Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture (ASAC) conference screens racist misogynistic... maternity camp propaganda video
(Niels kindly asked if I would move a copy of this piece over from my personal blog. I originally published this yesterday.)
I first began blogging about adoption in late October 2007 in the aftermath of having attended the “Adoption: Ethics and Accountability” conference (Ethica and and the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute were some of the primary sponsors.)
That conference was a case study in both the lack of ethics and buzzed worded/soundbyted “accountability” (accountable to whom exactly?) that pervades the landscape of adoption-land.
Now two and a half years later, I sit at my keyboard having left the Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture’s (ASAC) Conference in Boston, entitled “Adoption: Secret Histories, Public Policies” after attending merely a single afternoon’s sessions.
My partner and I left but not without my first expressing at least the bedrock of why it was we left.
In a word, disgust.
Those of you who have already seen my twitter saw what shards were going to fit into 140 characters in real time.
It is now well over 24 hours after the fact, and there are hundreds of miles between myself and Boston. Hundreds of miles and plenty of hours in which to give the entire situation a good hard think.
No doubt I will eventually write more, perhaps much more about what I saw at the ASAC conference and the implications thereof, but for the moment, I’m going to try to keep this as narrowly contained as possible while still saying what needs to be said.
Thursday was what amounted to ‘film day’ at this year’s conference, and while certainly hundreds of pages of analysis could be written about what we saw earlier on in the day, I’m going to draw reader’s attention to one of the afternoon sessions:
4:15-5:30 Chair: Joyce Maguire Pavao, Center for Family Connections, Cambridge, MA
Screening: A Man Without Culture Is Like a Zebra Without Stripes (Bartos Theatre)
Filmmaker: Ann Somers, Preparation Center for International Adoption, Belgium
The video central to the presentation has apparently been used to fulfill a portion of the Hague Inter-country Adoption Treaty mandated “educational requirements” for would-be-adoptive couples, at least that was how it was introduced.
The full title of the video is “A Man Without Culture Is Like a Zebra Without Stripes: the Adoption Triangle in South Africa.” I will get to the “triangle” language in another post, but for now, anyone who was there at the time, or has read what I’ve written repeatedly about the non-existent “triad” has a pretty good idea how I feel about such.
It was described in the conference Abstracts and Bios thusly:
Ann Somers, “A Man Without Culture Is Like a Zebra Without Stripes: the Adoption Triangle in South Africa”
This film made in 2002, is part of a trilogy about openness, grief, and living with differences in adoption. For “Man without culture,” we interviewed birth mothers in South Africa and followed the process of handing over a child from the birthmother to the adoptive parents. It lasts an hour and the film on the birth mothers and the handings over each take about 20 minutes. The films were made by the preparation Centre for International Adoption for International Adoption (Ghent, Belgium) in cooperation with the University of Ghent and the International Adoption Center in London. It has subtitles in English and is often shown at adoption meetings in the UK.
Jan Peeters is listed as the film’s author on this library card listing at the Royal Library of Belgium. The listing also mentions “Ghent: Training Centre for the Guidance of the Young Child,” more accurately translated as “the Resource and Research Center for Early Childhood Care and Education” or VBJK as the publisher.
(This may take a bit of a scorecard to help keep straight, all I’m making note of here is that the film’s producer and the president of the organization is Jan Peeters.)
VBJK is on the links page of VCOK and Ann Somers is one of the people who is in the adoption team at VCOK; they run a “training center” and distribute materials.
VCOK’s logo is on the video and is distributing the video. At the conference the video segments were played off a DVD with VCOK’s logo on it.
The Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture had a responsibility to at minimum, do at least a Google search or two on the credentials prior to accepting the film submission. Even working with the Dutch translations, some of these organizations appear to have no net presence what-so-ever.
More to the point though, this was allegedly a conference pertaining to the STUDY of “adoption and culture.”
Submissions should have presented a context of interpretation, some form of analysis, or actual study, rather than merely running what ultimately amounted to nothing short of various segments of an unexamined and completely unanalyzed outright commercial for inter-country adoptions, a propaganda film.
Ann Somers (on staff with VCOK) and and another woman from Belgium (regrettably, I did not catch her name) accompanied the video to the ASAC conference. Somers introduced several of the different segments.
The first two segments shown to the conference centered around describing the program at ABBA House in South Africa, an explicitly christian maternity camp (as in “re-education camp“, though in these cases, usually without the state sentencing overtones) operation. Its tagline is nauseatingly:
“Changing the destinies of children”
ABBA house/ABBA Adoptions and House Esther, Baby Care (prior to adoptions) and “mother care shelter house” are all but portions of the broader corporate structure of “South Africa Cares for Life” as you can see on page 3 of South Africa Cares for Life annual Director’s Report from 2006.
The flow chart makes it perfectly clear, ABBA house is a FUNCTION OF South Africa Cares for Life.
Following the links on the page you will eventually come to their page on Baby Nurseries (i.e. product warehousing prior to adoptions) and Mother Homes where pregnant women will be “coached” according to the video.
SA Cares for Life was founded in an attempt to prevent abortions:
SA Cares for Life began in 1996 as Riekie van der Berg sought a means to give women an alternative to abortion. God has since expanded the services of SA Cares to include a network of pregnancy care centers, nurseries, mother homes, and a child sponsorship program.
We are unified by a shared vision of our commitment to offer hope, to give purpose, to change the destiny of birthmothers, families, and children. We give glory to God who has started this ministry…
Or as this puff piece profile clarifies:
In September 1993, Riekie was given this mandate from God: “do something now against abortion, do what I would have done”.
There’s plenty of coded evangelical language in all that, as just one example, terms such as “offer hope” in that subculture relates more to converting these women to christianity than anything concretely having to do with any emotion or outcomes relating to the pregnancy.
So called “post abortion counseling,” or more accurately re-framing of a woman’s abortion experience into something useful to them politically and movement-wise, is a key facet of SA “cares” work.
From their “Neobirth” (or “new birth” assumedly in both the physical and religious senses) Coercive Pregnancy Indoctrination Centers (CPICS) through to Maternity camps, on through to ABBA (”Daddy” or “Father” as in God, the) adoptions it’s practically, one stop shopping.
Abba Adoptions originated from the Social Work Private Practice of Riekie van der Berg, registered in 1975. Abba Adoptions became the registered adoption division of the Apostolic Faith Mission Executive Welfare Council in 1996. The Abba Adoption team currently consists of a team of 15 registered social workers. Abba Adoptions stands separate from the charity projects of SA Cares for Life but networks closely together for the statutory services needed to serve the best interest of children in our care.
According to the January ‘09 newsletter, they have also gotten into the baby dump box or “Safe Haven” racket, whereby kids are left anonymously, decimating any hope of ever re-connecting the kids processed through such with their authentic identities.
Not surprisingly, dump boxes aside, the video went into some detail about the tactic of so called “openness” that we in the audience later on through the presentation came to understand that even in identified relinquishment situations was nothing more than an ABBA house mediated program whereby letters and photographs could be exchanged from the adopters to the agency and from Mothers to the agency. The intermediary reads all correspondence and offers “counseling” if the Mother ’sounded like she needed it,’ then all identifying address information was stripped off by the intermediary prior to the exchange of information.
At the end of the two years, if not much sooner, contact is concluded, and Mothers are to ‘get on with their lives’ (particularly as a big part of the ABBA house “coaching” has to do with opening one’s heart to loving again, after losing a child to adoption.)
Anyone who has spent sixty seconds with many Mothers who lost children to adoption hears that two year figure and wants to laugh out loud. It treats women as if they are inhuman, as if they would just ‘forget’ their children. Any Mother will tell you, they may feel many different things, but they never forget.
There were short interviews with several pregnant women in the program, the majority of which were black (as are most of the women SA Cares for Life processes, see the director’s report above) . Most reported a simple financial inability to keep the child, at least one hoped to continue on with her own education.
At least one white woman in the program reiterated several times her desire to keep her child, yet the lack of money stood in her way.
While the film fails to document her particular outcome clearly, she is in the soon to have the resultant kid placed up for adoption queue at the time the film was shot.
No financial assistance to enable her to keep her child appeared forthcoming, nor was the very subject ever broached.
That’s not what ABBA house and ABBA adoptions are there for.
One of the employees of ABBA house mentioned in passing how they prefer to get a hold of the pregnant women at roughly the six month mark, bemoaning how they occasionally only hear from some women right as they’re going into labor. (Apparently that provided an insufficient amount of time to “coach” them prior to the adoption. No doubt it’s hard to frame a woman’s expectations and experiences on the way to the labour ward.)
The second portion of the video showed how ABBA house handles an actual hand off of the kid from the Mother to the adopters.
The ASAC audience was treated to watching a young black woman hand off her child to a white couple explaining ‘he’s your child now’ right on cue. They assure her there will always be some of her still in there, but they most certainly take the child.
The young Mother spent another portion of the meeting sitting quietly at times looking down until coached by the employee to tell the adopters what she wanted them to do for (her) child.
As if on cue all the trite adoption cliches of “better life” complete with “education” tumbled out one after another. These are all too familiar to those of us who have heard that refrain echo down through the ages from women losing their children in maternity camps on through to parents in Haiti in the wake of the earthquake being conned out of their kids by Laura Silsby and the Baptist Missionaries (although in Haiti of course, no mention of thereafter sending the kids off into adoptions was made to the parents.)
The adopters took the baby, but left the Mother with a picture book of her son’s soon to be “home” country. They also left her with some photographs they had taken on an earlier visit they had had with her child. The entire hand off was orchestrated by the employee.
Despite the fact that ABBA house was the very subject matter of these early portions of the film, complete with interviews with its young white employees the constant drumbeat of “triangle” was used to hide those with the most power and central to the film, a point we’ll have to come back to in a later post.
The third portion was introduced as ‘let’s move on to the “Happy part!”
“Happy” perhaps, only if such material is typically only shown to would-be-adoptive couples, not so much for some sitting in the audience at the ASAC.
Throughout the third segment, adoptive couples and their internationally obtained children were profiled.
Most of the time the adopters are speaking, the kids are reduced to mere props, a black child having her hair braided by her white adoptive mother while the mother speaks to issues that could just as well, if not better be addressed by the adoptee herself. To say the girl did not look happy would be an understatement.
But then, adoptees are rarely happy when they are reduced to mere inanimate set design.
Another, obviously well-to-do white couple laughs for the camera about arriving at one of the many ‘adoption or baby hotels‘ in their child’s country of origin only to have a driver stop by not long after they arrive with a child in arms and a bag with little more than a bottle and some baby goods, dropping the kid off and leaving them to their ‘parenting.’
It’s nothing short of dropping off the merchandise. No notion of social worker or even agency hack, just a driver with babe in arms.
For most sane people, this would raise deep concerns, yet for this couple, it was all just part of that strange child-by-airplane experience.
In yet another segment, we see a sister to adopted kids gushing about her new (black) siblings’ hair, enjoying touching it, etc.
This has been an important point of contention of personal ownership, consent, and boundaries for many black people, let alone the additional layers or significance such can take on for adoptees.
Rather than trying to explain such in my own voice, I’d prefer to let a black adoptee speak to such herself through my post. Quoting a few recent comments off Lisa Marie’s twitter (because they’re too important to merely scroll down off the page without noting, particularly here, and particularly in that she performed “Ungrateful Daughter” at the conference later on:
so guess what that means when you just reach out and grab it at the club in your drunken stupor. it means i may elbow you in the forehead. 1:32 AM Apr 26th via web
oops. sorry. 1:32 AM Apr 26th via web
white people. STOP reaching out to touch black people’s hair w/o permission. actually DONT even ASK. We don’t want you in there. stop it. 1:33 AM Apr 26th via web
Im so OVER having drunken white men and women who think my hair is cool just grab me by my hair as they are ‘complimenting’ me. 1:35 AM Apr 26th via web
the one time I have actually checked someone about touching my hair without permission they were totally offended. like it was no big deal. 1:42 AM Apr 26th via web
people just reach out AS they are asking. but last night it wasn’t even an ask, it was an outright handful grab… & not in a good way. 1:44 AM Apr 26th via web
a young white woman, dancing near me on the dance floor. sigh. I just stopped dancing, looked at her dead in the face and walked away. lol. 1:45 AM Apr 26th via web
She has also centered her work “Ungrateful Daughter” around another example of both the “hair” theme and nonconsent as it relates to both a black adoptee’s personal power and in this particular circumstance, powerlessness:
One of the most evocative scenes in Rollins’ new autobiographical play, Ungrateful Daughter: One Girl’s Story of Being Adopted into a White Family … That Aren’t Celebrities, centers on hair drama. In the scene, Rollins is six years old, sitting on a kitchen stool and wincing. Rollins’ mother is tackling her hair with a comb. (It’s a solo show, so Rollins plays both parts.)When the comb doesn’t work, mom reaches for new ammo. First she applies a seemingly noxious amount of Johnson & Johnson’s No More Tangles. Then she gets frustrated, grabs a pair of shears, and starts snipping. “She cut off my hair,” said Rollins. “It was super-short. I remember it was an impulse decision, it was done under anger. I remember being completely horrified, hating my short hair, hating myself. Not wanting to go to school. Feeling ugly.”
Hair stood in as a metaphor for something much larger. Rollins remembers her mother describing her hair as “messy, wild, and out of control” — an exotic presence that had to be tamed or molded in place. Put in academic terms, it was “the Other.” So, too, was Rollins.
I’ve had the unfortunate experience of having no less than the head of Operation Save America (formerly Operation Rescue) reach out and touch my hair without consent at a conference. (My skin tends towards the paler than pale, and my hair towards the mousy blonde-esque.) At the time, I was too stunned to react. These days, inaction isn’t something anyone had better be counting on.
For women, particularly small women, or for children, violations like this are simply part of how others feel entitled to us.
The film also interviewed several of the adopted kids themselves including a boy brought to a European country, imported from Haiti. He described other kids, particularly from other schools or less familiar with him in day to day life flinging invectives at him, calling his so called colour “chocolate” and “shit.”
How this could ever be considered the “happy part” was well beyond me at that point, but what came thereafter was even more stunning.
Once the film came to an end, Somers took the podium and flatly stated that racism hasn’t been a problem.
These black kids, imported to European countries surrounded by white kids, who in turn call the boy “shit” apparently that doesn’t count as “racism” in Somer’s book.
Racism hasn’t been a problem. (Or very similar, I’m having to go by memory.)
That mainly what she heard from adopters were concerns about “attachment issues” but not racism.
Maybe she should should watch her own damn film.
Or at least, watch it through eyes and perspective other than that of the would-be-adopters, the primary audience for this film.
Beyond the ‘mere’ showing of the film itself, abomination though it undoubtedly was, some of the comments surrounding the piece built a context even worse than had the film been left to stand alone.
As for “attachment issues,” also a core subject of the third portion of the video shown at the conference?
Use of such terminology can also have (quite literally) grave implications for adopted people.
What may begin as merely an adoptive parent frustrated by their adopted child’s lack of “bonding” with them can rapidly escalate into the realm of quack attachment related junk “therapies.” (See here for a deconstruction of “Reactive Attachment Disorders” or RAD which are recognized in the DSM IV and the lay quackery uses of the nebulous pseudo-diagnosis of “attachment disorders” or “attachment therapies” AT. The film, of course, relied upon the latter.)
Adoptive parents demanding adoptees stop clinging to their previous lives, (including memories of other family members, friends, or even siblings, particularly for kids who are older when adopted) all too often seek out ‘attachment specialists’ in desperate bids to become ‘the only mother!’
This often has far more to do with the self image and self esteem of the adoptive parents than anything having to do with the kids themselves.
Yet an industry has grown up around the ‘fixing’ of “ungrateful” or non-compliant children, particularly adoptees. At times the “attachment industry” is indistinguishable from the adoption industry, as many ‘therapists’ and ‘experts’ are themselves adopters, and market their ‘techniques’ at adoption conferences.
As “Wayward RADish” has been documenting for quite some time now on his “a search for survivors” blog, this long slippery slope can lead kids into situations indistinguishable from outright torture.
These psuedo-therapies have been particularly aimed at adoptees and heavily embraced by the adoption industry, both here in America and abroad.
Tragically, various forms of these ordeal sessions have occasionally made national headlines when kids have been harmed by “holding therapies” or with holding things such as food, crushed to death due to what have been termed forms of “compression therapy” while others have choked to death on their own vomit while being smothered under blankets going through “rebirthing” junk therapies allegedly to “rebirth” them through their adoptive mothers.
The body count continues to climb.
See Wayward RADish’s “Memorium” to read the horrific stories of some of these kids and about the “attachment” therapies that led to their deaths.
Use of such terminology is not neutral.
“Attachment therapy” to Adoptees is similar to how Queers look at quack “ex-gay” therapies. (Also see Attachment/Holding Therapy Inspired “Gay to Straight” Movement Leader to understand important overlaps.)
Both fundamentally demand the subject cease being themselves.
One last key point I did not have the opportunity to make in the Q&A session after the video (which I will address in a separate post, as reaction to the propaganda deserves a post all its own) from House Esther’s function as a staging area for “destitute pregnant” women, to the all too comfortable surroundings of the European homes the children were eventually exported to, it was obvious, yet rendered invisible to any analysis within the film itself that these adoptions, like so very many, are a function of access to wealth, and complete lack thereof.
The flow of children only goes one direction.
Optimistically perhaps, arriving at the conference, I had printed up some postcards pointing to both my BLC blog and twitter, to pass along to people, almost as a form of business card. On the back, I pulled what I have always considered very core to this blogging I do, from my “about” page:
Baby Love Child, the blog, also has roots in exploring adoption and how it is deeply entwined with many social factors, particularly poverty. Many real life “love children” who are later adopted, are not ‘given up’ for lack of love, but for lack of resources. Many of those mislabeled “orphans” are in fact made available to the adoption process as a byproduct of grinding poverty, both domestic and global.
In the few hours I was at the conference, I ultimately had no interest in passing out a single one.
I’m getting well ahead of myself, but when I went to the microphone to comment before it became clear that leaving the conference was the only option, I suppose all I had to say to these women who brought the film came down to two things,
- if they cannot recognize the racism the boy in the video himself articulated
- and if they cannot recognize that a central unstated theme to their film is that in these cases loss of children was a by-product of lack of access to resources, to money
then they, probably like so many who see that video, failed to empathize, and see what was just beneath their very noses.
Rather than making films about the mundane and daily process of strip mining pregnant women for their children, and the perfectly everyday machine like precision by which maternity camps do so, perhaps their time and efforts would have been better directed at alleviating the poverty and child exports that led to the film’s subject mater in the first place. But then when women have access to resources, they don’t find themselves in maternity camps.
And then what would aspiring filmmakers do?
Or perhaps more realistically, what would the global demand for a market in children do?
After all, as Florida wants to remind each and every woman seeking abortion, the line for a kid to adopt goes around the block, and you as a woman, happen to contain something many would gladly do whatever it takes to get.
Finally, there is the matter of of how this audience was not their typical audience.
Even a quick glance over the rest of the conference program makes it clear, there were Mothers, at least some of whom may themselves have had direct experiences with maternity camps here in the states, adoptees (the product of the process,) and others from a variety of perspectives in the conference audience.
For me, core to the very question of how to treat this propaganda piece is a simple question:
Should Mothers with direct personal experience of the Magdalene Laundries (or similar containment facilities for women and children) or their one time children, some of whom may well have been direct products of such experiences, be expected to sit quietly and unquestioningly through a propaganda film about how marvelous the Magdalene Laundries were, and how supposedly effective they were at “reforming women?”
Maternity camps, both historical and current, both domestic and international have often been places ranging from dormitories with a pool and mandatory chapel sessions on through to gross psychological manipulation and outright physical abuse.
While the idea of exhuming over a hundred women’s bodies may seem a rather extreme example to use for purposes of discussion here, the bottom line remains, maternity camps are a world unto themselves even in this day and age. Only those who have been on the direct receiving end of living through them are the real experts.
Yet as they are women, their experiences are all too often dismissed. They are places with little to no external oversight or regulation in many countries. For the women contained within, their experiences can range from it being something they wanted and did what they needed it to on through to shadowy worlds of hidden abuse, psychological, physical, and even sexual.
In light of such, what then is a ‘reasonable’ response to a glowing ‘educational’ film about the efficiency and marvelousness of this South African maternity camp?
I suppose we’ll get to that in what might be considered sort of a part II, but for those of you who were there who applauded your disgust against this abomination thank you. That support was beyond unexpected.
And for those sitting happily by, in blithe acceptance of it, all I ask is that you get a little historical, linguistic, and political context for what you just saw and spend some time listening to those who have survived such experiences.
One of the many genuine ironies of this piece of shit appearing on the program, not merely that it did, but when it did was that Ann Fessler’s film “A Girl Like Her” was the next film on the schedule later on in the evening. The next morning was the time dedicated to Mothers speaking of their experiences (although from what I understand, the only Mothers on the program for those sessions were all white, D’oh!)
For those who were not present words genuinely fail me.
There’s a reason I am not in Boston tonight, despite the fact that I really wanted to meet some of the people in attendance and see some of the presentations. Lisa Marie’s “Ungrateful Daughter” most certainly near the top of that list.
As for ASAC, specifically those responsible for the conference?
They failed on every level.
No matter what came after, the presence of this, welcomed as it was, and still uncommented upon publicly by those responsible invalidates the very core of what ASAC may have tried to accomplish here.
Allowing such a basic negation of the experiences of Mothers and adoptees to remain uncommented upon (much less anything done about) even at this late date, says volumes.
Mothers in particular have been conditioned to endure such in silence and be grateful for any venue that grants them any time behind the microphone.
How the hell ASAC EVER thought it would be ok to run a video like this at a conference where they wanted adoptees’ and parents’ participation is beyond me.
It fundamentally undermines any notion of this being a space wherein Mothers and Fathers, Adoptees and Bastards experiences are anything other than some form of “fair and balanced” weight on the opposite side of a scale.
You can put a pile of dung on one side and a bar of gold on the other, but the two remain unequal in anything other than the weight, or in this case ‘volume and attention’ given to each.
There are those in the adoption pentagon with access to power and resources and those more often than not without.
Bringing in a film that both features the industry and then pretends it doesn’t exist, hiding it away under false propagandistic nuggets like “triangle” hides reality in plain sight and then demands Bastards and Parents accept this false model of our own experiences.
It guts any notion of a conference like this being a place wherein our experiences are valid.
No matter how many “Birth” Mothers or Bastards you put on the program, maneuvers like this pile new bricks up top to make up a podium for us even as you simultaneously remove bricks from the bottom.
Whether or not conference organizers had any idea what they were getting themselves into by running this, not only does that speak of a lack of due diligence, it also speaks to the failure of that last line of defense: realizing how wildly inappropriate this was once the film was rolling and putting and end to it quickly, coupled with sincere apologies.
I’ve been to Adoption industry conferences held by agency lobbies, I’ve been to anti-abortion/pro-adoption zero-sum game conferences held by compulsory pregnancy advocates, I’ve been to Queer conferences trying to disentangle the complicated web of Queer legal statuses and reproduction or lack thereof, I’ve been to Bastards’ rights conferences, I’ve sat through abortion supportive spaces attempts at wrangling with the implications of adoption, and I’ve been to (cough) adoption reform (cough) conferences.
I’ve seen adoption industry films very similar to this many times.
No matter what the interests of those that produced this particular propaganda film, this was nothing special, and ultimately indistinguishable from industry produced materials.
Marketing the demand for more adoptions, right down to the adoptive couple who are interviewed about going to fertility clinics and how they were such “sad places with lots of crying” to how they eventually ended up in group of prospective adoptive couples all of them already in process, and how it’s all so happy and they’re getting kids within a year and a half or so, is core to the film.
As it is geared towards would-be-adopters fulfilling their Hague trainings, the film was little more than an ‘ and this is how it works’ piece.
Whereas their usual market are those who merely want the end product, some us sitting in the room either were product or had been processed.
It was the venue, the introduction and the framing, the lack of action by those ultimately responsible on the conference level, the audience reaction and lack thereof, particularly those who saw nothing wrong with it, that sets this instance apart, and led me to add,
…for now I’m headed home. Done accommodating industry crap in spaces I support.
Sadly, I suppose I may have to write a part II if only to explain my own intentions, and what happened once the presentation ended for those who were not at the conference. It may be some time before I get there though.