privileging the voice of adoptees

Just over a week ago, the Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs with the support of the U.S. Domestic Policy Council hosted a Symposium on Intercountry Adoption (ICA) in Washington DC. The purpose of the Symposium was to bring together a diverse group of ICA stakeholders in order to strengthen the future practice of intercountry adoption. Such stakeholders included professional adoption practitioners; attorneys; government officials from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the Department of State; and Legislators as well as a number of others. Interested adoptive parents also attended, and historically, the Department invited adult adoptees as well as birth parents for the first time, as the Department’s aim was to “create a deeper understanding of the respective views and interests of each stakeholder group.” The Symposium gave a clearer comprehension of the roles of the many different governmental offices in intercountry adoption, and yet there is still much to learn about each entity and their direct roles. It became clear to me that our present system of intercountry adoption and the policies and regulations governing it are far more intricate than I imagined.

All of us care for the safety of children. All of us recognize their vulnerability. All of us want to protect them from those who would do them harm. Bringing all of us together, as this Symposium does, provides us with an opportunity to meet those goals in cooperation rather than in competition.

Carl Rische, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs

Despite moments of challenge, in the end, all agreed that safety of the children is utmost. For long now, fear, trauma, anger, and disconnect have made it extremely difficult for everyone involved to come together. I believe all members within the adoption constellation, that is birth parents, adoptees, and adoptive parents, have suffered tremendous loss, but those losses and how they are experienced and processed are uniquely individual. However, I’m not the first to say, adoptees have had the least voice and suffered the greatest losses, yet have the most to be learned from because of our lived experience. We all need far greater awareness and acknowledgment of the losses, fears of rejection, feelings of shame and guilt and our own processes of grief for true healing to occur. We have to hear each others’ voices and not be put off by them. I experienced the Symposium as a step towards changing the current environment, an opportunity for all voices to be listened to, despite great disparity at times among different groups. All in all, if intercountry adoption is to exist and we agree that those who should “benefit” the most – the adopted child, youth, adult adoptee – then we must guarantee long-term healing, safety and permanence for the adoptee through adoption practice and policy that provides greater protections.

What Protections?

Citizenship For ALL Adoptees. Today, an estimated thousands of intercountry adoptees who were adopted by U.S. parents are without U.S. citizenship due to a loophole that exists in current legislation. They remain at risk, unable to access critical services and rights. According to 18 Million Rising, 35 intercountry adoptees have been deported with more being targeted. Current legislation (Child Citizenship Act of 2000) granted citizenship to foreign-born adoptees adopted by U.S. citizens; however, the bill did not take effect until February 27, 2001, and as a result, adoptees who were 18-years old or older at the time were not covered unbeknownst to adoptive parents and adoptees. Deportation causes another significant trauma to those adoptees. They are torn away from family and forced to live in a country where they were relinquished, where they do not speak the language, understand the culture, nor have known family. They were guaranteed a “better life,” one of permanence, and yet have been failed. The Citizenship Act of 2019 would fix the loophole in current legislation and grant automatic citizenship to all adoptees; however, the bill remains tied up in Congress. Adoptee activists continue to engage with Congressmen/women and Senators to advance this bill, yet increased and ongoing Adoptee and Ally support is needed. I urge you to support this bill, get involved by donating, volunteering and/or contacting your legislators. Learn more at Adoptees for Justice, Adoptee Rights Campaign, Adoptee Rights Law.

Ethical Adoption Practices. Regulatory oversight is critical to ensuring the safety and protection of children, as we know that those who would cause harm for profit have existed under unethical adoption practices across the history of intercountry adoption. At the Symposium, adoptive parents, Adam and Jessica Davis, shared their story of adopting a five-year old girl, Namata, from Uganda only to learn a year and a half later, as Namata’s English improved, that she had a loving mommy who cared for her back home. Upon further investigation, the family learned that, indeed Namata was not an orphan. Her mother had been tricked into sending her daughter to a family in the U.S. whom she believed would provide for her education and then be later returned home. The Davis’ did a remarkable thing, eventually vacating the adoption and reuniting Namata with her mother in Uganda. This is one family who stood against those who urged them to keep Namata, despite the injustices again her mother and the abhorrent trafficking that occurred. Jessica stated in an interview with CNN,

After unveiling Namata’s true story and doing extensive research, I feel I have gained an awareness of the realities of corruption occurring across the board within international adoption. This complicated yet beautiful act of opening up a home and a heart to a child in need has become heavily corrupted by greed and saviorism.

Jessica Davis, adoptive parent and activist – quote used with permission.

The U.S. adoption agency the Davis family worked with was later debarred. This is only one story, one family, one example of unethical adoption practice, though others exist. And yet, “Harm to even one adopted child is unacceptable.” (Carl Rische, opening statement). Unregulating standards is not the answer, as some alluded to, but efforts to thoroughly investigate a child’s “orphan” status among other things must continue.

Additionally, unregulated custody transfers (UCTs), also known as rehoming, endanger the lives of adopted children. UCT’s occur when parents transfer the physical custody of their child to a person who is not the child’s parent or other adult relative, or adult friend of the family with whom the child is familiar, with the intent of permanently avoiding responsibility for the child’s care and without taking reasonable steps to ensure the child’s safety or permanency of the placement (Child Welfare Information Gateway). Children adopted through foster care and intercountry adoption are at greater risk for UCT. A recent study found challenges associated with these adoptions – the child’s complex physical and behavioral health needs and difficulties finding and, furthermore, paying for needed health services, may lead families to seek out unregulated transfers (Brown, K., Morrison, E., Hartjes, E., Nguyen, N., Sweet, A. 2015. Steps have been taken to address unregulated custody transfers of adopted children. Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office. Retrieved from http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-733). There is legislation currently pending on unregulated custody transfers.

Post-Adoption Services. At this time, there is no federal or state regulation or oversight guiding implementation of post-adoption services. Adoption service providers across the country are at their own discretion to offer such services. We heard from a number of adoptive parents who expressed great difficulty accessing needed resources and support after the finalization of adoption. Adoption service providers themselves agreed that this is the case. We know that children who are adopted are at higher risk for developing emotional, psychological, and behavioral problems as a result of disrupted attachments, trauma and identity issues, even though physically they may thrive in a safe and loving home. The emotional, psychological, and physical state of the birth mother during pregnancy also has tremendous impact on the child. The child brings all of this trauma into the adoptive family, which impacts every member of the family system, including siblings. With this knowledge comes great responsibility to help that child heal. The adoption journey really begins post-adoption. Most services are terminated at that time, yet ongoing support during the first few months and years following are critical to the healthy development and healing of the child.

Lastly, there is legislation pending related to intercountry adoption, but outcomes remain to be seen. And finally, I want to thank the Department of State for welcoming adoptees and birth parents to the Symposium and for showing support to those of us who attended. Thank you to my fellow adoptees for your passion, determination, and tireless efforts to make our voices heard. Huge thanks to Lynelle Long, who blazed the way for us to attend this event. We’ve reached a pivotal point. It is my hope that Adoptees can work alongside other stakeholders to achieve change that brings increased safety, protection and healing to adoptees. We do need to get it right because so much is at stake, now more than ever, and the way forward is to include adoptees as part of the process.

To read Carl Rische’s introductory remarks at the Symposium in full, click here.

Pictured in photograph, L to R: Diego Vitelli, adopted from Columbia, founder, Adopted from Columbia!; Monica Lindgren, adopted from Columbia, attorney; Reshma McClintock, adopted from India, founder, Dear Adoption, co-founder, fp365; JaeRan Kim, PhD, LISW, adopted from S. Korea, Assistant Professor, University of Washington, Tacoma; Cherish Bolton, adopted from India, co-director, People for Ethical Adoption Reform (PEAR), doctorate student; Lynelle Long, adopted from Vietnam, founder, InterCountry Adoptee Voices; Marijane Huang, adopted from Taiwan, social worker, educator, author; Kristopher Larson, adopted from Vietnam, co-director, Adoptees for Justice; Joy Alessi, adopted from S. Korea, co-director, Adoptee Rights Campaign; Trista Goldberg, adopted from Vietnam, founder of Operation Reunite.

1 thought on “privileging the voice of adoptees

  1. Pingback: A few bad apples – Harlow's Monkey

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