Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Consumptive Orphans and the Destruction of Childhood

A few weeks ago, Minnesota became the twelfth state in the nation to recognize same sex marriage. Before the vote, the senate staged four hours of debate on the issue. I agreed with all the pro-gay marriage senators beforehand and didn't see much validity in the anti- senators' arguments (“Won't somebody please think of the children!”), but one senator opposed to marriage equality did say something that struck me. He said, “When Massachusetts legalized gay marriage, a major charity actually got out of the adoption business.” (He meant Catholic Charities, which came up against some legal troubles for refusing to broker adoptions to same sex couples.) But let's workshop his statement for a moment. “Adoption business.” It sounds right, doesn't it? What other charitable works can we link up to the word “business”? Soup kitchen business? Visiting the elderly business? Homeless outreach business? Nursing home business? Animal rescue business? None of those roll off the tongue the way “adoption business” does. “Nursing home business” is probably the closest, because healthcare in this country is for-profit. But, “adoption business.” There's a commodity: a live infant; a buyer: the adoptive parents; a seller: the unwed mother or impoverished foreign equivalent; and a middle man: the adoption agency. It's an evident enough business undertaking that a Republican state senator can offhandedly refer to it as such while talking about something else entirely, but adoption shouldn't be a business, should it? Adoption is the merciful act of taking in an unwanted orphan who would otherwise grow up to be a pickpocket in the streets of Dickensian London or modern-day Guatemala City and die of consumption, or, oh! wait..., Guatemala has suspended their international adoption program because of massive corruption, including baby-selling and kidnapping.

 Domestic and international adoptions are rife with problems, under-scrutinized, potentially corrupt, and someone outside academia has finally written something about it. Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, by journalist Kathryn Joyce, needs reading by every potential adoptive parent and child welfare expert from here on out. In the first chapter, Kathryn Joyce gives us a number from a UN report on international child welfare: 143 million, the number of “orphaned and vulnerable children” in the world. This is a number that conservative Christians use when discussing the “orphan crisis”. However, “orphaned and vulnerable” does not mean that there are 143 million institutionalized children awaiting homes. “Orphaned and vulnerable” includes children who have two impoverished parents, one living parent, live with aunts and uncles, grandparents and other relatives, children who are “in situations that, if they occurred in America, we would never refer to as orphanhood.” There are thousands of children in institutions in the developing world, but many of them are there because of a family crisis, for respite care, or because parents in some countries use orphanages as “de facto boarding schools,” where children will be fed and educated in lean times. Ms. Joyce visits an orphanage in Rwanda and describes meets a widower father visiting his toddler daughter. There is an understanding that the daughter will be retrieved from the orphanage at the age of three and raised from then on by her father, older siblings, and extended family. But from a Western point of view, a child in an orphanage is an orphan and, therefore, adoptable. To conservative Christians, 143 million has an “and growing” tacked on to it, and each child is an orphan in need of a home. A good Christian can do their bit by adopting one, or five, or ten orphans themselves, citing James 1:27, “Pure religion is this, to help the widows and orphans in their need.” Much like the “well-regulated militia” in the second amendment, Christians are taking a short sentence and truncating it further. Adopting a foreign child is more viscerally satisfying than donating money to an international aid organization and hoping that it helps the deserving poor.

 “Ethiopia did have large numbers of children who had lost a parent to HIV/AIDS as well as a significant population of street children... Another factor was the wide range of of actors involved in the local adoption support industry... The exponential growth in Ethiopia[n adoption] corresponded almost perfectly with the closure of Guatemala [as a sending nation].” Hotels catering to first world adoption tourists, drivers and tour guides, adoption agency staff and adoption brokers need to stay employed and to do that they need to feed the demand for adoptable children after the children who were actually institutionalized orphans were adopted out. Even though it's illegal, adoption agencies have been documented recruiting children from their families (as seen in this Australian news documentary, Fly Away Children: Ethiopia has no concept of anonymous adoption, and if adoption is presented as an opportunity for children to go to America and get an education, well, who wouldn't want that for their children? The story of Tarikuwa, Meya and Maree Lemma is just that sort of tragedy. The children's mother had died, but their father was alive, healthy, and working as a government clerk, although the Lemma's adoptive parents were told that he was dying of AIDS. Tragically, by the time the Lemma girls, now the Bradshaws, gained enough English to communicate this to their adoptive parents, they were American citizens in the custody of American parents who had no idea that the “orphans” they had adopted assumed that they would be returning to their family in Ethiopia after a few years. And the ability to remember and communicate with birth families is a privilege reserved for older children. A young child won't remember how to send letters to her birth parents' address; and adoption brokers have promised Ethiopian parents updates on their children's well-being and never delivered, worse complicated when the agencies close down and the records are boxed up and sent who-knows-where.

 Kathryn Joyce also goes back to the beginnings of American formal adoption since the orphan trains, codified during the 1920's to1940's when the supply of white babies dropped below the demand. Ms. Joyce presents an excellent introduction to the Baby Scoop Era and ties it to the tactics used in homes for unwed mothers today (they still exist), where potential birthmothers are isolated and convinced that the adopting parents have more right to the child in their womb than they themselves do. Quoting a birthmother: “'There's an organization motivated by a cause and a profit. But it's a pretty high price to pay: give away your first born and we'll take care of you for six months.” Add to that the daunting statutes of limitations for birthmothers who want to contest their children's adoptions: six months, three months, two days, and, in Utah, relinquishment is irrevocable, making Utah “adoption friendly.”

 Child Catchers already has space on my adoption shelf, next to The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption Before Roe v. Wade; Wake Up, Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race Before Roe v. Wade; Fallen Women, Problem Girls: Unmarried Mothers and the Professionalization of Social Work 1890-1945; And Sin No More: Social Policy and Unwed Mothers in Cleveland 1855-1990; and Wanting a Daughter, Needing a Son: Abandonment, Adoption and Orphanage Care in China.

 A book with creepy doll pictures is Made to Play House: Dolls and the Commercialization of American Girlhood 1830-1930 by Miriam Formanek-Brunell. Based on the title, I assumed that this book would cover the years 1830-1870 and discuss the commercialization of American girlhood. Unfortunately, barely touches either of those places. Ms. Formanek-Brunell states that girls played with rag dolls, made dolls and doll wardrobes for sewing practice, and didn't need as many dolls because they had real live brothers and sisters to play with, and then she writes the other nine tenths of the book. She obviously sifted through loads of patents and back issues of turn-of-the-century toy industry journals, but, without context (What kind of market share did the mechanized doll makers command?, When did manufactured dolls become available to different groups of Americans?), this book is less for interested feminists than it is a research catalogue for doll collectors, although she does put in some ham-fisted ideology, like: “At the Edison plant, faith in technology determined that the mechanical phonographic dolls were produced by machines.” Ms. Formanek-Brunell is explaining that male manufacturers used technology to make dolls, while women doll makers kindly employed other women in a workplaces that resembled sewing bees.

 I did listen to Gertrude Knevels out-of-print-for-a-reason The Wonderful Bed a while ago. I think I didn't bother reviewing it fully, but it ties in with the ideas implied but not presented in the subtitle “...Commercialization of American Girlhood.” Three children, whose names I've forgotten, are staying at their aunt's house and find a box of toys from her childhood. In it, wrapped carefully in tissue paper, is a corncob doll, and the children sneer at it and say, “Why does she still have that?” Naughty, youngest boy almost burns it in the fire, but, later on, when the children are down the magic rabbit hole that is the bed itself having adventures and meeting all the toys, who are jerks, the kid sister ends up in a train carriage with her two fancy, store-bought dolls, who snub her. They are on their way to meet the queen of toys, the corncob doll, who is gracious and kind, and the kid sister understands that toys you make yourself are better than the ones you can buy in a store. Unfortunately, nowadays children making anything themselves has been relegated to hell in a handbasket, or at least to books with extremely specific instructions on how to make a full-on pharaoh costume using paper bags, a craft knife, 1/8 inch jute, four scarab buttons, and six feet of golden tulle. Childhood has been commercialized, especially in this country where we refuse to impose regulations on advertisers, and Made to Play House doesn't provide much background on that, although one could also argue that things were okay until TV deregulation in the early 1980s. At the end of the day, Ms. Formanek-Brunell's cobbled together her thesis and a research article about Kewpie dolls to make a book. Sometimes gently-edited theses make great books, but this one was not a winner.

 In other news, I hiked the Border Route Trail, 65.5 miles, in five days, two river crossings, way too many 2,000-foot peaks, and read 42 pages of Pratchett's The Fifth Elephant.

1 comment:

  1. I listened to (part of?--I can't really remember) The Wonderful Bed. It was odd, but basically forgettable. Also a bed is a much stranger place for mixed-gender siblings to have a secret country than, say, a wardrobe.