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To My New York Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer on International Adoption


by Frank Ligtvoet / Daily Kos

Dear Senators, A few years ago the story of a woman who put her 7 year old adopted son on a plane back to where he came from, Russia, made headlines. You must remember the case. The boy was by himself with just a note from the mother to the authorities at the other side of the Atlantic, telling that she couldn’t handle him anymore. In a certain way it was a mild case, compared to recent cases where adoptive parents abused and eventually killed their kids. Korean Hyunsu O’Callaghan (3 years old) for example, who was only a few months with his new family, when his father beat him to death in February of this year. Last year in July a criminal process took place in which adoptive parents were accused of abusing their Ethiopian daughter, until her death in the cold rain followed. Investigative journalist Kathryn Joyce described in Slate of last November the girl’s ordeal as follows: “On the night of May 11, 2011, sometime around midnight, 13-year-old Hana Williams fell face-forward in her parents’ backyard. Adopted from Ethiopia three years before, Hana was naked and severely underweight. Her head had recently been shaved, and her body bore the scars of repeated beatings with a plastic plumbing hose. Inside the house, her adoptive mother, 42-year-old Carri Williams, and a number of Hana’s eight siblings had been peering out the window for the past few hours, watching as Hana staggered and thrashed around, removed her clothing in what is known as hypothermic paradoxical undressing and fell repeatedly, hitting her head. According to Hana’s brother Immanuel, a deaf 10-year-old also adopted from Ethiopia, the family appeared to be laughing at her.”


I know, Senators, that child abuse and infanticide are not specific to adoption, but prospective adoptive parents are screened by social workers for their capabilities to raise children with this background; they are held or they should be held to a higher standard. It is obvious that those screenings in these cases, and in many others, didn’t work. Those cases also include the shady practice of ‘Re-homing’ where overwhelmed parents try to place often over the web their kids in other families who are not vetted at all. About the dire outcomes of this ‘solution’ to the problems of incompetent parents Reuters reported extensively last year.

You may wonder, dear Senators, what has this all to do with me. Well, in every other section of our society these stories would have led to an investigation of the industry responsible for these deaths. Bluntly said: General Motors is investigated for the deaths of 303 people in accidents regarding 1,6 million cars since 2003. Compare that with the almost 200 abuse cases in various degrees of severity on ca. 160.000 international adoptions in the same period which adoption activist website Pound Pup Legacy (http://poundpuplegacy.org) documented with newspaper articles and official documents.

The laxness of the American authorities, which are in a certain way under your control, where it regards the adoption process in the US is disturbing. There is no check on the methods used in, and the effectiveness and the quality of the so-called home studies, which describe and evaluate the new parents’ abilities to raise transnationally and transracially adopted kids, often with special needs. And there is no check on the competences and the quality of licensed social workers, who deal with adoption in agencies. I know personally how easy on the parents the home study process is and how flimsily we – two white men - were prepared to become adoptive parents of black kids. And I don’t know one case where prospective parents were told that they were not fit to raise an adopted child. Not only oversight is missing, the industry itself has serious systemic flaws. One of them is that it is fully adoptive parent driven: the parents are the paying clients and there is no independent representation in any form for the first parents or the child, here or abroad. Another problem is the savior ideology that permeates the industry: so many kids are saved from their horrible situations that ‘we’ can live with a few kids who fall between the cracks. The savior argument is just false: most kids would have been helped better (and with less money) within the context of their extended families or their community.

Is the situation in the US, Senators, already daunting, the situation in the countries of origin of the adoptees is even worse. The acclaimed study of Katherine Joyce, The Child Catchers, on the Evangelical Christian adoption movement and its devastating corrupting effects abroad attracted a lot of attention. You might have seen it. There are others who wrote extensively on corruption, child laundering, baby stealing, fraud, racism and trafficking, like E.J. Graff in the Washington Post and Slate a few years ago, and David Smolin and Deleith Duke Gossett in their academic work. David Smolin’s latest piece has the telling title: ‘The Corrupting Influence of the United States on a Vulnerable Intercountry Adoption System’. I dare to say that every prospective adoptive parent, who is at this moment in the process of adopting internationally and doesn’t read extensively about abuse in and outside the US, doesn’t check his social worker and agency carefully and doesn’t soul search his abilities to raise a child of color that is abandoned first and then adopted, threads on unethical grounds.

In this dark adoption climate two of your colleagues Senators Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Roy Blunt (R-MO), proposed new legislation for international child welfare and adoption: the Children in Families First Act (CHIFF). You know that because both of you became sponsors of the CHIFF act. Positive in that proposal is that adoption is seen within the context of child welfare. The website has: ‘CHIFF brings the need for ethical, transparent and accountable child welfare systems to the forefront. By ensuring systems are in place to help children remain in their family of birth, be reunited with family or be adopted locally or internationally.’ The policy relies thus strongly on collaboration with the authorities in the ‘donating’ countries to ensure – I repeat ensure - those ethical etc. systems. That seems a rather unrealistic vision, when one thinks of vast countries like China and India, or ‘difficult’, dead poor or infrastructure poor countries like Ethiopia and Vietnam. Elsewhere I calculated that CHIFF has a maximum budget of 22.5 cent per child, which would generate for child welfare in for example Ethiopia a bit over a million dollars for 4 million orphans. Since the adoption industry for the US alone in Ethiopia can be valued at $92 million dollars, it is obvious that adoption will be the preferred choice of ‘child welfare’. The proposal comes on top of that with new regulations to make the international adoption process for parents easier and quicker. Easier and quicker is definitely not the way to go in the current corrupt adoption situation. It seems more appropriate to clean the houses here and there first, before spending new money and applying easier regulations for Americans who want to adopt.

The welfare aspect in the proposal is not only diminished by the lack of serious finances, but by two more factors. The first comes to light in the list of ‘Endorsing organizations’ on the CHIFF website, which consists for the biggest part of adoption agencies, many of them rooted in the evangelical (and may I say as a gay man: homophobic) community. Lacking are (international) welfare organizations, adoptee and first parent organizations. The latter were also not involved in the discussions in the preparations of the legislation. The second factor shows in the rather surprising list of the political sponsors from both parties of CHIFF: Michele Bachman, James Inhofe, Elizabeth Warren amongst others. And I was honestly speaking taking aback to find your names in that list. International welfare may imply for some of them birth control education and practice, which would lead to less adoptions; and for others the promotion of ‘extreme personhood’ (human rights bestowed on fertilized eggs), which would lead to more adoptions. Since there is no common ground to be found in these two positions, the communal focus has to be on adoption, and based on the positions of many of your listed colleagues, on heterosexual couple’s.

Dear Senator Gillibrand, dear Senator Schumer, may I ask you to reconsider your support of this proposed legislation. As real democrats, who tend to reach out to those who had or have no voice, in this case the first or birth families and the adoptees, and who are naturally questioning the powerful, you really don’t belong on that list.

CHIFF will hopefully die a quiet death. Thank God, it doesn’t seem to get serious political traction. However, the discussion about international child welfare and adoption and the ethics thereof, is very necessary and one may hope that this flawed proposal will be the start of that conversation.

I copy you to give you a full range of arguments against CHIFF links to letters from other concerned voters in other states to their representatives, to Senator Warren (MA) (http://irreverentpsychologist.blogspot.com/...) and to the Washington representatives (http://lightofdaystories.com/...)

Respectfully yours,

Frank Ligtvoet


2011 May 11