“Plummeting” Adoption: What’s the Story?

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything public on international adoption. Speaking engagements have subsided, as well, in part because adult adoptees have stepped up to the podium and claimed their right to shape the adoption story, a development I cheer. Today, however, I’m moved to join in.

Driving home yesterday, I heard a report on Minnesota Public Radio that compels a response. The news it conveyed is that international adoption has “plunged” and “plummeted”–more alarming words than simply “declined.” The report attributed this change to the United States’ ratification of the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption and offered as evidence countries that have suspended their adoption programs with the U.S. rather than comply with the convention’s complicated rules. This is important subject matter, well worthy of discussion and debate on public radio.

Nevertheless, the report disappointed me. The producers chose to hang the news on a stereotypical storyline: They introduced us to a couple whose expectations of a second child had been thwarted and then set up the old, familiar plot: Will these longing and long-suffering parents ever get their child? The online transcript is headlined “Would-Be Parents Wait as Foreign Adoptions Plunge.” Once again, international adoption has been reduced to a supply-and-demand transaction with obstacles.

What of the children in this changing equation? What of their birth families? What of their birth countries? The report turned its concern next to American adoption agencies. Two Minnesota agencies known for pioneering international adoption, Children’s Home Society and Lutheran Social Service, have had to merge to spare themselves financial loss as adoption plunges and plummets.

The only significant nod to the children in question came from Adam Pertman, director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, who worries about the “many tens of thousands” of children who languish in orphanages around the world. It’s a sad irony, though, that children languishing in orphanages have never been the most desirable objects of international adoption. The key driver has not been concern for languishing orphans but rather desire for healthy babies. I can offer myself as a typical example of that tendency: One of several factors that drew my then-husband and me to South Korea for adoption in the 1980s was the Korean agencies’ practice of housing abandoned babies in foster care rather than orphanages. Korean babies were in great demand because they were healthy and had already learned to bond with a parent substitute. Most of the negative press about international adoption features older orphanage children. The MPR report even mentions the Tennessee mother who shipped her seven-year-old son back to Russia.

I agree that the decline of international adoption is newsworthy, as are the suspensions of inter-country adoption agreements. But the story needs a new frame. Its context should be global child welfare. How are the needs of children being met in the present and former “sending” countries? Is the increasing wealth in China and India, for example, “trickling down” enough to keep poverty from compelling families to abandon their children? Are governments in newly wealthy countries putting resources into programs that support children and families? Is globalization lifting the traditional stigma that has made it impossible for single mothers to raise their children? What are Americans who profess concern for children and families doing to aid families in other countries who struggle to stay intact? Adoption is, after all, not the only solution. An engaging, vital story that needs much more airing is the role adult adoptees have been playing in securing child welfare reforms in their birth countries, particularly South Korea. There are indeed some positive reasons for the decline in international adoption.

Finally, I am disappointed with the conventional way in which MPR ended its report:  It’s not the perfect fairy-tale ending, but the waiting parents do end up with a child. She is a two-year-old special needs orphanage child, not the one they expected, but the one, they say, “who was meant to be.” In my Olympics-infused imagination, it’s all too easy to read this ending as missing the gold medal, but happily taking home the silver. Too many adoptees have had to contend with that “second-best” feeling. It’s beyond time to switch the focus from the waiting parents to the child, who should be the subject, not the object, of any news story about international adoption.

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