When I used to teach literature, I'd sometimes ask my students if a book had ever changed their lives. I don't remember any answers, mostly the blank stares, as if in amazement that any book could change any life. But for me at least there are a few I can point to as life-changing, not because they were great literature, though they might have been, but because they were somehow prophetic and changed the way I saw the world from that point on. Brave New World and 1984 are on that list, along with The Brothers Karamazov and Middlemarch, which ARE great literature. These are all fiction, though they deal with matters central to every life. To this list I must now add another title, non-fiction this time, and having read it I will never be able to think about adoption the way I once did. The Child Catchers by Kathryn Joyce (Public Affairs, 2013) is a book with the potential to change the face of adoption forever.
The subtitle, Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, gives an indication of the book's thrust, which is to expose the current trend of adopting domestic, as well as foreign-born children, by Evangelical Christians. I am biased. I have to admit it. I lost my first-born son to adoption in 1968, and in 1974 adopted an infant from Vietnam. I also have a son and daughter I gave birth to and raised. Even though I may not be an entirely disinterested bystander, I have struggled to be honest--with myself above all--about the effects of adoption and my part in the damage done to my children by this "peculiar institution."
Adoption is not natural, and it is not traditional, at least not the way Americans practice it. Until the mid-1940s, orphans or babies born out of wedlock were sent to orphanages or raised by family members, but after WW II there was an increased demand for babies to adopt, as many American couples scrambled to restore what they had feared might be lost forever: the happy, nuclear family. Many GIs, returning from the war, had contracted venereal diseases and were infertile; that was one reason adoption emerged as it did. Joyce does a good job of explaining the sociological and historical forces that led to the increased demand and the unscrupulous operators who capitalized on it, though she slights the roles of Georgia Tann of Tennessee, who made millions by arranging adoptions, and Governor Herman Lehmann of New York, who colluded with her to enact legislation that closed all adoption records, thus ensuring that birth mothers and their children would never be able to find each other. Everything was done to protect the adoptive parents, who were told their adopted children were no different than if born to them. The stigma of single motherhood, and even the stigma of adoption, made every birth mother's lost child a dirty little secret and every adoptee's inevitable curiosity something to be dismissed out of hand. Birth mothers were told they'd forget and go on to have other children (over half did not), and adoptees who asked too many questions were blamed for being angry or bitter. These were what contemporary adoption professionals term the "bad old days." Supposedly, things are more enlightened now that the stigma of single parenthood has all but disappeared and there are many fewer healthy infants available for adoption.
The response to this diminished supply (and adoption agencies do think of children in this commodified way) has been a turn to international adoption, and this is where Joyce's extensive research is most illuminating. After the Korean War, an Evangelical Christian from Oregon, Harry Holt, made a pilgrimage of sorts to South Korea, where he was overwhelmed by the plight of the thousands of half-Korean/half-American children our soldiers had left behind. Although it was illegal to adopt eight children all at once, Holt was able to finagle the American government into allowing him to bring the first Amer-Asian children to the United States, where he and his wife Bertha adopted all eight of them, adding them to their already sizeable family. And thus began the international adoption trade, which eventually spread to China, Vietnam, other parts of Asia, Latin America, India, and now finally Africa. Joyce explains how what began as a humanitarian effort to rescue children created by a war that had left them desperate morphed into a multi-billion dollar industry that required an increasing supply of children to meet an ever-increasing demand from would-be adoptive parents. The tail began to wag the dog, and the adoption propaganda machine went into overdrive to convince mothers in difficulties to relinquish their babies, whether born here or abroad, to couples who could "give them a better life."
For domestic adoption, the response to the dearth of relinquishing mothers was the novel concept of "open adoption." Instead of trying to persuade a mother to give her baby to an adoptive family outright, adoption agencies assured the expectant mother that she would be able to have contact with her child after placement, receive regular letters and photographs, even pick the couple she wanted her child to go to. The idea was to give the birth mother some sense of control, as well as the assurance that she was being selfless, even noble, in making this sacrifice for the benefit of her child. It was never mentioned that open-adoption agreements are not enforceable by law, and, in fact, most open adoptions close once the paperwork is completed, if not immediately, within a few years, leaving the birth mother to grieve a second loss of her child. The birth mother would be shown videos and testimonials by other birth mothers who were pleased as punch with their decision to relinquish but never told that years later her grief would catch up with her and erupt in a volcano of pain.
Joyce mentions three important books by adoption-reform activists: Primal Wound and Coming Home to Self by Nancy Verrier, herself an adoptive mother and therapist, and The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler, an adoptee from the BSE who also made a widely praised documentary on the same subject, women who lost their babies to adoption in the Baby Scoop Era (1945-1972). I daresay these books are not on the list of suggested reading offered by adoption agencies.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of adoption currently is a new form of Baby Scoop, the adoption of children born in third-world countries who are easy pickings for well-off Americans (and Canadians, Australians, and Europeans, who do the most adopting. Australia has recently reversed progressive legislation, thanks to the efforts of celebrities like Hugh Jackman and his wife, Deborra-Lee Furness, who are working to streamline adoption and eliminate protections for birth mothers and their babies.) Joyce's first chapter chronicles the disaster of the earthquake in Haiti, when hundreds, if not thousands, of children were hustled out of Haiti before it had been established whether they had living family members or not.
Then there's the situation in Guatemala, where the "adoption boom went bust" in 2008 because of widespread corruption, and the country stopped all adoptions in an effort to clean up abuses and implement the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, which was adopted by the U.S. in 2000. When Guatemala shut down, agencies simply moved on to other countries where the Hague Convention was not in force. Ethiopia became a new country of choice, sending a "total of 4,500 children abroad each year in both 2009 and 2010." One local radio host, Ellene Moria, opined that children "were becoming the new export industry for our country."
Joyce doesn't indicate whether she believes adoption, as an institution, is inherently good or bad, but she offers such an abundance of compelling evidence of the abuse and corruption the adoption industry has engendered that I, personally, can no longer support it, except in rare cases of extreme need or for older children in foster care. As an alternative way to build a family, it is quite simply unacceptable. When any industry swells to the extent that international adoption has, corruption is inevitable, especially in countries with shaky legal systems and very different cultural traditions of the family. Adoption has become not the unselfish way to rescue children from harm's way but a recourse for infertile couples, gay couples, and Christian proselytizers to achieve their own ends. According to Joyce, whose book is heavily researched as well as peppered with accounts of individual women who have been coerced in one way or another to relinquish their children, the myth of adoption as a "beautiful choice" is being disproved around the world everyday.
The deplorable orphanages in Romania that have become the template for orphanages everywhere in the American psyche are not the rule. Adoption is a permanent solution to a temporary problem--for both a mother in distressing circumstances and a country with internal challenges. If we really want to help children, the way to go about it is to help their families, not by separating babies from their mothers or children from their native cultures. The money spent on a single foreign adoption could support an African village for a year, could help build a school or a hospital that would serve not just one child but many. The numbers of "orphans" around the world may sound staggering, depending on what sources you accept, but the truth is, many of these so-called orphans are not orphans at all. It is not uncommon for an African family to send a young child to an orphanage during the harvest season or to get an education without ever intending to leave the child there permanently. Joyce documents many cases where parents were misled into signing away their children in the belief that the kids would be educated in America, then would return to help their families. The idea of adoption as a permanent, legal separation was not part of their lexicon.
When there is demand, a supply will be found to fill it. If Americans weren't buying illegal drugs, we'd have no drug problem, but the demand is there, and the narco-traffickers exploit it. The same is true with international adoption, and the opportunity for corruption is similar. Of course, some children do need families, and for some a foreign adoption is the best or only option. What we have, though, are facilitators and recruiters who search out vulnerable families, promise them the moon (which may be a few hundred dollars), and take their children. These recruiters are paid by the agencies per child, so the incentive is to find more and more. In Guatemala the situation became so bad that children were being snatched off the street and poor women were becoming pregnant solely so they could sell their babies. Historian Karen Dubinsky calls this "a culture of 'missingness.'" In 2007 nearly one out of every hundred babies born was being sent to America. Documents are forged, uneducated people manipulated, and it's very difficult for Americans to be sure the child they adopt is genuinely adoptable.
What is the answer? I know many, many adoptive parents who love their children and want the best for them and many adoptees who are content with their lives, or so it would seem. Just because an adoptee doesn't ask questions or seem unhappy doesn't mean he doesn't think about his birth family, especially his birth mother, wonder how he came to be adopted, or feel adrift in a world where most people have some idea of others in their family tree.
In a speech given in Toronto in 2001, "Adoption and Loss--The Hidden Grief," (http://www.ccnm-mothers.ca/English/articles/Robinson.htm) Evelyn Robinson, herself a mother of loss to adoption, a social worker with extensive experience in grief counselling and an author, describes the dark side of adoption that most people never see: the unresolved grief of the birth mother and the loss of family and identity for the adoptee. The very normal reactions to a significant life crisis are ignored or suppressed so that adoptive parents can get what they want and feel good about it. Robinson lives in South Australia, which has undoubtedly the most enlightened adoption laws in the world. At age 18 adoptees have full access to their personal information. When a woman is in difficulties, she is not encouraged to consider adoption; she is asked what she needs in order to raise her child and that support is sought. In the rare case where an adoption goes forward, no placement is made until after the baby is born and the mother has time to reconsider her choice. No coercion is ever involved, not even the gentlest. Robinson is appalled by the laws in the United States that allow an adoptive placement to be made before the birth, that close all records and fabricate new birth certificates, that disenfranchise fathers, and severely limit the time allowed for the birth mother to change her mind.
For many years I was an avid advocate of adoption. I believed in adoption as if it were a brand of faith. I assumed I'd never again see my first son, and while I thought of him every single day, I didn't feel maimed by the loss. Once I found him, however, I came to realize just how broken I'd been. Having never properly grieved, I plunged into an abyss of despair that left me feeling totally unmoored. I had not escaped my grief; I had merely postponed it--with interest. While the emotional scars will never disappear, I do feel restored and whole as a result of my reunion. Knowing what I know, having experienced the full weight of adoption loss, I cannot remain silent. We each are responsible for charting our own course through life, but it helps to have a map drawn by someone who has gone before. I offer The Child Catchers, Primal Wound, The Girls Who Went Away, the blog GazillionVoices.com (Land of Gazillion Adoptees Magazine), and my own story as a beginning. Adoption is not win-win; it is zero-sum. Every adoption is predicated on loss. We should never forget that.