Ethics In International Adoption

The Issues in International Adoption
Susan Soon-keum Cox

The Role of international adoption as an option for children:

   Every day, in every country of the world, countless numbers of children are separated from the families that give birth to them. The reasons are many-poverty, illness, death, lack of support, cultural stigmas, social barriers. Whatever the reason, the consequences in the lives of individual children can be devastating.

   Worldwide, approximately 200,000 children have come to their families through intercountry adoption, more than half of those children were placed with families in the US. In 1998, 15,774 children were adopted internationally by US citizens. These numbers are expected to increase as the practice becomes more accepted by both the countries sending their children abroad for adoption and the countries receiving the children.

   Intercountry adoption should never be the first line of defense for children. It is not meant to be a solution to world poverty, civil unrest, or urbane migration. However, for literally thousands of children throughout the world, intercountry adoption is the only viable possibility for them to have a permanent loving family. Whenever there is a disaster, whether from natural causes, armed conflict, or human atrocities, the predictable consequence is that children are the most vulnerable. There survival, both immediate and long-term, is the most fragile.

   It is the fundamental right of every child to have a family. The preferred priority for every child is to be raised by the families who give birth to them and vigorous effort should be undertaken to make that possible. Unfortunately, in many developing countries where "turning cradles" and orphanages are the social safety net for orphaned children this is not their reality. The routine practice of abandonment eliminates the preferred priority of staying with, or being reunited with a child's birth family. For them, the next priority should be to find a suitable adoptive family in the child's birth country. When that is not a viable option, and too often it is not, it is tragic for these children to spend their developing years languishing in institutions when there are families in other countries who would love and care for them as their own.

   Every orphaned child is an individual, and their individual and unique circumstance must be considered and evaluated in an expedient manner to determine the best permanent plan for his or her life. Decisions should be made which thoughtfully examine the implications of those choices for children, not only at the moment of placement, but also the life long consequences of the child's successful placement and well being.

   International adoption includes the same complex and complicated issues that are a part of any adoption. Additionally, it is overlaid with issues that are unique. As a practice, intercountry adoption is extremely sensitive and emotional for both the citizens of the sending countries and those in other, often more affluent countries who adopt these children. Acknowledging this sensitivity demands a commitment to the principle that intercountry adoption is a matter of privilege, not a matter of right. Nations are responsible for the care and protection of their citizens, including homeless children who may potentially be adoptable.

   In ethical practice, it must be a priority to respect and preserve the dignity of the child's birth country as well as the dignity of the child. Whenever a country supports intercountry adoption as a means for a child to have a family, they are giving a great deal. A nation's decision as a matter of policy to permit international adoption of it's homeless children is complicated, controversial, sensitive and often misunderstood. The sending country has the right and the responsibility to define an adoption system it believes will protect and preserve the best interest of its children.

   It is an indication of respect to the dignity and caring of a child's birth country not only to invite, but to expect sending counties to participate and actively develop and establish societal programs for themselves. The policy leaders of sending nations must believe in, and feel ownership of the process if the process is to be truly effective. When a country begins establishing laws and policies regarding international adoption, predictably the system may be less than optimum. Attempts to be careful and provide safeguards and protections for children may be overly bureaucratic, cumbersome and inefficient. Deliberate and genuine effort must be made to work constructively toward improving the system rather than attempts to circumvent the system. Anything less is not only shortsighted, it puts at risk the long-term potential of assisting a greater population of children who would appropriately benefit from international adoption.

   Adoption agencies, facilitators, adoptive parents, and adoption advocates must be committed to the big-picture, long-term process of international adoption over the short-term immediate result for a particular child. Policies and practices must be established recognizing the greater good for the children who will be served.

   An unfaltering commitment of adoption should be that it is intended as a means to provide families for children, rather than children for families. This is especially critical in international adoption where it is the children of one country being taken to another. The simplistic assumption that a poor child in a developing country will have a preferred life with a family in a 'rich' country is misguided, imperialistic and overlooks the sacrifice and loss, not only to the sending country, but to the child.

   Consistently, beginning with international adoptions from Korea in the 1950's, media exposure capturing stories of orphaned and displaced children prompted response of families to adopt. These stories continue to inform the public of the needs of children, but often distorts their true situation. Particularly in stories about children living orphanages and institutions, news reports carelessly and inaccurately identify them as 'orphans' as a matter of routine. Generally any child living in an institution is displaced, however it is premature to conclude the status of 'orphan,' or without parents or family applies. Determining the individual status of each displaced child is a fundamental principal necessary in establishing each child's individual legal status and identity. This is critical in determining the most appropriate plan for a child's future.

   More than any other adoption process, international adoption elicits intensely polarized reactions. Established as a humanitarian response for homeless children, it has undeniably been tarnished by unethical practices, some deliberate others misguided. The harshest critics of intercountry adoption consider it a rape of a country's most valued human resource - a rape of a child's culture and ethnicity. In her book 'The Good Earth,' Pearl Buck observed that the children who survive are the brightest, the smartest, the most resilient, and they become the most angry. Children are undeniably a nations greatest resource, however, absent any investment in their lives, they also become a nation's greatly liability.

The issues of race, culture and national origin:

   Following both World Wars, European children were adopted by families in other European countries and the U.S. Although these were international adoptions, they were primarily same race adoptions. The modern history of intercountry adoption began in the 1950's following the Korean War. Children born to Korean mothers and U.N. soldier fathers were referred to as "mixed blood;" both the children and their Korean mothers were ostracized by Korean society. Compelled by stories of the desperate plight of these children, families in the U.S. and Europe began to adopt them. It was not a concept that was universally embraced. Unlike international adoptions of children from Europe, these adoptions of Korean children had the added complication of distinct racial differences between parents and children. Some considered it a crazy social experiment; others acknowledged these were cute babies and delightful toddlers, but rightfully worried—what would happen to these children when they grew up?

   In this environment, the practice was to encourage families who were pioneers to this new adoption process to "Americanize" their Korean-born children as quickly as possible. "Fitting in" to their new culture was considered a necessary priority. The primary emphasis was to absorb these children into the culture of their new adoptive families as quickly as possible.

   There was wide spread concern that for these adoptions to be successful, it was essential to demonstrate that children from one culture could successfully assimilate into their new family and American society. These adopted children were considered to be more American by culture than defined by their birth heritage and physical appearance.

   In the 1960's and '70's intercountry adoption extended from South Korea to countries including; Taiwan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, India, the Philippines, Thailand and others. During this period the priority was finding families for children and minimal attention was given to issues of a child's race and ethnicity. This slowly began to change in the 70's as children adopted in the 50's and 60's grew up and began to articulate their questions and concerns regarding their own racial identity. As intercountry adoption evolved and matured, there was less fear and anxiety surrounding the necessity of proving it's appropriateness. More attention and concern focused on educating and preparing adoptive families to embrace the child's birth country and ethnicity as valued and necessary to assure the well being of the adopted child. This pattern continued to become more common and routine as other countries emerged as sending countries in the following decades.

   The majority of international adoptees are a different race than their adoptive parents and other family members. Most are children of color. This defining reality must be acknowledged and accepted by adoptive parents. They should not consider themselves a Caucasian family with a child of color, they must accept that they are an interracial family. International adoptees are a unique population. As a different race from their adoptive parents, they are consistently called upon to validate (often to strangers) that they are a 'real' family.

   A survey conducted by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute of the first generation of Korean adoptees, revealed the overwhelming significance of race and identity in their lives. It was not an issue limited to childhood or adolescence, but articulated as a lifelong reality that affected individuals to varying degrees.

The issues of money, accountability and regulation of international adoption:

    The cost of international adoption reflects an enormous range from a few thousand dollars, to 30,000 or more. It is appropriate to charge fees for services. However, there is not always a direct relationship between the two activities and little consistency regarding fees and the service delivered. To ensure ethical adoption practice there must be transparency and full disclosure when it comes to identifying and explaining costs related to adoption activity. This includes disclosure of expenses directly related to overseas program activity. Many international adoptions are provided by non-profit organizations that must comply with U.S. regulations. However, non-profit status does not necessarily ensure ethical practice or standards regarding costs.

    International adoption is undeniably a business, and there are legitimate expenses associated with managing and operating legitimate program activity. In addition to providing sound social work practice for families, adoption agencies are required to be knowledgeable of the complex adoption requirements in the U.S. as well as the ever changing international requirements. It is not the standard cost of providing services that are problematic, it is the inflated expenses passed onto families that creates ethical land mines. The appearance of 'buying and selling' of children is unavoidable when the cost of an international adoption far exceeds the local yearly income of a family. It is in the best interest of adoption agencies to set the ethical standards that avoid even the appearance of profiting at the expense of children and families.

Access to background information and informed decision-making by prospective adoptive parents:

   International adoptions presents unique challenges in securing accurate and truthful background information and history on individual children. Differences in culture, language, terminology, and the competence of medical resources all profoundly affect this process. The access to information and the quality and reliability of information varies widely country by country. From countries where programs are well established and sophisticated, child information can be very complete and available. Routinely this information is held by orphanages, institutions or hospitals that are all under the authority of appointed government ministries. The range of cooperation on the part of these authorities is often irregular and inconsistent.

   While it is accurate to acknowledge the difficulty in attaining reliable child background information, it is the highest priority to make every effort to secure as much information as possible and provide documentation of the efforts undertaken. It is further the responsibility of adoption providers to consistently inform, educate and pursue reform and understanding on the part of overseas officials who hold authority over both the information and the process. Difficulty in securing information is not an excuse for failing to make diligent attempts. In establishing working relationships with overseas partners, child information must be a shared priority. If deliberate or falsified information is suspected, the relationship should be terminated immediately. Wishfully assuming that the end justifies the means is irresponsible. Perspective adoptive parents are entitled to information they can trust. Conversely, if no information exists, families should be confident that is indeed true. Adoptees are entitled to know with certainty that the story of their personal history was preserved as it actually happened. Whether or not an adoptee chooses to search for birth family, this information must never be corrupted or falsified or deleted.

   In addition to preserving the information, care should be taken to preserve and protect original documents. Transferring the data through modern technology should not eliminate the notes handwritten in the margins, the perhaps soiled original paperwork that has been touched by fingerprints no longer seen, but whose essence stays forever on the paper. These are undeniable precious to adoptees.

    Following the presentation of child information, perspective adoptive parents should have a reasonable period of time to allow a thoughtful and unprepared response. Subtle or overt coercion is a violation of ethical practice. To alter truth to more positively present a child cannot be condoned or excused. It risks the future not only for individual children, but for the future of international adoption.

   Realistically, even the most responsible efforts sometimes fall short of perfection. It is the commitment made to doing all that can be done within the limits of authority and circumstances that affect positive change.

The impact of institutionalization on children: health, development and attachment implications:

   A majority of children adopted internationally will have spent some or all of their childhood in an orphanage or institution. The quality and condition of orphanages vary greatly and are affected by resources, staff and the overall commitment to abandoned children in general. In the last decade understanding of medical and psychological affects of institutionalization began to emerge and be recognized. There is a direct relationship between the length of time a child is institutionalized and the anticipated consequences in their physical and emotional development. According to some medical experts, children who have spent time in an institution must be considered high-risk placements or potentially children with special needs. These are critical issues that have lifelong implications for children and the families who adopt them.

Lessons Learned:

   In considering the lessons learned, public policy considerations must be balanced with effective and realistic practice that will serve the best interests of children. Beautifully crafted and noble concepts are meaningless if they cannot translate into positive benefit for children. The urgent needs of children should be considered as a whole while balancing the needs of individuals.

©Susan Soon-Keum Cox
Holt International Children's Services

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