The Benefits of International Adoption

Earthquakes in Haiti and Chile have left thousands of children orphaned and revived debates over the value of international adoption. In the weeks since a group of American missionaries were arrested on charges of child-trafficking, Haiti's orphans have continued to trickle across her borders. More than 300 Haitian children have been adopted by families in France, and the State Department estimates that nearly 2,000 will have been placed with U.S. families by month's end. Thanks to enhanced scrutiny by both Haitian and U.S. officials in the wake of the missionary debacle, it appears that the vast majority of those adoptions will be of legitimate orphans and not child-trafficking victims.

That won't silence critics, who argue that taking orphaned children from their birth countries and raising them elsewhere robs those nations of their most valuable resource and leaves the adoptees with a hopelessly fractured ethnic identity, only to satisfy the capricious whims of wealthy Westerners. (The contentious term cultural genocide is sometimes employed.) Opponents of international adoption routinely point to the abundance of orphans here in the U.S. where they claim it is both easier and cheaper to adopt. From there, they typically question the motives of "eager white Americans" who would endeavor "to adopt children that look nothing like them,"—as if every would-be parent who sought to adopt overseas were somehow trying to be Angelina Jolie. There are some persistent myths behind that argument that need dispelling. But first, a quick story:

My own parents suffered through a string of miscarriages and failed attempts to adopt in the U.S. before fetching my older sister, twin brother, and I from a dilapidated orphanage in Medellín, Colombia. It was the late 1970s, and we were infants—two of us premature and very sick. They nursed us back to health, brought us to a working-class suburb of New Jersey and promptly went about the business of raising us. Among the many things they took pains to instill (like work ethic, faith in God, and a healthy appreciation for good lasagna), a sense of Colombian-ness was not included. Nor was it to be acquired elsewhere: together my siblings and I made up about half the town's Colombian population.

But if we lacked a clear blueprint for our ethnic identities, we still had plenty of other parameters from which to forge our sense of selves: we were blue-collar kids from Jersey. We grew up amongst the mostly Irish- and Italian-American children of nurses, plumbers, and store clerks. Like them, we indulged in all the rituals of our particular American upbringing. And like most internationally adopted children, we turned out just fine.

To be sure, there are some significant and seemingly unclosable gaps in our cultural identities. I remember eagerly befriending two Colombian kids that moved to our town in junior high, only to find out that we had nothing special in common. "I'm Colombian too," I exclaimed to one of them, a girl the same age as me. She smiled and started speaking in Spanish. I furrowed my brow to show that I didn't understand. "Where are you from?" she asked in English. "Medellín," I said. "No," she said, laughing. "You definitely aren't."

In later years my twin brother (who is darker than my sister and I) would occasionally be subject to racial profiling. And, as we belatedly discovered, all three of us would have to go through the complicated and lengthy process of naturalization before we could obtain driver's licenses (or register to vote or apply for financial aid for college). We were immigrants and minorities—but only sometimes. The same was true of our Italian experience. I know more about Palermo and my father's upbringing in 1950s Bensonhurst than I ever will about Medellín, but I feel as dishonest calling myself Italian or Italian-American as I do calling myself Colombian. That's OK by me. My loss of ethnic heritage has been more than compensated for in the multitude of opportunities afforded by my adoption. Besides, I kind of like being a cultural chameleon (Colombian by birth, Sicilian by adoption, and American by upbringing). It makes me unique.

I won't pretend my experience is the same as it would be if I were black or Asian, or even a darker shade of Hispanic, and I'm not trying to say that race doesn't matter at all. But race and ethnicity shouldn't be the foremost concerns of adoptive parents, foreign governments, or society at large. The primary consideration should be the welfare of the children in question. Where will they have the best chance at happy, fulfilling lives? How best can the global community ensure their health and safety?

Within the U.S., the federal government has long since determined that while race and ethnicity merit consideration, they should not be the deciding factors in any adoption. That's because numerous studies show that transracial and transcultural adoptees don't face any higher risks of psychological problems or identity issues than domestic, same-ethnicity adoptees. As uncomfortable as it makes some people to acknowledge, white parents are capable of raising emotionally healthy black, Asian, and Hispanic children. And that's no less true when the child comes from another country.

Those who argue that prospective parents should "just adopt in the U.S." don't understand the motivations of most adoptive parents. If would-be adopters were acting out of some profound sense of charity, then reasonable people could debate the merits of alleviating greater suffering abroad vs. considerably less suffering closer to home. (In Colombia in 1977, children who weren't adopted by the age of 9 or 10 were turned out onto the street: girls mostly became prostitutes, boys joined the guerrilla armies or found work in the coca fields. By contrast, American orphans of the same generation were guaranteed food, shelter, and some form of education until they turned 18.)

But the fact is, most adoptive parents are like mine: they are unable to conceive but desperately want to experience parenthood—in all its permutations. That means they want babies. In the U.S., 60 percent of eligible orphans are more than 5 years old. Several critics have argued that the supply of Third-World infants is not a natural occurrence but a response to the demand of adoption markets in the West. This is only partly true: yes, Western demand motivates child-traffickers. But even after child trafficking is taken out of the equation, there are still many more infants to adopt abroad than there are in the U.S. (6.6 million compared with less than 60,000, based on an analysis of data from Unicef and the United States Department of Health and Human Services). International adoption is expensive (up to $40,000 in many cases) and takes a long time (one to three years on average)—long enough to consider all of the challenges and complexities that raising a child of different cultural or ethnic heritage will entail. It's not a process one enters into lightly.

In fact, most parents choose international adoption only after being repeatedly stymied by U.S. adoption protocols—from birth parents that change their minds at the last minute, to stringent and sometimes arbitrary requirements on the part of domestic adoption agencies. Speaking of which, it is patently false that the high-profile choices of a few celebrities have triggered an international adoption boom. In fact, in the U.S. especially, international adoption rates have plummeted—from about 25,000 in 2004 to less than 13,000 in 2009. Today, they are at an all time low, thanks to the greater availability of contraception, a global crackdown on child-trafficking, and better economic conditions in places like Russia and China, the birthplace of many internationally adopted orphans.

These days, internationally adoptive parents often go to great lengths to preserve their adoptive children's sense of cultural heritage—a big change since I was adopted from Colombia. According to one Harvard survey, 15 percent of transracially adoptive parents move to more ethnically diverse neighborhoods after adopting, to enhance their child's exposure to other people of the same ethnicity. Many parents take corresponding language and cooking lessons and many more immerse themselves in the diaspora communities of their children's birth countries. Some also participate, with their children, in "homeland tours" offered by international adoption agencies.

At the same time, adult adoptees from Korea, China, and elsewhere have formed national organizations to facilitate homeland visits and lobby for dual citizenship, among other things. There is no reason to think that Haitian orphans won't do the same. To be sure, they will face barriers to forging coherent racial and ethnic identities—almost all internationally and interracially adopted children do. But those barriers won't be insurmountable and they won't necessarily be devastating. In the end, what matters most is not where a child is from, but whether or not that child is well loved and well cared for by a responsible family—regardless of race or nationality.