Thursday, June 21, 2018

Adoption and Child Separation at the Border

On June 1, 2018 Rebekah Henson published an important thread on Twitter critiquing the hashtags #FamiliesBelongTogether and #KeepFamiliesTogether. The frame with “Families Belong Together” on profile pictures is popping up on my Facebook news feed. I understand. It’s a compelling turn of phrase and gets at the heart of what needs to happen. Families should not be separated upon entry to the United States. And yet, as Henson mentions, “But many of the voices rallying for these families have been completely silent in the face of other crimes committed against mothers and children throughout the history of child welfare in America.”

Henson’s reactions are not isolated. Native News Online captures the voices of American Indian leaders speaking out about the practice of incarcerating children and notes the similarities to the boarding school project. The Associated Press compiled additional examples of separating families, as did the Washington Post. Loey Werking Wells shared her experiences of separation via Korean international adoption. Historian Beth Lew-Williams recalled her grandfather’s separation from his family as he was placed in immigration detention at age nine on Angel Island Immigration Station. A survivor of Japanese internment camps (which at the time were also known as concentration camps) believes we’re at risk for history repeating itself. Making this comparison clear is George Takei, who writes:


Imagine this scene: Tens of thousands of people, mostly families with children, are labeled by the government as a threat to our nation, used as political tools by opportunistic politicians, and caught in a vast gray zone where their civil and human rights are erased by the presumption of universal guilt. Thousands are moved around to makeshift detention centers and sites, where camps are thrown together with more regard to the bottom line than the humanity of the new residents. 

That is America today, at our southern border, which asylum-seekers and undocumented migrants alike are seeking to cross. But it is also America in late 1941, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, when overnight my community, my family, and I became the enemy because we happened to look like those who had dropped the bombs. And yet, in one core, horrifying way this is worse. At least during the internment of Japanese-Americans, I and other children were not stripped from our parents. We were not pulled screaming from our mothers’ arms. We were not left to change the diapers of younger children by ourselves.

Former first lady Laura Bush also compared to what’s happening with Japanese internment and acknowledged how it took decades for the United States government to recognize that internment was wrong. She highlighted the cruelty of separating children from parents.

Individuals speaking out about the emotional, psychological, and physical harm of these separations were not only considering what has happened in the United States. Drawing upon her own experience as someone part of the Sixties Scoop of indigenous children in Canada, Raven Sinclair noted how reports of the separated children and families was a trigger for her. She also integrated her expertise as a professor of social work to discuss the turmoil and trauma of separation. A child survivor of the Holocaust recalled the trauma of being separated for her family.

When the news of these separations quickly made headlines, I thought to myself that we cannot make this normal. This is not normal. This is not okay. And then I thought about the historical traumas of separating children of color and indigenous children from their natal families. I see what’s happening as part of a broader need for reproductive justice to protect the rights of parents of color and indigenous parents to parent. Recently, I published an article that situates adoption within a reproductive justice framework. That essay is in conversation with Dorothy Roberts, Laura Briggs, Rickie Solinger, and Loretta Ross, among others, as I discuss the ways adoption privileges the rights of white adoptive parents at the expense of limiting the ability of non-white individuals who seek to parent.


Brief Overview of Family Separation in This Week’s Headlines

What I will discuss below focuses on how these separations run the risk of transforming these children into adoptable objects—transformed into disciplined bodies acceptable to white America. I use the term object deliberately to reflect how adoptee subjecthood is erased when they are seen as interchangeable objects available for consumption. On Monday, ProPublica also published audio of children separated from their parents. For more information concerning what happened and is happening at the border, please see:




Please note, what I provided above is not a comprehensive list, nor could it be given the news cycle and how what’s occurring continues to evolve in real time. Rather, these links are meant to be the start to your exploration of this issue (if you have not been reading or watching the news for the past week).


So where does adoption come in?

On June 15, Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked Romans 13 as he defended the administration’s policy towards undocumented immigration, including separating families. The use of this Biblical quote drew ire of Christians for a variety of reasons, including because Romans 13 was used to justify slavery and the Fugitive Slave Act. Other Christians also objected to the use of the verse in this way. Within my own networks, friends tweeted or posted Biblical scripture that reflected the ways the Bible embraces our neighbor. And I deeply appreciate Brittney Cooper’s discussion of how Jeff Sessions’ Christianity does not speak for her.

As a friend posted Biblical quotes throughout the day on Facebook, I was reminded of how Evangelical Christian adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents frequently invoke James 1:27 to discuss why they’re compelled to adopt.  Yet, these individuals overlooked the second half of the Biblical verse—“to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (emphasis mine). And we have seen throughout history what happens when religion is misused, misapplied, perverted to justify slavery and war, among other inhumane actions. But as this unfolded, I had a gut feeling that at some point we would see how these separated children would become linked to fostering and adoption. And unfortunately, I (and many others who work in adoption) were right.

Bethany Christian Services reported to the media that they placed at least 81 children separated from their families at the southern U.S. border into foster care placements or group placements in West Michigan. And as Adoption Scholars including myself are discussing online, Bethany is laying the groundwork to turn these children into objects ready to be adopted. As I watched this video, I could only think of how Bethany is situating themselves as a “benefactor” or “good” figure in this time in comparison to warehousing children. In turn, foster care becomes a better option, despite the fact that foster care produces trauma and violence in the lives of youth. The video also illustrates how religion becomes invoked to protect these children—and it reminds me of Bob Pierce of World Vision and Harry Holt in the immediate post-Korean War period or the desire by religious organizations to rescue Haitian children immediately after the2010 earthquake in Haiti. Kathryn Joyce has also documented the trouble with the Christian adoption movement in essays and in her book, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption. I urge folks to take a critical eye at how Bethany (and presumably other foster care and adoption agencies and Christian organizations) respond to this crisis. Adoptees and Adoption Studies scholars know what “saving” children really means and it’s never about family reunification or family preservation.

In their interview with Dona Abbott, the Director for Refugee and Foster Care Programs at Bethany, Fox 17 West Michigan asked about  whether the agency was profiting from these children. Abbott responded: "We’re not. Again it would be hard to say we’re profiting off of them for adoption when we’ve not placed any of these children for adoption. And it’s so early on to say whether these children will be available for adoption at all."  That said, I remain skeptical. After all, who is the agency contracting with to even start placing these children? And, what happens if these children are not reunited with their parents?

Questions also need to be asked regarding what happens to these children if they fall through the cracks. How does this relate to those adoptees without citizenship? Or those orphans who entered on humanitarian parole?

We are seeing the beginnings of how organizations transform black and brown children to desirable bodies for adoption. These are the same children Americans seek to adopt when they are considered “over there” or not linked to black and brown adults. Finding Fernanda by Erin Siegel demonstrates the experiences of adoptive parents as they sought to adopt children from Guatemala.  We are seeing how children’s bodies are being disciplined to become acceptable bodies of children of color—potential adoptees, potential kin to white families.

Silence is violence, especially now. This is why I urge white adoptive parents of children of color in particular to use your voice and speak. Advocate for family preservation and reunification. See how your child’s immigrant story is aligned with the immigrant experiences of these other children. Adoptees should not be exceptional immigrants, but yet we are. We are heralded while people who could be our parents, siblings, or children are denigrated. And don’t be fooled—your children are not exceptions, not when we see naturalized citizens not having the ability to think their citizenship is permanent. To look away and think, “Well my child would not have this happen to them,” at some point we might be in a situation where they will come for us—adoptees. And then what? I’m reminded of the poem, “First they came for the socialists,” by Martin Niemöller given the ways in which American society is normalizing the behavior and dehumanization of some ethnic, racial, and religious groups over others. A quick Google search will reveal that I’m not alone in this concern.

The adoption community is already grappling with the deportation of internationally adopted persons whose parents or guardians failed to naturalize them as children who have been convicted of crimes. I argue in my monograph, Disrupting Kinship: Transnational Politics of Korean Adoptees in the United States (University of Illinois Press, forthcoming 2019), that we need to place these deportations and access to retroactive citizenship in conversation with what is occurring more broadly concerning contemporary immigration policy. To decouple adoption from immigration overlooks the ways in which adoption policy has been predicated upon the ways international adoptees are situated as exceptional migrants. But my focus in this essay is not currently on this particular argument; rather, my interest in this lies in demonstrating how children of color and indigenous children are seen as mutable subjects—at first characterized negatively as unassimilable and alien and then remolded as acceptable after they enter foster care.


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