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Starting adoptions from the other side of the table

November 30, 2010

So, Riverkids – the NGO I work for – is in the middle of arranging two adoptions. Technically, they’re long-term fostering agreements expected to be finalized as permanent placements, but they are adoptions. The paperwork and finding and educating the adoptive families has been done by another NGO, who so far I’ve been very pleased with for their child-centered approach.

I am both surprised we’re finally doing adoptions and surprised it’s taken this long.

Riverkids started to a large degree when my husband and I adopted four children from Cambodia, an international trans-racial adoption. Two of our kids had been trafficked specifically for adoption, and in the decade since, I’ve become incredibly cynical about the adoption industry, and to a lesser degree about adoptive parents. It’s not a triangle – it’s a black hole of money and desire coming from wealthier and socially more powerful adoptive parents distorting what adoption could be, a blessing in tragedy.

Caveat up front: I believe ethical adoption is a good alternative for some children in crisis, and I believe that most adoptions now are unethical. Ours certainly were. This is not an official Riverkids post, although we’re putting up our foster care policy once these adoptions are done, with detailed notes on the process as part of them. This is me reflecting on our work.

It is odd to be on the other side now, to be making the decision on placing a child and figuring out how to do it. I thought it might be helpful to write up what my experience so far has been.

1. Yes, we have no babies.

There’s a widespread perception that there are lots of abandoned babies in third-world countries. We’ve worked with over 500 kids directly now, if we include those transferred out to other NGOs. We have two abandoned babies now. Both were picked up by concerned neighbours when their parents left them. We have a bunch more babies not being taken care of by their parents but by relatives or neighbours that had informally adopted them.

Everybody loves babies. And babies are fairly cheap to take care of. Even in a third-world country, getting a family to take on another baby is pretty easy.

But abandoned older children? Who have distinct personalities, often damaged by abuse or neglect, who come in pairs or larger groups of siblings, not so easy. We have a group of five children with one on the way, that I’d dearly love to place together. We’ve been back-and-forth discussing this family because it’s clear that there is no long term future with their parents. Half of the kids are in foster care already. But no-one is willing to take on all of them. It’s likely that we will eventually place the youngest three with one family, and keep the older two in foster care with on-going family contact. It’s a painful compromise.

2. Abandoned is forever

We’ve had I think eight children now abandoned with us, the parents declaring that they are not coming back. Six of them are back with their parents again. Part of it is clearly being overwhelmed by pregnancy, possible post-natal depression, and poverty. What we do is take the child into fostering or weekly boarding, then tell the parent that we’ll help them recover and in a few months, discuss a permanent placement.

You have to follow through – just taking a child into an orphanage is helpful, but not following up by helping the mother find a job, getting the father into hospital or whatever the crisis is, well what’s the point? From a practical point of view, weekly boarding and foster care is expensive for us. A baby in fostercare typically costs us about $90 a month at least, what with nutrition, foster care salaries, social worker time and more. An older child in weekly boarding is going to cost at least $30 extra a month on top of whatever services they’re getting from us. So if we spend $300 in services to get the family back on their feet so they can take the child back, that’s the same as just over three months of fostercare.

And it’s just monumentally dumb not to help a family that wants and could take care of a child but can’t. Unless of course you’re depending on the $2-5,000 adoption fees you could get from that child. Or the donations you might get for running an orphanage full of sad babies.

The two babies we’re placing are because of attempted violence on the child, abandonment for over six months, mental illness and more. These are serious issues that can’t be fixed in the short-term, or even medium term.

3. Finding family

I mentioned above finding relatives to take on a child. This is not automatic – if the child needs to be removed from their parents for abuse or neglect, their relatives may have the same problems. I’m working separately now on another family situation where there is no way we could place the child with a family member because of the history of trafficking and neglect.

There’s also being second-best. You’ll be the cousin, not the child. I know kinship adoptions in Cambodia and outside that have been great and awful. It comes down to how the relatives view the child – as an embarrassment or burden, or as another child in their family.

For the two babies we’re placing, we’ve been unable to trace any relatives. This isn’t that unusual in the slums. People move to Phnom Penh from the provinces to escape family problems, and it’s common to have very isolated nuclear families. Plus, few have legal ID or addresses, so if someone packs and goes, tracing them is next to impossible.

4. Musical chairs with children

Babies are dumb – they cannot speak, so people often assume that means that there’s nothing going on inside, or what is is so minimal that it can be safely ignored.

But they are extremely aware. With my youngest, we would amuse ourselves by estimating when he was cleverer than our cats (he can now crawl faster! He opens drawers!) and I can tell you that even cats freak out about moving house, or worse, missing people. I have one truly daft animal that literally will not come in from the rain – he has to be carried in because he is too stupid to understand that the reason he is suddenly wet and miserable is because he is sitting outside – and he has a terribly complicated social life with different cats and people. His brain is perhaps the size of a walnut.

Compare that to a big-brained human baby, born to someone they’ve heard and felt for months, then that changes, and then those new voices change, and then suddenly the food changes again, everything smells different, crying doesn’t work so the baby has to try another way – there is a huge jump each time, and we expect babies to just adapt?

They will. But at a cost. Time adapting to a new foster family is time that could’ve been used on learning to crawl or talk, time where trust has to be built up again and again.

So we’re working to minimize transitions. With both these babies, their foster families are unsuitable long-term placements. They were accidental placements – neighbours who took in the abandoned babies. It would be sensible on paper to transfer them to trained stable foster families. But for the babies, that would be yet another shock, and given that they were likely to be placed for local adoption, not a permanent solution either.

So we spent time with the families to figure out if they were likely to harm the babies. We support them financially, and our social worker and nurse visit them often to give parenting advice and check up on the babies. It’s a compromise, but it’s clear so far that the babies are thriving emotionally with strong attachment to their foster families.

5. They’ll have a better life overseas…

This led to quite a discussion at the Riverkids office in Cambodia. For me, it’s a toss-up. I’ve seen how much my kids grieve for what they’ve lost. I grew up an expat kid in Singapore, a minority race, and my discomfort and dislocation is minor league compared to theirs. I can remember seeing one child just shaking with grief, waves and waves of grief for what was lost.

We kept languages – the older ones speak Khmer and Vietnamese – and we eat a mishmash of Khmer, Vietnamese and Chinese food. That’s where our latest pet, Slimey the catfish came from, his two siblings cooked up for a Vietnamese dish one of the girls was craving. Going back to Cambodia, my kids are clearly taller and healthier than their friends. They’ve got access to school, medical, work and cultural opportunities they couldn’t get in Cambodia. We’re not rich, but compared to most in Cambodia, we’re amazingly well-off.

But my kids are mostly Vietnamese, and finding a local adoptive family in Cambodia that would have been willing to take four older siblings together would have been very hard. Older kids are harder to place because they are harder to parent, initially. Also, less cute. Between a baby and a teenager, both furious and screaming at you, the new parent, which one is easier to comfort?

So consider an infant then. A healthy baby who could be placed equally with a Cambodian or international family. You’re trading the racial and cultural dislocation for material benefits.

And side note – an Asian family adopting a Cambodian baby does not cancel out race. Asia is pretty pragmatic about race, and a Thai baby adopted by a Chinese family for example, does not magically become Chinese. My kids in Singapore are legally identified as their adoptive father’s race, Chinese, but they are very clearly functionally, racially and culturally not Chinese.

I would definitely consider an overseas Cambodian family, or a family with other adopted Cambodian children if they had shown strong ties and commitment to their child’s history. I know several such awesome families – at one point, when we weren’t sure if Baby B was healthy, we discussed internally asking a family I know who were thinking of another adoption if they would be interested.

But to place material benefits first is simply revolting. It’s turning children into commodities, and it overrides everything else. It is also a huge issue with colonialism. This is something that gets a visceral reaction from people who are generally on the winning-side of history, that it’s rubbish and outdated and so unfair etc. etc.

To which I say: grow up an ethnic minority somewhere, then come complain to me. I was a white kid in an Asian country, and privileged as hell. But I was still freakish and stuck out and often racially harassed. So the idea of taking my asian boys to live as an ethnic minority in a western country is – I like ’em, why would I do something that mean to them if I didn’t have to?

And colonialism is – it’s both systematic and individual, it’s a sense of entitlement based on nationality and color, and it lingers. So anytime you have a country exporting babies in international adoption industries – a large-scale movement of children that is significant against domestic adoptions – something is wrong.

Also warzone and disaster adoptions – just about every public agency now says no to them. During and just after a disaster, the biggest need is not whisking children away to new families, but bringing them aid and reuniting them with their families. It takes time to figure out who’s an orphan and who has an auntie who will take them in with some help. Haiti was a mess that could’ve been a much nastier mess thankfully. Most of the adoptions were to children who were already in the process, and essentially family reunifications.

So international adoptions exceptions:

a) Serious health issues. Cambodia’s health system is better, but not great. For a child who would need heart surgery or other long-term medical care, an international placement would be a better choice.

b) Older children or sibling groups that can’t find a Cambodian family. It’s a matter of numbers again. If we went international, we’re more likely to find a family with the training and desire to parent an older child or a sibling group. Sibling groups are actually easier in Cambodia, if there’s material support to help, but older kids, especially with difficult backgrounds, are tough. Still, you also have to weigh up the cultural shock of moving overseas and for some older kids, a group home in Cambodia might be a better fit.

c) Reunification of siblings. Which is how I got involved in the first place! Sometimes you have to separate siblings because of inter-family abuse like an older sibling beating up or harassing a younger sibling, but short of that, I can’t see a reason to. My kids were divvied up to make a bigger profit. They frequently wish that certain siblings be left on a desert island, but they are extremely close.

I have a good friend who is not a supporter of Cambodian local adoptions because she believes mostly families treat their adopted children as second-rate. One of my kids was adopted briefly then given up as not cute/obedient enough by a local family, and I have seen other friends deal with abuse from lousy kinship placements.

I think this is a case of theory and practice. We can say in theory kinship, then local, then international adoptions are best. But if we don’t give enough support at each stage, we’re going to default to international where the adoptive families in general have way more resources. Kinship and local adopters need adoption training, they need respite and counselling care, they might need material support – they certainly need social support.

6. Process

So now we’re at the process stage. I’m behind on just about everything at work, although I did hear yesterday that baby A’s foster father is now coming round to wanting to adopt baby A permanently when he realised that there was a placement offered.

This is what from our side we’re preparing for the babies’ permanent files:

  • Photographs of the child
  • Photograph of their foster family with them
  • Photograph of their relatives, if known
  • List of names, dates and places related to them
  • All their medical paperwork
  • The internal documentation we have (child registration, medical care, foster agreement etc)
  • Photograph of the place where we think they were born (with a note to explain why we think it is that area)
  • A short letter recounting what details we have been able to gather on their birthfamily from neighbors or relative

We’ll keep a copy in Singapore, a copy at our Cambodia office, and a copy each for the new adoptive family and for the other NGO arranging that side. We’ve asked for an open adoption, but if that doesn’t happen, at least someday, baby A and baby B will have the chance to see where they came from and why they were adopted.

And hopefully, know that it was with the best of intentions for them – not for profit, or convenience or ego. But for them.

The Baby Hero

This is the last bit of this very long and rambly essay! There was a point where I was carrying one of the babies on the way to the doctor – her foster mum was managing some bags, so I took her for a bit. She was very small and delicate, and there we were, going to Save Her Life at the doctor’s. I was the one who pushed for the doctor’s and paid, so the doctor tried to speak to me first but – what I have learnt, painfully and with difficulty – I shut up. I said, this is the foster mum, and this is her social worker, and talk to them please. I got some bits translated for me, but mostly – not my job.

But it would have been so so easy to do that. To walk into a slum and rescue this tiny baby. She had a rash where she wasn’t being bathed enough – but her foster mother had a tiny hat for her that she put on carefully and the baby giggled when her foster mother blew kisses at her, and out of this really poor family struggling as best they could, the baby was loved, so loved.

Still, I have some empathy for people who charge in to rescue children. It’s seductively easy. Children cling to you and you can get such an emotional fix off rescuing them. They are far easier to help than angry independent adults. They are ‘clean slates’, and you can project your own ideas onto them. You have all this wealth and power comparatively, and everyone is so nice to you because you’re the kind lady or man who rescues children from horrible people.

While this empathy is not going to stop me from punching certain people in the face on behalf of my kids if I ever met them again, I can see how it starts. It starts when you think about how you feel, not the baby you’re supposed to be helping.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. December 1, 2010 10:07 pm

    Wow. You address the complexities so clearly and honestly. This gives me a lot to contemplate and consider. Thank you for posting this. I am going to link, and I’ll request that other adult adoptees provide their feedback regarding the information you’ve collected for the children’s files.

  2. December 2, 2010 1:29 am

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I spent almost 6 months in domestic foster care, in several different homes in 2 different states before I was adopted. Unusual for a healthy white newborn, but there was a paperwork snafu between the 2 states my First Mother was dealing with.

    I have NO idea who cared for me, no pictures, no medical records- nothing. Sadly, I am not permitted to see my adoption file, so I will probably never know. It is so important for adoptees to know their story- all of it.

  3. December 2, 2010 2:33 am

    excellent post. as an AP (international) myself, i thank you for it.

  4. December 2, 2010 3:28 am

    This was good! SO SO GOOD!!! Thank you for writing it!!!! We ended up on the receiving end of trafficked kids via an International adoption. Since then, Ive had a hard time getting people to understand why our current IA programs are broken! They are not set up in the best interest of the children involved! I will share this, Thank you!!!

  5. December 2, 2010 7:22 am

    Posting a link, hope that’s ok.

  6. December 2, 2010 12:14 pm

    I found this very interesting, I will be checking back in to read more. Thanks Melissa for posting the link> ; )

  7. Jean permalink
    December 3, 2010 2:02 am

    wow! Thank you. I cannot begin to thank you for writing this post. I am living in an African country, and about 1 year ago I started helping with some international adoptions from the area near to where I live. I admit to having some (actually a lot) ignorance about the process and the issues involved. It was a lot about “saving the babies” initially. I have pushed very strongly for a few things that have been in my control: making sure that the known family members were not planning on raising the children, finding out all I can about the birth families and strongly encouraging the adoptive families to come here to meet the surviving birth families, only doing adoptions where the mother has died and the father left the child at the orphanage, and complete transparency in the process. Even this little has not been easy. I have now learned so much about international adoption, and I am struggling. I very much emphasize with your statement, “I’ve become incredibly cynical about the adoption industry, and to a lesser degree about adoptive parents. It’s not a triangle – it’s a black hole of money and desire coming from wealthier and socially more powerful adoptive parents distorting what adoption could be, a blessing in tragedy.” Not about the families I am specifically working with necessarily, but the whole process, the corners that are cut, the lack of transparency, the lack of respect and value that should be given to birth families. I live in an extremely corrupt country with a tremendous number of orphanages filled with children. Interestingly, the area I live in specifically has few orphanages, most children are taken care of by kinship care or foster homes informally. Some are treated well, some are not. As far as I know, there are very few programs to support or encourage (especially follow up) these families. In the largest city in this country there are many many orphanages with a huge recent rush of adoptions from the US. There is an extreme lack of transparency in the process. It is clear that officials can be paid off and many adoptive parents and agencies justify this because “at least we are getting our kids out of this awful country where they would have died” and “how can we possibly act ethically in a country that isn’t ethical anyway?” There are many many things that worry me. There are many abandoned children (especially babies) that immediately get put into foster homes, and then 4 months later are adopted and leave the country. I wonder sometimes if there were organizations like what you are talking about that really took time to search for the family, qualified foster homes, or adoptive homes if the numbers of abandoned babies would decrease. I sometimes wonder if orphanage directors are “motivated” to find “abandoned babies” because of the allure of the money involved in international adoption. Obviously orphanages gain when children (and more so babies) are adopted. They get money. Many orphanages have corrupt directors who manipulate the situation for personal gain. I have had personal experience with one such orphanage and we immediately stopped the adoption proceedings and have nothing more to do with that orphanage. I want to be a part of change in international adoption. My biggest question is this: Can ethical adoptions exist in corrupt countries? Again, thank you for you post and sorry about the length of mine.

    • December 14, 2010 5:35 pm

      Hi Jean –

      I will have to write another post to respond! I want to do a follow-up because we are having complications with the placements of both babies, so once the big decisions have been made, I hope to have some more to write about from experience. Short answer though – yes, you can do an ethical adoption in a corrupt country, but it will take a long time and a lot of work.

  8. Sarah permalink
    December 11, 2010 4:55 am

    Interesting post but I am continously frustrated by comments that state that all internationally adopted kids would be better off staying in their country. In an ideal world, all children should remain with their parents or in with family in their country or, finally, in their country with an adoptive family. However, the reason so many of these kids end up elsewhere because those three criteria can’t be met. After having adopted an older child who had remained in an orphanage for several years after birth, I have no qualms about having adopted her and brought her to a place (wherever that may be, we happen to be in Canada) that has allowed her to grow properly. She had some physical issues when she came but, far more complicated, she has had huge issues, emotional, behavioral and intellectual based on her past experiences. You can’t tell me she was better off where she is because it has taken almost 3 years to undo some of the damage she inherited from her institution. We fully respect her country and will take her back as often as we can afford, we expose her to as much cultural/language opportunities as possible but, really, the damage was big enough that we have spent most of our time working on her issues etc so that she can live a more fulfilled life as she gets older. Only a family that loves you with some degree of resources can provide a healthy environment like that. So, yes, I wish she never had to leave her birth family or her culture but since her family and country were not able to provide,

    • December 14, 2010 5:45 pm

      Hi Sarah, I can look at my four kids who were in terrible situations and have taken a lot of work and resources to help, and at kids in similar circumstances, their childhood friends, and the struggle we have to find resources to help in Cambodia, and say wholeheartedly with you, yes, our kids are thriving with us.

      But this still does not undo or lessen their individual losses that come from a big system that we’re part of.

      The clunky metaphor I can come up with is firefighting. Rescuing a child from a burning house is always a wonderful miraculous event. Fund firefighters and equipment and cheer on every child rescued.

      But imagine if that child could have been rescued from the house before the fire took hold, when the smoke was just starting. It would be better for the child if they had been woken by their frantic parent and carried out of the house to safety, than if they had been rescued by a firefighter after their whole family and home was consumed.

      Or if before the fire started, someone had come along and said the building codes mean this house’s wiring needs to be changed, you need fire extinguishers and alarms – and the child never had to experience a fire at all.

      We’re firefighters, coming in at the last act. And we’re needed. But we should never ever think that we are a better choice than a child being able to stay with their family and in their country. (EDITED:) I mean – than to stay in a happy & healthy family, duh. Because I think kids need to be removed with varying contact from abusive families for their long-term safety, absolutely. And as I wrote above, there may sometimes not be a local foster/adoption family available (although that is – it is a matter of funding which drives me crazy, raising money for training and recruiting and paying good foster families is so much harder than an orphanage, urgh)

      It was and still sometimes is really hard for me to accept that I am not the best choice from the start. I am the best choice *now*, but to get to me, my kids had to experience so much suffering, along with others. The joy we have now is not cancelled out or added to by the pain they had before. Both co-exist.


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