A Guatemalan court has ordered a Missouri couple to return a child they say was kidnapped from her mother nearly five years ago and later fraudulently adopted. Sometime in the near future—if they’re lucky—at least two, and probably more, Chinese adoptees may also be told that they weren’t abandoned by their birth families, as they have surely been told, but stolen from them. The New York Times reported this morning that at least 16 babies were seized by family planning officials in Longhui, China between 1999 and 2006 (and the fact that 16 have been reported, in a country where such complaints are punished rather than investigated, suggests many more). The children may have been put up for adoption by foreigners. Sadly, that (or sale to a Chinese family planning to pass the child off as their own) is the best case scenario. Far worse would be sale to child trafickers for other purposes, and it’s that “far worse” scenario that makes even a child whose life could be further disrupted luckier than she might have been.
In both China and Guatemala (and Ethiopia, and in every “sending country” in international adoption), the parents of stolen children grieve, while local governments remain nonresponsive or, as in the China case, collude with the kidnappers. But in China and Guatemala et al there are also children—many children—who’ve been abandoned, relinquished or orphaned and who really need new homes. The difficulty is, and always will be, knowing which is which. Many of the children in need of new families are older, but age is no guarantee that there was no fraud involved in a child’s initial removal from her home. There may also be children whose parents would not leave them if it weren’t for the promise of a better life through adoption or a city education, which may or may not ever be realized. Some people argue that in this way, international adoptions perpetuate the very situation they hope to relieve, by effectively providing a market for children that “sending countries” would otherwise have to cope with themselves. The international community has sought a one-size-fits all answer to these question for years. But there’s never going to be an easy answer because there is no easy answer.
Every single adoption is its own story, with its own tragedies and triumphs, and every adoption has to be handled individually. That’s not a view that’s going to make adoption any cheaper, or faster, or easier. But better to move closer to a system of one adoption at a time, as Ethiopia is doing, than risk either more corruption or an end to international adoption. Because for every story like that of Yang Ling, stolen in China at 9 months old, there are untold happy endings. There are families like this one, from Saskatchewan, who adopted two children from Ethopia and brought them home to find, not that they’d been stolen, but that they’d left behind a brother whom they were able to return for and adopt. I know another adoptive family, with children from China, who had a similar experience (and would prefer that I not link to their blog). There’s Jessica O’Dwyer, whose excellent book, Mamalita, chronicles her experiences within the corrupt Guatemalan system as an adoptive parent. She moved to Guatemala for months to care for the child she planned to adopt and worked her way out from under a corrupt lawyer and facilitator to eventually locate her daughter’s birth mother herself and hear her story before the adoption was finalized.
As for Anyali, the Guatemalan child now known as Karen Abigail (whose story is far from finished), her adoptive parents have been accused of knowing for years that their daughter was at least suspected of being stolen from her mother. If that’s true, it sounds unforgivable. But consider that, according to journalist Erin Siegal, whose forthcoming book Finding Fernanda chronicles another case of a stolen Guatemalan child, Anyali’s adoptive mother was told that if she pursued the question of why Anyali’s DNA did not match that of the woman she’d been told was Anyali’s birth mother, the man who had custody of Anyali might simply “dump the girl ‘somewhere where nobody could find her.’” At this moment, Anyali’s adoptive mother may be kidnapping her. At that moment, she might have saved her. It wouldn’t excuse years of ignoring ugly evidence about Anyali’s birth family, but it does suggest that things aren’t black and white.
Every single adopted child has a different and complicated story of heartbreak and joy and tears and sorrow. Every single one has a birthmother with another story, and an adoptive family with another story. When it comes to adoption, particularly international adoption, many people (like a number of the commenters on this morning’s New York Times piece), want to reduce those stories into generalizations and policies, when we should be trying to do just the opposite, and make sure that all of those stories have a place to be told. When we try instead to create rules that cover everyone, we tend to put in place systems that are even more easily corruptible than individuals. The easy answer to the “question” of ethical international adoption? It’s always got to be hard.