Friday, August 13, 2010

Things I Hate to Admit

Thinking leads to thinking, and in yesterday's post about adoption and social class, I talked about finally getting, for instance, why Barbara Katz Rothmann, whose book on transracial adoption remains one of the best I've read, is so negative about international adoption, and why Harriet at the fugitivus blog can write:

International Adoption Is Fucked-Up

Yes, I know that’s a blanket statement. I’m not going to change it. International adoption is fucked-up.

If you follow that link and scroll down to the section on international adoption, you'll see that she makes a couple of points that make sense, to me at least. One is that there is a lot of money in international adoption, and people's livelihoods depend on successfully completed adoptions. Harriet argues that just because there are babies involved doesn't mean that normal economic forces don't apply; they do. And where there's money involved, there's going to be someone skimming cream or cutting corners. If the equivalent of several years' income is going to come into your community (or your pocket) if you can provide a baby to an American couple, are you necessarily going to wait for that baby to be abandoned or orphaned in the normal course of things? You might not.

That people have not waited for the normal course of events, but have pushed things, is known to have happened: birthmothers have been paid or coerced to give up infants, and many countries lack the kind of legal protection and process we have in the US. Harriet touches on this, that international adopters will sometimes be reassured that their children's placement for adoption was fully legal, without knowing that in the child's country of origin, what is legal may not rise to US standards. For instance, I recently read that in Guatemala, there needs to be only a short report from a social worker and another from a lawyer for a child to be released for adoption; there is no judicial oversight of the process. That the lawyer making the statement is often the same person who gets paid by the adoptive family ought to raise some red flags.

The other point of Harriet's that I want to highlight is that sometimes people do bad things with good intentions. Here she is on the subject:

Let’s continue to give international adoption agencies the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say they uncover something unseemly about the adoption. Perhaps they suspect the child is not an orphan, or was not willingly relinquished by their parents. Maybe the child begins to act out in ways that indicate past sexual abuse. But this adoption is SO CLOSE to going through, and they know that if they tell the potential adoptive parents about this new discovery, the whole thing will get derailed.
And if the whole thing is derailed, this child that the agency worker has such compassion for is going to remain in an orphanage when they could have been in a family. The agency worker has met the potential adoptive parents. Zie feels that they are strong, good, smart people. Zie is sure they will be able to deal with the child’s new issues. And so zie continues the adoption, never mentioning these pesky new issues that have cropped up. Zie is sure they will be worked out. And, really, isn’t it better this way than the alternative, to let the child languish in an orphanage?

This is a hard one for me, and I'll tell you why, although I have not even admitted this to David: Over the course of our custody dispute with the Tiny Tornado's birthfather, a number of things happened that were very troubling to me. Probably, if K. had just disappeared after placing TT, like she was supposed to, and C. had never showed up to pursue custody, none of this would ever have occurred to me. But the custody fight gave me the opportunity to know K. and C. better--at a remove, to be sure, but I know a lot more about them than I would have otherwise, both through depositions and through reports of their behavior in calls to the agency and in court. And I know our agency better, too. This is hard to admit because it implicates us in a process that was less above-board and ethical than I believed it to be. But here are some things I now believe or suspect:

The agency did not counsel us adequately in evaluating the content of K's intake form.

It was read to us neutrally, without commentary, and my questions asking for interpretations were not answered. It was only in the last couple of years, as I did some reading on the behavior of people living in poverty, that I was able to make sense of things like K's assertion that she intended to get a Master's degree, made at a time when she was actively a drug addict. This kind of aspiration without understanding of what is necessary to achieve it or realistic plan to take steps toward it is apparently common; I saw similar things described many times in literature on people trapped in inner-city poverty. But the agency director, who had much more experience dealing with people like K. than I did, made no effort to interpret her statements for us; as a result, I, at least, believed her to be much more functional than she was. I was able to believe (albeit very briefly) that we had that mythical good birthmother who was making a rational decision for the good of her baby, and with her own future well-being in mind. This is, of course, what any adoptive parent wants to believe.

I have come to believe that the agency knew or suspected that K. was lying about not knowing who the birthfather was.

I am not quite ready to believe K.'s assertion that a social worker at the agency counseled her to lie and claim the baby was the result of a one-night stand, but from things the agency director said to me later, and from my now-much-vaster knowledge about adoption, I believe that they must have had suspicions. Even if they didn't have specific reasons to be suspicious of K., they should have better counseled us about how common it is for birthmothers to muddy the truth.

Why would they lie to us, or not share their suspicions? I can see several things that would pressure them in that direction. One is that we had already had one fall-through, and they might have wanted to avoid disappointing us a second time. Another is a more general pressure to complete adoptions in the most timely way possible; one thing adoptive and potential adoptive parents report to each other about the agencies and lawyers they work with is how long the wait was for a baby. Shorter is obviously better in the eyes of adopters--who pay the fees that keep the agency open and the caseworkers' children fed. Which leads to the third, economic, reason the agency might not have wanted to tell us anything that would make us hesitant to accept the placement: we paid the second half of our fee when the baby was placed with us.

I'm not sure why I don't (yet) believe that K. was telling the truth about the social worker pressuring her to say that the father was a one-night stand. It would be in the interest of the agency to have her do that, certainly: adoptive parents are going to be much less worried about the no-name one-night stand than the estranged former live-in boyfriend who is not willing to sign off on the adoption. And, given the stereotype that Black teenage fathers are not interested in being parents, the risk of lying--or of not admitting suspicions--would have seemed very low. My lawyer told me once that contested adoptions are so rare that many adoption lawyers practice their whole career without being involved in one; what were the odds C. was going to actually pursue parental rights?

The agency's response to K's assertion that her caseworker told her to lie about the birthfather was that we shouldn't worry about it because nobody would believe her over the caseworker. (This was also my lawyer's response.) In some ways, this was probably simply a reflection of reality: yes, had K. ever ended up on a witness stand, she would not have been seen as a credible witness. She was indeed a drug addict, and prone to violent outbursts, and statements she made at different times contradicted each other. But, given other doubts I've begun to have, I could also see the caseworker relying on knowing that K. would be disbelieved. I'll never know, of course. But I will never again be sure that K. lied and the agency didn't. And by God I would give up a lot to be able to be sure.

I am complicit.

I overlooked several things that made me uncomfortable at the time, telling myself that the agency were professionals and knew what they were doing. For instance: we were told that in the days after the birth, K. was so hysterical and unstable that it took two case workers four hours to get her to sign her surrender of parental rights. At the time, a voice in my head said, "How can it not be coercive if it takes her four hours to be talked into it?" But I had never adopted a baby before; the agency had done this hundreds of time. I trusted that they knew when a line had been crossed, and when it hadn't. But a part of me wishes I had said, "Wait a minute--four hours? Two case workers?" I wish that we had had more time in all the rush and hysteria and fear and excitement to sit down and think about whether our line had been crossed, even if the agency's hadn't. (Though, honestly: could we have walked away? We had driven to Chicago, we were standing in the agency offices, all we had to do was sign some papers and write a big check and we could go pick up the baby from the hospital. You'd have to be a lot stronger than I am to walk out of there and drive home without a baby just because you weren't completely comfortable about how the birthmother came to sign her surrenders.)

The director of our agency was racist.

Again, specifically because of our custody dispute, I had much more contact with people at our agency than we normally would have. This gave me the opportunity to learn that the director of our agency was a racist. I hate saying this, but she sometimes said things to me that suggested to me that her feelings toward the birthmothers she worked with (and ours in particular) were somewhere on a spectrum between disrespect and contempt. Once, she told me a story about another contested adoption that included descriptions of the birth family's behavior in court. I will not repeat what she said, because it would be familiar to most of us and might only cause pain to any Black people who happen upon this post. I will say that it involved mimicking people's accents and ridiculing their religious beliefs.

Somebody on AskMetafilter recently asked, "What do you wish you had known before you adopted a child?" People gave answers like, "If you adopt an Asian baby, it might be lactose intolerant. It took us a week to figure that out!" I told her that I found the forums at the most useful thing pre-adoption; having private conversations with lots of adoptive parents gave me the best information I had.

I did not say: If I had known then what I know now, I might not have done it. I have friends who are vegetarian or vegan because they cannot bring themselves to participate in the factory farming system that feeds so many of us; they do not want to be complicit in that cruelty. Similarly, I might have chosen, had I known then, not to participate in what increasingly seems to me to be a system rife with ethics abuses. On the other hand, part of what I know now is from my own direct experience, and sometimes that's the only way we learn. I'm not sure any number of books or blogs or stories from adult adoptees would have deterred me. "That's not me," I'd have said. "That's not my agency."

Except that, it turns out, it was me. It was my agency.

Harriet has some words to say about that, though, too:
I’m a little uncertain how I feel about it when I put up something like I did, and then people say, “Oh, this has made me choose not to adopt, thank you!” Because I still believe in adoption, and for some kids, it’s their best hope, their second best option now that the first best is gone. I sympathize with workers who want to hold back details, because here they have this kid who needs a chance, and these parents who could be so good for them, but the parents might balk if they knew how hard it was going to be, even though the worker knows they could and would do it if this child was already in their home, or if this was their biokid.
The thing is, adopting a child means accepting a new burden into your life, but that burden is more than the child. Adoptive parents must accept ethical burdens as well. Adoptive parents must accept that by adopting their child, they are likely contributing to the same system that damaged their child. And there’s just no way around that.

TT is running up and down the house with the older two. They are pretending to be friends who visit each other's houses. They are having sleepovers. His fortune cookie last night said, "You are strong and brave," and the rest of us all laughed at how true that is. I am not sorry he's here, I am not sorry to be giving him everything I possibly can to make her life good. But I am sorry about so many things, about the world, and K.'s life, and about our agency, and about my own naivete and willful blindness. I always tell people how much money the custody fight cost us, but it also cost me a certain measure of peace of mind, because it revealed things I would never have had to see otherwise.

I don't know what I would tell a potential adoptive parent who came to me for advice, other than: be prepared for it to be a big stinking mess. Try to believe that the things that happen to other adoptive parents--the birth mother who changes her mind, the undisclosed drug use, the child adopted from foster care who is so traumatized that she can never give you the affection you crave, the agency that turns out to be less than above-board, the internationally adopted toddler who turns out to be a four-year-old whose growth was stunted by malnutrition, the teenage birthfather who inexplicably of all the teenage boys in the world wants to raise his daughter--try to believe that any of these things could actually happen to you, too. That you cannot wade into that morass and come out clean on the other side. Some of the shit is going to get on you. But shit getting on you is part of being a parent, so go ahead and be a parent. Mazel tov, I say to you. And welcome to the hard world we live in.


Anonymous said...

I get the idea most people account bravery with physical risk taking for the sake of adventure or helping others. For my a far more striking bravery is telling the truth. It takes a truth driven person to investigate the commonly accepted, comforting stories people tell themselves and each other. To find those stories aren't true *and* not to dismiss them as irrelevant in one's particular circumstance takes courage. It's a truly brave person who not only admits reality but embraces it moving forward. Su, I'm a better person for knowing you and, oh, SO proud to list you among my friends. (((hugs)))

Take gentle care,

Joolie said...

what a great ending to a hard post. Life is not neat, there are no right or easy answers to the questions that plague us. I'm sorry to have a back to me moment, but I often wonder how I stay a Christian, much less a pastor, given the state of the church: corrupt, hypocritical, racist, sexist, caught in the past. Being human means you get shit on you. We search out the joy and love and minimize the crap where we can.

Whit Johnstone said...

Knowing, as you know know, that TT is transgender, and that you have given him the loving, supportive home that he needs and deserves, do you now think that it was worth it? Were the ethical lapses on the part of the adoption agency justified in light of TT being placed with a family that is uniquely able to support him?

Whit Johnstone said...

Knowing, as you know know, that TT is transgender, and that you have given him the loving, supportive home that he needs and deserves, do you now think that it was worth it? Were the ethical lapses on the part of the adoption agency justified in light of TT being placed with a family that is uniquely able to support him?