exposing the dark side of adoption
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Shortcomings in American Adoption Policies


From Hononu by Rebecca Marsh


American permanent placement policy for children in foster care is predominately focused on the effort to reunite a child with their birth parents. In practice, Americans have distaste for adoption, and much of their distaste stems from the cultural belief that "family" is defined as one's blood relatives and the ideal place for a child to grow up is with their biological parents. The cultural preference for biological parents is a key component to understanding the general reluctance to explore adoption, but much of this reluctance also is rooted in the nature of adoption procedures in the United States. Adoption in the United States has to be done "legally" through the court system and requires the full termination of biological parents' rights. These formal and potentially alienating adoption procedures often cause deep and unnecessary pain for many children in the child welfare system and their parents. When exploring another culture's definition of family and their adoption practices, America is shown that this does not need to be the case. In the Hawaiian concept of family and traditional practice of informal adoption, America is presented with a beautiful alternative that can serve as a model from which America can rethink its cultural beliefs and redesign adoption policies to help ensure the happiness, and the togetherness, of its children, biological parents, and adoptive families.

Today in America, over 500,000 children live in foster care, awaiting placement into a permanent and loving home.1 The foster care system is centered upon the idea that it is supposed to be temporary. Foster care is seen as a temporary step on the way to permanent family placement, either returning the child to their biological family or putting them up for adoption, and foster parents are trained to act accordingly. Foster parents are taught not to develop attachment to the children in their care and told that they "are part of a professional team necessarily on call." 2 Because a foster child will ideally move on to permanent placement, it is important that the child is able to "break ties with the fostering family easily, smoothly, and absolutely."3 In essence, foster parents are taught that they "fail when they fall in love with a child."4 The list of physical and emotional shortcomings of the foster care institution is a long one, but it is for another paper.

American permanent placement policy is focused on the attempt for family reunification, or returning a child to the home from which they were removed. The goal is that a child will live for a short time in foster care while their biological parents straighten themselves out and are taught how to be caring and effective parents, after which time the child can safely return home. Adoption is considered in extreme circumstances,5 but for the most part, the act of "severing the birth parents' rights" and finding an adoptive home for a child "has never been treated as a serious policy option."6

The overwhelming emphasis on returning a child to his/her biological parents is indicative of beliefs ingrained in American culture. Reunification supports "an American culture of kinship" where "blood is (still) thicker than water" and American cultural beliefs about child rearing, in which "being brought up by a birthparent is...seen to be in the best interests of the child."7 Being raised by biological parents is ideal, but if for some extreme reason this cannot happen, adoptive parents are brought in to become the new blood parents. Blood is seen as a link "that holds people together" and therefore, the most enduring adoptive family is that which "replicates a blood family."8 American cultural beliefs about family can be inferred from these ideas. Blood relationships and family go hand in hand, and there is little room in the American definition of family for social bonds that "reject the biological model."9 In essence, permanent placement policy is shaped by America's strong "blood bias," or the cultural belief that blood relationships are what family is all about.10

It wasn't until the 1990's that America as a whole became more open to adoption. Seeing that many children were being returned to environments that were far from ideal and realizing the value of supportive adoptive families, many Americans began to doubt the unquestioned supremacy of family reunification.11 This was most notable in the passage of the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act, designed to facilitate adoption by shortening the length of time it takes to go through adoption proceedings and providing federal subsidies for states that place a certain number of children in adoptive homes.12 The Act aimed to double the number of annual adoptions within five years.13 Despite the apparent shift in attitude, many feel that we have failed to see the motivations behind the Adoption and Safe Families Act manifest in reality. Currently in the United States, 25,000 children leave foster care at the age of 18 each year, without having had adoption planning or a permanent home,14 and there is still a reluctance to accept adoption "as a normal and appropriate way to provide for children whose birth parents cannot or will not care for them."15

Although it seems as though the American public has shifted in favor of adoption, there are several reasons why in practice, family reunification still dominates placement policy. Not only does the Act go against the long-standing cultural belief of blood-relative supremacy, it does not address faults that lie within adoption practices themselves. American adoption of foster children often entails deep pain for children, their biological parents, and caregivers because it must be formally legalized in a courtroom and often requires complete termination of parental rights. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 was designed to speed up the adoption process, but it only speeds up the procedures that, for some, make adoption an inadequate or painful solution.

One of the problems with adoption procedure in America is that it is supposed to be done through the court system. Nearly all arrangements that "have not been approved by an agency or legalized in a courtroom" are viewed as illegitimate.16 The Adoption and Safe Families Act "restricts the notion of permanency to a legal relationship" and does not consider "emotional attachments, loyalties, obligations and exchanges between adults"17 legitimate commitments sufficient to ensure a child's happiness and security over time. The emphasis on legality can cause difficulties for children who have informal adult caregivers or foster parents who are bonded to them and wish to adopt them, but for a variety of reasons, including age, income, or marital status, might be declared unfit parents in a courtroom.18 For many foster children, this means that the caregivers who want to adopt them cannot do so.

Perhaps the most significant problem in American adoption procedure is that it often requires the total alienation of birth parents. When a child is adopted, the child is "released forever" from their birth parents, whose rights are completely and permanently terminated.19 Provisions in the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 attempt to encourage adoption by making this process "swift and final" and avoid making children wait years in foster care for permanent placement.20 However, the fact that the adoption process can be so swift, final, and unforgiving for birth parents is a large part of the reason why family reunification still dominates placement policy. The need for complete removal of birth parents from their child's life in order for adoption to occur reveals "the punitive side of adoption in the United States"21 and creates a situation where many are reluctant to consider adoption because it leaves no room whatsoever for a continued relationship between an adopted child and his/her birth parents. Though a court may recognize that a child should not be sent home to live with his/her biological parents, the court may be equally hesitant to expel parents totally from their child's life.

In decisions about permanency placement in general, biological parents must be summed up in a black and white, "thumbs-up" or a "thumbs-down" kind of assessment. Either they are found fit to raise their children and they regain custody of them, or they are declared unfit and their parental rights are permanently terminated, their child put up for adoption. The task of deciding whether parents are "good or evil" is a difficult one, and many children are stuck in foster care limbo for years while the state struggles, understandably so, to make the decision. This rigid aspect of American permanency placement ironically prevents children "from truly belonging anywhere"22 and determines that many foster children "will become part of a drifting population, not only temporary `visitors' in one foster home after another, but denied the possibility of permanence."23 Placement policies cause pain not only to parents who face the possibility of never seeing their children again, but to children who face long term foster care.

In Hawaiian culture, America is shown that this does not need to be the case. Hawaiian culture provides an example of beautiful alternatives to both the emphasis on blood relationships and the practice of formal adoption that often alienates birth parents. For starters, Hawaiian culture has a much more generous definition of family. The Hawaiian word for family is `ohana, and is derived from the words `oha (taro, particularly the root) and na (many). The root word "taro" is indicative of the centrality of family in Hawaiian culture. Members of an `ohana, "like taro shoots, are all from the same root."24 For Hawaiians, "family consciousness of the same `root of origin' was a deeply felt, unifying force, no matter how many offshoots came from offshoots,"25 similar to the way in which taro, traditionally a staple crop in the Hawaiian diet, was essential to life. At the center of the `ohana were the pili koko (blood relatives), but the bond of ohana was not limited "to those born into blood relationship."26 Close friends that were ho'o (made) or adopted as kin by conscious choice were "also family members in nearly every sense," and their relationship "was a life-long one of love, loyalty, and companionship."27 `Ohana status is highly valued and generously awarded to blood relatives and non-blood relatives alike.

Hawaiian adoption practices differ in many ways from those that we see in American culture. The Hawaiian word for adoption is hanai, its derivation meaning to feed or nourish. Hanai, as it was traditionally practiced in Hawaiian culture, referred to the situation where a child was "taken permanently to be reared, educated, and loved by someone other than natural parents,"28 usually grandparents or other relatives. Hanai was permanent; birth parents could not reclaim their child except for in the event of "death or serious incapacity of the adoptive parents."29 This was planned deliberately so that the child "would not become a pawn in later hukihuki (literally "pull pull")," or adult power struggles that could be damaging to the child. The hanai status of a child was conferred when birth parents said to the hanai parents, "Nau ke keiki kukae a na'au," or "I give this child, intestines, contents and all." (Intellect, emotion, and intuition were often associated with the stomach and intestines.)30 A hanai child was reared as one's own by his/her adoptive family, but also "knew and was usually visited by his natural parents."31 Hanai families and birth parents kept open communication, worked together, and often "conferred over the child's welfare."32 Birth parents of a hanai child were permitted and encouraged to maintain a connection with their child.

Hawaiian cultural beliefs about `ohana and the hanai tradition of informal adoption have translated into the hanai practices that we see in Hawai`i today. As it is practiced today, a hanai child is "any child who is intentionally and lovingly cared for and nurtured as their own by extended (calabash) family members."33 Hanai is informal, exists in proclamations of care and affection for non-related friends and loved ones, and is not limited to members of a particular race. With Western cultural influence, more emphasis is placed on legality and the nuclear family, but children being reared by non-blood relatives or by extended family are considered hanai children "whether or not any legal adoption ...[takes] place."34 Hanai children, in "open-adoption hanai fashion," usually maintain a friendly connection with their biological families.35

The hanai tradition and the Hawaiian definition of `ohana provide beautiful cultural alternatives to the estranging aspects of American permanent placement practices. First, family status is awarded much more generously in Hawaiian culture, creating a predisposition for effortlessly accepting and loving someone else's children as one's own. Parents are those that love and care for a child, those that act as parents. Blood relationship is not necessarily a key component of parenting. Second, hanai is an informal, "casual, easy-going, and open `exchanging' of children"35 and does not require acceptance in a courtroom to be considered legitimate. The hanai tradition loosens many of the restrictions that cause American courts to deem loving caregivers unfit adoptive parents.

Perhaps the most significant difference between American adoption and the hanai tradition is that hanai adoption does not necessitate taking biological parents out of the picture. One of the reasons why adoption is not practiced more in America is that it requires the complete termination of birth parents' rights, a motion that is drastic and not always warranted. At the same time, for a wide variety of reasons, family reunification might not be the best option either. Children in this situation, stuck between adoption and reunification, usually stay in foster care indefinitely. Hanai adoption offers a much less painful alternative. Children can be welcomed into a loving hanai family while still maintaining a positive relationship with their birth parents. A hanai child can benefit from the love and stability of their adoptive home and keep a connection to their birth parents from that safe position. Parents are more free to explore the possibility that keeping their child at home might not be the best arrangement because they can explore the possibility of adoption without having to worry that they will be called a bad parent or that they may lose all involvement in their child's life. The hanai tradition can be a lesson to the American adoption system that the "reallocation of parental rights" and adoption can be "personalized, affectionate, and sociable."36

For the hanai tradition, I have a deep and personal gratitude. Almost as soon as I had entered the foster care system the social worker told me that their goal was to send me home to my mother as soon as possible. To me, the thought was terrifying. I became especially worried about having to go home after being placed in my fourth foster home. My fourth foster placement was in the home of one of my best friends from school, and we adopted each other as family almost instantly. I couldn't imagine being more happy or loving parents and siblings more. Intuitively I knew that my mother could not provide the same support and love that my foster family could, and her relapsing into drugs and alcohol was still a realistic possibility. I wanted to remain with my foster family, but I did not wish to permanently close the door on my mother. The hanai tradition provided my family the perfect solution. With my mother's approval, one of the greatest gifts I have ever received, I became a hanai child to my foster parents. Our home became the foundation of support from which I was able to extend to my mother forgiveness, love, and a commitment to friendship. I became a permanent (and legal) member of a wonderful family, I no longer had to live with the constant fear that I would be sent home, and my mother was given space to work through her difficulties. The hanai tradition gave me two loving parents, four sisters, and a new chance at friendship with my biological mother. To the Hawaiian culture, I am immensely grateful.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a mid-term paper on social and educational issues relevant to teaching that was written for Education 310, Introduction to Education.