For the few people who missed the already old news about Kim Kardashian here is a recap. The reality TV star who recently gave birth to North, a daughter with husband rapper Kanye West, visited an orphanage in Thailand for her show. According to USWeekly, she met with a 12-year-old girl and mused: "I literally cannot stop thinking about her [...] I told Kanye, I was like, 'Honestly, this girl is so sweet and so cute, I would totally adopt her.'"
Most readers here probably don't care too much about Kim's antics, but the idea that she would adopt a child might have elicited some thoughts for those in the know. Thoughts like those of Kim's mother: "I think that you can't just go to an orphanage and fall in love with a child and then take them home like you're shopping." Or thoughts about the conflict between the crude openness of show-all reality TV and the vulnerable privacy of adoption. Or thoughts about the capacities of a narcissistic "star mother" to cater to the special needs of an older adopted child.
Kim Kardashian's wish fits perfectly well in the tradition of many other famous adoptive parents. The American-French danseuse and singer Josephine Baker made sort of a public adoption show with her many "world kids." The movie star Jane Crawford excelled as a mean mom for her adopted daughter, who devoted a famous memoir to that horrible experience. In our days we have the well known examples of Madonna and Angelina Jolie.
The difference between now and then is that adoption in America these days is seen not as an individual quirk of some unconventional celebrity, but as a good deed, a deed to save poor, most often foreign children. If you follow adoption news you will see at least once a week a celebrity publicly consider adoption as a way to start or enlarge his or her family: adoption fits the positive PR code for the stars, it makes them more human and likeable for a broad audience.
Adoption is generally regarded as "good." And as a legitimate way to create a family. Having children is seen by most as a "human right," which is therefore claimed by everyone who traditionally didn't have them: infertile couples adopt, gay and lesbian couples adopt, single men and women adopt, straight couples with kids adopt. As long as you have the money -- or are able to fundraise that money -- almost nothing stands in the way to become the parent of a domestically or internationally adopted child. The right to parent aligns with the moral goodness of adoption.
That idea of adoption as good is not just supported, but strongly promoted by the evangelical churches in the US. Based on a particular and unhistorical interpretation of certain passages in the bible, they developed an "orphan care theology" in which adoption plays a central role. The roots of the current evangelical involvement in adoption lie in the work of Harry and Bertha Holt, a Christian couple who started with the adoption of Korean children in the '50s after the devastating war.
Only the last ten years adoption became the core missionary purpose of evangelical churches. Inspired by, among others, Reverend Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church in California, a whole infrastructure of trade and lobby organizations, churches and adoption agencies emerged with strong and influential connections in conservative political circles. The history of this recent movement is well documented in Kathryn Joyce's The Child Catchers. Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption (2013). Joyce cites one of the evangelical voices: 'Over the last fifty years the evangelical church "had become fat and materialistic and comfortable and self-focused. [....] I think there are several prongs of Christianity that are reawakening to their responsibility for social care and orphan care, with adoption care being part of that concern." Reverend Warren is more explicit: "When I say orphan care, it's adoption first, second and last."
Adoption seems to be the only issue where Hollywood and Evangelism, and the Democrats of Elizabeth Warren and the Republicans of Michele Bachman find common ground. There is even a - deeply flawed - proposal for a law on international adoption, Children in Families First (CHIFF), supported by the extremes at both sides of the aisle.
I believed 11 years ago that adoption was a good thing. My partner and I had, when we started the process to adopt, not the idea that we were out to save a child, but we were convinced that there were children in the US who needed a safe and stable home and that we could provide that. The adoption agencies and the social workers we worked with shared as far as we could see that idea. We understood the importance of the roots of our future children and decided to have seriously open adoptions, adoptions where the first parents of the kids would have a significant place in their lives. That was a reason not to adopt internationally. And so our kids ended up with three fathers and one mother.
The open adoption gave us -- two white men -- insight in the lives of the black families our children were born in and that was the start of our doubts. I don't want to go too deep in our private situation. However, the families of our kids certainly have no easy lives, but they lead almost a decade after the adoption a fulfilling existence in which the other, earlier born kids do well. It is not too hard to imagine our kids to be part of their first families.
We started to question adoption. Is adoption, we thought, not often a definitive solution for temporary problems? If these problems were more seriously addressed by social services and with less time pressure, would these adoptions have been necessary? Does the private commercial organization of adoption in the US by means of agencies and lawyers, in which every adoption makes a positive difference on the balance sheet, not stand in the way of considering other less invasive family and child care solutions, which actually cost money? Is adoption not an easy societal way out, to consciously avoid addressing larger issues like poverty and racism?
My partner and I were born and raised in the Netherlands and so we can compare our native country with our chosen country. In Holland domestic infant adoption hardly takes place: every year there are just a few dozen cases. The Dutch social services are not privatized, probably better organized and for sure better funded, and adoption is not a choice quickly made: other interventions and solutions are tried first. With considerable success. The collision of both systems becomes dramatically visible in the annual US export of African American newborns to white families in Holland.
Not just our personal experiences made us think about the "goodness" of adoption. We immersed ourselves in the thoughts of birthmothers and adult adoptees and learned about the less 'good' sides. A prominent and well written blog by two mothers, FirstMotherForum, gives insight in the everlasting pain of relinquishment of a child and the perennial wish for reunion with that child. Adoption has turned out for most mothers and fathers the wrong way to deal with their problems at a certain moment in time. The movie Philomena brought these feelings to the attention of a general public.
It is not hard to find documents by adoptees about their often traumatic experiences of being adopted on the web (web magazine Gazillion Voices), on DVD (the documentary Adopted by Barb Lee) or in folio (the anthology Perpetual Child. Dismantling the Stereotype). All these documents made us think deeper about our own adoptions and what they meant and will mean for our children. Did we unwillingly and naively traumatised our own kids just by the act of adopting them?
What is problematic in domestic adoption shows maybe even more clearly in international adoption. The adoption mantra of Warren cum suis in the evangelical community created a demand for kids. Adoption became the core of the religious expression in the secular world; adoption became imperative. Many of the adopters, relying completely on God's help only, are however ill prepared to parent children, who come from war ravaged or extreme poor countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti or Ethiopia. And praying is just not sufficient therapy. The reports on mental and physical abuse, sometimes leading to infanticide, by overwhelmed parents are plenty. The Pound Pup Legacy website keeps track of all these crimes. Many adoptions fall apart, some already after a few months, leaving the child in limbo and subject to the nasty re-homing process, facilitated by evangelical agencies, like Second Chance Adoptions. Is is hard to see the 'goodness' in the recent disrupted adoption of two siblings from Congo, who didn't last longer than six months in their Christian family and who were publicly advertized on its website for re-adoption, not together, but separately.
The demand for kids creates also huge problems in the "donor" countries. One country after another closed in the last decade for international adoption because of its effects: the influx of western money lead to fraud and corruption, child theft and trafficking, and overshadowed the initial humanitarian effort. Parents who adopted from a broad range of developing countries can very seldom be totally sure that their child is effectively an orphan and not a fake orphan fashioned for the 'trade'. Again, Kathryn Joyce's book documents deeply disturbing stories, which make you wonder so every now and then why international adoption is not illegal.
I do not believe anymore that adoption is intrinsically good. That doesn't mean however that adoption is bad. It means that adoption is a term in a discussion about how to address problems of children in families, communities and countries, a term of a by its nature invasive and for first parents and children oft traumatising intervention. The myth where Kardashian and Warren find each other, the myth that adoption is good, obstructs that very needed discussion.