Assistant Professor of History and Director of the Center for Social Entreprenuershp
When I first selected international adoption as my dissertation topic, I significantly underestimated its use as a conversation starter. Without fail, divulging my research over dinner or at a party elicits personal stories about adoption. Almost everyone has an intimate connection to someone who has adopted from overseas. Even though international adoption didn’t formally begin until the late 1940s, it has become a meaningful part of our national story.
After nearly a decade of listening, I have heard one theme more than any other: too many obstacles block needy children from the U.S. families who want to adopt them. The stories break my heart. Prospective adoptive parents who have waited for five years or more to receive a child. Families with matched children no longer eligible for adoption because they’ve aged out of the system. I’ve heard some refer to this as bureaucracy. Others call it red tape. The title of a 2013 documentary declares these children stuck. Regardless of the term, it expresses a similar sentiment: frustration with an impersonal system that worsens the lot of needy children.
At this point in the conversation, I’m never sure what to say next. Is this the best time to explain the background? Does anybody really want to get a history lesson at a party? Usually I smile and nod and make sympathetic noises, complying with social rules in these situations. But sometimes I wonder what I might say if someone asked me my thoughts and truly wanted to hear the answer.
I would say that one person’s obstacle serves as another’s protection. Most people don’t realize that until the United Nations and Hague Convention developed international laws in the 1990s, birth mothers had little recourse once separated from their children. When reading letters and case reports during my dissertation research, I found dozens of instances when a birth mother had been coerced to surrender her child. Without standardized protocols, missionaries, social workers, and volunteers had ultimate discretion and little oversight. International and foreign laws worked to remedy such inconsistencies, offering birth parents longer waiting periods and more opportunities to give legal consent.
Slowing down the process also tried to ensure that adoptive parents received appropriate screening and education about the risks of adopting internationally. Many children available for international adoption have experienced severe trauma. Children adopted from Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s lived through wars, displacement, and familial separation. Adopting children from Russia, Ukraine, and Romania at the end of the Cold War meant taking a child raised sometimes exclusively in institutional care and transitioning them into a household. Such conditions persist in the present, especially with older children. Just because a family is willing, doesn’t mean they are able.
If the person were still listening at this point, I might even tell them the story that haunts me. When I worked for an international adoption agency in the mid-2000s, my organization facilitated the placement of three Liberian children with a Northern California family. At the time, it was easy and cheap to adopt from Liberia because few restrictions existed, and the country didn’t comply with international law. I met with the parents in my office several times as they filled out paperwork and coordinated home visits with our licensed social worker. They were kind, polite, and straightforward. Their six biological children were respectful. It was clear they held strong, conservative Christian convictions, but their faith inspired their interest in adoption. They saw taking in orphans as one way of acting on their faith. Before turning their paperwork over to the agency responsible for placing the children, the social worker in charge followed all the laws. The U.S. immigration caseworker approved the family as eligible to adopt three children. All of the boxes were checked. Within only a few months, three Liberian children had become Americans.
Three years after the adoption was finalized, two of the children were rushed to the local hospital with internal injuries. According to news reports, both had been beaten with a section of plumbing tubing until they suffered severe damage to their internal organs. The 11-year-old survived in critical condition. The 7-year-old died the next day. Eventually, their adoptive father was charged with second-degree murder, and he is serving two consecutive life sentences for this crime. Their adoptive mother was convicted of voluntary manslaughter.
In 2008, the Liberian government publicly acknowledged that their adoption procedures failed to protect children. Too many adoptions from the West African nation had ended with adoptive parents revoking their parental rights. Well-meaning families were simply unprepared for the sweeping emotional demands of parenting children with attachment disorders and trauma, which ensued from decades of civil war. By 2009, the Liberian government placed a moratorium on adoptions until it could revise the process. Unfortunately, it came two years too late for the Schatz children.
Many of us find it viscerally disturbing to think of a child waiting in an institution unnecessarily. I understand that. But irrevocably joining a child with an unrelated family should not occur too easily or too quickly—nor should irrevocably ending a birth parent’s right to her child. Obstacles on both sides should slow the process so the parties know what they are agreeing to. Adoption is permanent and needs to be an intensive and exhaustive process.
What would I say the next time I’m at a function and someone asks me why international adoption takes so long? One person’s obstacle becomes another’s protection. I might briefly mention the history of such protections. And if I were brave enough, I might tell the story of Lydia Schatz.
RACHEL WINSLOW is an assistant professor of history and director of the Center for Social Entreprenuershp at Westmont College.