NPR’s On Point Program Takes on International Adoption

A friend of mine alerted me of a segment of WBUR’s show On Point that would be focusing on international adoptions as a result of the recent incident with Russian adoptee Artyom.  I was pretty disappointed by the segment’s focus and lack of balanced opinions.  At first I was a bit surprised that Adam Pertman, the ED of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute wasn’t called upon for an interview on the show.  However, I was not surprised to find that none of the scholars/experts were not adopted individuals.  In fact one of the interviewees was an adoptive parent, (not surprising).

Here were the guests on the program taken from the On Point  website:

Blake Farmer, reporter and producer for Nashville Public Radio. He’s been covering the  story of how a Tennessee woman returned her adopted 7-year-old son back to Russia.

Michele Goodwin, professor of law at the University of Minnesota. She also holds joint appointments at the University of Minnesota Medical School and School of Public Health, and is editor of “Baby Markets: Money and the New Politics of Creating Families.”

Elizabeth Bartholet, professor of law and director of the Child Advocacy Center at Harvard University. She’s author of Nobody’s Children: Abuse and Neglect, Foster Drift, and the Adoption Alternative. Her article “International Adoption: The Human Rights Position” appears in the current issue of the journal Global Policy.

Joseph LaBarbera, clinical psychologist specializing in work with children, adolescents, and young adults. He’s also associate professor of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University.

For the most part I thought Dr. Goodwin’s comments were relatively on point, (sorry, I had to)….She spoke to the challenges of international adoptions which include the potential for child trafficking and the lack of adoptions happening domestically in the U.S. specifically with children of color.

However, I was a bit concerned by Dr. Bartholet’s positions and comments.  Here are a few of her points that I felt were a bit off the mark, and here’s why.

1)            Terminology – Dr. Bartholet continued to use “Natural Parents” and “Normal Parents,” in reference to biological families.  As an adopted person using these terms implies that adoptees and adoptive families are “unnatural,” and “abnormal.”

2)            Abuse Rates for APs vs non-APs – Bartholet makes the argument that Russia acted irrationally by suspending all adoptions all because one adoptive parent made the wrong decision.  She says that the rates of abuse committed by adoptive parents vs non-adoptive parents is very low.

* I don’t think anyone is necessarily calling into question whether or not adoptive parents are more or less qualified as parents.  What’s at stake behind Russia’s decision to suspend adoptions probably has more to do with the fact that it feels that it has a responsibility to protect its children.  I think Russia is outraged by this incident, and wants to get to the bottom of this before continuing its adoption program.

3)            Adoption Barriers – Bartholet seems absolutely outraged by all the “red tape,” and barriers that stand in the way of prospective adoptive parents when it comes to intercountry adoption.

*Again I think Bartholet is missing the mark here.  Yes, there are barriers and red tape in adoption and they are there for many reasons.  First, in regards to Russia, they are there because Russia wishes to find adoption solutions domestically first.  And let’s not forget that birth parents should not be shut out.  I believe there are a few countries that are starting to implement grace periods allowing birth parents to essentially change their minds within several months after relinquishment.  There are also checks on adoptive parents that need to happen.  Clearly, in the case of Artyom, these checks were potentially not good enough as evidenced by Dr. Goodwin who points to child neglect/abuse allegations.  And the last point is that in many countries, the rise of adoption programs has led to child trafficking rings.  Guatemala’s adoption program  which was shut down originally due to trafficking has just started a pilot program aimed at resuming their adoption programs.  Even in China, there have been recent reports that babies have been stolen and birth parents have been duped into thinking they would get their child back.  Some even posed as family planning government officials listening for multiple cries from babies in a household which they would use against families taking their children citing violations of the one child policy.  All in all, there are reasons for the waits in many cases.

4)            Babies Assimilate Better – She also makes the case that babies are preferable since they “adapt” easier.  Host Tom Ashbrook counters by saying that there are many older children who still deserve homes.  Bartholet says that babies thrive better in adoptive households.

*Again I think this is an unfortunate statement as it points to the notion that adoption can’t be disruptive to a child, and that somehow being raised as a baby will negate the “problems” associated with being adopted.  There are many children adopted as children who have struggled with their identities, and with RAD etc.  Once you begin to make statements suggesting that there is a preferred type of child, it’s hard to be seen as a true advocate for what’s right for children.

There were also a number of callers, all were either adoptive parents or family of an adopted person.  There was not one adoptee.  I’m not sure if any tried to call in and were denied or just simply  overlooked, but I’m always so angered by how adoptees, some of which are leading scholars in their respective fields are not called on for their opinions.  Are we not the subjects of these conversations?  How much agency do we have to create positive change in adoption policy?  I can think of a handful of talented and intelligent adoptee scholars who could have added so much depth to the conversation which unfortunately was not about what would happen to Artyom and more about what he represented.  Host, Tom Ashbrook ended by asking the panelists their thoughts on what would happen to Artyom.  This was the first time I had heard or seen anyone in the news media ask an “expert” on what would happen to him.  Goodwin answered seemingly well with only a minute or so to wrap things up, but Bartholet seemed flustered by the question, almost as if she hadn’t even thought about that question.

I’m glad that people are thinking critically about intercountry adoptions.  But the debate has become one-sided and as usual, does not allow adoptees a voice.  Some people I talk to think it’s because we are seen as “biased” or “non-objective,” in our opinions as adoptees.  But aren’t some adoptive parents who are scholars just as biased with their own set of opinions as parents?

It hurts me to hear adoptive parents call in on the radio and say that their adopted child “Destroyed my life.”  I can’t even imagine what it would be like to parent children with severe psychological trauma, but that does not give you the right to abandon your children again.  It may be traumatic for you, but for adoptees abandonment is no joke.  And for it to happen multiple times is unimaginable and unusually cruel.  Many of these scholars say that it’s about human rights issues, and that it’s about giving a child the right circumstances to thrive.  There is nothing “right” about giving up on them.  And of course I know this is not just the responsibility of adoptive parents to be prepared, but adoption agencies are systematically failing to address the specific needs of international adoptees from different countries.  The post-adoption service needs of adopted children from Russia are different from Korean children.  The post-adoption services needs of children from Latin America are different from the needs of children from China.  There is no “cure all” remedy that works for every child.


2 Comments on “NPR’s On Point Program Takes on International Adoption

  1. I heard that interview and was a bit disturbed by Bartholet’s comment in particular (I think it was her) that it’s a crime children are not put into adoptive homes as young as 1-3 months old. That to me said that she thinks it is unimportant to confirm whether or not the child is in fact an orphan or that the child’s family really and truly want to make a decision to relinquish (or give time to locate family if the child has been abandoned).

    As far as people calling in to say their (adopted) child ‘destroyed their lives’- well this is simply heartbreaking. As if he/she is somehow responsible.

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