Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Intercountry Adoption Accountability Project (Part II---Comment and Response)

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The following is a comment I received on e-mail; with permission, I am including it here, and will respond immediately below.

Wow what a terrible story. I am sorry for your experience and do not discount it but you seem to be painting all adoptions with the same brush. Our children were not stolen. There is no need to steal children for adoption because there are thousands waiting. We have seen the two orphanages and several others in the country that our children were adopted from and we know that our children were starved for affection and had been that way for some time. It is horrible that someone would steal children for money.
We are the truth. And there are thousands of families who have legitimate stories and legitimate orphans and there are many more waiting. Do not damage their chances of getting out of a hell on earth.

Rebecca Schwindeman (adoptive parent of a child from Russia)

Rebecca’s comments represent, in my view, a common viewpoint, and I appreciate the opportunity to respond. While I will disagree with much of what Rebecca has said, please keep in mind there is nothing personal in this. My response is designed to respond as much to the many people in the adoption community who think in a manner similar to Rebecca, rather than just to Rebecca herself.

First: I have always acknowledged that there are many children adopted who are not stolen children. I would further acknowledge that the problem of stolen/laundered children is not the major problem in Russian adoptions (the country from which Rebecca adopted).

Child laundering has been a serious problem in many sending nations, including Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Nepal, Samoa, and Vietnam. Further, the reactions to such misconduct have caused many sending nations to sharply reduce, close, or never open to intercountry adoption, including much of Latin America (based on trafficking documented in the 1980s), Cambodia, Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Nepal, Vietnam, and most of sub-Saharan Africa (which has never opened to IA, in significant part due to concerns with trafficking, corruption, and scandals.)

This is where the blame game comes in. Rebecca asks me not to “damage” the chances of children to be adopted. Since I am an academic, writer, and blogger with no power to directly impact IA or its rules, the implication is that I need to self-censor. I have seen this implied and stated repeatedly---that somehow talking about the things that go wrong is what destroys IA.

My response:

Ignoring abusive adoption practices ensures that the adoption system will never reform; for a system that covers up its mistakes has no incentive to learn from them. Such silence breeds impunity: an impunity which has made IA impervious to reform.

Such an approach would be like running an air traffic system by covering up plane crashes, rather than investigating them and using the information derived to avoid future crashes.

Such an approach also fails to account for the full scope and harm of such abusive adoption practices. Adoption systems in which large numbers of children moved became infected with large-scale and systematic abusive practices impacting substantial numbers of adoptions. Within those systems, even the children who were properly adopted are damaged, because they and their adoptive families must live with the uncertainty about whether or not they were stolen---an uncertainty that is very difficult to resolve. Thus, most adoptive parents and adoptees who were adopted from affected countries have no way of knowing whether their adoptions were tainted by child laundering or other abusive practices. This includes, for example, the 25,000 or so children adopted from Guatemala between 2002 and 2008; the approximately 1500 children adopted from Cambodia between 1997 and 2002; the tens of thousands of children adopted from China between 2002 and 2009; the more than 9,000 children adopted from Ethiopia from 2005 to the present; the more than two thousand children adopted from Vietnam between 2006 and 2009; the more than 300 children adopted from Nepal from 2003 to 2010; and so on….

Systems this seriously broken will eventually break down if not fixed. And they are not fixed in large part because the “don’t talk about it” approach provides a sense of impunity for adoption agencies, facilitators, and government officials. Instead of the adoption community lobbying and pushing to fix broken systems, they lobby to keep broken systems going and open. This leads to a self-replicating cycle of abuse which unfortunately has not yet ended.

Another fundamental point: full orphanages do not mean that adoptions are legitimate or needed. The question is how children got to those orphanages, and whether the children are actually orphans. Illicit child trafficking sucks children out of families and into orphanages. Orphanages in many nations are a kind of boarding school and social safety net for the poor. Thus, the mere existence of large numbers of children in orphanages does not indicate a legitimate need for IA.

What, then, of Russia, where a longstanding practice of institutionalization has victimized large numbers of children? As I have said repeatedly, I agree that child laundering generally is NOT the issue there. I agree (and have said repeatedly in the past) that children held in poor quality institutional care, such as has been the case often in Russia, constitute a serious harm in need of urgent remedy. However, what I said in my first “Accountability Project” post applies specifically to Russian adoptions:

[I]ntercountry adoption has all too often approached the delicate task of transplanting deeply traumatized special needs children across families, languages and cultures with all of the skill, competence and care of a drunk teenager high-jacking a car for a joyride. Consequently, intercountry adoption has also produced a significant degree of wreckage amongst adoptive families.

My rhetoric is deliberately strong; but the underlying realities are worse. The wreckage of the Masha Allen case, the fourteen or more Russian adoptees killed by their adoptive parents, and the Hansen’s family act of returning their seven year old adoptive son to Russia on a plane, are symptoms of the extreme stresses and difficulties in Russian adoptions. Such were finally brought to light to some degree in the popular press by the June 2010 Time Magazine article, “When the Adopted Can’t Adapt; see http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1997439,00.html. As the article documents, a significant percentage of Russian adoptees arrive with severe difficulties for which adoptive parents are poorly prepared; furthermore, there is in practice often very little in the way of practical assistance post-adoption. The harms done to children and families by the low standards of adoption practice are incalculable and severe.

The official announcement of the July 2011 agreement between the United States and Russia in July 2011 notes new provisions “designed to improve post-adoption reporting and monitoring and to ensure that prospective adoptive parents receive more complete information about adoptive children’s social and medical histories and anticipated needs.” See http://adoption.state.gov/country_information/country_specific_alerts_notices.php?alert_notice_type=notices&alert_notice_file=russia_2. This has only occurred, however, after the international incident of the Hansen case, after more than 40,000 children have come to the United States under the prior, deficient system, and after adoptions from Russia have decreased by more than 80% (from 5862 in 2004 to 1079 in 2010). Unfortunately, this latest reform comes very, very late.

Somehow, though, in pointing out such difficulties, I am labeled an enemy of adoption. This “shoot the messenger” mentality creates impunity rather than accountability. We need a better accountability system, where the persons responsible for the harm are held accountable, instead of the messenger who brings news of such harms being the one blamed when adoption systems are closed, limited, decline, or break down.

Unfortunately, we probably won’t get the accountability system we need until adoption advocates like Rebecca demand it. So long as the adoption community minimizes the problems and seeks to silence the messengers, we will have impunity instead of reform. And without reform, adoption systems will continue to break down, again and again and again….



  1. Well stated David! I am so happy this blog is back up and running. I am an adoptive mother to 2 children via foster-care adoption. I am also a MSW student and I hope to focus my work on adoption reform/adoptee rights. Everything you said is what I believe 110%.

  2. David,

    Thank you for his and the project. The way I see it, there are two major needs. One is to reform the broken adoption system by replacing it from the ground up with a child-centered system that is driven by neither money nor demand.The second is to set up a system of services for adoptees, adoptive families and families of origin to help mitigate and repair the damages already inflicted by the broken system.

    Count on my help and support.

    David K

  3. Incredibly happy you are back - even though you don't know me. The adoption world needs to be fixed and made ethical, honest, and transparent.

    Every adoptee is impacted when unethical adoptions happen. It raises questions for all of us. I am tired of the industry moving on to the next "fertile" country after causing such harm in the last one that it closed and peoples hurt so badly.

  4. Just ignore it and it will go away, leaves a lot of wreckage in its wake.

  5. I am also incredibly happy that you are back - even though you don't know me, either ...

    As an adoptive mother, it has taken me a long time to begin to understand how the good intentions future parents have when starting the process of adopting internationally ( -like, offering a chance for a family and a good upbringing to someone who has no family -) can be used, turned into a diguise, and cover up many sad truths about the realities of the process in the sending countries.

    What I will never be able to understand is the request to believe that the (assumed) good end ("one individual poor kid ends wins a loving family") justifies any means in the process of international adoption. It can not be in any family's interest to help support any system, or to benifit from any system, that is not founded on very clear and enforcable ethical standards.

    I am very glad that someone with a well known name and a scientific reputation cares enough to insist on such standards: and I am confident that your voice will be heard.

  6. Very glad to see this blog resume posting again, and very appreciative of this thoughtful and respectful response to your commenter...

  7. Thank you for your response to Rebecca's comment. It helps me be better prepared to talk on this issue that comes up frequently in this type of discussion. Please continue to write! The subject makes me ill, but being able to share what you write in my community makes me feel like I can actually DO something to help.