There’s No Such Thing As An Orphan
November is #NAAM (National Adoption Awareness Month), and before you waste your time watching horribly exploitative films like Instant Family, it’s high time we cleared something up, you and me:
There is no such thing as an orphan. There is only colonization.
Now, before you start throwing dictionaries at me, which would be very unpleasant, we must remember that language is constructed by people, and people are subjective. Though a definition for a word may be one thing, the way we use it is something else entirely. The textbook definition for an orphan is “a child whose parents are dead,” and if we were textbook in our use of the word, then many senior care facilities ought to be renamed “orphanages.” But we don’t use “orphan” in this context, because we understand that loss of parents doesn’t mean loss of family. Organizations like UNICEF have formerly limited the definition of orphan to those children under 18 years of age who have lost one or both parents. Fine, this clears up my former comment about the senior community. But I’d still like to ask a few questions to further shore up what I mean when I say that our intended use is different from the reality of the situation.
When I say the word “orphan,” who is it you picture? What is their race? Where on the globe do they live? There is little doubt in my mind that the image this word conjures is not unlike those at the Live-Aid concert, and that’s not unintentional. Yet, let’s say there is a family of white, upper-middle-class characters in a film, and the main character’s sister and brother-in-law have just died in a car accident. This person’s six year old nephew is now, technically, an orphan. But would you imagine international organizations suddenly showing up at the house to take non-consensual photos of the child, blasting their image and embellished bio to couples in foreign countries, and then asking for tens of thousands of dollars to adopt said child? I doubt it. Our first thought is that the main character should take their nephew in. That’s because we understand that it’s important to #keepfamiliestogether. At least, we’d like to believe we understand that; because we sure don’t practice it.
It is said that more than 80% of the world’s “orphans” have one living parent. Out of the remaining percent who reportedly do not have either parent present, none of our statistics include the role of aunts, uncles, grandparents or adult siblings. The only unifying factor of struggle between the majority of these children is that they tend to come from poor(er) families. This is what separates the aforementioned fictional character from those international children we deem “orphaned;” a family’s access to resources.
Adoption is an industry with origins that were never about helping people; it was [and is] a way of redistributing children to those with resources, instead of resources to those with children; somebody makes a better profit that way. When we use the word orphan, what we mean is “without a family in the world.” But this is, by definition, and statistical fact, a falsehood.
The word orphanage is a misnomer for what is better described as a residential care facility; the institutionalization of children to [perceivably] help them receive resources and care that they would otherwise not receive from families struggling through hardship, war, loss, and a variety of temporary, poverty-related experiences. The reasons children end up in these facilities is often because a parent feels they have no other choice, but many are also trafficked away from families because the international orphan industrial complex has beds that need to be filled, a market that needs to be supplied, and the need for people to believe that the crisis is orphan count and not resource inequity.
It is no coincidence that many of the worlds orphanages are located in areas with the highest rates of tourism. Our never-ending stream of funds through adoption, voluntourism, and foreign aid help sustain an international business which has little intention of finding actual resolve. Adoption is one of the only acts in the world where we have earnestly bought into the idea that the more we do, the less there’ll be; but that’s not how supply and demand works.
Steadily and surely, countries have begun to close their doors to international adoption, recognizing this market’s role in creating falsified orphans and dark money operations. Parents come forward to say that they signed papers believing their child was leaving the country to gain a “better education,” not knowing they were terminating parental rights. Adoptive parents report on the appearance of first families who write to them, looking for their child. Newborns and infants disappear without a trace. Baby factories, trafficked mothers, no oversight, endless and uncritical support from “well-meaning” foreigners, and promises to parents desperate for a child. This NAAM, adoptees like me are here to remind everyone that “orphan” is a manufactured identity, meant to extract exorbitant amounts of sympathy dollars, and continue a legacy of genocidal assimilation of poor children at an emotional, cultural, and psychological cost to them and their families. This is why there is no such thing as an orphan (at least in the way we intend it). There is only colonization.
The harsh reality is that the majority of children we are calling “orphans” could be raised in their own families if we: A.) Divested from international organizations that support orphanages and the adoption of their residents, instead investing in and encouraging locally -operated initiatives which support families in their own communities. And B.) Stop believing that we are somehow inherently more fit to raise a complete stranger’s child because we have better access to resources; it’s the most uncritical thing we could be doing. Yes, it may end up being the reason a child, say, gains medical assistance for a disability. But the trade does not somehow absolve children of the trauma and loss of separation. The supremacy of colonization is that we don’t first fight unyieldingly for all biological families to have the same access to life-giving resources as affluent whites.
We know that the institutionalization of children immediately increases risk in physical and sexual abuse, as well as developmental vunerability and overall health issues. Children raised in institutions are 500x more likely to take their own lives. When these facilities already discourage visitation from biological family members, and international money is funneled into and hoarded by private pockets, leaving many orphanages in poor conditions, it becomes really easy to say, “See?! Adoption was for good.” But this is no better than taking an apple from a hungry child, and then, as they’re crying, pointing to a stranger to say, “Please pay me so you can feed them; look how desperately they need to eat.” Colonization loves to play both oppressor and savior; creating dependency on the institutions and systems it creates to “solve” the very problems it inflicted onto others. Paternalism like this keeps people in cycles of poverty; the intended outcome.
In situations where family members intentionally leave children in the care of institutions with the hope they’ll be adopted, we have to remember that “a choice made in the absence of other choices has nothing to do with choice” — Liz Latty. And when removal has happened due to reasons of abuse, we have to ask ourselves why the family member(s) became abusive in the first place, and how our systems prevent pathways to better quality of life for families at risk.
At what point is our continued support of adoption actually preventing solutions to why families are broken up in the first place; enabling a band-aid that still physiologically harms children, but helps us feel better about ourselves while putting money into someone else’s pockets. What’s more, regardless of how consensual we perceive exchanges of children to be between adult parties, none of this matters because the most impacted individual cannot and could not ever consent. Not only is separation from the biological caregiver(s) a complex developmental trauma, but adoptions are preventable. A child should never have to permanently lose a family due to temporary experiences of poverty or crisis. That’s what makes it so offensive when people have adoption fundraisers with end goals of $40,000, or when celebrities like Sandra Bullock disclose in interviews that their first thought when Katrina happened was that there would be an opportunity to adopt.
And if you’re confused why a white, domestic adoptee is using “orphan” in reference to themself… Well, in part I don’t believe that international adoptees in my community should have to bare the brunt of such a toxic word simply because their original identities are more often easily erased and their stories more often easily exploited. As adoptees (and foster persons), we’ve all been rendered orphans; not by our first parents, but by international systems of colonization that have failed us and our families because of continued refusal to actually support poor communities and communities of color.
This NAAM, I reclaim my right to an original identity. I come from somewhere. Adoptees Grow Up. This was preventable. And I am not, and no other adoptee is, your orphan.