International Adoption

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Opening Pandora's Box

There is no greater sorrow on Earth than the loss of one's native land.

---- Euripides, Meda, v. 650-651

I was born to a German mother and a German father on German soil, one of thousands of German children adopted by Americans during the 1950s-70s. I have chronicled my life's experiences in the newly released book Outer SearchInner Journey: An Orphan and Adoptee's Quest, the first book on international adoption written by a foreign born adoptee.

One of the purposes I had in writing Outer SearchInner Journey was to provide insight to all participating in the international adoption process--social workers, mental health professionals, parents, policy makers, lawyers--by shedding light on the harm caused by uprooting children from their native cultures and heritages.

International adoption isn't the answer to improving the overall plight of children in developing countries. Even the strongest supporters admit the movement of adoptees across international borders represents only a tiny fraction of the neglected, abused and abandoned children in these countries. And supporters of international adoption are quiet about the children who are not adopted and left behind.

If parents choosing foreign adoption have as their primary motive a desire to save children, they need not look abroad. A concern associated with the delivery of domestic child welfare services is that children available for adoption in the United States are being bypassed in favor of foreign children. International adoption increases the pool of domestic children needing a permanent family.

Unfortunately, international adoptions are seen by most Americans as a solution for families needing children rather than children needing families. The purpose has shifted from the humanitarian one of providing families for abandoned children, and increasingly becoming a way for the childless to satisfy their desire to have children. The well-being of children has taken second place to the desires of those seeking to adopt.

A disturbing picture:

Most of what is written in the United States about this subject comes from the perspective of American adults who are connected to the international adoption industry. So it is difficult to find literature that objectively discusses the consequences of removing children from their native lands. But fragments of information have surfaced, and when pieced together a disturbing picture emerges:

In July 1997, Renee Polreis of Greeley, Colorado, was convicted of beating her 2-year old son to death, a boy she adopted out of a Russian orphanage. She said she feared for her life and called him a "demon."

In June 1997, Richard and Karen Thorne of Phoenix, Arizona, were arrested at New York's Kennedy Airport on arrival from Moscow: Passengers and crew reported seeing the Thorne's abuse the two 4-year-old Russian girls they had just adopted, striking them in the chest, face, and head with such force that the girls screamed and cowered throughout the flight.

An A.P. article dated 97-08-01 discussed the plight of thousands of British children living in orphanages and sent to live in Canada, Australia and New Zealand during WW II and decades afterward. "They (British Government) should just admit they were wrong, that it was not right to remove us from our homes and heritage, " said Shiela Pearce a spokeswoman for an organization of adult British orphans shipped to Australia. The Catholic church has acknowledged that children sent to Australia may have been damaged by their experiences but there has been no similar statement from British authorities.

A June 23, 1996 article of the New York Times titled, "When Children Adopted Abroad Come With Too Many Troubles," highlighted problems American parents are experiencing with children they've adopted from eastern Europe and Russia; children unable to adjust emotionally or socially to their new homes.

In 1986, the National Association of Black Social Workers issued a position statement opposing the adoption of Black children to non-Black families arguing Black children who grow up in ethnically different families suffer serious identity conflicts and barriers to socialization. North American Indians have formed organizations to repatriate children severed from their tribes through adoption.

Concerns of countries surrendering their children to foreigners:

Damien Ngabonziza, Programmes Officer at the International Social Services located in Geneva, Switzerland summarizes the major concerns:

African countries generally view intercountry adoption as a form of neocolonialism and do not, for the most part, sanction the adoption overseas of native children.

Sending countries without strong child protection laws and welfare policies are among the most vulnerable to the black market sales and trafficking of children. There is a widespread view in Latin America, for example, that international adoption takes the most desirable adoptees in terms of age, health and racial heritage, and leaves hard to place children in their countries of origin.

The adoption of a comparatively small number of children in a large population of desperately needy youngsters is too often seen as a panacea, and it ignores the well-being of the majority.

Intercountry adoption does nothing to solve the problem of high birth rates or poverty, two of the root causes of international adoption. There is little evidence that intercountry adoption significantly enhances development of child welfare services in developing nations.

Intercountry adoption is fraught with difficulties arising from differing cultural values and relationships regarding access to one's roots, contacts with birth families and ties to the country of origin.

What does the research say?

The current state of research based on follow-up studies is fragmented. The studies have been criticized for: the short time frame they encompass; the Eurocentric constructs employed; inadequate sampling methods; questionably low response rates; unwarranted extrapolation from one situation to another; substantial disagreement on the criteriological problem of whether a qualified "success" is actually a success?

What is the impact of international adoption on the adoptee?

All children adopted internationally face physical and emotional upheaval. First there is the trauma of departure accompanied by separation and loss. Language plays a critical role in the beginning period of adjustment. Initially, most children have little proficiency in English and the majority of the adoptive parents do not have language capabilities to converse with their children. The children have left behind everything familiar, and encounter everything new and different but their expression of grief is not understood by anyone! It is only natural for them to resort to physical expression of their grief and anger--like self-hurting behaviors, aggressive and hostile behaviors, and crying.

Later in life, the greatest obstacle for transition to emotional well being for the international adoptee will be the process of identity formation. For internationally adopted children, this task of forming, clarifying, and reclarifying their identity is an ongoing process that must also include ethnicity. These cross-racially, cross-culturally adopted children become aware at very early ages that they are different from their adoptive parents.

Dr. Juliet Harper is Senior Lecturer on Psychology at Macquarie University in Australia and a child psychotherapist. She has done work with adoption disruption, where the adoption is terminated, with families who have adopted internationally.

Dr. Harper looked at the disruption from the child's point of view. Although most children had quickly developed English, their vocabulary was very concrete and problems in comprehension tended to be masked by their apparent verbal fluency. She found the children had been inadequately prepared for adoption, having little idea of what was expected of them, and they were not able to respond adequately to parenting offered by the adoptive parents. Other reasons for the disruption from the children's point of view were that they did not like the family or felt rejected by the family, did not want to come to Australia and always felt different.

International Adoption and Corruption:

International adoption has become an increasingly competitive and lucrative enterprise, with intermediaries charging between $5,000 to $30,000 and more for their services. It is now a multi-million dollar a-year business. Organizations and people involved with international adoption have enormous sums at stake and big money can open the door to trafficking children. A major concern is the increasing commercialization and lack of adequate safeguards, resulting in criminal abuses, abduction and sale of children.

Given the preferential demand for healthy infants in the United States adoption market, an important policy issue is the extent to which the practice of international adoption results in pregnancies for profit, coercion of birth parents, and the corruption of child welfare services.

International policies in effect regarding international adoption:

In 1992, with growing concern about international adoptions, a meeting of child welfare experts was held in Manila, Philippines on "Protecting Children's Rights in Inter-country Adoptions and Preventing the Trafficking and Sale of Children."

The Manila conference recommended that if a child cannot be raised by her or his parents, care within the extended family, with support if necessary, should be the next goal. If this is not possible, efforts should be made to secure domestic adoption. Only when all such alternatives have been exhausted should international adoption be considered.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 2 September 1990. It is regarded by most child rights experts as the standard by which adoption procedures should be judged. International concern to safeguard the rights of children offered for international adoption is reflected in renewed efforts to provide suitable alternatives within the child's home country and to be considered only when all possible means of giving children suitable care in their own social and national setting have been exhausted.

The United States is one of only six countries yet to sign the Convention along with Somalia, United Arab Emigrates, Cook Islands, Switzerland and Oman.

What can Americans do for neglected foreign children without adopting them?

Those who desire to help children in economically deprived or war-torn countries have alternatives to international adoption. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) is an organization that serves to provide resources so that countries can gain the means to care for their own children.

In 1993, stemming from events unfolding in Bosnia and Rwanda, UNICEF published a comprehensive guide for providing services to children in conflicts. The guide makes a number of recommendations for protecting children including placement decisions for the care of children should assure long-term, nurturing relationships; children should be cared for within their own families, communities and cultures, and their language, culture and ethnic ties preserved.

Another organization is World Vision, an international partnership of Christians that has grown to be the largest privately funded Christian relief and development organization in the world, helping children and families in more than 100 countries. World Vision is not an adoption agency and does not facilitate adoptions. It works to help children become productive citizens in their own countries through child sponsorship programs.

Credits: Peter Dodds

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