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Fandom Primer on International Adoption as a story trope

July 24, 2010

This was written last year on livejournal in response to a spate of fanfic stories that used international adoption to write stories involving children for a gay couple, without involving a prior heterosexual relationship.

There were some wonderful comments, my notes from them included at the end of this, but the post itself is repeated without editing here:


October 2009

I’ve noticed that adoption is being used in slash fanfic as a way to write a kidfic without having to deal with a previous heterosexual relationship.

A couple of the stories get stuff really right, and are amazing reads. Some stories have it as background material, and it works fine.

Some stories get it painfully wrong in a way that jolts a reader who is in the adoption triad out of the story.

And adoption is a growing social and political thing – most people know someone involved in adoption in some way, and it’s no longer a hidden silent matter of individual families.

So here’s a very basic primer:

1. Vocabulary.

People are pretty divided about terms, and a lot depends on the intent behind using it. Personally, I like first mother, second mother, etc in daily life, while I will use adoptive parent and birth parents in technical discussions because those are the accepted term. I hate real parent because it says only one parent is real, and becomes divisive, although natural parent has grown on me. Birth parent is an obnoxious catchall because it implies that that’s it, birth, nothing else, for this relationship. Adoptees are pretty much stuck with adoptee or adopted child for now, although many self describe themselves as bastards, reclaiming the name.

2. There are two major types of adoption: open and closed.

Closed is when the second family has none or very mediated (agency vets letters) contact with the first family. The growing consensus is that closed adoptions suck. I pretty firmly believe they do, and have yet to see an example to convince me otherwise. However! they were the norm for the last couple of decades, and continue to be the norm in international adoptions.

An open adoption means the child has ongoing contact, either through mail, calls or visits, with the first family. Maybe not all of them, maybe just one parent or with siblings, but there is an acknowledged on-going relationship.

In the U.S. most states don’t recognize open adoptions in the sense of legally enforcing them. These are private arrangements, and all the power is in the adoptive parents’ hands. Once they are the legal parents, they can deny contact to the first parents.

And yes, kids with open adoptions manage to figure out what to call their parents. My youngest rattles off the whole list of his extended families, and I know families that say Mom and Mama, or Mommy Kate and Mommy Tina etc.

3. They’ll take the baby back, won’t they?

The cases where a birth parent changes their mind and takes a kid back is both common and rare. Good agencies, good placement homes and (if your characters are decent people, and not say Lex Luthor) you will have some kind of waiting period. The first priority is to try and keep the baby with their first parents. Waiting periods vary, but it is becoming accepted that you want at least a couple of months with support to see if the first mother can manage. A lot do, and decide to parent their child. So adoptive parents who wanted an infant, get disappointed a lot.

However, you should not get given a baby available for adoption, and then have the baby taken away afterwards. This happens if the agency or lawyer has fucked up the paperwork and transferred a kid that is not actually cleared for adoption. This happens because of greed, stupidity and deception. A birth father who didn’t know about the child, finds out, a birth mother who was pressured into giving up the child, gets her strength back – it happens because someone screwed up the process largely, and so the final adoption isn’t valid. Anna Mae He is a really good example.

It is possible in lots of places to foster to adopt, where you take in a baby or child who is not available for adoption, on the understanding that if they do become available during that time, you are the first choice for the adoption. Emotionally tough as hell, a really good option for a kid to minimize transitions, but in this case, yes, kids get returned to their first families because that’s considered a successful outcome. The less successful outcome is a final adoption.

4. How old will the kid be?

Infant adoptions are super rare. The at-birth adoptions are becoming to be seen as bad ideas, so the thing where the adoptive parents are in the delivery room and take the baby home from the hospital – that is just dicey. And usually requires a lot of money.

This is the economics of it. Lots of people want babies, few babies are available. Thus babies are super expensive. Private agencies charge upwards from $20,000 for a healthy baby placement in the states.

Your characters will be limited in their adoption by three major factors:
Where they live, how much money they have, and somewhat by race.

Race is easing up for transracial adoptions, because it is possible to do a successful transracial adoption. Takes more effort from the parent, but there’s a growing community and so on. But if you have a white couple and a black couple looking to adopt a black-hispanic baby, the black couple win hands down.

Where they live will decide on if they can adopt as a gay couple, adopt as a single and then apply for a second-parent adoption, or are barred at all (Florida, I’m glaring at you!).

Outside the US, only Europe, Australia and New Zealand are straight forward in gays adopting. Most other countries either don’t recognize the possibility (allowing for single people to adopt if they don’t mention they’re gay) or ban it outright.

Oh, and religion. Big big blooper: you cannot adopt easily if you are muslim. You can only adopt a baby, and there are inheritance restrictions and so on. A non-practising muslim could, but someone who was living in a largely muslim country or a practising muslim would not adopt. They might very well foster or be legal guardians instead which is pretty common.

Money. Adoption in the U.S. can be free or very low cost if it’s done through the state system. Some direct placements with a lawyer for paperwork can be low-cost. Some church groups subsidize heavily. But if you are going through a non-government agency, whether it claims to be non-profit or is openly for profit, it will cost at least $8,000 for a very cheap adoption. It can go up to $20,000 for an international adoption, plus there’s travel costs.

Surrogacy is similarly expensive, and is a whole ‘nother issue. Donor sperm and donor eggs too – many of the kids from this are identifying themselves as adoptees now. It’s going to explode in about 10 years as a lot of these kids become questioning adults.

So your fictional new child is very unlikely to be an infant. They might be anywhere from 6 months to 18 months (considered an infant) to 18 months to 5 years (considered a young child). Over 5 would be considered an older child adoption.

When you apply, an agency will ask you what gender, age group and special needs you will consider.

Handsdown, the most popular choice is a healthy infant girl. Slate has a good piece on why.

Least popular are older boys with special needs. Almost no-one wants ’em.

Special needs can mean a host of things. Usually they are fixable things – Naleigh, Katherine Heigl’s daughter from South Korea for instance needs heart surgery. Leaving aside that this could have been done in South Korea which has an excellent medical system, and that South Korea is closing international adoptions, this is pretty typical. You get a lot of repaired cleft palettes, and so on. Then you have serious medical issues – blindness, deafness, cerebral palsy and so on. Down syndrome babies are also frequently placed. People do, with a lot of joy, choose to adopt these kids. Often, they’ve had experience in their own family with a medical issue, so they can handle it.

5. What about domestic adoptions in the US?

Go and buy The Kid by Dan Savage and he will step you through a fairly middle of the road adoption through the state by a gay couple. Also it is a fantastic book. For the UK, I dunno, but it is a well-documented process.

There are lots of issues with foster-care kids or state-placed children. It mostly boils down to luck of the case worker you get, and how insane your local system is.

Domestic private adoption is the U.S. is hideous. On an individual level, there have been good situations. On a systematic level, it is baby trafficking and systematically targets young women in crisis, deliberately downplaying alternatives. It is horrific. If your story does not acknowledge the problems and paints a happy-ever-after agency picture, I will stop reading and assume you are an idiot.

6. International adoption. There are several major reasons to do international adoption by an American, and these are:

A. Fear of the first family. Wanting to have a closed adoption of a child, people go overseas figuring that the first family can’t contact them again. Seriously.

B. They don’t qualify or can’t afford the adoption in their own country. This can be because they’re gay or older, the type of child they want – a healthy infant usually – would require a much higher fee. Sometimes they don’t qualify locally because they are crazy or vile, but usually it’s a saner reason. Oh! Family size sometimes disqualifies you locally.

C. They have a connection to that country – they are Guatemalan by heritage or Indian-American or whatever. By the way, ethnic Indians citizens of other countries can adopt faster from India than other races. This applies also for special needs.

D. They are living abroad. This happens a lot with military families or other expat families.

E. They want a guaranteed timeframe and child. Domestic ethical adoption (gimme $200,000 and you’ll have a baby girl in a week, seriously) done properly involves a lot of uncertainty. Maybe they’ve been through that, or they just can’t bear waiting another couple of years. They pick international because within X-months, they will have a child.

F. They are crazy. Seriously. The parents with A and E are just scared and/or selfish, and can grow out of it. Then you get the ones who must have a baby from China because they honestly think they are either saving a heathen soul or that they are mystically connected to that country blah blah. You get crazies.

In my case, we didn’t qualify locally because we hadn’t been married long, and the private adoptions here are skeevy as hell.

7. Now, why is that kid available for adoption? In international adoption, there are a couple of reasons, and it could be a mix of these, though each country is unique.

A. Poverty PLUS a social system that doesn’t help poor people keep their kids. Strangely, agencies are not clamouring to help with that.

B. Low status of single mothers and women.

C. Kids removed from horrible family situations. If the country has a crappy social system (hello Russia! Hello Cambodia!) it will usually mean really severe abuse, in which case you have traumatised
kids, mostly older, available for adoption.

D. China’s contraception policy, and on the other end, for a while, Romania’s. I would consider this linked to low status of women though.

E. Lots of medical stuff – disabled kids, kids with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome etc. These are not prime adoptable material anyway, and if you are gonna write a story about adopting a special needs international kid, do your research! I know a couple and their families are awesome, but it isn’t simple parenting.

F. War and devestation. AHAHAHAHAH. No. There is a very firm consensus that children should NOT be adopted immediately after a war or natural disaster. You get a lot of confusion and families split up. It usuallyt akes several years before international adoptions resume.

8. Where can you learn about the system in each place?

Google is your friend. Stay AWAY from agency sites. The department of state is pretty dry, adoption.about.com is okay, and read blogs of parents going through an adoption.

9. What should I consider?

First, go read The Lie We Love and Reverse Robin Hood.

If you adopt internationally, you’re very often supporting a system that is hurting poor women and creating a way for governments to avoid taking care of their most vulnerable kids. Acknowledge this.

Stereotypes. Racial issues. Cultural issues. Who your characters know who has been adopted or placed a child.

And child trafficking. All four of my kids were trafficked, two for international adoption. I cannot think of a single country that has not had child trafficking for international adoption. It is horrible, horrible, and exists. Acknowledge it.

And for the love of mike, they’re not all the same. Some adoptees barely think about their adoptions. Some are activists for better adoption. You will get a lot of conflicting advice and opinions.

A good parent looking to adopt overseas would be making an effort to consider this stuff. They might be learning some of the language for the older kid, they would be expected to turn their whole family into a multicultural/racial family, because that’s what they are now. They might move to become part of a multicultural neighbourhood.

Oh, and the gratitude thing. It is totally true. People expect adoptees to be grateful for being ‘rescued’, and often expect adoptees to represent their entire birth country, or to reveal all their personal history for someone else’s curiousity.

READ adoptee blogs. Run your story by an adult adoptee and an adoptive parent. You wouldn’t write a story about climbing Mt Everest if you didn’t know what a crampon is, right? (I don’t know what a crampon is either.)

10. Okay, this is too much work. I just want a cute baby!

Then have a kinship adoption. Tragic car accident, cousins die and leave their baby to your character. Or an ex-girlfriend dies and ta-dah, instant baby!

ETA: I forgot to add that while yes, most adoptive parents start after infertility (we had a bunch of early miscarriages and didn’t want to do IVF etc), there are people who have secondary infertility (they had one or two kids, then couldn’t conceive another), and people who could have biological children, but decide then to adopt, or who decide to adopt first then have another kid biologically.

And like with a biological baby, people can crash after the child arrives home. They don’t have the physical hormone swings, but the exhaustion and anticipation, the sudden new responsibility – it is a huge upheaval. Only a few companies and places give adoption leave for a new child similar to maternity/paternity leave, so the first few months can be huge. Adoptees have been murdered by their new parents during the first year home.

And this is a term you’ll see thrown around: Reactive Attachment Disorder. Kids that have spent time bouncing between caretakers or have been neglected often do badly with new parents because they basically have been taught the world is a horrible and harsh place. Some adopted kids, like the general population, are psycho. Maybe more than the normal percentage because alcoholism, metal illness etc that’s hereditary might lead to more likely social problems. There’s a lot of conflicting data about this, with some reports saying adoptees are more vulnerable, others seeing the same range of outcome as biological kids.

RAD is a bit like ADHD – over diagnosed. When it exists, it will destroy a family, and it does exist, but the therapies for it range hugely and include some ghastly abusive practices.

Don’t write about it without putting in a helluva lot of research. But yes, you should include something about bonding. Some new parents fall in love with their adopted child immediately, some take months. Some children bond very quickly, others take it in slow stages.

Oh, and grief. Kids grieve and question. Nowdays, the practice is to acknowledge the adoption, and to answer kids’ questions appropriately. A common practice is a ‘lifebook’, a sort of scrapbook for the child’s personal history, as far back as possible. This is *very* common with fostered children and in open adoptions.

It is super common for kids to not ask questions one month, then have a ton of questions the next month.

With international adoption – the second parents should have a decision about the language, raising the child to be bilingual, whether to keep her birth name (for babies, it’s usually a middle name, for older kids, it’s often kept for continuity), and which customs to integrate, what to skip. Like, some people skip Kwanzaa because they don’t think it’s geniuine, but they make sure their school is racially mixed.


Notes from the discussion on LJ:

  • This is specific to current Western-tradition adoption. Adoption practices and beliefs have dramatically differed over time and between cultures, e.g. Ancient Rome, 19th century China etc.
  • To emphasize again how much the social and legal power is stacked in favour of the adoptive parents in the adoption triad, and that birthparent and adoptee voices are routinely and systematically silenced – often with good intent, but awful outcome
  • That a common media trope is that an infertile woman will conceive after adopting, i.e. adopt so your body realises you’re serious about this kid business! This is AFAIK statistics. Infertility is often a crapshoot and a woman with a 2% chance of conceiving may have that 2% post-adoption, which is then conflated into many women having a child after adopting.
  • Security risks can and do happen, especially when the child has been adopted because of neglect or abuse. Often, contact is still encouraged because the child needs continuity, answers or simply has a relationship with their first family, damaged as it might be. Adoptive parents then have to negotiate, balancing the need for contact with security, such as meeting in a neutral place, etc. This is a difficult and delicate situation, and not the same as emotional jealousy as a reason to deny contact.
  • Mental illness can be a reason for a child to need a second family. Often, and usually best, that second family is part of the child’s extended family – an aunt, a cousin, or grandparents. After that, it’s a family with the same general background and culture as the child. This is simply because the child has already been through a major trauma, and the more connected they are, the easier the transition is.
  • Most of all – this stuff requires real research and thought. Skimming some adoptee blogs and this primer? Not enough. Your story will be better and you will be better (or at least more thoughtful) if you read and reflect widely first.

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