Tag Archives: Adoption

The Hart Family Murder & The Dangerous Assumption that Adoption Is About “Rescuing”

29 Apr

Kids Playing(Image by Duane Story used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Last month Jennifer Hart drove her wife Sarah and six adoptive children in their SUV at 90 miles per hour over a cliff into the Pacific Ocean. When the story first broke, the public saw a wide array of photos posted by Jennifer on social media portraying a happy, hippie family at music festivals, farmer’s markets, and human rights demonstrations. Over the past four weeks, details have emerged suggesting the parents who proclaimed “Love is always beautiful” were as narcissistic as they were idealistic.

The Hart mothers were white and all of their children black, adopted from the foster care system. In 2010, one daughter showed bruises to her teachers and claimed Jennifer had spanked her over the edge of a bathtub and held her head under cold water. Sarah took the blame and was convicted of assault. A week later the parents switched to homeschooling all the children. They soon moved to Oregon where they were again investigated for physical abuse and food deprivation in 2013. While the social workers’ report concluded that abuse could not be proven, it noted that the children were at risk and found only one of the six children to be the correct size and height for his age. The Harts then moved to Washington State. Last month Child Protective Services attempted to contact the family three times after neighbors reported one son had finally asked them to after weeks of begging for food. Four days later, the family SUV was found at the bottom of the cliff. Two of the children’s bodies are missing, but all family members are presumed dead and investigators are classifying the crash as intentional.

The first thing that stuck out to me was just how many photos there were in which the black children of the white parents were paraded around like heaven on earth. “It’s important for abusers to manage their identity,” says professor of criminology Hannah Scott. “It was very important that they look good outside their family.” The second thing I noticed was the cult-like praise friends of the parents fired off to the media in the wake of the investigation: “These children came from scary, scary home situations [before their adoption]… I think Jen and Sarah should be idolized.” Mary Elizabeth Williams wisely inquired at Salon, did the children have any friends who could say the same thing about the Harts? Indeed, like so many children of abuse, witnesses now attest that the Hart kids were discouraged from having any relationships outside the family.

In her piece, Williams cites an article from the Coalition for Responsible Home Education warning that children who are adopted, disabled, and/or homeschooled are commonly found among abusive parents. Most homeschooled (or adopted or disabled) children in the United States are not abused, but a 2014 study of tortured children found three-quarters had been either homeschooled or never enrolled in any form of education. Laws regulating homeschooling vary widely from state to state. After the Harts fled Minnesota, they moved to Oregon and then Washington, where parents are required to register homeschooled children with their local school district, but the onus is on them to make contact. Homeschooled children in the U.S. are exempt from the regular health checkups schools provide that would detect starvation and other forms of abuse. Williams blames the holes in this system on America’s highly individualistic culture: “That same American culture of ‘Don’t you dare tread on my freeeeeeedom’ that gave us our gun obsession also feeds the lack of accountability in families that circumvent the intervention systems that schools can provide.”  

Children’s rights are more strictly protected here in Germany, where homeschooling and all forms of spanking are illegal. I don’t expect the U.S. to be able to ban homeschooling or all corporal punishment any time soon, but making it a felony to fail to register homeschooled children with local school authorities could be a step in the right direction. Hawaii has become the first state to introduce a bill requiring parents who seek to homeschool to undergo background checks. Alexandra Argyropoulos, who had notified authorities in Oregon of abuse in the Hart family, has been inspired to start a White House petition calling for a national child abuse database that would allow Child Protective Services to share information across state lines. All these steps of course face loud opposition.

Meanwhile many have pointed to the racism inherent in the Harts’ story. Rachelle Hampton writes at Slate, “The ways in which Sarah and Jennifer managed to continually evade the notice (or action) of officials is a luxury that is by and large only provided to white parents.” Biological relatives of three of the children have come forward to dispute Jennifer Hart’s claims on Facebook that they were rescued from a violent home. Whatever the facts, Hart’s narrative did exploit the widespread assumption that black American children are often better off in white middle class families like hers. Far more importantly, it also breaks the rule taught by many adoption advocates that the child’s backstory belongs to the child and is not for the adoptive parents to advertise to strangers like juicy gossip. Indeed, while the Hart family tragedy epitomizes many problems of race relations in the West, it also epitomizes many of the widespread prejudices adoptive children face.

The National Adoption Attitudes Survey in 2002 revealed the pervasive assumption that adoptive children must have adjustment problems while their adoptive parents must be particularly “unselfish.” Abusers like the Harts thrive on these assumptions. In the documentary Somewhere Between, a teenager expresses unease at being called “lucky” by strangers who know nothing about her except that she was adopted from China by white American parents. In her excellent piece “The Uses of Orphans,” adoptee Alison Kinney analyzes in depth “the casual, commonplace expectations of edification, gratitude, and cultural ambassadorship foisted upon orphans and adoptees.” She explains:

From the time I was 10, strangers wanted me to discuss my adoptive parents’ fertility, the cost of my adoption, the imagined poverty, sexual habits, and mortality of my birth mother, my genetic relationship to my sister, my wise advice to potential adopters, and my gratitude to parents and idle bystanders for my welcome in this country. They’ve used my “success,” for which they also claimed credit, to shame the supposed failures of the less fortunate…

…I’m far from the only former orphan whose life has been shaped by the expectation that I would serve as translator, apologist, cheerleader, and double-agent. One adoptive father called me an ungrateful bitch, because I supported birth mothers’ rights.

Some adoptive children have been abandoned by or removed from horrifically abusive birth families. Others have been lovingly placed in the care of adoption services by birth parents who have bravely admitted that they are not in a position to provide what every child deserves. To assume, however, that all adoptive children fall into the former category and would therefore automatically be better off with pretty much anyone so much as considering adoption is the old model. Prospective adoptive parents are routinely warned against it by many adoption experts who have seen what damage it can do. We should all be warned against it.

While we should all be grateful to our parents—provided they did not abuse us—no child on earth should be expected to be more grateful for receiving basic care and kindness. In her post “10 Questions to Ask Yourself to See If You Have A Savior Complex” at Adoption.com, activist Sarah M. Baker writes about the wrong and right ways to do it:

I have read about religious organizations encouraging people to adopt because it is their “duty” to help orphans. They place the people who do adopt these orphans on pedestals and boast about their good deeds. But, most adoptive parents I know chose adoption to fulfill their need to grow their family, to parent a child, to fill a void in their homes and hearts. While it is true that the children they adopt are in need of a forever family, these parents don’t overlook their child’s losses or take compliments from strangers lightly. They often remark back that they were the ones who were “saved” by adoption.

Baker highlights the ubiquity of the problem among religious communities, but it also exists among self-proclaimed progressives like the Harts. Many adoption agencies are acutely aware of the risk of attracting the narcissistic personalities most likely to think of themselves as heroes at the expense of the child’s well-being. One family told me their agency wants prospective adoptive parents to be brutally honest about which sorts of adoption scenarios might challenge them. They are particularly suspicious of anyone who says, “We can handle anything!” because saying yes and then finding out you can’t handle it is deeply unfair to the child. The Harts proved this point tragically well.

 

 

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Would You Give Up A Disabled Baby, And If So, Why?

10 Aug

Youri(Image by Naoya Fujii used under CC 2.0 via)

 

Tonight 60 Minutes will feature the very first interview with the Australian couple that has attracted international scorn ever since the Thai woman they hired to be their surrogate mother publicly accused them of adopting one of the twins she gave birth to while refusing Baby Gammy, the one with Down Syndrome. Hiring a surrogate mother who lives abroad is both legal and unregulated in Australia, with none of the criminal background checks or counseling that are required for domestic surrogacy arrangements.

The Digital Age has seen the rise of prospective parents independently seeking out surrogate mothers online without any oversight, as well as a rise in “re-homing,” wherein adoptive parents join Facebook or Yahoo groups to seek out new parents for a child they’ve decided is harder to handle than they had thought. A disturbing Reuters report last fall profiled a couple who handed over a girl with medical problems they had adopted from Liberia to a new family they had found online, only to later discover that the new parents were known sex offenders.

Yet while black market adoption may be on the rise thanks to the Internet, the history of people rejecting only certain kinds of children is depressingly long. Only 2% of all babies born are disabled, yet half of the children up for adoption in the United States are disabled. Half of them are also black. Chad Goller-Sojourner told NPR this year that prior to his adoption by a white family, he was passed over by more than one black couple for being “too dark.”

I am deeply grateful that my parents did not put me up for adoption, like so many parents of dwarfs before them. Being rejected by your own parents simply for your body feels like a rejection of your very life. But I will not start chanting that parents should never ever make adoption plans for their children until we admit that not everyone is capable of being the sort of parent certain children need. The skills required for accepting your child’s skin color or body shape are not the same skills required for accepting a lifetime of waiver agreements about the deadly risks of invasive surgery. In the real world, some marriages do break down and some parents do become abusive and some parents do murder their half-grown children when they try and fail to cope with their child’s disability. I know a good number of people who are great at working independently but terrible at caregiving. In Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon profiles a British woman who eventually relinquished custody of her severely disabled daughter to a foster mother, telling the NHS, “I’m not the right mother for this child.” Such honest humility requires some degree of bravery and, as Solomon points out, honors the skills of the foster mother and all parents who keep their commitments to disabled children.

Do some parents give up too easily? Absolutely. But are some children better off far away from their parents? Evidently. Because no two parents are alike, what is best for the child is best decided on a case-by-case basis. The Australian case sounds dreadful, but I’m withholding judgment until the parents have had their say. And as long as there is reproduction, there will always be parents who put their children up for adoption or terminate pregnancies, and society must thus ensure that the means for doing so are absolutely safe and heavily regulated.

But we cannot deny that too many parents end up failing to support certain kinds of children because the society they live in fails to support such kinds of people. Parents can usually see through the B.S. of those who urge them to stand by their kids no matter what and who also regularly make disparaging remarks about scars, fat, or dark skin, and openly wince at the idea of looking like a freak, a wimp, or a pussy. We won’t ever lower the disturbing number of prospective parents who would reject a child with an extra finger or toe until we as a society confront what would cause a parent to think that having an extra finger or toe is too horrific to endure.

During a discussion in college about the individual’s right to make their own medical decisions, I was shocked to hear a bunch of my friends insist that they would rather die than lose the ability to walk. Is it possible to attach such extreme shame to a hypothetical situation for yourself without attaching shame to the situation of others who live that way every day?

When I told one of my fiftysomething mentors about how upset I was by the incident, she smiled and said, “Well, that’s something young people are certainly more likely to say than anyone else.”

A fortysomething friend piped up, “Yeah, that is a very young person thing to say. I swore when I was young that I’d shoot myself if I ever went bald and yet here we are!”

Indeed, while the strains of physical pain and special accommodations and repeated doctor’s appointments are very real, perfection is not. And no matter how far technology advances, the belief that we can guarantee ourselves “normal” children is delusional. After all, unlike Baby Gammy and I, 85% of all disabled people were not born disabled. That’s something to bear in mind when heading to the obstetrician’s or the adoption agency.  

 

 

A Challenge for Supporters of “Traditional Marriage”

13 Apr

(Via)

 

I’m all for toning down the emotion in politics and avoiding vitriol. But sometimes a silly idea reprinted for the umpteenth time just gets to you.

In an attempt to bridge the gap between proponents of marriage equality and the opposition, columnists Will Saletan and Connor Friedsdorf have been arguing that the former shouldn’t dismiss the latter as bigoted. Not all same-sex marriage opponents are homophobic, they declare, and comparing them to interracial marriage opponents is a false equivalency because plenty of traditionalists think gay people are perfectly okay. “Opposition to gay marriage can be rooted in the insidious belief that gays are inferior,” Friedsdorf writes, “but it’s also commonly rooted in the much-less-problematic belief that marriage is a procreative institution, not one meant to join couples for love and companionship alone.”

Childfree couples will take umbrage at this, and who can blame them? If we decide that the word “marriage” should only be awarded to those ready and willing to make babies, how about raising the bar a bit higher while we’re at it? How about limiting it to couples who have known each other for at least five years, have both completed their education, and are financially independent enough to pay for their own wedding? How about requiring premarital cohabitation for a period of at least 18 months—the infatuation phase lasts 9 to 18 months, after all—and of course requiring engaged couples to have sex a bunch of times, in order to make sure they know what they’re getting into? And why not reserve marriage for those who have never been previously married, never had a brush with so much as a traffic cop, and have passed an emotional intelligence test? In any case, conservatives who dare to argue that only baby-minded couples qualify for the marriage moniker shouldn’t be one bit surprised when this unleashes a barrage of opinions about which sorts of couples truly “deserve” it.

But while we all privately hold firm opinions about the best recipe for a partnership, and we all tend to voice these opinions here and there in public, there is something particularly revolting about those earnest attempts to argue that the ideal family is founded in a man and a woman’s physical capacity to make children. Five justices already decided last year that this argument doesn’t hold up in court. But Saletan and Friedsdorf’s insistence that the argument is nevertheless “rational” and “much-less-problematic” than other forms of bigotry is solipsistic and insensitive to the point of seeming cruel.

My extended family includes foster children and adopted children. There are scores of wonderful reasons for couples to adopt: they can’t physically have kids, they don’t want to physically have kids, their medical situation is complicated, they don’t want to increase the global population, they desperately want to do something about the crisis of unwanted children in the world. They recognize the indisputable truth of which most are aware but not all of us like to acknowledge – that family is what you make of it.

Some adopted children, like the subjects of the 2011 documentary Somewhere Between, feel compelled to make contact with their birth parents or culture of origin, and that is their right. Others, like Scott Fujita and Philipp Rösler and Steve Jobs, have felt no connection whatsoever and are at best amused by others’ fixation with their origins, and that is their right. When facing the myriad complexity of what makes a person who she is, guaranteeing everyone the right to self-determination is by far the fairest solution.

Some people admirably bend over backwards to honor their family ties, no matter how hard it may be, while others wisely save themselves a lot of grief by avoiding toxic individuals who share their DNA. For outsiders to implicitly value that DNA over genuine love and unwavering devotion is a pretty brazen putdown. Those who voluntarily commit and honor their commitment to be someone’s family deserve so much more respect than all of the deadbeat and emotionally abusive parents I’ve had the misfortune of knowing.

Because Ive said it once and Ill say it again. Caregiving isn’t just about having a big heart and finding joy in knowing you helped someone. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about reading a book for the fourth time no matter how much you want to throw it out the window. Or rubbing someone’s feet to distract them from the pain no matter how little sleep you’re running on. Or missing out on parties and events no matter how badly you want to go. Or suppressing your gag reflex as the one you love spits up something absolutely gross. Or mustering the strength to decide whether you should endure the anger being vented at you because everyone needs to vent, or whether you should call your loved one out on their self-pity lest their anger become an abusive habit. Caregiving is about testing your patience until it inevitably wears thin and you make a mistake or lash out, ensuring you’ll be up the next several nights wondering whether you just scarred someone for life. Caregiving is work and, regardless of whether it is paid work, it is one of the most psychologically taxing kinds of work there is.

Yet blood is still thought to be thicker than sweat, as the stigma of non-biological families persists. This traditional obsession with genealogy on a grand scale has led to classism and racism and aristocratic inbreeding and the sterilization of disabled people. On a smaller scale, it’s led to parents and children pushed to the brink of tears as they endure, again and again, some loudmouth’s opinion about “real” families.

Which is why I propose a challenge for all those well-intentioned supporters of “traditional marriage.” I won’t ever call you a bigot—if anything because name-calling has a pretty low success rate when it comes to changing society for the better—but do me a favor. Walk up to a childless couple planning to adopt and tell them that you’d like to see their marriage invalidated. Say it to their face. Tell them that their marriage is “wrong” or “not right” or less than or whatever it is you’ve been lead to believe is “real” because they didn’t use their own genes to make their children. Then visit them again after they’ve adopted and tell their kids about your wish to replace their parents’ marriage with a separate-but-equal civil union. And then tell me with a straight face that what you’ve said to them about their family is “much-less-problematic” than what Jim Crowe said about our president’s family.

Speaking of the president, he may have said it best: “What makes you a man isn’t the ability to make a child, but having the courage to raise one.”

 

 

When You Gonna Start Makin’ Babies?

22 Jul

Gotcha by Clint McMahon(Image by Clint McMahon used under CC license via)

 

A while back, tucked inside one of my longer posts was a link to a conversation Rosie O’Donnell had in February with comedienne Chelsea Handler on her show in which she discussed her phobia of dwarfs.  Driven by Handler’s insistence that sex with a dwarf would be “child abuse,” the conversation devolved into musing about how dwarf women give birth:

O’Donnell: When a little person has a normal-sized person, I don’t understand how that happens.

Handler: That I don’t understand!

O’Donnell: I don’t get it.  How come the little person isn’t dead when the normal-sized baby comes out?

Handler: Sometimes two smalls make a tall.

O’Donnell: But how does it come out?

Handler: I don’t know.  I think anything can come out of that.

For your information, Chelsea, when it comes to achondroplasia—the most common type of dwarfism—“two smalls” have the exact same chance of having a “tall” (25%) as they do of having a child with two achondroplastic, homozygous genes, which is always fatal.  (The baby is usually stillborn or dies within the first few weeks after birth.)

O’Donnell has since apologized for talking about her phobia of dwarfs, though Little People of America have rightly said she missed the point.  Many have said that as an openly gay woman, she should know better when discussing prejudice, but I was more surprised by her callousness in light of her being an adoptive parent.  And I notice my (hyper-)sensitivity to that issue seems to grow every time I encounter it.

And of course I seem to be encountering it everywhere nowadays.  “When ya gonna start makin’ babies?”  Almost all of us in our late twenties and thirties are used to being asked this regularly.  I’ve been told I should take it as a compliment, since it’s rarely asked of couples who would make terrible parents.  Yet I’ve been amazed at how intrusive the questions and comments can be, how often something as personal as parenthood is treated like small talk.  It’s understandable as more of my peers become parents; the prospect of making humans is daunting and people need to vent about it.  Those who don’t want children while living in a baby-obsessed world feel the need to vent back.  All this venting results both in community-building and in tactless comments that knock those outside of the community. 

One of my friends who miscarried was told by a stranger, “Well, it wasn’t a real baby.”  A friend who adopted a girl from South Korea was told by a fellow church member, “Her eyes aren’t that bad.”  A friend who had a C-section was told she must not feel as close to her child as women who give birth “naturally.”  Childfree friends have been told that their lives will be never be “complete” until they’ve had children.  A biology professor who had two foster daughters was asked if he was worried they would inherit their imprisoned father’s criminal tendencies because “that stuff’s in the genes, y’know.”  I’ve been told it’s selfish to want a child with achondroplasia, it’s selfish to want a child without achondroplasia, it’s selfish to allow my child to inherit my achondroplasia, it’s selfish to play God with genetics, it’s selfish to want to biologically reproduce what with the world population exploding, and it’s selfish to worry about any of this because it’s not like I’m infertile.  All of these comments were well-intentioned. 

Usually people are simply thinking out loud when they say such things.  It is important to remember that no one can be expected to know exactly what to say in unusual circumstances, lest I end up lecturing as if I’ve never inadvertently offended anyone.  Almost all of us have good intentions, but many are unaware of how quickly we redirect conversations back to our own experiences, how easily we forget to prioritize listening over interrogating, empathy over curiosity, respect over Thank-God-that’s-not-me! complacency.   

Hereditary conditions, finances, disabilities, infertility, relationships and emotions ensure that having children is not a universal experience.  There is no right way for everyone and any opinion that can in any way be construed as a judgment can cut someone deep because babies and bodies are entangled in supremely visceral feelings.  It’s no coincidence that Roe v. Wade was argued based on the right to privacy: Something as sensitive, as complicated and as profoundly emotional as your reproductive choices should be volunteered at your discretion. 

That said, parenthood is all about making decisions that will inexorably affect someone else’s life, not just your own, and this is why it is such a hot-button issue.  Our reproductive decisions, more than any other decisions, are the intersection of personal freedoms and social responsibility.  As the daughter of a social worker who worked for Child Protective Services, I have firm beliefs about right and wrong when it comes to parenting.  As someone whose genes make the prospect of parenthood unusually complicated, I’ve begun to see how judgmental those beliefs can come off when the presentation is sloppy. 

As an avid reader of Offbeat Families, I know that sharing knowledge and experiences can help others in so many ways.  But as someone who feels very ambivalent about offering up my not-yet-existent children’s potential situation as conversation fodder, I’ve become less trustful of many of my most well-meaning friends and family members.  Questions about my situation so quickly transform into lectures about their situation.  (I’ve also noticed that the more nervous someone is, the more they lecture.)  Besides making me more guarded about my personal experience, it has also taught me to stop myself from making snap judgments about others’ reproductive choices.  When dealing with anyone else’s family planning, I have been humbly learning to: 

 1)      Fight the urge and try not to ask others about their reproductive choices, especially in the context of small talk.  Let them volunteer it.  Go ahead and volunteer your own stories, but don’t press the other person if they do not respond in kind.  We can never assume what’s lurking under there. 

 2)      Beware of talking about the decisions you made in a way that inadvertently hurts those who must make different decisions.  This is also very tricky, but if you are convinced water birth is the only way you can imagine doing it or you are proudly childfree or you know exactly how to make sure it’s a girl, be aware that people in different financial or medical situations may not have these options at all.    

 3)      When someone does want to share something you have little experience with (e.g. adoption, stillbirth, staying childfree, etc.), prioritize listening and learning over immediately finding something to compare it to.  Relativizing struggles can be helpful and I’ve gotten some great feedback from friends, but my guard goes up when someone without achondroplasia tells me right away they know what I should do because they know someone whose baby has diabetes, they took a college class on bio-ethics, or they heard something like it on the news.

4)      Only offer your ethical opinion if the person makes it perfectly clear they want to hear it.  Every society bears the responsibility of taking a legal stance on complex reproductive issues: prenatal testing, genetic counseling, birth control, abortion, sterilization, drug testing, assisted reproductive technology, the life of the mother vs. the life of the fetus, custody, adoption, foster care, etc.  We are all compelled as citizens to be aware of the laws concerning these issues.  And we all have our own opinions about them.  But anyone directly affected by them is likely to have heard it before and to have been thinking about it longer than we have.  I’ve been thinking about the effects my dwarfism may have on my kids since I was fourteen.

5)      Don’t gossip about others’ decisions behind their backs.  It makes your listeners aware how they will be talked about when it’s their turn to decide about having children.  There is a fine but crucial line between trying to understand situations that are new to you and using someone’s situation to tell an interesting story.

6)      Do try to actively listen when invited to, saying truly supportive things, as one or two particularly fantastic friends of mine have, such as: “I can only begin to imagine what I’d do in that situation.”  “Let me know if you don’t want to answer this question…”  “On a much smaller level, it sounds a tiny bit like what I felt when…”   “No matter what you decide, I know you’ll be great at it because…”  “I’m always here to listen if you ever need to spill, as long as it helps.”

Of course, in listing here what I have learned not to do, I can only hope that my own past SNAFUs have been minimal.  Insensitivity, by definition, is the disconnect between intention and effect.  Embarrassed apologies to anyone whose toes I stepped on while stomping through my own bigfooted opinions.

 

 

Cross-posted on August 27, 2012 at Offbeatfamilies.com