Russia and the child’s best interests

It has been a time of enormous upheaval in US-Russia relations as far as children are concerned. Needless to say, it is my hope that sanity will prevail and that many more Russian children will find homes in the US–I hope this in the same way that I hope many will find new homes within Russia itself, and that our governments will continue to approach this issue with passionate conviction.

I came across this short documentary on HuffPost–It makes for interesting viewing, as it is always of interest (and too rare) to see inside an actual orphanage….

From this film’s perspective, the social orphans in the institution wait–they are waiting to be taken home, to be provided with actual families.  As I also read widely in the contrary view, I note that some virulently anti-adoption material on the internet portrays the tragic deaths of certain Russian adoptees in America as the result of a craven “adoption industry.” The dead children are presented as symbols of this selfish and relentless trade in children. How could the two visions of this phenomenon of international adoption be more starkly different?

It seems to me that those of us who believe in the permanency and stability offered by international adoption should be profoundly concerned about the fact that a small but significant number of Russian children were actually killed by those who had adopted them. More recently, the boy who was returned presents a very challenging picture as well. I do not know if the Russian idea of home visits with adoptees and international prosecutions will yield the results the Russians would like to see, but I sympathize with the Russian point of view on all this. I am certain that most Russian authorities know that the vast, vast and overwhelming majority of American homes for Russian children are loving, caring, patient and positive. On the other hand, even the relatively small number of children killed by adoptive parents is shocking, and must represent something of importance. Say what one will about the fact that many more children are killed by Russian biological families (and that is true in many countries), there is something going on…I can only offer my own modest theory on this….

Someone at a conference once said to me that adoptions gone wrong represent marginal adoption candidates meeting up with marginal procedures, or marginal agencies. To the extent that the Russians have said no more to independent (that is, non-agency) adoptions through intermediaries, I am delighted with that change. No marginally qualified applicants (in terms of stamina, understanding, commitment) should be allowed to adopt–full stop. The recent return of the Russian boy highlighted some of the severe problems caused by prolonged institutionalisation in Russia–on top of social issues like abuse and neglect in the original home, there may be compounding medical and psychological issues like FAS and PTSD….It is to be hoped that the incident let us all agree that Russia needs to work much harder at getting children into real homes–and not try and disguise this problem through reliance on paid stranger foster care–that will not work, either!

In addition, I wonder if it could be the case that some of those adoptive parents who went so far as to injure and even kill their children mistakenly believed that they could discipline children from these backgrounds into getting better? Corporal punishment is the worst possible approach to children from difficult pasts, who already have trouble trusting and believing. It is strange and worrying that these deaths of Russian children occurred in the US, and it is hard to believe there is not some common source as far as an explanation is concerned….

That being said, despite the recent problems, my impression is that the Russian government is better aware of the deep and loving commitment of so many US families towards their Russian-born children….Perhaps we can go on to build adoption policy around this awareness, while acknowledging and reforming the remaining weaknesses. As for those who choose to portray these tragedies as the inevitable results of a rapacious adoption industry–It seems just so false and misleading, and to use the faces of dead children to make a hate-filled anti-adoption point is in its own way profoundly shocking….

These adopted kids “can’t adapt”–really?

Another article on the question of Russian children adopted at older ages into US families and all the difficulties presented…..The Time magazine writer makes a little play on words–When the adopted can’t adapt–but it seems a bit of a cheap shot to me.,9171,1997439,00.html?loomia_si=t0:a16:g2:r1:c0.197028:b34979156&xid=Loomia

The article doesn’t break any new ground, but as I see it reminds us that the Russian government bears responsibility for the damage done to these children for unnecessarily keeping them confined to state institutions for so long. Early intervention and therapy could do so much to improve their long-term outcomes….Obvious, but something the Russian government, busy arguing about national pride and national treasures, does not seem to grasp yet. (The US government similarly bears responsibility for the damage done by our foster care system and failure to deal with placements in as timely a manner as possible.) And what about the people who are so keen on adoption reform that they enthusiastically call for moritoria, or for restricting the adoption numbers?

My point, though, was that these children have adapted, contrary to the article writer’s little pun. They have indeed adapted, even if what they have left to work with  does not allow them to be model children. Had they been left where they were, many would probably not have survived. The boy who was recently returned to Russia will receive the gold-plated treatment as a celebrity–but not so the many thousands like him. It is not surprising that so much of the energy for the pro-adoption, pro-permanency movement comes from adoptive parents, as they are able to look at children they love and say, Wow–I am glad you did not stay in that institution! And they are right. Of course, opponents twist this about and charge (as I read on one angry blog the other day) that  “Americans have a savior complex.” What that has to do with this life or death human rights situation, I certainly don’t know….

Haiti’s heartbreaking New Year: What about restaveks?

The Haitian earthquake raised a huge number of moral/ethical dilemmas relating to children. In my International Children’s Rights class, we had several lively discussions about the nature of the restavek system, in which tens of thousands of Haitian children are involved.  At best, recourse to restavek represents a decision by severely impoverished parents to have their children fed and sheltered; at worst, it is essentially a system of slavery….Sexual abuse, deprivation of education and nutrition, and a total dead end in terms of life prospects are all endemic in the restavek system. (A Haitian student of mine told me that it is common for girl restaveks to eventually  become pregnant and to end up rejected by everyone.) The earthquake, of course, made things worse than they had been previously. One cnn story in particular haunted me:

In this story, the Unicef worker must decide whether to allow a girl to leave the UN facility, when she had expressed a strong wish not to be returned to the “godfather” for whom she had been a restavek servant. In the end, because the girl’s father said that she should come along with them, Unicef decided to allow her to go. Commentators felt sure that she would ultimately be returned to the godfather….You can see in the photo how painfully, worryingly thin the girl is…..

Maybe I am missing something, but I don’t recall hearing from the international child welfare establishment that the restavek system must end now, must be stopped, and that the children caught up in that system must be set free and placed in appropriate care. No one defends the system, of course, but what does this kind of tepid quasi-acceptance mean?

One can do a trawl of the anti-adoption websites from a few months ago, warning in dire terms about the pro-adoption predators waiting to swoop down to take advantage of Haiti’s woes and steal Haiti’s children–But where is there someone to do a clear, objective study of what is going on with the children who are living as restaveks, as well as those who had been in the many hundreds of orphanages? (The system of unregistered and unregulated Haitian orphanages has been dealt with before on this website..)–This should take place with a determination to ensure that all or at least many of  those children who really need alternatives get then.  I am pretty sure the child welfare commentators would not want a restavek life for themselves or anyone they care about. Read through the cnn story–it is truly heartbreaking….

Rainbow Kids on FFOA

Here’s yet another twist–Rainbow Kids says in its email message that families should be aware of the proposed act, as in the opinion of RK, the legislation would “add another layer of difficulty” in the international adoption process…..And the message cites to PEAR, which I am assuming has quite a different perspective on this than RK….

Again, the intellectual incoherence around the adoption issue is so frustrating….So the legislation is being presented as having the potential to, on the one hand, over-categorize children as orphans and available to be adopted when they should not be, and on the other, to obstruct adoption….It can’t possibly do both, can it?

Birds singing so beautifully this morning–Is there anything like the month of June?

A foreign policy with an orphan emphasis–the FFOA controversy

Isn’t this what the Families for Orphans bill is meant to assist in creating?  Of course, no legislation is perfect–but the essential content is aimed at treating children living out of family care as a cohort in need of permanency. Permanency. Another term that is starting to be treated with derision–just as attachment disorder was treated with derision. If we start from the premise that international adoption is a plot by rapacious agencies and their representatives, then all orphan-oriented initiatives are greeted with deep suspicion–

I really don’t care what term we use–use an acronym–Children Living Without Family Care, CLWFC. I get it–some children are left temporarily by families in overnight facilities–even for a long time–No one but no one (at least no sane person) wants to see them adopted if they have families who want them and are doing their best to care for them or at least stay connected. But simply to say that children have “living relatives” is so condescending….To refer only and always to poverty to cover every situation is so condescending and misleading–

One of the really great things about the proposed legislation is that it would require countries to engage in some form of accounting for children living out of parental care.  What on earth is the problem with this, unless–again and ad nauseum–it is assumed that there is a twisted plot behind the bill–that it is not meant to focus attention on this hidden and often vulnerable and abused population of children–but rather to spirit them out of their countries against the will of their families….? Accounting for these children is crucial. We should do more of it. All countries should do it. That does not mean that each child’s history will be written up in a document, but that countries will give an accounting of institutions, foster care, street children.

 Ethica, PEAR and even Holt (!!) have signed onto a letter of opposition where they claim that this project will cost “billions of dollars” and impose red tape on developing countries and cannot be done. Of course we could, at modest cost, do a much better job at accounting for these children. There should be impartial, honest accounting for issues of child abandonment, institutional care, aging out of the system, street children. Lives depend on this. Conversations with child care workers, communities etc will give us a much better idea of all this–and maybe we can start an analysis based on facts rather than anecdote……Like Save the Children,  those opposing the bill seem to be against the use of large numbers when referring to children living out of family care! (Unicef tends to bring out these numbers, but object to them when people point out that they indicate a real orphan crisis.)   Are we really to believe that the former Soviet Union and China, for instance, are incapable of presenting an accounting of the children, at least in broad terms? ( I do not believe that for a moment.) And yet we are meant to believe that these same governments are going to achieve successful family reunification on a mass scale for most children living out of family care….?

I referred in my 2003 article to the “adoptability conundrum”–the idea that adoption must link up with children who really really need it in order to be ethical. It should be  obvious that I believe this.  We are much more likely to link children in need with adoption if we have more information, more data. What is certain is that leaving things as they are will not create a happily ever after for these millions of children–however many millions they might prove to be.

Say what you mean

It is bizarre to try and navigate the fraught ideological world of international adoption….It is exhausting and confusing and crazy-making–especially when the silent issues of abortion and the many dangers to living children co-exist with the ICA questions….

I am tired of trying to make sense of people who focus obsessively on problems that arise in relation to adoption…If they dislike adoption on some deep philosophical ground, why don’t they just say so? For some, the biological relation is everything–it drives their perception and understanding of everything–They have bought into the idea that in international adoption, one person’s loss is another person’s “gain”–When they speak of culture, they are really speaking of biology…(since I doubt if they care whether some family moves their children around the world into a new culture zone–I mean, would they care???)  No, it is the question of legally cutting off that first biological tie. And their deep sympathy, empathy with the adult  problems that led to that circumstance…I want to talk tomorrow about the pending US legislation Families for Orphans Act, as it is profoundly symbolic…but I cannot help but feel I want to first send the message–Do not use anecdote as proxy for your opposition to international adoption….(Part of the reason for this is that we must present a “professionalized” version of our point of view–so finding instances in which there is corruption or other defect in international adoption allows us to denigrate everyone involved in that process…..It is easier and more congenial than simply saying, I do not like international adoption because I disagree with its ideological premises….) If you are opposed on fundamental grounds, just say so…Do not make instances of corruption or mistakes a proxy in your battle against the foundational premises of international adoption….

An argument a minute…..

I may have been quiet, but I have been observing…..The same old arguments go on, with new twists added frequently. What to do about these many, many children who live without parental care? For each interested group, it seems they attribute evil motives to others, while holding their own up as right and true. This is often accomplished rhetorically–references to the “adoption industry” and “baby market” and “desperate couples”, for instance–this is all familiar. As I have often said, we could just as easily refer to the UN and ngo “poverty industry” which demands a captive population of disadvantaged people, including children, to justify its existence. I don’t go that far, but anti-adoption groups often go all out in their wild accusations…..

The two major symbolic events of the recent past have, of course, been the Haitian earthquake and the return of the Russian boy to Russia by his American adoptive mother. One could write a book on either of these events…..From my point of view, each event offered a revealing look into the hidden lives of social orphans….such issues as the Haitian restavek system–is it slavery or a form of Haitian child welfare? Whichever it is, it is deeply disturbing. Unicef, not surprisingly, appears more troubled by international adoption than by restavek….As for the Russian boy, his sad return and the American mom’s deeply foolish and unnecessary action opened a window on the continuing crisis of Russian social orphans and the failures of Russia’s own domestic adoption system.

Now, from SOS children’s villages (they do great work, but….) comes the argument that because Russians have returned their adopted children in such grotesquely high numbers, it’s time to “move beyond” both orphanages and adoption–even domestic adoption–in favor of group homes like….Ta da!! SOS villages!

Wow….I want to write about the data-based and information-based movement I hope to become more involved in–but even the generation of information about social orphans seems to be opposed by some.

More later.