You Can’t Return a Baby Like He’s a Pair of Shoes!
There are at least two sides to every story – and as I flip through the search engine results today for “60 Minutes Russian babies returned to adoption agencies 1995-1996,” I can see there was probably more to the story than I remember. But shortly after my son was born, one of the TV news magazine shows – my guess is that it would have been 60 Minutes because that’s the one my dad watched – aired a program about a couple who was returning their adopted baby to a Russian agency because he was sick. I couldn’t find a link or any information about that show, specifically, but if memory serves, a lot of sick babies were being placed for adoption at the time, presumably much of the illness fallout from the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.
The ’90s were a heyday for Americans looking for a low bar to international adoption, as Russia relaxed its laws allowing foreigners to adopt infants. This is admittedly an oversimplification of things, but couples who think they will have an “easier” time with an international adoption because there’s no pesky birthmother to deal with frequently underestimate all the other challenges that come with adopting overseas. Such has been the case for many Americans who have adopted eastern European children from the early ’90s through today.
At the time I saw the TV report, I was incensed. I was visiting my folks, whom I had yet to tell about their grandson, when this story aired. My poor father had no idea why I was so angry. “Oh, come on. You can’t just return a baby like he’s a pair of shoes!” I remember screaming at him. But sometimes you can. And sometimes, it might be the more humane option.
One 2012 Reuters story I came across in my research reports:
“Not every international adoption ends happily,” the office of Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s Children’s Rights Commissioner, said in a statement. “According to official data only, 19 Russian children died at the hands of U.S. citizens over the last 10 years.”
Now the other side of that story is that many of these children have had severe physical and emotional challenges, up to and including brain damage, that would be difficult for any parent to handle. But what would have happened if that baby had been the biological child of these parents? If they’d borne a son or daughter with a heart defect, cognitive issues, or developmental disorders? To whom would they have returned that baby? Murder isn’t really the solution, is it? So obviously there are screening issues with some of these prospective foreign parents. It’s probably easy to look the other way about red flags when enough money is involved. However a friend reminds me, sadly, that bio parents also occasionally kill their children. Susan Smith may be one of the most infamous, but there are, unfortunately, too many others.
Back to the money for a moment, though. Remember how I mentioned in a prior post that the baby is really no more than a commodity when it comes to an adoption contract? Well, overseas, babies go for big bucks. An August 2000 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story reports: [C]orruption, U.S. and Russian officials maintain, has led to increased costs for prospective parents, who pay up to $30,000, plus travel costs and cash “donations,” to adopt a Russian child. And according to The New York Times, some Russian “gypsies” want cars in addition to cash for the children they sell to Americans.
When it comes down to it, adoption can be a pretty creepy (i.e., peculiar) institution. It reminds me a little of assisted suicide – in that you have to be absolutely certain all parties involved are completely on board, that no one is being coerced. Of course suicide is not reversible – and the whole point of this post is that adoption is. What I cannot imagine is taking a baby from a mother – or taking a life – simply for one’s own gain. Yet the human brain is facile at concocting all kinds of rationalizations for why we do things. The baby will be better off with me. Aunt Jane’s not in pain anymore. But how are we ever certain? I don’t think we are.
When it comes to adoption, we owe the birthmother and the child our very best effort at making damn sure that adoption is the best decision, and that the mother is making that decision freely. That means counseling and difficult conversations and coming to terms with aspects of ourselves that we may prefer to keep hidden. Unfortunately, counseling – particularly for the prospective birthmother – quite often gets short shrift in “private” adoptions, those not facilitated by an agency or sanctioned organization. And in the case of minor children becoming pregnant, their parents’ desires often supersede their own. Which makes it legal, but not necessarily right.
We also need to keep in mind that it’s not just foreign adoptions that go awry. In a post from a November 2009 U.S. edition of The Guardian, one brave British mom details her decision to re-place her adopted son with a new family because she felt she was failing him as a mother. Strangely, my anger toward her is greatly diminished, compared to how I felt all those years ago watching that TV show about a similar situation. The story about this mom’s struggle includes some fascinating statistics:
The British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF) estimates that one in five adoptions break down, although children who are “handed back” are usually older. The younger the child, the lower the chance of the placement breaking down. A study by the Maudsley Hospital in London found a breakdown rate of 8% after one year and 29% six years later. On average, adoptions that broke down did so 34 months after placement.
Despite the negative publicity that overseas adoption has attracted in recent years, there is no evidence that they are more likely to break down than domestic placements. Many studies have concluded that international adoption has, for the most part, been very successful, including for children who have spent their early years in institutions.
And even as I’ve now had some time to contemplate this a bit further, I find myself going back to Sharon Roszia’s explanation that adoption is an extension of infertility. If you decide to do it, you have to go into it all in. That precious baby you so longed for is yours now. Every parent wants a perfect child – perfectly healthy, perfectly beautiful, perfectly intelligent. What we get are tiny people – all of whom are flawed in some way. Some of those flaws are small, relatively easy to correct or mitigate. Some are substantial, and may change their families’ lives forever in ways unexpected. But those are the dice we roll when we enter the parenthood game. Returning an imperfect baby should be the second-to-last bad option.