Adoption in the Absence of National Boundaries
Presented at the 25th Conference of the North American Council on Adoptable
Joy Kim Lieberthal
I would like to read you two quotations by two adult international
adoptees. One states, "International adoption isn't the answer to improving
the overall plight of children in developing countries...supporters of
international adoption are quiet about the children who are not adopted and
Another states, "in a world separated by fear, hatred, and
prejudice, we (international adoptees) give voice to the greatness of our
human spirits that can shift mind and heart to embrace and love another as a
daughter, or a son, a sister, or a brother."
Although two different viewpoints on international adoption, which
one is right and which is wrong? Or are they both right and wrong? What
does international adoption do for the child? Today, I would like to
facilitate a discussion around the issues facing international adoptions.
To help us along are some questions I prepared, which you have, as a means
to kick-off discussion. But, first, I would like to give you a little
background on international adoption and present some of the issues at hand
as well as recent developments in this area.
I. International Adoption: Past and Present
The adoption of children outside the United States began in response
to the growing number of orphans in Europe, just after the second World War.
Intercountry adoption (ICA) began as a solution for parentless children.
War orphans and many children, fathered by American GIs, brought about an
availability of children, but a few in the United States. Over the past
fifty years, the reasons have evolved and the countries involved have
changed, but ICA continues grow. Interestingly enough, the trend toward
intercountry adoption is providing more of a solution for childless parents.
Two leading researchers in the field of international adoption,
Alstein and Simon, have characterized three factors that prompt countries to
engage in international adoption; civil strife or international war; an
imbalance of the socioeconomic conditions among the classes in that country;
and an established cooperative link between social and child welfare
agencies among sending and receiving countries. In addition, there are
social and cultural conditions that have increased the availability of
adoptable children overseas. For example, China's solution to her
population problem has been "resolved" with the one-child policy, leading to
a dramatic rise of abandoned female children thus available for adoption.
Other Asian countries stigmatize those children born illegitimately or of
mixed-race couples, filling many institutions with children who are not
adoptable in their birth country.
Alstein and Simon explained four major eras in international
adoption. The first, a response to the number of homeless children in
Greece and Germany, was from 1948-1953. War ravaged both countries: the
civil war in Greece and WWII in Germany. There were also a small number of
children adopted from Asia, predominantly from Japan, in the aftermath of
the atomic bombs. However, most of them were from Europe. It is interesting
to note that this was considered international adoption, but the children
were, for the most part, of the same race and culture as the adoptive
parents. In fact Greek-American families adopted most of the Greek
The second era began in the mid-1950s, at the time of the Korean
War. Later, the Vietnam War also caused many orphans. The first generation
of children adopted into the US was of children who were of mixed race;
Asian birth mothers and American birth fathers. However, the number of
Korean children adopted into the US continued to escalate. This was partly
due to the growing reality that there was an increased demand for healthy
infants, but a shortage of them in America. The first generation of these
children were all biracial or of mixed race; Korean mothers and military
fathers from differing countries. However, Korean adoptions to America
continued to prevail with the latter generations of full-Korean babies.
This was so for many reasons: the continual relationship with America and
her charitable organizations that opened orphanages in Korea; the troubling
economic situation; the reality that Korean couples were discouraged from
adopting; and the perception that Korean adoptions were working so ideally.
This was the onset of transracial adoption, by which the children were
racially and culturally different from their parents.
Korean adoptions have been going on for more than 30 years, peaking
in 1986 with 6,000- plus children that year emigrating to the US.
Currently, there are more than 100,000 Korean adoptees in the US alone. At
that time, other Asian countries also were participating in international
adoption, Vietnam, The Philippines, Thailand, and Hong Kong.
The third wave of children came predominantly from Latin and Central
America. One reason was the dramatic decrease in the availability of
children from Asia. There was also the increased awareness of the
deplorable economic conditions of Latin American countries, as children were
left on the street, homeless and poor, often times abandoned. Another
reason one researcher gives for the growing interest in Latin American
adoptions, is that the governments of these countries have yet to regulate
intercountry adoption and do not have specific legislation or defined
policies on this issue. The perception, then, is that Latin America is
easier that Asia. These adoptions began to grow in 1973, peaking at 2,500
children in 1991.
The fourth wave of children to be adopted occurred with the fall of
communism, Russia and Romania becoming the primary sending countries. This
was in response to the large number of institutionalized children, a product
of a mandatory fertility policy in Romania. This is the first time since
1948 that a great majority of infants and children available are Caucasian.
In addition, China has also released her infants for adoption, predominantly
Currently, statistics show that in 1998 there were approximately
16,000 children adopted, in the US, from abroad. The top three "sending
countries" were Russia, China and South Korea, in that order, and
representing 66% of all international adoptions. The top ten countries over
for the past ten years are within Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe.
II. Perceptions vs. Reality
The media has been a strange bedfellow with international adoption.
The overwhelming sentiment has been that the media have not shed a very
favorable light on international adoption, but this also depends on one's
perspective. Often, the press and tv are a reflection of the greater
society. Thus, as media within a major receiving country, they publicize
much of what in the United States has been the plight of the adopting
family. One set of perceptions is that these families want a child, are
willing to go to some trouble and expense to get one, and that they accept
these obstacles as a given and try their best to get around them.
With that as a premise, what manifested in the press, are stories of
bribery, corruption, and atrocities in the institutions of the "sending"
countries. Stories accuse government officials of lining their pockets
while selling their children to wealthy foreigners. This also applies to
independent "agencies,"or individuals posing as legitimate agencies in the
US, as well as the child welfare agencies in the sending countries. In
addition, there are the middle men and baby brokers who capitalize on the
"baby trade," exploiting desperate would-be parents in their attempts to
create a family. Finally, there are the birth parents, usually mothers,
stereotyped as poor, undereducated, sometimes unwed, and looking for a way
out. In fact, little is mentioned of the pressures birth mothers are under
to give their child away. One of the articles in your packet refers to one
There also are inconsistencies with the language used to tell
adoption stories. It largely depends on which side is being portrayed. For
example, the birth mother may be described as the "biological mother" or as
the "natural mother."
One last perception of international adoption is to be found in the
cultural aspects of international adoption. One belief is that the adopted
child loses all of its birth country's religious and cultural identity.
Also the idea that all adoptees go through an identity crisis, very
different from other adolescents and much more damaging. This also leads to
the common misconceptions of the outcomes of international adoptions. It is
believed that adoptees are so emotionally damaged and unable to "get over
the issue of being adopted," that they are thus perceived as void of
cultural awareness and incapable of identifying themselves as whole
individuals. This in turn leads the general public to believe that
international adoptions don't work.
Stereotypically, the adoption of Asian children has been hailed as
the ideal. In much of the current research, children adopted from South
Korea are portrayed as the "happy adoptions," the "exceptions." This feeds
into the already present stereotypes of Asian Americans in this society.
Much of this is fostered by the old belief that these were war-stricken
children or that being from a third world country, they are grateful or
lucky to be in such a prosperous country.
Adoptions of Latin American children reflect much of the same
sentiment, as they have been "saved" by a country, and parents, able to
provide for them in ways their birth country and family are unable to do.
Not as much information has been revealed about the children from Latin
America. Instead, what is relayed are the stories of what adopting parents
must endure to adopt a child from this area. Most of what is known right
now is about the corruption that surrounds these adoptions, to the point, in
some cases, that DNA testing is conducted to assure that the mother
relinquishing the child for adoption is truly the birth mother. Stories of
kidnaping and bribery also prevail.
On the opposite side, there have been misconceptions about children
adopted from Eastern Europe. From the outset, these children have been
labeled as "damaged goods." Their institutional life has been widely
publicized with the many horror stories of the difficulties of adoptive
parents' in raising their new child. There is even documentation of
children being returned to Europe or adoptive parents relinquishing their
children for adoption again to another family, in the United States.
One aspect of international adoption that has not been discussed
openly is the issue of the United States as the "sending" country. In fact,
there were only two articles found about this subject, in preparation for
this presentation. Though little is revealed about this practice, there are
an estimated 100-500 children a year adopted out of this country to
Australia, Western Europe and Canada. There is No accurate number of
children adopted from America, as the US requires no exit visas and the
Federal Government does not regulate foreign adoption or follow up on their
progress. It has even been reported in Time that the US is one of the most
accessible places to adopt children. From the perspective of the adopting
parents, adopting a child from the United States is easier than in their own
country, and there is a larger pool of available children. Many of these
families are biracial, or of mixed-races, where the child is either
African-American or biracial and the parents are Caucasian. The interesting
fact is that many agencies in the US are unaware that such adoptions
actually exist. This being that the adoptions are being completed by law
firms instead of agencies. In fact, one organization, International Social
Service/American Branch, conducts such adoptions through a law firm in the
mid-West. These adoptions are the primary focus of that firm. They adopt
many of their children to the Netherlands, and most of the children are
African-American or biracial. As a nation that adopts internationally an
estimated 16,000 children a year, there remain many more in this country
that are in need of families.
What appears to stand out most regarding international adoption, is
the lack of a governing body and regulations to ensure that only accredited
agencies may conduct international adoptions. Throughout the articles read
to prepare for this presentation, the overriding concern for members of the
adoption triad is the lack of education and awareness when looking to adopt
abroad. It is for that reason and the continual capitalization on human
beings that led to the development of the Hague Convention on Intercountry
Adoption, in May of 1993. The Preamble presents five main points, but
rather than read the whole document to you, I will only highlight some of
the main points. It states that a child should grow up in a family
environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding. It
recognizes that intercountry adoptions offer a permanent family to a child
for whom a suitable family cannot be found in his or her state of origin.
Finally, it states the need to take measures to ensure that intercountry
adoptions are conducted in the best interest of the child, with respect for
his or her fundamental rights; and to prevent abduction, sale of, or traffic
of children. Thus, the Convention has set out norms and procedures to
safeguard children involved in intercountry adoptions and to protect the
interests of their birth and adoptive parents.
Most important, the Convention mandates that each country create a
Central Authority to discharge duties under the convention. Other key
functions for this Central Authority are to act as a liaison with the
Central Authorities of other countries, to track cases, to monitor and
provide assistance, to develop regulations and to ensure compliance by all
agencies and countries.
Finally, the important mandate is that all intercountry adoptions
must be conducted by accredited agencies determined by an accrediting body.
The Hague also provides a list of provisions and criteria in accrediting
agencies. This accrediting organization becomes the governing body that
ensures that agencies are in compliance.
As of July 5, 1999, 25 countries have ratified the convention and 9
countries have acceded. The United States has only signed the Convention.
However, the Convention and its implementing legislation, the Intercountry
Adoption Act, was presented to the 106th US Congress on March 23rd, by
Senator Jesse Helms and Senator Mary Landrieu. It is interesting to note,
however, that the top three sending countries to the United States: Russia,
China and South Korea have failed to even sign the document.
The ratification of the Hague Convention is a crucial beginning of
the standardization of intercountry adoptions, especially in the US, where
there are many benefitting from the lack of regulations.
However, the reality of international adoption will always be
expressed best by those who have experienced it. So, I would like to draw
your attention to the question that was posed in the beginning, what does
international adoption do for the child? More specifically, perhaps I can
begin this discussion with, how do you view international adoption?
POLICY AND PRACTICE
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