Adoption, the loving option

Today I saw yet one more article in which hopeful adoptive parents describe the lengths they’re going to Find Their Baby. This time it’s not billboards, it’s bumper stickers and a Facebook page. This couple wanted to be featured in an article on the dangers of internet adoptions, and hope that someone will respond to their ad campaign with the baby they dream of.

Let me restate what they’re saying from another angle: “We hope that a woman who does not want to have a baby right now will first become pregnant when she doesn’t want to be. Then it is our dream that she will delay decision-making about that pregnancy until the risks of carrying that pregnancy to term, and delivering a child she doesn’t intend to raise, are unavoidable; and that finally, she will conclude that her baby should be raised by strangers with money.”

It’s complicated and all that, but it’s not all that complicated. If you’re advertising for your child, your plan’s success relies on an unwanted pregnancy and a woman you’ve never met risking her life (pregnancy is dangerous, physically and psychically) to bring her baby into the world, only to turn around and hand you that child.

So where did Amber and Dan, or lots of other couples like them, get the idea that this was an acceptable thing to ask of another human being? From the pro-life movement. They think adoption is an alternative to contraception, emergency contraception and abortion.

Two weeks ago I got to chat with a volunteer who was willing to spend her day at the polls, making sure that no “pro-life” vote went uncounted. I was volunteering for an organization that advocates for women and their doctors making the tough calls about difficult pregnancies, instead of having the neighbors vote to limit what doctors can offer.

When Linda asked me some questions about myself and learned that I’m a parent through adoption, she got really quiet. A number of voters came and went. Finally she asked me what she really wanted to know: What if your daughter had been aborted? Wouldn’t that bother you, that you wouldn’t have her?

I told her the truth: Yes, I’d be sad if I had some other child instead of this one, because the child I’m raising has been the impetus for, and the source of, quite a bit of growth for me.* But what was in it for her, to be born in desperate straits, handed off to strangers who scared her, and taken around the world? What was in it for her first mother, who was almost certainly never offered a reliable way to avoid having this child who she couldn’t raise? What if, instead of bearing and sacrificing my child, her other mother had been able to plan her conceptions and only bear the children she could afford?

I like to think that my kid got lucky: Given that she was removed from her home and village for adoption, there were far less thoughtful people in line to take her away from all that– without ever questioning any aspect of how adoption served her. But setting up adoption as “the loving option”, the win-win outcome for unwanted pregnancy, makes the bumper stickers inevitable.

*For more on this idea, Andrew Solomon’s book ‘Far From the Tree’ features a number of parents struggling with the hard truth that my kid’s trauma has made me a different person, and probably a better one–but was all downside for her.

125 pages later, I’m exhausted

Comments to come on David Smolin’s thorough article explaining the recent history of international adoption.

Bumper sticker: Yep, we’re exceptional and that is both the problem and the solution.

…And then what?

Something that an early reader of my book asked me recently: And then what? After the end of the narrative that wraps up in the waiting lounge for the homebound flight…what’s next?

What’s next is we all learned to live with ‘it’, and made our own assessment of what ‘it’ is and what ‘it’ means for who we are. (Wait for Ivy’s book to get her views.)

More personally, what was next for me was the airport in Seoul teaching me a lesson.

I’d never been in Korea before. I had friends in childhood (1970s) who were Korean adoptees, one friend whose mom was a KAD. My child has friends who are also KADs. Because you don’t know what you don’t know, I associated 60 years of adoption outplacement from Korea with problems in Korea. I had always believed that Korea was this small country struggling with the aftereffects of a devastating war and division, a nation that had never quite gotten to its feet fully.

In defense of this assumption, I’d like to point to 60 years of Korea sending its social orphans, children born to unmarried mothers, away and out of sight. Must be an under-resourced place if it’s not possible to find local adoptive families for these healthy babies. I just assumed that a prosperous stable democracy wouldn’t settle for a child welfare system that…backward, in the sense of unsuitable to the emotional and developmental needs of children.

My first hint that I was just plain wrong was in the approach to Seoul. The planeload of tourists began filling out duty-free forms, and I began to wonder whether some of the passengers on this Sunday night return had gone to Cambodia for the weekend on a lark, like I might fly to Miami if I had the cash.

We disembarked and began to stumble through the biggest airport I’d ever seen. But first we had to thread our way through the other passengers, all of whom were picking up what appeared to be hundreds of USD worth of merchandise. On no other return flight from Asia had I seen anything resembling this display of disposable income.

Then we couldn’t believe the price of the sleeping room. By ‘we’ I mean ‘me’, and by ‘couldn’t believe’ I mean ‘disputed the reality of’. Nine surreal hours of searching for sanitary supplies began after I got my family settled. I wandered fruitlessly inside a building larger than my home town, but better equipped to survive a global shortage of Hermes scarves. I asked at several pharmacies, drugstores, groceries, and the only replies I received were embarrassed shrugs and pointing to the other end of the terminal.

At some point during this quest, staggering once more beneath the 3 meter high perfume ads featuring Brad Pitt, arguably the most famous adoptive father on Earth, I had a flash of insight. A man traveling alone could survive indefinitely inside the Seoul airport, which is set up for his benefit and convenience. But unless you are willing to use a Coach purse as a maxi-pad, the basic needs of women are disregarded, simply ignored.

This was not simply a metaphor: Korea is a wealthy country that could well afford to create a child welfare system which would serve as an example to the rest of the world. But Korea apparently doesn’t want to.*

This raised the question, What else do I know that ain’t so? What other assumptions have misled me? Is it more likely that I was this mistaken only about the reality of Korea today, or that I’ve used stereotypes and short cuts to seriously misunderstand what adoption is, as seen from the other end of the transaction?

So that was (literally and figuratively) the next development: Before we were even home, I’d begun to question the fundamental building blocks of what I really understood about where my child had come from, despite knowing at that moment more than I had known for 13 years.

What was next was writing a book about the answers to those questions.


*This is a moving target; in the past year there have been some changes in Korean policy toward single moms and social orphans that seem hopeful. For more than I know, try Margie Perscheid’s blog:

‘Girl, Adopted’ is a must-see

But if you’re strapped for time, there is a detailed review of this documentary at

One small thing, that I think may be a big thing, is buried deep in Dr. Kimberly McKee’s essay: This notion that the titular girl’s adoption from an orphanage in Ethiopia was preceded by a bunch of stories about how great adoption is going to be. Stories told in the orphanage, to lead children to accept adoptive families as their only hope.

Bluntly, I haven’t visited a developing nation that sends children to the US for adoption (Guatemala, Haiti, Cambodia, Viet Nam) in which that story isn’t broadly integrated into the culture. It’s not necessarily true that adoption is a great solution to save orphans and take them to America, the land of the free–but if enough people know something, it doesn’t matter whether it’s true.

This matters because the assertion that orphanages and foreign adoption agencies are pushing this narrative on children takes all the agency from their home cultures–from which immigration to the US is a daily occurrence, and often considered a lucky break.

There are complex ethical problems in planning for the futures of children in orphanages around the world. Some of them are even problems that weren’t created by the pull factors of the international adoption business. Denying that doesn’t fix it, but does strip adoption from its context as a form of immigration.

It’s complicated, and the film shows that wonderfully.

Dear Matt & Melanie…

Oh, how I feel your pain.

Not the pain you’re feeling now, the troubling, nagging feeling that’s bothering you each time little Veronica asks when she’s going home.

That’s pain I’ll never know, because I haven’t been there. But I have been to a place you’re going: My daughter is almost fourteen.

I’ve been across the table from my only child–the person I love most in the world, someone who I would kill or die for, in a way I couldn’t have imagined before I adopted her–as she realized that she had another family out there somewhere.

At each stage of development, I’ve been with my daughter as she manages to accept what she lost and somehow go on.

The day she was four, when she first understood that she wasn’t ever going to be reunited with that other family, and she was too sad to eat, nap, even swim. I watched her sleep that night, afraid she might be too sad to breathe.

The day she turned 7, when she asked if it was true she would never, ever be able to know that they were okay. Or their names. Or whether she has a sister somewhere.

The day when she was 12, growing into womanhood, and a coach asked her how tall she was going to get. She looked helplessly at me before mumbling, ‘I don’t really know.’

At least I know that it’s not about me, that it happened to her before I was in the picture, that there is nothing I could have done to prevent my child from having to live with this loss.

I get to be with her, on her side, by her side, as she finds a way to manage. To figure out who she is and who’s in her family, what it means to live a different life than the one she was born to.

It’s my privilege and my burden to stand by my daughter as she assembles the puzzle of what happened to her.

The pain you will live through, that you will find a way to live with, as you come to realize that your daughter has survived a terrible trauma–that pain I know. It’s going to leave a mark on you, a scar that won’t fade.

I can promise that when your baby grows up, and the teenager you love expresses how it feels to be her, you will be changed by the realization that someone did an awful thing to your child, whom you love in a way you wouldn’t have thought possible.

I don’t know how it will feel to be that someone, to have had the power to affect the outcome.

I’d expect it’s going to trouble you for the rest of your lives.

Or so I fervently hope.

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.

‘Baby Sellers’ on Lifetime

…Television for women who don’t have enough to worry about.

So this movie (sadly) reflects some awful scenarios: Single mothers being coerced and deceived by profiteers who want to sell their newborns. Toddlers in grinding poverty whose newborn siblings are sold or kidnapped for adoption. Orphanages that use older children, raised in unconscionable conditions, as the justification for large cash donations from adoptive parents.

These things are real, and they happen every day.

But the American face of this profiteering isn’t represented as accurately. Kirstie Alley makes the best of this script; she’s credible as the cackling adoptive mom who withholds snacks from her 14 year old (nice touch!) between jetting around the world to buy newborns she plans to sell through her adoption agency.

What’s commonly true about the agency directors I’ve met and interviewed, though, is that they are not evil. They aren’t paper-doll ‘bad guys’. They are flawed people who think that they’re helping kids.

The real baby sellers are complicated people. They often start out with the best intentions. But soon they learn that adoption as we know it relies on a predictable supply of children who can be placed for profit. They may begin by cutting corners, unsure about the consent or custody release, but hey, the kid’s better off in the US than he would have been otherwise, right?

They tell themselves it’s just paperwork. What can it hurt to make up a new identity for a child whose parents can’t raise her? They tell themselves that paying parents for kids who were evidently for sale–because hey, we have the receipt right here–is saving the child from a sale to a procurer or trafficker, later.

But if I can’t be sure about my child’s identity, I can’t be sure that nothing worse that child laundering happened to her. And taking children away from their families and communities by purchasing them isn’t saving them There’s a word for that: Child trafficking.

It’s wrong but it’s not illegal…yet.


“That’s not your story!” Adoptive parents can’t tell on ourselves alone.

Some of the specifics in the book touch on sensitive facts about my child’s history. There are three issues here:

  • How does the child understand what’s described in the book?
  • Did the child agree or decide to participate? and
  • What are the practical consequences to the child?

1) There’s nothing in this book that she wasn’t going to know someday. I started with a journal, before we ever knew where Cambodia was. We recorded some of our conversations during the process and made thorough notes about what we learned, from whom and when. I guess that’s not typical, but we wanted her to have firsthand sources about what the heck we were thinking at the time. (“Should history majors and public policy majors be allowed to have kids together?” Show your work.) She has a copy, and she’ll read it when she’s ready.

2) I didn’t get Ivy’s assent to tell the story about what her parents did at the time of her adoption, or since then. I don’t think children can provide meaningful consent to their parents, or anyone else, for anything. We made fun of the parents who asked their kindergartener which school he wanted to attend, because that’s ridiculous. And asking your 12 year old whether she agrees to a public, detailed account of her parents’ past actions seems equally invalid to me.

There are adoptive parents who assert that adopted children 18 and older can agree to have the parents tell their stories, and maybe they’re right. I don’t have any experience being the parent of an adult, so they know more than I do. However, from where we are now, my kid can’t think about the consequences over the coming decades for her because her capacity to consent has not developed. So seeking her agreement wasn’t on my list of concerns.

3) Privacy and security: I have deep reservations about parents using media that is tied to their kids–Facebook or the NY Times blog–to educate other parents about issues. I’ve covered up my identity, and thereby my child’s identity, to prevent this publication from being tied to her future. It was also vital to protect her previous caretakers and family from consequences, although nothing was said that reflects badly on them from my view.

Everyone described in the book is referred to with details that point away from them, because the families who I talked with over a decade didn’t agree to be featured or get a chance to correct any mistakes in my recall. In that regard, my child is simply the first and most important on a list of folks whose privacy and security deserve respect.

Is there a way for adoptive parents to talk about what we did in the process of adopting without revealing anything about the adoptee and first family? I don’t think so, not without becoming academic or investigative reporting. Kathryn Joyce’s excellent investigative work, The Child Catchers, is that book. I hope that my book, told from the inside as it happened, can be a supplement to that kind of investigated and reported volume. But it’s a personal story, with the people in it disguised as best I could.

Critiques I didn’t expect: #1

I knew that I could expect criticism for publishing the book (upcoming posts on That’s not yours to tell! and You’re generalizing, so everything you say is invalidated… will be available as soon as they’ve been cleaned up). I didn’t expect to be criticized by other adoptive parents for getting out of my lane.

Let me say more about that: I’ve heard from 3 other parents that it was wrong to do what’s described in the book. That our children will remain adoptees all their lives, and as they become adults have the right to make their own choices about when, whether and how to search. Therefore adoptive parents should simply accept at face value whatever the adoptee says s/he wants.

I’m sure that adults raised in closed adoptions have diverse opinions on what their a-parents ought to have done, and some of those folks probably do feel strongly that search is always the adoptee’s prerogative. Agreed.

But what are the obligations of adoptive parents who have been notified later that their adopted child’s history might be retrievable? That it’s not completely impossible, only highly unlikely? The difference between ‘we don’t know’ and ‘we didn’t look under every rock’ is a profound one, I think. (Obviously.)

So I did what was in front of me, and don’t regret it. Did this journey add complications to our family life? Apparently. But those complications were there all along, they were just hidden from the adoptee and her parents.

First reviews are in…

…and they are probably accurate.

You’ll be surprised, if you’re one of the dozen people who loves the book, to hear that some folks found it:

  • Too tough on adoptive parents, who set out to do something good. The point is that I set out to do good, and ended up in a swamp full of ambiguities. What we do is not only our intent, but also the results of our actions. I hope that raising my daughter will be the best thing I ever did. I also hope that my participation in a system of adoption that turned out to be fraught with ethical issues is the most questionable.
  • Full of jokes about serious topics. Guilty as charged. The book documents what I thought and did during a difficult time of my life. Some of the hard stuff is only palatable when it’s also funny. I worked to avoid ‘punching down’ at the people who had fewer choices than I did; I would never want to make fun of the losses in adoption that adoptees and first families experience. Adoptive parents and adoption agencies, it’s all in fun. Except that it’s funny because it’s true.
  • Harsh and judgmental. Yep. I did some stupid, self-centered and thoughtless things in the process of bringing my child into our family, and the book reveals what I was thinking at the time. Some of which sounds pretty bad. A lot of this material reflects badly on me. If you’re a parent through adoption and feel bad about something you did after reading it, I’m sorry. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Finally, if you were offended by the foul language, please note that this is the ‘after’ picture. My editor has to bear the psychic burdens from cleaning up the cursing to the point that it’s appropriate for all ages over 13. As far as the bad words, anyhow.