The digital age has transformed how we do so many things —communicate with friends and family, gather information and get the news, decide what to buy and where to buy it, plan vacations, apply for jobs, and choose colleges for our children—that it’s not surprising that the process of adoption, most particularly that of children from other countries, has changed as well.  

 I ask journalist Kathryn Joyce, whose book The Child Catchers investigates the impact of the Evangelical adoption movement, about the role of the Internet plays in adoption and she tells me that “most adoptions are now facilitated at least in part online.  Online, prospective adoptive parents research agencies and countries, view pictures of children (who may or may not actually be available for adoption) and organize and discuss issues with other adoptive parents.”  She notes too that online activities include the organizing done by birth parents and adoptees, along with the many forums where discussions range from information on the rules governing adoption in different countries, exchanges of personal experiences, and soliciting of parenting advice.  

I also turn to novelist and writer Jacquelyn Mitchard to get a personal sense of the process.  She is the mother of nine (it’s her brood pictured on the blog), two of whom were adopted from Ethiopia four years ago.  Her daughters Merit (born Wutyte), now 15, and Marta, now 9, are blood sisters; they aren’t “orphans” since their mother is still alive, though stricken with AIDS and unable to care for them.   In Mitchard’s case, it was a photograph sent to her by acquaintance and fellow writer Joyce Maynard that began the journey.  Maynard was adopting two girls herself and shared a photograph; pictured in it were also a beautiful eleven-year-old and a smiling five-year-old.  Knowing that older children are far less likely to be adopted, Mitchard asked what would become of her. This is what she tells me: “I learned that when she was an older teenager, she’d have to leave the orphanage and support her little sister as a prostitute.  She would not live long, perhaps to her early twenties, since in many parts of Ethiopia, the so-called ‘AIDS cure’ is having sex with a virgin.  I didn’t want any more children but I looked into Merit’s eyes and said, ‘Not that one.’”

Mitchard’s story warms the heart, but at the same time, it wasn’t a fairy tale.  Her story illuminates the backdrop to international adoption, its pitfalls, and, indeed, why people turn to “re-homing” through the Internet. 

This is what she writes me: “While the little one, just turning five, was a bouncy little bunny anyone would love, and adapted easily, fluent within two months, Merit was enraged, and gave me a run for my money. As soon as she learned the words she said, ‘I am not your honey! I have had a mother!’   A couple of years ago, on a scalding hot day, I told her she had to go sit on the bench in the shade until she could act civil. I thought she'd come right back in. But she got on the trampoline and sat there for SIX HOURS (fortunately, it rained and the weather cooled off) while the other kids yelled from the windows, ‘For heaven's sake, Merit, give it up!’ I kept falling asleep and getting up and falling asleep and once, when I woke up, she was standing next to my bed. Soaking wet, she said, ‘Okay. I will take you for my mother.’  Then she climbed in bed with me and started to cry, and I never heard anyone cry like that. I thought she would injure herself inside. She literally keened with pain. And I won't say we've never fought after that (we've had some dillies) but I know Merit loves me, and I know how torn she is, and all I can say to her is what I said that night. ‘I'll walk this road with you and I will never, not ever, not ever, leave your side.’”

 But not every confrontation with an adopted child has this ending.  The darker side to adoption, fueled by the Internet, was reported by Reuters in a series called “The Child Exchange,” published in September; digital life has facilitated what has become known as  the “re-homing” of adopted children.   The word “re-homing” —deliberately benign and borrowed from the world of pet adoption to describe the return of an adopted animal to the shelter and its placement in another home— is itself offensive since children aren’t dogs, cats, or rabbits (and I say that as a devoted animal lover).  It’s a euphemism for what is actually called the “disruption” of an adoption.  

Look up the word “disruption” in a dictionary and you’ll see why the euphemism makes people more comfortable;  “disrupt” means to break apart, to throw into disorder, or to interrupt the normal course of an event or process.  According to the Reuters report —and this part shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, really— “re-homing” through the Internet can be a gateway to child trafficking, prostitution, child abuse, as well as delivering children into the hands of sexual predators.  Children were literally handed off to strangers with no follow-up, and it’s sobering to realize that animal shelters will not do that when they “re-home.”  It’s worth saying that, as with all human interactions, there were people with good intentions and people with bad ones.  In the absence of organized support for adoptions that were failing, many people got involved with “re-homing” thinking that they were simply doing a good deed, by matching unwanted children with parents who wanted them.   But what is it about the digital age that makes anyone think that it’s okay to advertise a child, the way you might a couch or a room for rent on Craigslist?   It is stomach-turning to read the descriptions revealed in the Reuters report.  What permits the suspension of morals, not to mention the worst-case scenario?  Is it that we’ve all gotten so used to posting or the ease of it?  Or is it the profound shame associated with the failure of an adoption, given that our culture believes that a mother’s love should be unconditional and that nurturing is instinctual?

Judgments aide, the truth is that after children are adopted internationally, parents are on their own.  There is much room for misrepresentation, if not falsehood, on both sides.  Many adoptive parents find that the health, especially the emotional well-being of the child, has been understated or lied about; they might not understand the complexity of the undertaking or the terrific cultural adjustment a child has to make.  Because they believe that they are performing a good deed, they may have unreasonable expectations about how “grateful” a child will be.  They may be overly optimistic, imagining the child blending immediately into family life.  On the other side, both the birth parents and/or the adoptee don’t always grasp the permanence of the adoption and, often, the decision to permit a child to be adopted is made in extremis.  While some of these children are orphans, many are not; they have been given up because a parent is ill or dying, can no longer feed or care for them, or are in danger of starving.  These children suffer grievous losses before arriving here.

 After the report was issued, many of the sites advertising children for re-homing (roughly a child a week) were shut down but nothing prevents these sites from re-naming themselves or setting up as closed groups.  Megan Twohey, the writer of the Reuters report, used statistics on disrupted or failed adoptions to estimate that 24,000 children were no longer with the parents who originally adopted them.  What is particularly striking is the desperation of parents who spoke to Twohey about their failed adoptions; one recounts how she did everything she could: “Time-outs, lots of counseling, social workers, you know…I tried to get help everywhere.  Once you sign them papers and they’re yours, it’s your problem.  And that’s kind of what happened.  And so then when I started talking that I couldn’t care for him anymore, I couldn’t do it anymore, well, there was nobody to turn to…. He was my son.  I wanted help for him.  I didn’t want to just, like, turn him away… It was so horrible with him here that I was desperate.”  But reading another woman’s words are beyond chilling: “ I’d have given her away to a serial killer. I was so desperate.” 

Disruption is a fact of adoption, whether it’s international or not.  Kathryn Joyce tells me that “ Studies say that about 10%-25% of adoptions disrupt, varying by the children’s age, as children adopted at older ages are more likely to be disrupted.”  The real problem is that with international adoption, there is no support system to help parents; “re-homing” through the Internet was, for the most part, born out of desperation.  A story I hear from a woman who fostered a Russian child for a summer without the promise of moving to adoption adds detail to what might happen: “The summer with Alma almost did me in.  I almost had a nervous breakdown. I slept with one eye open, worried she would harm my own child of whom she was very envious. Alma would swing both ways; overt extreme attachment; "I love you," one minute, as she would wrap her body around mine; and extreme rage and violence the next. She would lie about everything. Now, mind you, I had studied Reactive Affective Disorder for weeks and weeks before this happened, to be forearmed. Impossible…I knew, once she began harming my child, physically, turning the garden hose on herself and blaming it on my child, well, it was not going to work out. Since we had never brought up the idea of her coming to be our child, permanently, we thought no harm could be done to her, emotionally.” 

The problem is that “re-homing” only flits into our collective consciousness now and again when, as in 2010, an adoptive mother put her seven-year-old son on a plane back to Russia by himself, the issue of the Reuters’ report, or when someone in the public eye admits to having “re-homed” her adoptive children.  That was the case when writer Joyce Mayard, who’d written about her adoption in More magazine, publicly admitted to the failure of her adoption and her “re-homing” of her children in 2012.  I am quoting from her own blog post of April 4, 2012: “I will not speak here of all that transpired between that happy, hopeful day I first brought the girls home to where I sit now, writing this.  I will simply say here that though there was no shortage of love or care—and despite some very happy and good time—the adoption failed. I have never in my life tried harder to make something work than I did, to make a good home for the girls.  I was not able to give them what they needed.  It was first suggested to me by a therapist, over a year ago, that sometimes, despite the best efforts of everyone, an adoption fails.  When this happens, the best thing to do can be to find a really good home where the children you love can move forward….  In the end, what I told the girls—a year ago this past January—-was this:  I made a promise, when I went to Ethiopia to bring them home, that I would make sure they had a good life in America.  I still took my promise as a firm commitment. But part of honoring it meant finding them two parents-—a family with other children, and a big, wide net of a support system that I could not give them, myself. Of the people in our lives who found this news unacceptable--and there were many, and some were good friends-—two people who did understand better than you might suppose were the girls who, for fourteen months, I called my daughters.”

 It’s important to recognize that Maynard knew the family she placed her daughters with —which is not the case with Internet re-homing. 

 It’s clear that re-homing is an issue that must and should be addressed.  As Jackie Mitchard writes me: “I know how desperate Joyce Maynard and others must have felt.  Nothing is more disheartening and frightening to feel you have no choices, and that you are locked in a relationship with a child who can’t love you or you feel you can't love. Whatever the reason. That's why adoptive families need so much support.”  Something else Mitchard says reminds me once again of the chokehold the myths of motherhood have on our thinking when she writes that more traditional families need support as well: “Giving birth to a child and being unable to bond with that child, because of any number of variables, has led to some awful tragedies and losses.   Finally, we're taking postpartum depression seriously, as a real threat to the health and well-being of families. An adoption that's going down the tubes probably prompts the same kind of pain and shame and no one should have to go through that alone.”

 On October 30th, Representative Jim Langevin introduced a bill, the Protecting Adopted Children Act, that would effectively put an end to Internet re-homing and establish support systems for parents and children.  I believe it’s a bill all of us should get behind. 

The re-homing sites are dark places in the digital world that need to be scratched off the map.

Copyright© Peg Streep

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Kathryn Joyce, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption (New York: Public Affairs, 2013.)

Visit Jackie Mitchard on Facebook:

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