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Season 1, Episode 15: Dr. Peter Selman, an expert in adoption policy and demographic trends in adoption, discusses the structural factors that lead to changing trends in international adoption. He then focuses on international adoptions that occur in the context of natural disasters or political crises, identifying the role of the media in framing these crises and the child welfare implications of such framing. Dr. Selman also discusses the concept of “adoption as rescue,” identifying the origins as well as implications of this motivation for international adoption. He concludes by discussing safeguards that are designed to prevent unethical adoption practices that may emerge during periods of crisis and also outlines the role of Western nations in preventing the proliferation of institutional care in non-Western nations and supporting global child welfare practices that seek the best interests of children.

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Routledge Handbook of Adoption


Dr. Emily Helder: Welcome. I’m Dr. Emily Helder and I’m here with Dr. Peter Selman, who is a visiting fellow in the School of Geography, Politics, and Sociology at Newcastle University, where he was the head of the Department of Social Policy until his retirement. He’s also the author of a chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Adoption entitled Adoption in the Context of Natural Disaster. So thanks so much, Peter, for being here. So I wanted to ask you some questions about your chapter. It begins by outlining some of the macro level factors, politics, economic factors that impact adoption in a variety of ways.

And then you also outlined some of the changes in trends in adoption in terms of, you know, the peak in the early 2000s in the number of international adoptions and the changes over time in different sending countries. And I wondered if you could talk a bit about, some examples of those structural factors that have impacted the number of kids that have come and where they’re coming from.

Dr. Peter Selman: Yes. I mean, I think if I go back to the early 1990s, when the Hague convention was introduced, people had thought that inter-country adoption was coming to an end, apart from the quick surge with Romania, and then it all changed and it went up solidly until 2004 and the rise was largely due to two countries, China and Russia.

And many people thought that would just go on forever and then dramatically, in 2004, it changed, going down, down. And since then every year the numbers have been lower. And it’s got to a point now where the level is lower than it was in the 1970s. So it’s gone right down. So it’s the lowest for long, long time. And many people see this as being the curse of the end.

And of course for this year of pandemic, we just dont know what’s going to happen in 2020, 2021. But I think that it’s not certainly going to go up. And the changes, I mean, briefly you asked me about countries, the most dramatic changes are that, two big countries, China and Russia have both started to go down. China, very steadily, but now leveling off at about 2000 a year from a peak of about 14,000 a year. Russia has gone down and down and huge clashes with the US over adoption is down below a thousand a year. Two other countries, perhaps we’ve mentioned, one was Guatemala, which at one stage was a small country but sent a huge number of children almost entirely to the United States.

And then the stories of corruption came out and all sorts of bad things. And so both sides agreed to close down Guatemala. Now we’re talking instead of the four or 5,000 that you had in 2002, four or five period. you’re now down to two or three a year. And finally, we had the extraordinary period of a surge in African countries.

And some people would say, this is just the market as the other countries too went down, where do we go next? Africa. And so the African numbers as a continent, went up solidly right through until about 2010 and people thought that we were on and on, and then since things began to go wrong, we found there was corruption in Africa and those numbers came down and down.

And so Africa’s, haven’t gone up relatedly while everyone else is coming down, it’s not coming down and down and down. And so 2009, 6,500 from Africa and now, very small numbers, especially in some countries which are more or less stopped. So that’s, that’s the broad story.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Well, and we have a chapter too in the handbook, about adoption from Ethiopia and how they’ve made that transition to developing more domestic adoption programs.

So, it seems like there’s a variety of things.

Dr. Peter Selman: Now officially called an end to international adoption. But it’s to see whether that’s going to happen. I think it will, for the numbers will go right down and one stage African adoption was more, less Ethiopia adoption. Ethiopia has started to send children way back right back to the 1980s and 70s and the only African country sending children from Ethiopia, initially many to Sweden.

And of course, Ethiopia is unusual in that it’s the, one the few African countries, it was never colonized, right?

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. it really illustrates the numbers of the ways that the political-economic factors.

Dr. Peter Selman: And you look at some countries that were surging 10 years ago, like Uganda right down.

Some have been more steady. Like South Africa, that’s continued much the same, but in Africa, some of them are, Mali, for example, now one or two a year. And a lot of this sadly is to do with the recognition of the bad things that were happening and the bad things were more the fault of the West than Africa.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Well, and I want to ask you about that too, as we keep going.

One of the next things that your chapter focuses on, is adoption in the context of humanitarian crises, especially natural disasters. And you have an interesting section in there about media portrayals. And I was curious if you could reflect a bit on, some examples of how media portrayals of the crisis have impacted adoption in the midst of those crises.

Dr. Peter Selman: It’s quite difficult. This, because media has expanded so much of the last 30 or 40 years. So in a way, if you think of the big crises, if you go right back and look at Ethiopia, for example, in 80s, the media was not big then. And the Americans were not involved, so they weren’t interested. And so the Ethiopian famine was covered in the media.

So we had the problem of starvation and sending aid and we had Live Aid and all these things. The issue of adoption just is not there. The issue of children needing to be adopted was not there. That that was actually so if you go back, as far as that adoption, is not part of the story, you could argue that before that, in Korea and Vietnam, it was.

And those are two countries that were highly involved, with the States and the Americans, Vietnam, of course, the getting people out of Vietnam was so important. And so there was a huge coverage of the crisis of the Vietnamese orphans. Most of whom were mixed race they were the product of the GIs. And so there was a lot of publicity then and rescue began to be a word to be used in Vietnam, especially, but it had been earlier in Korea as well, but there’s still some, there’s some very dramatic footage available of Vietnam and it includes the terrible story of the helicopter that was taking a couple of hundred of Vietnamese orphans and crashed. So the baby lift was, they were covered and more recently and I suppose the first thing that comes to mind if you go back to the 1990s, when China had just opened, about 1991, it opened up to international adoption and the BBC ran program for the Dying Rooms that was then widely seen all over the world. And it portrayed this dreadful picture of orphanages where Chinese children were sent to die.

And so that was big, big story. And that I think certainly triggered a feeling of humanitarian. “If we could only take these children, their lives would be saved.” And I think that that’s had a big impact. So that would be one example. Later on we have, obviously the Haiti earthquake which had huge coverage.

And that certainly, especially in the States, cause they were so close took it off a huge amount of interest. And there’s lots of stories, which I’ve mentioned in the chapter of people going to “rescue” children from Haiti. And the picture was of this poor country shattered by the earthquake and orphans on the streets waiting to be picked up and saved.

And so you had rescue missions from Methodists and from other evangelical groups and indeed from state governors, sending over  planes to take these children home to safety. In between that you have an interesting example of another widely covered episode. And that was the Asian tsnaumi, and that was very widely publicized.

It came just after Christmas and the pictures of horrendous, terrible, terrible floods. What was interesting there was that that certainly triggered interest in rescue but the countries involved, together with America all came out with a message alongside this disaster saying, we don’t plan to take these children – we plan to help them. It’s a very different message in the middle now. So, so there’s this a few examples of things that got very, very big stories and, there’s lots of others, but those would be some examples how media sparked, in the ordinary person, especially in America, “I want to help.”

Dr. Emily Helder: Sure. Well, and I want to pick up on a few threads that you just mentioned.

So, in your chapter as well, you talk about this idea of, adoption as rescue. And I wondered if you could compare that, that approach or that idea with maybe more general, you know, altruistic motivations that are endorsed by a number of both foster and adoptive parents. You know, how are those things, are they different?

Dr. Peter Selman: In a way, such a dramatic word, one writer argues that it’s used most strikingly for international adoption. In other words, it’s not, rescue is not something that we use much in domestic adoption. If you put in domestic adoption and rescue, it’s all about dogs. Not to adopt children. But overseas adoption, it was a case of these poor countries, and especially with the strengthening of evangelical Christian movement in these poor “heathen” countries.

So rescue was, partly missionary zeal, you know, that we were going to save these children from certain deaths, but also from the heathen country. So there was a double blessing. So you got things caught up with the religious thing but the theme was, it was humanitarian rescue, saving children, from China, from all these other countries.

And then it was the in a sense saying that, the parents therefore were saviors. So the rescue thing was, glossing over the fact that many of them desperately wanted children. They were there mainly not because they wanted children, but they want to help children. And that was something which had long been wiped out of the theme of domestic adoption.

Where domestic adoption, always have more people wanting children than the children available. So I think those were the things, but the word rescue and orphan rescue, especially came in really, quite early in, in the post-war period. And then it kept resurfacing and I went to a conference in Malibu at the Pepperdine University, which was entitled Inter-country Adoption – Orphan Rescue or Child Trafficking.

And there they juxtapose the two, the orphan rescue is the good side, and this was in the highly religious university. For others orphan rescue was a bad thing and equates it almost with child trafficking, but the clash between orphan rescue and child trafficking was an attempt to try and see a lesson – look at what is good and what we’re doing.

And therefore, in that sense, orphan rescue became a good term but it’s, it’s a difficult issue and in a recent book, so this is, “Saving International Adoption,” and this is by two supporters of “how do we stop this dreadful decline when there are so many orphans out there waiting to be saved” and they talk about, the savior complex.

And how, how this was, was, was part of the story and in a positive sense that this was people who are showing the good side of American nature and they were going out to help these children. Maybe they wanted children themselves, but it was mainly about helping people. And, so I think that’s, that’s interesting.

And, as I said, the, the rescue narrative is something that you find in the adoptions from Korea and Vietnam, later from Romania, which we sometimes forget to it comes in the middle, but when Ceaușescu was deposed the orphanage just were full, because he’d had a pro-natalist policy. And so there were so many more children than could be looked after, who were pushed into orphanages.

And again, the stories of people in this case from Europe, more than from America, going to remain here to try and make sure that they could rescue these children from these dreadful orphanages, because they were there. And the orphanages were hell holes. But then they found when they went there, the orphanages actually, the children were older, disabled.

And so they went into the streets of Romania and there they found gypsies. And there they bought children who were healthy and young. Outside of the orphanges and all that went in into a rather…. But again, the, the theme was the rescue. And what nobody seemed to grasp at first was that if it’d been the other  way around the idea of a Romanian coming to UK or the USA to save the child it would be outrageous, and we even have the terrible story of the couple who put their bought, adopted children into the boot of their car and drove out from Bucharest and they were stopped by the Romanian police and put into prison, stealing a child. And the British press have headlines that are outrageous. “Here are good people trying to save these children and they been locked up.” And somebody did say, I think he was probably one of the more respectable Guardian-type papers said, well, what would we say if Romanian was found leaving the UK with a British child in their trunk, but that’d be it.

So, yes. I mean, this is, the rescue word is probably overused, but it was partly, yeah, a case of genuine human motivation and in the case of the evangelical movement, which became a bit more than that mix of people. If you go back to the beginning of American adoption, Harry Holt, he was a Methodist Christian.

And he and his wife went to Korea and they took, but adopted children, not, not just one and that became a model of what could be done and they were good for doing that and now we can come in taking six children you’ve never seen before bringing them back, but that became part of the story of the Korean adoptions in the early years.

And what was not talked about with the most of those adoptions were mixed race children. They were the product of GIs by the time you got to into a decade later, there were no mixed race children. The Koreans had seen that there was a market for children. And the children that were being sent were not the children of GIs, the war was over.

They were the children of unmarried mothers and the country that stigmatized them and gave them no support.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah, it sounds like, you know, well, just the background of it is adoption is complicated. But I think it, it sounds like sometimes that adoption as rescue narrative, maybe papers over some illegal or unethical practices as well as maybe creates a narrative where adoptees, are required to be grateful.

Dr. Peter Selman: The narrative really just as you say, then this idea of, of the adopters as the good man of a good woman, good couple. Well rescuing children and they should be eternally grateful. And this became more and more of a problem. As we moved into countries like Africa, where there was no concept of Western adoption. And so you will be happy to send your child to America to get an education and then they would come back.

We’d be happy for them to be a doctor and sending money back. The idea that those children were now no longer yours, you have no rights, or indeed the thought that those children might decide that the good life in America was so good that to go back to Africa was not so attractive.

It was more difficult.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. How do you, I’m curious too, because you’ve been involved with the Hague Convention. you know, how do you see the Hague Convention serving as a safeguard against some of the practices that you’ve just outlined – trafficking?

Dr. Peter Selman: Yes. I mean, the, the Hague convention was built on some pretty bad things happening in the 1980s.

And, I know many people involved and the Hague is desperately trying to lay down walls and to try and establish, a pattern that makes adoption a good thing but builds in safeguards. And, if you look back to the 1980s, I mean, there were children being adopted from Sri Lanka, for example, to Sweden and Netherlands and to the UK, all under six months.

Very, very unclear the details, but one suspects, a lot of money and there was no regulation. So what the Hague is to try and bring it to it, given regulation on the basis of the UN Convention Rights of the child, which should stress the importance of the child as center, but the Hague allowed more role for adoption if properly managed.

And what they asked for was for every country to establish a central authority that would oversee things. And for more accredited bodies of agencies, that will be very carefully vetted and will follow certain rules. And at the heart of that was that subsidiarity – you only adopted children who could not be placed with friends or family in their own country.

And that’s been a constant question as to whether that’s been achieved. But I think the Hague was very good intention. I still believe in the Hague very much. And I think it’s trying to do it’s best, but it is not a legal framework. No powers to enforce it. It depends on people ratifying the convention and while most of the leading countries who received children have done that, some did it very late to 2008 in the United States in Ireland, but most of them have, but if you look at the countries that from which the children come, there were many that haven’t, China has, and I still remember going to a meeting of the Hague when the Chinese announced this and they did it before the Americans and they didn’t tell anyone.

And the Americans were furious. We have ratified before United States the other side of things there are many obviously who haven’t, Guatemala, but there were many countries in Africa that have gotten no contact and therefore are not strictly subject to it. And what happens in the United States is that different standards are applied to adoptions from a Hague country.

So if you’re talking from South Africa, you have different standards than  from Ethopia where Hague is not as much. So it’s a struggle, but to end on a positive note. The thing to recognize about the Hague Convention on The Rights of the Child, is that it’s important thats it’s been ratified by more countries around the world than any other convention.

And it has been ratified by the United States, which was essential, if the States hadn’t been in [that would have been a problem]. And remember, as you, I’m sure you know, the United States has not ratified the Rights of the Child. So in US and Somalia, the only two countries not to ratify it, there’s quite a significant achievement to have bought so many countries together and to virtually have all the countries to which the children go.

I think there are a few exceptions, but all the big countries have ratified and are in principal adhering to practice. And there’s a special commission every four or five years when two sides come together and, and that’s such a moving thing and they’re all are put in an alphabetical order, not rich countries, poor countries, not sending and receiving, it is all alphabetical. And so I’m a big fan of Hague, it needs more powers but the fact is that they designed a set of rules, which have lasted since 1993. And for most part, I think they’re good rules. They need to be polished all the time, but they haven’t changed the structure.

It’s just much more clarifying what they mean.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. As an expert in adoption policy, as you kind of look at at the full system, how, how do you think about balancing some of the tensions? So I’m thinking in particular, you know, there’s an urgency to making sure that children are raised in family-based care.

You know, we know institutions are bad for kids and, and so we really want them in family-based care, as soon as possible, you know? And, but then on the other side as a tension, you really, like you’ve said, need an ethical, legal, international child welfare practice, and you want to prioritize family preservation and reunification.

So, you know, do you see some ways that those tensions can be balanced well with policy? Do you think the Hague tries to do that? Do you have other things that you wish were in place?

Dr. Peter Selman: I think it’s difficult. I mean, I do remember, my dear friend, René Hoksbergen, from the Netherlands, who’s written many books and many studies on adoption.

Ending one chapter by saying, “Isn’t it sad that we still live in a time when the only way, in which some children can be helped is by sending them thousands of miles away from the home.” So his view was that, yes, we need it, but it will be not a bad thing if international adoption were to gradually fade out.

And of course, some critics like David Smolin have said that to say things in the past is it said. “Oh, it’s this sign of empire and all these bad things and sooner or later we’ll stop. And then we will look back say, well, why on earth did we do that?” And this brings about in my country, UK, which do very little adoption aboard.

And because we sent many children to Canada, to New Zealand, to Australia, we call them the child migrants. And this went on until 1960s. When I started working in childcare at that time, I didn’t know this was going on. Nobody did. And then they started coming back and, they were not sent for adoption.

They’ve just sent to a “better life”, working on farms in Australia and many were exploited it was almost like slave labor and so we looked back and think that was a terrible mistake. How on earth did we go on doing that for a hundred years? but at the time, you have to understand it seemed to be a good thing.

It was a way of getting children away from the poor laws and with great hopes and for a minority it was a great success. So I think  there’s always a, sort of a problem that we see things still through the eyes of receiving States. And, I remember going to a meeting in Washington at the Holt organization, and there was somebody there who had a special reception that we were all invited to early morning.

There would be breakfast and they told us how we must save international adoption by stopping all this rambling on about Haiti and stop all this negativity and get on with it. And I still remember, “we must stop the end of international adoption”. And then one of the delegates, I think it was from Nigeria or something stood up and said, “you know, if it stops, it is we who must make the judgment. We decide whether you have our children, it’s not for you to decide.” And I thought that summed up something very important that the difference in power and the importance of the voice of the sending countries. And of course, that’s, what’s happened now with China, China is in charge.

China could stop tomorrow if it wanted to, it doesn’t because it is does quite well by sending largely older children, who will be very costly to look after themselves, to a place where they know that it will be, they will be well looked after and where there’s much better medical facilities. But that will change.

But the idea of the abandoned baby of China, little babies, beautiful babies, healthy babies, that were so attractive in the early 2000s. That’s gone. And they’re in charge. And likewise, the Russians with Putin, but there are suggestions that the best way to hit at America is to stop adoptions to America, but that was because people from America had murdered the Russian children who didn’t please them.

And on one occasion, one was sent back to Russia. He wasn’t “good enough.”

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Oh, I remember that distinctly, that was early on in my career. So I remember. I remember that specific incident in particular. Yeah. I wonder as you’re reflecting on kind of the roles of both the sending and receiving countries, what roles and responsibilities do you see for Western nations?

Like the US or UK, in terms of reducing or preventing the proliferation of orphanages and institutional care, preventing child trafficking within the countries that have historically been those sending countries. So you said, you know, the sending countries have to, we have to honor their voice.

And of course, what role do the Western nations have?

Dr. Peter Selman: Well, I mean, I think that’s a very, very interesting question. I mean, when it comes to China, China is in charge and China will decide. But when it comes to Africa, it’s a very different story and you mentioned orphanages. I mean, the story of Africa is of Western, many US funded orphanages, and the word orphan is so striking in America. And this may have stopped now, but for many, many years you granted orphan visas, even if somebody had living parents and so orphan covered not somebody who’s a full orphan having lost both parents, but those who only have one parent and those who for whatever reason had been taken away from their parents so that, there was similar, I think in Nepal, where they had a similar situation where, international social service produced a wonderful film called Paper Orphans.

So, I mean, one thing is this ability to actually see who really needs help and to stop, going around in circles by funding orphanages, a lot of money in the term for which you expect them to send some children for adoption. It’s never spelled out like that. It’s not a contract. But there’s no doubt that in Africa, especially, it was based in Uganda, that many of the orphanages were used by locals because the only way in which they could get their children safe and education, and they weren’t orphans, but they  went to the orphanages and you had similar things happen.

And I think that, situations like that have now become apparent. And that’s why Uganda has stopped. And if the one country in Africa, I know quite well is Ethiopia. Ethiopia has got the whole range. There are orphanges there that set up with a view to getting children and sending them back for adoption.

There were other orphanages that are run by, groups like SRS and where they set up, villages, half of which are local orphans, half of which are open places for locals to send their children to school. So the orphanages just got computers which the villagers haven’t got. And so they share the facilities with locals and that should be a very good model.

And then I was lucky enough to come across an institution funded by an American  philanthropist that was set up for grandparents and this absolutely wowed me, I went there and, it was a day center, day only, and all the children who came were AIDS orphans. This was in the peak of the AIDS epidemic and they were all had lost thier parents, but were taken care of by the grandparents. And so this one is set up institution that provided free education, nursery education on a day basis to take the pressure off the grandparents. And that was actually where they got regular education, grandparents got spare time, but then when they’d gone through that stage of education, they went back to the grandparents with funding.

It enabled the grandparents to continue to offer them education in different places. And that was such a marvelous model as an alternative to what you could do as an alternative to an orphanage. So there’s a huge amount to your question there. I mean, the importance of American funding for Africa is, you can’t deny the good that philanthropy has done. And a lot of this in well organized international adoption has been also very good, but it’s a question of a balance.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Yeah. I appreciate, the ways that you you’re talking through balancing some of those tensions and those, those ideas. I think, you know, you’re right. I’ve seen that same thing where there, where adoption can be permanency and love and belonging and, and be such a good fit.

And at the same time there can be, ethical practices and family practices that don’t result in the best outcomes for children. So, yeah, it’s a challenging issue.

Dr. Peter Selman: Well, I feel this very strongly, one of the few countries outside of the United States, which continues to do domestic adoption and these are…

Most of my European colleagues think we shouldn’t be doing this. And yet they’re beginning to see that there is a limit to saying no to domestic adoption, because for some children, they come from families that are ridden by alcohol and drug problems and never going to get a good life and well organized domestic adoption – I think the domestic adoption has been well organized in the States. This offers tremendous help. But then you come back to the race issue. And the question in America of should white families take African American children. And the question of whether they want African American children, when they can get a Chinese child or a “genuine” African child it gets very complicated.

Dr. Emily Helder: It does, it does we have a couple interviews coming up with, individuals who’ve written chapters in the handbook about transracial adoption. So I think that will be really valuable to add to that context.

Dr. Peter Selman: It is. I mean, it’s the, when you, you know, you’ve gone through so many stages of how to handle transracial adoption, and it’s a difficult one because there’s no doubt, especially when I’m looking at the election is going on, there’s a big problem of assuming that transracial adoption is a good thing, or assuming it’s a bad thing. If we assume its a good thing, and then having to recognize that it is a one way system, but you don’t want your White children adopted by Black Americans, and then you begin to see what’s going on.

And of course international adoption is more complicated than the simple picture it gives in Britain, we have very few adoptions. But most of them are now by people who then they’re not transracial  international adoptions. Their adoptions from Pakistan to the UK by Pakistani’s living in the UK, they’re not relatives. It’s an adoption that’s not transracial, it’s cross country.

And I think that that, that, that, that can be very important to recognize that there are all sorts of different types of intercountry adoption. I mean, not at least in part the issue for what happens with the countries where adoption is officially not allowed. You’ve got your father and should you have that in there….

Dr. Emily Helder: we could go on and on. Yeah. Well, I just, want to thank you so much for your time in, talking through some of these ideas with me and of course your work on the chapter. I think it’s so valuable for, readers to be able to see the ways that, larger structural factors, political, economic, relationships between countries, even how, how that’s all woven together with adoptions.

So thank you so much.

Dr. Peter Selman: What I hope is that, I’ve covered the points for the readers, I would say go back and have a look at the stories, especially of Haiti and tsunami and the difference between situations like that, because, there’s a world of interesting material on Haiti too.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Yeah. Well, we’ll link the chapter so that, so that folks can explore that in particular.

So thanks so much.

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