Reflections on Adoption and Child Separation from Immigrant Families

Kimberly McKee
Jun 23, 2018 · 11 min read
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Border Fence and Imperial Beach (at Border Field State Park / Imperial Beach, San Diego, CA) by Tony Webster

Since Rebekah Henson published an important thread on Twitter critiquing the hashtags #FamiliesBelongTogether and #KeepFamiliesTogether on June 1, 2018, more and more adoptees, adoptive parents, and Adoption Studies scholars are calling for critical attention to how and where children separated from their parents are being treated. Adoptees are sounding the alarm as it’s becoming clearer that we are separating children of color and indigenous children from parents of color and indigenous parents and funneling them into placements away from their families, allegedly out of the best interests of the children. These includes transnational adoptees like Mia Mingus, who tweeted on June 20, 2018:

adoption and foster care have been used to funnel children into “better families” (read: white, rich(er), settler, christian, western, abled, heteronormative). there are *countless* stories of children being straight-up stolen, as we are seeing before our very eyes now.

Lisa Munro highlighted the trafficking that occurs in international adoptions on June 22, 2018 as she called attention to what happened in Guatemala in the early 2000s. What Munro mentions was captured in Finding Fernanda by Erin Siegel, an important read that demonstrates the experiences of white, American adoptive parents as they sought to adopt children from Guatemala.

Who’s Best Interests?

As adoptees of color many of us have inherited a history of dubious adoptions. We are dismayed to hear that Haitian adoptions may be “fast-tracked” due to the massive destruction of buildings in Haiti that hold important records and documents. We oppose this plan and argue that the loss of records requires slowing down of the processes of adoption while important information is gathered and re-documented for these children. Removing children from Haiti without proper documentation and without proper reunification efforts is a violation of their basic human rights and leaves any family members who may be searching for them with no recourse. We insist on the absolute necessity of taking the time required to conduct a thorough search, and we support an expanded set of methods for creating these records, including recording oral histories.

The statement reflects valid concerns, as there was a swift desire by religious organizations to rescue Haitian children immediately after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. For example, some of the 54 Haitian children who arrived in Pennsylvania and placed in Pittsburgh’s Holy Family Institute remained there for over a year due to their tenuous legal status and the fact that not all were previous matched with adoptive families. Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell aided the movement of orphans to Pittsburgh, PA.

Additionally, we know that in cases of domestic adoption and fostering, “best interests of the child” result in non-white families being separated for not adhering to white normative standards of “good” families in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries (See Dorothy Roberts, Laura Briggs). Religion is often deployed in domestic and international adoption and fostering to justify the separation of families. One of the earliest occurrences of this in the United States was with the orphan trains from the 1850s until 1929, which primarily placed children of poor Catholic and Jewish immigrants into Anglo-Protestant farming families in the American West as a means of assimilation and Americanization. Linda Gordon also documents how racial boundaries operated in the case of the placement of forty Irish orphans into Mexican Catholic families, as volatile race and class issues resulted in the entry of these orphans into white families. It’s important to point out that during the orphan train movement, only “working age” children were sent. However, Mary Ellen Johnson, the founder of the Orphan Train Heritage Society of America, notes: “In 1854, ‘working age’ meant as young as 6. Children over the age of 14 weren’t sent because of the risk that they would run away from their new homes and try to get back to New York.”

The intertwining of religion with racism also was used to justify the forced separation of indigenous children from their families with the boarding school project and the adoption of Native children into white families. In the wake of the separation of children at the border, Native News Online notes the similarities to the boarding school project and captures the voices of American Indian leaders speaking out about the practice of incarcerating children.

These are not the only instances of separating children from parents in history. The Associated Press compiled additional examples of separating families, as did the Washington Post. Historian Beth Lew-Williams recalled her grandfather’s separation from his family as he was placed in immigration detention at age nine on Angel Island Immigration Station.

The invocation of religion as it relates to adoption continued throughout the twentieth century. Bob Pierce (founder of World Vision International) and Harry Holt (founder of Holt Adoption Program, now Holt International) in the immediate post-Korean War period deployed religion as a means to encourage the adoption of Korean orphans and mixed-race children. These early efforts helped facilitate what would become one of the largest movements of children worldwide — Korean children entering primarily white families in North America, Europe, and Australia. The linkages between domestic intimacy concerning kinship and family ties with Christian values (e.g. Christian Americanism) illustrate the legacy of Christian missionary work abroad. In 1953, the earliest adoptive parents were affiliated with the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Catholic Relief Services and Holt Adoption Program (currently Holt International Children’s Services) furthered the Seventh Day Adventists’ work.

More recently, Kathryn Joyce examines how American Christian churches promote international adoption as a means of child rescue and spreading the faith in her book, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption. Many Evangelical Christian adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents frequently invoke James 1:27 to discuss why they’re compelled to adopt. Yet, these individuals overlooked the second half of the Biblical verse — “to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (emphasis mine).

Reproductive Justice, Immigration, and Family Preservation

We need to situate adoption and this current instance of separating children from parents within a reproductive justice framework, as it is only the most recent example of the historical traumas separating children of color and indigenous children from their natal families. I see what’s happening as part of a broader need for reproductive justice to protect the rights of parents of color and indigenous parents to parent. Adoption and fostering privileges the rights of white adoptive parents at the expense of limiting the ability of non-white individuals who seek to parent. Recently, I wrote in Adoption & Culture:

A reproductive justice lens disrupts narratives of adoption as a form of child rescue and humanitarian practice. It requires adoptive parents to question the manner in which their children arrived into their homes. Such a perspective works toward dismantling historical inaccuracies concerning adoption stories.

This is why it is necessary to question what is happening to children separated from their parents as they are placed into fostering or group homes. Previous instances demonstrate how immigrant parents’ rights are terminated and separation becomes permanent. For example, an undocumented Guatemalan mother had her child’s adoption into a white family upheld in July 2012 by Missouri courts. The mother’s rights were terminated after an immigration raid detained her. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Missouri case in 2014. Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation (formally the Applied Research Center) examined the intersections of immigration and the child welfare system in their 2011 national investigation. The report found structural and systemic barriers exist that prevents family reunification with detained or deported parents. Thus, if families truly belong together, we need to consider how what is currently happening exists within these broader conversations about adoption and fostering.

Creating Potential Adoptees

As Adoption Studies scholars including myself are discussing online, Bethany Christian Services is laying the groundwork to turn these children into adoptable objects — transformed into disciplined bodies acceptable to white America. I use the term object deliberately to reflect how adoptee subjecthood is erased when they are seen as interchangeable objects available for consumption. While watching the video from Bethany Christian Services, I could only think of how Bethany Christian Services is situating themselves as a “benefactor” or “good” figure in this time in comparison to warehousing children. In turn, foster care becomes a better option, despite the fact that foster care produces trauma and violence in the lives of youth. The video also illustrates how religion becomes invoked to protect these children — and it reminds me of the examples discussed earlier in this essay concerning the “best interests of the child.”

It’s important to note that Bethany Christian Services has been criticized for its treatment toward birth mothers. And when considering religious organizations, more broadly, as Christopher Stroop points out: “Religious organizations play an outsized role in foster care and adoption in the United States, often discriminating against members of the LGBTQ community while receiving tax money and, despite being registered as non-profits, running themselves essentially like businesses.”

In their interview with Dona Abbott, the Director for Refugee and Foster Care Programs at Bethany, Fox 17 West Michigan asked about whether the agency was profiting from these children. Abbott responded: “We’re not. Again it would be hard to say we’re profiting off of them for adoption when we’ve not placed any of these children for adoption. And it’s so early on to say whether these children will be available for adoption at all.” That said, I remain skeptical. After all, who is the agency contracting with to even start placing these children? And, what happens if these children are not reunited with their parents?

Michigan is not the only state receiving children. For example, news outlets including CNN and The New York Times reported that the federal government sent children to Cayuga Centers in Harlem, New York without notifying Mayor Bill de Blasio. Steve Almasy and Faith Karimi report, “De Blasio said Wednesday that he just learned that 239 migrant children are in the care of Cayuga Centers in Harlem, which contracts with the federal government to help unaccompanied minors. The children include a 9-month-old, he said.” These 239 children are out of 350 that were placed in the care of Cayuga Centers. Speaking to The New York Times, Anthony Enriquez, the director of the unaccompanied minors program for Catholic Charities, notes the lack of future family reunification plan or tracking mechanism in these systems:

There is no system whatsoever to track these family separations, no efforts systematically to reunite these families. There is no supervisor, there is no database saying, “child here, parent there,” so they can come back together.

Without a system for reuniting separated children with their parents, one wonders whether all children who were moved to facilities far from the border will be properly reunited with their parents. The headline, “The chaotic effort to reunite immigrant parents with their separated kids,” greeted readers of The Washington Post as the newspaper reported the difficulty parents and lawyers encountered as they sought to locate children. Kevin Sieff writes, “Attorneys also worry that some toddlers, or children who speak indigenous languages, might not have been able to give officials their parents’ complete names.” This worry is not unfounded as many international adoptees bear witness to what it means to only call your parents mommy or daddy in one’s native tongue and not know their proper legal names.

A critical eye is needed to see how religious organizations, foster care and adoption agencies, and other nonprofits respond to this crisis. Discussing what’s happening at the border, Christopher Stroop asks:

Will the white evangelicals, who may end up adopting some of these essentially trafficked children, shed any tears for their brown birth mothers as they alienate them from their cultural heritage and funnel them into their program of “raising up warriors for Christ?”

Adoptees, fosterees, and Adoption Studies scholars know what “saving” children really means and it’s never about family reunification or family preservation. Over the last week information about how to help these families have become widespread — see Remezcla, Slate. And review the statements by the ACLU and Texas Civil Rights Project concerning separation in the wake of the president’s executive order.

Questions also need to be asked regarding what happens to these children if they fall through the cracks. How does this relate to those adoptees without citizenship? Or those orphans who entered on humanitarian parole? The adoption community is already grappling with the deportation of internationally adopted persons whose parents or guardians failed to naturalize them as children who have been convicted of crimes. We cannot pretend these concerns are unfounded.

We are seeing the beginnings of how organizations transform black and brown children to desirable bodies for adoption. We are seeing how children’s bodies are being disciplined to become acceptable bodies of children of color — potential adoptees, potential kin to white families. These are the same children Americans seek to adopt when they are considered “over there” or not linked to black and brown adults in the United States.

Listen to adoptees, Adoption Studies scholars, and allies who are raising concerns regarding the potential for failed reunifications of separated children and parents. History demonstrates the ways reunification may not occur. And, as Race Forward discovered in their investigative report, immigration and the child welfare system are already intertwined.

White adoptive parents and foster parents of children of color should be compelled to use their privileged voices and speak. See how your child’s immigrant story is aligned with the immigrant experiences of these other children (check out this essay by Ann Branoff). Adoptees should not be exceptional immigrants, but yet we are. Advocate for racial justice and immigrant rights, especially those who have children experiencing racism and microaggressions within their own extended families. Call out people for their hypocrisy in accepting internationally adopted children, but not the persons who could be your child’s parents, siblings, or extended family.

Do not be fooled by adoptees’ current status as exceptions. We are not exceptions, not when we see naturalized citizens not having the ability to think their citizenship is permanent. To look away and think, “Well my child would not have this happen to them,” at some point we might be in a situation where adoptees are vulnerable, then what will you do? Will you have the audacity to wonder why people don’t care because it’s finally happening to your family? Stand in solidarity now.

P.S. Can we also stop pretending the United States had nothing to do with the conditions fueling migration from Central America?

Please note an earlier version of this essay appeared on Lost Daughters.

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