Get Over It and Step Up: Take Action for More Ethical Adoption

by Beth Hall

 Originally published 2011, updated 2022

 This essay is adapted from my closing comments at Pact Family Camp. While I recognize that the Pact community includes adoptees, parents who have placed children for adoption, extended family members, adoption professionals, and other allies, I choose to speak here to one segment of our community—adoptive parents—as a member from within.

As an adoptive parent, I have come to believe that honoring our community means approaching adoption with a social justice mindset. What I mean is: It is OUR job to change things in adoption, not just continue to be the recipients of the privilege granted to adoptive parents.

Get over it.

Recognizing our privileges in the context of adoption can be a rude awakening – as you longed and struggled and waited to become a parent, you may have felt anything but privileged. But let’s face it, the system of adoption does privilege adoptive parents and professionals over birth parents and adopted people.  As adoptive parents we get the “prize”—we get to fulfill our desire to parent, to create a family we might not have been able to have otherwise. Many adoption professionals see their jobs as providing us with what we, adoptive parents, want. Plus, placement of a child in our family is directly related to the dollars adoption agencies (both private and public) get. We are generally seen by the world as generous rescuers, and while we may not always be viewed as completely legitimate parents, the stereotypes applied to us (the not-quite-real parents) are better than those applied to birth parents (the irresponsible or abandoning parents) or adopted people (the perpetual, “lucky” children, painted as ungrateful or angry if they express any emotional attachment to their first families and/or communities of origin, or the perpetual child with “problems”).

Those of us willing to acknowledge our privilege often feel guilt over our joy at having the children we adopted in our lives. But certainly all children deserve to be joyfully cherished. What I have come to believe, however, is that we don’t have time to get bogged down in guilt or angst. Instead we need to step up to action and advocacy.  Confronting inequities doesn’t threaten us or our families, it frees us to be honest about the ways in which the system is wrong, even if we have benefited from it by receiving our beloved children.

Adoptive parents need to speak out against injustice and inequity in adoption.

You may be thinking, “Well, it’s true I’m in a privileged position in the adoption triad, but I already formed my family—what can I do at this point? What’s done is done, for better or worse.”  There is plenty you can do!

Challenge the high cost of private domestic adoption—not because it is hard on your pocketbook, but because it is commodifying children. This needs to be OUR problem. In fact, if we receive a tax credit for adopting a child, doesn’t that ultimately reward us as if we are somehow doing charity work for paying professionals who are too often operating on a business model rather than a child welfare model? Demand something different of the professional community and you will interrupt the system, force for-profit entities out of the marketplace, and mandate change among regulated non-profits who need to rethink who they are actually serving.

As adoptive parents, we can and should be powerful advocates for the highest possible ethical standards in adoption. Because we are privileged, there is a better chance that people with power and authority will listen when we speak up. Where is our voice speaking out against practices where Black babies “cost less” than white, Latino and Asian children? What about practices that let anyone who says they want a child get a child without proper preparation or qualification?

We adoptive parents should be leading the fight against the racist, classist, heterosexist and sexist biases upon which our opportunities to adopt are at least partly based. International adopters, rather than wringing our hands about countries being closed to adoption, we need to acknowledge that the reason they are closing is because of the injustices and rampant corruption that were and are part of too many of our children’s adoption history. We should be mortified at the way in which our First World dollars have corrupted Third World countries and furious that even one child has been stolen or kidnapped in order to feed our lust to become parents. We must speak out to say that it is not inherently better to be raised in the US, acknowledging the incongruence between this attitude and piously “celebrating” the cultures of children’s birth countries.

Foster-adoptive parents (and allies) you can be a force for change in the child welfare system. You can challenge a system that takes children away from poor women (disproportionately women of color) and places them with families with more money, and often whiter/lighter skin, more often than it supports struggling families with the tools and resources they need to overcome their challenges and stay together.

Transracial adopters, we must speak out against practices that promote transracial adoption over same-race placement. Especially for those of us who are white, it needs to be OUR concern and OUR problem that people of color experience barriers in every adoption system that discourage or de-prioritize same-race adoptions, with too many adoption professionals seeing their job as finding children for their white clients rather than prioritizing what children of color need. Advocate for honoring the desire of birth parents to learn about prospective adopters of color, and for identifying more adopters of color, so children have the opportunity not to lose a family connection to their racial community on top of all the other losses inherent in adoption. Again, why should this threaten us or our family formation? Every child of color deserves options, which includes not being transracially adopted at least as much as being transracially adopted.

Adoptive parents, we should be lifting our voices to ask: How is it possible that the only group of people in the US who do not have access to their original birth records are adopted people? Join the fight for open records and make it OUR cause—not as a favor to our children or our children’s birth parents but for ourselves.  It diminishes us to support a system that institutionalizes a lie, making us pretend to be our children’s birth parents and implying that our role in our children’s lives is not valid or important unless we co-opt that of the first parents. Birth certificates need to tell the truth, not mask it. Birth information belongs by right to the human being whose origins it describes. Until all people, including adoptees, are legally entitled to accurate information about their own origins and a birth certificate that reflects the truth, all of us are diminished.

We can battle inequity on the home front by challenging our own attitudes towards our children’s first families. Ask yourself: Do we adoptive parents diminish the role of birth parents in our children’s lives in order to uplift our own? When we hold them up as saints for making the best choice for their child, are we not also saying that they are somehow lesser parents, that the child is better off away from them and in our care? In both the professional and advocacy/reform world of adoption, birth parents are the least heard or seen member of the triad. Is their invisibility, their aura of shame and guilt, created by the fundamental desire that we adoptive parents have to be validated for our own choices? There are too many stories of adoptive parents who promise contact, then succumb to fear and make excuses about how less is somehow “better” for their children. We need to keep our word. We must remind ourselves that we’ve been trusted with a child—a sacred trust!—and we owe it to that child to honor their first family and their origins. We need to stop making justifications for our own comfort and be open to partnership with our children’s other parents—and not only parents but families—so our children can be connected to and learn about their whole selves.

We have to step up.

Making these problems OUR problems is good parenting. If your child plays a sport, you care whether that sport is played safely and fairly—you are motivated to speak up because you are concerned about your child’s well-being, and the well-being of other children like them, and because you want to transmit your values to your child. For the same reasons, if your child is adopted, choose to speak out about making adoption as ethical as possible. Be brave, live in the truth, and know that nothing will speak louder to your children than your actions. Take up the fight—there are so many wrongs waiting to be corrected in adoption.  Make it YOUR problem—together we can make a difference.

Okay, I want to take action! What can I do?

  • When you read an article or blog post that privileges the adoptive parent perspective and neglects or ignores the needs of adoptees or birth parents—speak up! Write a letter to the editor, or post a comment.
  • Challenge organizers of adoption-related workshops and conferences about how the experiences of adoptees and birth parents are being represented. Where are their voices? They should not be represented as the recipients of the goodwill of adoptive parents or professionals but rather be speaking for themselves and be held in good standing by adoptive parent allies.
  • Talk with your children about your concerns about what is wrong with the adoption system, why it isn’t fair to people of color, children, expectant and birth parents.
  • Join and/or support organizations such as AAC (American Adoption Congress), AHA (Adoptees Have Answers), Bastard Nation, and CUB (Concerned United Birthparents), that advocate for adoptees and birth parents, as well as those that offer peer-to-peer support, such as AFAAD (Adopted and Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora),  AKA (Also Known As, Association of Korean Adoptees), MPower Alliance (formerly On Your Feet Foundation), or Birthmom Buds. Get on mailing lists that will keep you updated on breaking issues and opportunities to take action.
  • Become involved in organizations and movements working for social justice in your child’s country and/or racial/ethnic community of origin. Write letters, write checks, attend meetings, attend rallies—and bring your kids!
  • Volunteer as an advocate for children in the foster care system.
  • Make sure you are doing everything you can to honor and maintain contact with your child’s family of origin. Participate in Registration Day (where triad members are registered to find family members) and support organizations in your state that support open records (unless you are lucky enough to live in the still too-small handful of states that already have them).
  • And here is perhaps the hardest of all: when seeking to build your family through adoption, be willing to question or object to any behavior that strikes you as unethical. Have the courage to follow your conscience, even if it means you may have to wait a little longer for the child you desire so desperately. This means not only walking away from certain professionals, agencies, and facilitators but also telling them why.

Beth Hall is the white adoptive mother of a Latinx daughter and an African American son (both now adults). She co-founded Pact, An Adoption Alliance in 1991 to combat the discrimination she witnessed against adopted children of color and their birth families. She is the co-author, with Gail Steinberg, of the book Inside Transracial Adoption (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2nd Edition, 2013), as well as numerous articles on adoption and race. She is a nationally known advocate for adopted children of color who regularly lectures and leads workshops on ethical, anti-racist adoption practices.

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