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Toward a Greater Understanding of International Adoption

Debbie Weinstock - Thursday, January 29, 2015

I wanted to share a few thoughts I had after reading the New York Times article, “Why a generation of adoptees is returning to South Korea” published on Sunday, January 14, 2015.

First and foremost, the article strengthened my commitment to the vital importance of providing thorough, down-to-earth, unromanticized pre-adoption parent education, and informed, pragmatic, empathetic post-adoption support for adoptive families.


To address several more specific issues presented in the article, the title of the article is wildly misleading. The 300-500 adoptees discussed in the article account for less than a quarter of one percent of children adopted from South Korea by American families. Building a family, whether through biological birth or adoption, carries with it no guarantees. Parenting, as we all know, can be fraught with challenges and has its up and downs. Many biological children have laundry lists of “mistakes” their parents made, despite their very best of efforts. Discontent among children is by no means limited to adoptees.

There is no question that at times, both in the United States and other countries, women have been pressured or forced to relinquish their children for adoption, generally due to the prevailing social mores and stigmas existing in the particular culture at the time. As important as it is to acknowledge and try to rectify this situation wherever it exists, it should not be used as a justification to allow abandoned children to languish in poor conditions when loving homes are available. For more information about forced relinquishment in the United States during the 1950’s through 1970’s, I recommend the book “The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade,” written by Ann Fessler and published in 2007.  It may be a sad truth that women who would dearly like to keep their children are not able to for a variety of reasons, but even the article acknowledges that as more legal restrictions have been placed on parents’ ability to relinquish their children for adoption in South Korea of late, the number of babies abandoned by their parents has increased. In my opinion, addressing this issue requires a cultural shift that provides emotional, societal and financial support to women who wish to keep their babies, and access to birth control and other reproductive services for women who would prefer to delay or forego childbearing. Once a child is relinquished for adoption however, research suggests that the best possible outcome for the child will be facilitated by placing the child in a permanent loving home as quickly as possible.  While I understand the preference expressed by some adoptees to have children adopted in their home country, even as acknowledged in this article, the stark reality is that there simply are not enough adoptive parents available to adopt all the relinquished children in South Korea (and in many other countries around the globe). Children should not bear the brunt of adults’ discomfort with the idea of international adoption. Every child deserves to grow up in a loving home, and adoptive parents deserve all the support, nurturance and guidance we can offer them.

It is unrealistic to pretend that raising an adopted child is exactly the same as raising a biological child. There are issues specific to raising an adopted child that parents need to be aware of. A fundamental reality that was pointed out in the article is that loss is an inescapable part of adoption. It is important for adoptive parents to recognize that humans, domestically adopted, internationally adopted and not adopted, are hard-wired with a need to know about our biological roots. Consider the popularity of and other search sites that trace ancestral lineage, or the popular television series that explore the ancestry of popular public figures. There have been many books over the years written by both domestically and internationally adopted children about their searches for their birth families (e.g. “Becoming Patrick” written by Patrick McMahon, published in 2011, ). While not all adoptees will feel the need to search for their birthparents, adoptive parents who can accept that their children’s decision to search for their birth families is a natural part of the process and in no way reflects poorly on the love and nurturing they have provided, will be in a better position to support their children’s searches and remain a source of unconditional love and sense of security for their children. This is true for both domestically and internationally adopted children.  Internationally adopted children also benefit when their parents incorporate exploration of their birth culture into their upbringing. When parents raise their internationally adopted children with an openness to their birth culture, they lift the burden of guilt from their shoulders, so often expressed by adoptees.

One final thought about the idea that adopted children “should simply be grateful” to their adoptive parents. I have found that “should” is a dangerous word to use, especially when it comes to what or how our children should feel or think. One of the best pieces of advice for parents is to listen, understand, accept and validate their children’s feelings. Although uncomfortable issues invariably come up for parents when raising children, it is vitally important to help children process their experiences openly and honestly, and to resist the temptation to get defensive about or be dismissive of our children’s struggles.  Creating a home environment in which unconditional love, mutual respect, open communication and reasonable standards of behavior are always present can go a long way to promote successful bonding, a sense of security, and feelings of family warmth and harmony.

Even though the adoptees represented in The New York Times article are a tiny minority of the greater adoptee population, in my opinion, we still all benefit by hearing and considering their concerns.

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