St. John’s Adoption Conference – Thoughts, Reflections

(The following is a post I started at the conclusion of the Saint John’s Adoption Conference and have just gotten around to finishing.  Due to grad school, I’ve been unable to post – my apologies!)

First of all, let me first start by apologizing for not posting as much as usual. Some of you might know this already, but I have just started an MSW program and have been busy getting on track with all the work that is required.

I thought I would just jot down some thoughts I have regarding the St. John’s adoption conference that I attended this past weekend. I was asked to be on a panel to examine representations of adoption/adoptees in the media and the ethical concerns that arise from these representations. I was joined by David Crary (AP), Dr. Sandra Patton-Imani (Professor, Drake University), Adam Pertman (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute), and our moderator Kate Snow (Correspondent for Dateline, Journalist).

Thanks to you who participated, and thank you to all who attended and participated in the conversation. I do want to address several topics that came up during the course of our discussion: media accountability, representations of adoptees, and taking action.

As someone who worked in radio for a little while, I’m somewhat sympathetic to journalists and the media (for the most part). It is in many ways an incredibly tough job.  Covering stories, following leads can be tricky enough, but the most important piece is thinking about how to frame the story. Who are the stakeholders? Who makes the rules? Who does this affect? etc. etc.

When I originally got into radio it was to tell different stories.  I wanted to portray folks who were down and out, living in poverty, living with violence around them, living with racism, discrimination. These are the folks whose stories are not told.  Similarly, this blog has been all about discussing the issues regarding adoption that many would rather see buried.

When it comes to adoption in the media, perspectives of adoptees are ignored.  Every day newpaper stories weave together narratives around the voices of adoptive parents largely ignoring the presence of their children (who are old enough to speak up for themselves most of the time), or ignoring racial overtones that play out in transracial families.  I’m not saying that we are the “only” voice to turn to, but I am saying that adoption in many ways is about the well-being of children, and therefore, who better to call on for perspective than us, as adults.

Two adoption-related events this past year, exemplify the ways in which adoption continues to be framed in the media — The case of Justin/Artyom, (the Russian boy whose mother terminated parental rights in a letter and sent him back to Russia alone); and the Haiti  earthquake and the fervor around rights to adoption.

Justin never seemed to represent anything more than a cause. His very existence became indicative of a problem in adoption. No one ever stopped to ask, (or report for that matter), on what would actually become of Justin.  No one thought to consider the emotional trauma he had suffered through, and the media buzz that would inevitably magnify the feelings and emotions he was probably already having.  My co-panelist Mr. Adam Pertman also raised this point on our panel.

Regarding Haiti, what we saw was something that I like to call American adoption entitlement.  Adoption has become understood as legitimate alternative option for family building (by *legitimate,* I mean to say that it has become a relatively well-known option).  Americans have come to rely on adoption to start families that we sometimes forget that we are not necessarily entitled to these children.  They are not necessarily “ours” until the adoption has been finalized (and furthermore I strongly believe that using terms that imply possession are not ethical).  However, after the earthquake in Haiti, I remember reading articles saying things like “Haitian children waiting to come home to their American families,” or “Haitian children held hostage by Haitian government.”

My point is that these ideas come with a certain amount of privilege.  Adoption is a privilege.  In the case of international adoption, it can be costly, it can take a lot of time (to do paperwork, homestudies, etc. etc.), and it takes resources.  Folks forgot that these Haitian children had lost families.  Most who were being adopted directly after the earthquake were already set to be adopted. But lets not EVER forget that these children are Haitian.  They had/have families there.  But the media liked to forget these stories, and focus on the anguish that adoptive families were facing prior to even meeting their soon to be children.  Why hadn’t the media thought to call on adult adoptees for their thoughts on adoption from Haiti? Are we not precisely the voices that this issue affects most?

Finally, a few folks in the audience asked the question “how do we let our voices be heard?” The answer was not necessarily all that clear, but the point is this-adoption ALWAYS affects the adoptee.  Adoptive parents are ALWAYS regarded as the experts on adoption. And let me be clear, I am not saying that adoptive parents do not have a right to comment on adoption.  I am saying that since they are the first and last people who are asked to comment on adoption when it comes to stories in the media, an ENTIRE two thirds of the so-called “adoption triad” are missing.

This was a great conference for so many reasons.  However, I do want to highlight something that was particularly moving.  Most of you know that Run DMC’s Darryl McDaniels is an adoptee.  He found out later in life, and struggled with it quite a bit.  Today he is an advocate, ally for adoptees.  He spoke at the conference and I was lucky enough to capture about an hour of it (right before he launched into a few verses).  I know, I know, I wish that my phone at more room but unfortunately, these videos take up a lot space.  Speaking of which, if I could share it on here, I would, but unfortunately it’s close to 3 gigabytes.  If you are interested in receiving a copy of it, I will upload it to my dropbox account and send it to you.  Please email me and in the subject line write “DMC Video” and I will send it along to you as soon as I can.

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3 Comments on “St. John’s Adoption Conference – Thoughts, Reflections

  1. Excellent points!

    I think this is the reason why so many Asian adoptees have written books, made films, etc. Your voice at this conference was really a great step in the right direction, as is your blog.

    If we want our voices heard, then we have to make it so in our own way. The more we make ourselves visible, then maybe mainstream media will catch-up. They only know what they know (or care about). I’m glad you’re out there doing the work you do.

    Oh, and congrats on your MSW program, and take care of yourself.

  2. “They are not necessarily “ours” until the adoption has been finalized . . . However, after the earthquake in Haiti, I remember reading articles saying things like “Haitian children waiting to come home to their American families,” or “Haitian children held hostage by Haitian government.”

    Most of the outrage was over children whose adoptions were already final. They had been held up by the Haitian government long before the earthquake. The earthquake was just an event that brought those details into the media – that many kids had been waiting 2-3 years to be united with family members who were already their legal parents. The outrage was because these kids, post-quake, were at great risk of disease, starvation, and injury from the aftershocks. I think people felt passionately about moving the already-adopted children to safety (which was a very small number in relation to the number of children in orphanages) and freeing up resources for the thousands of displaced children caused by the earthquake. Is this adoption entitlement? I’m not so sure.

    As to why the media focused on the anguish of American adoptive parents – it seems like that is what the media ALWAYS does: focusing on the local connection, and focusing on parental perspective. I remember news stories about Susan Sarandon injuring her foot on a visit to Haiti . . . as if that was news in light of the suffering of the Haitian people. And I think we rarely see a child’s perspective when a story is done on parenting choices (homeschooling, extended breastfeeding, etc). I agree with the dynamic you are describing but I don’t think it is exclusive to adoption.

  3. Thanks for allyour efforts and hard work to make changes to this criminal process we call adoption. I found out I was adopted @ twenty-eight years old. Most people that are’nt adopted can never understand adoptees plight. All the questions we have regarding our birthrights is just not a reality for them. They have their answer and can obtain. authenic birth certificates.thx again good luck with your degree!!

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