Where’s the Humanity in Intercountry Adoption?
An adult adoptee shines a light on the system of international adoption.
You may remember 2010 articles about the 7-year-old who was put on a plane by himself, with a note “returning” him to Russia because his adoptive mother in the United States was unable to cope with his behavior. More recently, a white American couple with a well-sponsored, aspirational YouTube parenting vlog adopted and subsequently gave up a young boy from China. Despite their financial gain from publicizing their adoption of a toddler from another country, they “rehomed” 5-year-old Huxley upon finding out he had challenging behavior and level 3 autism.
Essentially, these people bought children in private adoptions from other countries and then returned them when they realized their purchases weren’t perfect. The language used around adoption by some people in the U.S. is comparable to the language used to describe the buying and selling of pets (“rehoming,” for example), so it is no wonder that children who do not fulfill the idealistic dreams of some adoptive parents are treated like commodities. We should be as appalled by the casual adoption and relinquishment of children as we would be by the abandonment of biological children. Would these people give up their biological children because they had behavioral issues or neurological differences?
A report published by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families stated that between 5% and 25% of adoptions are discontinued or disrupted, even after finalization of the process. Facebook groups like Second Chance Adoptions show this kind of behavior continuing with little consideration for the emotional trauma caused to the adopted child. Like Huxley, I was brought to the U.S. as an intercountry, transracial adoptee. Also like Huxley, I was moved and adopted again within the U.S. In my case, I was adopted three times. That’s right: once through an intercountry adoption from my birth country of South Korea, then two more times before the age of 8 within the state of Oregon.
Luckily, the third time was the charm for me. Because of the love and nurturing of my final adoptive family, I am whole and content with my upbringing. I am not angry about my own adoption experience, but I am very disappointed in the adoption system, both internationally and domestically. I am also in disbelief about a system that in essence trafficks children for the financial gain of a country or countries. I am appalled that it permits adoptive parents to return or “give up” a child as if they had purchased a defective product rather than taken on a relationship with a human being. I am disgusted that the system does not hold individuals accountable for the disruption they cause in a child’s life when their unrealistic expectation of adoption does not go as imagined. I’m sickened that without tracking, follow-up, or care, child victims of relinquishment are lost to further abuse and trauma.
There are a million and one excuses from the creators, workers, and users of the system to justify how and why such atrocities occur. Unfortunately, none of them recompense the sufferer. It is no wonder, then, that so many adoptees are angry. The industry of 20th-century intercountry adoption came out of war, specifically aid following the Korean War, as described by Eleana Kim in the research paper “The Origins of Korean Adoption: Cold War Geopolitics and Intimate Diplomacy.” According to the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ annual adoption report, the number of intercountry adoptions has declined: There were 22,987 intercountry adoptions in 2004 compared with 2,971 in 2019. Still, of the top five countries sending children to the U.S. for adoption in 2021, South Korea was the only developed nation and the fourth highest sender of children to be adopted.
While it may be true that most of these children adopted into American homes were or are being raised as normally as any biological child, there are still a significant number of outliers to the ideal adoption experience. “Since 1948, over 500,000 children have been adopted from abroad by U.S. citizen parents with the promise of a better life,” members of the advocacy group Adoptees for Justice, a U.S.-based adoptee-led organization, wrote me. “Due to a tremendous lack of oversight by the U.S. government and a loophole in the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, thousands of people who were adopted as infants and children from overseas do not have U.S. citizenship.”
Campaigners like Kyung-eun Lee are fighting for the human rights of adoptees like Adam Crapser and Monte Haines under the 1993 Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. Like many others, Crapser and Haines suffered abuse and trauma as intercountry adoptees in the U.S., only to be denied the security of citizenship and deported to their birth countries as adults. The Adoptee Citizenship Act (ACA) of 2021 seeks to correct the fact that between 15,000 and 18,000—and possibly more, due to lack of documentation—intercountry adoptees in the U.S. lack citizenship. The ACA was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2022, but not in the Senate.
Organizations like Adoptees for Justice and the Alliance for Adoptee Citizenship are working hard with local and federal governments to protect the human rights of intercountry adoptees. Adoptees for Justice asks supporters to educate members of Congress and your community, subscribe to Adoptees for Justice and National Korean American Service and Education Consortium newsletters, and donate to adoptees without citizenship and adoptees who have been deported. We must bolster and listen to the voices of adult adoptees so that communication and collaboration between all parties of the adoption system can work together. Intercountry adoptees are displaced as children from our biological roots and heritage. What we want is a system that cares about adoptees first and recognizes us as human beings, not commodities.