Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Dark Side of Adoption Ethics, Failed Placements, Broken Promises, Bad Press, and Abuse

To close out the series on starting an adoption, let's do a little truth telling about adoption, adoption ethics, losing money in adoptions, and failed placements.  Adoption is really about covenants made between parties.    Birth parents, adoptive parents, social workers, attorneys, agency staff, and orphanage staff are involved in making commitments to each other.  If those commitments are kept, it is likely the adoption will be successful  (in terms of a child being placed in a home) and not much with be said.  I also think kept commitments increase the odds that the actual match between the adoptive family and the child will be successful.  But if one party does not keep its commitments or if one party perceives that the commitments are unkept, the whole adoption process can start unraveling.  My belief is that this is the exception rather than the norm and that adoptions gone bad are over hyped.  But things do go wrong and it's important to think about why.

Domestic infant adoptions
I have not done a domestic infant adoption so I cannot speak from experience.  I can only speak to what I have observed.  In my mind, what weighs heaviest on adoptive parents' minds is the fear of a birth family choosing to parent after choosing an adoptive family.  I cannot speak to how often this happens but I can only imagine the pain that this brings to a family.  I hope all adoptive families will come to see that even if they have gone through such a painful experience, that it is necessary to give the birth family every opportunity to try to parent.  This experience is not the same thing as a scam where a birth parent never intends to place the child for adoption.  Also know that relinquishment time frames vary by state and it is common for more adoptions to originate in states that have more "adoption friendly" laws including a shorter time frame for the signing of relinquishment documents.  (For example, Kansas and Utah are two states considered "adoption friendly" because they allow birth families to sign the relinquishment papers sooner after birth than other states do.)

I think adoptive families also have concerns about losing money to an adoption scam where there really is no baby.  Realistically, the best way to prevent this is simply to work with reputable placing agency who has been in business and can show a track record of successful placements.  These agencies will be working closely with the birth family and should have policies in place that weed out scam artists.  Within the domestic adoption world, there are consultants, facilitators or attorneys who may increase your likelihood of being chosen by a birth family.  You are essentially paying these people to either locate potential situations for you or you are asking them to advocate for you in multiple places, increasing your exposure with birth families.  However, one should be cautious when employing someone like this because once you start dealing in a private way in an unregulated area (ie no license required), there is less of a safety net in place to protect you.

Lastly, consider your obligations in a domestic adoption.  It is easy to start finding fault with agencies and birth parents but adoptive families can be guilty of breaking promises too.  If you commit to send monthly photos, then keep your promise.  If you say you are willing to arrange yearly meetings, then keep your promise.  Do not make commitments you have no intention of keeping.

Foster care based adoptions
Again, I have not done an adoption from foster care but we have tried and investigating this route.  The risk of being financially scammed is essentially non existent if you do a foster care based adoption.  The exception to this might be when subsidies are negotiated; there are adoptive families who feel like they settled for too little and now have to fight tooth and nail to get the services their child needs.  Another version of being "scammed" involves social workers who paint rosy pictures of kids and do not disclose the children's true needs.  I do not think this happens often but I do know of a few instances where people felt like the social worker intentionally misled the adoptive family simply to remove the child from the caseload.  And I also know of other situations where there may not have been deception involved but the adoptive families felt like the social worker was inept and should not have placed the child with the family given the child's history and the family's structure.

International adoption
Adoptive families worry about losing money in international adoption scams.  The perception is that the risk lies in an agency or orphanage promising that they can place a child with you and then finding out that the child does not exist or that you cannot complete the adoption.  I think the risk of this is smaller than most people think especially if you are doing an agency based adoption.  (If you are working with in a country that still allows independent adoptions like Haiti or Ghana, then this is a concern.  In countries like that, it is imperative that you work with an attorney recommended by the orphanage.  Do not set out on your own to simply find and hire a local attorney.  It is way too easy for an attorney in that country to tell you what you want to hear, take your money all while having no desire or ability to actually complete an adoption. )

What I perceive to be a larger risk is the feeling of being taken advantage of financially by an agency through their policies.  For example, within Chinese adoptions, you are required to travel to China for 14 days. Some agencies require you to use specific travel agencies to book your travel.  These fees can not be predicted so you sign your contract with the agency and wait until you actually plan your travel to find out what your travel costs will actually be.  Once the family is ready to travel, they then find out the costs and are upset because the travel costs appear inflated.  In a similar vein, some families have felt frustrated within the Chinese adoption world because they have been unable to get an itemized bill of their travel expenses.  The various fees paid to an agency can also cause a family to feel taken advantage of.  In our most recent adoption, the agency that wrote our homestudy charged $250 to coordinate with the placing agency.  I personally find this crazy because even at a professional pay rate of $25 an hour, our social worker did not spend 10 hours working with the other agency.  In a similar fashion, our homestudy agency also charged us a $250 educational fee.  When I asked about having these fee removed since we had already taken an extensive Hague training, I was told that the homestudy process in itself is an educational experience and this is the reason for that fee.  (Um, what?)  In many ways, agencies have adoptive families over a barrel and families feel like they have no alternative but to pay.  Families feel like it is "just part of the process" and so they jump through one more hoop.  I am not sure how families can avoid these types of scenarios but know that it is okay to question where your money is going.  In our case, one of the reasons I did not press too hard on the fees was because I was actually already getting a discount on our homestudy.  The agency who wrote our Haitian homestudies merged with another agency; however, when I went to to our old agency's website, it was still up and running.  I assumed they were still working under their name and used that website to research fees.  However, once I contacted them, I found out that the old website was defunct and the fees had bee raised.  Because I asked, they did agree to do the homestudy at the cheaper rate which was on the website.

Within international adoptions, there is growing concern for child trafficking.  This can mean a variety of things.   It can mean that a "locator" goes out to villages and recruits birth families to place their children, while making promises about their children one day returning to help them or by making financial promises directly to the birth family.  It can mean that someone who has no legal right to a child (ie an aunt, a grandmother, a neighbor) "kidnaps" the child and brings them to the orphanage as a way of manipulating the birth family.  This person then attempts to place the child for adoption.  It used to mean that there were people who were paid to relinquish their child.  (While I cannot say for certain that this does not happen anymore, I do think this type of trafficking has been reduced.)   As an adoptive family, it is important to ask questions about a child's birth family.  If something seems off to you, then ask more questions.  The USCIS has tried to create a process that eliminates the types of situations I have mentioned.  Birth families are interviewed as US Embassy officials try to determine if the birth families were coerced or if birth families have no real idea of what this adoption will mean for the child.  But this part of the process does not happen until the very end so it would behoove an adoptive family to be aware of the possibilities of child trafficking before that part of the adoption process.  This also means that it can be much harder to adopt a child who is a true orphan, with no living family because it is harder for our immigration services to prove that the child is indeed available for adoption.

Also know that in international adoption you are often dealing with two different groups who hold power:  an adoption agency and an orphanage.  People assume that the adoption agency has done its homework and has checked out the ethics of an orphanage.  However, this is not always true.  Sometimes adoption agencies are lazy.  Sometimes adoption agencies just don't care.  And sometimes adoptions agencies get taken in by corrupt or abusive orphanages and they just don't know it.  Again, don't be afraid to ask a few questions.  Has the agency visited the orphanages that the children are living in?  How often do they go?  Can they describe a typical day at the orphanage?  What type of partnership does the agency have with the orphanage?  Is it merely adoption based or are there other types of programs in place?  How is information relayed between the orphanage and the agency?  Will there be regular updates on the progress of the adoption and the growth of the child?  Is there an online forum for people adopting from that orphanage?  What does the agency know about the attorney who is working on the adoption paperwork?

Internet reviews, broken promises, and cultural differences
I also think there are a few more broad areas that are worth sharing about in regards to evaluating an agency or an orphanage:  internet reviews, broken promises related to time frames, and cultural differences.

I'm sure I'm like everyone else in that one of the ways I gain information about something new is by checking online.  Adoption is no exception.  In the big world of adoption, it is easy to type in an agency name and try to find reviews of that agency.  There are sites dedicated to reviews and 5 star systems for agencies which can sometimes be helpful.  But sometimes all of that information is really a lot of smoke and mirrors.  To begin with, my experience has been that the moment someone is digruntled enough to post something negative online, they are often disgruntled enough to post the same thing in every single place they can.  So you often will see the same person posting the same comments on multiple websites.  What often happens next is that someone else who is a staunch supporter of the agency finds the review and then posts their own glowing report.  Another thing I have seen happen is adoptive families hear from other adoptive families about their bad experience and then repost that information even though it is not first hand, personal experience.  The negative review then becomes all about that family's perception of what another family experienced.  Lastly, the reality is that the people who are most likely to post information online are the people who are really irritated or angry.  (Even if it is for good reason.)  Those who have had fair to excellent experiences rarely post.  What I would pay attention to is if you find different people saying the same things regarding an agency, all based upon their own personal experiences.  Even then, I would still take it with a grain of salt.  Usually the truth is not in the extremes but somewhere in the middle.  For me, I personally think the best information you can get regarding an agency via an online source is an accurate description of what they experienced without any positive or negative connotations.  For example, when someone asks me about my experiences with specific agencies/orphanages, I try very hard to only say the facts.  Saying "they are wonderful about getting you updates" is not quite as helpful as me saying "we usually received two updates a month, one was a photo update and one was a process update."  If you can get someone to give you an objective, fact based review like that, there is a good chance it is worth believing.

One of the quickest ways for an adoptive family to be disillusioned with their agency is for the timeline to match or homecoming to be stretched longer than expected.  When you are anticipating waiting for a specific time frame and that doesn't come about, it is hard not to be discouraged and to wonder if the agency is doing all they can do.  I personally would urge caution in this as there are many things in adoption that are out of the hands of the agency.  If its a domestic adoption, a birth family must make a choice to select your profile.  If it's an international adoption, sometimes the time lines change due the the way the foreign government runs the process.  Of course be discerning and if something seems off, do some digging.  But in general, try to give people the benefit of the doubt and don't let your emotional mindset of "this is never going to happen." take over.

Lastly, know that cultural differences can create real issues in regards to people feeling betrayed or let down during the adoption process.  Most other countries do not operate on the same hour by hour, minute by minute pace that Americans do.  If you are adopting from one of those countries, it may take 2 weeks just to license your car as you go from one government office to the next, filling out the correct forms and getting the run around.  Here, that job would take you maybe half a day at the DMV if you live in a larger city and for those of us lucky enough to live in the sticks, it takes about ten minutes.  In some places, the office that is processing your adoption paperwork does not even have a computer or a filing cabinet.  Birth and death certificates all are handwritten and recorded in village log books.  Electricity and internet access can be spotty.  Life is slower and in a lot of ways, it just has to be.

The same can be said for concerns about abuse.  It is not uncommon for abuse to occur in orphanage settings.  (Child to child abuse and adult to child abuse)  Some of this is abuse that results from untrained workers who do not know how to prevent or stop it.  Some of this is the result of people who make no attempt to stop it.  And some of it is the result of cultural differences in the way children are disciplined and spoken to.  It is important to not just assume that if a child comes home and appears to be a victim of abuse that this means the staff at the orphanage abused the child.  Children can be abused by other children or by the people whom they lived with prior to coming to live in the orphanages.  Once abuse is known, stopping it can be very hard.  Caring for scores of children under one roof, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, makes stopping abuse hard.  It requires a vigilance that is hard to achieve as you can't allow children to be alone together at any point in time.  Bathrooms, showers, even the hidden corners of a playground under the slides can be the setting for abuse while a caregiver may be only a few feet away.  Lastly, many countries also do not have adequate systems in place to investigate abuse which also makes the issue harder to root out.  (I am not excusing abuse; I am just being realistic about how and why it happens.)

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