Social Justice & the Russian Ban on US Adoptions

Photo by Photo: Dmitry Astakhov published at USA Today
In a recent political maneuver, Russia's Vladimir Putin announced that he was placing a ban on adoptions from Russia to the United States.  Putin's ban is reportedly in response to Obama signing the Magnitsky Act, a law which aims to punish Russian officials for human rights violations.  The media has responded in a frenzy.  News articles responding to this ban tend to represent a blend of two angles: the disappointment of prospective adoptive couples who will not be able to adopt from Russia, and the injustice of fewer available homes for institutionalized Russian children.

Critiques of the ban largely neglect to mention what Harlow's Monkey pointed out in this eloquent piece, that this ban is exclusively for adoptions by U.S. citizens.  It does not mean Russian children are not being adopted domestically or internationally to other countries.  The responses of major media sources rely heavily on the view of the United States as superior to other countries in terms of child welfare, including purporting the idea that Russia is incapable of ever caring for its children.

Announcing this ban would have been an opportune moment for Russia to provide further discourse on meeting the needs of their impoverished and institutionalized children as the UN urged.  As Susan Branco Alvarado pointed out in the comments section of a radio interview she participated in,
"President of Russia's Executive Order On Measures Concerning the Implementation of Government Policy on Orphaned Children and those without Parental Care that was issued on 12/28/12. This order aims to provide for more in country care of its children which, at minimum, appears to be moving in the right direction."
Alvarado also stated, the issue of the deaths of the 19 Russian children adopted to the United States cannot be dismissed. Alvarado, who is an adult adoptee, Ph.D. candidate researching adoption dissolutions by death, and Licensed Professional Counselor, pointed out the higher death rate among children adopted from Russia than other adopted children.

The deaths and abuses of Russian adopted children undoubtedly indicates the need to investigate the adoption process.  As it is well established that it is the right of every child to have their culture and heritage preserved, options for family preservation in Russia and domestic adoption of Russian children must continue to be expanded and explored.

In the same interview, the host Kojo Nnamdi asked Tom Difilipo of the Joint Council on International Children's Services,
"I'm afraid that our discussion could be interpreted by some listeners as a discussion of supply and demand. Is there a danger that orphan children in Russia and elsewhere may be viewed in terms of supply and demand especially for families in the U.S. who are eager to adopt? How does you -- how do you balance the desires of adoptive parents with the best interest of the children?"
Difilipo, replied that the problem lies within the need for a terminology change in adoption, stating that the Hague uses phases like "receiving country" and "sending country" which makes adoption out to be a business transaction.

Unfortunately, Difilipo's suggestion does nothing to address the attitudes about adoption that we see in society that ultimately uphold adoption as a business transaction, transferring children from families of lesser means to those of greater means.  Some of these attitudes were reflected with in the show itself.

There's the idea that international adoption is a necessary alternative to domestic adoption for those adoptive parents who do not want to have to "deal with" the adoptee's first parents and siblings who may live nearby.

There's also the media focus on the critique of this ban as an inconvenience to prospective adoptive parents who have paid a lot of money in the adoption process to adopt.

There's the idea that those with power and wealth are more entitled to parent children than those who are poor and oppressed.

I once wrote a post highlighting several countries in which the same amount that it costs to adopt a child internationally could, for one example, also build a medical center for an entire village.  I sought to challenge the concept of adoption as a universal solution to child poverty and abandonment that arises from the cultural bias that says countries abroad can never be empowered to care for their own children.  A great number of people (most visiting my blog for the first time) responded in outrage, informing me that "adoptive parents have a right to spend their money any way they wish!"

I was do disgusted by consistently receiving this type of response that I deleted the post entirely.  Social justice aims to bring equality to all people, specifically the world's most marginalized and oppressed populations.  So long as we allow things like racial privilege and class privilege to determine how service is delivered, rather than empowering the voices of those who are oppressed and marginalized, we will never achieve social justice.  How institutions serve the best interests of human beings should be based on the intrinsic value of the humanity of every person, not on based on traditional hierarchies of power and wealth.

Nnamdi's question itself is telling of what is absorbed about adoption in just a brief one hour conversation, when he asked how to balance the desires of prospective adoptive parents and the rights of children.  In point of fact, there should be no compromise to children's rights based on the desires of adults. Prospective adoptive parents and adoption facilitators alike should always exclusively seek the best interests of the child. This is what parents do--they put children first. What we need to ensure is that this, the best interests of children, permeates every aspect of adoption policy and practice.

We need the voices of adoptees to always be included and dominant in adoption discourse.  Media sources and adoption stakeholders alike also need to stop conveniently ignoring the fact that chronic poverty keeps many original families, including Russian families, from having an active and equal voice in discourse.  The media must begin to seek out the voices of adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents who work toward ethics in adoptions and the best interests of children.

Representations of adoption consistently reflect traditional hierarchies of privilege rather than empowering all voices.  This was evidenced by the radio show itself which did not contain any adult adoptee voices until critique of the guest list was given (it was a fabulous adoptive mother, and dear friend, who complained).  If we want social justice, we will work to make it so.  Terminology changes do not solve human rights and children's rights issues in adoption.  Rather, terminology will change as a result of changed attitudes, policies, and practices. It is the changed attitudes, policies, and practices that must happen first. Changing terminology does not change aspects of adoption that we do not like, it simply attempts to pretend as though they do not exist or are not problems.