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Wednesday, December 18th, 2013
Horrific child-abuse cases make headlines, and we are thankful that those children were saved from the horrors in which they lived and will hopefully get set up for a brighter future. But not all cases of abuse or neglect are so clear cut. Of course, when authorities suspect a child is in danger, they must remove her from her home while the situation is assessed and sorted out. But what happens next? Should a child be returned to her parents? Or should she be kept in temporary foster homes until her parents can be trusted to resume custody safely? And when is it appropriate to take that ultimate step of severing permanently the ties between a child and his parents and having him adopted by new parents?
A recent article in the New Yorker highlighted some of the difficult issues facing social workers, judges, and others who must make these life-or-death decisions. Rachel Aviv, the article’s author, also raises serious questions about some of the assumptions under which this system operates. “What’s best for the child” is, of course, the goal and the argument both sides invoke in these disputes. But what is truly best for the child is not always clear.
Aviv traces the historical shifts in how child-welfare experts have approached this issue: Originally, the goal was to keep families together in nearly all situations, but over the past 40 years, authorities have put increasing emphasis on moving these children permanently to new homes via adoption. This policy was encouraged through various governmental policies, including the 1997 Adoption and Safe Children’s Act, which sped up the timeline for adoption and gave states financial incentives to boost the rates at which children were adopted from foster care.
However, more recently, researchers have been examining the trauma that many children endure when they are removed from their homes permanently and the potential negative effects of foster care. Some experts are questioning the dominant thinking, calling for permanent removal—adoption–to be used only in extreme and rare situations. Aviv reports:
Sacha Coupet, a professor of law at Loyola University Chicago, who used to work as a guardian ad litem and as a psychologist, worries that the Adoption and Safe Children’s Act, by promoting “adoption as the normative ideal,” has made it easier to avoid “dealing with the enormously complex root causes of child neglect and abuse,” which may have little to do with parenting skills. “There’s this very American notion that mothers should be self-reliant, capable of taking care of their kids without any support, when that’s just not the world we live in,” she said. She finds that child-welfare agencies often “rush to get to the end of the story,” creating a middle-class fairy tale: “a poor kid is rescued by the state, given a new mom and dad, and the slate is wiped clean.”
Martin Guggenheim, a professor at New York University of Law, who represented children in court for more than a decade, believes that before long we will look back at the policy of “banishing children from their birth families” as a tragic social experiment.
By delving into a single, powerful case study, Aviv illustrates many of the thorny issues and deeply problematic assumptions under which the system currently operates and gives credence to those, like Coupet and Guggenheim, calling for a new approach.
This argument is not in any way to defend abusive parents at the expense of their innocent children, who we must continue to protect with every weapon at our disposal; the effects–physical and psychological–of severe or chronic abuse or neglect are dramatic and horrific and can last a lifetime. But for the many kids removed from their parents’ homes that are not victims of abuse like this, that nagging question of what is best for the child might not be as clear-cut as the reigning system has made it seem. (more…)
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Friday, November 22nd, 2013
November is National Adoption Month, and this Saturday (November 23) is National Adoption Day. My colleague Lisa Milbrand, who adopted two children from China, recently wrote about her mixed feelings on “Gotcha Day,” when parents celebrate the day they adopted their child.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Harry Potter illustrator Mary GrandPré. She shared her experience adopting her daughter, Julia, from China seven years ago. Read the excerpt from the interview below.
Q: I watched an ArtOrg video from 2005 where you mentioned your adoption process. Can you speak a little about that experience?
A: I’m an older mom and I’m married to a man who has three adult children, so he was quite a trouper to want to go through this again, and I owe him, big-time. It was an amazing experience. I had always wanted to adopt a girl from China, and after we had lived in Florida for a couple of years, we went to China and we were matched with a baby girl. The process in China [means] … you don’t know who you are going to get. I’m not sure how they match, but they did an amazing job; it was like they picked the right girl for us. We had to wait about a week, [but] we were in China for two weeks. So we were doing all this touring and we were seeing the most amazing things, but all I could think about was having a baby, getting the baby, getting my girl. I couldn’t even concentrate. It was like I was in labor.
Even though she has grown brothers and sisters, Julia’s basically an only child. I never knew that having a child could be so life-changing and so wonderful. There are a lot of issues that come up with her birth parents [that] we’ve talked about it. A lot of people that adopt from China talk about it like [the child was] abandoned, [but] we don’t want to bring that up in our house and we don’t talk about it in that way because we don’t believe that she was abandoned. We talk to her about the one-child rule in China and how her parents didn’t have a choice. We want her to understand where she came from and why that situation was part of her life, and that her birth parents undoubtedly loved her because they put her in a place to be found.
We honor her birth parents. We honor her mother on Mother’s Day and we honor her father on Father’s Day, and we make cookies and we put them in a special mailbox in the backyard. We talk about it as much as she wants to, and we watch [what we call] the “Gotcha Day” video every “Gotcha Day.” [That’s the] the day we got her [when she was almost 2]. She was screaming her head off and didn’t want anything to do with us, but she thinks it’s quite funny now. I think she viewed me as threat because she was connected to her nanny quite a bit. By the time we got back home and the big dogs greeted us at the door, she was on me and she liked me. So from then on it was fine.
We’re going back to China in a couple of years, and Julia is very excited. She’s very proud of her heritage and she has dual citizenship.
Read the full interview with Mary GrandPré and children’s book author Jennifer Dewing.
Image: Crocheted booties for a girl via Shutterstock
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Tuesday, November 19th, 2013
It’s a debate that’s raged on for more than a decade in the adoptive community: Should you celebrate the day when your child came to you—and what should you call that day? And as part of their National Adoption Month coverage, the Today Show decided to step into the fray and cover the drama on a segment all about the most controversial thing to call it: Gotcha Day.
To those who love the name, it speaks of the joyfulness of the adoptive parents over finally getting to hug the child they’ve been hoping to hold for years. And that the children finally get the family that they’ve been missing.
But its opponents have some pretty strong arguments against it. “Gotcha Day” tends to be pretty parent-centric, and ignores the fact that children may not have all rosy feelings about that particular day. It can remind them of how much they lost—their first families, their cultures and everything they knew, from their caretakers to the familiar sights and smells of their foster home or orphanage.
“Gotcha Day” can be pretty traumatic for kids. Most international adoptions happen fast once you’ve completed the mountain of paperwork and have finally gotten clearance to go meet your child. The kids are often handed over to their new parents swiftly with a quick run-through of care and feeding instructions. And if you’ve ever seen a baby unceremoniously dumped into the arms of a stranger, you know just how badly they react to it. I actually have a hard time watching the video footage of our daughters’ first days with our family, as I can see now what I missed back then. I used to see my oldest daughter drinking her first bottle with us. Now I see that her fists are clenched near her ears, and her eyes are darting every which way, fearful. (It’s no wonder that she developed a nasty stomach bug about 24 hours after we became her parents—her entire system was clearly shut down.) My easygoing youngest looks a little more comfortable, at least with her dad and me, but her brand-new big sister clearly seemed sketchy.
I’m not a big fan of “Gotcha Day.” And it’s not just the editor in me, who cringes at the incorrect “gotcha.” I prefer Family Day. It’s not a big celebration in our family. We acknowledge the days we met our daughters, a week and two years apart. And we split the difference in between, and have a day when we eat Chinese food and give our girls the gifts we bought them during our travels in China—jade necklaces and porcelain dolls.
And besides, we don’t need a special day. I know just how lucky we were to be entrusted with these two awesome kids, to get to watch them grow into two amazing young ladies, to get the chance to kiss them good night every night—to get to be their parents. I feel like we celebrate that every single day.
Image: Adoption terms by Kheng Guan Toh/Shutterstock.com
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Wednesday, October 9th, 2013
I’m sure you haven’t heard anyone say this before, but I love fall. What’s there not to like? The leaves are turning, the holidays are quickly approaching, and literally everything is pumpkin flavored. Before you know it, all the little ones will be dressing up like Pilgrims and Indians to celebrate Thanksgiving (the best holiday of the year in my opinion) at school parties and learn about the feast that started it all.
It’s around this time every year that I start to appreciate my crazy last name again (it’s Native American for “big horse”) and my heritage (I’m a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation). My dad’s side of the family has always been involved in our culture, and my grandpa only recently retired from being the treasurer of the Otoe Missouria tribe. I’m very proud of where I come from and our customs, so it saddens me to think about the negative light that’s recently been cast on the Cherokee tribe in regards to the Baby Veronica adoption case.
If you’re unfamiliar, Baby Veronica was adopted at birth by a non-Indian family, the Copabiancos, chosen by the birth mother who at that point was separated from the birth father, Dusten Brown. Brown, a member of the Cherokee tribe, signed away his parental rights shortly after she was born but claims he did not know the birth mother was considering adoption for the child. In 2011, after Veronica had lived with the Copabiancos for 2 and a half years, Brown took custody of her under the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, which states that a family or tribal member should have the opportunity to adopt the child before opening the adoption to others.
My dad is an attorney and for many years has worked on adoption cases of Indian babies under the ICWA, so I’ve grown up familiar with this process and the law’s intentions of tribal preservation. Native families have been torn apart for centuries, and the ICWA was intended to protect the small population (less than 2% of our nation’s total) that remains by giving the child an opportunity to stay with his or her tribe or another tribe before allowing a non-Indian to adopt them. I know it might seem like the Cherokees uprooted a little girl from a loving home, but like the Copabiancos, the tribe also had the child’s best interest in mind by wanting to keep her with the family she already had.
There’s no doubt Veronica’s case is a sticky situation, and I can easily sympathize with both sides. It’s unimaginable to have your birth child taken away from you when you’re a willing and able parent, and it’s just as unimaginable to be adoptive parents of a little girl for two years and have her removed, too. It’s a very sensitive and controversial topic and one that no one can truly understand unless personally involved in this particular case.
Although many Indians are devastated by the Supreme Court decision to return the child to the Copabiancos, I think what’s most important is that Veronica is in the care of loving parents, regardless of their race. The fact that she has a birth mother and father, adoptive parents, and an entire tribe who want the best for her is something to be thankful for this year.
Image: Little girl wearing Indian costume via Shutterstock, waldru.
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Wednesday, September 11th, 2013
For the vast majority of adoptive families, adoption is a way to build a family that lasts forever. And most adoptive families are able to cope with unexpected issues that may crop up, such as developmental or medical issues, or problems that a child may have due to past abuse and institutionalization. But there’s a dirty little secret that few people have been privy to: adoption disruption. It’s like a divorce, except instead of severing ties with your spouse, you’re severing ties with the child that you’ve promised to raise and love.
Why would someone do this? In some cases, it’s because the parents are simply unable to manage their child’s issues, such as parents who go to a foreign country and discover that a child has severe medical or developmental delays that weren’t disclosed. Or parents who struggled for years with their child’s issues and were forced to lock up knives, provide 24/7 surveillance, and use alarms to ensure that their child doesn’t harm himself or anyone else in the family. In other cases—well, there have been stories of parents who give up after only a few days because they feel the child simply doesn’t gel with their family, or because they thought their child’s “feet were too big and ears looked funny.”
But the scariest part is that this severing of adoption ties is unregulated—as a harrowing adoption disruption series presented by Reuters has detailed. Some adoption agencies will try to help their former clients find a new family for a child. Other adoptive parents end up relinquishing rights to their child and putting him or her in the care of the state, and may pay child support for their child until a new family is found or the child turns 18. Laws require that government authorities get involved if you want to transfer custody of a child across state lines, but there’s no formal regulation of it—and so many people simply bypass the paperwork, background checks, and scrutiny that usually surround adoption—the things that would turn up issues like someone’s sexual offender status, past child neglect, and other red flags signalling that the potential parents aren’t fit to be parents. And as Reuters discovered, there are message boards and websites for people looking to find a new family to “re-home” their unwanted children—and where those who are looking for “free kids,” as one board frequenter put it, can exchange a few emails and make arrangements to bring a child home. Yahoo! has already closed down some of them, but others still operate, allowing families to post information about children’s problems—and even photographs and names—and seek out someone who will take them.
While some of those willing to adopt a child after a disruption are certainly well equipped and wonderful parents, the lack of oversight enables anyone to “adopt” in this way, with a simple notarized letter handing over guardianship—no lawyers, government authorities, or social workers involved. That is how a convicted child pornographer was able to become guardian to one boy for several months, and how another woman who had her biological children removed from her care due to concerns of neglect and abuse was able to bring more children to her home.
It’s clear that something needs to be done to provide better oversight and regulation of adoptions within the country—to allow an “out” for families who are truly unable to parent the children they’ve brought home but to prevent these children from falling through the cracks and into darker and more dangerous situations. Some states have rules that only allow licensed agencies to offer a child for adoption; the Interstate Compact on the Placement of the Children, the law that requires getting the authorities involved when a child’s custody is transferred across state lines, needs more teeth to help ensure that children are placed with qualified families. And the additional adoption education that is now required for parents interested in adopting internationally or through foster care needs to do even more to help parents understand the potential challenges, and be more prepared to handle what comes after they meet their child.
Re-homing needs to be done with the child’s best interest in mind—and with plenty of information and support to help more children stay with the family who adopted them in the first place, or make the next home their “forever” place.
Image: Adoption Exit Sign by JJ Studio/ Shutterstock.com
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