It's interesting that, on the one hand, the U.S. government is tied in knots about children seeking refuge on our southern border and, on the other, is facilitating the adoption of thousands of children from dozens of countries by American families.
In 2013, there were 7,094 kids who were citizens of other countries brought to the United States to become members of American families. A little bit of a slow year, 2013, compared to just eight years before (2005) when 22,734 kids left their birth countries to be adopted by Americans. But, it wasn't all one way. Heaven knows the U.S. believes in fair trade. In 2013, a total of 84 American children left the U.S. to be taken into the loving arms of Austrians (1), Canadians (35), Irish (5), Dutch (38), Swiss (2) Tanzanians (1), and British (2) families. How do I know all this? The U.S. State Department told me so in its FY 2013 Annual Report on Intercountry Adoption (March 2014).
Even after having adopted three children from another country, I can't say I'm a huge proponent of international adoption. There's the obvious issue of there being so many waiting children in the U.S. who will continue to wait because prospective parents think they are too old or too damaged. If you don't believe me that there are hundreds of American kids who need homes, take a look here. It has always amazed me that prospective adoptive parents, and I include myself in this group, will cringe at the facts presented about a potential American adoptee, deciding that the child has way too many problems to handle, but agree to adopt a child internationally on the basis of an adorable photo taken on an orphanage bench with sketchy or no details about the child's past, parents, or current issues. A pig in a poke across the ocean has an odd allure that the living, breathing, desperate child down the street just doesn't have. Why is that?
The rescue mythology plays into international adoption big time. There's glamor in going to another country and doing battle with orphanage workers and sleepy bureaucrats at the embassy, heroism in 'getting the child out' just in time as if the orphans are all lined up in burning buildings waiting for Americans to bring their ladders. My husband and I have done this so I know from whence I speak, so to speak. I still consider walking across the courtyard of a Managua orphanage to meet a sick, nearly seven year old girl who was to become our daughter to be the single bravest and, possibly, the most foolhardy, thing I have ever done. It my mind it beats any labor and delivery story you can offer up. That kind of experience is narcotic.
So narcotics aside, is international adoption a good thing or a bad thing? I don't know. It occurs to me that it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. By that I mean this: children in orphanages are, by definition, deprived - of parents, most obviously, and often other things as well like food, health care, education, and good social development. Orphanage workers around the world do the best they can but that's often pretty measly, by our standards for sure, but often by the standards of their own countries. So one way to insure that orphaned children reach adulthood is to have them adopted by families that can support them. When such families only seem to be available in other countries, well, that means children have to leave their birth countries in order to grow up.
So think about it. You're two years old and you're sitting in a tiny rocking chair in an orphanage in Central America. You're hungry but nobody seems to be doing anything about it. You're bored but so are all the other babies. You decide to scratch the scabies on your arms to pass the time. A nice looking lady and man come to talk to you. You don't understand anything they're saying but you don't ordinarily get much so it doesn't really matter. They pick you up and pretty soon you're sitting on the lady's lap in a car going very fast. "We're taking you home, honey," the lady says. What she doesn't say is this: that you will be living with people who don't look like you, that you will speak another language and maybe never learn the language of your birth country, that you probably don't have a prayer of any of your birth family people finding you, that when you get to be an adult, you are very likely to feel like a stranger in a strange land, not sure if you belong in America or where you started but not feeling at home either place.
The nice lady isn't saying these things because they don't occur to her. She's just living in the moment. And she figures you are, too. And you are. Until you aren't.
Now you're twenty-two and you're homesick but you don't know what for. You maybe have what Richard Rodriguez called "hunger of memory," a yearning for the sounds and smells of a place you left twenty years ago, a cultural empty drawer. But unlike Richard Rodriguez, you don't quite know what it is you miss. It is the memory of a two-year old scrambled with dreams you've been having for years that make no sense and travel posters you saw in the windows at the mall. You don't know what it is but it's something that you want and don't have. If you're lucky, this just gnaws on you a little now and then. If you're not, it grows a big hole that gets filled with junk and bad news.
It's complicated, this international adoption business. The children who land in families this way can end up paying a big price for decisions they had no part in making. Maybe, had they been able to choose, been able to sort out all the pros and cons of being adopted by an American family, been temporarily granted some super intelligence that could foresee how it would all turn out, for good and bad, maybe they would have said 'no, that's okay, I'll stay here.'
I guess there's no way of knowing.
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