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The Adoption Phenomenon

By Michael Montomery

Adam Pertman is Executive Director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. Pertman is an author, former Boston Globe journalist and adoptive parent. Pertman recently spoke about the adoption phenomenon with American RadioWorks' Michael Montgomery.

Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute

Michael Montgomery: The title of your book is Adoption Nation. What's the idea behind that title?

Adam Pertman: I had two things in mind when I titled the book adoption nation. One thing is that we as a country adopt more children than all the other countries of the earth combined. So relatively speaking we are an adoption nation. We simply accept this practice and embrace it in a way that no other country does.

The other is something I deal with in the third chapter of the book. This country is a country of immigrants. This country is a country that we have all come to that has embraced us. Very few people alive can trace their roots back to the United States. This country has taken us in in a metaphorical and symbolic way. We are all adopted by this country, and I think that's a profound aspect of our country that it has taken us in in a way that families take new children in. Historically we have the roots for what we do with new children. We take them in. We give them homes just as this country has done for us.

Most of the children adopted from abroad do not look like their children, are not of the same race, nationality, ethnicity of their parents and it is one of the many ways the subtitle of my book is illustrated through this practice, "How the adoption revolution is transforming America." This is a genuine cultural transformation. We are forming families that are unprecedented in human history. They are not biologically related. They do not look like eachother. They fly in the face of every stereotype and basic understanding that we have had about the balance of nature and nurture, the importance of blood ties, how families are formed. These are basic notions of what we think about when we think about forming families. And these families, the ones with children adopted from abroad but also more and more adopted from foster care, these are fundamentally changing some of the most basic understandings we have had of our families and our culture. The change is profound. Most historians, sociologists, demographers have not yet come to grips with this reality.

Montgomery: Where are we in terms of international adoption compared with 20 years ago?

Pertman: Compared to 20 years ago, international adoption has skyrocketed. Twenty years ago the numbers were tiny, in the small thousands. Today over 21,000 a year are adopted from abroad. That's roughly triple what it was a decade ago. So the numbers are escalating significantly and there's no indication they're going to level off any time soon.

Montgomery: How did the adoption of your own children inform your book?

Pertman: The adoption of my children informed my book inititially only in a process sort of way. I was a journalist at the time and thought, "Well isn't this interesting. I want to write about it."

At some point during the writing of my book I came to grasp that this wasn't just a journalistic exercise but it was about my kids. Every parent's dream is to make the world better for their kids. That's what we all want. And somehow I got that the book was how I could do it for my kids and others like them. To inform people so that practices and attitudes are better, so they grow up in a world in which the words to describe them, "You're adopted," are no longer used as an insult. And those are the kinds of realizations that I came to while writing my book. And then it became more than a journalistic exercise. It became a mission. It certainly became my life. I left my job as a journalist and decided this is what I'll do forever more. In that way my kids not only informed my book but informed my life.

Montgomery: Many adoptive parents are required to hand over large wads of cash when they travel overseas. Often they aren't told where the money is going. Is that a problem or is it the price people have to pay to adopt children overseas?

Pertman: I think money is a problem not just with adoptions from abroad but with domestic infant adoptions and with adoptions from foster care. Money is a problem and in different ways. When you put human beings and dollar signs in the same sentence it is a recipe for disaster. And so we've created them. Some of them are beyond our ability to change. We live in a world in which services cost money. So when we pay money for an adoption, some of it goes for good therapy, good medical care good social work, goes to pay the lawyers to insure that the process is sound. That's all fine and needs to be done. But what's not fine is the unregulated nature of the process. That invites people in who do not belong there. People whose first interest is not children's welfare. And as long as we allow that, untoward practices are going to occur at every level.

I think the miracle is that in most case the process works quite well and quite ethically. But that's insufficient. When we're talking about kids, when we're talking about human beings, adequate is not enough. I hope the Hague Treaty on International Adoption will help alleviate some of those problems. I think we are heading in the right direction.

I also think that the payoff, those wads of money, are part of the normal course of business in some countries, irrespective of what activity you're going through. So if you want to pay a parking ticket or a mortgage, you've got to have a wad of cash. If you want to buy something at the bazaar, you have to have a wad of cash. There's no reason to think that any activity is going to be exempt. So I don't think we should equate it with child selling or anything of that sort. It's a lousy way to do business but it's one that grew up because economies were underground and so people got used to being paid off.

That said, adoptive parents should be informed and should be putting pressure on everyone to do this ethically. We, adoptive parents, are the ones with power in this regard. We are the ones putting the cash forward. Until we put our feet down and say "This is not acceptable. Let's find a way to do this better because we won't push that wad of cash in our socks," it's going to keep going. I think we are headed in better directions but we need to be better consumers of services. But not consumers of children. We are not buying and selling children. It's illegal and anywhere we see it we've got to shut it down.

Montgomery: How do you see the future of inter-country adoption?

Pertman: Inter-country adoption is going to remain complicated. In some ways it's genuinely going to improve. There are practitioners and countries out there who are trying to get it right. It's getting better in practice, in the number of children getting homes, the number of people who want children who are becoming parents. But there are countervailing forces. Too often we treat kids as commodities. As long as we do that and allow laissez faire capitalism to rule in every realm, regardless of whether we're dealing with cars or children, then I think we're going to have problems. The costs of adoption are going to continue to rise. I think that's a horrible thing. It prevents too many kids from getting homes and it will prevent too many good human beings from becoming parents. As long as we allow money to play such a primary role in this system, it will continue to keep bad guys coming in and as long as they come in it will be tough to keep things ethical and to service everyone in a efficient and reasonable way. And as long as we keep that money coming in we undermine children's chances of getting homes. If we keep letting costs rise, of course it's going to attract bad people. Bad people are attracted to money. But the worst part of it is that bad practices lead to bad outcomes, such as countries closing their doors because they see that a child was hurt or they see that nationalistic instincts supersede the need for homes. It clouds our vision. And as long as our vision remains clouded, so will the future of all kinds of adoptions.

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