I made some observations on my “About” page, some years ago, about the relationship between the practice of adoption and the way in which many Americans view the rest of the world. In recent days, that relationship has become quite obvious in the media coverage that has followed the earthquake in Haiti, and the subsequent actions by organizations, politicians, and prospective adopters in this country.

baltimore-sun-website-201001221610Unlike the self-described “bastards” I know, love, and work with, my personal interest in these matters is a little different, as I have no direct personal involvement with adoption beyond the fact that I live with a “bastard.” For me the subject connects with my interests in understanding how people handle information. Having had a tiny hand in popularizing the Internet years ago, how has the ‘net, and the concurrent growth of 24-hour television news, improved, or warped, how people view the world around them? Of course, one of the primary interests of “Bastards” – obtaining unaltered birth certificates that disclose historical facts of their origins – is likewise tightly connected with this issue of how people handle, or mishandle, or can’t handle, information, or construct elaborate structures of misinformation. Recent events are more about the global than the personal, but still these realms overlap, or oscillate from second to second, from the international to the individual.

I summed it up in a recent one-liner: “A city of millions of people leveled, and what’s on ABC tonight? ‘Is the baby I ordered still on its way?’” I was referring to a multi-night series of stories on Nightline, a program that’s been completely worthless ever since Ted Koppel retired. Days later, the habit continues, as with the Baltimore Sun website pictured. It’s all adopters, all the time. From the looks of it you’d think there have regularly been thousands of adoptions out of Haiti every year, and this vital flow was in danger of being interrupted.

Facts are, that’s not the case. There it is, on the U.S. State Department’s website: “The Total Adoptions from HAITI from 1998 to 2009 is: 2712.”  Twelve years, averaging two hundred twenty six every year. That is all.

Throw “haiti adoption” into Google News right now, how many hits do you get? “About 6,102.” That’s not counting the ads for international adoption and adoption agencies that will also show up on the search results. “Adopt from China, Russia, Haiti, Guatemala, and more!”

It doesn’t help that elected officials here in the U.S. don’t seem to have more important things to do with their time, and hop on the adoption bandwagon while it’s in the media spotlight. Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, his Federal judge wife, and U.S. representative Jason Altmire fly to Haiti on a chartered plane to transport over fifty children from an orphanage run by two Pittsburgh suburbanites. It doesn’t matter that the Haitian government hadn’t signed off on letting 26 of those children out of the country. Two American women pitch a hissy fit, Rendell and Altmire work the White House to pressure what’s left of the Haitian government, and the next thing you know all 54 children are on a U.S. military plane.

When those children got to Pittsburgh – transported on the pretense that they were “already in the pipeline for adoption” – the truth comes out: seven of them hadn’t even been matched with adoptive parents. They ended up in a faith-based residential treatment center that had only 24 hours to prepare for their arrival.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of needy kids here in America, and in Pennsylvania. Eventually, that fact merits a small mention, here in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

But social service providers – and the Rendell administration – have a message for the families willing to open their homes and hearts: Don’t forget the 3,000 Pennsylvania children waiting for permanent homes.

“While the plight of the Haitian orphans has attracted much attention, it is important to recognize the many other children for whom we are always working to find a supportive family and safe home environment,” said Harriet Dichter, acting secretary of the state Department of Public Welfare.

Child advocate Cathleen Palm said that when she heard about the rush to adopt the Haitian children, she wished there was a way to assemble all the needy Pennsylvania children in a stadium and have the governor rescue them.

“We want to make sure people aren’t losing sight of the fact that kids are in crisis in Pennsylvania, too,” said Palm.

Why is it, when Pittsburgh has its own share of needy children, many in foster care, that all this attention – and the involvement of state and federal politicians – has been focused on Haitian children, attention that has as its goal, moving large numbers of them out of their country?

Perhaps a small hint of what might actually be going on here comes from this comment I saw go by on Facebook: ”I saw the little boy that Cooper Anderson helped pull from the rubble and he looked good, but you could tell he is still shell-shocked. That’s the one I would take home with me for a while…”

Television provides an illusion of participation, that by simply watching a moving image the viewer feels that they’re somehow involved in events in a far away place. But because merely being a television viewer is unsatisfying in such times, many feel moved to act in some way. The things that an average American can do with respect to such huge tragedies are few; often the only answer is to send money. The popularization of international adoption, even when the practice is overwhelmingly corrupt and may violate human rights, seems to me to fill exactly this void; the impulse to get one’s hands on the children of an earthquake-ravaged country is created by these media portrayals of external calamity interacting with the cultural predisposition that it’s the American national mission to save the rest of the planet.

This self-defined role of planetary savior, that through adoption almost anyone can indulge in, a romantic and ostensibly altruistic myth, is exactly that: role-playing. It exists independent of the actual children and people of Haiti and their realistic needs. It’s the extension of the American exceptionalist myth, expressed through  its military and foreign policy of planetary enforcer and order-keeper (regardless of actual results on the ground after billions of dollars are spent), made accessible to any citizen who’s willing to meet the most basic requirements, and who can afford the fees. It also matches the consumerist mindset, in which by simply acquiring the right things – even your very own “orphan” – your situation, and that of the world, will improve.

The solution for the children of Haiti, created by those who see the world through these lenses, is simplistic, crude and appeals to the acquisitional American who thinks they can buy or trade for anything and by doing so will do no harm, to the point that we now see suggestions like this one: “What if….we could find a plane that had just dropped a load of humanitarian aid and load it up with orphans?” There’s no hiding that the writer of that sentence, a professional promoter of adoption in the Christian context, thinks it’s a fair trade: he drops off  aid, he extracts “orphans” to satisfy the enormous demand he’s been helping to create in his subculture for adoptable children. If the “orphans” don’t actually exist, they would have to be manufactured, through the endless redefinition of the term, “orphan,” which today seldom means what people think it means.

Here again the hiding of information, and the contrast between “orphans” acquired outside the United States, and the reality of children in genuine need who might be available for domestic adoption, becomes clear. The imperative to hide information about the actual origins of children put up for adoption is one of the reasons international adoption exists. With the barriers of distance, international boundaries, and language, the entire history of what happened to these children may disappear, or be made inaccessible. The same goes for their biological parentage.

Couple that need for information hiding to a catastrophic natural disaster, and the resulting chaos and actual elimination of records, the entire history of where these children came from may be destroyed.

Contrast how that history can be hidden or destroyed in this international situation, with the prospect of domestic adoption out of foster care, where past history cannot be eliminated with such ease. This is, I think, why the governor of Pennsylvania isn’t spending the same amount of time and energy doing something for his state’s own needy kids. The facts about those kids’ lives can’t be wiped out with a plane ride, it lives on in files and records and the memories of people who might be neighbors, instead of being physically separated by thousands of miles.

After more than two weeks have passed since the earthquake, two camps have clearly emerged. One is driven by American foreign policy and all its concomitant myths and baggage as I’ve described them. Faced with a bonanza of the newly-opened opportunity to strip-mine Haiti of its children, American politicians are now calling for the State Department to set up a separate office to make sure that absolutely nothing stands in the way between American prospective adopters and Haitian children. Gordon Duguid, a deputy spokesman for the State Department, is quoted as saying, “we will send no child out of Haiti who does not have cleared, vetted and accepted parents waiting for him or her in the U.S.”  Interesting redefinition there of what a “parent” is, equivalent to “adopter,” a redefinition that’s not necessarily shared by the rest of the world. As is to be expected, there’s no mention of how the U.S. will confirm that children arriving in the U.S. from Haiti will be shown to be genuine “orphans” without any parents or family remaining in Haiti, or even relatives here.

All that matters to the State Department is satisfying the needs of prospective adopters, and all the intermediary organizations that stand to benefit by facilitating such a mass migration.

The other camp, of course, is that of UNICEF and other aid agencies that have placed a priority on the reunification of children with their families.

Meanwhile, the government of Haiti has reportedly halted the departure of so-called “orphans” from the country, for among other reasons, concerns that children might be removed from the country while they still have relatives there who could care for them.

As can be expected, the whining of a relatively tiny number of prospective adopters may now be occupying a disproportionate amount of the time of many American politicians. One example of many is this story from Terre Haute, Indiana, where a prospective adoptive family is “on an emotional roller coaster ride.” As usual, such prospective adopters, by whatever means, believe that the child they visited in some far-off country is already theirs, it’s just a matter of finishing the paperwork. Never mentioned is the possibility that the so-called “orphan” they expect to arrive any day now may not, in fact, be an orphan. Inevitably, increased scrutiny of the cases of children about to depart Haiti, on the part of government and aid organizations, will leave some American prospective adopters empty-handed.

It is in these situations where the fallout from the promotion of the mythology of romantic, altruistic, child-saving international adoption by Americans, will at least be a bit more evident. Children in poor, disaster-ravaged nations are reduced to a mere natural resource, who could easily fill that role if they could only be stacked shoulder-to-shoulder in aircraft headed back toward the United States. Their transport here serves to appease those who never question that myth and who often see their actions as heroic. It’s up to those on the ground without such an agenda to challenge that myth, to put forward the idea that adoption is not a solution to poverty, and to work toward the reunification of families separated by disaster.

For more reading:

Baby Love Child

The Daily Bastardette

Haiti Statement by Adoptees of Color Roundtable

Update: This quote was in the “sidebar” of this blog from February through September of 2008. It’s still relevant when considering the efforts of UNICEF in Haiti today.

If justice comes (and I have serious doubts that it will), it will come from the International community and NOT the United States.

- MichiganGirl, February 5, 2008

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