Thursday, October 18, 2007

(Usha's) Impressions of the Ethics and Accountability Conference

I wore many different hats at this conference, but all the views I express in this post are my own and do not represent any organization with which I am involved.

I would make a rotten journalist having to abide by reporting deadlines. I prefer to let thoughts simmer and settle before writing. This and exhaustion by way of explanation of why my comments about the Ethics and Accountability Conference are coming now, the day after the conference ended. I’ll begin with some notes from some of the sessions I attended and end with some personal comments.

Accountability to Families of Origin
Alexandra Yuster is Senior Adviser, Child Protection at UNICEF, New York. Her presentation included the following points:

  • UNICEF is not pro-institutionalization.

  • The U.S. government and the European Union could be doing a lot more by way of aid to other countries, but money alone is not enough.

  • In many countries and cultures, informal adoptions are prevalent. For example, in the Philippines, “assimilated adoptions” take place where families find formal adoptions too complex and too expensive. Some families simply have fake birth certificates created identifying the child as a biological member of the family. It’s a problematic practice to be sure, but it also demonstrates the difficulty in tracking the numbers of these adoptions and difficulty in disproving notions that families don’t adopt domestically. Another example is in African nations where family members take in AIDS orphans without legal process or support.

  • UNICEF will be releasing a report on the numbers of institutionalized children worldwide shortly. A conservative estimate puts this number at 2.3 million. However, this number does not necessarily represent “orphans.” For example, in countries like Belarus, Kyrgyzstan and Sri Lanka, 80% of these children are estimated to have one living parent. In countries like, Uganda, it’s estimated at least 70% have one living parent. The majority are placed in institutions because of poverty and no family should have to relinquish a child for adoption because of poverty.

  • UNICEF had previously released an estimate of orphans worldwide at 135 million. However, the VAST majority of these children are “single” orphans where only one parent is dead. Even of the orphans where both parents have died, these children are often cared for by others in their family. Infants by far are the smallest category of orphans.
    Increasing numbers of ICA has not reduced the numbers of institutionalized children. Adoption fees tend to reinforce the system. It is possible to support ICA AND local alternatives.

  • UNICEF, in conjunction with Holt and the Ministry of Social Welfare in Liberia have prepared a report summarizing findings of interviews with families whose children have been adopted. Currently, fifty cases are being investigated of families being told that their children would return when they turned 18.

Brenda Romanchik is a therapist and director of Insight: Open Adoption Resources and Support. She discussed language used in the adoption process. She drove home the point that women who are pregnant are not birthparents. They are expectant parents. And she prefers to use the language of women facing an unexpected pregnancy and who are considering a range of adoptions for their child as being in “crisis.” She also covered the concept of “informed consent” as defined by the NASW, APA, CWLA and ABA.

Jini Roby is an Associate Professor of Social Work at Brigham Young University. She discussed original data collection in “sending” countries:

  • Three years ago she researched how kin adoption works in Uganda. In Uganda, Holt sponsors a family preservation program. Out of 331 families they work with, Roby interviewed 315 of them. She notes that it is more cost-effective to provide assistance directly to families than to institutionalize children. In fact, she finds that institutionalization is 3-10 times more costly than institutionalization. Cost-effective direct assistance to families include: education on adequate housing, maintaining clean drinking water (e.g., sometimes education consists simply of advising families to store water high on a shelf), building outdoor latrines, food security and educating children through secondary school. Of the families interviewed, 98% of the families felt they could stay together until the child reached adulthood. Of the children interviewed (without the presence of other family members), 94% said they expected to stay within their families until adulthood and were happy and loved. All these findings and more will be released in Families and Society.

  • Ms. Roby recounted a story out of Mozambique where the benefactor of an orphanage died resulting in the dissolution of the orphanage. 80% of the children were returned to their families.

  • Ms. Roby discussed the cultural differences around the concept of adoption. Adoption as a legal severance of biological ties is specific to Western culture. In the Marshall Islands, she interviewed 73 mothers who had relinquished children at least one year after relinquishment. 82.7 percent believed they were giving children to other families to raise and that the children would return. For these reasons, dual representations by agencies is problematic.

Oronde Miller is the Director of Systems Improvement Methodologies at Casey Family Programs in Washington, DC. He recounted his personal story of being relinquished into foster care, experiencing a disrupted placement and then being placed into an adoptive home. Fortunately, he and his brother were placed together which was important for many reasons, not the least of which was that he could be a bone marrow donor to his brother who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Mr. Miller critically questions the concept of termination of parental rights (TPR). Can’t children who need it be placed with another family to raise without severing all ties to their original parents?

Protection of Vulnerable Families
Sania Metzer is the Director of Policy for Casey Family Services. She covered the TPR process and how it is fraught with insufficient legal representation for parents. She cited that there are 129,000 legal orphans in this country where there has been a termination of parental rights without permanency. She discussed how disproportionate the representation of these children are in the system. For example, for families with income of less than $15,000, their chances of having an encounter with the child welfare system is 22 times higher. She finds it problematic that children of color are “automatically” considered special needs. In 2005, research shows that 26% of children in foster care are African American and only 30% of this group were actually adopted. For the Native population, 2% were eligible for adoption and only 1% of them were placed. She also discussed movements in some states like Nevada where children have brought petitions to have their parents’ rights reinstated.

Dr. Tesi Kohlenberg is a developmental pediatrician and child psychiatrist. She spoke about problems in Guatemala and contrasted how power disparities, poverty, laws and institutional care differ between domestic and international adoption. She knows about 500 families who are in contact with their children’s original families in Guatemala. She says most of the mothers who have been found by this group say they chose adoption, but at the same time acknowledged her growing awareness that this is not always the case. I was struck by how Tesi speaks as eloquently as she writes.

Annette Appell is a professor at the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada. She spoke about enforceable post-adoption agreements. Twenty states have some form of laws covering post-adoption agreements. There has been little litigation thus far challenging these kinds of agreements to date.

Marketing of Children for Adoption
I presented at this conference and discussed marketing techniques specifically with children from India and compared them to photolistings employed by corrupt facilitators like Georgia Tann as written about by Barbara Raymond in The Baby Thief to show that these problems are not limited to the past. Common solicitations for placing Indian children that I have received don’t only include photos and other identifying information about the child, but also personal health and social information. I covered other troublesome aspects in an example of a specific solicitation received recently that many prospective adoptive parents new to the process would not necessarily be aware of including a foreign fee listed for infants far in excess of what CARA permits. I also discussed how typical marketing of Indian children on agency websites tends to be full of cultural stereotypes and racism leading people to believe they will be adopting a child who was deliberately abandoned or relinquished which is a lot easier to justify than a child who is missing or stolen or kidnapped or whose parents were coerced into relinquishing. NO agency website I know of discusses this possibility.

Sarah Gerstenzang is the Assistant Project Director of AdoptUSKids. She discussed best practices with respect to photolistings including respecting privacy and disclosing “honestly but not brutally.” She feels strongly that children themselves should participate in developing their presentations, including having the choice not to market themselves. She cited research that shows that siblings who are photographed together are more likely to be placed together than when they are photographed individually.

Dr. Jerri Jenista is a pediatrician at Saint Joseph Mercy Hospital had comprehensive materials about issues she faces in her practices and was candid in pointing out the following realities: adoption is a business, children are not the clients, clients are prospective parents and agencies, children are the commodity, all children are not of equal value and the best interest of the child is rarely the deciding principal. Dr. Jenista advocates for the marketing of prospective parents, not children.

UNICEF Session
The session was civil. I commend UNICEF for requesting to be at this conference and inviting dialogue both during and after the conference. The representatives were disarming and at this session and a previous one, some representatives disclosed their own personal connections to adoptions. I joined the UNICEF delegation for dinner both evenings and found them personable and engaging. I posed nearly all the myths I had heard and felt their responses were genuine and certainly educational.

At the session, Dr. Manuel Manrique, director of UNICEF-Guatemala began by saying that UNICEF is widely accepted in all other areas they support, so he questioned why adoption is the one area that is perceived so differently. He clearly stated, “WE SUPPORT ADOPTION” after there are no other possibilities for that child. He indicated that 30% of mothers who relinquish are repeat cases. Why is that?

Out of a population of 30 million people, 5,000 are adopted out of the country, 437,000 are born each year, 51% are born in poor living conditions and 15% are born to extreme poverty (surviving on less than 1%) per day. He has met a father who said he earns 750 quetzals per month, therefore, he and his wife are thinking of having another child. Read between the lines there. He invites us to read Hojas de Ruta which contains a road map of suggestions for lawmakers to improve the lives of children. UNICEF’s recommendation is that indigenous children should be the priority. He is stymied about the rumors of UNICEF offering bribes and invites any questions to show how money is handled. Offering bribes is unethical and contrary to principles of their mission and an organization that “is a part of humanity.”

Another UNICEF representative spoke about $4.2 million being given for technical and financial assistance to 12 Guatemalan partners whereas they have set aside only $60,000 for adoption-related issues. UNICEF focuses on family-based care. For example, foster care in Guatemala is unregulated with minimal supervision and training. UNICEF is working on training for foster carers. Many Guatemalans would like to adopt but find it impossible when the priority is so clearly in favor of ICA. The representative pointed out that there is a waiting list of 35 Guatemalan families which sounds small, but they represent a determined and persistent group who arrived at the Secretariat in sheer force. This in an environment where there is NO public awareness or campaigns or promotions around domestic adoption. I was told that these families do NOT make specifications with respect to race or color, but do tend to specify children from ages 0-3. Sound familiar?

In response to Kevin Kreutner’s comments that the Ortega Law is cookie cutter to similar legislation in other Latin American countries, Dr. Manrique commented that there would be article by article debate and that U.S. citizens and the U.S. government can contribute to providing social welfare assistance. UNICEF is not out to end adoptions and UNICEF is NOT the Guatemalan government, though they do bring influence, the level of which varies depending on the administration. Finally, Mr. Manrique insisted that there was never a statement issued by President Berger to not process pending cases.

The above is simply a summary of some of my notes. I would urge anyone who is interested in more details about the individual sessions to check out the recorded sessions on CD. Information is available here.

Personal Comments

At the Meet the Bloggers session, the sound system was terrible, but I felt those who wanted to listen did listen. For the most part these were the other bloggers and it was a new experience to de-lurk to other bloggers. I promised to send Marley Greiner info she unknowingly contributed to on India’s version of safe havens and I told Suz that I wanted to be first in line to buy her book that she ought to write! Bernadette Wright, President of OriginsUSA made some kind remarks to me about my brief blogger introduction; later I mentioned to her my desire to see more bridges between domestic/international and adopter/mother alliances to fight abuses.

Most of the people I wanted to meet I had either heard of or knew of from on-line. Elizabeth Larsen was one person I hadn’t known before, and I felt we hit it off after having shared similar experiences of opening our eyes and minds to bigger picture issues than an initial sole desire to parent. I was about half way through her article when we bumped into each other again at the airport and shared some final thoughts before saying goodbye. Her article, “Did I Steal My Adopted Daughter?” is in the November/December issue of Mother Jones magazine.

Huge props go to Ethica for demonstrating more than lip service in seeking a diversity of voices. I felt very grateful for the voices of the mothers at the individual sessions. Grateful because I felt the mothers at the conference gave voice by proxy to mothers abroad who are invisible at conferences like this. I seemed to be at a lot of the same sessions as Claud and she always had something powerful to contribute. For example, at my presentation, she made the excellent point that we were discussing marketing of children, but what about the marketing to expectant mothers???

I was excited about PEAR’s (Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform) debut and happy to finally meet fellow AP reform advocates such as David K. and Elizabeth Case and see Desiree and David Smolin again.

My biggest disappointment in the conference was the lack of visible adoptee presence. I was excited to meet Nathalie Lemoine who has been very kind in sending me Indian adoptee-related resources from time to time and Indigo Willing whom I have heard so much about. And I was fortunate to finally meet Jae Ran Kim and have a quick lunch with her and Laura Romano. It was a little jarring in that I had just watched Las Hijas for the first time about two weeks ago and to hear about Laura’s current place in life professionally forced my brain to do some rapid readjusting. While it was a lot of fun to socialize with these women, I would have also liked to have heard from more adoptees on panels and in plenary sessions. For example, Jae Ran’s extensive social work background and experiences as a college-course instructor to future child welfare specialists from (but not limited to) an adoptee and person of color perspective would have been a huge contribution.

I do have to say that I was weary of being asked too many times whether I am adopted or whether I had met my birth family or whether I am in reunion. What does it say when persons of color are typically assumed to be adoptees but not adoptive parents? And at the Town Hall session, Linh Song pointed out Oronde Miller’s observation that he was the only Black male in attendance at the entire conference.

My biggest hope from the conference is to see ACTION resulting from a whole lot of talk, invigorating as all the talk was.



  1. Great summary! Love it. And I really enjoyed meeting you and talking to you too. (Someday that book really will be available!)

  2. This month UNICEF paid the Guatemalan government 28 million to stop all adoptions (those in progess and any future ones) and promote only abortions. Read here.

    This infuriates me.

  3. UNICEF successfully dodged the issue of the $28 million grant being offered to the Guatemalan government contingent upon successful Hague implementation with the passage of the Ortega Law.

    While this is not techically a bribe and is grant money aside from UNICEF's Guatemalan operating budget, it has the same net effect as a bribe on a government where corruption is endemic.

    David K