One of the challenges facing adoptive parents is keeping your child's story private and giving age-appropriate control over it. It's not easy. Parents, biological or adoptive, have a natural tendency to babble every detail of Little Junior's life. And adopted children's stories are the sort that inspire the most curiosity in friends, family, and strangers. How much do you know about his parents? How did she come to be placed for adoption? Count me in the group of parents who believe these facts belong to our children and are for them to confide in others as they chose when they are old enough.
Not everyone is so lucky.
Today I saw this heart-wrenching story about the biological mother of Zahara Jolie, adopted by Angelina Jolie from Ethiopia. Mentwabe Dawit tells Reuters of how the child was conceived by a violent rape, how poverty prevented her from caring for the infant, and how she fled her home in despair, leading her mother — the baby's biological grandmother — to place the child for adoption.
Zahara is not lucky enough to own her adoption story and share it as she wishes. Through a twist of fate, her adoptive mother is world-famous, and her story is worth money. Moreover, because her mother is famous, her story will be repeated again and again to illustrate the circumstances and perils of international adoption. She may be fortunate in certain material ways, but she is unfortunate in this.
Zahara's story also illuminates another challenge for adoptive parents: facing up to the harsh realities of international adoption. It would be nice to believe that all adoptions occur under the best and most non-coercive circumstances possible. Americans, conditioned by cultural expectations and media depictions, would like to imagine that all adoptions involve healthy and happy teens from good middle-class families who got pregnant unexpectedy during a healthy relationship with a nice boy and, with the loving support of family and after careful consideration, decided without regret or misgivings to place the child for adoption so that she could go to college to become a doctor, or perhaps an astronaut.
That is usually not the reality. The circumstances of a child's placement for adoption can be as messy and brutal and tragic and hopeless as any other major life event — birth or death, marriage or divorce. International adoptive placements, which take place in countries far less fortunate than ours, are unlikely to involve what we would recognize as the middle or upper classes. They are unlikely to involve women on the road to becoming doctors, or women who have very many choices at all. Not all stories are as brutal as Zahara's, but some are.
So what do we do? I am certainly not advocating abandoning international adoption. Nor am I advocating wallowing in uncertainty or guilt. That's not productive. I'm advocating being an educated and involved adoptive parent. That means that adoptive parents have a moral obligation to be informed and responsible when they select an adoption method and adoption agency. Good agencies take great pains to avoid exploitative placement situations. The best agencies are directly involved in providing care and support calculated to empower as many women as possible keep their children, or failing that, to place them with their extended biological families. They avoid practices which are effective in gathering children for adoption but which are inherently exploitative — like making payments to mothers or middlemen in exchange for placements. Good agencies are regulated to a fare-thee-well and have close relationships with watchful governments. In fact, good agencies will cease adoption placements in some countries when it becomes impossible to assure responsible and non-coercive placements. Good agencies will not be the cheapest, will not have the most slack requirements, and will not deliver the quickest adoptions. Being responsible may therefore mean paying more, waiting longer, and not adopting from some countries.
Moreover, I firmly believe that adoptive parents also have an obligation to inform themselves about international adoption, to monitor and become involved in legislative efforts to regulate it, and to act as advocates for all children, not just their own. To the extent resources permit, we should donate to help the children who remain in the countries from which we adopt. We must also be open to stories like Zahara's, and not try to silence or dismiss them, as is the strong temptation.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
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