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Intercountry Adoption - Talking Truthfully About Trafficking

Talking to your child about the possibility of trafficking is not easy. Here's how to open the dialogue.

As news of child trafficking in China and Guatemala make headlines, rumors are rife about the negative aspects of intercountry adoption. Sadly, fact has overtaken fiction in more than a few countries that are or have recently been closed to U.S. adopting parents. Countries that closed because of concerns over coercion of birthparents, trafficking of children, and/or illegal gain by adoption agents include Vietnam, Cambodia, Nepal, Guatemala, and Romania. China, reputedly, is working to contain corroborated trafficking within its orphanage system.

Faced with such accounts of trafficking, many parents have an instinctive reaction of shock and disbelief. By adopting, could they have fueled this trade? In the midst of concerns about trafficking, how can parents make their child’s story accessible to him as they try to make sense of facts and fiction? For many of us, it seems necessary now to help our children understand what’s being reported about trafficking. Yet, some parents question the need to bring up things that happened in their child’s past, things that, in their opinion, are surely "best forgotten."

Why admit that money may have driven the birthparents' decision, or that a child may have been sold by one parent, while the other parent did not consent? Parents want to protect their child, shield her from harsh realities, and embrace her as a family member. Won’t these and other possibilities confuse a child, adding to her pain?

At the nub of such concerns is the reality that the nurturing role of an adoptive parent is tough. You are parenting in the present, and that means making sense of the past. If corruption exists in your child’s birth country or may have played a role in your son's adoption, it is your job to give him a truthful account of his past. Otherwise, the child will certainly find out another way, from his peers, other kids' parents, newspaper headlines that scream "Baby Buying" and "Money-Driven Adoption," Facebook, or YouTube. A child who knows the basics about adoption and trafficking, and his own journey to his family, is empowered by knowing. He is in charge of his story.

Even if a child has no linguistic memory of his past, many experts say that, at some level, children carry sensory memories of all that has happened to them. Your child will look to you to ground his fears and feelings as he grows—and to support him as he explores the full history of his life.


If facts are not known, parents can offer "what-ifs," possibilities involving the child's pre-adoption history. These aren’t fictional stories, but reasonable possibilities that may have affected our children, given what we know and can deduce about their circumstances from reading, researching, and the news. Describe the situation in the child's birth country, even if it involves closure, a slowdown, or trafficking. Discussions won't be fruitful until the child is about five years old, but it's good practice to start telling the story earlier, in an age-appropriate way. Here's how to open the dialogue:

1. Tune in together…and then discuss. You might watch kids' news programs on television with a younger child. Read and comment on newspapers with an older child. Current affairs shows can spark discussion. Go lightly. You might talk about how trafficked babies might feel, or what it feels like to work in bad factory conditions or have to work as a street beggar as a child. Other sources:

+ Read English versions of newspapers in your child’s birth country for commentary on social conditions.

+ Look for current affairs programs online that offer additional commentary on or photographic coverage of events that take place in your child’s country, or in other countries.

2. After talking or watching a TV program together, always "return" to the security of your home and family. End discussions with hugs, and be prepared for emotions as your child processes what she is learning. Kids around this time might like to see copies of their adoption paperwork or citizenship papers. These things reassure them that their adoption is secure.

3. Homeland trips can provoke discussion about social conditions with tweens, and shed light on why trafficking may occur. A trip might include visits to the place where the child was born and orphanages.

4. Stay active in your local and online adoption network, or search for a community that is open to discussion. It is scary to hear the words that undermine the adoptions you have made. Families need support when dealing with this.

5. Discuss your adoption network's comments on trafficking, poverty, and birthparent intentions with your child when you think he will be able to understand them.

6. Listen to what your child says in response to your discussion-starters; her thoughts matter. Provide extra support if you know there are comments in local newspapers about intercountry adoption and "babies for sale." She may take it to heart, and need extra help.

7. Lifebooks are a wonderful tool, in which your child's "what-ifs" and the social background of her birth country can be discussed.

For More Information

  • Gregory C. Keck, Ph.D., a therapist specializing in attachment and adoption, and an adoptive dad, has related articles on how and why parents must be honest, even about difficult topics, with their children.
  • Love Our Way: In her book, Julia Rollings tells how she and her family survived trafficking, and united with the birth family.

  • Sheena Macrae, Ph.D., is the adoptive mother of two children from China. She is editor of Adoption Parenting, a listserve of EMK Press (, where this essay first appeared.

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