“Mom, why don’t more families adopt Ethiopian kids? Do people not like Ethiopians?” My son had long since finished his bowl of oatmeal but still he sat at the table, asking questions. Like this one.
It is merely the first of many, I suspect, as he and his twin brother begin the long journey of processing through what it means to be transculturally and transracially adopted. They’re nine-years-old, and the years ahead will prove crucial for them coming to terms with their respective identities.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t the least bit nervous about the coming storm. You can’t predict how it will play out or what it will look like, because you can’t anticipate how something as fundamental as being abandoned by your birth father, losing your birth mother, and moving halfway across the world will shape and prevail upon a person. Everyone is unique and every situation is different. Books and the voices of adult adoptees, many of them filled with regret, can only go so far in preparing a parent for the inevitable and eventual reckoning of an adopted child finally taking stock of the losses in his or her life.
We’ve always had an open and ongoing conversation in our home about my sons’ past. There’s no shame in being born into extreme poverty. There’s nothing uncomfortable about your birth mother being in such a difficult place that she is unable to care for twin infants. It is, sadly, the reality for many. We make it no secret in our family that ideally, mothers and fathers would be raising their birth children because that is, afterall, God’s design for life. But we also acknowledge that due to the brokenness of the human condition and, by extension, human systems like family and government, there are vulnerable children who are unable to remain with their parents. That is a universal truth, evident around the globe.
And back in 2005, when we began our adoption process, my sons’ birth country of Ethiopia was struggling. The scourge of AIDS coupled with the lack of access to treatment, along with a corrupt government that cared little for the well-being of its citizens, contributed to a real problem among what normally would have been healthy men and women of child-bearing age. Orphanages were filled with children who had lost one or both parents to death and with children whose parents lied and made up stories in order to relinquish them, in hopes of giving them a better life. Many kids were told to lie to orphanage workers and adoptive families about their parents being dead when, in reality, they were not. But then antiretrovirals were finally allowed into the country. And shortly after that, Angelina Jolie put Ethiopia on the map as an international adoption hotspot–adoption programs exploded and grew exponentially, in a nation without the infrastructure to properly regulate them.
In the years that followed, ethical violations and harvesting practices would flourish. Adoptive parents would call for reforms, but few listened. It would have to become much worse before it would start to get better, it seemed.
And it was during that time that we returned to adopt our daughters, both born with Down syndrome and severe heart defects, and who had been living in the orphanage for years while their “healthy” counterparts were finding families quickly. The demand for healthy and as-young-as-possible children is insatiable, and few developing countries can meet it. If you think that’s disturbing, it is. And it is precisely this supply and demand of economics that lays the foundation for baby-buying and coercion. Adoption agencies want to turn a profit so they start to bend the rules and blur the lines in order to meet the ever-growing demand.
Why did my husband and I pursue Ethiopian adoption in the first place? What was our motivation, as parents not only able to conceive biological children but who would also remain open to conception over the course of our marriage? Why move heaven and earth and spend exorbitant amounts of time, emotional energy and yes money too simply to have a child from East Africa?
This answer differs from family to family, couple to couple, but for us? It was simple. We believed that as a married couple, God intended us to be open to life. We believed our marriage was, by design, inherently oriented towards that life. We however had the resources to not only raise children born to us, but also to love and care for children who’d been orphaned, or who were vulnerable in some way. At the time we were discerning what type of adoption to pursue, we saw a real need in Ethiopia. It’s hard to imagine now, but there weren’t as many agencies working there and the demand wasn’t as high then. There weren’t miles-long waiting lists for teeny baby girls. So we decided to use an organization that marketed itself as one that found families for children and not the other way around, became approved for the adoption of two young children, and that is how we came to be the parents of my sons.
Who were, incidentally, adopted out of a disruption. We were adoptive family number two.
And years later when we decided to adopt one last and final time, it made sense to return to Ethiopia. But the landscape there had changed, and we remained committed to meeting a need as opposed to directly creating a demand, and that is how we became the parents of my daughters.
Who were both born with an extra chromosome.
Why do I share all of this with you? Because I will not sit idly by while the backlash against international adoption–and, more specifically, Ethiopian adoption–swirls around me. I will not remain silent and allow only the narrative du jour–which says that international adoption is inherently bad or evil–to be told. Adoption is a complex, nuanced issue that requires sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and a careful analysis. It cannot be understood from only one perspective. It cannot be viewed through only one lense. And yet that has always been the propensity, the problem, the reason why there is a backlash happening at all. Adoption was sold to evangelicals as a simple, obvious answer to what religion ought to be, because they didn’t have anything else to fill that void. America was sold to its citizenry as heaven on earth, the moral answer to all of the world’s ills because clearly, we’re the best.
And people bought it. The orphan care movement (which until recently primarily focused on adoption) spread like wildfire as families opened their homes and hearts to children from Ukraine and Ghana and China and Guatemala and South Korea and our own foster care system. And it’s not a bad thing, this openness, this desire to parent a child from the hard places. But not enough people asked the difficult questions. They missed the forest for the pictures of smiling brown-skinned babies set to inspirational music up on the jumbo-tron. So now everyone is picking up the pieces and trying to see where we all went wrong, and how to fix the problem.
But what IS the problem? Is it adoption itself? International adoption in particular, which has untold potential for corruption and destruction? Is it the adoption agencies? Or Christian parents? Are non-profit organizations like CAFO and Reese’s Rainbow to blame?
You will find passionate and intelligent people who argue that every single one of those things is the Big Problem That Must Be Fixed.
But I am not one of them.
No, that would be too easy. Too obvious and too near the surface. There is some amount of responsibility that lies with each, don’t get me wrong, but that’s not the root. And slapping a bandaid on your church’s orphan care group–you know, the one that puts together the annual slideshow on “Orphan Sunday” with a Steven Curtis Chapman song playing in the background–will not heal the gushing wound of adoption.
The problem as I see it is far more insidious, messy, nuanced, and far-reaching. And it is, simply, sin. Brokenness. Suffering. It is families that are compelled for any number of reasons to relinquish a child (or lose custody of a child), be it the almighty dollar promised them by an utterly corrupt agency; divorce; disease; addiction; or poverty of soul or material goods. This is the problem that won’t go away until Jesus returns and sets the world aright once and for all, and it’s the problem that multiplies into a million other problems. And adoption itself is not so much as a problem as one of many solutions. One can argue that it’s not a good solution, but either way it’s a response to something.
And no, it’s not generally as good a response as what people call “family preservation”. At all. But due to the aforementioned issue of brokenness, family preservation is not always possible or preferable. Sometimes the child’s best shot at life comes in the form of an adoptive family. Sometimes that family lives a long airplane ride away. We can quibble over whether a child should ever leave his or her country of origin, if having a family is ever worth losing a culture, but it’s kind of a waste of time. Because there will always be situations where for who knows what reason, there IS no suitable in-country situation for the child. If not for international adoption, he or she may for example face living out their childhood in an orphanage, enduring repeated sexual abuse–and that’s not intended to be an emotionally-manipulative hypothetical because I have personally visited two different orphanages where this was proven to be occurring. Over the span of years. Claiming countless victims. And someone might say then that neither option is good, and I’m okay with that if that is truly what they believe, but until a legitimate third option exists? I will continue to advise that domestic and international adoption are at least potentially viable, workable solutions for many children.
The finer details of how to prevent the system from taking advantage of birth families are of course more difficult to sift through, and it’s a conversation that needs to happen. No adoptive parent I know would wish to have a child that was forcibly or deceitfully wrenched from his or her rightful parents. And yet it has happened. And will continue to happen so long as there is a demand for children in developing countries. (An argument could also be made, and quite rightly, that our own country’s system is not meeting the real needs of the poor or of single women facing a pregnancy, and that this is also needlessly tearing families apart.) I’m also concerned about the costs of adoption, of introducing such large sums of money into economies that are not typically dealing with those figures. So because the stakes are so incredibly high here, we must address these things. And learn from one another. And be open to the possibility that we may never quite fix the problem once and for all, but we can certainly make improvements.
The adoption agency we used for all of our adoptions recently declared bankruptcy and closed. I have no idea what happened, beyond some significant staff turnover within the past couple of years and the fact that Ethiopian adoptions are taking longer than they used to, and so agencies aren’t as easily able to sustain themselves. This particular agency used to have a relatively good reputation but over time that changed. I stopped recommending them shortly after our daughters came home, and I also stopped encouraging people to adopt from Ethiopia in general, unless it was for a specific older or disabled child who’d been waiting a super long time. Things just got too messy.
Now I hear that Ethiopia may be closing its doors to international adoption altogether, and I think that is probably wise at this point. The system is sick and needs to fixed–or, better yet, perhaps a domestic adoption program could grow in its place. Whatever they do, it has gone unregulated for far too long.
But I find it particularly heart-breaking that adoption itself is now on trial. Due to some recent and disturbing cases of child neglect and abuse resulting in death, coupled with the number of disruptions and, I suspect, the nature of social media, it is now being suggested by many a journalist (a la Kathryn Joyce) that adoption is inherently problematic. That you should donate those dollars to the poor instead. That adopted children aren’t capable of developing a proper identity. That adoption is a manifestation of American Exceptionalism. That losing a culture is not worth gaining a family.
And I want to ask, don’t biological families abuse their children too? Isn’t disruption merely indicative of significant past trauma in a child’s life? Giving to the poor in the name of family preservation is good, but what about children who, TODAY, do not have a family? What if identity is ultimately rooted in something far greater and deeper than race and culture, and what if adopted children can go on to embrace who they are and where they came from? Does the fact that I’m a US citizen automatically make me prone to feelings of superiority and entitlement? What if an orphaned child’s best chance at life and success lies in being adopted?
I am not ashamed to say, without reservation, that my adopted children–with their particular situations and circumstances–are better off for having been adopted. NOT because America is culturally superior to Ethiopia, or because my husband and I are better suited to raise them than their birth parents, or than a set of Ethiopian adoptive parents. None of those things are remotely true. No, they’re better off because they had no one else step forward to care for them. One of them would not have survived childhood. They had run out of legitimate options and found themselves in an orphanage teeming with traumatized kids of all ages. Those aren’t slideshow hooks folks, those are hard facts. And so they joined our family. They sit at our table each night, eat until they’ve had their fill, take a hot shower and drift off to sleep with the knowledge that they have a loving mother and a father here, present, now. We are not their only parents and we were not their first parents, and we don’t pretend to be. But we love them. We are family. We are here. And whether we’d adopted them or they’d been left to grow up in their orphanage, they will have to come to terms with their early losses. At least this way? They have a family to be a soft place for them to fall, and to support them, and to listen to their questions and fears and thoughts and hurts and dreams.
And I can also say that I am so humbled and grateful that they are my children. My adopted kids all know that adoption is only necessary when something breaks down and doesn’t work as it should, but they also know I desperately love my kids and am glad they are here. They know that they’re survivors. They know that we pray for and love their birth mothers. And above all, they know that they are loved by a good, merciful, all-knowing God. He was there for them when nobody else was. And He will continue to be.
One of the worst things about the anti-adoption movement? It presupposes that a birthmother is incapable of making an empowered, informed, loving adoption plan for her child. It introduces shame into the equation. It assumes that an Ethiopian woman with few resources is automatically weak, a know-nothing, naïve. It relies upon a stereotype that, while rooted in some truth (for example there have been deplorable situations where a birth mother was tricked or bribed or coerced), should not be applied in such an over-reaching, broad way. Because speaking for myself, the three respective birth mothers of my children knew precisely what they were doing. They are smart, capable women. And they chose not to parent their children, due to poverty, singleness and sheer survival in the case of my sons, and then in the case of my daughters, because of their disabilities. These women were not taken advantage of although they are indeed victims–though not of an evil child trafficker, but of a cruel world in which they must suffer. No woman should be abandoned by the father of her children. No woman should be left to raise a child with special needs by herself, because of the stigma. I wish that they had found a way or the desire to parent, but at the same time, deciding to place your child in a new family can be a compassionate, loving choice. Of course by the time my husband and I entered the picture, that choice had already been made. Years before. And each mother stood by her choice, appeared in court, met with us, and testified that it was indeed what she wanted. It is hard to imagine, but it is the truth.
Someday we plan to take our sons and daughters back to Ethiopia to meet birth family and become familiar with their birth culture. I hope they fall in love with it, like we did. I hope they can fill in some gaps and come more fully to terms with their respective pasts. I hope they know we did our best to give them the space to think through all of adoption’s complexities, and most of all that we told them the truth.
And, I hope they see that it was love and belief in human dignity that brought us to the conclusion that adoption is a compassionate response to the crisis of the human family. Beyond the exorbitant fees and broken systems and political games, children are created for parents, and parents for children. If we want to see a better, more peaceful world, we will look towards mothers and fathers doing the long work of forming consciences and cultivating charity. We will support family preservation when possible and when not, we will seek to place children in a loving adoptive family where they can grow and learn and realize their potential.
When my son asked me his question I set down my coffee and thought a moment. Then I told him that not all married couples should probably adopt, and that it can be a hard thing to do that requires prayer, discernment, and a lot of faith. He became more indignant and wanted to know why, because it’s so important and isn’t it something people ought to care about? I explained there are other ways people can help and show that they like Ethiopia, and at the same time I’m so glad that God led us to adoption.
My son seemed happy with that, and said he wants to tell people that adoption is a good thing to do.
And, regardless what any journalist might say, I humbly agree.