exposing the dark side of adoption
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The politics of ‘orphans’ and the dirty tactics of the adoption lobby



You might not have realised it, but it is Adoption Awareness Week. Every year at this time lobbyists pull out the big gun – the celebrity card – and Deborra-Lee Furness hits the airwaves.

The messages are clear – we must rescue more orphans, cut red tape, privatise adoption like in the US, and anyone who opposes us, especially the government, is anti-adoption. The reality is the informed members of the adoption community (and there are many) understand intercountry adoption for what it is – a very complex matter.

Everyone has a right to an opinion but when a small, well-connected and media-savvy group of lobbyists claim personal opinion as fact and claim to be the voice for the adoption community in Australia, there is a problem. My PhD research shed light on the tactics used by lobbyists in Australia – keep the message simple and emotional.

“There are millions of orphans in the world that need to be saved” fits that bill. It sounds a lot better than “a single mother is encouraged by an adoption agency to send her child overseas for adoption and then when she changes her mind and returns the next day, she is told it is too late” or “the family who does not understand what intercountry adoption really means and thinks their child is leaving to go to school” or “some children adopted into Australia have been trafficked”.

The other tactic, first used in the US, is to create an enemy; that way there is someone to fight and it keeps the emotions all churned up. This is where the “anti-adoption culture” tag comes in handy. “Anti-adoption” was readily taken on board by the politicians involved in the 2005 Inquiry into Overseas Adoption, while other voices were shut down.

The trouble is the more we hear opinion spoken as fact and don’t hear about the research on intercountry adoption, the more dangerous it becomes.

Where is the evidence? Why don’t we ever hear about the research from overseas that tells us what is really happening in sending countries of children and the voices of those affected – those who lose their children much like the Australian mothers to whom we are now apologising. Why don’t we hear about the research happening in this country? Adopted children are other people’s children. Even after children have been adopted they will always have two families even if they don’t know who their mothers, fathers and first families are. Maybe, just maybe, there are more options than the two we are presented with: life in an orphanage or adoption. Do we lobby governments to improve the conditions of families where adoption occurs? It would cost a lot less.

At this point, I feel I have to say I am not “anti-adoption”. I have spent many years assessing prospective parents here in Australia and can honestly say our adoptive families are good parents and do their best for the children they adopt and love them as their own. Adoption does have a place, but when we focus only on Australia we only see the parents who want to adopt a child. We do not see what happens overseas and we believe the hype. It is the pressure we put on overseas countries to allow intercountry adoption that create opportunities for bad practice and at worst, trafficking.

So what does the research say? Most adopted children are not orphans – they have families. The stories of many mothers are so similar to those of Australian mothers several decades ago, you wouldn’t know the difference by reading them. Orphanages are often created to feed the adoption industry – conflicts of interest abound. Children are often placed into orphanages temporarily during hard times for families, much as they once were in Australia if dad was widowed and had to go to work. Reports of parents coming to get their children (sometimes after saving up to pay the fine) only to find them adopted overseas are many. Of course every country is different and there are different circumstances affecting families, but sadly the threads are all too common.

Unfortunately, intercountry adoption research does not dig up simple messages, does not appeal to the emotions as children in need of rescue do. In fact, there is a lot of grey.

Opinion is much more exciting than evidence. For a long time, adoption scholars here and overseas have talked about what could be done for families and children in trouble overseas. The issue doesn’t start with a child in an adoption agency – the problems start before that.

It is about inequality and disadvantage – let’s build a school, let’s educate women, let’s work towards a basic system of support for widows, let’s trace the children’s families. These steps should come first.

According the The Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, adopting children from foreign countries is a last resort. Yet all our resources are poured into responding to the claims of lobbyists. While we do this, we are failing to provide adequate post-adoption services for the children and adults we have adopted. If we’re going to have a discussion of adoption this week, let’s get the facts right.