Transnational Connections and Dissenting Views



Claudia Fonseca

Department of Anthropology

Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul

Porto Alegre, Brazil


Using the case of Brazil, I propose, in the following discussion, to look at the adoption of children as a human rights issue, involving the complex interweaving of local and transnational influences. I suggest that the problem of adoption, as presented here, lies at the crux of child rights and class discrimination -- two emergent themes in human rights debates in Brazil. Despite this fact, national adoption is a subject that, until very recently, has been passed over by activists. Much as domestic violence against women was once naturalized as a conflict outside the state sphere of authority, so adoption has been presented as a cut-and-dried humanitarian issue involving, at most, a child's "right" to a family.

Child activists may well protest that, on the contrary, adoption has long been under scrutiny. And, certainly, as I lay out in the first part of this article, the furor over intercountry adoption in Brazil (as well as many other Third World countries) did become a cause célèbre of innumerable politicians and activists from the 1980s on. The glaring inequality between "donor" and receiving families concerned in intercountry adoption was experienced by sending countries as an affront to their national honor. However, curiously enough the same inequality implied in national adoptions, with the disappropriation of certain families` parental rights in favor of others’, did not automatically become a problem. Here, seeing adoption as a transnational issue -- involving the transference of people, goods and ideas across national borders -- I seek to understand why, and in what sort of power relations, certain elements of the process appear more scandalous than others. 

Intercountry adoption has long been a concern in Europe and North America where, since the mid-nineties, the overwhelming majority of children who are legally adopted come from "elsewhere". Situated among proliferating forms of foreign immigration, the presence of mostly dark-skinned adopted children in First World countries has inspired a great deal of literature linked to the personal identity of these so-called hybrid individuals. Reflection has targeted, on the one hand, the quest for national and ethnic origins, which takes adoptees on "roots trips" back to Chile or Ethiopia for example (Yngvesson 2003, 2004), and, on the other, the national policies that encourage new sorts of diasporas -- in Korea, for example, a country that does everything to welcome "home" a prosperous generation of children adopted abroad (Kim 2003). 

The personal identity of foreign-born adoptees hooks in with the concerns of many scholars rooted in the northern hemisphere whose homelands are presently witnessing immigration on a massive scale. I would suggest, however, that the concerns and therefore the angle of analysis of Third World scholars is quite different. In Brazil, despite regional migrations and ethnic diversity that create "hybrid" populations, foreign immigration is minimal. A number of people have left to seek their fortunes abroad, but these emigrants have not as yet had particular impact on local issues. It is understandable then that Brazilian scholars (such as myself), just as those based in other "peripheral" countries, approach the question of transnationalism from a different angle -- emphasizing, not people crossing borders, but rather the migration of ideas, of influence from abroad exactly on issues that appear unfailingly local and domestic. 

Transnational influences, of course, are not all of a kind, as I discovered when I began to delve into the theme of intercountry adoption. An adequate analysis of these influences in the Brazilian production of adoptable children led me through an intricate network of forces, including various (and often opposing) attitudes and innumerous interest groups. It would be tempting to focus in this paper on but one of these attitudes or groups, but I have chosen rather to trace several intertwining threads of this scene. Thus, in an opening section, I will consider how Brazilian public opinion, reflected in the press, tends to present intercountry adoption as an assault on national honor. In a second part of the paper, I will discuss the "consumer demand" for adoptable children, suggesting that, even after the outward flow of Brazilian children was interrupted, Brazilian legal standards on the why`s and wherefore`s of child placement continued to be guided by criteria largely inspired in the interests of First World adoptive parents. Finally, I will consider a more recent phase in Brazilian child placement in which international ONGs have played a major role in publicly airing alternatives to adoption, confronting generally conservative local adoptants as their major adversaries. 

My starting point was standard ethnographic research among the families of shantytowns and working-class neighborhoods of Porto Alegre (southern Brazil) where, during the 1980s and early 1990s, I first encountered women whose children had been officially given in adoption. Since then, I have branched out into other locales, following the activities of various juvenile courts, residential homes and orphanages, associations for adoptive parents, and NGOs involved in child rights. It is through this sort of "multi-sited" ethnography (Marcus 1998) that I hope to trace the relation between the plight of so-called abandoned children in Brazil and transnational processes. 

As our discussion proceeds, it should become apparent how the winds of debate (as well as swings in national child placement policy) cannot be easily explained, much less predicted, in simplistic terms. It is neither (as some would have it) result of the "global forces of imperialism", nor (as others would have it) the victory of enlightened individuals battling for social justice within Brazil. It is rather the outcome of an intricate interplay between public opinion, specific interest groups and personal agency that all involve dissenting views and transnational connections. 

Baby-snatchers: Brazilian media coverage on intercountry adoption

In July of 2001, Brazil's leading television channel broadcast a full-hour program on the international traffic of adopted children. In the two opening scenes of the program, spectators see fragments of an anonymous, purportedly European reporter's videotape in which lower-income women attempt to sell their infants. Whereas one mother, explaining simply that she has another four children to take care of, appears ready to relinquish the toddler in her arms for the bagatelle of R$150 (around US$70), another woman, visibly a mother-to-be, drives a harder bargain. Speaking in terms of U.S. dollars, she insinuates that the price (US$1000) is insultingly low for the child she is about to bear. 

Between these shocking images, on the one hand, of a mother who gives so little value to her child and, on the other, of a woman who cynically manipulates this value, the spectator has hardly time to catch her breath before the camera moves on to a new subject: the venal intermediaries involved in intercountry adoption. For the next fifty minutes, viewers are presented with lawyers, judges, a nun, and an ex-priest, gleaned from one end of Brazil to the other, who all have one thing in common. They are accused of having illegally facilitated the intercountry adoption of Brazilian children, many of them for personal gain. The obviously foreign accent of the two church figures helps to firm conviction that the major threat to these poverty-stricken families comes from overseas. 

Indeed, in Brazil, just as in many other sending countries, media coverage generally depicts foreign intervention in the adoption process as predatory. Whereas newscasters in the United States and Western Europe tend to dwell on "child-saving" images -- stark halls in sordid, Third World orphanages, filled with dirty cribs and usually dark-skinned toddlers stretching out their arms, as though begging for a charitable soul to adopt them --, in the Third World they seem to favor stories about "infant snatching", the "baby trade", "trafficking in orphans". The theme is nothing new. Already in 1980s Brazil, stories about babies mysteriously disappearing from maternity wards were published side by side with articles on unscrupulous lawyers who reaped untoward gains from foreign adoptive parents (Abreu 2002). In India, as Yngvesson informs us, during the same period, much attention was given to adoption as a dangerous drain on national resources (Yngvesson 2000). And in Haiti, as Collard (2004) has pointed out, the fantasies linked to intercountry adoption gave rise to rumors about selling babies to be used for organ transplants. Indignation over purported abuses linked to the early phases of intercountry adoption proved contagious as prestigious sources in Europe and North America began to take up the refrain. 

In October 1993, a French deputy in the European Parliament, in his general condemnation of the traffic of children marked for organ transplants, made particular reference to Brazil. According to his estimates, out of four thousand Brazilian children adopted in Italy, only a thousand still survived. The rest had supposedly died due to abuse or been killed, their organs harvested for future transplants. The following month, the BBC fired the debate, presenting a low-level Argentine diplomat who claimed to possess evidence of atrocities involving Brazilian children. Police and adoption services throughout the country began to investigate "denunciations that Brazilian children with physical deficiencies were being adopted in other countries to have their organs torn out" (Folha de Sao Paulo 13/8/94). By September of 1994, when the newspaper reported on Brazilian university teacher’s new book O Mercado Humano (The Human Market)(Berlinguer e Garrafa 1996), panic was at its peak. Speaking of adoption "for the dismantling of children", the author pointed out that, whereas a child could be acquired through intercountry adoption for approximately US$8.000, a single kidney could be sold for US$40.000 to US$50.000. At this point government officials began to wonder about the enormous number of missing children in Brazil, (Folha de Sao Paulo, 3/8/94), and, for like reasons, the adoption of older and physically or mentally impaired youngsters became especially suspicious. A Pernambuco judge who suspended all intercountry adoption in 1994 admitted he had no absolute proof as to the alleged atrocities against Brazilian adoptees, but he did note a "strange fact" that could be indicative of abuse: of fourteen children adopted abroad under his supervision that year, five were over eight years old, and two were somehow deficient (Folha de Sao Paulo, 30/8/94).

From the late 1980s, the mood was thus ripe for the massive wave of legal investigations of any judge, lawyer or charity worker who had served as go-between in a intercountry adoption. With jail sentences and other sanctions being meted out, public opinion underwent an about-face, causing an abrupt fall in the potential status of such agents from "child-savers" to "child-traffickers" (see Abreu, 2002). As more and more state officials began to see involvement in intercountry adoption as a political liability, such programs were, in some regions, suspended altogether. In other words, official intercountry adoptions were curbed along with the illegal smuggling of youngsters.

Certainly, there was an element of genuine social reform involved in the reformulation of adoption policy. During the 1980s, the Brazilian political scenario went through important changes. Emerging from twenty years of military dictatorship, the country witnessed with tolerance an effervescence of social movements: workers’ strikes, invasions of housing projects, marches for land reform, and church-led neighborhood associations. A rising number of university-educated professionals, including social and community health workers, as well as a technologically more efficient state bureaucracy, created a demand for greater intervention in people’s domestic affairs. The writing of a new constitution (completed in 1988) mobilized thousands of activists aiming at social reforms who then turned their attentions specifically to the subject of children. The 1990 federal Children’s Code, which put severe limits on intercountry adoption, was no doubt partially responsible for the drop in outgoing children. In many states of the federation, public placement services suspended or slowed down their activities for a year or more, so as to "restructure" their service in function of the new legislation. Special Commissions for International Adoption (CEJA or CEJAI) aimed at bringing about more uniform standards in the adoption process, were implanted gradually throughout the nineties.

Yet, the ample press coverage dedicated to scandals concerning intercountry adoption also contributed an important part to the demise of intercountry adoption. One way or the other, the tides had changed. During the 1980s, Brazil had been classified as the world's fourth largest source of adopted children (Kane. 1993). Furthermore, up until the mid-90s, in many regions of Brazil, intercountry adoption outstripped local adoption. However, around 1993, there came a turning point. From then on, the number of intercountry adoptions went into steady decline, dropping from over 2000 per annum to just over 400 at the decade's close (see Fonseca 2002a). Hence, in 2001, most of the scandals dished out by the national television program mentioned above had to be discreetly warmed over from years past. Viewers, however, appear as avid as ever for episodes on the traffic in children. 

The pressure of consumer demands

To take stock of another angle on the intercountry adoption debate, let us now travel to the other side of the globe to a recent seminar on adoption organized in Barcelona. The event -- aimed at bringing together scholars, professionals, and adoptive parents to discuss various national and international forms of child placement -- was a great success (see Marre and Bestard 2004). A dozen specialists, many from Catalunya, but several from abroad, spoke to a packed auditorium. What impressed me most, however, was the overwhelming pressure (expressed not only in the majority of talks but also in the general debate) exerted by adoptive parents to impose their particular view of the adoption process. Intercountry adoption was seen as a sort of necessary evil – a process in which European couples, finding it difficult to adopt a child in their own country, were forced by obstinate local policies to face inefficient and corrupt Third World bureaucracies. Local authorities from the child welfare service were repeatedly remonstrated for not making more "local" children available for adoption. The general mood was that the state should remove children from "unfit" parents as quickly as possible, giving the youngsters the benefit of "real" (read, adoptive) families. Although one or two of the speakers brought up positive elements of foster care, this alternative was quickly cast aside during discussion. One of the expert contributions that most interested these adopted parents came from the psychoanalyst who assured people that the "desire" to constitute a family is what produces a true bond between parents and child. Most these commentaries revolved around the problem of integrating new-born infants into the family. It is thus not surprising that the question of less idealized forms of adoption (adoption of older or handicapped children) was scarcely voiced.

Certainly, many important issues were debated during this day-long event. However, the importance of certain subjects must be weighed against the glaring absence of others. I was the only speaker from a "sending" country. Although one or two speakers broached more delicate subjects, nowhere in the public debate did I hear any mention of the adopted children's birth parents, nor was there any questioning of the "clean-break" model of plenary adoption in which all knowledge of a child’s biological origins is decreed a state secret, precluding any possibility of contact between the adults concerned or continuity in the child’s biography (see Cadoret 2004).

Dissenting opinions were confined to the discreet audience of coffee-break clutches. There, I heard one young woman who had recently adopted a little girl from Haiti recounting with great emotion the two-hour encounter she'd had with the child's birth mother. Although unsure as to whether or not her letters were getting through, she continued to mail this woman pictures of the little girl whose destiny they shared between them. Were she to make a suggestion to policy-makers, she confided, it would be to facilitate contact. This sort of comment, however, did not surface during general debate. On the contrary, the pervading opinion, even of certain specialists, was that "shared motherhood", such as that described in many non-Western societies, was a utopian dream, and that "open adoption" (in which, as in Haiti, birth and adoptive parents may meet under careful supervision) "would never work" in European adoptive families.

What, one might ask, do these European adoptive parents have to do with adoption policies in Brazil? I would suggest that, although Brazilians have aired scandals and enacted laws to curb intercountry adoption, ideas such as those we viewed in Barcelona filter in from abroad, subtly reinforcing the perspective of the "consumers" of adoptable children – that is, adoptive parents – almost always "foreign" (in terms of nationality or class) to the child`s original milieu.

To speak of "consumers" is not entirely new to the field of adoption. As V. Zelizer’s (1985) historical research so aptly points out, it is generally recognized that children gained tremendously in value during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Pulled out of the labor force where they had played an important productive role, they progressively assumed the status of precious items, in and of themselves, within the modern, nuclear family. Children who, earlier, might have been seen as a burden to their parents or tutors, required to "carry their own weight", contributing to the family budget, now became sacred treasures vied for by well-off couples. However, just as ownership of these increasingly scarce goods became an issue, a new specter began to haunt the Victorian imagination – that of the "baby market", nurtured by images of , on the one hand, much sought-after treasures (healthy, blue-eyed, live infant dolls), and on the other, denatured mothers and mercenary middlemen, ready to make a profit, "pricing the priceless child" (Zelizer 1985). 

The defiling connotations of the market idiom are highly familiar to most people dealing with intercountry adoption. It is not difficult to find register of Third World lawyers, public officials and philanthropists, accused (often, no doubt, with reason) of extorting scandalous sums from apparently well-meaning adoptive parents (Abreu 2002, Liefson 2004, Bartholet 1993). Not so much has been said, however, of the adoptive parents, and the role they play as consumers in shaping the "baby market". In this sense, the ethnographic study of C. Gailey (1999) on affluent North American adoptive parents is quite revealing. Able and willing to pay the price (normally US$10,000 and above), her informants seek "Blue-Ribbon babies": white infants in perfect health, from abroad. As they see it, they are exerting their right as childless couples to "complete the family". Here, the image of the Western nuclear family is so ingrained that it hardly need be mentioned that, in their bid to ‘imitate nature", these couples seek a child exclusively their own, with no strings attached. The urgency of their quest is matched by the ease with which they accept stereotypic images of their child’s birth parents as unloving, abusive and abandoning.  

Certainly, most of Gailey’s informants as well the adoptive parents at the Barcelona conference would be aghast at the association of children with a consumer market. First in line to condemn the "traffic of children", they would insist that it is exactly to avoid any such connotation that they favor a closed adoption process, precluding any chance for barter between birth and adoptive parents. It might, then, come as a surprise to learn that many peoples of the world would consider adoption in its "modern" plenary form as ridden with Western commodity logic (see also Modell 1994, 1998).

Yngvesson (2005: 27), fixing her attention on the adoption universe, calls attention to the premise of exclusive belonging that underwrites the Western notion of personal identity. Two very strong, and apparently opposing, myths in the adoption field – that of the freestanding child, wiped clean of memories, who can be assimilated free of prior social relations into its new adoptive family, and that of the roots trip in which adoptees must necessarily "return home" and encounter their "real" families in order to attain personal completude – both speak of belonging as a sort of "active proprietorship". The idea that children must belong wholly, or even essentially, to one (and only one) set of individuals/parents is just the sort of fiction that many adoption services, public or "commercial" promote – those, in particular, that advocate plenary adoption in which children are "de-socialized", given a "clean slate" by administratively erasing all pre-adoption history (see Leifsen 2004, Ouellette 1995).  

Although I have encountered many professionals in the adoption field who would understand and perhaps even share the doubts I have outlined about plenary adoption, the great majority of European and North American adoptive parents I have met find any challenge to the clean-break form of adoption incomprehensible, if not downright outrageous – an outrage which, as I shall try to demonstrate in the following paragraphs, becomes manifest in international legislation. 

International legislation on intercountry adoption: tense undercurrents to a seeming consensus

Humanitarian concerns, such as those we saw among adoptive parents in Barcelona, tend to command "self-evident" solutions. What else can we do, people will ask, when dealing with poverty-stricken parents, often plagued with drug dependency, alcoholism and other serious ills? However, by putting things into a global perspective, the political nature of this problem comes steadily into perspective. The question is, compared with the abundant supply of Third World orphans, why are there so few adoptable children in Europe and North America? Why are potential adopters in these regions obliged to spend thousands of dollars (or Euros) and much time and effort to go abroad in order to fulfill their dreams of "having a family"? A superficial response to this question would drag out old stereotypes of high birth rates and thus excess children there, versus low birth rates and a scarcity of children here. Brazil, however, has today a birth rate only slightly above that of most European and North American countries. Furthermore, the fertility rate in this country plummeted, between 1980 and 1991 (from 4,4 to 2,9) exactly at a time when intercountry adoption was on the increase (See also Selman 2004).  

Why then do countries in the Third World have "so many" children available for adoption, and those in the Northern hemisphere have so few? A second possible explanation approaches socio-economic issues. There is unquestionably more poverty in the so-called "sending countries". However, realists will admit that, especially since the decline of the welfare state, there is much poverty in First World ghettoes as well. Despite state support to lower-income families (more support in some cases, less in others, but almost always considerably more than in Brazil), there are many instances in which state authorities deem it necessary to remove a child from its parents' home. What happens to these children? Why are they not put up for adoption?  

I would suggest that the often overlooked although crucial point in this debate is of a political nature. The political, as well as social and economic, superiority of adoptive parents has been a constant throughout history. In North America, for example, when -- during the post war period -- the desire for adoptive children was intensified at the same time as the traditional supply of adoptable children dwindled, prospective parents turned their search toward native populations – the Inuit in Canada, for example, or Hawaiians or Native Americans in the United States. One by one, these groups resorted to political action in order to stem the hemorrhage of out-going youngsters. Lobby groups involving such powerful organizations as the NABSW (National Association of Black Social Workers) were active not only in restricting adoption by "outsiders", but also in promoting various forms of fosterage, and open or subsidized adoption to encourage in-group placements (Simon 1984; Carp 1998, Modell 1994 and 1998). I would then suggest that the reason there are so few adoptable children in Europe and North America is that respect for citizens' rights impedes state authorities from acting unilaterally to strip individuals of their parental identity. Children are, of course, removed from homes that are considered abusive or otherwise inadequate. However the passive compliance of the parents is no longer sufficient motive to justify cutting all connection between the two generations. Aside from measures coined to help parents "restructure" their homes, the state must provide alternative living arrangements for the child -- such as residential homes and foster families – arrangements that complement, rather than replace, the biological parents. And, in the few cases when legal adoption still occurs, it tends to incorporate aspects that cater to sensitivities of birth parents ("fostadopt" programs and open adoption, in which birth parents can meet their child’s adoptive parents) and adoptive parents close to the child’s original home (subsidized adoption, for example).

In various national arenas, we see then that public debates – in which birth parents somehow mange to be heard – temper hegemonic views on the why’s and wherefore’s of the adoption of abandoned children. One searches in vain, however, for similar debates in international conferences ostensively designed to protect the interests of "sending countries". Following this line of reasoning, B. Yngvesson (2003, 2004) points out the generally conservative (traditionalist and patriarchal) tone of family-based policies in the field of intercountry country. In reference to the 1993 International Hague Conference on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect of Intercountry Adoption, she observes: whereas representatives from sending countries generally endorsed local solutions for children in need, those from receiving countries considered intercountry adoption preferable to many local solutions which might include foster homes and institutional care. 

"This position [of receiving countries] is...of a piece with the assumption that a permanent, self-contained (nuclear) family environment is the best environment for any child. Such an assumption tends to undermine the potential of temporary institutional care or of foster placement, since neither fits the definition of a self-contained family. Representatives of adoption agencies in receiving nations, speaking at conferences and workshops I attended during the course of my research, almost uniformly opposed institutional or foster care in a child's country of origin over permanent placement abroad"(Yngvesson 2004: 216).

The irony is that it is exactly those alternatives that, for a variety of reasons, are most common in Europe and North America -- institutional and foster care -- that are effectively denigrated in the arena of intercountry adoption. The net result of the "mutual education" process (Yngvesson 2004: 215) which takes place in international conferences is not so much a massive increase of intercountry adoptions. (Nationalistic reactions such as those we witnessed in Brazil, against "baby-snatchers" from abroad, stemmed this tide in many sending countries.) It is rather an exaggerated enthusiasm in Third World countries for plenary adoption as a "cure for (too) many ills" (see Selman 2004 for a critical response to this stand).

Observers repeatedly call attention to the contrasting evolution of adoption patterns in sending and receiving countries:

"While adoption in the West is gradually moving away from the notion of sealed records and a complete break with the past, in the international market the trend is still toward the freeing of infants for placement overseas by severing all links with their natal family (and countries). " (Bowie 2004: 14)

Rather than thinking of two parallel lines of development, the analyst might well ask about the link between one pattern and the other... Of course, First World adoptive parents may well plead that they have no influence and, for that matter, no right to interfere in the adoption policies of sending countries. I would suggest that, on the contrary, there are already innumerable transnational influences in Brazilian adoption practices and that the "hands off" attitude of many First World observers, aside from reflecting "respect for local autonomy", derives from a subtle approval of policies based on race and class discrimination which would not be tolerated in their home countries.

Child circulation among the Brazilian poor

Interestingly enough, good part of the child rights movement in Brazil appears to have simply copied principles from international legislation (thus, the close similarities between the country’s Children’s Code and the 1989 U.N. Convention for the Rights of the Child, thus Brazil’s prompt and undissenting ratification of the 1993 Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption). And, more to the point, when it came down to implementing principles "in the child’s best interest", abusive families (and not poverty, unemployment, a faulty school system or inefficient social policies) were singled out as the major violators of children’s rights. Thus, unless it involved foreign adoptants, removing children from their original homes and giving them to an adoptive family was viewed as the "obvious" answer to cases of child abandonment and abuse.

Abandonment and abuse, however, are often very hard to sort out from sheer misery, and so it behooves the observer to take stock of present-day living conditions among the Brazilian poor. Here, we see that, despite the past two decades’ politically progressive atmosphere, social policies in Brazil have had limited impact. A publicly subsidized medical system instituted in the mid-1980s is constantly undermined for lack of funds. Of the approximately 50% of the population engaged in the formal economy, between ten and fifteen per cent are regularly unemployed. The minimum wage has not managed to go above US$150 a month, and still an estimated 20% of the population lives on a monthly per capita income of under US$25. Despite near universal schooling for the population aged 7-14, nearly half the Brazilian children flunk first grade, and the average seventeen-year-old will never have more than a seventh-grade education. Altogether, studies show that recent economic policies have had little effect in improving the lot of Brazil’s lower echelons. On the contrary, the gap between rich and poor, ranked among the world’s worst, continues to be enormous .

One should also keep in mind that, in Brazil, unlike the European or North American case, poor families, clustered in vast shantytowns and housing settlements, cannot be considered marginal. Thus, working-class people have, since colonial times, been relying on alternative social institutions -- family networks and the informal sectors of the economy -- to keep them going. In the realm of family organization, they have managed to see to the welfare of their children and guarantee the survival of new generations through, among other things, the strategy of child circulation. Through this practice, documented by historians and social scientists in diverse parts of Brazil, parents passing through difficult times will divide the economic onus and socializing responsibility involved in raising a child between a series of informally chosen, and generally unpaid, foster parents (Cardoso 1984; Fonseca 2003, 2004; Hecht 1997; Goldstein 1997, Kuznesof 1998). The outcome of these arrangements, especially when children are placed with non-relatives, is not always predictable. Many women, after a period of "shared motherhood", end up bringing their children home; others may have to contend with the resistance of their child’s new caretaker who, after years of affective and financial investment, considers she has earned rights to exclusive motherhood; still others may entirely lose contact, only to reencounter their son or daughter, fully grown, years later (see Fonseca 2003). Finally, some of the women I met had used the state orphanage as a sort of boarding school -- one more possible stop-off in the various placements of their children – only to one day learn that their child had been irretrievably lost to an adoptive family. Significantly, none of the women I met in over fifteen years of research ever admitted to having "given up" (i.e. definitively relinquished contact), much less "abandoned" their child.

Thus, it is reasonable to assume that, in Brazil, just as in most other Third World countries, the great majority of people who lose their children to adoption do not actively seek this solution. The fact is that, as a rule, children have not been "relinquished" for adoption by their families, but rather made available through a court order (destituição do pátrio poder) which unilaterally strips parents of their rights. Aware that traditionally many people had lost their parental rights because of miserable living conditions, legislator wrote into the 1990 Children’s Code a clause stating that, "The lack or scarcity of material resources shall not be sufficient motive for the loss or suspension of pátrio poder" (art. 23). Nonetheless, social workers have continued to deal with situations of dire misery that often require at least temporary removal of children from their families. Now, to justify institutionalization, they are forced to use categories such as "moral abandonment" and "neglect" since mere poverty is no longer a sufficient motive for internment. Once classified under these accusing rubrics, institutionalized youngsters become likely candidates for the status of "adoptable children".

Because of my research on traditional forms of child circulation as well as state-sponsored childcare systems, I was curious about official programs concerning foster families. From the late 90s on I was thus asking the Juvenile Court authorities in my town about their various childcare policies, and repeatedly I was told that foster programs did not exist. They were a thing of the past, clearly not up to the standards of the new Children’s Code. Indeed there had been a few sparse initiatives in institutionalized foster care in different parts of Brazil before the Children’s Code. Church-related philanthropies, from Catholic to Adventist, were trying out small residential homes run by full-time "social parents" (a live-in woman or couple who would agree to a long-term commitment.). The Swiss-based International Children’s Villages had set up houses in a dozen or more Brazilian capitals. However, during the 90s, these alternatives to institutional care were little more than tolerated as a distant runner-up to idealized adoptive families. And, on the whole, public authorities all but ignored the option of home-based foster care, to the extent that still in December 2003, in all of Brazil, I could find only some half dozen programs, involving at the time around 50 foster families and no more than 100 children. Considering that estimates for the same period put the number of institutionalized children in Brazil at nearly 100.000 (Silva 2004), one comes quickly to the conclusion that foster care was statistically insignificant.

In 1997, the authors of a worldwide survey of foster care systems explain they were unable to include Brazil among their case studies because the country simply had no cultural or legal precedents in the realm of foster care (Colton and Williams 1997). But one among innumerable researchers who have charted the long tradition of informal fosterage arrangements in Brazil, I would certainly disagree with the authors as to lack of "cultural precedents". The authors` opinion is, however, symptomatic of how the tradition of child circulation was totally silenced during the 1990s, creating the impression that adoption was the only possible alternative for children who, for one reason or another, could not be raised in their original families. The official rhetoric posed the issue in terms of either the birth or an adoptive family, occulting, along with alternative policies, the political nature of the different options.

Paradoxes in the field of national adoption

It is time now to return to Brazil, to get a closer look at the scene of local caretakers of children in need. Our last ethnographic glimpse takes us to Porto Alegre, in October of 2005. Around 200 people have gathered in the theater of a municipal cultural center, answering to an appeal broadcast in the media. The call was for volunteer "godparents", people ready to establish "affective bonds" with an institutionalized child or adolescent, receiving it in their home on a regular basis for weekends and holidays. The sponsor of the event is "Amigos de Lucas", a local ONG inspired in a nation-wide network of "Grupos de Apoio à Adoção" (Adoption Support Groups). Although ostensively the organization exists to promote adoption, it assumes a broad approach to the problems of institutionalized children, insisting on the now globally disseminated philosophy that adoption is not aimed at "finding a child for a family, but rather at finding a family for a child". The organizers, in monthly meetings with prospective adopters, do their best to combat typical stereotypes – the ideal, for example, of a white infant (generally female), in perfect health, received soon after birth, just "as if" it had been born to the adoptive family. The NGO’s very name, "Friends of Lucas", was coined by its founders in reference to the colleagues their own son (a physically impaired child adopted when he was well past infancy) had left behind in the state residential home – those youngsters who, because they were dark-skinned, older or suffered physical or emotional handicaps, were considered "unadoptable".

Since 2002, this NGO, working in close cooperation with local juvenile authorities, has branched out to new activities: the inauguration of a program of foster families, intended to mediate on-going contact between the child and its original family, and the promotion of this "affective godparenthood", aimed at those never-adopted children seeking to establish ties and find sponsors for life beyond their residential homes. Indeed, a look around the cultural center’s auditorium shows that many people have responded to the public appeal on television, radio and in newspapers for godparents. In this audience, appearing to range in age from university students to retirees, women have a slight numerical edge over men. One my one, as they introduce themselves, we become aware of school teachers, social workers, public clerks, and small businessmen joining in the spirit of wanting to improve the quality of life of what they see as abandoned children.

There’s only one hitch: during the question and answer period, it becomes more and more evident that people have come looking not for a godchild, but for an adoptive son or daughter. As the candidates to godparenthood see it, "merely" sponsoring a child would be frivolous. They are looking for someone to be a permanent member of the family; they want a child of their own, with all the pleasures and responsibilities implied. The night’s organizers heave a collective sigh of exasperation. They have recently encountered the same attitude while screening candidates for foster parenthood. These candidates -- staunch, middle-class citizens -- want nothing of an arrangement that would leave them competing with other caretakers. They correlate commitment with exclusivity. They are theoretically willing to take on full responsibility for a child, and they do not want to be seen (by it, or by others) as merely one among several concurrent options.

This ardent desire to adopt children – not so differente from that I encountered among people at the Barcelona seminar – would appear to be the perfect answer to official Brazilian policy. After the enactment of the 1990 Children’s Code, the Brazilian Judiciary, acting through specialized sectors in the major townships (Juizados de Infância e de Juventude) began to vigorously promote legal, plenary adoption by local families. Posters were strategically placed in various public locales . Some states put special sites on the internet. However, curiously, in-country adoption did not increase. On the contrary, studies suggest that it may even have declined. Ironically, the decline may be due to the precise forces that were designed to better organize legal procedures. Innumerous public policies emerged during the 90s (bolsa família, bolsa escola, bolsa alimentação) designed to help lower-income families maintain their offspring. Rather than summarily withdraw a child from its poverty-stricken home, more and more social workers could try out home-based alternatives. Thus, the "adoptability" of a child would only become apparent when the child was older and less appealing to potential adopters. The support groups, highly sensitive to this issue, redirected their campaigns toward the adoption of older children and of those with health problems... However, change in attitudes is slow to come about. And now, orchestrating this change, we find non-governmental organizations, playing a decisive role.

It would be simplistic to suppose that inequality in the adoption field pertains only to First-Third World relations. Authors such as Colen (1995) remind us that the families should not be studied on an isolated basis; they should be situated within a wider context that routinely involves asymmetrical power relations that involve different classes as well as different nations. Whereas in the first part of this paper we underlined the possible upper hand of foreign adopters in relation to the poverty-stricken parents of "adoptable" children, we must now consider that many Brazilian adoptive parents hold views not so different from their First World counterparts. In this scenario, we see a new transnational influence, orchestrated by certain NGOs, considerably more progressive than the diffuse consumer demands of overseas adoptive parents described above. And, ironically, the conservative adversaries of these NGOs are Brazilian nationals, generally from the better-off sectors of society, clamoring for proprietary interests over the children they wish to adopt.

Final considerations

A last observation suggest how these local NGOs loop back into international organizations, drawing political clout from their thus enhanced prestige in order to confront conservative forces. Amigos de Lucas, for example, sprung up as part of a nation-wide network of adoption support groups coordinated by the NGO, Terre des Hommes. Tracing the history of this European-based NGO, we see how, during the 1960s, initial humanitarian concern was channeled toward placing orphans of the Algerian war in overseas adoptive homes. During the mid-70s, however, policy planners began to widen their interests, favoring long-range development projects rather than emergency aid, in recognition that « children’s fate depends above all on the social conditions in which their parents live ». And, by 1989, the organization had officially renounced any involvement in intercountry adoption. The Brazilian coordinator of Terre des Hommes, active in the association since 1983, recounts a similar evolution of policy in Brazil: from the supervision of intercountry adoptions in the 1980s, to the insistence on national adoption during the 1990s.

As the coordinator tells the story, it was her partner who, on returning home in 1987 from a stint in Portugal, brought with him a new philosophy. Not only should their association be limited to national adoptions, it should favor the adoption of difficult-to-place children: older, dark-skinned and handicapped youngsters. As in many of these processes, it is not always clear where the initial impetus for policy turn comes from. Although granting that the European-based NGO gave crucial financial support to their different programs, my Brazilian interviewee implies that it was she and her partner who produced a major policy change in Swiss headquarters, and not vice versa. At any rate, it is undeniable that this organization, just as most other on-going non-governmental organizations dealing in childcare, involves the transnational exchange of ideas and personnel.

Today, it is precisely these NGOs that are spearheading an even more daring policy change – away from adoption and toward other forms of child placement. At the dawn of the new millenium, while most juvenile courts still give priority to adoption campaigns, NGOs linked to child rights concentrate their efforts on what Brazilians call convivência familiar – a notion that could be loosely translated either as "family living" or "family-based models" of childcare. In fact, the term is not new – as anyone in the field will point out. It is central to the 1990 Brazilian Children’s Code. What has changed is the way the term is used. Whereas the emphasis on family-based models of childcare was used during the 90s to justify vigorous campaigns in favor of adoption, today the notion is used to announce seminars and programs designed to maintain children in their original families or... eventually... consider the possibility of childcare in foster families. Starting in 2003, overseas organizations of every sort (the Association of International Children’s Villages, UNICEF, Chapin Hall Center for Children (University of Chicago), the International Foster Care Organization, Terre des Hommes/Terra dos Homens, and the Catholic-Church funded Pastoral do Menor have joined hands with Brazilian academics, and child activists to promote no less than four major conferences on foster families and other alternatives to plenary adoption. Their challenge now is to dialogue with representatives of the Brazilian judiciary and municipal governments to convince them of this "new" possibility for public policy, and – even more difficult – to disseminate among middle-class Brazilians, the typical families that will receive needy children into their homes, that plenary adoption is not the only, nor even necessarily the most desirable forms of child placement.


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