Codeswitch, Part I

Code-switching – the practice of shifting the languages you use or the way you express yourself in your conversations. www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch

Anyone who enters the adoption community or has gone through the adoption process quickly learns that our constellation has words all unto ourselves.  To hear an adoptee talk about her mother, we automatically know she is talking about her adoptive mother, no distinction needs to be made among us.  What’s interesting is that those who go through the adoption process are taught that a birthmother made an “adoption plan” while we adoptees say, “when she gave me up for adoption.” We learned that adoptive parents don’t like using the word “abandoned” so they are encouraged to tell their child, “you were put in a place to be found.”  We, adoptees know, we were abandoned and if not abandoned, we opt for alternate words to describe the severing of our connection to our family of origin.  There are so many ways that we have made “nice” with the concept of adoption so that those who benefit from it feel nice too.  What I think we have managed to do is code switch.

To be equitable, I do notice the adoptee community writing/speaking in code as well to describe how passionately angry they feel about adoption.  There are those of us who use “trafficking” and “kidnapping” in interesting ways to describe their adoption narrative.  While I do not disparage one’s own interpretation of their own story, I find these words speak the code of the adopted in a different way than I do. Code?  Accurate?  Truth?  My verdict is unclear. The effect is clear.

As more adoptees come forward saying not so nice things about adoption, it sort of feels like we are at a critical state of new understandings.  I am gratified that there are adoptive parents who are beginning the struggle to understand that adoption is complicated, sometimes amazing, alternatively painful and at its best, transformative.  The idea that we are “transforming” the discussion of race, identity and adoption has been at the core of many adult adoptee organizations starting way back in 1996!

Transforming is taking a lot longer than I anticipated from when I was an idealistic 20something.  One reason may be because the messaging is transforming on both sides.  As more adoptees demand a change in the way adoption is conducted, talked about and discussed, there is another side code switching to make adoption sound urgent, necessary and in peril of going extinct. I should clarify….international adoption.  Frankly, it’s driving me crazy.  Imminently, our legislators are seeking ways to pass the CHIFF legislation and their code is amazingly effective.   It makes me wonder what is wrong with my brain that I seem to read their words in a completely different way than what I see.  Right now, there are groups in the US who are in near hysterics about the “orphan crisis” in the world, mobilizing people to believe they must adopt, adoption is the only solution.

Every time this happens, I call upon my friends and colleagues who are adopted and it does feel like we are reading another language.  We don’t agree universally on every issue, but I appreciate the passionate civility we dialogue.  Our code has always been with the intention to have the adopted as the center of our focus.  It is clear and trusted.  I asked for help and I got it.

Melanie Chung-Sherman, my co-author, lives in a place that I swear speaks a different English at times.  Her “Blessings” sign-off at the end of every email causes me to chuckle and I look to her to help me better understand the language religion plays in the adoption world.  Living in a more secular, rather less evangelical, area has be me blind to the codeswitch.  She agreed to write with me and help clarify from her perspective the code switching that happens in the world of “saving the orphan” movement that I struggle with.  So, here is our list of how the code is switching in our heads.  I am hoping it drives you equally mad!  I am hoping when you read the CHIFF legislation and future media pieces on adoption that you may begin to see the code for yourself.

  • child advocates– code for those in support of perpetuating and increasing the number of foreign born children being adopted to White American couples.  If you read the list of supporters of the CHIFF legislation, the list of adoptee organizations and organizations internationally recognized as working for preserving children in their country/family of origin is glaringly light.
  • children in families first – code for children from third world countries into the homes of privileged, American couples
  • growing up in a family is a child’s basic human right – code switch for “growing up in an adoptive family in America”; perpetuation of international adoption
  • international adoption as a solution – code for international adoption is THE solution
  • best practices – code for ways to primarily advance the process and promotion of international adoption
  • orphan – a complex code word steeped in biblical meaning that has been simplified that has categorized  and subsequently emotionally petitioned the adoption community into action on behalf of children in need who may or may not be legally available for adoption. It does not diminish the fact that there are children without direct care, but is overly referenced for all children who appear in need and lacking a road to Christian salvation by Western standards. At one time this terminology was antiquated, but was revived at the height of the evangelical adoption movement.
  • rescue –to save a child in need by means of international adoption in a Westernized home (“being called to adopt”) and many times not critically considering the long-term implications for that child and first family, alternatives to permanency in-country or the possible reasons and/or methods in which a child was referred for international adoption originally. Taking on the theological salvation narrative and attempting to vertically apply to the child while overlooking the fact that adoption is about permanently building a family, not rescuing someone.
  • resources can be reallocated to achieve more timely, effective, nurturing, and permanent familial solutions for children living without families–code for taking existing federal funds already benchmarked to promote family permanency in-country and reallocating them to ensure international adoption policy, practice, and placement is securely funded.
  • shall lead the development and implementation of policies that will ensure the timely provision of appropriate, protective, and permanent family care for children living without families – policy codeswitch that will engender the least restrictive, fastest, and Western-centric measures to ensure international adoptive placement while deconstructing and maneuvering around current international and federal accountability standards in an effort to boost numbers of adoptions.

 And for the ultimate codeswitch, when we read that a piece of legislation is in keeping with the core American belief that families are the best protection for children, this really means, regardless of global cultural considerations, which include the impact of poverty, gender and social class bias, diverse social norms, as well as a country’s sovereignty, Americans still know what is best. Thus, it is only in an American family that a child can truly flourish.

______________________

Codeswitch, part II, A vs. A

I have been planning a vacation to California with my Korean family, Sun-Ohk and Won-Chan.  They have decided to come to the mainland of the USA for the first time.   We have agreed to meet them there.  One hiccup, they neither speak nor read English.  So I have taken on the herculean task of creating a fun filled week for two families.  I am a terrible vacation planner.  My brain does not work with any amount of glee looking at hotels, air flights, activities, car rentals etc.  I had to get a friend to walk me through it and seeing the sheer joy she had in helping me, I know I did not miss a calling of any sort.

Itinerary complete and sent to Korea, the first question back is, “can we go to Las Vegas?”  I had to laugh as all I could respond in baby Hangul was – “9 hours driving, too far, USA is very big.  Sorry.” Lots of apologetic emoticons later, we are sticking to my plan, thank you very much!

I write this all to say that perspective is everything.  If you come from a country that can take one afternoon to travel from one end to the other, a trip to another state should not be so bad.  Right?  So, if you are adopted into a family where you felt understood, saved, happy, full of love and resources, it stands to reason, you might have a very different perspective than from an adoptee who felt isolated, misunderstood, kidnapped or abandoned.  I often find that being adopted is never enough of a unifier for our community to stand firm in solidarity.  Even the idea of “giving voice to the adoptee” is not “giving A voice to the adoptee.”  Unfortunately, so much of where we grew up, how we grew up, events that triggered our epigenes along with time, place and age of adoption can challenge us to realize that we cannot always stand with our brothers and sisters in adoption.

Since working on the “codeswitch, part I” piece, I have learned of a couple of adoptee run organizations who have come out in support of the CHIFF legislation being pushed through Congress, and my gut reaction was not pretty.  I called people up to find out, in earnest, how they came to this decision.  In my almost panic, I had feelings of betrayal, shock, disappointment.  And then, I hit pause. Who the hell am I to judge?  To me, there are certain issues that are no brainers and I really was thinking that the company I kept in this crazy mixed up world of adoptees was on my side.  And if they weren’t, they had enough respect for our common sense of humanity that we could talk about it.  I am not prone to public hyperbole when it comes to speaking in support or against issues or perspectives.  I like doing it in person, one on one.  Adding the human factor makes things easier to come to some understanding.

In coming to a very different decision about how they feel about a piece of legislation, I fear the chance for dialogue is over.  Instead, it has now become adoptee vs. adoptee.  Now there is no room to talk about the issues and how to change them.

It is amazing how adoptees are used in a pawn-like manner.  Adoptive parent groups, adoption trade organizations will come out in favor or against something, but the minute an adoptee or adoptee organization comes out in favor, radio silence for the other groups.  An adoptee run group supports something and now no holds barred, it’s a go.

I wish we adoptees knew our power.  We keep demanding a seat at the table, but the reality is our table is set but the only ones with dance cards are the ones in support of international adoption continuing status quo.  Whenever one person stands up in support of adoption, they get lots of air play.  If there are adoptees who come against it, they are looked at as rogue, dissenting, angry and not given time unless they create it themselves via facebook or change.org. With great power comes great responsibility.

So, here’s the rub.  I am so glad that groups of adoptees are getting acknowledged.  I am proud of their hard work in empowering themselves and others.  I just wish we could play a little nicer WITH each other.  No one is being asked to be THE voice for adoptees, but the responsibility for those of us who do get the odd chance to be heard, I wish we could accept that we have the power to influence more complexity and diversity into the adoption discussion.  This rarely gets played out in public.  It would be nice to be the three dimensional people we are and help the public see we can disagree and change the course of how international adoptions are conducted and perceived all at once.

Threading the needle

I mess up idioms.  I have often been caught saying, “I’ll see it when I believe it” much to my husband’s derision.  I also have a habit of saying “5 and 4” instead of “4 and 5”. I chalk this up to not having English as my first language during my formative years.  As much as I love the English language and finding new ways to say things, I do find that talking about adoption has made me even craftier.  Words matter, they always have.  After all, it was words that made me feel less than others and it is words now that make me feel I have competency.

I keep hearing the term “threading the needle” lately in our national political discourse.  I think it is perfectly fitting in adoption work and policy too.  On the one hand, being adopted does not qualify me in the category of “special needs,” and yet, I do believe being adopted is special and there are needs we adoptees must have in order to feel safe and secure and belonging to our adoptive families.  On the one hand, adoption is just like every other way of forming a family except when it’s not, when the “adopted child” of a said couple is excluded by that adjective distinguishing him from all other children in the family.  On the one hand, adoption is permanent and yet we have been challenged again and again when a child is rehomed, sent back on an airplane or when the country where the child was born claims her as theirs.  Different, the same, just like, as if…I realize I am threading the needle of descriptives to try and accurately address our community.

It came to a head for me when I read Kathryn Joyce’s Slate article.  This article cannot be read while you are eating, your body will reject the food by sheer gag reflex.  Ms. Joyce’s plain and simple words will make you cry as she gives voice to children who have experienced the horrific and survived and others who have perished.   Yet as I was reading this article, I was thinking of David Pelzer and his memoir “A Child Called It.”  Mr. Pelzer was not adopted and his story, among many others, are equally horrific.  I add this because, as thorough as Ms. Joyce was, I found myself threading the needle of understanding the complication adoption naturally breeds.  What stuck out for me was the paradox of how horribly wrong adoptions can go and yet the need for it.  On the one hand, there are families who should never have been able to adopt a child and yet it was another adoptive family who said yes to that same child and loved deliberately so that he/she can begin to heal and know what it means to have a family.  On the one hand, adoptive families are “forever” and “just like” all other families and yet we demand oversight, progress reports for decades, statistics and a level of lifelong scrutiny no other family must endure.  On the one hand, we expect adoptive parents to claim their child as their own and yet are mistrustful that they will.  On the one hand, adoption agencies/facilitators/attorneys aid in the creation of a family and yet are given no legal recourse to say “no” to prospective adoptive parents.  When I was an adoption social worker in placement, I would have loved to have them sign an affidavit that says that they will not say racist remarks to their children, they will not spank their child, they will move to an area with more diversity, that they will honor their child’s birth/family, that they will seek assistance and support when things are getting rough.

Why does this matter?

When I finished reading David Pelzer’s book, I found myself honoring Mr. Pelzer’s courage and survival with a tsk tsk and judgment of his mother as mentally ill.  When I read articles of abuse of adopted children, there is a wholey different lens from which I read it.  When I read these articles, I don’t get the sense that I am reading about the survival and courage of the child, but rather an examination of the adoption system.

What’s the problem with that?  I think one reason is that there is a fundamental truth we keep not wanting to say.  Adoption IS different from giving birth to your child and parenting your child.  It just is.  I keep going around and around and it comes down to this admission.

My reality is that adoption is not just like anything else. It is just different.  it is more than just another way to bring a child into a family, it involves a different way of parenting and there are different issues that need to be addressed time and time again well into adulthood.
So, I find myself standing on this very precariously thin line in knowing that not every child can nor should stay in their family of origin, and he/she will need to belong somewhere else with others.  As long as that is true, we must never stop being creative in finding ways to give safety, support and love to that child.  As long as that is true, adoption must and should remain in the multitude of options for a child.  BUT, as long as adoption exists, we must continue to seek ways to make the child the center of decisions.  From that vantage point then, I believe we must seek accountability and responsibility from organizations like Joint Council on International Children’s Services, National Council for Adoption, Congressional Coalition on Adoption, North American Council on Adoptable Children and the Council on Accreditation.  The leaders of these groups, past and present, should be held to a higher level of scrutiny in what their core beliefs are and how they implement them.  Every one of these groups uses and manipulates the problems facing vulnerable children to fit their greatest constituency.  I wonder what would happen if they actually had more people who went through their system as their actual constituents and in turn had them dictate their policies.  Sure, there are adoptees who believe that adoption is best, that their lives were only positively effected by being adopted, but it would sure be challenging for them to say that too vociferously if they were in the same room with other adoptees who said otherwise.  The longer I am in the work of hearing stories, the thinner the line gets and I am finding threading the needle awfully difficult.  Why?  Because, for every situation I hear about, I can actually name a name and picture a face making every decision personal.

Brave

This post will take a bit to read…please be patient

“Show me how big your brave is…” – Sara Bareilles

In recent weeks, the adoption community has been tackling some tough questions – the validity of the adoptive family unit, the rights of birth (first) parents, the role of government in the way we Americans declare family and of course, the role of adopted people as the agents for change.  You can spend hours on the internet reading articles about what happened to Baby Veronica, the supreme court case and ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act).  I stand firm only one thing.  We, the observers, know only a small percentage of the story.  I am left more with curious questions.  I am curious about Veronica’s birthmother and how she came to her decisions.  I am curious how Veronica’s (adoptive) parents will explain away her birthfather and all he did to parent her.  I am even more curious how the initial promise of an open adoption will now be put into place and enacted.  Who is really doing anything for Veronica?  For many, if not most, of the adoptee community, the transfer was a sad day.  For some of us, we wondered aloud…notwithstanding the time, the signature, the legal relinquishment, Veronica has a family who wants to parent her.  Veronica was not taken from her family of origin due to abuse or neglect.  She has birthfamily who wants to raise her as their own.  Is the decree on a piece of paper versus the decree of a parent who is biologically related sacrosanct?  I wonder how Veronica will make sense of her story when she googles her name later on in life.  I don’t have an answer, but for any of us who have worked through a contested adoption, the lines become awfully blurry.  When people say that every child belongs in a family, I can’t help but get an uneasy feeling that we are never talking about the same definition of family.

Take a listen to this podcast, I think you will agree, there are no straight lines – http://www.radiolab.org/story/295210-adoptive-couple-v-baby-girl/

Then there was the Reuters article on “re-homing” internationally adopted children to families found on the internet because their new first families were not able to parent them.  I think you would have to be dead to not have a reaction of disgust that human beings can do this to other human beings.  It feels like the idea of finding families for children has been relegated to the equivalent of a swap meet.  The words “trafficking” and “commodification” are rampant when thinking about this article.  As an adoptee who cringes whenever I read those words, never owning such labels as mine, I can’t deny those words ring slightly true here. And yet part of me is also thinking, how many domestically adopted children has this happened to, how many children who have been living with their biological families have been passed around to extended family members and been treated with such depravity?  While we are casting stones, are we looking at those casting too?  While we are waiting for others to change the system, is it enough for the adoptee community to just be angry and scream for change or scream for the banning of international adoption?

I like to always cloak myself as just another adoptee, but truth be told, I have some crazy connections.  There are adoptees in the field, in our community, who have been sounding the alarms for at least 10 years while simultaneously working with the very families who think about or do what the Reuters article mentioned.  To name just a few of my friends – Melanie Chung-Sherman, Dr. Judy Eckerle, Susan Branco-Alvarado, Jackie Skalnik.  I name them for anyone reading this post to get to know their names.  Why?  Because they are busy doing the work and are brilliant too in their construction of ideas and programs to help these vulnerable children.  Our community has been so effective in supporting and propping up the angry voices we have neglected the voices of the helpers, those vested in one interest – the child who grows up to be one of us and needs a “family” of his or her own.  So I shout out the names of my peers who are effecting change one family at a time in hopes that more people will call upon them and make them even busier.

There are other connections too that kept me dumbfoundingly silent these last few weeks.  Sometimes knowledge paralyzes.  As the Reuters article was blowing up Facebook, there were wheels turning to figure out how to address the issue of adoptive parents abandoning their children to the nether.  What I saw was the systematic mobilization of groups that support the perpetuation of adoption come out with their one page press releases in outrage and taking no ownership of responsibility.  Our system of international adoption remains as child-like as the way we see adoptees.  Why are the parents and parent groups the ones penning words in response?…

I ask BECAUSE…there is CHIFF (children in families first).  While the timing was interesting, this was not in response to the Reuters article.  Oh no, that would mean our government actually CAN move swiftly.  Still, I believe, more outrage is due in response to this interesting solution to the worlds’ orphan problem.  More outrage and more action!  Spend any time with a group of adoptee therapists and workers in adoption and your eyes will roll with the mundane questions we keep asking – where is the money going to come from to staff this and effect the changes, who will be the accrediting body to oversea the ethical implementation of this new program, why are only groups and legislators who are doing the adopting the only ones supporting and why are the child protection/development organizations silent? We are a suspicious lot but annoyingly persistent in our pursuit for an ethical, transparent program to address the needs of vulnerable children.  It is proposals like CHIFF that make me understand why we must declare our position on being pro or anti.  Any nuance is lost on our legislative representatives.

I have taken a long time to respond to all of the goings on in our adoption community lately.  Frankly, I was just too overwhelmed.  I am just one person, one adoptee, one social worker and like many of my other friends, carry the stories, heartaches and pain of dozens of other adoptees in the work we do as our “job.”  But then I realized, I have 99 people who read my words on my blog.  If I subtract about a dozen of my “followers” because you are my dear friends and love me and are already in the trenches with me, that still leaves a decent number of readers out there.  If I could get just one of you to think about adoption differently and speak up, write a letter, make a phone call, I will never be only one.  For the next time you read an article about adoption, think of me – a person who was adopted over the age of 5, who had her story changed in order to be adopted, who had multiple placements without a name or face to recall and who wants to find wholeness and fulfillment just like you, I hope your thoughts have been altered.  How big is your brave?!

While the government is shut down and many of our representatives are not able to respond to our emails and calls, I ask you to compose your letter or script to be sent in shutting  down CHIFF.  Why?  Please read the most comprehensive analysis of CHIFF out there.  With permission from the writers (who are adoptees), Kerry and Niels of Pound Pup Legacy, I have also added their post below.  Check out the Stop CHIFF page on Facebook too.

But first, here is the list of legislators who are in support of CHIFF who need to hear from all of us:

Senators
Roy Blunt* (R)
Mary Landrieu* (D)
Richard Burr (R)
Kirsten Gillbrand (D)
James Inhofe (R)
Eddie Berniece Johnson (D)
Mark Kirk (R)
Amy Klobuchar (D)
Claire McCaskill (D)
Patrick Murphy (D)
Jeanne Shaheen (D)
Elizabeth Warren (D)
Roger Wicker (D)

Representatives
Michele Bachman* (R)
Kay Granger* (R)
Karen Bass (D)
Suzanne Bonamici (D)
Trent Franks (R)
Steve Israel (D)
Albio Sires (D)

From Pound Pup Legacy:

Late last week, Senator Mary Landrieu launched the latest initiative of the adoption lobby in congress, with the introduction of The Children In Families First Act of 2013.

The bill is intended to counteract the decline in inter-country since 2004, a trend that has many prospective adopters worried and cuts heavily into the revenues of  adoption service providers.

The inter-country adoption lobby has been in full blown panic over this decline for several years now.

Already in 2009, a legislative attempt was made to curb the downward trend by means of the Families for Orphans Act. This effort failed miserably, but now the adoption lobby has regrouped with new blood and fresh money.

Children in Families First (CHIFF) is a much more powerful lobby group than the Families for Orphans Coalition ever was.

The backbone of both groups is the same, centered around adoption advocacy organization Kidsave International and the two trade associations of adoption service providers: Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS) and National Council for Adoption (NCFA), augmented by the treacherously named adopters group Equality for Adopted Children (EACH).

Gone are Buckner InternationalInstitute for Orphan Advocacy – which was never really more than a (now defunct) website owned by America World Adoption Association -, North American Resource Center for Child Welfare (NARCCW)Weaving Families Adoption Ministry (dissolved in 2009, after having operated for little over two years) and Jane Aronson‘s celebrity adoption vehicle Worldwide Orphan Foundation.

The current incarnation of the the inter-country adoption legislation lobby group has added several heavy-weights: American Academy of Adoption AttorneysBoth Ends Burning Center for Adoption Policy (CAP)Christian Alliance for OrphansCongressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI) and the Saddleback Church.

The inclusion of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute is especially important. CCAI, as a coalition of members of congress, has access to legislators, even K street can only dream of. This enmeshment of special interests and legislature is unprecedented. Never before have members of congress so publicly embraced the interests of an industry and its clients.

With the backup of CCAI, the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, and the money from adoption zealot Craig M. Juntunen, founder of Both Ends Burning, The Children In Families First Act of 2013, actually has a chance of being enacted.

Before we dig into the details of this legislative effort to revitalize international placement of children, let’s first look at the underlying assumption, the decline of inter-country adoption.

When we compile the statistics over the time frame 2004 – 2012, we can create a chart like this:


Based on this time-range, we can indeed see that inter-country adoption has declined from almost 23,000 children in 2004, to a number just shy of 9,000 in 2012. A very different picture emerges when we choose a different time range. A graph for inter-country adoptions from 1990 to 2012 looks like this:


It is not without reason, Mark Twain spoke about “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Using statistics, and especially the graphical representation thereof, we can make things look very differently from what they really are.

The common thesis that inter-country adoption has been in decline is a ruse. Inter-country adoption is returning to normal levels after extreme growth between 1992 and 2004. What we are facing is not a decline, but a market correction after an adoption bubble.

That bubble was mainly caused by three factors:

  • the fall of the iron curtain and subsequent adoptions from Russia,
  • the backlash of the one-child policy in China,
  • the rise of corrupt adoption practices in Guatemala.

Adoptions from these three countries almost entirely explain, both the enormous growth of inter-country adoption between 1990 and 2004, and its decline since 2004.

In 1990, inter-country adoption from China was virtually non-existent, with only 29 Chinese children adopted in the United States. That number rose quickly in the early 1990s and reached its peak in 2005, with 7,903 Chinese children being adopted in the United States. Russian adoptions only started in 1992, and peaked in 2004, with 5,862 Russian children adopted in the US. Guatemalan adoptions were already somewhat developed in 1990. That year 257 children from Guatemala were placed with American adopters.

In 1990, the total number of children adopted from China, Russia and Guatemala was 286. In 2004, the number of children adopted from those three countries had risen to 16,164. This is an increase of 15,878. The total increase of inter-country adoption in that time-frame is 15,898. So it is safe to say that the rise of inter-country adoption between 1990 and 2004 can entirely be contributed to these three countries.

In 2012 the total number of children adopted from China, Russia and Guatemala was 3,452 (mostly from China). This is a decrease of 12,712 since 2004. The total decrease of inter-country adoption between 2004 and 2012 was 14,323. Again these numbers are in the same ball-park.

Any other explanation than the burst of the bubble of adoptions from China, Russia and Guatemala, for the decrease of inter-country adoption since 2004 is bogus, or to speak with Mark Twain, a damned lie.

The lobby-group Children in Families First (CHIFF), created to promote the The Children In Families First Act of 2013, are damned liars. The worst of their lies is that they claim the entire initiative is not about increasing the number of inter-country adoptions in the United States. In the FAQ section of their website, the following is listed:

Q. Isn’t this bill really just a way to increase the number of children available for international adoption?

CHIFF is about one and only one thing: aligning United States foreign policy and programming with the undisputed, scientifically proven fact that children need loving, protective families to thrive. It therefore embraces every pathway to a permanent family and works to ensure that all options are being used to their fullest capacity in every country where there are children in need.  To meet the needs of the MILLIONS of children outside of family care, governments all over the world will need to increase their efforts to preserve and reunify families; provide more direct support to kinship, and encourage domestic adoption as an important way to ensure families for children.  At the same time, they will also need to put in place laws and systems that allow for international adoption as it is a necessary and appropriate way to meet the needs of children who cannot find homes domestically.  The sad reality is that number of children internationally adopted by US Citizens is not declining because of a lack of need.  It is declining because international adoption has wrongly been forced off the table of appropriate permanency options for children.  CHIFF would change that.

It must be said, this is a clever statement, in an Orwellian sense of  the word “clever”. There is no downright denial of the fact that the bill is just an attempt to increase the number of inter-country adoptions, but it tries to frame the issue in a different light. Of course it can’t be done without adding further lies.

Let’s start with the phrase: the undisputed, scientifically proven fact that children need loving, protective families to thrive.

The text of the bill itself is even more explicit, stating:

Science now proves conclusively that children suffer immediate, lasting, and in many cases irreversible damage from time spent living in institutions or outside of families, including reduced brain activity, reduced IQ, smaller brain size, and inability to form emotional bonds with others.

While we won’t dispute that intensive contact with adult care givers is of the utmost importance to the brain development of infants, there is no scientific consensus that living in institutions or outside families is damaging to all children.

In fact, an article published in Scientific American in 2009, under the title Orphanages Rival Foster Homes for Quality Child Care, refutes the stereotype that children fail to thrive in orphanages, and in fact receive care just as good as they would in foster care or through adoption. The research leading to this result had, unlike many other studies about developmental delays of orphans, not taken place in the dark and run-down children’s homes of post-communist Eastern Europe, but in countries like Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Kenya and Tanzania, where care was given to children in more community-based orphanages.

The adoption-centric agenda of the bill reveals itself in how children are confounded with infants. After all, most adopters have primarily interest in obtaining infants, and shy away from adopting children over the age of five. There is proof that infants that are not held and are not being socially engaged, indeed suffer all sorts of developmental problems, both emotional and cognitive. However, there is no proof that brain development of children above the age of five is seriously harmed by institutional care.

Most of the children, the MILLIONS of children, mentioned in the FAQ answer, are not infants, and with that, of little interest to the adoption community. Their numbers are only included to inflate the statistics, and make the problem look worse than it really is.

This brings us to the following lie: the MILLIONS of orphans mentioned. In a one page leaflet of Children in Families First, the following statement is made:

Every day, all over the world, more children find themselves living without  families – on the streets, in orphanages, in refugee camps. By some estimates, there are now 200 million orphans in the world.

Of course, like all the Pinocchio emulating efforts of the CHIFF group, it is not a complete lie. There is certainly some estimate that there are now 200 million orphans in the world. We could make up a figure out of whole cloth that there are now 3 billion orphans in the world and that too would be “some estimate”.

The figure of 200 million, however, is based upon, and an inflation of a figure of 143 million orphans, mentioned in the report Children on the Brink, which UNICEF published in 2004. To reach this number, UNICEF used a very broad definition of the word orphan: a child who has lost one or both parents through death. While it is sad so many children lost one or both parents, it doesn’t warrant the claim these children actually go without parental care. Ironically, if children that have one living parent, get adopted abroad by a single parents, they suddenly don’t count as orphans anymore, while they move from one single parent household to another.

The number of 143 million is already inappropriate to use in the context of this bill; inflating the number and speaking of “more children find themselves living without families” is most disingenuous. Not only are many of those 143 million children not living without families, their number is likely not to be growing.

When UNICEF published their report, the Second Congo War had just formally ended with a estimated death toll between 2.5 million an 5,4 million. Despite ongoing turmoil and devastation around the world, there is no conflict of that scale at the moment. It is therefore more likely that we will see a decrease of the number of orphans than that we will see an increase.

The third big lie in that one answer in CHIFF’s FAQ is the following statement:

The sad reality is that number of children internationally adopted by US Citizens is not declining because of a lack of need.  It is declining because international adoption has wrongly been forced off the table of appropriate permanency options for children.

Since the reason behind the decline in inter-country adoption has already been discussed earlier, we have to question the motive for CHIFF’s claim that international adoption has wrongly been forced off the table of appropriate permanency options for children.

The background for the statement can be found in the closure of Guatemala for inter-country adoptions, back in 2008. For many years, the adoption programs from Guatemala were known to be deeply corrupt. Already in 2001, Canada ended the adoption of Guatemalan children for that reason. The Netherlands followed a year later, and France ended adoption from Guatemala in 2004.

While all receiving countries in the world were ending adoptions from Guatemala, or reducing the numbers to single digits, the export of children to the United States grew almost three-fold.

The ease of adoption from Guatemala was seen as a sign of a deep problem in the rest of the world, but it was seen as a boon in the United States. Prospective adopters loved the programs, despite the steep price, and adoption agencies loved the programs, because of the steep price.

In the end, Guatemala ended inter-country adoption in 2008, under pressure of UNICEF. Prospective adopters were furious about this decision, and so was the Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS), a trade association of adoption service providers. UNICEF was blamed for putting the rights of children above the desires of adopters. Of course it wasn’t phrased in such politically incorrect terms, but it actually boiled down to that.

UNICEF, as an international organization, uses an international philosophy of child protection. The United States, always in search for exceptionalism – it is the only country in the world that doesn’t use the metric system – has its own philosophy of child protection, rooted in the notion of permanency.

Angered by UNICEF’s role in the closure of the adoption programs from Guatemala, and frustrated by the fact that the rest of the world doesn’t accept the American approach to child protection, CHIFF aims to realign the foreign policies of the United States, independent of UNICEF.

In a message point document, CHIFF makes the following statement:

The U.S. Government has effectively relinquished its policy role on international child welfare to UNICEF.

We need to retake control of U.S. foreign policy on this critical issue and lead the way in shifting the world’s focus on to the importance of family for all children.

According to CHIFF, it is time to take unilateral action in foreign policy. We all know how that worked out last time such an approach was attempted.

The permanency agenda effectively reduces the child placement options to only two options, reunification with biological parents or adoption. This becomes clear when we carefully read the definition of permanency as given in the bill:

The term ‘‘appropriate, protective, and permanent family care’’ means a nurturing, lifelong, commitment to a child by an adult, or adults with parental roles and responsibilities that:

  • provides physical and emotional support;
  • provides the child with a sense of belonging; and
  • generally involves full legal recognition of the child’s status as child of the parents and of the parents’ rights and responsibilities regarding the child.

The phrase “full legal recognition of the child’s status as child of the parents and of the parents’ rights and responsibilities regarding the child”,rules out any form of foster care, guardianship, or institutional care.

It is all the more hypocritical of CHIFF to demand other countries in this world to end these child placement options, while the United States itself has one of the largest foster care systems in the world and has thousands of children placed in residential treatment centers.

It all makes sense when we read this bill for what it is, a duplicitous attempt to increase inter-country adoption, to the benefit of prospective adopters and adoption service providers. In that context, the notion of permanency makes perfect sense, because it blocks all other child placement solutions other than adoption.

In that context too, it makes perfect sense to disregard all systemic problems faced in the field of adoption.This issue is tackled in the same FAQ on CHIFF’s website as follows:

Q. International adoption has so many problems and so much fraud. Don’t we have to fix that before we increase the numbers?

It’s really important, when thinking about international adoption, or any humanitarian program, not to lose perspective and get misled because a few tragic cases go badly.  We all grieve those cases.  But we don’t shut down hospitals because a hospital’s error causes harm to a patient.  We don’t shut down the banking system because a bank gets robbed.  Instead, we work to ensure that there are laws in place that protect against errors and crime and prosecute wrongdoers.  In this vein, CHIFF includes important elements that will help us be sure that we get it right for birth parents, adoptive parents and most importantly children in the international adoption system. Most notably, CHIFF better enables both the State Department and USAID to do the necessary work to identify unparented children, determine what is in their best interest and help them to get it, whether it’s family reunification, kinship, domestic or international adoption.

It is also important to understand that there are children in the world for whom international adoption is not only the best option, but the only option for a permanent family. In almost every country in the world, older children, children in larger sibling groups and with special medical needs, domestic options are very limited.  When international adoption is eliminated as an option, these children spend a lifetime in an institution, or worse, are left to fend for themselves.

Interestingly enough the question itself – which, as is usual in FAQ’s, is phrased by CHIFF itself, not by some outside questioner – hints to the  fact that the bill is indeed about increasing the number of inter-country adoptions, and not some other lofty goal CHIFF insists on working towards.

The answer to this question comes right out of the play book of adoption propagandists. Every systemic problem in Adoptionland is always aregrettable incident and always limited to a few tragic cases.

The realities of Adoptionland are that every country that exports more than a few hundred children each year for adoption, is faced with serious corruption. Do we really have to list the multiple trafficking cases in BulgariaCambodiaChinaEl SalvadorEthiopiaGuatemalaIndia,Liberia,  MexicoNepalRomaniaRussiaSamoaSouth KoreaUkraine, and Vietnam, to make it clear that child trafficking for the purpose of adoption is a systemic problem, or should we treat the long list of Child trafficking cases all as isolated incidents?

The comparisons in the FAQ answer to the medical field and the banking system are either erroneous, or make absolutely no sense. Hospitals are shut down when errors are systemic.

Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital is set to close down soon after failing a federal inspection. The action comes after a new round of questions about care, including one in which a woman writhed on the floor of the emergency room lobby for 45 minutes before dying of a perforated bowel. No one stepped in to help her. The Willowbrook hospital, once known as King/Drew, has been plagued by allegations of poor treatment almost since its inception 35 years ago. Scroll down for the latest coverage plus The Times’ 2004 series on King/Drew.

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-kingdrew-gallery,0,5651209.storygallery

Renaissance Hospital in Terrell had its license terminated and its doors shuttered Tuesday following the results of an investigation of massive safety failures that led to at least two deaths.

http://www.wfaa.com/news/health/renaissance-hospital-terrell-state-nursing-investigation-190907101.html

On March 23 a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a surprise inspection of the hospital near Ashland. Its conclusion was there is, “Immediate jeopardy to the health and safety of patients.” There are no patients at St. Catherine, and after state action last week, it cannot take in new patients.

http://wnep.com/2012/04/04/federal-inspection-local-hospital-put-patients-at-risk/

The banking system, doesn’t get shut down because a bank gets robbed – a most absurd comparison, since banks are not guilty when being robbed. More prudently, a bank doesn’t even get shut down when it is entirely corrupt and should be closed, since most members of congress receive huge donations from those very banks. In that sense the banking system receives similar protection from congress as the adoption system. Both can continue their corrupt practices even when systemic abuse and corruption has been demonstrated, because it suits members of congress to maintain the status quo.

Unlike the answer to the FAQ question claims, the bill contains nothing to prevent corruption. In fact, it makes it easier. By  collecting data toindentify unparented children in foreign countries, the bill makes it easier for child traffickers to find victims for their crimes. It may also make it easier for pedophiles to book their next holiday destination.

The most flagrant dishonesty is reserved for the final paragraph of the FAQ answer. It claims that the bill helps older children, sibling groups and children with special needs. These three categories of children are notoriously unwanted by adopters and no speeding up of the adoption process is going to change that. In fact, the only reason that children from these categories are adopted to some degree these days, is because it is very hard to adopt infants.

Also, by redirecting funds form USAID to facilitate inter-country adoption, as the bill aims for, less money will go toward older children, sibling groups and children with special needs. Exactly the most vulnerable children in the world stand the most to lose when this monstrosity of a bill gets enacted.

Finally, we’d like to address one of the most egregious parts of the CHIFF bill, which reads as follows:

All options for providing appropriate, protective, and permanent family care to children living without families must be considered concurrently and permanent solutions must be put in place as quickly as possible. Solutions include family preservation and reunification, kinship care, guardianship, domestic and intercountry adoption, and other culturally-acceptable forms of care that will result in appropriate, protective, and  permanent family care.

Preference should be given to options that optimize child best interests, which generally means options which provide children with fully protected legal status and parents with full legal status as parents, including full parental rights and responsibilities. The principle of subsidiarity, which gives preference to in-country solutions, should be implemented within the context of a concurrent planning strategy, exploring in- and out-of-country options simultaneously. If an in-country placement serving the child’s best interest and providing appropriate, protective, and permanent care is not quickly available, and such an international home is available, the child should be placed in that international home without delay.

Let’s forget the lofty words kinship care, guardianship, and other culturally-acceptable forms of care, we already established that appropriate, protective, and  permanent family care, requires parental rights. With that, the only real options are family preservation/reunification and adoption.

The passage is about concurrent planning, a strategy already in use in the American foster care system. The Child Welfare Information Gateway gives the following definition:

Concurrent planning is an approach that seeks to eliminate delays in attaining permanent families for children and youth in foster care. Effective implementation requires comprehensive and early assessment. It involves identifying and working toward a child’s primary permanency goal (such as reunification with the birth family) while simultaneously identifying and working on a secondary goal (such as guardianship with a relative). This practice can shorten the time to achieve permanency if efforts toward the primary goal prove unsuccessful because progress has already been made toward the secondary goal.

On the surface, it sounds reasonable to explore all options simultaneously, but it can easily lead to fast-tracked adoptions with only pro-forma investigations into family preservation/reunification. Concurrent planning only works if the agencies involved have no bias towards the chosen option. This is not the case in many foreign countries, where adoption agencies run orphanages, or donate large amounts of money to orphanages. Family preservation/reunification costs money, while inter-country adoption makes money and keeps customers happy. In such situations, concurrent planning is only a ploy to fast-track inter-country adoption.

For all the reasons outlined in this article, Pound Pup Legacy started an action to stop this bill. On our website we will add further analysis of this bill, and report on any developments in congress to advance its enactment. We also created a  Facebook pagehttps://www.facebook.com/StopCHIFF to raise more awareness about the terrible Children In Families First Act of 2013.

INFJ

After 10 days of international travel, I was invited to a Korean culture camp for adoptees and American born Korean kids.  This camp is special in that it melds the two communities – Korean adoptees and American born Korean kids.  While I thought I was showing my age by admitting that college was the first time I was fully and openly in the company of other Korean people, I am again learning that this continues to still be the case depending on where a child is adopted.  It is still possible for an adoptee, no matter the age, to feel like the only one.  I often find that the melding of American and Korean culture is still a challenge and often not fully addressed without a full commitment from the adopted person to go all in.  I am hoping this camp will hang around more so our future kids won’t feel so alienated from the community that most emulates them.  However, working at a sleep-away camp with your kids in tow is a weary experience.  On the one hand, I was fully engaged and engrossed with everything that was going on at camp, but felt like I had grown that mysterious third eye watching for my kids.  It was kind of crazy to see them in the mix of all these Korean American kids.  I could see them taking things in for the first time – grace in Korean, bowing at the end of every class, calling all the elders “teacher” and the celebration of Korean independence day literally made their jaws drop.  My big boy morphed in completely.  My little one proudly proclaimed he neither showered nor brushed his teeth all week!

So much acculturating, traveling, laundry…I was exhausted and wished for nothing more than a week to speak to no one.  I thought it was post-camp blues, but I realized that for the last three weeks, I have been in constant motion and constant thought.  And then I remembered, I am an INFJ of the Myers Briggs personality assessment.  A rare breed, we INFJs.  My desire to be mute and sit in silent contemplation could only be excused as a severe case of jetlag and the odd little personality quirk of mine to think ALOT before speaking.  As exciting as it is to do all that I did in August, the ideas and thoughts kept going in circles while my hands were busy being Mommy.

Now that I am in the comfort of a schedule and the kids are occupied with a remarkably smooth transition to school, I find myself reflecting over the last month the changes I experienced in Korea and in me.

The big wow for the kids about Korea was the motion sensors on the escalators.  We first avoided them when they were still thinking they were broken, ’cause that would be the case here in New York.  I can’t wait till America owns this idea too.  What stood out for me was seeing young women smoking in public.  After multiple visits where the ladies bathrooms would choke a horse with the smoke that filled the air, I was amused.  This development has also seemed to have impacted the men smoking  There are designated locations where smoking is permissible.  Still the men totally outnumber the women.  The nicest thing I saw was that PDA has now transcended gender.  It used to be only girls would hold girls hands and boys would walk with their arms over other boys.  Now heterosexual couples hold hands.  Finally!

Korean elders are bemoaning the demise of the Confucian ways.  Children are now being spoken to in formal Korean and that is disrupting the hierarchy that keeps the chain of respect in tact.  And yet, the very nature of etiquette is bred in the language.  The suffix -ayo/-eyo is never not used to indicate formality, politeness and distance between an older and younger person.  So I am not so convinced that the public face of Korea is in jeopardy.  Korea will remain ever polite and the expected suppression of freely expressing oneself  is still going strong.  We are still talking about Korea.

While it was really lovely to not be snickered at when speaking English out loud, I need to learn how to speak English Korean-style.  It is possible to order in English but not a guarantee you will get what you ordered.  By the time my kids travel to Korea on their own, I truly believe Korea will be bilingual, but not just yet.  I nearly laughed out loud when the English translation was sounded over the loudspeakers at the train station.  “This station stop is Uljiro Sam Ga.”  What is so funny about this is that “Sam” = 3.  If only they would say “This station stop is Uljiro Three Ga”  every single English speaker would know exactly where they are!  My last little gripe would be that no matter how modernized Seoul is, visions of its third-world past is not all together obliterated.  We loved the Korean GPS, it just didn’t save us from walking around in circles for hours to find my friend’s store.

My last thought of Korea is a personal fashion dare.  The next extremely sunny day, dare I open my sun umbrella instead of my sunglasses? I found myself eyeing them in their lovely colors and designs.  It was a moment that when in Korea, do as Koreans do…not yet in New York.

The changes in me are more conflicting.  I am forever seeking to find my place in this community of Koreans, Korean Americans and adoptees.  I am loving how easily I transition from English to Korean now both in language and mannerisms.  I am proud of the hard work put in to find such an equilibrium.  Yet, I am struck by how embroiled I can feel with the conflicts in our community of adoptees who differ so much in my perspective, my delivery, my deliberations on being adopted, being Korean and American.  I think I am finally finding the right words though.  In my adopted self, the profession I sought and the way I operate, I seek to be “eminently useful.”  I heard that phrase in church of all places.  I am at my best when I feel useful, involved, personally engaged. Being at camp getting kids to talk about race, culture and identity was thrilling.  Getting adoptees to share their stories and have others affected by them is empowering for them and for me.  Being asked by a Korean professor to teach others what I know about adoption was a high.  Coming home to sit with adoptees as they find their words to better understand themselves, create a sense of family, self identity and worth has made me feel eminent.  While I am always curious about the grander politics of adoption and I do want to be present as policy is discussed, I am realizing my INFJ ways more and more.  I work better one on one.  A contradiction here as I write these words to send out to the nebulous in hopes to reach more people outside of my little world.  Maybe there is more changing I need to do.

Launching of the Handbook to implement the Guidelines for Alternative Care for Children

It is a dangerous thing having friends who actually want better for you.  I get regular emails from a dear friend who is always letting me know of the greater world of international child welfare enticing me to fantasize of the possibility of doing social work in the way I dream.  Even living so close to New York City, it is rare to get the chunk of time needed to engage.  Lucky for me, I married the right man who endorses just about every chance I get to play with my fantasy.

Sent email reading…“Please make it home in time to pick up the kids from school, skip taekwondo, stay home to work on the cars for the pinewood derby so no one needs to be shuttled about and I will be home by 5:30 to put dinner on the table.”  Thus, by 3PM, I am sitting in UNICEF house to witness the Launch Event of Moving Forward: Implementing the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children.

Facilitating the presentation was Susan Bissell, Associate Director of Child Protection at UNICEF.  In my mind, Ms. Bissell has the most amazing job.  More pointedly, she has the most amazing memory.  I met her once and she has been gracious to remember me every time I make contact with her.

Jennifer Davidson, Director for the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland shared the process in developing the Handbook.  She offered that in launching this Handbook offers a new paradigm.  To me, she offered hope that there were real tools to use from the simple front line practitioner to the government of a country to change the way we see the care of a child who needs intervention and others to take the charge in giving them care.  The writers chose to highlight programs from countries – none represented twice – implementing various recommendations.  From the US was the adoption agency, You Gotta Believe!, an agency that specializes in finding homes for adolescents and kids who age out of foster care.  Anyone who has ever heard Pat O’Brien, Executive Director of this organization, would walk away believing in him and his mission.  I still remember a marvelous story Mr. O’Brien shared years ago of a creative mother, a curse word and a birthday cake.

Third to speak was Cecilia Anicama, Programme Specialist to the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence against Children.  What stood out of Ms. Anicama’s presentation was the affirmation that we need to prevent institutionalization.  That statement wasn’t made to pander to the audience as she knows all too well, there will always be children who need to be cared for outside of their family of origin.  But institutionalizing a child exposes a child to violence six times higher than a child who is placed in foster care.  Ms. Anicama specified this violence in terms of bullying, abuse and violence by other children.  An affirmation again of what I learned living with the children of the orphanage I came from.  It felt like “Lord of Flies”, I don’t think I was far off in that analogy.

Minister of Social Welfare of Indonesia
Inspiring that a country that actually commits to implementing the guidelines and use the Handbook as a tool to inform government.  A country that espoused a “system of child welfare as institutional care” in 2005 with 8000 child care institutions where 90% of the children are not orphaned or abandoned has a right to be optimistic about their changes as by 2011, Indonesia set a national standard of care that targets education, health, parental support and social welfare for children.  I think the standout statement was when Minister Sunusi admitted to a governmental re-evaluation of the funding of institutions and suggested that funds were changed to family support with a comprehensive assessment of a child’s needs.

Listening to Minister Sunusi, I had the fantasy that someday, the Minister of Health and Welfare of South Korea would say something along the same lines.  While talking to one of my orphanage brothers recently, I am reminded our orphanage is still a home to children, not one legally free for adoption.  My old Home exists for the parents to temporarily place their children while they get their act together, get a job, get remarried, etc.  But I know, rare is the kid who escapes the stigma of being an “orphanage kid” as rare is the kid who gets to leave the Home before the age of 16, forever a second class citizen.

The room was nearly 60 plus full of people and I felt so small and inconsequential knowing that many were doing the work that this Handbook was recommending.  Hard questions were asked about how to promote this new paradigm of child centered thinking where there is so little in the way of funding and resources.

Language was the most profound concept for me while listening.  Global initiatives and working with people who use words differently, speak differently, will push one to be polite, respectful, circumspect, careful and very specific.  With dissonance there comes even more care in the choice of words without losing the passion for the work that needs to be addressed.  There was the call to make a distinction between “residential care” vs. “institutional care”.  Too, culture was all enmeshed in the rhetoric.  It was brought up that there is an Eastern European country that has physicians encouraging parents to place their special needs newborns into an institution, eschewing these babies away.  I know they are not the only one choosing to hide away their less than typical babies to be raised in aggregate care rather than in the arms of humans, especially their parents, who will touch them, reach out to them, be touched by them, see them with potential.  An education not just for a society to change the way they see their children, but the education may even begin with the most educated of society.

Adoption was everywhere in the discussion.  My ears perked every time I heard the word being used.  It was refreshing to hear it in the context of a list of alternatives for children, in neutral but necessary terms. I believe that is where the word adoption is suited best, within a context of options.

The paradigm I was hearing and envisioning was a space in which the child was the source and center of intervention options.  I hope I was getting that right.

Please read the complete Handbook with me.  I am halfway through.  http://www.alternativeguidelines.org

Privilege

If you are living a life where there seemed to be little choice, little care in how you think or feel; where happiness as a possible pursuit was dashed, I wonder if it is nearly impossible to think of life as privileged based on the color of your skin, your gender or sexual orientation?  I do workshops on race and racism with adoptive parents, mostly Caucasian adoptive parents to children who are not.  I had a father, Caucasian, who was genuine in his confusion as to how I could possibly label him “privileged.”  How dare I – who knows nothing about him, what he has lived or how he has struggled – possibly say he comes from a place of privilege based on his gender and his skin color?  He’s right.  How dare I?  But how could I see it and he can’t/won’t? I am a woman, adopted, Asian American. How would I cross that chasm to bring him to my world?  What was I inviting him to see?  Will seeing it be worth all the work, resentment, pain and shame?  What would it take for him to know what it feels like to be me?  Is it just because he has a kid that looks like me?  Is that enough of a reason for him to get it?  While I don’t think so, it is a beginning.  I want him to get it as a human being, not just a father of a child who was born from a Korean person.  But for a moment, he was willing to listen because I look like his kid.

It isn’t right for me to want to humble this man into believing that he has walked through life without having to second guess his right to be in a room, in a restaurant, in a store, in a place of higher education, in a neighborhood.  If he does know those feelings, does he get that he has far more places to escape to than I do?  What is my end goal in getting in touch with these feelings?  Compassion for people like me, like his son?  Perhaps it is compassion for himself so he can own his privilege and in that owning be open to others who are not.

It got me thinking of how I could convey to this Dad a way of thinking that comes to me pretty regularly based on traveling in this country in places where my face was clearly an apparition, not just the Caucasian world I would add.  There are places I don’t go not because I can’t but because I won’t dare.  There are some places in this country where it would not fall on my radar of options even if I think myself brave and adventurous; not because of fear or insecurity but because of fear of death.

More subtly and consistently is the knowing what privilege does for anyone.  With it, I know eventually I will be accepted if I make one connection.  Without it, I feel unwelcome and most definitely waiting for a chance for someone to take the risk in getting acquainted.  That simultaneous feeling of unwelcome and waiting is really humiliating.

I think what is slippery for an adopted person of color though is that we live in privilege, see it up close and personal and most often operate from that same sense of knowing as our Caucasian parents do until…. the line gets cut off right behind them in a restaurant leaving you behind, until you are spoken to loudly because the assumption is you don’t speak English, until the dressing attendant passes you by to give your options to the other girl who matches your Mother’s complexion far better than you do.  A one off?  Could be.  An embarrassing moment?  For them maybe.  Completely understandable?  Not totally.  Not if you are in my shoes today and every day.

At the same time, I fully suspect there are transracial adoptees who believe themselves to be a version of their Caucasian upbringing and believe that shared history entitles them to the same privilege as their parents.  How humiliating when it is not.  How disturbing to see such ignorance within our own community.  How helpless it feels to see the pain of realization when that changes.

I find myself ruminating about the father who was brave to challenge this notion of privilege.  I felt as if he was was listening to a vocabulary that was all new.  He was genuine in his non-understanding of it.  I think what put me off was the defensive posturing that went along with it.  Again, privilege without knowing it. Getting defensive feels like a luxury.  Who has time to debate whether racism and privilege exist or not? Yet, time is what I really want. Time to talk, to listen, to challenge and to invite.

What strikes me odd about the conversation of privilege is that I am the one doing the thinking, the inviting, the asking, the educating as if I am the pied piper hoping for followers to hear the music when others don’t.   I cannot imagine living in one or two dimensions, homogeneous and passively engaged upon.  But I doubt there is a sense of privilege in that either.  What is the subtlety I keep twisting in my fingers that have no words?  As I see it, it is my privilege to see the differences, the times when inequality happens.  I love the music and colors I see in my world of being other. It is my narrative burden and yet I am empowered.  I am empowered by the challenges overcome, the pain transformed and the celebration of uniqueness. I want others to see it, to reflect on it. Without it, I would feel so empty. I don’t really think of it as a burden, it is a privilege for me to talk to people about this subject matter.

I always leave workshops hoping to gain more members (allies?) of my world of color.  Not confident that I do.  After all, I know that that father can walk out of the room and never have to think about this again.  He doesn’t absolutely have to get it.  He actually will still be loved by his son; he may even be given a pass of forgiveness for not getting it.  Privilege. But I fear his world will be absent of a real connection to his child and the legacy of the family he created by adopting him.  I know too many adoptees who leave their relationships with their parents behind because this cannot and will not be open for discussion.  For them it is not just a matter of privilege, but of life.

Resolving my resolutions

Resolutions are hard.  I am terrible at keeping them.  This blog has been a resolution of sorts.  Clearly, I have already fallen off the wagon!

I have been collecting scraps of paper again scribbling things down that have happened in the past year, that would be 2012.  While baking, putting up and taking down the tree, trying to put in exercise into my 2013 regiment, dealing with the flu or whatever bug the kids have been passing back and forth to each other, I am always thinking.  My lens is still adoption. Adoption is never casual in my life.  I can’t simply say I am adopted or that I work in adoption and let it be.  There is always something personal that comes up.  There is rarely something personal about being a tax attorney, a hedge fund guy, a doctor, in the same gut kicking way it can be for me as an adoptee who works in adoption.

In my reflecting, I got to meet more adoptees than I have in a very long time.  Introverted by nature, meeting new people and doing small talk is not a natural occurrence.  I have really enjoyed meeting this new group of adoptees.  They are in the collective of being a generation behind me.  They remind me of how unique our experiences are and I love that they are optimistic enough to choose to work in this field, challenge and change the language.  I am most impressed by their connection to Korea, some lived there for years, some are anxious to live there.  I like this new role I am finding myself in, the role of teacher and mentor.  Always mothering and yet with the added excitement of passing along my 20 years of life working in adoption.  Inspired and looking forward to inspiring.

While my reading and educating these days are limited to Time Magazine, Newsweek, NPR, Melanie Klein and Winnicott, I am loyal to KoreAm magazine too.  Aside from the beautiful eye candy of Korean and Korean American men on the cover, I have been impressed by the magazine’s continual coverage of issues facing adoptees – from the twins who are homeless in Washington, DC, to featuring an adoptee with world renowned chefs, to a story on an adoptee who is involved in activism for issues in Korea.  Thank you KoreAm for your inclusion of adoptees in just about every issue!

2012 brought an awareness of other areas of activism that I have often felt too overwhelmed to think about.  The issues of deportation, citizenship, wrongful death of adopted children and suicide among the adoptee community.  I thank the few but vocal adoptees who have pushed to get these stories out.  I am grateful for the APRC (Adoption Policy and Reform Collaborative) for wanting to shed brighter lights on these issues.  I have been challenged to be more inclusive and realize that I need to get my head out of my ass and think more about those who have really struggled.  Is it just because of adoption?  Is adoption THE symptom?  If these children and adults were not adopted, would it have changed things?  Are we looking at victims or part of the solution? Food for more thought.

2012 brought some personal victories and has fueled new passion.  I have been thinking of the now decades I have been in the adoption community and realize only now I am not alone.  My friend Martha (and mom of two adopted kids) and I have become a presenting duo!  And our blog – alliesandagitators.com – has been really fun to write.  To find an ally is like finding a part of you in someone else.  She has stood up for me, stood with me and made me feel less crazy.  I have been asked to write for other blogs.  I have been told by dear friends that I need to stop feeling like I need to prove and sit in the place of knowing.  I have been asked to write more and so, I am resolved to do just that.

While the lens is adoption, I am finding my eyes diverting.  After meeting with the head of advocacy for the SOS Children’s Villages, I realized that at every turn when adoption is discussed, we never complete the conversation about where homeless, orphaned, abused/neglected children should be?  To often the children’s issues get diverted to the grown ups in the situation – parental rights, women’s issues, institutional policies, politics.  I am drawn to the SOS Children’s Villages construct because it focuses on child and family with the basic caveat that children belong in families.  But they take it one step further to ensure continuity for children and while adoption is not off the table, it is not the central apparatus to create family.  The first page of their booklet has the word CARE.  I think this is my new favorite word.  I had been asked to review statements on adoption for this organization.  I am resolved to finish those statements and I am looking forward to a change in direction where adoption is not the only lens I see my life through.

“Getting it” in two conversations

There is a moment whenever my child gets sick that I say that little prayer to the nebulous, “Please give me his pain. Let me go through the suffering so he won’t have to.”  When I think about mothering, I often find myself in a state of worry.  I worry for my kid in hopes he won’t have to.  That sense of sacrifice feels instinctual, the ultimate show of parental love.  It got me thinking about a conversation with my friend M.  There are times we fill in the spaces of the emotional pie for our children, but it is not our right to inhabit it forever.  Anger, pain, fear are all emotions we hope our children will never feel, but feel they must.  It is our job as the adults in the relationship to be strong enough to absorb those feelings not inhabit them or take up the space where it belongs.  So naturally, my head goes to adoption and how adoption complicates everything, even an innocuous thought about mothering.  M is an adoptive mother and someone I enjoy talking to as she uses great big words with so much enthusiasm I find myself compelled to understand just to keep up my end of the conversation.  Actually, what I love most about M is that she gets me, my rage and translates them into manageable words.  She is even gracious enough to apply theory to my words and feelings making me feel far more educated.  She listens and cheers me on encouraging my words to come out.  So, I guess I would say she gets adoption, my sense of being adopted.  She gives me permission to be mad.  I hope I do that for her too.

Back to the conversation where we get to the occupation of the emotional pie.  Cycling in my head is this thought – I don’t get it when some adoptive parents jump on the advocacy train toward the abolition of adoption or when I see them align themselves with adoptees in order to make amends for their decision to become adoptive parents.  I feel they are taking up space, adoptee space, holding it so their kid won’t.  In my imagination, I find myself elbowing them out of the way objecting to their indignation that adoptions should be done differently.

Fast forward.  Relaying this conversation to a mommy friend and fellow adoptee evolves into the inevitable question, “what do you mean, she gets it?  what does “it” mean when an adoptee lauds an adoptive parent for getting it?”  It feels like there is a certain way to get adoption for adoptive parents.  It is an emotional mine that I praise them for trying to navigate at the same time I am totally calling them out on it.  If adoptive parents get into the anti-adoption movement or get into the self deprecation mode of apologizing for adoption and the industry they benefited from, does that mean they get it?  Or are they just inhabiting that angry place so their child won’t be able to, making no room for the child to be enraged and turn on his adoptive parents like every other child must in order to be free to become his own person? When an adoptive parent “gets it”, what does that entail?  How do we know?  What does that look like?

Does getting adoption mean there needs to be an act of contrition?  Are we waiting for an apology for doing THE DEED?   I know I am oversimplifying the complicated, but it is precisely the complicated I wish more people would sit with when talking about adoption once you spend a moment to ponder all the moving parts.  When I see adoptive parents taking the helm to stop corruption in adoption, there are times I feel like it is a step into the place of the adopted.  I take issue with the idea that to adopt and fully embrace the complicated means regret and remorse that leads to placating those of us who are angry with our situation.  I have to be frank, it does nothing for me.  I am ok with adoption as a choice and I celebrate with those who decide adoption is how they will create their family.  But something happens when an adoptive parent chooses to see the complicated.  It seems that to embrace the sadness and the loss means they must abandon their personal joy in being an adoptive parent and that is not ok with me.

If I had a fantasy script for what I have been waiting to hear, it would sort of go like this:

After adopting, I gained a different understanding of the nuances of adoption and the many losses that are suffered by adoptees, birth parents and me.  It was only after the aodption did I realize what I never wanted to admit, that adoption was never about you, but it was about me. 

So, while I get the urge to take away the pain, joining me in it all the time can feel equally oppressive.  The reality is that becoming a parent, no matter how, is a great thrill.  To say yes to adoption, is a great leap of faith.  I get that much and I am the adopted one.

PS. if you are seeing links in the post, it is not from me, it’s wordpress.  my apologies if it offends, can’t figure out how to turn it off

UNICEF

I can remember clearly the yellow walls and Holly Hobby bedspreads in my room the night I arrived in America.  On the wall were a few pictures, one was a poster of UNICEF – three color blocked children sitting on top of a white dove.  That poster was on the wall for the duration we lived in that home.  I loved that poster.  I took it to mean that there was a group of people who looked out for all children, no matter their color.  It embodied a sense of hope for me. I remember wanting to work for UNICEF.  It is on my bucket list to someday be a part of UNICEF in a project in some way.

One of my first writing projects when I worked at the EBD Adoption Institute was to write a paper comparing the UN Rights of the Child and the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption.  I was struck by how much these two documents had in common and remain curious as to how the United States felt it was ok to ratify the Hague but not the UNRC?  If I stick to typical social situations and pop culture as my source, I find adoption is still second-best, for some completely abhorant to the possibility of having a “child of my own.” I know, I am oversimplifying it, but for those conspiracy theorists among us, I am certain the thought of market forces impacting adoption plays a huge factor in the Hague being ratified and the other stuck having only been signed.

Now, I literally living my dream chance.  It isn’t UNICEF, but so close, an international NGO that is one answer to the plight of children who are without parents.  Between assisting them craft their position statements on adoption and spending half of September with the APRC group to draft a position paper on the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act of 2012, I realize my stand on adoption is gaining clarity.  It isn’t so much whether adoption should or shouldn’t happen.  That ship has sailed centuries ago.  It is about when and how it should happen if we believe the child is the central focus, the client.  Our definition of “child” and all he/she is entitled to keeps evolving, but I am glad that UNICEF hasn’t changed their perspective, or has it?  This sentence caught my eye in particular – For individual children who cannot be cared for in a family setting in their country of origin, inter-country adoption may be the best permanent solution. I appreciate the choice of words here and can well imagine how many hours it took to craft such a sentence.  What I am struck by is the contrast in perception that UNICEF is a major roadblock to international adoption.  With a sentence like that, how can anyone believe all this venom is warranted?  Furthermore, what is so wrong about a leading international organization, created to support families and protect children from exploitation, making a stand that adoption not be the main priority?  Color me naive, but I am totally OK with UNICEF being there to be the stalwart bar set on how we prioritize adoption.  As long as there are articles that read like this – The Evangelical Adoption Crusade , we need them to stay that way.

I thought I would post what UNICEF has on their site about their thoughts on inter-country adoption.

UNICEF’s position on Inter-country adoption

Since the 1960s, there has been an increase in the number of inter-country adoptions.  Concurrent with this trend, there have been growing international efforts to ensure that adoptions are carried out in a transparent, non-exploitative, legal manner to the benefit of the children and families concerned. In some cases, however, adoptions have not been carried out in ways that served the best interest of the children — when the requirements and procedures in place were insufficient to prevent unethical practices.  Systemic weaknesses persist and enable the sale and abduction of children, coercion or manipulation of birth parents, falsification of documents and bribery.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which guides UNICEF’s work, clearly states that every child has the right to grow up in a family environment, to know and be cared for by her or his own family, whenever possible.  Recognising this, and the value and importance of families in children’s lives, families needing assistance to care for their children have a right to receive it. When, despite this assistance, a child’s family is unavailable, unable or unwilling to care for her/him, then appropriate and stable family-based solutions should be sought to enable the child to grow up in a loving, caring and supportive environment.
Inter-country adoption is among the range of stable care options.  For individual children who cannot be cared for in a family setting in their country of origin, inter-country adoption may be the best permanent solution.

UNICEF supports inter-country adoption, when pursued in conformity with the standards and principles of the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-country Adoptions – already ratified by more than 80 countries. This Convention is an important development for children, birth families and prospective foreign adopters. It sets out obligations for the authorities of countries from which children leave for adoption, and those that are receiving these children. The Convention is designed to ensure ethical and transparent processes. This international legislation gives paramount consideration to the best interests of the child and provides the framework for the practical application of the principles regarding inter-country adoption contained in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  These include ensuring that adoptions are authorised only by competent authorities, guided by informed consent of all concerned, that inter-country adoption enjoys the same safeguards and standards which apply in national adoptions, and that inter-country adoption does not result in improper financial gain for those involved in it.  These provisions are meant first and foremost to protect children, but also have the positive effect of safeguarding the rights of their birth parents and providing assurance to prospective adoptive parents that their child has not been the subject of illegal practices.

The case of children separated from their families and communities during war or natural disasters merits special mention.  Family tracing should be the first priority and inter-country adoption should only be envisaged for a child once these tracing efforts have proved fruitless, and stable in-country solutions are not available. This position is shared by UNICEF, UNHCR, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Hague Conference on Private International Law, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and international NGOs such as the Save the Children Alliance and International Social Service.
UNICEF offices around the world support the strengthening of child protection systems. We work with governments, UN partners and civil society to protect vulnerable families, to ensure that robust legal and policy frameworks are in place and to build capacity of the social welfare, justice and law enforcement sectors.

Most importantly, UNICEF focuses on preventing the underlying causes of child abuse, exploitation and violence.

New York 22 July 2010

A perfect storm

A perfect storm has been brewing this summer of 2012.  Perfection in that the most eclectic group of adoptees have said yes to joining forces.  Individually, we have contributed to the adoption community spinning in separate universes.  Again, our singular experience of being adopted has unified us.  Some of us are born in the US, others born overseas, some adopted here and still others adopted elsewhere but have returned to their motherland, the USA.

So the Adoption Policy and Reform Collaborative (APRC) has been created to further support our individual efforts to change the way adoption is viewed, spoken about, thought about and legislated about.  To head things off is a stellar letter that I hope you will all read.

I confess in reading the letter, supporting it and promoting it, I need to make some amends.  To me, this letter provoked me to think about the ethical obligations I have to my fellow adoptees in encouraging them to speak and share their very personal stories.  As a collector of stories, I have cherished them and in their retelling, try hard to honor the power and lessons learned.  I readily encourage adoptees to go and talk.  I loved doing the “speaking circuit” as my own narrative gained clarity.  I saw the power in the messages of pain, grief, balance and insight into what it means to be an adopted person.  Yet, in my earnestness to get our collective voices louder, I think there were times I failed to protect the storytellers.  They had been asked to be vulnerable, cry and often times wrap it all up in a nice neat package when they weren’t ready or done being angry or pained.

This reminds me of a time when being a part of a non-profit in NYC for international adoptees we came to a crossroad.  We had logged in at least a hundred hours driving all over the tri-state area speaking on panels sharing our stories and giving voice to the adopted experience.  We answered the most mundane of questions like “how do you identify yourself?” to the most personal, “how do your parents feel about you now?”  We answered them truthfully and earnestly grateful for one person in the room to “get it” and hopefully parent their child differently.  And we did it all for free.  The evolution of a paid speaker’s bureau began to take root.  In the organization’s growth, we began to feel empowered to ask for money in exchange for our travel and time.  The asking was extremely hard for us and we felt a bit embarrassed to ask for an honorarium just to hear about how our life turned out.  In the asking, we held ourselves accountable to be agents of change for way the future generations of adoptees were going to see themselves.  What I gleaned from that experience though was the knowledge that my story had value, merit and was worth a few dollars.  The honorariums were an acknoweldgement of a life with achievements and a symbol of gratitude.

I still trip over myself in asking to be paid but more often than not, I am offered.  Astounding.  And when I am denied, I can walk away without feeling guilty or shameless.  It has been over a decade since my last “speaker’s bureau” and I feel I have garnered the bona fides to be considered a professional in this field who haappens to have an interesting adoption story.  But I am reminded in reading this letter by the APRC that I have more work to do in empowering the voices of adoption.  In that role, it may mean that I help someone say no to sharing their story.  So thank you SBA, SWH and JRK for reminding us to remain vigilant in our work.

One last apology to my fellow APRC members.  This should have been sent out weeks ago.  In truth, you can’t say you are an advocate and let little things like what a parent is ordering their kid for school lunch get in the way!  Have to check my priorities once again.