Considering the Promise and Challenge of International Adoption

Guest Commentary - Elizabeth Grant

Elizabeth Grant currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Architecture at Virginia Tech.

The Institute welcomes guest commentaries on relevant topics. Interested authors should send submissions to mstephen@vt.edu for consideration.

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            The Russian government’s recent announcement to disallow adoption of children from that nation by American citizens, apparently in retaliation for recent U.S. sanctions against human rights violators in that country, is both saddening and frustrating. Unfortunately, it has catalyzed a lamentable set of comments on the Web from Americans reacting to this news who seemingly do not understand the adoption process, but are using the Russian government’s action nonetheless as a platform to disparage international adoption as a matter of principle. The commenters’ arguments run something like this: It is not a problem that Russia is closing adoption to Americans because those families should instead be adopting children from within the United States. If they do not, they are somehow lazy for trying to avoid the stricter demands of a U.S. adoption protocol, racist for wanting to adopt a white child, or selfish for preferring to adopt a baby, rather than an older child.

            As an American who has adopted a child from Russia, I am disturbed and distressed by these recent claims on the Internet, which fall far afield of my personal experience. I am therefore motivated to respond here to the most often articulated of those assertions. My hope here is to address these misconceptions.

            In a better world, there would be no need for international adoption because all children would find loving homes within their country of birth. In a perfect world, too, no children would be relinquished by their biological families in the first place. But that is not the case, and now under the aegis of a misguided patriotism, some individuals are aiming unwarranted and irrelevant accusations at a segment of the populace who are, when all else is said and done, simply trying to satisfy a very deep and human desire to parent. The problem is not that American families have adopted, and would like to continue adopting, Russian children. The number of youngsters presently in that country’s orphanages is a testament to the continued need for such international adoptions. The issue lies instead with the Russian President and Parliament’s action, which appears punitive and retaliatory. Those attacking international adoptive families in the United States misunderstand the nature of the concern in play. We will not improve our nation’s foreign relations by rejecting our citizens’ parenting choices in a democratic society.

            Let me address in turn each of the general objections to U.S. families’ adopting Russian children I noted above that I have encountered recently on the Web. First, the perception that somehow parents are taking the easy road by adopting internationally is deeply mistaken. All persons adopting non-relatives must go through a rigorous home study or evaluation process, which typically includes physical, mental, and economic vetting as well as a thorough police background check. Those adopting internationally must also undergo months of additional steps, such as FBI background checks. They also must satisfy the sending country’s justifiably exhaustive, not to say labyrinthine, requirements to demonstrate their capacity to adopt, with accompanying investigations into the competence of those who have declared their fitness, and even the authority of those notarizing their documents. All of this is designed to reduce risk for all parties involved. But in no way can this be considered easier than other forms of adoption, at least procedurally speaking.

            The second misconception is that Caucasian adoptive parents are racist for wanting to adopt a child of their own race while children of other races wait to be adopted. I would ask anyone offering this criticism perhaps first to consider the responsibilities adoptive parents must take into account when raising a child of a different race in a world where racism still exists. Many families successfully accept these responsibilities by taking specific and deliberate actions to assist them as they mature, such as providing same-race role models for their adopted children and honoring their racial heritages. But to accuse white adoptive parents of racism simply because they have not chosen personally to undertake a transracial adoption is unwarranted.

            The third argument offered by critics of international adoption is that such parents are selfish for wanting to adopt an infant rather than an older child currently in the American foster care system. Electing to adopt a newborn is an understandable desire, as bonding, for well-known biological and developmental reasons, generally becomes increasingly challenging as a child ages. But this charge, when leveled against international adopters, is largely misdirected, as the wait for a child to arrive home is often long and unpredictable in such cases, and very often infants become toddlers before they join their adoptive families. Those desiring to adopt young children typically choose domestic rather than international adoption, for this reason. Finally, the choice to adopt an older child should be based on a realistic appraisal of one’s resources and abilities and cannot be compared directly to the experience of infant adoption, whether domestically or internationally focused.

            Social workers emphasize that international adoption should not be viewed as a political or philanthropic decision, but instead as one of several ways to match children who need families with adults desiring to parent. It is by no means the only route to adoption, and in fact, not even the primary one in this country. Both domestic infant and foster adoptions have far outnumbered their international counterparts in recent years. In any case, there is nothing preventing willing and able Americans from adopting US children, other than the arduousness of the process itself. To insinuate that this is somehow only the responsibility of those who have chosen instead to adopt internationally is misguided. And to excuse the Russian government’s recent action by downplaying its impact on American families desiring to adopt children from that nation is to ignore the plight of the more than 700,000 orphans still in Russia, and the real pain of families caught in the middle, whose children are now in danger of being left behind.