Saturday, October 1, 2011

Open (international) adoption, anyone?

I have had this post simmering for a long time now.  I still don't know if my thoughts are coherent enough on this topic to post.  But here I go, jumping into the quagmire that is international adoption (again).

This post is about international adoption where there is a known family member.

We have what might be called an "open" international adoption.  As anyone who reads this blog knows, the orphanage that my girls were adopted from is only for infants after their mothers have died in birth.  Family members of the newborn bring the infant to the orphanage.  Given the above, you know enough about my girls to know that we know some of their family.  We were fortunate to be living in the country while we were adopting our girls.  We not only met their family, we met them many times.  To say I was completely humbled by the experience of knowing their family would be a huge understatement.

I have had many conversations about open international adoption, and continue to be surprised by the overall fear or anxiety regarding open adoptions (internationally).  Here are the biggest concerns (I will use the term birth family for the rest of the discussion)--

The biggest concern I have heard is related to the future relationship between a richer adoptive family and the poorer birth family.  
The birth family will ask us for money or things.
The birth family will ask our child/ren for money or things in the years to come.
My child/ren will become a "dollar sign" or a "way to get to the states" to their birth family.
My child/ren will get hurt by their relationship (or lack thereof) with their birth family.
It will be awkward and uncomfortable.
It will be hard to explain why there were adopted.
It is messier, motives are harder to figure out.
What if they change their mind at the last minute?
What other reasons would you like to add?

I think one reason people are drawn to international adoption is because there often isn't a birth family involved (publicly) anymore.  The baby or child has been abandoned on the street or in a neighborhood, or at an orphanage.  The abandonment becomes testimony to the fact that the birth family couldn't take care of them (or perhaps a perception that the birth family didn't want them).   It is easier.  (I do want to say that in some countries it is illegal to abandon your child, so it is only done anonymously.)  There is an orphan that needs a family.  There are families that would love to welcome that child into their home as a part of their family, forever.

I had a conversation last year that has stuck with me.  We were talking about international adoption in situations where the mother is alive and decides to sign relinquishment papers to give the child up for adoption (for whatever reason).  The person I was talking with said it's not that different than in the U.S., when women do the same (for whatever reason).  A woman in the U.S. decides to give her child to another person to raise (for whatever reason), through adoption.   Very similar.

And also not very similar.

In the U.S., in private domestic adoptions, a woman has a list of adoptive families from which to choose.  She will have photos, videos, essays, and on and on.  She has time to change her mind.  She has choices.

In the international setting, a woman (or family member) signs relinquishment papers and doesn't choose who she gives her child to at all.

Why not?  Why doesn't the (international) birth family have the right to choose who gets to raise their child?  (In the U.S. you lose the right to chose when you do harm to your child, like in the case of abuse).

Is it because the birth families are categorically abusive or dangerously abusing drugs?  No, I don't think so.  (Of course, there are some birth families that are abusive, and lose this right internationally as well.)

Is it because of neglect?  Now this is very tricky and perhaps at the core of the issue.  Here is a definition of neglect from the Child Welfare website.

" Neglect is the failure of a parent, guardian, or other caregiver to provide for a child's basic needs. Neglect may be:
  • Physical (e.g., failure to provide necessary food or shelter, or lack of appropriate supervision)
  • Medical (e.g., failure to provide necessary medical or mental health treatment)3
  • Educational (e.g., failure to educate a child or attend to special education needs)
  • Emotional (e.g., inattention to a child's emotional needs, failure to provide psychological care, or permitting the child to use alcohol or other drugs)
These situations do not always mean a child is neglected. Sometimes cultural values, the standards of care in the community, and poverty may be contributing factors, indicating the family is in need of information or assistance.  "

Our definition of neglect could easily be applied to most poor children/families in a country like DRC.  Not the emotional aspect, but the physical, medical, and educational aspects.  How can we even begin to apply the same standard in a developing country?

Are we saying, "because you "neglected" your child you don't have the right to choose"?  Pretty awful sounding, eh?  Or are we saying that because we are rich and have access to all of the above are we therefore in a superior position to choose what is right for that child.

This is what it comes to--we have the right to choose.  If you are in extreme poverty, the right to choose (on most levels) is taken away from you.  And probably this is at the root of the practical implications of the disparity of income b/w a family in the west and a family in DRC that has "abandoned" their child.

What does this do?  Lack of choice robs a person of dignity.  It takes away the privilege of being a parent, the right to make the best decision you can for your child.  To choose who will raise your child to the best of your ability.  And in the long run, it probably contributes to a lack of a desire to stay in touch with the child's new family.  If you have no choice, you feel powerless.

What happens if we start advocating for open adoptions internationally?  What if we let the known birth families choose who they want to raise their children?    

Why do we take away the rights of the adult in the poor country, but keep it in the rich country (and I do realize that when it comes to domestic adoption, birth mothers are given less rights than we would assume)?  What if, before a birth family signs a consent they are given a letter written by the adoptive family and a picture of that family?  What if they are given the wonderful privilege of choosing a piece of their future child's life?  What if they are given the permission to say no?  To choose whether or not they want that child to be raised by that family?  What if they want to have a say in the kind of family their child gets raised in?  (I am specifically talking about children that have already been abandoned for adoption, not about children that have been abandoned that have families that do not want their children to be adopted.)  And what if they want to stay in touch?  In direct contact?

Maybe I am over simplifying this, I don't know.  Last year, I asked about the idea of letting a birth family see a photo of an adoptive family before the family signed away consent.  I was told absolutely that that wasn't a good idea.  A birth family should sign consent before knowing anything about the adoptive family.

You know what gets me?  Most international adoptions would not be happening (in DRC anyway, and I'm sure for other "poor" countries) if we took the effects of poverty out of the picture.  So, we take a desperate poor situation (where a family member abandons a child), and add even greater tragedy to it.  Take away their choice in that child's future, any role in that child's life, take away their dignity.

What I do know, is that every person deserves to have connection to their family.  To their genetic roots. If they want it.  I believe that every person has the right to their genetic heritage, to their birth family.

Read adult adoptee literature, hear the heart cries that will pierce your soul.  Cries to connect.  Cries to be heard.  Cries to belong.  To have rights to their pasts, to their heritage, to themselves, to their first families.  The good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly, all of it.

Economic disparities and cultural misunderstandings are, I believe, at the heart of the issues as to why we are uncomfortable with open international adoption.  There is much to fear and much to control.  There is much to lose and much to gain.  And ultimately, I believe it is not our choice to make.  It is our children's choice (because ultimately, in all of this, they are the ones with NO choices).

And I think that my little girls will be glad I (and they) know their family, that I will do everything I can to keep that connection.

Yes, it will be probably be awkward at times.  Yes, I or they will be probably be asked for something at times.  Yes, it will probably be hard and hurtful at times.   And yes, it will be absolutely worth it because it is about so much more.   And these girls are not just mine, they are theirs too.   Ultimately, it's not a choice that is mine to make.

(I am speaking from my experience with international adoption in DRC.)


Anonymous said...

This post is poses a good question. My children are also adopted from DRC, and we know that, at least for our son, that he has a birth family (we found out after we passed court that during the investigation that some of his family was found). I wish we had been able to meet them when we went to Kinshasa. I think in the future, we might try to find them, as we have their names - even though it will be very hard to do.

Also, as an adoptee myself, this is interesting because I know that when my parents adopted me - they did not want an open adoption at all. Of course this was in the mid-70s, when open adoptions weren't, it is strange to sometimes juxtapose how sometimes my husband and I wish that our children's birth families were a part of our lives, and how that same thing would have been my mom's worst nightmare come true.

I also don't know how I feel about showing pictures of potential families to birth mothers - here and internationally. I have a friend who gave a child for adoption privately in the US, and she would say how some of the potential adoptive parents profiles would make her sick - that a lot of times, whether intentional or not, they would show how much money they had as though the richer you were the better parent you'd be. I'd be afraid that in showing the birth parents files on the potential parents, that they'd only pick the ones that came off as wealthiest. However, I do think that, if possible, that the birth families and that adoptive families should keep in some sort of touch - harder when the adoption is international, but the effort would be rewarding for everyone in the end (or at least that's what I'd hope).

(sorry this is such a long comment)

Holly said...

Varouna-thanks for the comment! And considering the length of my post you shouldn't be apologizing for the length of your comment.

You bring up good points. I think the point about photos is a good one. Something I have thought about (and advocated myself), is an initial match happening with a child (that is done by an agency/organization) and then that family sends a story/photo to the birth family. The birth families I have spoken with over the past year and a half have treasured the photos of the adoptive family (and usually they are simple photos of people, not of "things") and appreciated the letter from the family (which shared generalities). This is only my experience working with 4-5 birth families. I felt like it showed respect to the birth family. Thanks again for commenting and sharing your perspective. Holly

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughts Holly. My Mom said something amazing to me about our impeding adoption from the DRC "your child's country will become my own." I was so overwhelmed with the love and immediate connection I had with my mother saying this to me. Although I think there are many more issues that are unspoken in your post that also lead to the need for adoption(maternal care, rights for women and children / abuses during conflict) I do believe that it is our absolute responsibility to do our best to foster a healthy relationship with family members for the benefit of your child. I think the DRC becomes a part of us and a part of our family. There is room! I'd have no problem sending a photo and story to the birth family after a match. I think it is important to keep some things private as well to also protect the child and the adopted family - but there is a balance to be had. Having respect for families also shows respect for your child!

Anonymous said...


I really like the idea of the adoptive family writing a letter about themselves and giving a picture to the child's birth family. It would be nice if there was some way for the birth families to give info about themselves (especially medical, if known) to the adoptive families. For the friend I mentioned above, the couple that adopted her child gave her a book for her to fill out all about herself and her family, which I thought was awesome.

I wonder if part of the issue would be adoptive families not wanting to give info the the birth families for fear that they'd want something from them later on.

Holly said...

Anonymous- thanks for the comment. I agree that showing respect for the families of our children shows them respect. And I liked your mom's comment and would even go a step further to say that the family of birth of your child is also your family, because you now share a family. I agree, there is room!

Varouna--That was a great idea about the book to fill out. Even though we know the family of our girls, there are still so many missing pieces that the cultural differences made it hard to bridge. I know that your last comment is a very real and common fear. All I can say, is that we lived in DRC and our girls' family knew where we lived and came to our house to visit the girls' after the adoption. It was a lot more normal and wonderful than I think we anticipated. There will be challenges, of course (esp. with such a big income and cultural difference), but I am SO glad we know their family and they have come to know us, I will never regret it. We shared a meal together before we moved away (my own mom was visiting at the time) and that was a very special time I will always treasure. Thanks for commenting.


Anonymous said...


I agree - they become an extended part of your family. I would cherish an opportunity to be connected - in any way to our child's birth family. I have a friend who adopted her daughter from South Africa and she says she would just do anything to be able to have known her daughters birth mother and to connect with her - anything. Very powerful. I think people are afraid of the claiming/belonging part of a child's life. But I think that if you give them as much of a connection as you can without compromising their stability - they will be better for it - and so will the adoptive family. Children belong. Period. They belong because they exist and our job as parents is to facilitate their journey and provide them with safety, love, consistency and opportunity, and education. They will tell us who they are as they discover it - I don't know that it's any parents right (birth or adoptive) to decide for a child who they are or what they should be.

Holly said...

Anonymous--I agree that I'm sure fear of the unknown in a potential relationship ungirds a lot of the problems with open relationships with the children's birth families. And I also agree that we ought not to cling to our children so much that we try to control any aspect of their self discovery, especially as it relates to their adoption and Congolese families. It is their journey to make and ours to support. Thanks for commenting.

Katie said...

Ok, I totally get what you mean about giving parents a choice in who raises their child. If I were answering completely selfishly, I would not want that to happen. As a single prospective adoptive parent I found almost no options available to me. I would imagine the same would happen in DRC if parents were given a choice. It would turn in to a popularity contest like it is here and people like me would never have a chance to get picked.
I have read a lot of stories of adoptive families with "open" adoptions from Ethiopia. They were not "open" in the choosing of the family, but open now because the adoptive parents were able to meet the birth family when they traveled. It seems like it would be a good experience. I wish I had some shred of history on either of my kids. I have exactly nothing to tell them and I hate it.

Holly said...

Hi Katie, You might be surprised about whether or not a first family would have "chosen" you as the parent of their child actually. In all the first parents I had discussion with (or listened in on the discussions), the families were most concerned about two things--will the adoptive parent love the child as if the child was a birth child and will they try to keep them in touch with them through out the years. I know a single woman who adopted a child from DRC and she came and lived in DRC before and during the process. The first family were happy and excited she was adopting their little girl they could not care for. They never expressed concerns that she was single (and they met her before things were finalized). And often people on the street would say "God bless you for caring for an orphan" even when they noticed was single. Most of all people (probably everywhere) want their children loved and cared for and that is what motivates their choices.

And having no history is very hard! Have you considered hiring an investigator to try to find information for your children?

Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

Last year, we adopted a little girl from Uganda. Our adoption is mostly open. We were in an unusual circumstance where we had the opportunity to meet the birth mom around the same time she decided she could not keep parenting her daughter. The mom is very weak with AIDS and she wanted her daughter to be adopted rather than to grow up in an orphanage or with the extended family (where she feared her daughter would be abused). I know this is messy and in some ways violates some "ethical" principles around adoption. Our daughter was not relinquished to the orphanage before we were in the picture. But maybe more importantly, the birth mother's decision was respected and I believe everyone did what was in the best interest of the child.

But is messy. My heart breaks for my daughters first mother. She's still alive. We hear from her occassionally through the orphanage. Her needs are desperate. We're torn about whether or how to support her. On one hand, we do love her and want her to have what she needs to live. On the other hand, we're scared that by supporting her through the orphanage, it will create the impression that poor mothers can get money from adoptive parents if they place children for international adoption. We want to be able to tell our daughter we did everything we could to help her mother. But we also don't want to create a situation where other mothers who are able to parent but desperately poor.

I am thankful we know our daughters first mother, her half brother, her grandmother. She looks just like them. I love that I know her birth mom well enough to recognize some things in our daughter's personality that come from her mom. And I love that I know where her grin comes from (her paternal grandmother). I wish I lived in Uganda where we could be much more involved in this family's life - but from the US it is hard to navigate.

One of my neighbors is an adult who was adopted from Brazil as a child. She had an open adoption and has reconnected with her biological family. She goes to visit every year and loves being Brazilian and American. Recently she was in Brazil with her daughter. Her daughter had a seizure and thankfully her biological family was with her and able to share that it was a common issue in their family. Kind of amazing.

Anyway...rambling. It's complicated!