What Adoption and Snakes Have in Common | Adoption Voices Magazine

What Adoption and Snakes Have in Common | Adoption Voices Magazine

Notes from a Pentecostal pastor and adoptee on the Biblical call to adoption. Now this is harsh, strongly worded and full of verse/chapter cites.

We didn’t write the Bible, and we don’t get to twist it to suit our own needs.
We can believe something in our heart but unless it agrees with the Word, it’s not truth.
Truth is what’s written in the pages of scripture, not what’s written upon our hearts even when we are convinced that God spoke to us personally and told us this or that.

Yes, I know the spirit of the law is just as important as the letter of the law.
But in this case, the spirit doesn’t match up with the letter because the letter is absent.
Adoption in the way it happens in our world today is not specifically found in the Bible.

 Only spiritual adoption is found in scripture.

Well, I can’t argue with that. Because Scripture isn’t my territory. But worth thinking about.

Erasing the past, to ‘improve’ the future

My parents taught me to clean my room before I went out to play. To do the homework before TV. To save my paychecks until I could afford to buy the albums I wanted. Deferred gratification was drilled into me from my earliest memories. So when I read that once again American families are going to be free to adopt Cambodian children, my first thought was: What about the mess we already made?

During the adoption boom of 1997-2002, over 1200 US families adopted about 1800 Cambodian children. After the adoptions took place in Cambodia, the children were processed for immigration under an orphan visa.

In Cambodia, adoptions were approved by several government ministries. To complete an adoption, the parents-to-be had to provide a dossier of information about themselves. The decrees also relied on sworn statements from orphanage employees, describing and transferring custody of the child.

These documents were used again, by the staff of the US government, to confirm that the children were orphans as described in immigration statutes. Our laws are designed to exclude adoption as a solution for intact but impoverished families. But children who are anonymously abandoned are orphaned, and therefore eligible for immigration and citizenship after adoption.

A large percentage of these adoptees had their identities erased, and that may not be the worst abuse that occurred.

The data to support this outrageous claim is hidden in plain sight, in a search warrant. In 2003, an investigator for the INS inspected the records kept at the US Embassy in Phnom Penh. He testified that none of the visa applications listed a Cambodian relative for the child. Zero. Oddly, these forms were all the same: ‘No relatives’. Over 1800 people, some of them now adults, the youngest entering their teens, were made US citizens, and members of American families, on paperwork that was identically incomplete. All of these children were somehow extracted from families that had no one available to sign off on the transfer, then processed for adoption.

It is unknown what forms of coercion or bribery may have preceded custody transfers, because there was no one to verify an informed consent. Not one of these adoptees’ files has any thread to tug, in the event that s/he desires to learn about his first family.

These threads were tangled, then cut, in a deliberate and repeated process that made the visa procurement a sure thing for the customers, adoptive parents. Some who were looking to adopt back then came to Cambodia in the first place because they could be sure. Sure that after the expense, a child would indeed be forthcoming. Sure that the adoption could be completed long distance by facilitators. Sure that a short visit in country would be sufficient to complete the paperwork. It was a predictable process with a certain outcome. The adoption agencies bragged in their marketing materials that all the children they placed were orphans, properly certified for US immigration.

For some adoptive families, erasing the child’s history is a feature, not a regrettable bug. One adoptive mom, who wanted me to tell her how I’d found my child’s roots in Cambodia, explained this concisely. Right before hanging up on me, this mother said that she had wanted a child that she could be sure was hers to keep. Her 7th grader’s persistent questions about his birth family prompted her to connect with me recently, but changed nothing about her understanding of the deal we all made. In her words, “We knew that he wouldn’t have anywhere to look. The agency told me that in the first meeting.” Her view is that we, the parents, made a deal with the Cambodians and Americans who were making their living finding homes for orphans, and we can’t ask for more now.

Here’s the problem: I can’t waive my child’s right to her identity. It isn’t mine to give away, or give up on. My 13 year old, who rolls her eyes when I say that, thinks it’s not important. She may be right, and it may never be important to her, but she’s not old enough to make that choice. More to the point, she’s in a privileged minority among the Khmer kids she knows: I did what it took to put that choice in her hands, and it was harrowing.

I have no idea what it would take to accomplish the same miracle in Ethiopia, where today six families will obtain visas for their new children. An increasing percentage of ‘orphans’ are presenting to the Embassy as ‘abandoned’ there. Is it likely that this trend isn’t being influenced by the requirements of US law?

How do you feel about creating more paper orphans, erasing the pasts of more deprived children in destitute countries, toward the goal of putting them in loving homes? I dispute the premise. If it’s the law that only children who have been laundered can be adopted, we can change the law. We can change the incentives for child laundering. We can be sure about the right thing, certain that we’re really giving a good home to a child who doesn’t have a shot in life.

But to be certain about what matters, we have to start from the truth. And the truth is, criminal and unethical acts are committed every day in international adoption to accomplish righteous ends. Our kids deserve better.

what we talk about when we talk about trafficking

So one of life’s little autocompletes is, Cambodia trafficking and the results are all scary. Horrifying, even.

They’re all about young people being tricked into cooperation for long enough that they can be transported into the custody of slavers, pimps and masters. Some are trafficked to brothels and some to fishing boats on the Gulf Of Thailand, some never cross a national border but are forced into victimization near home.

What’s hard to parse is the leap from trafficking to adoption–Nick Kristof’s persistent attempts to draw attention to slavery in Cambodia suck in the viewers because he leads with sexual slavery, and the replies from the public always include at least one ‘but what about the babies’ objection. He gets push-back for centering his work on children who are being raped for profit, because of the connection to children being sold into family relationships.

What is that connection? It’s not legal, because buying or selling a child for adoption is not trafficking; it’s abduction (of the child) and coercion plus fraud (against the placing family). It’s not utilitarian; the distinction between selling a child to a baby buyer who persuades you that good things are in your future and hers, and selling your child to a pimp to settle a debt, is not a subtle one. Adoption treats the child as a member of the family, trafficking treats the child as an asset of the family.

One critical distinction is about subject vs object: Victims of trafficking for forced labor are typically misled, offered a sack of magic beans, and collaborate with those who are giving them a financial opportunity, who turn out to be kidnappers. (And the beanstalk turns out to be just a beanstalk.)But they are participants in a transaction, not solely the item being traded.

While there are many teens in bondage to release their families from debt, they often cooperate, as they have been raised in a culture that taught them this method of asset transfer is a legitimate one–hence the runaways from the safe houses, nice men from the NY Times can’t buy mental freedom, or reintegration into the community of origin. Some of these parents no doubt believed the smooth-talking recruiter who told them that their daughter was going to be the nanny for a rich family in another country. They too are victims as well as participants.

Victims who are sold for adoption are the objects of the scheme, and those who sell them are secondary victims. They’re assured through proofs and promises that the separation isn’t permanent, that contact and reunion are in their future. And of course, that some material goods will be provided; many times just the lowering of the family’s costs.

1 of these things is not like the others

If adoption had not been available, we would have homemade the child we wanted.

If the agency that did our home study had been a bit more subtle about the financial incapacity of the ‘birth mother’ they tried to hook us up to, we might have adopted that baby instead. Healthy, melanin-graced week-old girl, who was going to exceed her mama’s back seat’s carrying capacity.

My lovely wife, who was in fact not even born in the dark but at 9:17am thankyouverymuch, responded to this suggestion with a puzzled look: Wait now, they’re saying that in their social services family-preservation function, the solution they’ve offered a 29 year old mother of two school aged children with a new baby is…someone else raising the new baby?

Huh. And this I’m to explain to my now-daughter, how? Because you know the child is going to ask. And we’re going to say that your first mama couldn’t afford a minivan. And the next question, Why didn’t you buy her one? we get to bungle in real time because Tammi the social worker is going to be long gone by then. Nah, I don’t think so.

Like Auntie Jean always says, If all of your problems can be solved for five thousand dollars, your problems may be urgent but they are not serious.

So, not only did we preferentially choose adoption, but we searched far and wide for the baby whose first family was facing problems that we could not actually have solved with $5000.

And Jesus didn’t tell us to do this in His holy name, either: the only other adoptive parents we’ve found who could have homemade their children but chose not to, were receiving broadcasts on the G-d channel. Telling them that the Lord wants good Christians like themselves to save children. Or in a more sophisticated formulation, that the Lord had a special plan for their child, a plan that will show itself in time.

If I could meet one more happily married set of freaks like us, who didn’t suffer infertility and share in the losses of the adoption triad, but instead insisted on being drawn into a series of crimes and misdemeanors across national borders, I would pay a hundred dollars to interview them.

Because I think the oversimplified, dumbed-down story, angled from the point of view of the couple whose dreamed-of baby never appeared, and as a result they had to settle for adoption, has been cast as ‘the adoption experience’: You thought you were going to have a baby, that didn’t happen, it was painful, and then adoption turned out not to be simple or easy or really even fix that.

I was told that adoption was fixing something for my child and her family that was broken at a deeper level, and that the fees we paid were going to help other families stay together. Not that I was going to feel healed.

you can’t con an honest man

To say that I was horrified to learn that the post-placement reports were used to recruit babies for adoption really doesn’t cover it. I was sick. When I read the presentation given to law students in 2005, by the INS officer who investigated fraud in Cambodian adoptions, my hands were numb and my vision got blurry.

This occurred on the flight from Frankfurt to Bangkok, on my third trip to Cambodia.

The sub-conscious mind is the most powerful force in the universe. I couldn’t handle that information until I knew I was on the way to make one last try at finding my child’s origins, so I “found” a copy of the transcript online and loaded it into my reader for the plane. To keep busy. And busy I was, between keeping the blankets tucked around the child so she could sleep, running down the aisle of the plane to throw up, and doing controlled breathing exercises in my seat.

Post-placement reports, generated by the adoptive families, were required as a condition of any adoption abroad of a Cambodian child. We were told by the agent who handled the adoption that we should send these reports, with photos of our child proving what a great life she has in America, to him at the orphanage–as well as to the government ministries. For his records, so that he could maintain files.

We did more than that, though; when I visited Cambodia in 2006 I left a binder with extensive information about my family, and dozens of photos, with his office. By that time I knew that he had no intention of keeping files on anything, but hoped that the birth family might inquire and wanted there to be something they could leave with.

Here’s what I learned from the INS investigation: The pictures provided in those reports were used to create recruiting posters, which were handed out in provincial villages. These posters have pictures of Cambodian children swimming in Pull-ups in a Tucson pool, or climbing the redwood play structure in front of an Atlanta elementary school, or accepting the tiny flag at the naturalization ceremony in Seattle. Below the pictures, which are certainly worth far more than one thousand words, they describe the lifelong support and future immigration preferences that the adoptive families of these children produce.

Our family pictures were used to deceive families into releasing their children for adoption. We freely gave the supporting materials that made some too-good-to-be-true promises, about the future advantages of making a deal today for the custody of your child, seem true.

We were told that the future of adoptions from Cambodia–not our own families, but the prospect of happy lives for the children we saw left behind at the orphanage–was reliant on us staying in touch with the place our kids came from. To show our good faith, our commitment to Cambodia once we had our babies, to prove that their adoptions had led to good for the children, counteract rumors that the kids might be abused or misused after placement. We passed sample reports around online, suggested formats to make them easy to read, and reminded each other about cultural vagaries like avoiding photos with 3 people in them.

So we were deceived into helping to deceive Cambodian families. They say you can’t con an honest man, and it may be true–the placing families who believed the literally incredible had some reason, beyond the inducements, to buy that story, or there wouldn’t be a 12 year old left in Kampong Cham.

The adoptive families conned ourselves into believing that there was such a thing as a society in which healthy babies were being abandoned on the path running through the woods, and no one in the village could say exactly where those babies had come from. Everybody got what they bargained for.

The third time was the charm. I never forgot and never gave up. So now I know: My child was freely relinquished by a family that made tough choices in a difficult situation. They’re apparently delighted by our stubbornness in seeking them out, long enough after the fact that it’s not as delicate a difficult situation as it once was.

But my smarter mind, as we call it at home school, the 90% of my mental capacity I don’t consciously control–the part of the iceberg that sinks ships, below the water line–knows better than to file the FOIA request to open that evidence locker. I don’t really need to see the various posters that were collected during the investigation.

If there is a picture of my baby pushing her wagon across the hard-fought patch of grass we seeded so that our family would have a lawn, or the one where she’s braided and neatly dressed for the first day of preschool, or the one showing her swinging the Dora backpack while my mom helps her launch a kite on my dad’s birthday–I don’t think I want to know that.

imaginary PPT for a workshop that will never happen

So we’re here today because some of you have expressed concern about the illegal and unethical trafficking of your children.

The most frequently expressed concern has been, How do I tell my child that _________(insert unsavory or horrifying fact about the signs of trafficking in child’s history here)? The manner in which this has been expressed is more often, How can I keep my child from finding out that __________?, but we’re coming back to that.

So for the moment let’s assume a couple of things:

  • Nobody here thinks that they participated in an adoption process that was completely legal and above-board in every way, in a system that recognized and respected the rights of children and their first parents. If you think you did that, the workshop you’re registered for is down the hall, look for the sign on the door that says ‘Fantasyland Adoptions’. Nothing we’re going to discuss today is likely to interest you.
  • When you made the decision to adopt your child, there were certain known unknowns. For example, maybe you reluctantly accepted that your child was not going to be able to find out much about her bio relatives. Or maybe you literally searched the world for a location that would let you adopt a child whose birth parents would not be able to reverse your adoption of their child. Regardless, that was a known unknown. The unknown unknowns are more relevant to our situation today. For example, Facebook. When we adopted, social networking becoming ubiquitous in developing countries was unknown and not listed as a possible thing that could happen. Another unknown unknown was cheap, reliable DNA testing.
  • Your intent in adopting was to give a good home to a child who needed a family. At some point in the last decade, you’ve encountered someone who questioned your motives (and perhaps your ethics) in adopting your child, which you’ve thought over with the gravity it deserves and told that busybody to go…okay, you’ve concluded that what you set out to do, and believed you were doing, was a good thing.

We’re agreeing on these unifying assumptions because it will save us a lot of recriminations and horizontal violence–attacks on each other, which are more easily carried out than attacks on the people who wronged our kids and some of us–to start from goodwill about each other.

If you can’t agree that the Other People in here, the ones who adopted for the Wrong Reasons (because Jesus told them to in a dream, because their pastor suggested that they rescue a poor child, because they wanted to save a baby girl from a society in which women are chattel, because their first crush was the exchange student from ________, because they think people of their child’s ethnicity are smarter, better looking or more grateful than people of more common colors found in a ghetto near their home…) had reasons to adopt, you’re not going to have a lot to contribute to this conversation.

If you can’t agree that someone wronged your child, and probably defrauded you, by erasing your child’s identity for profit…this is also not the workshop for you. The fact that you understood from the jump that your child came with the Anonymously Left in Basket feature, whether this was desirable or repugnant to you, does not have any bearing on the violation. You can’t waive your child’s right to her identity, any more than you can waive her Cambodian citizenship. It’s not yours to give away, because it’s a fact about her life that predates your existence in it.

If you knew that you were giving money to someone who was going to spread it around to encourage official acceptance of documents you knew were false, that may be a bit more grey area in terms of your role in the crime as opposed to being a victim of fraud. However, to the extent that you paid an agency and your own government fees that were designated to fund an investigation of your child’s background, and that wasn’t ever done by anyone…that’s misrepresentation, but as I understand it most of you signed a contract that voids your right to address that.

Let’s start with the sentence I’ve heard more than I could have imagined in the last months, as I talk to other parents who adopted the same way we did: How can we keep our kids from finding out that there were arrests and prosecutions for criminal activity related to their adoptions? Short answer: We can’t. This happened and they’re going to find out about it. They’re going to be free to read the report from the ICE investigator, and the depositions, and the victim impact statements from the kids who recall the details of being sold for adoption. This is not remotely something anyone can keep her child from learning.

The real question is, How can we talk to our kids about this difficult information about their lives, in a way that takes appropriate responsibility for what we knew at the time while allowing them to develop their own perspectives on what happened to them?

This is not an area that we can look to others to fix for us. We have a unique opportunity, as parents of children whose sending country was used as the test case for prosecuting illegal acts in international adoption. We don’t have an obligation to other families waiting to adopt, requiring us to keep quiet; we do have enough data that indicates our kids were subjected to a human rights violation to safely conclude that our obligations are to our own kids. We don’t have any reason to think that discussing these violations will lead to reprisals against the perpetrators; one has been prosecuted for tax offenses and the rest aren’t subject to US law.

I only have one child. Recently she told me that she’s thankful to have adoptive parents who understand that even though she’s American now, she’s always going to be Cambodian too. This came up around our recent homeland trip and some questions she’s had from peers about her racial makeup. I hope that ‘always Cambodian, always our kids’ can be our expectations as we work to understand, assemble and reveal what’s known and unknown about our kids’ origins. I know that for our family, knowing the answer to the question Was this child trafficked? has made it easier to discuss the more present concerns about what Cambodian is, and whether it’s a thing to be proud of.

why am I writing about this? because I defrauded myself

Let me say a bit more about that, because it’s kind of important. The story about how the Cambodia adoption bobsled jumped off the track has not been heard yet, in part because the independent adoption “community” can meet in a Honda Civic…although we can’t seem to agree on a parking place.

While the agency adoption community could meet in a high school gym, they’re still afraid to talk to each other, let alone outsiders. First the agency told them that they had agreed to a gag clause; then their own government told them that they might or might not ever get a visa for the child(ren) they had already adopted. Many feel that they can’t discuss what they did. Or they have a lot of reasons to be terribly afraid, beyond the human desire to avoid embarrassment (which I seem to have been born with a deficit of…is that a thing, ‘shame deficiency disorder’?)

There is a lot of money in adoption, and in international adoption there is a lot of money plus no required transparency–the agencies use contractors in the sending countries. This lowers the bar for what’s permitted in the sourcing of children for adoption, of course, to whatever is tacitly accepted practice in the worst human-rights abusing nations we have. No way THAT ends up with anything going sideways.

So the gag clauses were designed to prevent the adoptive parents from putting together a suit, from class actions, from any collective action that threatens the gravy train. No matter what the “orphanage director” or “facilitator” did in the sending country, the agencies had offloaded the legal liability and were keeping the cash.

There’s really no question that the adoptive parents who used reputable agencies to adopt from Cambodia were defrauded. They were told that their money was being used to support an orphanage, or family preservation or health care development work. My publisher says that “These outcomes were not documented by any agency working in Cambodia” is the lawyer-approved way to say ‘Ha!’ about that claim.

They were told that the children they were adopting were abandoned at orphanages, when the available evidence suggests that their parents were lured from far-flung provincial villages on the promise of future contact and reunion. Some of them were even cared for at orphanages by family members who donated their labor to the enterprise, paying the child’s way to his new life.

They were told that the facially unpersuasive paperwork ‘background and medical reports’ they received from the agency were ‘just how it’s done here’–and that’s true, but it’s aggravating, not exculpatory. It was deliberately and repetitively done in a fashion designed to separate adoptive parents from their money and birth parents from their kids, with neither side knowing what the other expected and no recourse.

We weren’t told any of those things by a licensed, bonded, reputable adoption agency. We didn’t pay the extra $10,000 to support their business model (chiefly because we didn’t have it, that year). And we didn’t sign a contract agreeing to keep quiet, forever, about what happened to our family after we used all the money and time and due diligence we had adopting a child.

So this is my story to tell because I can.