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Separating Children of Immigrants and Unethical Adoptions

Can we stop the current crisis from mirroring past practices of forced adoption?

Increasing evidence leads me to conclude that children separated from their parents at the border were destined for adoption:

  • No plans were formulated for how to reunite families.
  • When they were separated, a parent and child were given different identification numbers with no record kept of their relationship.
  • No plans have been developed to reunite children with parents who have been deported back to their home country.
  • I heard one report of a woman detained at the border and separated from her son who was told that he would be adopted. There are probably more such reports.
  • Separated children were turned over to Health and Human Services (while their parents were still under ICE) who then sent them all over the country to agencies under contract to put them into group homes or into foster care. This could be defended as more humane than the cages we saw on television, but it makes it harder to reunite families. Moreover, the contracts were often with evangelical Christian adoption organizations with questionable histories.
  • One example is a contract with Bethany Christian Services, the largest U.S. adoption agency with offices in 36 states, and with a number of ties with the extended family of Betsy DeVos, the Secretary of eEducation. Bethany specializes in international adoption, but has been accused of coercing U.S. parents into giving up babies for adoption and of discriminating against LGBTQ couples.

Kathryn Joyce in The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption (2013) documents how Bethany and other Christian adoption agencies appeal to evangelicals with a depiction of an international “orphan crisis.” However, most so-called orphans have parents and families, ones who are often so poor that they put their children temporarily in an orphanage to get them food while the parents and extended family try to improve their economic position.

Evangelicals see adoption as an answer to abortion and as a way to create more Christians, but the families who adopt–often from a number of different countries even when they have many biological children–are often unprepared for the complications of trans-racial adoption and many adoptions fail.

For agencies like Bethany, foreign adoption is also a big business generating large fees from adoptive families. Now they have a new population and a new client, the U.S. government, which is reported to pay Bethany $700 a day for each child they hold or place in foster care.

This is not the first time that the government and religious organizations have used humanitarian appeals to separate parents from their children. One example, from the 1950s, was the government forcing Native-American children on reservations into boarding schools, from which many children were adopted by white families.

This time, a nationwide protest movement forced Trump to cancel the family separation policy and led a judge to set deadlines for the government to return the 3,000 children separated at the border since May. We need to continue the protests to ensure that this happens.

The best depictions of the impact on children of forced separation followed by adoption are in two novels published in 2017–The Leavers by Lisa Ko and Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. Both are based on real events and have been on the bestseller list. They may have indirectly fueled the protest against current government policy.

The Leavers tells the story of an undocumented immigrant woman from China raising a son conceived in China and born here. She lives with another single mother in New York City, where, when her son is eleven, she suddenly disappears. The son finds out only years later that she was picked up by the immigration service, jailed for over a year and then deported without any notification to the family. The son is adopted by a well-meaning, but clueless couple in upstate New York with a negative psychological impact on him even after his adult reunion with his mother.

Before We Were Yours presents an even more devastating account of the impact of forced removal of children from parents and of unethical adoption practices. The novel is based on historical records of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis when it was run by the tyrannical Georgia Tann in the 1930s and 1940s.

Lisa Wingate creates a fictionalized account of five poor white siblings from ages one to 12 who are picked up from their shanty boat house on the Mississippi River one day when they were left alone while their father took their mother to the hospital. On the river, they lived a carefree life with young and poor, but loving and involved, parents. At the orphanage, the children and their parents searching for them were lied to and the parents were tricked into signing a release form. The treatment of children at the Tennessee Home Society–strict rules and little affection–parallel some of the description of how children are being treated in detention centers.

One report said that a brother and sister were forbidden to hug each other. In Tennessee, the children suffered abuse, including rape, and one of them dies. Gradually, the surviving children are provided with false histories and they are “sold” separately to rich white couples from all over the country. Their trauma reverberates into the next generation. Will this happen to detained children today?

In an afterward to the novel, Wingate writes: "Babies and children, no matter what corner of the world they hail from, are not commodities or objects or blank slates, as Georgia Tann, so often represented her work. They are human beings with histories and needs and hopes and dreams of their own." These are prophetic words completely apply to today’s children separated at the border.

These three books give the dark side of adoption. They do not portray the whole story. Adoption policy has gone through many changes in the last twenty years. At it’s best, adoption provides children a home and nurturance when their biological parents and extended biological families are not able to care for them. Adoption gives adults who want to parent, children to raise. Now 95% percent of all domestic adoptions are open with the possibility of continued contact between birth and adoptive parents. At its best, this can lead to new forms of extended family, combining biological and adoptive kin, sometimes crossing race and class boundaries, a topic I will address in future blogs.

For now, I will remind all of us in the adoption community that we have had experience with the impact of separating children from their birth parents. We have a special responsibility to protest the treatment of children in the current crisis.