Open Mike: Orphanage or Adoption?

The discussion that's taken place here over the past few days is begging an important question, and I would like to put it up in an Open Mike to encourage discussion about it.

I've been dancing around this issue for a long time; among other reasons, I believe my experience is too narrow to speak with any authority on this, I don't know all the facts, and even if I did, I don't believe one person's opinion can ever tell the whole story.

The time has arrived, though, at which I need to face this question and finally put my thoughts to words. Before I do, I want to talk about it. But I ask it very directly here in the hope that you will share what's in your honest opinions.

As with all Open Mikes, all points of view are welcome, including multiple and anonymous comments, but please be civil.

Which is better: orphanage or adoption?
Why? When? How?


Dawn said…
I don't usually comment on international adoption discussions because I think my energy/attention is best turned to domestic adoption since that's how we built our family. But I feel comfortable saying that I agree with you -- this is too complex a question to have a simple answer. So much depends on situational factors:
--What kind of orphanage?
--Who is that child?
--How are "orphans" treated in the child's culture of origin?
--How is adoption handled in the child's culture of origin?
--What kind of personal circumstances led that child to be available for international adoption?
--What cultural circumstances drive the availability of children for international adoption?
--Who is doing the adopting?
--What sort of life would the child have if they stayed in the orphanage?

Sometimes a single adoption is the right choice but that doesn't mean the institution of adoption is right (much like domestic adoption).

I think that international adoption sometimes is a more clear ethical choice but I also think the waters are murky when we (the US) are taking children from one country to bring to the states. I know that many ethical international adopters are -- much like ethical domestic adopters -- troubled by their participation in an institution that does not have clear right or wrong answers.
atlasien said…
I would look at them as separate questions.

An orphanage or group home setting can work if

1) It's well-funded and well-run
2) The children are older and just need lots of structure and support (not necessarily mother/father figures) to prepare them for independence
3) it's a temporary stopping point until they reunite with a family

Otherwise they're a pretty horrible environment from all accounts.

Japan has well-run and well-funded "children's homes", instead of a foster care system. The subject carries an incredible weight of shame and silence. So far, I have not heard of anyone who will actually TALK about the children's homes that thinks they are a good institution...

I wish people in Japan would talk about the issue more, and move to a system relying more on foster care, guardianship and domestic adoption.
mominmaking said…
one of the fears I have about giving money to help people who live in other countries is what is going to happen to the money. You hear so many stories about the money ending up in the hands of war lords and evil government officials. I don't know how true this is, but it is something we Americans hear about a lot. So I get scared about donating. It seems if these women and children are going to recieve the help they need to stay together then governments from the top down (including ours) needs to change. But that task just seems impossiable. It really does. When I think about things like this it just makes me wish Jesus would come soon. YOu hear so many horror stories about ophranages that it seems hard to imagine a child would want to stay in such a place. But then again one doesn't know.
suz said…
I think adoptees are the best to comment. I am not one so my opinion is based purely on my own views - not actual, credible, experience.

Given the current state of adoption in the US, I lean towards orphanage. Probably not suprpising but let me explain.

In an orphanage the child grow up with the truth. Their name, their identity in tact. They know their parents are deceased or whatever. They are living a truth - albeit possibly poverty stricken difficult one.

With adoption, as it stands today, the soul of the child is case into a lie, deciet. They are forced, against their will to assume a new identity, new name, new country. Sure, their surface and material stuff improves, the POTENTIAL for a better future improves, but at what cost to their soul? What kind of damaage is done to their psyche so they can have those ponies and pools?
Adoption, definitely.

My son was in an orphanage and received amazing care, better than at many orphanages in Vietnam -- and I believe that in general orphanages in Vietnam are run very well. HOWEVER, even the well-run ones simply don't have enough staff to give all of the children enough attention.

In Nate's orphanage, the attention was clearly put on the babies and not much on the older children, and by "older," I'm even including toddlers. I know parents who’ve adopted “older” kids, even 18-24 month old kids from orphanages, and those kids tend to have some behavior problems from the get-go. One couple adopted 2 toddler girls, one from China and one from Vietnam. The one from China had some behavior that was hurtful to herself — she would bang herself on the head using the wall or the floor when she first got home with them. The girl from Vietnam would go into rages when she first got home with them, and was hurtful to the other girls and to them, biting, scratching, hitting. There was hoarding of food with both girls. I don’t know much about what behaviors children pick up in orphanages, but from what their parents said, these are pretty typical behaviors. It’s simply not the same to grow up in an orphanage as it is to grow up in a loving family and get taught what behavior is acceptable and what’s not. The orphanage behavior sounds like completely survival behavior. In a home and family, the child can be loved and nurtured so they can focus on things other than surviving; they can just be children.

The day that we spent at Nate's orphanage, it was mostly the older boys who were playing outside, and from the surface of it, they were "happy" enough, but I honestly didn't see any "life" or "spark," "light" in their eyes. They just looked lifeless and dull in the eyes. No spirit. There was clearlly something lacking and I think it's very simple -- they lacked the love that they can only get from being in a family situation. It broke my heart for each and every one of them.

In Vietnam, as far as I understand it, a child of an unwed mother is stigmatized. This is one of the main reasons -- along with poverty -- that children are relinquished for adoption.

Also, once children get to a certain age, they are "aged out" of the orphange and really left to fend for themselves. I wonder if the children who were begging or aggressively trying to sell us postcards in Saigon were formerly in orphanages. I honestly don't know, but if that's the case, then at least some of them are living on the streets.

I thought it was interesting that Adam Pertman of The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute's main quote when Angelina Jolie adopted from Vietnam was this:
""The truth is that any child who has been without a permanent family for the first three years of life is very lucky to go into a home where he can get the kinds of help that this child will need." -- seeing the value of a family over staying in an orphanage without a family.

So, family trumps an orphanage. A loving family where they can have the love, attention, and care that every child deserves and where they can focus on just being kids.
This is my comment from your last post. It is appropriate for this post as well...
I have an inner struggle with this one. I am only going to answer this as a mother now. The answer as a "activist-humanitarian" could be an entirely different answer. I have not sat down yet to really think this one out with that "hat" on.
What I saw at my daughters 1st orphanage was horrible. An armed guard holding a rifle greeted us at the metal gated door. We walked down a long open air corridor hemmed by barbed wire. I realized there was no place for the children to see sunlight. During awake hours, they were all placed in a single large room that was divided by baby gates for each age group. There was a long row of high chairs so they could feed an assembly line. A large bowl was brought out with one spoon. The caretaker would then go down the row and spoon feed one child, take a step to the left, and with the same spoon feed the next child. When the food ran out, lunch was over. I blame this type of "feeding practice" on my daughters beginning "eating disorder." I have never seen a child shovel food into their mouth because she was afraid that the food was going to run out. We have gotten over that hump, but it took months. The second orphanage that she was moved too was "nice." They did have their own medical facility, and a very small concrete patch outside for the children. What made me so terribly sad was that I found her "baby gated" behind a 20 x 20 foot area. That is where she stayed from 6am to 7pm. When we brought her home, she never left the living room. She would stay in the room I placed her in. She didn't understand that she could move around, that she had that freedom. It was huge when she actually walked into the kitchen.
So having this experience, I would have to say that orphanage life would not have been better.
So two questions...

1. Do we need to work on bettering orphanages and turn them into "children's homes" to keep them in country? (okay, that is me wearing the other hat, I can't help it)

and please don't take this the wrong way...

2. Would it be better or more acceptable "culturally" if I was of Guatemalan heritage?
suz said…
i wanted to add, and i think Rocky alludes to it, that my statement is based on current adoption regulations and norms. if adoption was not closed, if there were open records, no name changing, etc. i would lean towards adoption.
faced with living an honest known life as a poor orphan versus living a dual life as a closed records named changed denied medical heritage adoptee - i lean towards orphanage.

orphans have more rights than our american adopted children.
tina said…
I think this is a great topic to discuss and you know, if we are going to really discuss it, let's just do it openly in this kind of forum.

Suz, your comments are the ones I react to the most. I am in the rare position of having grown up adopted with closed/sealed birth certificate and records, who is now grown up and adopting internationally. I'm in both camps. I know how it feels to receive a scrap of information via non-identifying report and how it feels to look at your original birth name. I know adoption lonliness and existential issues surrounding it. I champion all open records and adoptee emopwerment groups and belong to them.

So, I just want you to know my background and that my opinion doesn't come lightly or without personal experience.

I've recently been to a baby house and orphanage in a third world country. I spent nearly two weeks visiting every day. Adoption is absolutely the answer I have for this topic. The children ran to us every day and called us mama and papa. They craved hugs and attention. Some are withdrawn and scared. The babies don't cry. An institution is not any kind of comparison to an intimate family life, even if there were the loss of first family. I want to be clear here that I absolutely believe that adoption should never be the first choice. But, to have to choose between an orphanage or group home or whatever you want to call it, even with cultural preservation being present in such a place, I easily choose adoption. Even a really, really, really good one. I also want to say that in international adoption I place the burden of responsibility on the adoptive parent to rise to the task of putting their child first. What this means to me is:
1.integrating the child's birth country and culture into the fabric of your family. And not just by going to a restaurant once a year that serves that food.

2.To never ever speak in a negative way regarding the country or child's family in any way.

3. To try and make the adoption as transparent as possible by leaving your name and address with the orphanage so that the mother or family can find the child.

4. To put your own issues aside and far below your child's issues regarding adoption.

5. To initiate conversation and support for your child regarding their adoption issues and feelings of loss.

6. To love fiercely and openly but not expect your love to be enough to fill in the inherant losses in adoption, including your own.

I'm sure there are many more, but those come to mind immediately.

Suz, I'm not trying to polarize, truly. I've been wanting a discussion like this for a long time out here in the open. It's just that I really believe that if we are saying that an institution, whatever the quality and intention, isn't a replacement for true intimacy and family strength which every child needs. So, if for whatever reason a child isn't with her first family, or with her countrymen being adopted by them, then it is much much much better to grow up in a family.

Thank you Margie for this forum.

justenjoyhim/judy said…
I love being a librarian :).

This might have to become a separate post itself, but let me put it here first:

In a scholarly journal, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2006, two experts who work in the Centre for Child and Family Studies in The Netherlands did meta-analyses on more than 270 studies that included more than 230,000 adopted children and non-adopted children and their parents -- an adoption catch-up model.

[from the abstract]
RESULTS: "Although catch-up with current peers was incomplete in some developmental domains (in particular, physical growth and attachment), adopted children largely outperformed their peers left behind [meaning, the ones left behind in orphanages -- they explain this better in the article]. Adoptions before 12 months of age were associated with more complete catch-up than later adoptions for height, attachment, and school achievement. International adoptions did not lead to lower rates of catch-up than domestic adoptions in most developmental domains.

Also, within the text:
"One of the most important bases of self-esteem and of the ability to fulfill one's goals -- whatever they are -- is the experience of a secure family life and the unconditional love of parents [citation here]. . . No rational decision maker would like to end up in the position of a maltreated or neglected child whose parents had to relinquish or abandon him or her, without the opportunity of adoption. Even the potential birth parent would agree that the most vulnerable position is that of the abandoned child, and that he or she should prioritise this child's right to a secure, permanent family life in order to prevent the child finding himself or herself in the minimal and hopeless position of the abandoned child."

[they do talk about ethics, the Hague Convention, and that adoption is a last resort, but stress that adoption is preferable to leaving children in an orphanage]
suz said…
Tina, no worries. I was clearly straddling the make very good very valid points.
My not so well expressed ansewr was adoption provided it comes with all the rights of every other human walking the earth. You can free the child from the orphanage but you still lock up their soul if you just put them into our archaic American adoption system.
abebech said…
Tina, thanks so much for sharing your perspective, and Judy, for your information. My less graceful and gracious response appears on my own blog.
Mommavia said…
Every chlid deserves a family. And if that family is through adoption, hopefully is it a family that will raise the child in truth. An orphanage is no place to raise babies...babies need to be held, to be cuddled, to bond with a mother and father.

There is no doubt that the conditions in most orphanages need to improve, but it should be a stepping stone (as another responder said), not a permanent solution.
Matt said…
I am an adoptee whose spouse made me come over here to answer this. I am surprised that it would even be a question. Leave a child in an orphanage as opposed to giving them a family to live in? What am I missing? I should add that I'm not one to believe in primal wound or any of that kind of thing and am fine with having been adopted. My parents are the ones who raised me, not the ones who birthed me, and I'd like to see more kids in orphanages have the opportunity to be in families. I'd be curious to know how pre-teens and teens who have spent their lives in orphanages would answer; are they happy with their status or do they wish they had had a family? Not sure how you go about getting information like that though. One thing I'd like to say in response to some of the other posts that being adopted is not a bad thing; it did not destroy me. I look to someone like Steve Jobs who founded Apple computers as a good example. He was adopted as a newborn and doesn't like his parents to be called "adoptive parents." He says that they are his "parents" and that's that. Many of us feel like that, but we aren't on blogs talking about it until our wives make us check things out.
Adopting from China said…
Is there a country anywhere that prefers orphanage-style living for kids over family life? I can't think of one. Seems like growing up in a family is a human value, not one that eager adopters have imposed on the ophanage system. Don't all kids deserve a family? Isn't that really the point of adoption, to provide families for kids who otherwise wouldn't have them?
I think (and I want to tread lightly here) sometimes Americans have an arrogance about adoption, particularly international adoption, that other countries would (and should) be thrilled to provide us with children. That attitide, however buried, has not served us well. Maybe we take too lightly the loss of culture and language and homeland. I can't comment on whether the loss of the one outweighs the benefit of the other...and I wonder if anyone adopted before the age of 5 can either, not having enough conscious memory of the orphange experience for comparison.
Would anyone adopt if they didn't believe deep down that the life they could provide for this child beat the orphanage all hollow? And by life, I mean love and nurture and support...not material stuff And of course, just like bio-kids, we can't sit around waiting for gratitude for rescuing kids couldn't care less that I wash their clothes, cook their meals, clean their toilets. And while I occasionally reproach them for not giving credit where it's due, the fact that they take this care completely for granted...well, isn't that what we want for them? For any child? To see love and nurture and care as their birthright? You don't get that in an orphanage.
Violeta said…
I think absolutely it's in the best interest of the child to be cared for in a family setting. This is also why I believe a foster home is better than a children's home. Every child should enjoy the right to be treated as an individual, not as a number.
However, I also believe openness, honesty, respect, and compassion are other things in the best interest of children, and I know those aren't always at work.
Also, I say this not as an adoptee but as an adoptive parent. My husband and I adopted internationally, but only transracially on his end.
Tina said…
I think that is so well-stated. "free the orphan from the orphange but lock up their soul in our system of adoption" I absolutely agree. There is still so much entitlement and feeling of ownership regarding adoptees. Many adoptive parents are so blind to what they are taking on and I don't believe that adoption agencies do enough to educate. I think this is what should be at the center of a homestudy. I have my husband all prepped for adoption, and made him read lots of books. But, that's because I know what it's like to be adopted and he MUST at least try to know what his daughter is going to go through.
Anyway, I'm getting way off topic here. sorry!
Margie said…
Thank you all for your comments - this is exactly the dialog I was hoping for.

As I read through everyone's comments, what strikes me is that the really significant portion of this question isn't the if, it's the why and when and how. Perhaps looking a the question in terms of black and white draws us back a little from extreme positions, and helps us focus on what we would do to make one solution or the other acceptable.

Much to chew on, and I hope anyone else that stops by adds their thoughts.
You are right on the money with this one. I knew going in what my responsibilities were both as a parent and as an a-parent. I knew I wanted to keep the culture alive for my girls. I have many plans to do such things. They are just so tiny still, they wouldn't get it.

But I think it is a great idea for adoption agencies to educate us as possible a-parents on the history and culture of that particular country. Even if it is a class that needs to be taken. A one day class that can "sum up" history, culture, holidays, etc. It might sound cheesy, but it is a start. It has to be better than nothing. If the average person new this basic info, it might just help. If average Joe and Jane American had booklets that were given about such subject matters, it might ignite conversation about what is needed to help the child when it comes to identity issues in the future.

That change could happen sooner than later. Would that be a change at the agency level, state level, or national level? Is this even a good idea to begin with?
Margie said…
PS to Matt - you are a good sport, please tell your wife thanks for me!
Tina said…
I think if I were in charge of making some decisions(...insert evil laugh here....) that I'd make it at the agency level. Some agencies do sponsor cultural activities and that's great. But what I would do is make mandatory book lists that included books like "20 things adoptees wish their parents knew" and "Outsiders Within" for international and trans-racial adoptions. The cultural stuff is the 'easier' stuff I think. It's getting Aparents to wrap their heads around the fact that all the love in the world doesn't cure the hurt and losses in adoption. It just doesn't. And I blame agencies for keeping these horrible ignorances alive as well as perpetuating or fueling the feelings of entitlement of some PAP's. Also, while I'm in charge and making policy, we have to address all the secrecies and lies that happen stemming from fear on the Aparent's part.

I know it's a crazy, tall order, and you know, it's unfair. A lot about adoption is unfair. But, so what? Life is unfair. So, if you're going to be a parent, and if you're going to be an adoptive have to be willing to get humble and deal with your own issues and BE there, show up for your kid. None of us is born with blank slates. We have personalities from day one. An adoptive parent has to get into that mindset and let their kid be THEM. Nurture the Nature. Honor the natrue. Instill your values and your love, but nurture the inherant nature of the child you were lucky enough to parent.

Um, I don't even know if that was remotely close to staying in the conversation...but this topic has opened my floodgates!
Michelle said…
I think orphanages such as the ones in Guatemala are indeed not a good environment for children to live in.

Taking a child out of country isn't always the best solution, either. But, with the situation at hand, and not many options to work with, the best you can do for the children you adopted is to try and keep them connected to their mothers/families and culture.

Certainly, in countries like the US and Canada, a child is presented with more opportunities, but this, along with good caregivers, does not dismiss the child's need to know their family and culture. it does not mean that when these children grow up they will take advantage of these opportunities.

If war were to break out in my country, and I was somehow left homeless and disconnected from my family and friends, I would appreciate, and even(gulp!) be grateful to someone who rescued me. But, I am an adult, and I know who I am (sort of, cuz I'm adopted) and I would understand what happened. I would have the resources to search for my people -I would be able to comprehend why I was separated from my people and culture.

Children can not comprehend this. They are too young, obviously, to process why they are not with their families and living in their homelend. The longer they are disconnected, the more confusing it becomes. They need to know their families to be able to hear and process the truth and to build their identity and develop a concept of self, based on their culture, parents and the the generations of parents before them.
Kayla said…
We have 4 birth daughters and 4 sons adopted from an orphanage in Liberia, West Africa. To see their absolute joy at having a blanket at night to keep them warm, to hear their relief about not having to sleep with rats, to see their fear subside knowing they were physically safe, not having to run from guns anymore...this is my perspective. Orphanage or Adoption: hands down my boys needed a family outside of their troubled country. I don't mean to be argumentative, I'm just sharing my perspective drawn from my experience, but I believe I saw their souls come alive after they came into our home and discovered what a daddy and a mommy were. Does this make life perfect for them? Absolutely not! I struggle with making sure they know just enough about their country and at the right time. Right now, we are building on their feelings of safety, hearing their stories and in the future more will be shared by us. I will not be able to control their perspective in the future, but I know we are working very hard to show all of our children that God plans our days and He is the one that brought us together as a family. Our boys are not going to act fully Liberian. They will carry with them the culture of America and our family. We have some pretty amazing boys who have been through a lot in their young ages. Why does adoption have to exist...because their is a need for it. Why do orphanages have to exist...because their is a need for them. I don't think its a question of pitting the two against each other. Orphanages, good and bad are filled with children because we live in an imperfect world where their lives are affected negatively. Some orphanages (depending on how they are run)can be a bright spot in a child's life. Adoption brings a sense of belonging and a tangible family, to a child. No one knows the outcome of adoption in any given family's life, but isn't it worth the risk? Forums like this are great if it moves people to action. That's what is really needed. Millions of children around the world (even in America) need people to actively feed, educate and love them. For many of us the action could be to foster or adopt and for others it could be working in an orphanage for a period of time (long or short) and for others it might mean both:) We all are probably keenly aware of some sort of need we wish more people were helping with! Let's all DO something!!

On the topic of education: I just wanted to offer a great book for anyone interested. It's called With Eyes Wide Open and was referred to us by our adoption agency. It is a great resource to prepare for your adopted child's arrival. International Agencies are starting to provide education as a part of the home study per some new requirements being set in place. This will be more time consuming for adoptive parents, but definitely worth it at so many levels!

Thanks for "listening."
Michelle said…
I can only comment on the basis of my daughter's orphanage in Guatemala City. She had scabies, an intestinal infection, bloody diaper rash, flat head with no hair on the back from being left in her crib 24/7, etc. etc. etc. I am doing my damndest to preserve her culture, language and develop a relationship with her first family. I don't feel like I've "rescued" a child. What I feel is sad. Sad for her firstmom and sad for my daughter who will experience loss, anger, guilt, confusion.... Guatemalan women are left with NO CHOICE, NO OPTION but to place their child due to poverty, no government funding and lack of recourses. There is NO such thing as an "adoption plan" for Guatemalan women. The attorney/facilitator and agency runs the show. Her first mother's pain is immeasurable and this makes me sad. In an ideal world there would be no orphanage, no need for adoption, but the reality isn't so. Orphanges/institutions leave the child vulnerable. Vulnerable to infectious diseases, nutrition and growth depravity, cognitive and social development delays, and physical and sexual abuse (again only on my one and only experience.) The most important thing for any child who has been abandoned or relinquished is a loving supportive family whether that be within the child's country (ideal but rare) or abroad.
Some more research yielded scholarly articles that found that children who are in orphanages for extended periods of time are more likely to develop indiscriminate friendliness, inattention, overactivity, and even PTSD. Not surprisingly, the longer the stay in orphanages, the worse the developmental problems.

Of course, the ideal would be for a child to first, stay with his family, and secondly, be adopted by a family within his country. If those options haven't been met, a loving family in another country is a better bet than living in an orphanage in his country. Numbers of studies, research, scholars, and child development experts bear this out.
Anonymous said…
Wow- never knew this one was even a valid question. I do think there are a few exceptional circumstances that support remaining in an orphanage -family visits, it's a temporary solution, or if the choice is between staying with siblings or being separated by adoption.

That said, let me tell you from the perspective of a big sister to 5 kids, 3 of whom were severely sexually abused (by first parents AND orphanage workers), that adoption was the only chance they stood to getting the psychologic help, overcoming RAD, recovering any emotional health, and living a life outside of prostitution, pediphilia, and poverty.

Adoption. With all the evils and negatives that can come along with it. Once you've seen what RAD can do to a child, or sexual abuse, there's no question. Not that that happens everywhere or everytime, but living in an institution is NOT healthy.
Anonymous said…
First, thank you for creating such a safe place for us to post our comments and ideas. I have so many thoughts on this topic, but I will try to keep my post brief.

At one year, my daughter came to me underweight, weak, malnourished. She could only sit up with assistance and did not walk until she was 18 months. Upon arriving home, she was diagnosed Failure to Thrive. A year later, after much love, attention, and adoration from her parents, she was thriving. Now a 4-year old, she is an amazing little girl with a sense of humor beyond her years and a true zest for life.

Here's what I believe: every child deserves to have a family who loves her, who cares for her, who cherishes her. THAT is her birthright... the same as learning Mandarin is her birthright. Just the other day, out of the blue, my daughter exclaimed at the breakfast table: "I love my family!"

I'm sad that she will not grow up in her birth culture... but it is what it is, so to speak. There is nothing we can do to change it, so we must accept it, address it, talk about it, and remember that sometimes sad things happen to us and that we must persevere.
Anonymous said…
I agree completely that this is a totally situational question but being an adoptive dad / brother to adoptees / doctor in international orphanages, I can say that none of us has any real perspective on this.
I respect the experience of adult adoptees, but I believe they also have the luxury of speaking from an educated, first world perspective, through which they have the time and means to spend glorifying life in an institution. It is very easy to glorify horrible orphanage experiences, many of which are defined by abuse and inadequate care, when you never lived them. I don't pretend to understand the adoptee experience, and I understand there are many adoptive parents who adopt children from cultures to which they're ignorant, or by unethical means. But barring those situations, life with a family is far healthier than life in an institution.
abebech said…
I'm so glad for these anonymouses. Such important things to say.
And I'm also glad to read that I'm not the only one surprised on some level that it was ever even in question. "Adoption" as we know it may be extraordinarily problematic (okay, it is) but the provision of permanent family situations (with all the benefits that entails -- again, why I don't think guardianship suffices -- for children without them seems its best practice.
With all this question has to go out to adult international adoptees. What was your experience, positive or negative, hopefully a little bit of both? Then what can we do as adoptive parents specifically to make things a bit easier for our children during this time of confusion. I know what I THINK I need to do. But I need to hear it from adults that either did get what they needed,hoped for etc, and from those who didn't. I have many adult friends who were adopted, but were all domestic.
There was no cultural lines that needed to be addressed. I knew I could not go to them for such answers.
Margie said…
I think what validates this question is the fact that a position that promotes the total abolishment of adoption MUST consider it. There are places in the world where the only alternatives for a child may be death, life on the street or adoption - no foster parents, no kinship adoptions, no group homes.

Looking at this in black and white terms brings out the grays, and forces us to consider the whys and whens and hows.
Thank you Margie for a wonderful day of posting and commenting. I look forward to tomorrow.
Anonymous said…
I've been pondering a similar question in regards to my own daughters: foster care in China vs. adoption and life in the US?

My oldest came from a well-run orphanage, and was not terribly delayed physically, nor did she have many food issues. However, her emotional development was significantly impacted by her experience. My younger daughter was in foster care. Ironically, she was significantly delayed physically. But she has shown much higher emotional resilience. How much of this was due to differences in temperament and how much due to the type of care they received is hard to say.

I do feel my older daughter is better off growing up with me than in the orphanage. I don't have the same certainty regarding my younger daughter. She had medical issues, so she probably would not have been adopted in China, but her foster family obviously loved her. Assuming that the foster care system remained stable, she would have been emotionally cared for.

There is an organization called Half the Sky (halfthesky dot org) which was founded by adoptive parents in the US wanting to help the children left behind in orphanages in China. At first, the organization's focus was on improving the conditions of the orphanages and in training the caretakers to help prevent attachment disorders. But the focus has expanded now to creating Family Villages for children to live in permanently, and to sponsoring education for children who age out of the orphanages so that they can support themselves. The founder, Jenny Bowen, has moved her family to China in order to work more closely with the Chinese government to implement these plans.

I mention this because I see Half the Sky's evolution as a great example to follow. Although the original focus was on babies waiting for adoption, it expanded to support all children in need of a family and in need of a future. And its current emphasis is on ensuring the children have a future *in China*. I have high hopes that the recent restrictions in adopting from China are a sign that China is taking the necessary steps to curtail the need for International Adoption.

Swerl said…
A few people pointed me in the direction of this blog, as I am blogging about a related issue on my own.

There is an overlay of guilt on this topic, and this blog, in general. I was raised Catholic, so I'm predisposed to guilt -- deserved or otherwise!

Here's my solution (as of a few hours ago. A few hours before that, I was ready to toss the idea of adopting entirely, so as not to traumatize anyone):

Be actively anti-racist.

Do everything in your power to advocate for, donate to, vote for and learn about ways to create a more economically just world.

Be as interested in the child's birth country as you are with American pop culture. (We are pursuing an Ethiopian adoption, so AllAfricaNews and Nazret are consumed, rather than, say, USA Today. We watch BBC news instead of or in addition to US news programs because they cover Africa in some depth.)

Don't excuse US policy makers from not caring about the country of origin, and don't whitewash the country of origin's government. (For example, Ethiopia has real internet censorship issues, as does China. It seems that many adoptive families do not want to confront these issues because they are trying to "honor" the country of origin. They fail to realize that such anti-democratic practices are holding these countries back economically).

Don't be more than you are. A-parents are not birthparents.

Don't "expect" your kids to FEEL any particular way about you.

Have the child around people of the same ethnicity and culture as much as possible, as well as with other adoptees of the same country of origin.

Understand that their loss of family (unfairly due to poverty, let's say) and that grief may be SEPARATE and parallel to their happiness at being adopted (assuming they ARE happy to be adopted). Being relinquished and being adopted are separate events, and a person can have an opinion about both at the same time.

This last one is something I'm really holding onto right now, hoping that if an adopted child is given the space and permission to grieve and wonder and long and, hopefully, connect with birthfamily (we'll do anything possible to try to make it happen), that process will not negate the possibility of that child also loving the adoptive family.

If any adult adoptees want to school me on that point, feel free.

My only other thought (or suggestion for an offshoot topic): is there a difference between relinquishments that occur for cultural reasons (seemingly China's "one child" policy and Korea's lack of support for single mothers) and ones that derive from poverty?

In both instances, mothers who may, ideally, want to raise their child, choose to relinquish due to a situation beyond her control.

Does this fact alone taint all adoptions? Is that the logic for some who feel that adoption is to be avoided?

My perhaps naive hope is that by creating a much stronger link between adoption and social/economic justice work, it take some of the stink off international adoption. We help the kids who's mothers have already felt forced to relinquish while always striving to help other mothers from facing that same choice.

Is that a more honorable way to conduct adoption, and, hopefully avoid the image of America's "insatiable need for babies"?
Anonymous said…
There is a third alternative, working for helping families stay together. It's not just orphanage OR adoption.

And if it's adoption then NOT closed adoption. And then try to keep them IN the country of origin.

And as a LAST RESORT adoption overseas.
Margie said…
Swerl, ouch. You are right that guilt is a pervasive subject for me, but it's painful to have my personal search for truth in adoption summed up in that single word

Yes, I've grappled with the guilt I feel at having realized after adopting that I had participated in a process, an institution even, that's frought with injustice. But as I've said before in other posts, never for a moment think that questioning this role transfers to the way I parent my kids or that it's where my activism ends. Check a group called Korean Focus - five chapters strong and 11 years old, it's my life's work, in addition the the 9x5 I have to put food on my table. The entire purpose of Korean Focus is to do exactly what you suggest in your comment.

Call it guilt or call it facing reality, my intent in writing here is to question the system and my participation in it. Please pardon my sensitivity, and understand I say this with all due respect: I've worked too long at the very things you reference to have it explained away with a single word.
Swerl said…

I feel like I angered you, and that wasn't my intention. I have read you intermittently for the past year as we have contemplated adoption.

You can read my recent posts on
to get an idea of where I'm coming from.

The short version - my wife and I are really teetering on the edge of NOT adopting, mainly out of fear that our adopted child will feel like many of the adult adoptees you often reference. I'm not out to ruin anyone's life. I'm not out to be an imperialist baby-napper. I have two awesome boys to parent right now.

I spent, I think, roughly 2 hours reading your blog last night -- staying up until 2 in the morning on a night I intended to go to sleep in the middle of Letterman. So, obviously, I'm not here to disrespect. I think you are doing good work. If you read my blog, you will see clearly how adoption reform could've greatly helped my parents and sister, who is a domestic adoptee.

As for the "guilt" thing -- I think you are motivated by it (that's my general impression after reading tons of your blog). For many people, guilt is a good motivator. Guilt, in and of itself, does not negate the thoughtfulness and good work that stems from it. I see nothing "bad" that part of the force that motivates you is some sense of culpability. You have a true, personal stake in the issues you discuss, and that powerful, psychological motivation drives you to do great things.

I, however, know myself. I am not positively motivated by guilt as you are. I am crippled by it. That's my own psychological profile, the result of my own nature/nurture. I handle and process guilt very poorly. And I tend to feel "guilty" about stuff that is beyond my control and not actually my fault in just day-to-day ways. (If I hadn't done "x" ten years ago, then "y" wouldn't be happening now).

Knowing that about myself, I'm not going to be good to ANYBODY -- my wife, my current kids or my adopted kid, if this feeling of culpability is part of the palate of adoptive parenting.

Here are the main questions with which I've been wrestling, and I'd love your honest answer:

- Knowing that poverty exists and even Bill Gates and Jeffrey Sachs don't think it's turning around in the next 7-15 years, is international adoption a plus or a minus?

- Can you feel for your child's loss and help guide them through it without also feeling culpable in determining that he/she will be removed from his/her culture?

- Would you adopt again if you had to do it over? Would you adopt internationally?

Again, I would rather opt out now than spend the rest of my life feeling like I did something unethical to a person I will come to love in that all-encompassing, "beyond myself" way that I love my two boys.

I hope this makes sense, and know that my feelings about guilt are about how I process it only. Again, I think you appear to be a very smart, loving person, interested in ethics and embracing of responsibility.
Margie said…
Swerl, thanks for your clarification. You haven't angered me, I simply disagree that guilt is my motivator. It is one of many aspects of the experience, which is paradoxical to be sure. I accept the paradox, and therefore accept the feelings of guilt.

As to your questions: I actually am working on the follow-up post to this one, and would like to address them there, if that's OK. I think if I try here this comment will go on forever. I hope to have that post up by Saturday.
Swerl said…
I'm looking forward to your next post.

Whether in your post or here, I'd love to understand your concept of the "paradox of adoption" as it pertains to guilt. I'm sorry to nag on this, but I would love to get clarity on what you mean by it.

Again, for me, I know I will feel worry and responsibility, I will always question if I was handling the experience of adoption in the best way for my adopted daughter, giving her support, honest answers, access to her past and her bio family, therapy, cultural experience, friends that reflect her culture and her experience.

I do not feel "guilty" for being an American. I disagree with many government policies. I don't take responsibility for politicians, corporations or the will of the electorate. I have always tried, in my limited way as John Q Public, to give, advocate, badger and vote my conscience, and get others in my sphere of influence to do the same. Usually they think I'm a commie.

I strive to step it up, and look for ways to do so (my blog being motivated partially by this desire)

What I wonder, though, is there any element of guilt INHERANT to the experience of international adoption. Is it a crucial ingredient in the "paradox of adoption"?

If so, why? Because to take care of the child, you have to move the child to you, cutting it off from it's culture? Is it a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" proposition? Should we all just be pouring money into orphanages? Is that the proposed solution by those who feel that international adoption is immoral? Is the "sin" of removal from country of origin, an "original sin" of adoption that will be laced within the experience, to the detriment of all? Is that what the "paradox of adoption" means?

All questions asked with painful earnestness. I really do just want to understand in what way guilt factors into the equation, while our international adoption is still merely a "potential".
>"There are places in the world where the only alternatives for a child may be death, life on the street or adoption - no foster parents, no kinship adoptions, no group homes"

This is a good point. I was holding off commenting, as I am an adoptive parent, not an adoptee... and my son was never in an orphanage. While there are orphanages in Haiti, there are also many, many orphans who are not in them. Many live on the streets, many become restaveks or slaves. Many, like my son, are in rural areas with no access to orphanages. My son was lucky to have a grandmother who took him in when he lost his parents, but she was elderly, ill, and wouldn't have been able to do much for him for much longer. The only reason we knew about him is that a friend who was working down there told us abut him... he needed medical help and a family... we jumped in blindly. These days I look at my healthy thriving son, after seeing how weak and sick he was a year ago, and I cry thinking of how many children there are in rural areas like his, and rural areas all over the world, and they may never be found.
Margie said…
Fitzville, the things you mention are reality for some children today. I'm really glad to see in the comments here that overwhelmingly there's acknowledgment that such circumstances do exist, also that even when an orphanage exists that it may not be preferable to growing up with a family. No blacks and white, but many shades of gray that all have to be considered.

Swerl, all good and valid questions, and I'll do my best to give my point of view in my next post.
abebech said…
Margie, I didn't mean to suggest that I was surprised by your asking the question (in b/w terms to clarify it). I was surprised, actually, by comments on earlier posts that provoked your question. However much I'd read about adoption reform (and how much I'd read anti-adoption even) , people had said "although there are also cases when it is necessary" and then suddenly, not so much.
MomEtc. said…
Some folks have mentioned that adoptees would be the best people to ask this question to....I agree, but I would also add that I would like to hear the voices of someone who spent life in an orphanage.

By and large, I think adoption is infinitely better than spending your life not having a family to grow up with and call your own. As my husband and I are planning to adopt a three year old, institutionalized boy, we are preparing intensely for problems such as reactive attachment disorder. Psychological, emotional and physical developmental delays may be present in this little boy. And yes, I know there are nightmare afamilies that can do damage to a child. Clearly a child would be better of staying in an orphanage with good people than go to an abusive family.

Someone up there mentioned that the truth about a child's history is preserved if the child stays in an orphanage. Trust me, we are going through this now, and it just ain't the case. The lies start from the time the child is found.
Margie said…
MomEtc, that's an important point. We can all discuss the pros and cons from the perspective of adoption, but what about the experience of growing up in an orphanage or home? Thanks for pointing that out.

Abebech, no worries!
Anonymous said…
I have really been wanting to comment on this thread but not sure if I will be able to express myself clearly. I, like many others feel it is clear that my daughter is better off in a family than an orphanage. In a way that seems like a no brainer. It does seem like a luxury to be able to value racial identity as high as basic needs, which is what I think this question really asks. I think a lot of the adult adoptees would argue that the problem with this question is that it does not consider any other solutions besides orphanage or an adoption. It makes it difficult to argue against IA when you say the only other option for these kids is an orphanage. I understand that the reality for many of the children is that it is their only option right now. I think those that take exception with IA argue that a country that relies on IA will not work on finding other solutions, such as creating a social net for families. I think there is a lot of frustration when IA comes off as the first/best solution for children in orphanages when it should be lower on the list. I think another problem in all of this that is not acknowledged nearly enough is that all of us willing parents do create a market for the children. When there is a market there is abuse. Let's say my daughter's family genuinely needed to and without coercion abandoned my daughter, the fact that I was willing to pay a lot of fees for the adoption means another child may be stolen from their family in order to generate the same fees. How many children are in the system because they are exploited by the unscrupulous trying to make a buck? What is my responsibility as a member of a system that has the untended consequence of children being trafficked? It happens. I am not nearly educated enough on this but I think there has been some horrible abuse of the system stories coming out of Samoa and Nepal. I do not advocate stopping IA. I think that would be abandoning the children that are currently in the orphanages in the hope that there would be a better system for later children. I do think that there a lot of problems in IA that can be worked on, but we need people to stop thinking in terms of orphanage vs. IA because I think their is a tendency for people to think that as long as the child is out of the orphanage problem solved/needs met. I think critics of IA want to hear us APs asking the right questions and looking at all the solutions. I know that I want and intend to adopt another child because I believe children are better in families than in orphanages, but I want to be able to tell my child it was an ethical adoption. Not sure if this all came out as I meant it. It makes so much sense in my head...
Swerl said…
Don't post such a great post as an "anonymous"! That was a great post!

This is a response to the following:

Anonymous said...

There is a third alternative, working for helping families stay together. It's not just orphanage OR adoption.

And if it's adoption then NOT closed adoption. And then try to keep them IN the country of origin.

And as a LAST RESORT adoption overseas.

I COULD NOT AGREE MORE. That is why activism, poverty reduction, the work of the Global Fund, UNICEF, countless NGO's, and (through gritted teeth) some World Bank programs are so vital:


go to the ONE BLOG and do the first three "calls to action":

Then, join ONE, subscribe to the blog, agitate your elected officials as needed.
Margie said…
I agree, Anonymous, you make excellent points.

Encouraging open adoption is incredibly important. My experience tells me that some adoptive parents go into closed adoption because they honestly don't understand how critical it is for adoptees and their families to know each other and to be connected. Old stigmas and stereotypes about first parents die hard, and candidly I don't see adoption agencies taking the lead as I believe they should in this. Domestic open adoption is hard to enforce, and transnational open adoption often dismissed as an impossibility.

Lots of work to do on this, too.
joy said…
Interesting, talk about guilt, I feel a lot of guilt too for a lot of stuff I don't even have control over.

But people not wanting to adopt because adult adoptees and even younger adoptees have issues. Of course I am a big believer in reform, that definetly needs to happen, I think the issue of adoption in and of itself needs to be looked at from an entirely more sophisticated view than how we tend to look at now, not the people on this blog obviously but society in general tends to look at adoption like it is candy mountain.

I *personally* am a believer that all adoptees have adoptee issues whether or not they are conscious of them, I don't believe the separation from one's family is a non-event in anyone's life. I think only the emotionally dead sociopath could suffer that loss and not be affected.


Adoptees have issues, and they should be issues that are respected, but you know ALL living beings have issues.

My freaking cat has issues, it is part of life, no one gets through it unscathed.

I think adoptees issues are compounded by the deliberate and relentless desire of many to wish adoptee issues away, but you know why?

Why can't we be okay with "issues?"

I think adoption is looked to way to casually, not given the gravity it should be et al. but I also believe that any child would benefit from having an adult committed to their personal best interest in their lives.

Adoption doesn't have to be what is has been,and as much as I have struggled with my personal adoption, do I wish I had been raised in an institutional setting?

No way.

If that was the choice, which in my case and a lot of those in my generation it wasn't, I would most definetly opt for the pony and swimmming pool.
Margie said…
Hi, Sue, I saw your comment on Jae-Ran's, thanks for adding one here, too.

In honesty, posting this question was not intended to ask people to take sides, and in the context of the history that led to it (way to long too go into) that's clearer. The international overlay is more obvious from that context, too.

The point of asking this in black and white was to get those who think you CAN answer it with a single word - "orphanage" or "adoption" - to realize there is no black and white on this issue yet. When the choice in a particular country, or a particular situation, may be "life on the street" or "death," adoption is obviously the only HUMAN response. But that neither means we abdicate responsiblity for conducting ethical adoptions that respect and nurture our children's family and ethnic connections.

But it gets much grayer when orphanages DO exist, because that's when the opportunity exists to weigh adoption (and loss of connection) against institutional life (with loss of family). This is where some people seem to form extreme opinions.

The ultimate solutions lie primarily in the improvement of the social situations that lead to the need for adoption - war, famine, hatred, disease, genocide, and on and on. The real answer to this question lies in our response to these.
Anonymous said…
I think AP's who adopt internationally walk an ethical tightrope. I think, for myself, the only way I can live with the decision is:

-live in a diverse area
-have diverse friends
-have diverse professionals
-attends diverse schools
-don't place my expectations on the child
-promote/support the children who are in insitiutional care by sponsership. The ones who could have very easily-- if not for luck, been my child.
-re-think how and what we spend our money on (i.e. could go to more sponsership).

At the very end of the list I'll put:
-support birthculture... BUT the reason it is on the bottom is because it is not my (white parent) culture to give. I need to support the above and then birthculture, or some authentic part of it, will make sense/ have meaning to the child.

At the end of the day, family over orphanage. Especially since my daughter had undiagnosed special needs (PDD/ autism) and, well, I don't know how things would have turned out for her in an orphanage. Here, she is getting tons of therapy and making remarkable progress.

That said, at the end of the day I have a responsibilty when I adopted an internationally transracial child to make the above happen... and even then... my child may have different feelings when this question is presented to her in 15 years...
Jae Ran said…
I'd tried to post a comment here, but I couldn't get it to work last week and posted it on my own blog - but I thought after reading through the comments that I would add it here too. And Margie, thanks for responding on my blog as well! I want to clarify that this response is a response to comments here.

"This has been an interesting and long thread. As an transnational adoptee from Korea, I am not going to answer the question because it's an unfair one that posits me having to take sides. I can not speculate on the "what ifs." I am sure for the many adoptees I know who were abused by their adoptive parents that yes, an orphanage would have been preferable. There are also many adoptees who would say unequivocally that international adoption is better than orphanage. But for myself, I won't answer that question.

That said, I will say that in my particular country, I have found out that orphanages do not exist for children like myself - those meant for adoption. In Korea, for the past 20 years or so, children for adoption have lived in foster homes. The true orphanages don't house "orphans" they house children whose families have temporarily placed them there for other reasons - usually divorce or death of one parent - with the intent that the child will return to the home. Often, these children do go in and out of the orphanage at various times in their lives.

This is not true for all countries, and each one has a different system. Again, the reason I say that one can not make blanket statements. There are countries where parents send their children to boarding schools for years and there is little "parenting" done. Are we going to analyze ALL institutions or just those where it's clear that there are "legal orphans" since some countries have very few literal orphans.

It's a complicated issue, and so my response is let's work on changing the way societies deal with the social welfare problems that create this discussion in the first place; lack of adequate health care, lack of reproductive rights for women and warfare.

Until those three issues are addressed, we might as well continue to stick the chewing gum in the hole in the dam and hope it holds."
Miranda said…
Adoption. Definitely. Psychologically for the child.
Without a doubt.

This is why we use (or try to use whenever possible) foster homes when permanent adoptive homes are not available.

If you look up some psych stats around Attachment Theory and child development, you will see what I mean. Look at the differences in development, both physical and emotional, of children in care (particularly when we didn't understand the importance of love, care and touch) as compared with those who have these fundamentals for life and growth. It's astounding. To grow and survive, we need not only food and water, but touch.

While there are issues with the quality of foster homes, adoptive homes, and of course orphanages, it is undoubtedly proven that adoption is preferable for the child.
Miranda Dyck said…
Hmm. I took more time to read all of the posts.
Very interesting post. It seems to reinforce what I had already suspected: for me, in Canada, domestic public adoption would be preferable over international adoption.

In Canada, we have many many children in need of good and secure families. Many of these children are First Nations, most likely as a consequence of discrimination in practices of child services. At least, in adopting domestically, I am not taking the child from his/her world or culture. My partner is First Nations, and I work in the Indigenous world.

On the other hand, I can see similar underpinnings with domestic adoption as with international: both support the maintenance of the status quo. In international adoption, we acknowledge that poverty, corruption, war and disease are responsible for leaving billions of children without families. Instead of directing our attention to the resolution of this, we use this as a justification for a tiny band-aid non-solution.

With domestic adoption in Canada, I may wind up doing the same thing: ignoring the fundamental reasons (discrimination within child welfare services, poverty within Canada, etc.) and feeding the unjust system.

Yet the fact remains that there are billions of child worldwide in need of families. I have a lot to offer a child and want to have the chance to love, support, nourish and work for the wellbeing of a child.

It seems to me that this thread is not really about adoption vs orphanage. It is clearly about the ethical considerations of adoption for the adoptive parents.

In the end, I have no answer at all.
Anonymous said…
I happened upon this conversation when I googled "adopted kids and kids raised in orphanages." I have been helping a student of mine-and her sister-they are 18 and 20, adopted from an orphanage in Columbia when they were 14 and 16. Their emotional health is mostly my concern--they have clear lines that anyone helping them cannot cross. And while they love each other, I don't know that they'll ever love their adoptive mother or me, or any other adult--they can't trust in some basic ways.

Anyway, all of this, and since working with high school kids for about a dozen years now, I've wondered if the US doesn't need some orphanages. Again, as atlasien said on this blog earlier, they'd have to be places that have strong support, where kids are there briefly, and on the way to something better for them.

When I've helped kids in the past, I've been careful to remain outside of any system--social services, adoption agencies, school programs--because I don't want money in exchange for what I do. And I want the kids to understand that family means we are willing to sacrifice a bit to get them what they need.

There are just so many kids--American and from abroad who end up needing a little help just for a while. One girl lived with us right after she had a baby. So, we got girl and baby for one month--it was a delight to us since our kids are grown. And even they were thrilled, helped with food, money, clothes for the baby, babysitting.

Maybe I have more than one idea in here, but does the US need some kind of private in-home care for kids--I've thought of it as an orphanage but maybe that name is too loaded? And, how can we effect teenagers who were raised in orphanages their whole lives until they get to us here--constancy and care, I hope?
Anonymous said…
Recommended reading, Castaway Kid,One Man's Search for Hope and Home A true story by r.b.mitchell. One of the last "lifers" in an American orphanage. AND Small Town Big Miracle by Bishop W.C. Martin.

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