be as high as 3.4 in some developing countries because of higher mortality rates. Going below this number will result in the current situation that South Korea faces and that is a sub-replacement fertility rate. This occurred around the early or later part of 1982.
I theorize that the rapid drop in fertility rates in South Korea occurred for two reasons:
Cultural: it was unacceptable for women to have children if they weren’t married. That segment quickly disappeared (20-24 year olds) because of contraception and abortion use took place. I need to overlay this to see if more kids are being raised in orphanages. South Korea makes it too easy for parents to dump their kids off and run.
Someone (or the government) was economically gaining from the wholesale of children: if we average the profit throughout the years of $5000 x 200,000 children the profit would be equivalent to US$1 billion dollars .
In 1980 South Korea’s GDP was $68 billion, showing the wholesale of its children would have significantly contributed to the economic growth of the country. There must be a South Korean document somewhere that is equivalent to Germany’s Final Solution. Instead of eradication, South Korea had a plan for the mass exportation of its children.
Following 1988, there was a large drop in intercountry adoptions after the Seoul Olympics. This is an important date, as many nations were chastising South Korea for the exportation of its children. Feeling this pressure, South Korea immediately reduced the number of adoptions per year by 75%.
The Number of Institutionalized Children and Adoptions are Dropping
With the recent passage of laws and strict requirements for adoption the number of children exported by South Korea for adoption has declined sharply over the past decade. In numerous studies, I note the statistic that America has been taking in nearly half of the adoptions worldwide.
An online journal The Conversationarticle says international adoptions have dropped 72 percent since 2005 and quotes:
“In recent decades South Korea, Romania, Guatemala, China, Kazakhstan and Russia– all former leaders in foreign adoption – have also banned or cut back on international custody transfers. In 2005, almost 46,000 children were adopted across borders, roughly half of them headed to a new life in the United States. By 2015 international adoptions had dropped 72 percent, to 12,000 in total. Just 5,500 of these children ended up in the U.S., with the remainder landing in Italy and Spain”.
Furthermore, the number of children sent to orphanages in Korea has also fallen. See this article which quotes:
“In 2015, the number of children staying in welfare centres caring mainly for orphans dropped by 26.8 per cent to 12,821, from 17,517 in 2006”.
Adoptee Parents are Rapidly Dying Off
During the early 1970’s, fertility rates within South Korea and the ratio for women giving birth was one third in the early to mid 20s age range, one third in the mid to late 20s, and one third in their 30s or older. As South Korea progressed, the number of women in the younger segment shrank greatly. My initial graph above showed potential age lines and made the assumption that the father was on average a couple of years older than the mother.
I also found an article on life expectancy which increased by nearly 20 years from the 1970s to today. The dotted horizontal red line in the graph above is the changes in life expectancy and will merge with the mean age of the parents. The life expectancy shot up and stayed around 84 years from the mid 80s to the present. Where the dotted vertical red line meets the dotted horizontal line shows a high likelihood that the fathers have passed away and where the dotted yellow and first dotted red line meets, also holds true for the mothers. I also calculated the ages by the number of adoptees adopted by year group and estimated, using current actuary tables, that more than 2,000 parents are dying each year. Roughly one third of all adoptee’s biological parents have already died and it’s crucial for adoptees to do their searches as soon as possible if they want to find parents alive.
The money spent on the intercountry adoption of South Korean children would have done more to support single mothers, prevented the separation of children from their surroundings and prevented unnecessary negative externalities experienced via adoption. South Korea could have used the funding to begin its social welfare programs such as Canada’s training programs which train mothers how to raise their children, cope with stresses and empower them to become productive single parents.
The issues facing many 3rdworld countries are not about bad parenting but rather a situation of a lack of resources. If a mother cannot afford to provide for her child, she will do anything to ensure that her child will have a better life. Few individuals see the altruistic actions of desperate mothers. These mothers are willing to give away their children to afford them a better life. Furthermore, nobody has dethroned the archaic ways of doing business and management of governance in South Korea. Rights and laws go to protect the same patriarchal men who hold the keys to the power in South Korea. Nothing is being done to provide for the millions of women and children left vulnerable when the man decides to abandon the family. Nothing is done to ensure child support is provided and a safety net developed by a government who chooses to bury its head in the sand, instead of dealing with issues that have plagued them for over 5 decades.
“Although Korean women are participating more in the labour market than in previous years, the gap in the level of employment between men and women, regardless of their education level, is enormous. In fact, the gender gap is wider among those with a tertiary education than among those with only preprimary and primary-level education; and South Korea is the only OECD country that shows such an effect”. (Source: OECD)
The Anti-Immigrant Climate in the United States of America
An Intercountry & Transracial Adoptee’s Perspective
by Rachel Kim Tschida
Special Guest Blogger on ICAV
I am currently pursuing a master’s degree in public affairs, and I’m taking a course on immigration policy. A recent question that was presented to our class was, “How has the anti-immigrant climate in America affected people you know?” I immediately thought of the impact it has had on intercountry (and often transracial) adoptees.
Speaking from my own lived experience, it was actually startling for me when I first realized that I was an immigrant. This might sound crazy but growing up in an American family with American parents, it just never crossed my mind. Yes, logically I knew that I was born in Korea and came to America when I was 6 months old, and my first passport was issued by the Korean government for my first plane ride aboard Northwest Airlines from Incheon to Seattle, and then Seattle to Minneapolis-St. Paul. I have photos and newspaper clippings from my naturalization ceremony when I was 1 year old (my mom dressed me in a red white & blue dress for the occasion). I even received a hand signed letter from U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz, congratulating me on becoming a citizen (and how he also immigrated to the U.S. as a child). However, “immigrant” was never part of my self- identity.
This all started to shift a few years ago, when I heard about a Korean adoptee who was in deportation proceedings. At first, it didn’t even make any sense to me – how could an adoptee, someone who was adopted by Americans like me, be deported? At the time, I didn’t realize that not all adoptees were naturalized – either their parents didn’t know or for some reason or another, just didn’t complete the process. After reading the case of this adoptee, and going down a Google rabbit hole, all of the pieces started to come together. The next time I stopped by my parents’ house I thanked them for following through on all of the steps of my adoption and naturalization. I also asked to get all of my documents, including my certificate of naturalization and adoption file, just in case.
Through conversations that I have had within the intercountry adoptee community, I have realized that I am not alone on the complex path of self-discovery around adoptee/immigrant identity. There are some intercountry adoptees who do not identify as immigrants, while there are others who proudly and adamantly claim their immigrant status. I have also realized that I had one of the better possible adoption outcomes, with regards to how seriously and diligently my parents went through the adoption and naturalization processes. In the massive folder of adoption paperwork from my parents, I found notes in my mom’s handwriting with reminders like “call attorney” or “don’t forget to file naturalization paperwork”.
Throughout the past 2 years, I have seen an increased level of fear and anxiety within the community. As anti- immigrant policy proposals have increased in number and frequency, related discussions within intercountry adoptee community groups and online chats have proliferated. Everything from whether or not we need a certificate of citizenship AND a certificate of naturalization, to stories of naturalized Asian American citizens who have been de- naturalized for spelling mis-matches in their application (which can be prevalent when translating Asian names from their native characters into Romanized letters), to the impact the proposed removal of birthright citizenship would have on the American-born children of non-naturalized adoptees. This particular issue adds even greater distress around family stability to adoptees whose very lives were impacted by the separation from their birth families. Adoptees have given each other advice such as carrying proof of citizenship at all times, having copies of adoption certificates and naturalization certificates when traveling abroad and re-entering America, immigration and border control, and hiring immigration attorneys.
This has also led to many philosophical debates around the positioning of intercountry adoptees on the immigration hierarchy – especially Asian adoptees. In stark contrast to the exclusion of Asian immigrants through the 1875 Page Act, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the 1907 Gentleman’s Agreement with Japan, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917, and the quotas of the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952, the adoption of Korean children by (usually) white American families began in 1953 – more than a decade before the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This exceptionalism narrative – that adopted children of American parents are “good immigrants” yet at the same time almost never viewed as immigrants by their families, the immigration process, or society at large, is probably why I also did not identify as an immigrant myself. There was the assumption (and expectation) that we would be easy to assimilate into American society via our American families. It poses an interesting question; how can America view an Asian, African, or Latino child who has crossed the border with his or her Asian, African, or Latino parents so differently than an Asian, African, or Latino child who was adopted by (white) American parents?
Adoptive parents and adoption agencies successfully lobbied for the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, which granted automatic and retroactive citizenship to some (but not all) intercountry adoptees. Now, adoptive parents would only need to ensure the adoption was legally finalized based on the type of visa issued, and they would no longer need to go through the naturalization process. This seems in theory like a clear victory for the adoptee community that would close a gap in our immigration system. However, it continues to reinforce the exceptional immigrant narrative.
That said, even in 2000 concessions were made to the Child Citizenship Act in order to get it through Congress. The most notable and damaging was that it excluded adoptees who were already 18 on the day the law was enacted- February 27, 2001. There was an assumption that adoptees over 18 could easily navigate the immigration system and apply for citizenship themselves. Despite the “forever children” narrative that is also often placed on adoptees, this was an abrupt shift in suddenly viewing us as adults and transferring the responsibilities (and failures) of adoptive parents onto adoptees. This also seemed to define the shift toward placing adoptees in the same category as all other immigrants, at least in the eyes of immigration enforcement.
Unfortunately, there are many intercountry adoptees who have no viable path to citizenship, for various reasons. They may have entered on a non-immigrant visa, or their parents did not keep their adoption files which are the only proof that an adoptee entered the country legally via adoption. Despite the air of “exceptionalism” in the passage of the Child Citizenship Act, one could also argue that adoptees had no agency or self-determination in their adoption whatsoever – they didn’t choose to be separated from their birth family and be sent from their birth country, nor choose to be adopted by Americans. Therefore, those who hold the most power within this adoption system should also bear the responsibility – American parents, adoption agencies, and the American government. For better or worse, the premise of adoption is built upon the promise of offering a “better life” and “creating a family” – and the denial of American citizenship is a complete contradiction to this promise. For many adoptees, their American families, homes, and lives are all they know.
Since 2000, there have been numerous attempts to amend the Child Citizenship Act, in order to grant retroactive citizenship to those who were excluded. The most recent attempt, the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2018, has not yet passed despite being bipartisan and bicameral. The Adoptee Rights Campaign (ARC), a national organization led by adoptees without citizenship, will continue to advocate for a legislative solution. Other adoptee organizations and community organizations such as Korean American or other Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) social justice organizations have also mobilized around the country, in an effort to raise awareness and engage with their local, state, and federal elected officials. It is worth noting that the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2018 has been specifically positioned as a family and human/civil rights issue, and not an immigration issue – and that previous attempts to add adoptee citizenship to other immigration reform bills failed.
A small group of us in Seattle have come together and formed a joint committee between a Korean American nonprofit and an Asian Adoptee nonprofit organization. We continue to discuss how, when, and where we can contribute to these efforts and what our sources of funding will be. We have had many late-night debates about the framing of adoptees as immigrants, not as immigrants, as adults, as children of American parents. We have struggled with the implications of positioning adoptee citizenship as an immigration issue, family issue, and/or human rights issue. We have debated if we should try to build alliances with other impacted immigrant groups, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, or if we should proceed separately.
We are at the end of November – National Adoption Awareness Month and the anti-immigrant and xenophobic climate has forced many of us to have uncomfortable conversations with our families and even ourselves, as we process what it all means for us as the adopted, immigrant, (people of color) children of our (white) American parents.
To keep up to date and support the work of American adult intercountry adoptees fighting for their right to automatic US Citizenship, see Adoptee Rights Campaign.
It is November, National Adoption Awareness Month (NAAM) 2018. At ICAV, we want to raise awareness of the realities some live who rarely get to express their voice because they are too downtrodden and trying to survive, let alone tell their story!
Today, I share the journey of a very brave young woman adopted from Ethiopia to the USA. Her life experience needs to be told to intercountry adoption agencies, governments, lawyers, social workers and middle-people who continue to facilitate intercountry adoptions without learning from the past. When I interviewed this young woman, my heart was shredded as I listened to the heartache, trauma, re-trauma and sadness that has filled her life. Adoption is meant to be a forever family isn’t it?? Don’t adoption agencies and governments promote adoption as being in the best interests of the child?? Don’t they equate adoption with permanency??
It is fellow adoptees like this who inspire me to continue to raise awareness in intercountry adoption. Too many times, intercountry adoptions are done poorly, with little responsibility or ethics for the long term outcomes. We need to learn from these worst case scenarios and stop telling ourselves the lie that it only happens to a minority.
In my opinion, if it happens to one, it happens to too many! These issues are a reflection of an international system that clearly has little oversight, little controls, too much monetary incentive to “make the transaction” and not enough checks and balances to ensure the child is actually placed in a safe, loving, psychologically healthy and nurturing family. Not to mention the lack of means and routes for justice for the child who grows up! Until these real life experiences for intercountry adoptees stop happening, I cannot support intercountry adoption as it is conducted today.
We must learn from the lessons and do what we can to stop intercountry adoptions like this from happening. That means, we have to stop blindly promoting intercountry adoption as if it’s the answer for all vulnerable children around the world. The fact that intercountry adoptions like this are happening in recent times and still occurring (not just from my 70s era) tells us that very little has changed to ensure adoptions are done in the best interests of the child.
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on intercountry adoption after you read Sha’s life journey, Abandoned by All.