Wednesday, November 18, 2009

IA and Human Rights, Bartholet Version

Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor at Harvard, is a strong proponent of international adoption. She and two other proponents of international adoption gave testimony Friday, November 6, before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States about international adoption from Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru. The written testimony can be found here. They introduce their testimony with the following:

Many who talk about Human Rights in this context focus on very different issues, namely the Human Rights of Parents, and the Sovereignty Rights of States. When they address Child Rights they focus on Heritage rights to grow up in the family and country of birth.

We assert that Children’s most fundamental Human Rights are to live and to grow up in a nurturing family so they can fulfill their human potential. These rights have been largely ignored in the debate surrounding Unparented Children and related International Adoption policies. We argue that Unparented Children have a right to be placed in families, either their original families, or if that is not feasible, then in the first available permanent nurturing families. This includes the right to be placed in
International Adoption if that is where families are available.

One of the first things that struck me with this testimony was the attitude that families are essentially fungible. Children's most fundament right is to be raised in a family, and which family doesn't really seem to matter. Heritage rights to grow up with their families of birth are not an important human right of children, they imply. In fact, it seems that these authors can't quite understand why anyone would be focusing on those "heritage rights" to be raised by birth family, when what's most important is that a child is raised by ANY family. The reference to original families is just an aside, an either/or choice without any sense that original families would be preferred. Under this version of human rights, the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption both violate human rights!

The testimony powerfully identifies the problems of institutional care for children. I don't think anyone doubts that. But they don't seem to be all that concerned about the older children in institutional care -- they're worried about the babies, those infants AYAP (as young as possible, a request so common as to be reduced to an acronym) who adoptive parents really want, who need to be adopted before they become irreparably damaged by institutional care:

International Adoption functioned in the past to place many thousands of children per year from these three countries in permanent nurturing homes, with many placed as young infants, giving them a good chance for normal development.

Placement for even those relatively few children typically occurs only after lengthy, damaging periods in institutional care.

States must take action to ensure children’s rights to true family care from the earliest point in life possible.

Like I said, I don't necessarily disagree -- children who really are orphans, who cannot be placed with extended family, should be adopted as quickly as possible. But this emphasis on infant adoption suggests more concern for adoptive parents than for children -- including special needs and older children -- who really need to be adopted.

But the most problematic part of this testimony is the disengenuousness of the argument about removing children from institutional care, especially as it refers to Guatemala. Most children adopted from Guatemala are never in orphanages! The Guatemalan system relies on private foster care while a private attorney/intermediary arranges the international adoption. Orphanages in Guatemala are also private, and usually extremely small. So the argument about liberalizing international adoption to free children from institutional care is a red herring, at least for Guatemala. (The IA programs in Honduras and Peru are extremely small.)

The report is relying on the horrors of institutional care to persuade people of the need for international adoption, when the authors know that the children they're really talking about -- infants in the pipeline for international adoption -- won't spend one day in institutional care. That play on emotions is completely deceptive.

The report also struck me as disingenuous about adoption corruption, too. The report addresses only the most extreme forms of corruption:
We recognize that abuses such as kidnapping and baby-buying occur, and we condemn these practices. But we urge the Commission to reject the kind of policy responses that many including the U.S. have encouraged, and that these three
countries have adopted -- moratoria on International Adoption, restrictive regulations that require holding children while searches for in-country homes are conducted, and prohibitions on the private intermediaries that often function as the lifeblood of such adoption.
Yes, kidnapping and baby-buying are corrupt practices that can make children illegally available for adoption. But the testimony ignores more subtle practices of coercion. And the report doesn't seem to see anything culpable or curable in one of the main reasons children are available for adoption that they did note: "Limited welfare support exists to enable poor and single parents to raise their children."

And those "private intermediaries that often function as the lifeblood of such adoptions?" They also function as the situs for corruption. These private intermediaries only make money when they can provide children to be adopted. They are not always too concerned about where those children come from. It was the actions of these intermediaries in Guatemala that led to one reform -- DNA testing to match mother and baby, necessary because these private intermediaries were presenting women to masquerade as birth mother to "relinquish" the child gotten from who-knows-where.

Bartholet's version of human rights for children, the right to a fungible family, ignores long-standing recognition of the central role of intact original families that is strongly protected in human rights law. And she minimizes the role of corruption in international adoption, arguing for a fast-track adoption process that will assuredly leave corruption uninvestigated and original families broken in its wake.

I'm giving Bartholet's version of human rights in international adoption a "pass," preferring the rights she and her colleagues disparage, the human right to grow up in your family of origin IF AT ALL POSSIBLE, the heritage right to grow up in your country of birth IF AT ALL POSSIBLE, and then, IF ALL ELSE FAILS, the right to a loving family wherever it may be found.


Jessica O'Dwyer said...

Thoughtful post. But I disagree that "institutional care" as it applies to Guatemala is a red herring. As an adoptive mother with 2 children born in Guatemala, I can tell you that while foster care in G is perhaps "better" than orphanage care, it is not always the same as one-on-one care by a permanent parent. I could name a hundred reasons why, but a few I noticed firsthand are lack of stimulation; inadequate nourishment; and inconsistent, indifferent caregiving. I agree that foster care in G was often fantastic. But to imply that it always was is not fair to those children who lived for months in difficult circumstances, and who will pay the price for that over years to come.

malinda said...

Thanks, Jessica, for the information about Guatemala adoption. You've added a very important caveat.