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Emphasizing Family, Embracing Culture

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Intercountry Adoption – Emphasizing Family, Embracing Culture
By Chuck Johnson

Posted on June 7th, 2012

I’ve just returned from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where I attended the Fifth International Policy Conference on the African Child, “Intercountry Adoption: Alternatives and Controversies.” I learned a great deal at this conference, and had the opportunity to hear from many individuals who made a passionate case for African nationalism and culture, expressing real and legitimate concerns about adopted African-born children losing their heritage and cultural connections. (For more on this point of view, click here to read a CNN article about the conference:

I understand love of country, as well as the importance of belonging to a place and feeling part of a unique culture. I’m a proud Southerner, and have tried to share things with my children that, in our Maryland town, are seen as “Southern,” almost foreign concepts: saying “yes, ma’am” and “yes, sir” to adults; preferring college football (one team in particular, in our house) to the NFL; enjoying traditional Southern food and family recipes (we buy our BBQ sauce when we visit Alabama!). Of course, at the same time, we’ve also embraced and come to appreciate our life in Maryland: our family scarfs down Maryland crab cakes, appreciates the beauty of the Potomac, and even, on occasion, roots for the Maryland Terps. We’ve made our home in Maryland, yet we remain Southerners. While my children miss Alabama, just as my wife and I do, we all know that being together as a family is more important than where we live.

At the conference in Addis Ababa, I listened to some participants’ concerns about intercountry adoption severing a child’s ties to his culture, and I understood many of these fears. Cultural values and ties are incredibly important, and it is crucial for adoption advocates to acknowledge that loss of culture – even if a loving family is gained – is still one kind of loss that internationally adopted children often endure. This is one of the reasons why NCFA maintains that intercountry adoption is not necessarily the first or ideal option for every orphaned child. If there is a real and timely possibility of parents or other kin caring for them, or the possibility of an in-country adoption placement, then these options should be explored first.

For many vulnerable children, however, adoption by parents living outside their country represents their best chance at securing the love and permanency they deserve. These children – real orphans, children whose parents have died or are not coming back to them – experience great hardships living in institutions, without family of their own. Some will lack enough food or medical care. Many will not receive an adequate education, and will leave institutionalized care without family or the means of supporting themselves. Most tragically, some will die in orphanages. Those that do survive orphanage care are likely to face serious consequences as a result of receiving inadequate care and support all through their early lives, and these consequences may be far-reaching – even lifelong.

Those that oppose intercountry adoption out of understandable respect for a child’s culture of origin are typically unable to offer a viable alternative means of helping orphaned, abandoned, and vulnerable children. Study after study has shown that institutionalized care fails children, negatively impacts their health and development, and threatens their safety and even their survival. How much can a child living in an orphanage truly benefit from her culture, if her most basic daily needs – as well as her long-term health and wellbeing – are not guaranteed?

Intercountry adoption has changed and will continue to change, just as adoption practice and policy has evolved over time. As adoption advocates and adoptive parents, we have learned a great deal about helping internationally adopted children remain connected to their culture. This issue is very important to NCFA, and last year Nicole Callahan, a transracial adoptee, addressed this issue in the Adoption Advocate: “For the sake of adopted children’s curiosity, development, and personal wellbeing, it is up to the adoptive parents to take an early lead in discussing these issues with their children in age-appropriate ways – not to make them feel ‘different,’ but to let them know that their family and their home are safe places in which questions and concerns about race, culture, and the child’s personal history can always be raised. Adopted individuals should not have to wait until adulthood to learn about where they came from; they should be given the opportunity and encouraged throughout their lives to know and understand this part of themselves.” (To read the entire article, “Race and Identity in Transracial Adoption,” click here:

Instead of setting up the choice as family or culture, adoption advocates must commit to advocating for both. It is possible to give a child love, safety, and security through adoption without eradicating his cultural identity, even if he must leave his country in order to find a permanent family.

As president of NCFA, I have visited orphanages in countries all over the world – in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Vietnam, China, Russia, and more. I have been approached by dozens of children that have begged me to find them families in America. I understand those who say that these children should stay where they are, that we should find other ways to help them instead of encouraging adoption. I agree that we absolutely should and must find additional ways to help individuals, children, and families that are struggling in other parts of the world. But as the orphan crisis is so dire, we cannot fail to help orphaned children through adoption, by giving them the loving families they need.

Research tells us that adoption is working for children. Their needs are being met by their adoptive families. They are safe, they are thriving, and they are loved. All children need and deserve this same love and permanency, as early in life as possible, and for those that still lack families of their own, intercountry adoption must remain an option.


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