Thursday, February 16, 2012

Finding the Truth & Returning Stolen Children: Journeying through Schizophrenic Interpretations and Confusing Realities in an Adoption Myth-Saturated Society

This post is a little different from others on Fleasbiting because it deals with a personal question.   One that we get repeatedly these days. 

While we don’t owe the world an explanation, I do think that explaining the situation that we negotiated is instructive for understanding just how difficult these situations are and why reform is necessary both to keep them from continuing to happen to other families and to show the need for better help for families when they do happen.

I’m NOT going to tell our adoption story here on this blog.  For those who don’t know it, the broad outlines of the story can be found in a July 14, 2007 interview withSteve Inskeep at NPR:  “An Adoption GoneWrong.”   The story of how the girls that we adopted ended up in the adoption stream is also here:  “An Indian Adoption Story:  Stolen Children.”  (the story is on several pages, so to keep reading click “next page” at the bottom of each page)

So here, in its latest guise (a comment from our latest post which had nothing to do us & our story but was about Chinese adoptions and the US government), is the question we’re most often asked (Please note that I didn’t called the question a dumb question, but that the asker herself wrote “dumb question.”)

Dana’s Question :

Dumb question:  If you know your girls were stolen, surely they have adoption in India:  why did you not facilitate your girls’ parents adopting their children back?
I don’t get it.  You know they were obtained illegally even though you yourself were innocent of criminal intent.  So your answer to a wrong being done is…to perpetuate the wrong by continuing to keep this couple’s daughters far away from them for most of the year?
It’s like that adoption scandal in Fiji where children were also outright stolen.  As far as I know not one American family who adopted those kids has bothered taking them home and getting the adoption overturned OR paying for the natural family to adopt back their own children.
It’s nice you’re writing a blog about this stuff.  But it’s easy to write a blog.  If a wrong’s been done thought, and you could have fixed it and you didn’t, that’s not OK.


We did NOT know for sure that the girls were stolen.  It took six years to confirm the fact. 

And as for returning the girls to their the time the facts were confirmed it couldn't be done.  Even by their younger falsified ages, one was by then a legal adult, and the other was on the cusp of legal adulthood.  Legally and ethically, you cannot return adults to their parents.  Adults are their own persons, who belong to no one and who make their own legal decisions.  And by then, of course, these adults were culturally American and had become accustomed to a lifestyle very different from that of their mother’s rural Indian village, where women are not taught to read, are not schooled, and are married off at 14; these adults had also lost their first language by then.  What we did was take each of the girls to India for a reunion with their family.  The choice of what each did next in regard to their family and their lives was entirely theirs.  As for ourselves, we have remained involved with the girls’ original family since then.

You could still ask why it took six years for their allegations to be confirmed.  I'll try to explain that too.

Because they had been threatened and were told never to tell us the truth, the girls hid the truth from us for the first six weeks they were in our home.

Once we learned of their allegations we immediately contacted our placement agency and requested that they investigate the girls' allegations to confirm or refute them (yes, at first, we naively believed that our agency would be as concerned as we were and that they would investigate).

It took several months for us to realize that the agency felt no great urgency in the matter; soon too there was another Indian adoption scandal and the excuse that it was "too dangerous" to investigate.   Later we’d be told that the truth didn’t matter, but only what the girls believed was the truth.  Our agency over years refused repeated requests to investigate.

Busy that first year and a half with the girls' day to day emotionally disturbed behavior, rage, and terror, we also contacted the local mental health professionals our home study agency recommended (this was the only help we’d get from them).   The mental health professionals told us to come back in a year after the girls were through the "initial adjustment to adoption" and had learned English. 

It became quickly apparent that we were very much alone in analyzing the situation--both in determining the truth of the girls' allegations of being stolen children and also in determining what connection, if any, their emotionally disturbed behavior had to the possibility of them being "stolen children."  Without professional help to find out the truth and to set the girls’ behavior and allegations in a normative context, we had a hard time knowing how to understand both the truth of what the girls said and the meaning of their behavior and attitudes.


The only ones willing to help us think through these things and make these judgments were other adoptive parents, and the consensus among these other adoptive parents both privately and publicly (on adoption support lists) was that the girls’ allegations were almost certainly NOT true.    

Remember that this was 1998.  Adoption corruption was NOT very much in the news and so the possibility that our daughters were illegally sourced seemed unreal and remote. 

In terms of the girls’ behavior and attitudes, the consensus (indeed, the assumption) was that our daughters’ behavior was at the extreme of the normal range, but normal nonetheless.  (Knowing what I know now, I would beg to differ and see their behavior as indicative of stolen children struggling to come to terms with injustice and a stolen life).   

As new adoptive parents we were very much in the sway of the adoption myth belief system and very much within the fold/peer pressure of adoptive parents who passionately believed in the adoption-myth, the trustworthiness of the international adoption system, and the commitment and competency of the involved governments to adequately regulate and police the adoption system.  

In other words to even entertain the possibility that what the girls alleged was true, one had to doubt or reject a very strong belief system reinforced by a strong community that represented our only help at that point.  1998 was not 2011, or 2008 or even 2005 in this regard.

[Note that almost all adoption corruption--whether coercion of first parents to relinquish, persuading non-infertile folks to become adoptive parents, or persuading the general public or anyone in particular of the absolute goodness of international adoption in spite of facts to the contrary--involves persuading people of a strong belief system (whose foundations have been laid for decades in our popular culture) and then reinforcing that strong belief system.  This belief system  is often at odds with other knowledge, emotions, and values and often requires the suspension of the usual protections of questioning assumptions, and using research and critical thinking to evaluate truth claims.]

I’m not saying that we didn’t seriously entertain the possibility of the girls’ allegations being true and suffer many sleepless nights as a result, just that it was much harder in that context to believe that they could be true without concrete confirmation.   Getting that confirmation or refutation proved to not be easy or even advisable.  Who could confirm or refute it?  Who was willing? 

In the meantime we were told there were many reasons we should NOT believe the girls.  And many other circumstances/contexts that made our quest more difficult if not ill-advised.  

Firstly, we were told that such claims (of being stolen children) were not uncommon among adopted children; the claims represented an inability on the part of the child to accept the truth of her situation and were essentially wishful/magical thinking used to explain away a mother's betrayal. 

Secondly, we were told that the claims might actually be true from the girls' point of view even if they weren't really true, as relinquishing parents sometimes staged scenes to make it appear to children as if the parents didn't have a choice in relinquishment so as to save face in the eyes of the their children. 

Thirdly, if their mother HAD relinquished the girls and gone on to establish a new life and a new identity ditching her children in the process (as we were told was common in India), then we (or anyone who didn't understand the culture enough to make inquiries discretely enough) could actually endanger the mother's health or even her life (outing her past to a new husband who would then beat or even kill her in retaliation).

Fourthly, we were told that the likelihood of the girls' stories being true was low because older children are hard to place and no orphanage director in his right mind would seek out hard to place children, steal them, and then get stuck with them (bad business, we were told).

Fifthly, the girls themselves were ambivalent about us finding their parents.  They refused to tell us why this was so; we could only guess.  My guess now years later is that it had to do avoiding the local custom of being married off a year after puberty (overdue & imminent in their cases). 

Sixthly, in terms of us dropping everything and running off to Indian ourselves to research things (which seemed impossibly difficult and ill-advised), it would have been nearly impossible.  We had no extended family to help us.  We were the parents of 5 biological children ages 2-13.  We were the new adoptive parents to two extremely emotionally disturbed children.  It was literally a full-time job just to keep the girls alive and moving forward.  We also had to earn a living.  There is no way one parent could have done everything while the other went off to India.

Seventh, we needed help in India.  We did not have an address; the name of the village was not on any maps we could find; we did not speak the language.  We did over a number of years ask individuals in the local community with family in the relevant state for help, but always the family members back in India would refuse to do anything.  No middle class Indians we could find wanted to wander around rural India looking for the girls’ parents, knowing that a broader adoption scandal in the state had rendered the situation potentially volatile.   It took us years to find a local Indian census map detailed enough to contain the name of such a small village; it took years to find the activist for the poor willing to go into a poor rural village, and with sensitivity make the right inquiries.   And even then her initial inquiries were rebuffed by those in the village; it took persistence and the right approach on her part to get the people to admit they knew the people involved.    We could have never done this alone. 

Eighth, the girls’ accusations, while extremely serious and deserving of immediate investigation, left a lot of critically-important, unresolved questions:  questions that could only be resolved by finding the family and discretely obtaining the truth.  There was literally no way for white Americans who didn’t speak the language to go to a tiny rural village and discretely make such inquiries, for our very presence in such a place would have created a sensation.  Again, without help of the right kind, we were helpless.   

Finally, perhaps most ironic of all (as I write this to explain why we did NOT immediately hop on a plane and head to India to search for the family) is the fact that there was considerable pressure from the adoption community to NOT take the girls allegations seriously.  We were literally told that continuing to consider the possibility that the girls’ allegations were true meant that we were evidencing a lack of commitment to our new daughters—that we were BAD parents.  We were told that we should simply buckle down and parent these kids.  We were told that there was “no way back for these kids” and therefore the sooner we came to terms with that, the sooner the girls would get beyond their emotional disturbance and settle in.  And so, ironically, for years and years the accusations against us were exactly the opposite of your accusation against us.  We were castigated for taking our daughters’ allegations seriously and—horrors!—the unmentionable, unspoken implication in the back of others’ minds: that we might even consider returning the girls if they had been stolen.    That’s what you call damned if you do and damned if you don’t.   The victims of the crime get blamed more than those responsible for the crime.

We were encouraged  by the adoption community during this early confusing time to interpret what the girls said as the opposite of face value.  If they said they hated us and missed their parents, we were to interpret that to mean that they loved us and really wanted us as parents but were afraid of rejection.

This is one reason why I speak of the adoption myth belief system.   How could anyone judge what is true or false in anything when presented with this kind of double-think?  And how could a child who actually WAS stolen ever be heard when everything she says must be subject to reinterpretation?  And when returning her to her parents is seen as immoral?  Three years into our adoption a psychologist actually told me that she could not be involved in our case if indeed we were to find out the girls were stolen, that returning the girls to their parents was even a remote possibility in my mind.—and I hadn’t even broached the subject.  The psychologist’s mind was just racing along the implications of finding out the truth.

Where is the normative information against which to judge whether particular behaviors and levels of emotional disturbance are outside the normal range and therefore might warrant setting aside reinterpretation strategies?  Are reinterpretation strategies ever correct?  Mostly correct?  Never correct?  Sometimes correct?  Who judges?

Are original families unfit to parent their own children if they live in societies that disrespect women?  Where does one set the bar?  Who’s to judge?  By whose standards?

So, Dana, you see, there were no easy answers.  There were only struggles.  And confusion.  And trying to pick between interpretations when we had little to no basis on which to do so.

If we had received the help we needed in 1998/1999, things would have been very different.  The family should have been found, the truth ascertained, and children returned, right then, at the beginning.

It isn’t easy to write a blog about this stuff.  It’s hard.  It’s about the search for justice when society doesn’t care.  It’s an attempt to get society to CARE by exposing the cruelty and injustice and ugliness of that which tries to pass itself off as good.  It’s an attempt to try to break the hold of the adoption myth on our society.    It’s an attempt to get people to wake up and extend the same human understandings of emotions, of a child’s love for her parents, and a parent’s love for her children to everyone—even and especially to first mothers and their children.    The wrong that was done against the girls’ parents cannot be fixed.  It could only have been fixed in the first year or two. 

Of course, it’s not OK that we didn’t fix it.  We bear the guilt for that even if we aren’t strictly speaking morally culpable (and had no criminal intent in adopting—we didn’t. We were the patsies).  And we live with it every day.  We were ignorant.  We were naïve.   Though we were looking for answers diligently, we didn’t find the answers in time. 

We are dedicated to ensuring that society is no longer naïve and ignorant about these things. 

We are dedicated to learning and understanding more about these things and sharing that knowledge with others.  Truth is an elephant surrounded by blind men.  I want to understand the perspectives of all the blind men and synthesize them into a holistic understanding.  I’m tired of the perspective of one blind man (the adoption industry) being presented as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  And I don’t want to substitute another blind man’s truth for the whole truth either.  I want to listen to all and synthesize them into an ever-evolving, ever-learning, ever-refined, complicated understanding that can then be used to help control this elephant of adoption so that it stops hurting people and is harnessed and trained and modified (and the more I learn the more I think it HAS to modified).



  1. Thank you for your honesty and candor. I can't imagine the frustration you faced at every turn, blindly struggling to find the truth. And, thank you for using your pain and your daughters' awful situation to help those who cannot help themselves.

  2. The adoption industry is more broken that many can comprehend. Keep up the good work.

  3. The question is a very valid question. But the answer to adoption trafficking,isn´t so simple that the victims can just be returned like this. I ve followed the path of the Smolin family very closely since 2003 and also met the daughter´s family personally. - it was just too late to send the girls back and i do know that the smolin´s would have done so if it would have been possible and the wish of the girls. The rest Desiree explained very well in details. Today victims of International Adoptions still have hardly any place/ organisation to turn to. It takes a while for adoptive families to realise, that agencies are of absolutely no help. Same goes for any government authority. Btw- the very emotional reunion ( with english subtitles) of one of the girls can be watched in this cut together clip at 21:55.

    I know if the girls would want to meet their mother again the Smolin´s would enable the girls to do so. The damage done by Intercountry Adoption cannot be repaired.
    Regards Arun Dohle

  4. "Are original families unfit to parent their own children if they live in societies that disrespect women? Where does one set the bar? Who’s to judge? By whose standards?"

    Good question. Did you watch Darrell Issa's Congressional hearing yesterday? It disrespected women in a major way. So did Foster Freiss' comment of yesterday regarding aspirin and women's knees. Are American families unfit to raise their babies because Darrell Issa and Foster Freiss regard them they way they do?

    1. I don't understand what you're getting at here. No, I didn't watch the Congressional hearing yesterday and frankly, I don't understand what it would have to do with this topic anyway. Can you explain what it has to do with this conversation about adoption and so being judgmental about other cultures and their values that you consider that they shouldn't have the right to parent their own children--and the sentences you quoted?

  5. I have had the pleasure of knowing David and Desiree for several years and had the luxury of knowing to most of this story. It is indeed a tragedy.

    I respect and appreciate all the Smolins have done and continue to do, however I have yet another question:

    Why do you choose to protect the agency who handled this adoption? When I have heard David speak he has referred to them as a "reputable" agency and protects their anonymity. Why?

    I am aware that adoptive parents are often intimidated by other adopters are prospective adopters not to speak out against scammers and other wrong-doings in adoption so as not to hurt others chances of adopting. But yielding to the threats perpetrates the crimes and - with all due respect - makes you part of the problem rather than part of the solution in that regard. Whether the agency knowingly or unknowingly placed stolen children, they were certainly lax in helping, most probably to protect themselves.

    "Powerlessness and silence go together." Margaret Atwood. There are many other powerful quotations on the power of speaking out and the harm of being silenced.

    It is very sad that in all cases of illegal adoptions - domestic and international - time is on the side of the adopters. Attorneys for adoptive families know well how to play the game of dragging the procedures out so that in the end, too often, judges side with "bonding" time. Especially in cases of questionable adoptions domestically, placing the children should be placed in foster care with liberal visitation would be best and lead to swifter resolution, rather than having them held hostage by their alleged abductors while it is resolved.

    Yet, take that one word "adoption" out of the equation and look at these cases for what they are: kidnappings, and the outcomes change dramatically. Even children who are well cared for in cases such as parental kidnappings (think David Goldman's son) the children are returned despite the length of time away. Or in cases of women stealing babies because they want a child (think Carlina White) the kidnapper was prosecuted. And in the case of Jaycee Lee Dugard the fact that she was fully an adult and mother of two did not impede her reunion with her rightful mother who she never forgot and who, of course, never forgot her. I think that was not so much because there was no language difference as it is simply because none of these cases were clouded with the word "adoption."

    To remain pro-adoption and believe that IA is a good thing "IF" we could just remove the corruption is naive and wrong-minded, IMHO and flies in the face of the advise of the UN, UNICEF and many other NGO's who all call for IA become a last resort for every child.

    The tens of thousands spent by Americans and others to take one or two children for themselves would be far better spent on building schools, purchasing medical supplies or digging wells rather than exploiting poverty by adding to the grief of families in crisis. The material advantages of being raised in the US or Europe are counter blanched by huge trade-offs in loss and pain, especially when it is not a trade made by choice.

    So, for all you have done and continue to do kudos, praise, appreciation, and gratitude. But I wish you would do more. I wish you would recognize that adoption as it is currently practiced is too easily corrupt and thus should be avoided. And I wish you would "out" the agency for their role in perpetuating this travesty. It’s not 1998 or even 2008 anymore. You are no longer alone or ignorant or overwhelmed. You are biting flea now so please, give them hell as per the quote on your blog (one of my personal favs!)


    Mirah Riben

  6. I just want to add to the original question about children fraudulently adopted from Pacific Island nations. There are a few children who were fully reunited with their families as soon as the fraud was discovered (which in those cases went quickly as uncovering IA fraud goes). Unfortunately, not as many as should have been, but there were some.

    Adding to what Desiree said above, the adoptive families who reunited the children were initially blasted by many in both the adoption community and their local friends/families/communities for doing so which is why they handled the situations either relatively quietly or as privately as possible.

    There have been more reunifications in other countries, they just haven't been publicized. Perception and ability to make clearer judgments in these difficult situations is changing, just slowly.

  7. If you were writing that we have a culture which is anti-adoption and favors biological ties over adoptive ones, then I would agree with you. Please do not take your own experiences and paint with a broad brush to try to color the world and put children who need homes in situations of less hope than they have already.

    My favorite adoption movie is The Blind Side based on a TRUE story. This is a great US adoption story and in spite of the Hollywood anti-adoption bias, that call Jolie's children a "brood" and Brittany Spear's precious in the same breath.

  8. Al Jazeera as a credible news source? Next you will be citing ABC news. Oops.

  9. What did the police say when you contacted them about what your children told you?

  10. I know this is an old article but wow faithwalk, you just can't stand anyone saying something negative about adoption huh? Since when is the media anti-adoption??? Every time someone tries to criticize adoption, someone like you jumps out to correct us that adoption is nothing but kittens and rainbows.