Adoption: Child Welfare or Business?

What would have happened if our kids had stayed with their original families? As the parent of two adopted children who are in touch with their first mothers and fathers, a parent who sees how their families are doing over time and sees how the other not-adopted kids are developing, this question gets an urgency beyond the theoretical.

Of course our children, young though they may be, think about that option as well. Particularly when they are distressed, they sometimes loudly express the wish to be back in their first families. The anger that comes with that wish triggers complicated emotions not only in them, but also in us, the adoptive parents. Not only our own fears, our unwavering love, our feelings of insecurity, but also guilt. The reasons why children are available for adoption -- domestic and international -- are often linked with poverty and injustice. This knowledge excites these guilty feelings. Who knows what would have happened with the first families, and therefore with our children, if each adoptive family had spent the median costs of adoption not on the process itself, but on programs to help families?

I am sure that biological parents, here and in other countries, have these thoughts of permanent reunion as well. But they will quickly realize with a humiliating pain that they can't compete with the wealth of the adoptive parents, who are able to offer their children an education and other opportunities in life they can never match. And, the longer the kids are in the adoptive family, the farther away they drift off from their roots, from their culture, their class, their language: they can't come back, even it were legally possible.

We adopt children at a specific moment in time. That moment however, can be the wrong moment. Poverty can be overcome, national crises solved, mothers and family members found, policies changed; families can pull together, single motherhood can become a serious possibility, addictions can be conquered, lifestyles be changed. The choice of adoption may seem right one day, but questionable the next day, the next month, the next year, the next decade. As I said before, there is no way back. There are no second thoughts for first families. Adoptive parents have that option and can disrupt an adoption legally. Adoptees have to be over 18 to get a say in their lives. Can we be confident that adoption was the right solution for our children?

Adoption is a wonderful opportunity for parents who, for whatever reason, don't want or are not able to have biological kids. Or who want to grow their families by adopting kids. But those of us who follow adoption blogs and discussions on the web, who visit platforms for adoptees like Kevin Haebeom Vollmers' web magazine Gazillion Voices and sites for first parents like Lorraine Dusky's First Mother Forum, know that many adoptees and first parents don't look at adoption the same happy way. Abandonment, trauma, grief, loss and disconnect are only a few words that are part of their vocabulary. Not disregarding the sorrows and difficulties of many adoptive parents, adoption is often a tough outcome for two of the three parties involved in this precious and vulnerable process of "human exchange."

In adoption country, which is regulated by lax laws which favor adoptive parents and is practically governed by private institutions, businesses and individuals, the preferred way to tell a woman she is about to lose her child is to suggest that "she makes an adoption plan." But those who professionally help that woman to make this plan are often themselves denizens of adoption country, who are depending on the positive choice of the mother to make that plan: the social worker of the adoption agency, the adoption lawyer, the representative of an agency in another country. These professionals are not members of a larger child welfare organization, which could make a 'life plan' for mother, father and child, a long-term life plan that focuses not on the immediate situation, but on the life of the child and her or his family thereafter and that has -- extended -- family preservation or family (re)building as its goal.

Most workers in the adoption world are decent people, but many have one-sided perspectives, which necessarily focus on the longings and wishes of adoptive parents, who are their paying clients. And some are blindsided by the widespread and false ideology that adoption is about saving children from horrible situations. A few are just in it for the money. Whatever the case, the adoption industry, as the business it is now, cannot continue. A certain rate of adoptions of children for a certain price is needed to make for the bottom line, even for the most sincere non-profit organization or individual. That is an ethical matter one can't just bypass anymore.

Adoption should be viewed just as foster care is seen; as child welfare, part of a national and international network of private and publicly-sponsored independent organizations whose goal it is to make choices with the needs and possibilities of the first families in mind, within the context of family preservation (paradoxically, abortion could be one of the options in an early stage). This change would lead to fewer adoptions because of the success of long-term family preservation in the U.S. and elsewhere and more middle class and lower income people and families adopting, because of the 'de-capitalization' of adoptions, which will be seen as a success. Crucially, those who were speechless till now -- the first parents and their kids -- are placed centrally in the services offered.

Providing social services for the first family to overcome their problems is all about adding time to the equation. Not an adoption plan, but a life plan has to be made. How such a plan should look like depends on the local circumstances, but next to aid for the parent(s) and their extended families in their community and coaching, temporary guardianship, foster care and co-parenting for the child could be part of that plan. Adoption should only become an option when family preservation is just impossible or when the efforts to keep the family together failed. Adoption should not be separate of child welfare services, but part of them.