Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Intercountry adoptions, a conversation

(Part 1 of a 3-part IntLawGrrls guest contribution, an interdisciplinary conversation on intercountry adoptions between Professor Michele Bratcher Goodwin and Dr. Patricia Y. Jones. Inspired by a recent news story, it follows the publication this February of a book Michele edited, Baby Markets: Money and the New of Creating Families)
United States and Russian officials have been discussing what to do about U.S. adoptions from Russia. The meetings come on the heel of the story that Justin Hansen, a 7-year-old Russian boy, was sent back to Russia by his adoptive mother, Torry Hansen, a nurse from Tennessee. While most of the attention in the case has focused on her behavior, little has been explored about the complex issues associated with Russian adoptions.
Russia and former Soviet bloc countries have been a draw for Americans. Couples from the United States adopt more Russian children than any other nation.
But this story made headline news because of a controversial, and rather unorthodox decision made by his adoptive mother, along with his adoptive grandmother: They sent him back to Russia, with an “unaccompanied minor” ticket and a note. Their personal decision has become the subject of international policy and adoption politics, drawing significant scrutiny to international adoptions, and raising questions as to why Americans pass over plenty of children available for adoption in the United States. Critics and child advocacy groups wonder why the women did not try harder.
We endeavor here to discuss the underlying issues.
Patricia: It’s reported that the adoptive mother only had “Justin” in her home for six months. That's hardly enough time for either parent or child to get beyond any adjustment issues to a new home, family and culture. While we don’t know the full story and what she did try, sending him back is another rejection, and one that can be psychologically traumatizing. There are so many messages in that: “You are unloveable,” “You are not wanted,” “You are not worth investing in.”
When we have biological children, we don’t know what we are going to get, and we don’t get to send them back. The hopeful aspiration is that the commitment to adopted children will be the same as one we would have to a biological child.
Michele: In their defense, the mother and daughter pair asserted that they tried everything in their power to integrate the child into his new American life -- including changing his name from Artyom, and giving him a loving home. But ultimately they feared for their safety. They allege that the adoption agency lied to them about his emotional and mental health. In the note sent with the child, the adoptive mother wrote:
'This child is mentally unstable. He is violent and has severe psychopathic issues/behaviors. I was lied to and misled by the Russian Orphanage workers and director regarding his mental stability and other issues.'
Patricia: How would you (or your child) feel if you were taken to Russia? Given strange food, isolated from anyone who spoke your language? Told “you are lucky to be here” in a language you did not understand? And stripped of your name -- how was that understood by the child? A name is a source of identity and connection to culture. Stripping persons of their name is a means of culturally isolating them, and basically communicating that their culture or nationality is not acceptable. It was a common practice during slavery. While a loving home may have been the intent of these women, one could question the loving home premise. I am not sure the child felt loved; in fact his behavior suggests he was very unhappy and not adjusting. Because the adoptive mother did not know the child’s primary language, she was incapable of communicating with “Justin” about his discomfort.
As a psychologist, I am concerned that the mother was unfamiliar with her adoptive child’s native language. At 7 this is his primary language. A thorough assessment would have noted the language barrier as possibly interfering with the adequate parenting of this child. A good home assessment would also include some exploration of the parent’s familiarity with, affinity for, and capacity to affirm the child’s culture. The quality of preparation for prospective parents to adopt transnationally varies from agency to agency.
Michele: This case and others raise a number of urgent issues about international adoptions, including the:
► Exploitation of children,
► Vulnerability of adoptive parents,
► Market structure of adoptions, which incentivizes placements at all costs,
► Morality of “returning children” as if they are items from a store, and
► Lack of capacity for some adoptive parents to meet the challenges of raising children from different cultures.
(Still to come: Part 2 & Part 3)

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