Elizabeth Bartholet and Her Personal Civil Right in Adoption

In an op-ed of May 24 in the Boston Globe well-known adoption advocate Prof. Elizabeth Bartholet* and less well-known adoption advocate Professor Paulo Barozzo** try to make the case that international adoption could help to solve what can be called "the orphanage crisis.' Millions of kids live in institutions all over the world, and the authors are right that institutionalization is often a terrible and damaging way to grow up. Their wholesale formulation however that institutions "destroy children mentally, physically, and emotionally" is very much over-the-top and doesn't do justice to competently led orphanages. Nor does it do justice to the fact that many orphanages are used by the poorest in the world as free and temporary boarding schools. Many if not most of the kids in orphanages are not orphans.

The writers have a reason to demonize those institutions because they want the Department of State to acknowledge that institutionalization is a violation of human rights. Their op-ed is in support of a bill now introduced in Congress to force the State Department to do so. If this proposal would become law, so goes the reasoning, more children could be saved from their plight, particularly through adoption by American families.

That the bill is in flagrant conflict with the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child , doesn't seem to matter. Maybe that is because the United States as only one of two countries in the world, didn't ratify that convention? The right to a name and an identity, the right to live with one's family, the right to have family ties and to have contact with one's parents.... these codified human rights don't count for Bartholet and Barozzo? "Saving" kids through adoption by American citizens trumps their inalienable rights? To put another hurdle, however, on the road to ratification would definitely not make America's position as a leading charitable nation in the international community stronger, to put it mildly.

I want to point to three other essential facts missing from this op-ed: numbers, policy, and the negative effects of international adoption.

First the numbers. Over the last decennium American parents adopted internationally, on average, about 10,000 children a year. In 2006 the total was about 20,000 and that number declined to below 6,000 in 2015. There are, according to Unicef, 13 million "real" orphans - children who lost both parents - in the world. American adoption efforts would thus help less than 1% of the available orphans. (Some international adoption advocates count 132 million orphans with a different definition of what an orphan is. Then the effort accounts for approximately 0.1%). The budget for international adoption of the Department of State must be in the tens of millions, let's say $100 million as an educated guess. (Exact numbers can't be found in the public budget). The costs for adopters for each adopted child is in a low estimate $50,000. That makes the investment to save 1% (or 0,1%) of the orphans $600 million yearly. It is a big question whether that money is effectively spent. We'll get to that.

Bartholet and Barozzo's adoption policy is entirely out of tune with the times. Their answer to the orphanage crisis is adoption, while international development workers and policy makers in the US and elsewhere believe in family preservation and family reunion. These interventions, which keep kids with their parents (or within their extended family or their community) or bring them back to their parents, are highly successful, as examples in Uganda and elsewhere in Africa prove. The costs, which involve creating a sound economic base for the family, run in the hundreds of dollars a year. This alternative, which effectively saves many more kids and would save many, many more with a $600 million budget, should get priority over international adoption.

My last issue with Bartholet and Barozzo is that they ignore the effects of international adoption in the sending countries and the often-debilitating psychological effect of adoption on adoptees themselves.

The non-transparent use of hard currency in developing countries leads easily and understandably to corruption and fraud. That is not different with adoption dollars. But it is not only about the dollars, but also about demand for babies in the US, generated by American agencies. Over the years a multitude of reports on child trafficking, falsified paperwork (often rendering parents as dead when they are very much alive), children kidnapped/stolen from their parents, coercion and lies told to families (such as "Your child will come back at age 18 and is just going to America for an education"), pay-offs and bribes to local officials to expedite and/or approve fraudulent paperwork, baby farms (pregnant women warehoused in grotesque conditions and their babies taken from them soon after birth) have been extensively reported. Guatemala, Ethiopia, China, Nepal, DR Congo, Cambodia, Vietnam, India, Uganda, Russia all got their gruesome turn in the press. Many countries closed or severely restricted international adoption due to this rampant corruption. Even with international law, laid out in the so-called Hague Convention, international adoption is impossible to regulate when hard currency is used to fuel this corruption.

The effects of adoption on the psyche of adopted people are well-documented in numerous blogs, books and in many documentaries by adoptees themselves. Their voices are loud and clear. Bartholet and Barozzo chose not hear them. Adoption is not pure joy. More tangible in this context is the fact that adoptees commit four times more suicide than their non-adopted peers, a tragic and telling statistic.

I don't think we are able to abolish international adoption at this moment completely, but we have to be honest about the goals of social interventions in other countries. The goal should be helping children - "orphans" if you will - to stay with or to reunite them with their families. Adoption should be seen as an antiquated kind of help, which should be only applied if there is no other option for a child; international adoption should be the very last resort, after all other options have been proven to be unviable.

The bill now pending in Congress should not reach the floor and if it did, should be quickly voted down. The United States is better and smarter and more humane that this.

Thanks to Karen Moline and Gina Murphy Pollock from Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform, PEAR