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Before We Became a Family: Why children are placed for adoption in the U.S. and five countries around the world.

by Carrie Howard

Sooner or later, children wonder why they weren’t able to stay with their birthfamilies. Whether we know the reasons why the birthfamily made the decision to place the child for adoption or can only speculate, it’s not enough to give just the facts to our children. We must be able to place the decision into a context that our children can understand and accept.

In a just world, all children would be raised in their family of origin. Our children’s stories often begin in hardship—and present more questions than answers. Learning more about the circumstances leading children to be available for adoption in the United States and around the world can help parents add sympathetic detail to a child’s story.

United States
Hard choices

Some 25,000 to 40,000 infants are adopted each year through private American adoption. (These numbers exclude foster and relative adoptions, in which the adoptive parents tend to be well acquainted with the birthfamily’s situation.) Dawn Smith-Pliner of Friends In Adoption has worked in U.S. adoption for more than 20 years. She identifies three distinct categories of birthparents who seek her agency’s support in placing their children. “First, we see many single mothers, usually from 19 to 24 years old, who are struggling to raise children alone,” says Smith-Pliner. “They say, ‘We love our kids and we know that we can’t bring another child into our family and be okay.’

“Second, we see married couples, usually with children already, who are struggling to keep their marriage and family afloat in the face of a variety of financial or emotional obstacles. They may already be working two jobs and are trying to be good parents to the children they have,” she says.

A third U.S. adoption scenario often involves teenage birthparents with parents interested in open adoption placement. “The teens, like the vast majority of parents considering adoption, love the baby, and the ability to maintain contact with the adoptive family comforts them. But in our experience, it’s the grandparents, not the teens, who are likely to maintain a relationship after adoption.”

When a birthmother contacts Smith-Pliner’s office, staff members discuss parenting and make every effort to find resources to keep the child in the birthfamily. If the birthparents remain firm about the decision to place the child, the agency provides counseling to assist them.

The range of social service and financial support options available to U.S. birthparents may, paradoxically, increase the difficulty parents face in explaining to a child why he could not remain with his first family. “Even in open adoption, it can be painful,” says Smith-Pliner. “But it’s important for kids to know how they came into a family. The truth creates a strong base for children to grow into self-assured and healthy adults.”

Russia and Ukraine
Economic chaos

Russia and Ukraine accounted for 28% of the children adopted internationally in 2001. Despite economic reforms that have taken place since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, many families in former Soviet nations struggle to survive. As many as 600,000 children are estimated to live in foster or orphanage care in Russia alone.

Economic factors lead to most relinquishments. Parental rights may also be terminated in the case of neglect or drug and alcohol use.

Janice Goldwater, of Adoptions Together, in Silver Spring, MD, says, “We see many children whose birthparents are unable to raise them because of economic, social, and familial circumstances. Of the children who are available, we see two groups: one is babies relinquished in the hospital at birth to orphanages, and the second is older children who are removed from their families because of neglect.” Diane Sadovnikov of Sense Resource Center, which assists adoptions in Ukraine, notes, “Neighbors are almost always aware of neglectful situations and help children who need intervention.”

Teresa and Rich Fillmon adopted four-year-old Artur from Ukraine in 1999. He had been abandoned in a grocery store at one year of age. “Three weeks later, his mother told the orphanage director that she loved her son, but just couldn’t feed him anymore,” says Teresa. The Fillmons were so moved that they formed a charity, His Kids, Too!, to provide humanitarian aid in Ukraine.

Extreme Poverty

Poverty is endemic in Guatemala, where over 50% of the population lives as subsistence farmers in remote rural areas. With few family planning clinics, Guatemala has one of the highest fertility rates in Latin America. Unwed motherhood is neither socially nor economically feasible.

Birthmothers in Guatemala contact an adoption agency or lawyer and often relinquish their babies only days after birth. Many adopting parents receive information about the birthfamily, and some even meet them.

Leceta Chisholm Guibault and her husband adopted their daughter, Kahleah, from Guatemala in 1991. They received Kahleah’s vaccination record, original birth certificate, the names, birthdates, and occupations of her birthmother, birthfather, and other relatives. “There was a detailed description of the family home and its ‘sparse amenities,’” says Guibault. “Her birthmother stated in court that she could not ‘feed, clothe, or educate the child.’ She said that she understood that her child would be adopted by a family that could give her what she could not, and that she loved her child.”

Parents adopting from Guatemala grapple with how to explain the poverty in which their children’s birthparents lived. Guibault says, “Kahleah asked me, ‘If my birthfamily was poor, why didn’t you just send money so they could keep me?’ I explained that most children in Guatemala do live with their families of origin, and that’s why we sponsor a child in Guatemala. I explained that we weren’t given the option of sending money to her birthmother, who had already relinquished Kahleah when she was proposed to us. It made sense to me, and in turn it made sense to Kahleah.”

South Korea
Social Pressures

South Korea has perhaps the oldest and most stable international adoption program in the world. Today unmarried mothers place most infants for adoption: the stigma associated with pregnancy outside of wedlock is strong. Birthmothers who choose adoption receive housing, counseling, and medical assistance.

Typically infants live with a foster family after birth, and background information on the birthfamily is usually available. Increasingly, older adoptees are returning to South Korea to search for their birthparents. Susan Spafford, a contestant in the 2000 Miss America pageant, spoke publicly about her emotional meeting in Korea with her birthparents, who’d subsequently married.

Not all reunions are as satisfying. Jane W. described in Adoptive Families (January/February 2002) a reunion with her Korean birthmother that took place in secret; her birthmother dared not reveal to her husband her long-ago relationship with a married man and the resulting daughter placed for adoption. Such a sense of shame continues to shadow unwed mothers in Korea today.

The “One-Son-Or-Two-Child” Policy

Thousands of children are abandoned in the People’s Republic of China each year. Although some abandonments occur because of poverty, the majority result from China’s population control policies—a difficult concept for most parents to explain to their children.

Dr. Kay Johnson, professor of Asian Studies at Hampshire College, reported on interviews with Chinese families in “Infant Abandonment and Adoption in China,” published in the September 1998 issue of Population and Development Review. In what is called the “one-son-or-two-child policy,” rural families with a daughter are often permitted to “try again” for a son. Although many parents in China prefer to have both a daughter and a son, they face strong social pressure to have a son to care for them in their old age. In Johnson’s sample, few boys were abandoned, and most of those were disabled. Ninety percent of abandoned children were girls, the majority of them second daughters.

Babies are typically left in public places, at a police or train station, suggesting that the birthparents wanted them to be found and cared for. Many adoptive parents see this as evidence of the birthparents’ love for their baby.

Paula Overend’s daughter Olivia, adopted in 2001, was left with an unusually detailed note that included her date and time of birth, her original family name, and a message that “included the birthfamily’s gratitude to whomever might raise their daughter.”

Why It Matters

Like Guibault, many parents find that learning about challenges faced by their children’s birthparents gives them greater empathy for them.  Indeed, some adoptive parents feel moved to lend their support to humanitarian efforts or to form their own charitable organizations, as the Fillmons did.

All children need to know that their birthparents were good people. To the extent that parents can both believe and convey this truth, children will feel better about themselves. As important, by coming to terms with our children’s origins we can help them understand and ultimately claim their stories for themselves.

Carrie Howard writes frequently about adoption issues and is the mother of two daughters adopted internationally. She lives with her family in the Seattle area.

U.S. Adoption in 2001:
One Agency’s Experience*
• 40% of pregnant women who met with a social worker ultimately placed their babies for adoption.
• 100% of adoptions involved some ongoing contact between birthmother and adoptive parents, often through an intermediary.
• 33% of adoptions involved full disclosure of names and addresses.

*Spence-Chapin Services, New York, New York

Tips for Talking to Your Child
• Be honest.
• Decide how much information to communicate based on your child’s level of maturity.
• Speak respectfully of your child’s birthparents, but don’t put them on a pedestal.
• Find positive things to highlight aboutbirthparents.
• Remember: Children’s feelings about their birthfamilies correspond very closely to their feelings about themselves.
• If you know little or nothing about how your child became available for adoption, you can say something like, “We do know that many birthmothers have to place their children for adoption for the following reasons. [Offer reasons.] Maybe this is what happened to you.”

Country: USA
Fast Facts:
•In 1995, less than 1% of single mothers in the U.S. placed their babies for adoption.1
•Before 1973, almost 9% of single mothers in the U.S. placed their babies for adoption.2

Birthparents’ Stories:
“I am not yet ready for motherhood but [your adoptive parents] have been waiting and ready for you to be a part of their family for many, many years.”
–A birthmother in the U.S. (Courtesy of Spence-Chapin Services. All rights reserved.)

To Learn More, Read:
Birthmothers: Women Who Have Relinquished Babies for Adoption Tell Their Stories, by Merry Bloch Jones (
Kids: How I Was Adopted: Samantha’s Story, by Joanna Cole, (Mulberry Books)

Country: China:
Fast Facts:
•Americans began adopting in numbers after China’s adoption law went into effect in April 1992.
•97% of children adopted from China are girls.3

Birthparents’ Stories:
“In our countryside the thought that man is more important than woman is very popular. I myself don’t have the strength to overthrow it.”
–A birthmother in Wuhan, Hubei, China

To Learn More, Read:
The Lost Daughters of China, by Karin Evans, (J.P. Tarcher)
Kids: When You Were Born in China, by Sara Dorow, (Yeong & Yeong)

Country: Russia & Ukraine:
Fast Facts:
•An estimated 600,000 children live “without parental care” in Russia.4
•About 1/3 of these children live in institutions; most of the rest live with guardians, in shelters, or under police jurisdiction.5

Birthparents’ Stories:
“She told the orphanage director that she wanted a child, took care of herself when she was pregnant, and took good care of her son during the 13 months she had him, but it was difficult to feed him any longer.”
–Teresa Fillmon, about her son’s birthmother in Ukraine

To Learn More, Read:
Siberian Dawn: A Journey Across the New Russia, by Jeffrey Taylor (Ruminator Books)
Kids: Families of Russia (VHS), directed by Georgi Marquisee (Families of the World)

Country: South Korea
Fast Facts:
•More than 100,000 children have been adopted from South Korea since 1958.6
•92% of children adopted from Korea are under age one at adoption.7

Birthparents’ Stories:
“You needed to be loved by family members, and you could have that love only if you were in a family. I couldn\'t give that love by myself. Therefore, adoption was my gift to you.”
–A birthmother in Korea, from the book I Wish for You a Beautiful Life

To Learn More, Read:
I Wish for You a Beautiful Life: Letters from the Korean Birth Mothers of Ae Ran Won to Their Children, ed. Sara Dorow (Yeong & Yeong)
Kids: When You Were Born in Korea, by Brian E. Boyd (Yeong & Yeong)

Country: Guatemala
Fast Facts:
•50% of Guatemalans live as subsistence farmers in remote rural areas.8
•73% of children adopted from Guatemala are under age one at adoption.9

Birthparents’ Stories:
“She said that she understood adoption and that her child would be adopted by a family that could give her everything she could not…and that she loved her child.”
–Leceta Chisholm Guibault, on her daughter’s birthmother in Guatemala

To Learn More, Read:
Guatemalan Journey, by Stephen Connely Benz (University of Texas Press)
Kids:  Kids Who Walk on Volcanoes, by Paul E. Otteson (Avalon Travel Publishing)

1&2-National Survey of Family Growth; 3-INS, Statistics Division, IMMIGRANT-ORPHANS ADOPTED BY U.S. CITIZENS BY SEX, AGE, AND REGION AND COUNTRY OF BIRTH, FISCAL YEAR 2000; 4&5-Human Rights Watch, Abandoned to the State: Cruelty and Neglect in Russian Orphanages,  1998; 6-U.S. State Department, IMMEDIATE RELATIVE VISAS ISSUED, FY 1958-2001; 7-INS, Statistics Division, FY 2000; 8-World Bank, April 2002; 9-INS, Statistics Division, FY 2000

Copyright 2002 Adoptive Families magazine. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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