Commoditization of children can result in mixed expectations
In a country that frequently yields children for adoption by American parents, nearly 90 percent of birth mothers who gave up their children would not have done so had they known the children would never return, says a new study by a Brigham Young University professor.
Jini Roby, an assistant professor of social work, was invited by officials of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, an island nation in the Central Pacific, to study the skyrocketing number of Marshallese children adopted by American parents. Roby's study, featured in the new issue of the journal "Adoption Quarterly," details disturbing aspects of international adoption from the perspective of a country that sends its children to the United States.
The number of foreign children adopted by Americans has tripled in the past decade according to the State Department, bringing 21,000 children to the United States in 2002.
"A number of Eastern European and Asian countries have suspended or put moratoria on international adoptions in an effort to get a better grip on how international adoptions are handled internally," said Madelyn Freundlich, director of policy for Children's Rights, a nonprofit agency based in New York City.
Roby, a native Korean orphan adopted by Americans at age 14, took two of her students and employed a handful of native research assistants to interview 73 Marshallese birth mothers who had placed their children for international adoptions. She found that cultural misunderstandings, extreme poverty and a lack of regulation all contributed to a confusing situation for birth families.
"In some cases, local adoption intermediaries were going door to door, pressuring families to give up their children," said Roby, who is also an adoption attorney. "Sometimes children become commodities in the business of international adoption."
Through her interviews, Roby could see that most mothers did not understand the legal implications of Western adoptions. More than 80 percent of the birth mothers believed at the time of relinquishment that their children would return to them at age 18.
"They thought their children would come back both educated and wealthy," Roby said.
One explanation for this false hope is differing cultural views of adoption. Roby stunned an audience of Marshallese teachers and government workers when she explained that in the Western world, a judge can permanently break the bond between parent and child. Because of the Marshallese perception that all adoptions are open and actually extend family ties, Roby titled her article, "If I Give You My Child, Aren't We Family?"
Such cultural misunderstandings allowed some adoption agency representatives to exploit uninformed Marshallese mothers by perpetuating the myth that adopted children would someday return. One agency representative told Roby that such deceptive practices are unethical, but one hour later testified in a nationally broadcast public hearing that only parents who relinquished children through her agency would see their children again.
Nearly all of the mothers in the study reported that they generated no income at all, and a majority received no financial support from the birth father. Almost 69 percent of the impoverished women believed they would receive financial compensation in exchange for relinquishing their child. Roby said that although there is seldom ill will on the part of agencies or adopting parents, the expectations of monetary help after the adoption become an inducement for mothers to give up their children to international adoption agencies.
"The focus of our concern should be: How can we help these families so they can care for their children's needs? Where that is not possible, how can we make sure that the adoption process is ethical, respectful, and dignified?" Roby said.
Government officials of the Marshall Islands have also invited Roby back this summer to determine the feasibility of establishing in-family and domestic adoption programs. If such options become available, adopted children can retain their native cultural identity, birth parents can maintain contact with children, and the country can keep its most valuable resource: its people.
At the conclusion of the study, Roby drafted adoption legislation, which was passed in November by the Nitijela, the legislative body of the Marshall Islands' parliament.
"The new law creates a central authority to monitor adoptions, provides standards for adoption procedures and prohibits solicitation," Roby said.
"Research on birth mothers and their decision making is quite limited domestically, but it is virtually nonexistent in the context of international adoption," Freundlich said. "Professor Roby's study sheds empirical light on the realities of birth parents' experiences and decision making and provides critical information that can be used to more appropriately shape policy in this underregulated area of adoption."
The article in Adoption Quarterly was co-authored by Stephanie Matsumura, who has since received a master's degree in social work from BYU and is now a student at the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU.
Writer: Joseph Hadfield