It’s all perfectly legal

And that’s the problem. My government protects me from buying a cell phone made by child labor, but stamped its approval on my adoption of a child who was nobody’s idea of an orphan.

David Smolin’s draft article on the special role of the US in inter-country adoption is brutal, thorough and exhausting. He explains the double-edged sword that hangs over placing countries: Americans’ unique approach to adoption law and policy can provide opportunities for nations with stressed, inadequate child welfare systems to get needy orphans into homes.

On the other hand, the rules that implement the international laws governing adoption (the Hague convention) were shaped by US adoption agencies. Predictably, those rules legalized child buying, by exempting adoption agencies from liability no matter what their agents in other countries do. The regulation of payments legalized huge fees, sums that are based on what US lawyers and private adoption social workers can get away with, not on the salaries (ha!) paid to child welfare workers in placing countries.

These rules warp the incentives for agencies and their in-country staff, in countries that are leaders in corrupt government practices* as well as sending children abroad for adoption. The rules lead to a pattern of slash-and-burn adoption booms, moving around the globe in flight from US state department investigations and placing countries’ shutdowns.

That’s how it is. How could it be? One thread I want to pull at is an idea from Desiree Smolin: Treating incidents of trafficking as plane crashes. What if each discovery of a long-ago-adopted “orphan” as a victim of child trafficking led to an extensive investigation into the systemic failures that allowed it? What if, instead of sending families that have found their children were procured through theft or payment to see a therapist, the adoption agency sent them to a federal prosecutor?

One obvious advantage, from my seat, to treating child laundering as a crime: That reform would shift the responsibilities in adoption to governments and adoption agencies. The system we have now places the work of identifying unethical sourcing of children, and choosing a form of reparation or remediation for any wrongdoing, on parents–birth and adoptive. When adoptions go well, in the sense that the child and parent(s) develop a loving attachment in which telling each other what we know is a priority, the problem is shared with the adoptee. There are families in which this problem is never spoken aloud; I hear from parents who can’t cope with facing what happened to them, and are furious with me for speaking of it, weekly.

The system is working as designed. Agencies and their partners in placing countries are helping a handful of children to loving homes, at great expense, and all of the legal and ethical complications are the personal problems of the families that participated.

This thing happened to us: our daughter’s first family was told…whatever they were told…to release her for adoption; we were told she needed a family; she has to live with knowing that she was treated as a product, and both her families were the suckers who naively made the transaction possible.

What if this were the story of a crime, not the unfortunate personal history of one family?

*Yeah, I know, your adoption was perfectly clean, and how dare anyone insult the sovereign state of ____________ by implying that there is a coherence between the lists of placing countries and the bottom 25 nations for government honesty, as reported by the folks who live there.

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