International Adoption: Cultural and Legal Chasms

April 23, 2009 at 5:30 am Leave a comment

The article posted below appeared in The Liberian Journal (  This perspective is very interesting and brings up many of the complex issues that international adoption involves.  The article’s author,   Dr. Emmanuel Dolo, discusses the “ward” system in Africa in which children are placed with other relatives  or nonrelatives and the decision is not considered a permanent breaking of family ties.  Dr. Dolo then discusses international adoption and states the following:  The fact that these international adoptions occur without processes for the biological parents to maintain regular communication and get frequent updates about the child’s post-adoption adjustment makes for a difficult course of action. None of the parents with which I spoke or the professionals, which is not a statistically sufficient sample, state that following the adoption, biological parents received phone calls, letters, postcards, audio or videotapes, and photographs from the adoptive parents of their child/children. Is this a normal expectation? No. 

This statement by Dr. Dolo belies the very problem and  inherent misunderstandings  in the adoption process that I have witnessed when foreign parents seek to adopt children from Liberia and I would daresay other African nations.    The problem with Dr. Dolo’s analysis is not that the “ward” system is not correct or a great solution for the placement and care of children within Liberia when their biological parents are not able to do so.  The problem is that it does not mesh with U.S. immigration law which defines “orphan” status and the U.S. Department of State andU.S. immigration officials’ resulting expectations of what actions constitute relinquishment and abandonment in the context of defining an orphan for purposes of international adoption.  Adoption in this international context requires complete, final relinquishment or abandonment and does not allow for these middle ground ideas such as the “ward” system present in Africa or even the “foster care” system present in the United States.

International adoption as it has developed in the United States has really been a system whereby children are either abandoned or permanently relinquished to orphanages in foreign countries.   It has not envisioned continuing contact between family and child as this type of scenario would erode the legal definition imposed by U.S. law.   I encountered this scenario when working through adoptions in Liberia.  I spent many hours educating and training staff about the necessity of biological parents and families understanding the permanence of their decision.  Dr. Dolo indicates that this has been the major focus of current adopton work in Liberia and somewhat indicates that this emphasis is somehow not correct.  It certainly has been “a” major focusof those of us engaged in international adoption who are concerned about compliance with legal requirements and with ethics.  Ther are many critics including  Department of State officials with whom I have met, who are concerned about adoptions that don’t meet the legal and ethical criteria required by U.S law when considering whether a particular adoption situation meets the legal requirements imposed by U.S. law.  Officials have indicated that biological parents don’t really understand the permanency of an adoption decision.  They think they will see their children again.  In fact, they envision a situation similar to the “ward system” that Dr. Dolo describes.  There is a huge disconnect in these systems.  The process of adoption from a U.S. legal perspective absolutely must include clear and absolute understanding by a parent or family member relinquishing a child that this is a permanent decision and that they are relinquishing all rights to the parents.  Any sort of compromise or middle ground agreement between the biological family of the child and the adoption agencies engaged in facilitating this process could very well be construed to be violating U.S. law with respect to the adoption process.

The system that has developed between U.S. agencies and their client families and the officials of governemnt organizations handling adoptions in foreign countries has been for agencies to provide post placement reports which provide professional evaluation of a particular child’s assimilation into the family, development, emotional devlopment, etc.  It is certainly not the personal approach that Mr. Dolo speaks of but it meets the goals of the laws and concerns of each nation.

There is a dark underside to what Mr. Dolo presents when he speaks of a “ward” system in which a child’s biological parents are able to maintain communication with the child who they relinquished for adoption.  I have personally been made aware of many situations in which Liberian children are told by their biological parents that they will go to America and live with a family and that they  must then provide help and assistance to their families in Africa.  The children see themselves almost on a mission of sorts to help their African families.  This creates incredible stress on both the child and the family who thought that they were adopting a chld who would become their child and part of their family and not a soldier on a mission to help his for her family back in Africa.  The expectations by both sides are not met.  This presents a scenario that would almost be akin to “sponsorship” programs  but  rather than  the child staying in his or her home or village, he or she is sent abroad and is fostered or sponsored by the foreign family.  Could this be a viable middle ground solution for what appears to be a woefully inadequate system now?  Perhaps, but it will take much study and it will take legislation.

Until that time, it is incumbent upon the organizations that are charged with handling international adoption to continue to educate their staffs, educate Liberian biological parents and educate adoptive parents on the finality of adoption decisions in this context and of the huge cultural chasms that exist and the resultling hurdles that one faces when one undertakes the momentous decision to adopt a child. 


Perspectives on the Intl Adoption of Liberian Children (Commentary)

(Apr 19, 2009) By: Emmanuel Dolo, Ph. D
A local adoption agency has been at loggerheads with the Liberian government for the adoption agency’s alleged neglect of prospective adoptive children placed in the agency’s care. The decision of the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare and its international partners to remove these children from the adoption agency has generated debate in some circles. 
I have wondered about the anxiety, anger, depression, somatic complaints and possible mental illness that the children that were removed from the adoption agency could be feeling. My other concern has been my hard working colleagues at the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare and their international partners who must be dealing with the stress associated with finding appropriate placements for these children or reunifying them with their parents and/or relatives. As a professional who has participated in and/or overseen the removal of children from parental and non-parental placements before, I am conscious of the magnitude of much that is at stake. The encounter between the adoption agency and the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare is a political transition where the stakes are high. Our child welfare professionals have sent a resounding message – the safety and well-being of Liberian children are important to the government, and they will not be compromised for expediency. 
Little or no systematic research has focused on the psychosocial experiences of Liberian children that are adopted by families living abroad. Much of the work to date has either emphasized whether the adults in the lives of these children understand the full implications of adoption as a process of rescinding, retracting, revoking or repealing one’s parental authority. What do we really know about the psychological health of Liberian children that are given away to foreign adoptive parents and taken to new nations, where they have never lived before? We know little via antidotal evidence the complex social and psychological experiences that come under the rubric “foreign adoption.”  
There is no research available on Liberian children that are adopted by foreigners. As a consequence, I make an attempt in this paper to draw on the experiences of immigrant children that are separated from their families and taken abroad where they lack family networks. It is obvious that adoption in general and foreign adoption is a throbbing, even distressful and disorienting tribulation. A major contributing factor might just be that all foreign adoptions, not only take these children from familiar settings and peoples, but both of their parents and siblings. Children in general respond in variety of ways to their separation from loved ones. The literature suggests that separation (forced or purposeful) is a source of trauma or heightened stress. But the literature also notes that how the separation is managed and the children’s own knowledge of their displacement plays a critical role in ensuing acculturation to their adoptive homeland. 
The critical point that needs to be made is the following: the cultural frame for adoption, which I have come to call the “ethos of parent-child separation” greatly, influences the psychosocial consequences for the biological parents, children, and others to whom the child is important or that are important to the child. It influences how the parents “internalize and respond to the experience” and the psychosocial energies and emotions that they in turn embed in their departing and remaining children. In Liberia, we have a longstanding cultural practice known as the ward system, a child fostering tradition that is quite distinct from international adoptions. Children are sent to live with others: strangers and relatives alike, but with a caveat, parental rights are not terminated. Parents maintain their rights and the children maintain contacts with them. The children live-in and perform household chores and become absorbed as members of the new family unit. The children are for the most part able to access educational opportunities and relatively improved living conditions that enhance their chances of better quality of life when they become adults. Critically, the separation is not viewed or experienced as a form of desertion, rejection, and or neglect as some say it feels when their children are adopted internationally in the current climate. 
International adoption has a different social context because of the expectations that it fosters in Liberia, among the biological parents. In a society saturated in poverty, it is possible for one to surmise that the growing giving away of Liberian children is a symptom of a dysfunctional family situation. But one must be very cautious of the humanitarian crises that stemmed from the war and the economic and social harms that were visited upon families; so that we are not needlessly judgmental of their decisions to give their children away for adoption. 
In Liberia, child welfare professionals with whom I spoke and worked, described the social meanings of international adoptions as impelled by two main factors: lack of understanding of the finality of parental rights and also poverty-induced. If these are the drivers of international adoptions, what social signals do the children receive at the point of their adoption? Does it complicate the child’s interpretations and psychosocial response to the separation considering the perceived context? Do these Liberian children believe that their parents have their best interest in mind? 
I write this article to raise awareness among our policy makers and some professionals that when parent-child separation (international adoption) occurs in a context where the parents have a clear understanding of the family and developmental consequences of their decision and what will occur thereafter, the process is less harmful to the child post-adoption. The fact that these international adoptions occur without processes for the biological parents to maintain regular communication and get frequent updates about the child’s post-adoption adjustment makes for a difficult course of action. None of the parents with which I spoke or the professionals, which is not a statistically sufficient sample, state that following the adoption, biological parents received phone calls, letters, postcards, audio or videotapes, and photographs from the adoptive parents of their child/children. Is this a normal expectation? No. 
I do not write this paper absent of a keen sensitivity to the abject poverty, possible neglectful or even abusive conditions that some Liberian children live in. I also remain mindful of local or international adoption as much needed relief. I also value the need for social policy that strengthens family system functioning, prioritizes kinship care, and local adoption over international adoption. Nonetheless, the crux of my argument in this paper is that any further child welfare policy making on international adoption in Liberia should be guided by understanding and kindliness to the delicate psychological adjustment that is required when international adoption or any form of long-term parent-child separation is envisaged or effected. Essentially, any form of displacement can be stressful, and even traumatic. There are gains to international adoption, but we can taint this needed intervention, if we fail to exercise prudent professional judgment at the onset of the adoption process. 
Finally, I offer these perspectives to prompt meaningful and reasoned debate on these issues, with hope that this will lead to a more humane social policy that does not dismiss the harm to Liberian parents and children alike as little more than collateral damage in the wake of addressing a pressing social problem. I also proffer these views wishing that our policies and practices can minimize the harm to children during adoption processes; and to also urge us to base our policies and practices on consideration of the “best interests” of the child; thus bringing our child welfare law and policy in conformity with norms of international human rights and related conventions and standards.

Entry filed under: international adoption, Uncategorized.

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