Personal Responsibility in the Age of Child Removal

How can adoptees criticize adoption without throwing family members under the bus? How is it possible for parents to believe in an industry that claims to help children, but on closer inspection, actually causes harm? How can adoption professionals sleep at night knowing that the cozy beds in their comfortable homes are paid for with money acquired from selling babies away from extended families? The quest for answers to such questions is facilitated by revisiting the early days of child welfare and education, twin professions to which I am intricately connected. Shedding light on the ideology behind the unethical interventions created by these professions—and coming to terms with what they mean to us personally—is the focus of this month’s column.

Before anyone accuses me of pointing fingers at others, keep in mind that I do recognize how I am also deeply implicated. The bulk of this article calls attention to the links between child welfare and schooling, based on the recently published research of historian Margaret Jacobs. But before discussing the insights that the adoption community can gain from her work, I need to remind readers of where my perspective originates, as both an educator and researcher, not to mention as a lifelong participant in adoption.

I am not only an “angry adoptee.” I am also a concerned adoptive parent of two adult sons whose lives were irreparably damaged by a child welfare system supposedly intended to help them. While I have never worked inside the adoption industry, I have occasionally accepted financial compensation from agencies as a guest speaker and trainer, usually in the form of an honorarium for my presentations. As a faculty member, I recognize that I have gained professional status and earned tenure by conducting peer-reviewed studies of transracial adoption (among other topics related to multicultural education and marginalized youth populations). All of this is intended to account for how I have benefitted, personally and professionally, from my involvement in an industry that now makes me extremely uncomfortable. Suffice it to say that the search for answers to the kinds of questions posed at the outset of this article causes me distress.

Nevertheless, I am inspired to seek answers to my questions by the example of courageous activists and researchers, including fellow adoptive parents and outspoken transracial adoptees, who translate their outrage into action. I find it more useful and socially responsible to cultivate a praxis of reflection-action-reflection, following the model of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, rather than succumb to the paralysis of guilt. For me, it feels more just and, therefore, socially responsible to reflect honestly on my participation in flawed systems and to acknowledge the ways in which I have personally benefitted, rather than throw up my hands in despair and simply walk away in shame and disgust.

Pro-adoption discourse glosses over the ugliness

My life is irreversibly tainted by adoption. Because I have come to see adoption as an unethical social practice, I persist in the quest for answers, largely because my conscience remains troubled. For instance, I accept that I received a fairly privileged upbringing in a loving, stable family and gained a private school education, largely because I was adopted into an upwardly mobile, middle class, North American family. Similarly, as an openly gay man, I recognize that I have further benefitted from the flawed system by being allowed to fulfill my desires to become a parent and start a family of my own. I do not wish to undo the adoptions that have enriched my life, because I love the family members that I gained and I am grateful for the opportunities and experiences that derived from my connections through adoption, as disturbing as adoption is now understood to be.

This does not mean that I defend the practice of adoption or that I align with pro-adoption advocates. I staunchly oppose the way adoption has been turned into a multi-billion dollar industry, based primarily on the sale of children to idealistic would-be parents. The more I learn about the history of adoption and the more I focus on its present-day lifelong impact on vulnerable individuals and families, the more I am bothered by the glossing over of the consequences of this ostensibly benign social experiment.

Adoption has an ugly side, as anyone paying attention eventually comes to understand. Adoption is hardly all rainbows, angels, and happy endings. While we who must live with its aftermath are intimately familiar with its ugly side, the adoption industry profiteers would prefer to talk only in positive terms. They would have us celebrate Gotcha Days throughout the year and National Adoption Month every November. They would have us praise the rescuers as saints who “take in” orphans and the scarred (through removal) “children nobody wanted.” In order to keep paying customers flocking to their services, the pro-adoption advocates spin a mostly positive narrative that appeals to individuals who “feel called” to do good and who desire desperately to become parents. These “rah-rah adoption” narratives bolster the industry that has come to rely financially on income from prospective parents, pure and simple. In their push for paying customers, adoption profiteers downplay the complexities of the lived experience, choosing to promote instead the more comfortable adoption fantasies of benevolence and rescue.

The illegitimacy of ‘post-adoption services’

I recognize, of course, that not all adoption agency leaders and social workers are unscrupulous profiteers. Some of them, to be sure, I count among my friends and colleagues. In my lifetime, I have witnessed how a few agency staff and adoptive parent leaders whose conscience has been pricked (largely, they would admit, through the cumulative outcries of courageous adoptees and first/birth mothers) have implemented what has come to be known as “post-adoption services.” Recognizing that they can no longer ignore the suffering of adoptees and first/birth family members, post-adoption services attempt to ameliorate the pain and address the lifelong consequences that accrue in the aftermath of adoption. Yet in my view, as a long-term participant in a variety of post-adoption services models (including individual and family therapies, support groups, culture camps, parenting classes, adoption camps, staff in-service seminars, webinars, and adoption conference keynotes, panels, and workshop sessions), these attempts are largely ineffectual. Focused mainly on education and support, they tend toward one-time annual events or a limited series of short-term sessions. The curriculum content provided is little more than a chance to “raise awareness” about the suffering that adopted children will inevitably experience.

What has been missing are any mandatory plans for action that would actually do something to change the circumstances that cause the suffering of adoptees and their first/birth families in the first place. Post-adoption services models, so far, do nothing to prevent the ongoing suffering of adoptees and first/birth families. This actually makes sense, considering that the service providers are, to put it bluntly, a main cause of the problem. That is, they make adoption pain possible. Adoption industry professionals have legitimized the trauma of family separations by leading the public to see it as a social good, particularly when “unfit” parents are understood as the first/birth parents, and adoptive parents are understood as rescuers, thus heralded as the “solution” to the problem conveniently defined as unfit parenthood and unwanted children. The ideological origins of this narrative—of how we came to accept the rescue of unwanted children away from their unfit mothers—is explicated by the recently published work of historian Margaret Jacobs.

Good intentions gone wrong: Maternalism in education & child welfare

I first learned about Professor Jacobs, a colleague at the University of Nebraska, because of the course in multicultural education that I offer to future teachers. That course begins with an examination of the sordid history of U.S. schooling with various ethnic groups, starting with Native Americans. We cover the disturbing rise of the Indian boarding school experiment, whereby well-meaning social reformers ripped Native children away from their families to place them in residential schools where they were forced to adopt American names, learn English, and replace their Native customs and religious beliefs with Christianity. In other words, my students learn that well-meaning professionals decided it was in the best interests of Indian children to stop being Native.

I feel a personal connection to and responsibility for teaching this sad history because my first job right out of college was working at one such boarding school on the Navajo reservation. When I accepted the job as an idealistic young teacher in 1983, I had not yet studied Indian education or child removal policies. I lasted one year as a boarding school teacher before my conscience told me that I had to get out. But rather than simply walk away from my Navajo students and the debacle of Indian education, I have devoted my career to advocating for multicultural education from a social justice perspective. I see this as an attempt to make amends for my own role in the cultural destruction of a beautiful, thousands-of-years-old culture that I have come to believe must never disappear.

My involvement in the world of adoption parallels my professional career as a multicultural educator. As a participant in both enterprises (i.e., education and child welfare), I have come to reflect on the pros and cons of my involvement, using a multicultural perspective rooted in social justice as a moral compass. Just as I can admit that I enjoyed my time teaching in the Navajo Nation, even though I now see how I was a pawn in a bigger project of cultural genocide, I have no regrets about adopting my sons (or for that matter, joining the adoptive family I was raised in), even though I recognize how the adoption system is morally bankrupt. As a person of conscience that strives to pay attention to issues of social justice, I cannot bury my head in the sand when injustices become apparent. Conscience forces me to examine my own actions as well as the impact of the larger systems in which I participate. As a teacher educator, I must take responsibility for my chosen profession’s history, the good and especially the bad, to ensure that educators don’t repeat similar mistakes with future generations. In parallel fashion, as an adoptive parent, I need to ask myself tough questions, such as why my sons entered the foster care system in the first place, and who their first families were, and what obstacles their parents confronted when trying to regain custody of the children taken from them. I need to weigh my position of relative privilege as an adopter against the lack of power and privilege that the mothers of my sons surely experienced in their encounters with the child welfare system that took my sons (their sons) away from them and eventually into my family.

Margaret Jacobs’s new book, A Generation Removed, provides a thoroughly documented and heart wrenching account of good intentions gone wrong, both in education and in child welfare. Jacobs’s specialization is women’s history, particularly the interactions between Indigenous and white women in settler nations such as the United States, Canada, and Australia. I appreciate Jacobs’ stance as a scholar all the more because she is a white feminist historian who is able to cast a critical eye on the contradictory roles often played by women of European descent. It was from reading Jacobs’s earlier work that I first encountered the Maternalism movement: the proto-feminist reformers of their day who asserted female authority and expertise (before American women could vote or hold elected office) into the public spheres usually reserved for male leadership.

Jacobs’s previous work, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940, is a massive scholarly tome. I drew on this work for my keynote remarks to the 2013 KAAN (Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network) conference and at AAC (American Adoption Congress) 2014. White Mother to a Dark Race is a valuable resource, particularly for researchers with an interest in the origins of public school teaching and the social work profession. Having said that, White Mother is quite weighty and not nearly as accessible to lay readers as her latest book, A Generation Removed. Jacobs’s new book provides highly personal accounts that help readers to make sense of the social reform experiments in Indian child welfare and education from the perspective of the Native women who lost their children in the process.

Those of us wondering what can be done in contemporary times to halt the widespread practice of family disruption still perpetuated by the adoption industry will gain inspiration from the chapter explaining how the Indian Child Welfare Act came into existence in the 1970s. This largely untold story may also inspire activists who want to interrupt the vulture-like “baby lifts” in impoverished communities around the globe that search for “orphans” for the marketplace of adoption. Readers will learn not only the faulty reasoning that leads popular opinion-shapers such as television’s Dr. Phil (who sympathized with the Capobiancos, the adoptive parents in the Baby Veronica case) to characterize ICWA as a racist law. Readers will also learn how the valiant efforts of a committed group of researchers, child welfare practitioners, and first/birthmothers combined to create an effective coalition to get ICWA passed in order to protect Indian families.

Key to that process, as Jacobs documents meticulously through archival records and interviews with key players, was the construction of a counter narrative that challenged the public perceptions of Indian mothers as unfit parents and drunk welfare dependents who didn’t love their children. While not denying the problems plaguing many Native communities, such as alcohol addiction, child neglect and abuse, and poverty, Jacobs offers a more nuanced and complete portrait of Indigenous families and their struggles to raise children by maintaining extended family ties, drawing on the cultural traditions that had been systematically attacked dating back to the Great Indian Wars. The struggle for extended family integrity is all the more remarkable and poignant, given the subsequent onslaught of well-meaning educators in the boarding schools that for a lengthy period preached the inferiority of Native ways and tried to replace them with superior Euro-American, Christian ways.

Child removal: What problem are we solving?

The systematic and widespread removal of Indian children for placement off the reservations, whether in residential boarding schools or later, through foster care and adoption by non-Native families, is shown to be part of a continuum of ongoing strategies to rid settler nations of their “Indigenous problem.” Interestingly, Canada and Australia have issued public apologies for their nation’s genocidal treatment of Indigenous families. The USA has yet to do so.

Much can be learned from the organized resistance, led primarily by Native American women, which will be of particular interest to activists working in other struggles facing communities of color. One of the most inspiring lessons from Jacobs’ book is seeing the ways that first/birthmothers empowered themselves by blending their roles as mothers, nurturers, healers, and keepers of the culture with efforts to become professionals themselves, or by working alongside pro-Indigenous educators, social workers, and researchers. Not only did they fend off sexist insults and racist attacks from professionals who degraded Native women’s ways of knowing and being, they also thwarted assaults from reform-minded white women whose racist thinking limited their ability to stand alongside Native women as sister-mothers in solidarity.

Jacobs’s brilliant contribution is towards re-humanizing the victims and survivors of well-meaning attempts to “rescue” needy children within a discourse that demonized Native women as unfit, immoral mothers. All of us touched by adoption would do well to develop a similarly humanistic view of the first mothers and fathers of adoptees of any race, and to reject simplistic notions of family dysfunction, immorality, and parental unfitness when it comes to the family origins of the adopted individuals we know and love.

Social responsibility in the 21st century

We still live in an era of widespread child removal when, ironically, the Indian Child Welfare Act is ridiculed by pro-adoption forces (supported by the U.S. Supreme Court, as evidenced in the Baby Veronica case, in which Dusten Brown was denied custody of his biological daughter). We have to acknowledge how the multi-billion dollar adoption industry has a vested interest in the ongoing separations of birthparents from their children. Given the current climate, I have come to conclude that there can be no legitimate post-adoption services until we have become post-adoption.

Another way of putting it is this: There is no “post-adoption” until we have ended adoption, once and for all. Just as the boarding school experiment for Native American children has been discredited as genocidal, just as the Indian Adoption Program has been disbanded (you can read about its rise and fall in A Generation Removed), so too, I anticipate that the transracial and transnational adoption experiments will be replaced by a much more just and humane practice that is less about the business of selling children (and in the process, disrupting extended families of color), and more about ensuring justice and care for the most needy and vulnerable—namely, poor women of color and their children around the world.

As we work towards creating that brighter future for the most needy and most vulnerable, reader-activists would do well to learn from history. Understanding the tragic unfinished story of Indian child removal, its connection to the history of transracial adoption, and the related professional histories of schooling and child welfare are good places to start. Professor Jacobs has provided us with an insightful roadmap to point us on our way. The questions remain: How will members of the adoption community in the 21st century hold each other accountable for the misguided interventions, self-serving manipulations of the law, and ethnocentric ideologies that we perpetuate in the name of securing the “best interests” of children? When will we find the courage to declare that adoption as we know it must come to an end?

~ John Raible