Rehoming children and Hana’s death

Two stories flowed together this week to form a current, erupting into public awareness. That’s a good thing, although these stories are hard to read. Hard to think about. It’s hard to accept that our society is looking away from the abuse and mistreatment of children who have already been detached from family bonds in their short lives.

-Reuters’ Megan Twohey investigated and reported on a practice that is hidden from most Americans, the rejection and re-homing of adopted children by their only legal families. Many (70% at least) of the kids were adopted internationally. Some of them were in their new ‘forever families’ for mere months when the adoptive family gave up. Online the parents found sympathy for the hard spot they were in, trying to integrate a child with difficult and/or dangerous behaviors into their families–and some of them found strangers who were willing to take the child.

-The adoptive parents of an Ethiopian-born child were convicted of causing her death in May 2011. Hana had been in Larry and Carri Williams’ home in rural Washington state for almost 18 months when she died. The adoptive parents’ defense was simple: Our parenting practices, which directly led to this little girl’s death, worked fine on our other kids. We’re sad she died, but we thought she was being defiant yet again.

What’s the common thread here? Families adopt older children who have been traumatized and need highly skilled parenting to thrive. Some fail to cope with the predictable challenges, and the kids pay the price. So why is this happening now?

One influence is the gospel of adoption. This topic was explored by Kathryn Joyce in her meticulously researched book, ‘The Child Catchers’, about the movement for adoption among evangelicals. I will now reductively butcher her outstanding work by summarizing: For reasons that they believe in, deeply, Christian couples in this country are stretching themselves financially and emotionally to make a place in their homes (and pews) for children in orphanages.

It’s hard to be critical of the impulse to do something, anything, for orphans who are some of the poorest people in the poorest countries. (If you think of family as a form of capital that often keeps the poorest US residents in the communities where they have ties–because money makes you need family less, and no money makes you need help from somewhere–orphaned children in developing countries are beyond poor.)

But moving a handful of children out of an orphanage doesn’t seem to work, except for those children. Orphanages are the problem. They never close. Because if all 43 kids at the worst  children’s home in Phnom Penh were adopted by foreigners tomorrow, 50 more kids would replace them in hopes of getting the same outcome.

But the only justification for supporting orphanages, instead of a family-based child welfare model–that a lucky few will benefit–is directly attacked by these stories. And that’s a good thing. The whole picture, including the children who are clearly NOT better off in an adoptive home in the US, calls into question why a failed strategy to help kids who need parents (orphanage care) is in use anywhere on earth.

Another reason the abuse and neglect of ‘saved’ orphans is a trend is that international adoption is poorly regulated. We’ve spent $7 billion (US dollars, folks) in tax breaks since 1997 to encourage adoption. Many families spend more than they can deduct. Adoption has been a billion-dollar industry in the US over the past 2o years, and has been allowed to regulate itself.

Not surprisingly, adoption agencies don’t push for child welfare reforms that would eliminate the need for adoption. Tax breaks for adoptive parents have been their notable accomplishment. Substantive preparation, to help prospective adoptive parents make well-founded choices about which children they are able to commit to parenting, is not a priority. Nor are post-adoption services in the form of a national database tracking children adopted from abroad and checking on the adjustment of the family, referring them as needed for help to keep the promise they made to the child.

The assumption is that people who choose to become parents in a way that is socially constructed (as opposed to accidental) and expensive are going to do a good job. After all, they had to want this, right? Yes, but they may not have understood what might occur after adoption. Critically, they may not have the strengths (flexible parenting styles rather than rigid ideas about how families look, feel and act) that seem to support happy endings for older child adoptions.

Ultimately, what’s driving the unprepared to do the unthinkable is irrelevant–what matters is that our policies encourage adoption, and we’re allowing US families to ‘save orphans’ without providing adequate prep or post-adoption oversight. That has to change. Perhaps the legacy of Hana’s short life and awful death can be an assessment of where we’ve gone wrong in promoting adoption as a solution for children who need families.

My angle is: I’m an adoptive parent who critiques international adoption by noting that it is not, and cannot be, a development program to help the global poor; it is not a blessed way to make more believers; it is not G-d’s way of making me a parent. It’s a lot more complicated than any of those things. The ethical implications of unneeded adoption, and what it feels like to find out that your child was not really an orphan, are covered in my book, ‘Third Time Charmed’, now available on Amazon.

Leave a Reply