Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Part I of Accountability to Families of Origin: Before Adoption: Protecting the Rights of Vulnerable Families--Workshop 1.2

The following are detailed notes. They do not constitute the exact words of the speakers, but a--hopefully accurate--summary of the ideas. If any of the panelists or attendees take issue with any of these summaries, please let me know so that I can correct them.

Because the notes on this Workshop were so lengthy, I divided the notes into separate posts. This post is the first of two from Workshop 1.2.


Ethics and Accountability Conference
Sponsored by Ethica and Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute
October 15-16, 2007

Bullet points for discussion during this workshop:
  1. Do current practices, even when handled carefully, create for some expecting women/couples, a sense of obligation to go forward with the adoption?
  2. What are the most appropriate ways to cover expectant mothers' expenses so that risks of coercion or exploitation are minimized or eliminated?
  3. What is the role of open adoption arrangements in planning for adoption? Should contact agreements be explored in all situations? Should they be enforceable?
  4. Is it ethical to search out children to place for adoption and what role should professionals play in this endeavor?


Lynn Franklin is a birthmother who was reunited with her birthson, a book author, a current board member of the Evan B. Donaldson Institute, an eleven year board member of Spence-Chapin, and an elected “lifetime” Honorary Director of Spence-Chapin.

Sania Metzger is director of policy for Casey Family Services, the direct service agency of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. She works to influence and track policies at the local, state, and federal levels. Ms. Metzger is on the Board of Directors for Prevent Child Abuse America and the Center for Family Representation.

Dr. Teresa “Tesi” Kohlenberg M.D.is a child psychiatrist, who had previously worked as a developmental pediatrician with teenage mothers and the urban poor. She is an adoptive parent, a co-founder of Guatemala Adoptive Families Network which promotes ethical practices in Guatemalan adoption, and finally a contributor to various adoption books.

Annette Appell is a law professor who has authored multiple articles, books chapters, etc. on adoption. She serves on the editorial board of the Juvenile and Family Court Journal and the Adoption Quarterly, and has extensive experience representing representing children and parents involved with the child welfare system, including providing legal representation in termination of parental rights cases and adoption proceedings.

Lynn Franklin: Opening Remarks
  • As a society we have a responsibility to families who are at risk of becoming “families of origin”
    • that responsibility is one of practice, not just of rhetoric

  • Ethics must include sensitivity to race & economic factors in both IA and domestic settings
  • I’ve heard a lot of stories, but one that sticks with me that is germaine to the current topic is this one: I had returned from Columbia and was telling a US "adoption professional" about conversations with birthmoms in Columbia, when the US adoption worker said in surprise::
    • “Oh, I guess I haven’t thought of them [the Columbian birthmothers]like OUR birthmothers.”
  • Do we think of women in these (other) sending countries in a different light?
    • Certainly many in private adoption don’t consider women in the public welfare system to be like “our birthmothers” either.

  • We really need address the cultural and economic forces that operate in all forms of adoption
  • The mother who relinquishes in Columbia isn’t fundamentally different from birthmothers in the private US system or the public welfare system.
  • The mission must be for providers to provide quality services.

Sania Metzger
  • There is a documented need for birthmothers from indigent families for legal representation in the Child Welfare System (CWS) process
    • The TV show, Judging Amy, as good as it was, never had an episode that focused on inadequacy of legal representation of birthparents in the Child Welfare System (CWS)
  • Federal /State policies
    • Mandate the termination of parental rights if the allegations/issues against the parent by CWS aren’t resolved
    • The process to terminate parental rights is set into motion early in the process with CWS
    • Yet these parents who are at risk for losing their parental rights are not given quality legal representation
    • It’s a serious ethical issue that the statutes that threaten to take away parental rights do not also provide them with legal representation
  • Parent may face a termination of parental rights, but there is no balancing act to provide legal representation of parents who stand to their rights lose rights
    • we value the process to sever rights
    • but we don’t value a fair process or making sure that parents’ rights in the process are protected
  • There ought to be moral outrage at this situation,
    • and yet we don’t see or hear it and that concerns me.
  • The American CWS process removes children from their families and promises to give them new ones
    • Children who are abused and neglected enter the system,
    • and move forward in a process that ultimately results in the severance of parental rights
    • This system holds out the promise that these children will be adopted
    • And yet many aren’t adopted
  • The American CWS severs parental rights and holds out the promise of new homes
    • In 2002, there were129,000 legal orphans (children whose parents had had their parental rights severed) in the US system
    • These kids become orphans through the Child Welfare System
      • Not because of wars, or natural disasters, or HIV, or other catastrophes
      • These kids are orphans because we severed parental rights
      • So that the kids could be adopted into families that legally speaking, could “better” care for them

    • We terminate parental rights with the HOPE that children will be placed
    • We say to their parents--sorry you can’t raise them, but it will be better for them because they will be raised in a loving family and have the things that children should have
    • But we fail to come through for these kids
    • Where is the court and child welfare accountability in this?
  • It is NOT good enough to hold out a promise to child or parent
    • Plan to make sure child is raised in loving, caring family
    • And then violate that mother’s trust; violate that family’s trust
    • The child continues to languish; the child is not adopted
  • On an annual basis more than 22,000 children who have become orphans through the CWS system exit the system without ever having been given that promised permanence in their lives
    • We are failing miserably to place children
    • Failing miserably to fulfill promises to parents and children
    • The birthparent failed to keep child, but now has to struggle with the painful reality that:
      • Her child not deemed worthy
      • Her child is not adoptable,
      • Her child was never embraced by another loving family.
  • We, especially those who understand the richness of adoption when it works as it should, should be feeling moral outrage that this is happening. That these children are failing to get homes and that our promises to these parents whose parental rights have been severed have not been kept. This is a serious moral and ethical issue.
  • WHO are these children/families that we are failing?
    • Disproportionately they are people of color and poor people
    • The same people who face/have faced historic and current discrimination; structural racism, ethnic discrimination, etc.
    • Those involved in CWS processes are disproportionately the poor and persons of color
      • Those whose income is under $15,000 a year are 22 times more likely to be in CWS
      • These are indigent parents who can’t afford legal help
      • They should be getting quality legal representation from the time of the first knock at door of CPS

    • Racism and ethnicity overlays WHO is in the system
      • Disproportionately includes those who have experienced historic stereotyping, marginalizing, under representation, and the undervaluation of their families
      • We undervalue families from certain racial and ethnic backgrounds
      • We SHOULD be paying special attention to these children—so they don’t automatically end up in the system
  • It is a symptom of the problem that we automatically consider children from these families, special needs children simply because of who they are.
  • Horrendous disproportionality in system
    • Inequities begin at front end, but the disparities continue; the disproportionality continues throughout system and process
    • Kids Count figures show that on one day--30 Sept 2006:
      • 15% of US kids were African American
      • Yet, 34% in US kids in the Child Welfare System were African American
      • 36% of children in CWS waiting to be adopted were African American
      • Only about 30% of those adopted are African American

    • Likewise Native Americans are about 1% of population, 2% waiting of those waiting to be adopted, and only about 1% of those adopted who are adopted
  • We TALK about adoption and protecting needs of birthparents on front end, but we don’t challenge our ourselves enough
    • We present a view of adoption that is one sided
    • We separate out from our understanding of adoption and don't speak about the horrendous struggles that indigent birthparents face to contest termination of parental rights petitions from our understanding of adoption
  • Positive developments
    • Several states have new legislation permitting children to petition the court to reinstate their parents' previously severed parental rights
    • One of these states is California where legislation was the result of the Jared H case
      • Jared H was a 14 yo child whose mother was substance abuser, and he was deemed to be at risk for coming into the CWS system. In a preemptive move, Jared H asked that his stepfather be allowed to adopt him
      • As a precursor to the anticipated adoption, Jared's mother's parental rights were severed. But then the stepfather adoption was not allowed to take place because of “unsanitary conditions in the home.”(that is another issue for another day)
      • Jared H's wish to be raised in the loving family (that he had chosen) was aborted and he was inadvertently thrown into the foster care system where it is now likely that he will remain until he is emancipated (reaches legal adulthood)
      • Unfortunately, the court couldn’t undo the parental rights termination because it had no general legislated mandate to reinstate parental rights that had been severed.
      • The court, realizing the bad situation it was in, subsequently invited the CA legislature to create a law which would allow children to petition the court to reinstate parental rights (when it’s safe to do so).
        • The CA legislature responded with the 8519 legislation which allows for a child to bring a petition before the court to have his/her parental rights reinstated
        • This is an attempt to deal with creation of orphans in this country without the corresponding ability to place children in adoptive homes
  • Model programs for providing quality legal services to families who come into the CWS system
    • Center for Family Representation, in NY City
      • Attorney working out of an office with an interdisciplinary staff
        • Parent advocate, paralegals, investigative staff, caseworkers, etc.

      • Contrast this with the usual legal representation (when it happens) of an attorney "working out of a briefcase" and often meeting his/her client for the first time in the courtroom
      • Better outcomes result because the representation begins earlier, often before petition is filed
      • Program has reduced numbers of kids who need to be removed from their homes
        • Of 51 cases handled by center, in 32 of them children were able to remain in the home or be reunited with parents shortly after the process began
  • Parent advocacy as a developing trend that I recommend that we support
    • Team decision making that involves bringing parents to the table
    • Parents SHOULD be there when important decisions are being made concerning their children
    • Including parents shows respect for those in the system and those whose rights are at risk of being terminated
    • We should be supportive of the rights of parents to maintain appropriate ties with their children as long as it's safe to do so

Tesi Kohlenberg
(Tesi provided a printed handout with bullet points which I am seeking permission to reprint on fleasbiting)
  • When my husband and I started the process to adopt from Guatemala, we spent a number of months researching the situation and we thought we knew what was going on in Guatemala with our adoption. We thought we'd be:
    • adopting a child whose parent truly couldn’t care for her, parents who had truly and freely chosen adoption for their child
    • a part of a system that was helping women

  • And to some degree we were
  • We had been in correspondence with Bruce Harris at Casa Alianzaand he had assured me that ethical adoption from Guatemala was possible
  • I knew a lot (from working with teen mothers in NY and Boston for 15 years) about the effects of chronic poverty, racism, substance abuse, and trauma on decision-making
  • I also knew something about the US role in Guatemala’s 36 year civil war and the genocidal attacks on the native Maya, and the effects these things might have had on the people who would be the parents of my child
  • I had some doubts, but preadoptive parent hope and longing tended to override those doubts
  • In the past 8 years I have learned a lot more
  • The more I learn, the more race, culture, and class stand out as the key issues behind ethical problems in adoption both domestically and internationally—the same issues play in both
  • Our relationship with my daughter’s birthmother has put my mind to rest to some degree
  • But I also know too many people whose adoptive children were stolen or sold or whose children’s first mothers were coerced into relinquishing
  • The shadow of this fact falls on all of us adoptive parents even if we know that our own adoptions were relatively clean
  • Ethical issues in IA are the same ones as in domestic adoption, only more so. -
    • The disparities--the power differential issues--are worse in IA than domestically
    • Relinquishing families in IA are most often poor,illiterate,and disenfranchised
    • Desperate poverty leads people to do truly desperate things
      • The level of desperation distinguishes poor people in other countries from people in this country. This has to be acknowledged.
  • In most IA sending countries:
    • The rule of law is weak
    • Families have little recourse if they are victims of unethical adoption practice
    • Many families may face retribution if they do report crimes

  • In most traditional sending country societies, orphanages are traditionally a part of a temporary care system (Vietnam, Cambodia, India)
    • Families place their children temporarily and some return to find that their children have been adopted out overseas

  • Many sending countries are recovering from war—often wars financed by the US
    • Traditional cultural structures that might have been called upon to support families under stress have been eroded and compromised

  • What rights are we talking about? Basic human rights, such as:
    • Food, housing, healthcare, work,
    • Freedom from an atmosphere of war, persecution, and violence
    • Civil rights; equality across racial, gender, class, caste, etc.
      • Not achieved here, but significantly worse in sending countries

    • Access to supports for vulnerable populations are often nonexistent in many sending countries
      • Access to a functioning justice system for remediation should something bad happen

    • Psychological rights in adoption: the rights to connection, belonging, continuity,identity, recognition by society of your value, ability of adopted persons to have access to their families of origin when it makes sense
    • The most basic human rights for children as enumerated in the Convention on the rights of the Child
  • There are big questions about how these rights play out in international adoption
    • Do we believe that women in poor countries have the same rights of choice over what happens to their children as are given to them in developed nations?
    • Do we believe that nations have rights—almost property rights of a sort—in their children that supercede a woman’s right to decide where her child grows up?
    • How meaningful are our ideas of the rights of families for families living in a different cultural context in which they don’t have access to the most basic civil human rights?
    • Can we or should insist on those rights when they are not culturally understood and can we asked that they be enacted between persons who are interacting in a culture different than our own?
    • Can we ascribe these rights to people who are fundamentally powerless?
  • These are issues to think about—I don’t have easy answers—only questions.

  • A story about powerlessness and cultural disconnect: When we went to Guatemala to meet our daughter’s family (after we had pushed consistently to be able to do so)we finally met with the mother and mother’s sister—-We asked her, "What would you like us to tell our daughter when she is older about why you chose adoption for her?"
    • My daughter's Guatemalan birthmother looked straight at me and at my white husband who is 6 ft 3 and blond (and who looks like a kindly Viking),and said that she hoped the girl would never need to know that she was adopted.

  • Guatemala is in crisis. There are not enough publicly funded orphanages in Guatemala. Most orphanages are privately funded. There is some domestic adoption. Domestic adoption in Guatemala is private, informal, and easy, but it can’t provide for all the children who need help. Private orphanages and the private relinquishment system (funneling children into IA)handles the vast majority of cases.
    • The strengths of a private relinquishment system are:
      • Maternal choice
      • Excellent foster care
      • Babies finding homes relatively quickly at young ages

    • The Problems with a private relinquishment system are:
      • It's very vulnerable to corruption
      • It's very vulnerable to develop unethical and illegal practices

    • Many of us are in agony about this

  • The situation is this: There is a rapidly increasing demand for adoptable newborn babies and so
    • A class of baby finders has sprung up who are paid a great deal to locate babies
    • Finders are paid between $6,000 and $10,000 per baby
    • And so they produce, find, or locate babies for adoption
    • In a significant nontrivial proportion of the cases, the finders are paying a portion of that finder’s fee to Guatemalan parents to relinquish their children (payments are at initial relinquishment and final signature)
      • Parents are being paid anywhere from a few hundred dollars up to $3,000 to relinquish their children
      • In a country where a third of the population lives on $2 a day or less, this is money to provide a powerful incentive for relinquishment
  • Guatemala is unusual in IA because contact between adoptive and first families is possible, although it is often discouraged and sabotaged by the Guatemalan adoption attorneys
    • AP’s who make contact with Guatemalan birthfamilies, and there are something on the order of 500 of us now, usually find that adoption is truly what the first mothers chose for their children. They felt it was what was needed and what was best for the child. This fact is really important to note in the context of these other stories which follow. We are finding that:
      • Some women were coerced to relinquish by their male partners
      • Some women are also often coerced by adoption workers (I will NOT call them “adoption professionals”)
      • Some extended families would have wanted to parent the child but were not given the option by the mother
      • Some Guatemalan women are even getting pregnant repeatedly in order to earn a living selling by selling their babies
      • There is some involvement in adoption by gangs that run guns and drugs
      • There are reliable reports that women who change their minds during the waiting period are told that they must pay back the monetary costs of childcare for their child during the waiting period and also any money they had been previously given (which is illegal) and because they don't have the money, are not getting their babies back

    • NO one is sure how widespread these problems are
      • But the US Embassy says these problems are “frequent”

    • No one knows whether of those mothers who receive money at relinquishment--the money was the reason they relinquished their children or whether the money simply represented something good that happened to them in the midst of tragedy
      • And as for money, Guatemalans have often said, "Why does everyone else get money and the mother doesn’t?" I have my own answer as to why they shouldn’t, but I understand the psychology behind the question.
  • The crisis in Guatemala right now has its roots
    • In seriously unethical practices,
    • The intransigence and denial of agencies (and their representatives in Guatemala) that have steadfastly denied that there has ever been an ethical problem
    • The polarization of the dialogue in which both UNICEF and Casa Alienza have played a role by painting an extreme and unrealistic pictures of what is going on in Guatemala

  • Solutions that are being looked at now are politically attractive in the abstract, but are likely to close the country to IA in practice
  • Adoption has become a business bringing powerful amounts of money into poor countries.
    • If adoption funds leak into excess profits, unethical practice can practically be guaranteed.
      • Even in China where there is less structural vulnerability than in Guatemala, we are learning of adoption corruption and child abduction.
  • This all can not be stopped without bringing about profound social changes beyond the scope of this panel. In terms of vulnerable families, we can not protect them without first ensuring the rights of families to survival and social justice
  • We need to be working hard to minimize the need for international adoption.
    • The steps I recommend to work towards this are laid out in the handout.

  • However, until social justice and human rights are addressed, the right of a child to grow up in a stable and loving family must still be honored and set higher than abstractions about systems.
    • For this to happen ethically in countries beset by poverty and corruption, we and our adoption representatives will have to be very careful indeed.

To read notes from the rest of this session see Part II of Accountability to Families of Origin: Before Adoption: Protecting the Rights of Vulnerable Families of Origin--Workshop 1.2


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