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International Adoption and Disaster Relief

AN Oct 2010

In conjunction with the October print issue of Anthropology News on disaster relief and recovery, today we feature a post by Erin Raffety on international adoption and disaster relief. Comments are welcome.


‘Out of the Mouths of Babes:’ Children, International Adoption and Disaster Relief

By Erin Raffety (Princeton U)

International adoption, a practice that arose as a temporary form of disaster relief, has sprawled into a global institution that arguably breeds disasters of its own and sustains inequalities. Just when it seemed the dust was settling following the January quakes that crippled the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, this August media reports surfaced profiling the ramifications of the Obama administration’s emergency baby lifts.

Under the humanitarian parole program, which suspends visa requirements in times of emergency, since January around 1,150 Haitian orphans immigrated to the US. Not surprisingly, because these adoptions were arranged with alarming speed, there were failures to check whether children were in significant danger, whether they were legitimate orphans, or even whether their proposed adoptive parents were fully committed to their care.

Not only have these failures left Haitian children in US foster care limbo, and unnecessarily displaced others never actually in harm’s way, but they hint at ways in which good intentions are often undermined by the cultural and structural variability of adoptions and orphanages in different countries and communities. While lawyers, adoptive parents, and governments have called for systemic reform to international adoption, what role (if any) should anthropologists play in such disaster prevention and rehabilitation?

Laura Briggs and Dianna Marre (International Adoption: Global Inequalities and the Circulation of Children 2009) have suggested that the unilateral directions of the baby trade (east to west and north to south), which began in the US with Christian charity for Korean War orphans, signify the powerful demand for children that fuels the supply in countries plagued by political or natural disasters, such as Korea, Vietnam, Romania, Guatemala, Ethiopia, China and most recently, Haiti. Faye Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp (Conceiving the New World Order) note that the politics of global reproduction are today stratified: third world women who can neither afford to keep children nor confront political pressures, provide the children first world women desire. Recently, Sara Dorow’s multi-sited sociological account of US-China adoptions (Transnational Adoption) and law professor Michele Bratcher Goodwin’s edited collection, Baby Markets, explicitly analyze international adoption’s participation in politics of power.

Such large-scale critiques are both important and valuable. However, they do little to contextualize how local kinship practices conflict or intersect with global systems of power, like international adoption. Not unlike some of the Peruvian families in Jessaca B Leinaweaver’s recent ethnography, Haitian families often use child lending and orphanages as temporary forms of child welfare and poverty assistance. In fact, there are accounts from the recent Haitian crisis, as well as Barbara Yngvesson’s work with Swedish adoptees from Ethiopia, of parents who understood adoption to be a temporary means of securing a Western education for their children, and who, upon its completion, would be returned to their country of origin and their families.

These cultural misunderstandings tend to only surface when they disrupt the adoption process. A few years ago allegations of child trafficking put the lid on international adoptions from Guatemala; this year US adoptions from Russia were suspended when a Tennessee mother put her seven year-old adoptee on a plane back to Russia because he exhibited psychological problems. While these are high profile cases that incite media fire and ignite emotions, they also reveal the fine line between child trafficking and child lending, between Haitian restaveks and child labor, between lives of abuse and lives that merely reflect the harsh reality of life in a politically-ravaged or a poverty-stricken country.

The prominent format of international adoption today involves a clean break and limited contact with the former family and relatives. It is uniquely Western and rare compared with the wide-ranging practices of kin fostering, child lending and open adoption that are common in much of the rest of the world. Leinaweaver, among others, helpfully points out that the Western idea of children as individuals with rights and privileges may be entirely foreign to the communities from which they come.

As articles from a 2008 issue of Anthropology News document, anthropologists have been outspoken regarding the gap between the widely held ideal of universal children’s rights and the notion that childhood is a culturally-constructed reality in which children play an active role. While Marisa O Ensor notes that the context of disaster presents significant challenges to doing participatory research with children, she advocates for such approaches because they are “more likely to effectively fulfill the needs and protect the rights of the disadvantaged and the disempowered.”

Likewise, what is notably absent in anthropologists’ current approach to studying international adoption today are children themselves. In other words, the aforementioned critiques of international adoption’s systemic inequalities frequently subordinate children and children’s perspectives to politics. Anthropologists who claim today to be refiguring kinship through the study of international adoption tend to scrutinize transnationalism and fail to represent the dynamic relationships of kinship and culture that children construct and inhabit. Yngvesson and Leinaweaver, who helpfully detail the ways in which international adoption misinterprets local kinship culture, tend to rely on teenage and adult memories of childhood, rather than children’s testimony and experience.

Hence, what seems to be missing from the debates about international adoption today is precisely the kind of contextual, cultural knowledge anthropology is known for, which could give life to children’s experiences, voices, dependencies, kinship cultures, and family systems. Whereas anyone can claim the “best interests of children” today, far fewer can claim to have spoken with them, to have lived alongside them, and attest to anything resembling their kinship and culture. It is time for anthropology to claim such knowledge, and in so doing, perhaps, prevent and provide disaster relief to those who need it most.

Erin Raffety is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Princeton University. Her research considers the intersection between traditional practices of Chinese kinship and fostering with modern, global processes of international adoption. Her fieldwork studies Chinese foster families Nanning, Guangxi Autonomous region. Additional research interests include the anthropology of childhood, socialism and post-socialism, and the state and reproduction.

2 Responses

  1. […] Posted: October 9, 2010 by erraffety in anthropology, justice, politics 0 My article, “ ‘Out of the Mouths of Babes:’ Children, International Adoption, and Disaster Relief,&#8…just posted on the American Anthropological Association Blog in conjunction with the October print […]

  2. Thank you for a great article. The hasty manner in which some adoptions were orchestrated in Haiti following the earthquake was indeed disturbing. Reunification also takes time but if it were our country and our disaster, we would be expecting no less–something that speaks directly to the inequality you raise. I hope more research into this area does come from the field of anthropology and I hope more adoptees’ voices are heard too.

    Thank you as well for referring me to the Sara Dorow book too–I hadn’t heard ot it but I will look into it.

    – Adoptive mom from China

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