April 14, 2010
Questioning International Adoptions
By LISA BELKIN
April 12, 2010
There seems to be plenty of blame to go around in the sad and sobering tale of Justin Hansen (Artyom Savelyev), who landed unaccompanied in his native Russia last week, sent back by his adoptive mother and grandmother, who describe the boy as psychologically damaged and say they can no longer care for him.
Some would place all that blame on Torry Hansen and her mother, Nancy, for not trying hard enough, for not seeking help with Justin, for not doing due diligence before adopting a child from a country whose orphanages have a history of troubles, for putting a 7-year-old on an 11-hour flight all alone.
Others blame the boy, or more specifically, his threatening and violent behavior. And the Russian system, too, is under fire, for its history of subjecting orphans to conditions that breed emotional disorders and for keeping facts from adoptive parents.
We certainly don’t know all the facts in this case. We may never know them, because some are unknowable and some might have been deliberately withheld. And that, says Michele Goodwin, is the crux of the problem. A professor of law and medicine at the University of Minnesota, she is the author of the new book “Baby Markets: Money and the New Politics of Creating Families,” which turns a questioning eye on the world of international adoption. It is a system ripe for abuse and exploitation, she writes in a guest blog today, and the result can be cases that end as Artyom’s has — or worse.
International Adoption — A Market in Babies?
More than 30 years ago, Elisabeth Landes and Prof. Richard Posner, now a federal appellate court judge, warned that there was “a considerable amount of baby selling” happening in the United States. Not surprisingly, this daunting assessment attracted strident criticism. Lawyers, social workers and others claimed that the article, which became euphemistically known as the “baby-selling article,” overstated the case and surmised that what they observed were necessary transaction fees attached to adoptions and nothing more. But the article’s observation sheds light on the case of Justin Hansen, the little boy who was adopted by an American woman and then returned to a Russian orphanage last week.
The case of Justin and his adoption by an American woman living with her mother has caused considerable controversy and evoked scrutiny from many countries. Some commentators claim that the boy simply had attachment disorder and that his adoptive grandmother, Nancy Hansen, and mother, Torry Hansen, should have tried harder with therapy. Others are sympathetic with the Hansens, who claim that the boy was violent, often had tantrums and threatened to burn down their home.
But this case is far more complicated than what many people understand. International adoptions have become a cottage industry. Americans are the leading importers of children through adoption. As the American demand for children from abroad has grown, the supply has been provided by a range of agencies — some legitimate and others quite questionable. At the same time, the costs and special transaction fees associated with international adoptions have risen.
In effect, the dynamics of law and economics are at play, with the costs of adopting children from abroad rising each year. Some critics of international adoption point out that adoption has become a cottage industry, where children are exploited and sometimes are not truly surrendered for adoption.
David Smolin, a law professor, counts himself as being in this unusual space. When he arranged to adopt two girls from India in the late ’90s, he believed that his new daughters were orphaned. After they arrived, he soon discovered that the girls were never surrendered for adoption, but were basically trafficked — stolen from their mother. In addition, the most painful part for his daughters was that the agency lied about their ages. As it turned out, they were older than the documents claimed they were.
But Smolin’s case is not unique. Other families face similar traumas and uncomfortable revelations. Maria Melichar of Mayer, Minn., spent $30,000 to adopt two girls from India, Komal and her sister, Shallu. After they arrived, the girls, who had been described as ages 12 and 11 respectively, had difficulty adjusting to their new American surroundings. Komal was often violent and angry. The family soon learned why, but not before spending tens of thousands of dollars and expending considerable energy to support their new daughters. In a shocking revelation, the parents learned that their new daughters were actually 21 and 15.
Everyone had been exploited; the girls and the Minnesota couple. In that case, too, the girls were sent back home.
Adoption fraud makes international adoptions a far more complicated zone. For decades, psychologists and others have described the tensions and unhappiness that children experience after their placement as “attachment disorder.” Surely in many cases they are right. But there are times when the label does not apply and can be misleading. This is compounded by language barriers; Americans adopt children from Russia, China, Korea, Guatemala and other countries without any language proficiencies in their children’s native tongues and therefore cannot communicate effectively.
Conflating all cases of adoptees not adapting well as “attachment disorder” obscures the fact that agencies and orphanages with very murky practices have rapidly developed in places like Russia, Guatemala, India, and other countries — to ship kids to the United States because it is profitable.
For children stolen from their parents, or trafficked for some other reason, the anxiety displayed may be because they feel victimized, not rescued from their circumstances. In fact, Guatemala, a country that ranks among the top four in the number of children sent to the United States for adoption, recently clamped down out of fear that children were being stolen from their parents, exploited in sex rings and trafficked for their organs. This was a powerful statement coming from a nation where one child for every hundred ends up in a United States home.
The case of Justin Hansen and his would-be American family highlights contemporary fault lines in international adoptions. Sometimes not all adoptions are exactly what they appear to be.
Michele Goodwin is the Everett Fraser professor of law and a professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of “Baby Markets: Money and the New Politics of Creating Families.”