Freakonomics Blogger and Returning a child from China

Mr. Harlow’s Monkey is in the field of marketing and so of course, we’ve got the book Freakonomics sitting on our bookshelf. I did read it, had mixed feelings overall, but stumbled on this earlier last night and found it very interesting. I’d actually already read that article Mr. Levitt links to his blog post from last Sunday in the New York Times and had planned to blog about it and forgot! So I am linking it here and on the Gazette.

One of the authors of Freakonomics is the parent of a daughter adopted from China. I read through Mr. Levitt’s blog post, and then all the comments after. Mr. Levitt tackles a subject I’ve not seen thoroughly discussed before – the choice that adoptive parents have to decline a child once they meet them.

I’ve also not really discussed this much before. I have very, very mixed feelings about adoptive parents deciding not to adopt based on some phone-in diagnoses to doctors in the U.S. (as one article alluded to) or as in the example by Mr. Levitt, based on the attachment of the child to the parents. Not to be redundant in bringing up Ms. Angelina Jolie again, but news reports of her adoption of Pax largely reported that Pax was very unhappy about being adopted and did not want to go with Angelina.

Of course, if the child is not doing well emotionally and the parents have an immediate reaction to the child’s personality in a negative way, I worry – more for the child’s sake than the parents – that the adoption will not go well.

What I have trouble with is that this isn’t just an adoption thing. If a parent has birthed a child and doesn’t feel "connected" to that child, are they going to "give it back?" Who would they give it back to? If their child whom they conceived and birthed biologically ended up with autism, down’s syndrome or a mental illness or some other kind of disability, would they give that child up? Or is this particularly an issue with the idea of spending $20,000 on a child and expecting that child to be the kid of your "dreams" or "fate" as I’ve often heard adoptive parents describe?

A while ago, I came across a blog by adoptive parents who went to adopt their daughter "Hannah" from China. In their earlier posts, Hannah is described as their daughter who was theirs by divine intervention. A lot of space was dedicated to how God had meant for this child to belong to these parents. However, the child was medically fragile and once the parents went to meet them, decided to return the girl. They ended up adopting another girl and named her "Hannah" as well. What really irked me was that not only did they name their replacement child the same name, they had the gumption to write that it was really God’s choice that they adopted this second girl after they found out the first was too medically fragile to be adopted. Eventually this couple closed their blog because of all the negative comments they received. And while I do empathize with the difficult decision they had to make, I was left with an overwhelming sense that if this child had been a biological child, the outcome would have been very different.

As parents, I think we all hope and wish for healthy children.

But I just can’t help but feel in my gut that there is something too much akin to returning faulty merchandise to a store.

Last week I blogged about the decision to abort when faced with a diagnosis of Down Syndrome. A
similar issue arises, perhaps in an even more intense way (if such a
thing is possible), with foreign adoption. When you adopt from, say,
China, they send you information about the baby that’s been assigned to
you, including health information that is not very reliable, to say the
least. When you arrive to pick up your baby, you never quite know what
you will find. If there are serious health issues or other reasons why
adoptive parents might find a child unacceptable, the Chinese
authorities will quickly switch the child.

On my first trip to adopt in China, I happened to sit at a table
next to another adopting couple from the United States. They were
older, with no prior children, and had been assigned a three- or
four-year-old girl. If memory serves me correctly, the father was a CEO
of a large firm in New Jersey. They seemed like very nice people. The
child that was assigned to them was very headstrong. She did not want
to go with her adoptive parents and proceeded to throw tantrums,
screaming, throwing things and spitting on and punching them for
several days. They decided they couldn’t go through with it, and the
girl was returned to the orphanage. My understanding is that she would
not be eligible for adoption (at least, not internationally) in the

The next day, the couple told me, another three-year-old was brought
over from an orphanage. The first thing she did when she met them was
say, in English, ”I love you, Mommy. I love you, Daddy.” The person
who had transported the child from the orphanage had taught her the
words. She had no idea what she was saying, but it didn’t
matter. Needless to say, this little girl went home with them to New

Almost seven years have passed since I shared breakfast with that
New Jersey couple, yet I think about them often, and when I do, my eyes
always fill with tears. I think about the little girl, now ten, living
in a Chinese orphanage never knowing the life she missed. Should a
three-year-old be punished for being attached to her caretakers in the
orphanage?  What if the New Jersey couple had just held out a little
longer? Mostly, though, I think about how the second child learned
those words in the cab, and how different her life is now because that
first child put up such a fight. Strangely, I never think much about
the decision the couple made with the first child, or whether I would
have done the same thing myself. I only think about the children.

Not everyone makes the same choice as this couple. Yestersday The New York Times ran a wonderful, emotionally wrenching story about this sort of life-defining choice by another couple who had adopted from China. It is well worth reading.

Comments following the post on the author’s blog can be found here.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

9 thoughts

  1. I’m a perpetual lurker of your blog. Although I have no ties to the adoptive community (thus feeling like a bit of a poser reading your posts) I always find your writing so thought-provoking. Thank you for letting me into your ‘space’ and learn more from your perspective — a perspective to which I would otherwise never have access or exposure.
    (I just felt I had to comment at least once. 🙂

  2. I’ve been educated about adoption disruption of older children in the foster care system. It’s not too uncommon. I think it is ethical, as long as you have really tried your hardest, and it is done in the child’s interest — that is, if you realize you cannot meet the child’s needs, and you know they will be better off somewhere else with a higher level of therapeutic care. Some biological parents with no financial resources have had to do this with children with severe handicaps… it’s terribly depressing. Disruption is an open secret in foster care adoption but it looks like a buried hidden one in international.
    There’s a woman with a blog who tried to justify a “warranty”-style disruption I wrote about here… her attitude is revolting. I think when you promise to adopt a referral you assume responsibility for the child. If you absolutely can’t be their parents you can at least fulfill the obligation to make sure they have good parents. Biological parents make adoption plans and place their children… so can you. The “return defective child to orphanage never to be adopted again, based on few phone minutes with quack pediatrician” story is apparently a common thread and it’s absolutely horrible.

  3. Just as a biological parent cannot pick and choose the health of her child, neither should an adoptive parent. I know that sounds harsh – but I chose to be a parent, no matter what. If LN had been born with any birth defects, I would not return her to… where? Where would I return my child? You make a commitment to be a parent and you deal with it. You love your child. Parents who return the ‘damaged goods’ aren’t prepared to be parents – they’re merely buying the picture-perfect family.
    This is yet another perfect example of adoption debased as catering to the parents’ own wants and needs – I wanted to become a mother to love a child, to know the love of a child, to nurture, to care for someone. How can those parents say their intentions are pure when they want to pick a child out of a catalogue, one without any blemishes, any defects?
    Like that woman “chew” (from atlasien’s link), if LN were born with a defect, or were diagnosed with behavioral issues OVER THE FREAKING PHONE, do I get to write a pissy letter to god and go around all churches, temples, mosques, or wherever, making sure what a rip-off god is for trying to sell me a defective child? In fact, I think I should write a whiny letter to god right now, complain about LN’s terrible-twos behavior, return her for repairs… because, being a parent to a healthy perfect child is by god-given right, as long as the price is right.

  4. I could not agree with you more. It is horrible and hypocritical how the overly religious manipulate to justify anything. There is no fate, there is consequences to actions. I have to say though, it is in the child’s best interest not to be adopted by someone who does not want them.

  5. Let me say “ditto” to what Yoli just said.
    Someone mentioned the blog “chew”. I was pleased to see at least that they were NOT going to let her adopt another child.

  6. I think I know of the person you were speaking of in your post, as I was in line to adopt that very child. I read that child’s file and spoke to the woman on the phone; she was so caught up in “minor needs” (as it was a waiting child) that she failed to recognize that not all children with that condition are minor. It was very cosmetic with her and I felt they really had no intention on taking her from day one and thought they could “trade up” once they got there (maybe the reason they felt to use the same name was okay)–sadly they allowed her to change children, I don’t think she should have left with any child. It sickens me as well that they used their religion to justify their actions. I think with the smallest effort on their part they would have known her potential issues and could have decided before accepting her if it was the right fit for their family; as I think is important.
    We adopted our beautiful and talented daughter from the same list and are so glad that we weren’t chosen for any other child–she is so a perfect fit in our family. We three, she is our only child, make a great team. We allows for us and we support her in all she does and will do. We allow her to be who she is.
    As for “Chew” my post would be extremely long. I knew Jen online before she went, I know she is an educated woman, and I was not there. I do think that children should go home with the parents that they were referred to, but I also believe, like Yoli, that it is not in their best interest for someone who is unprepared, unwilling, or who does not want them.
    Our daughter was on a waiting child list so I did get to chose what “needs” I could handle, some view our daughter as having a big need, we view it as minor. It is very individual.
    I think for those who claim that if the child was born to them than they would not have a “return” policy are not really in touch with reality. Here we have amnio tests, genetic workups, and ultrasound and some people abort before the child is born; there are still others who make adoption plans, and there are those who leave children at the hospital or call social services. Finally there are parents (yes, here in the US) who abandon their children, place them in dumpster, with relatives, or neglect them until they are taken away.
    Is there a good side to disruption? My daughter’s best friend from China was disrupted last year and was just adopted two weeks ago. Since I keep in good touch with her foster mother, I know that in this case things have worked out well. It is so hard for the children, but I think a family is better than no family and foster care is only temporary. Maintaining touch with their past is essential for the future.
    Just my thoughts.

  7. When my wife and I approached adoption from Korea, I soon realized that I saw no humanity in “choosing” children. For a moment I balked at adoption at all because of this. What I didn’t know was that I would face a challenge that would determine just where I actually stood.
    That is, two years after we adopted our older son, we got a phone call from the agency. An half-sibling to our son had been born and was in the “system.” Did we want to adopt him?
    At that point we were a comfortable small family, and we had not made plans to adopt again. We prepared to say no.
    But the moment I was alone and could think about it, I felt sick. This child was my son’s brother. He belonged with my son, given he had already been given up by his mom, more than my son belonged with me. What in hell was I thinking?
    Today I am kept busy and worn out by two sons. I thank goodness we made the decision based on what was best for them, NOT US.

  8. Two of our three biological children were born needing major surgery, and one spent 4 months in and out of the hospital at age 6, enduring 4 surgeries and weekly ‘procedures’ before the issue was resolved. When we made the decision to pursue adoption from China, we decided to request a child with a ‘special need’. I think we were just very aware that not every child is born ‘perfect’, and since we had experience with this, as well as access to one of the top Children’s Hospitals in the world, that this made sense for our family.
    We had to specify exactly what needs we would accept, just as we specified an age range… We were very aware by that time of how far a medical crisis could push our emotional and marital well-being, but it was disturbing to sit there with a common list of ‘needs’, checking yes or no… Adoption is not childbirth – there are many more ‘yes/no’ questions you get to answer. And yet at the end of the day, no child comes with any guarantees – that ‘perfect’ baby may have ADHD, develop an eating disorder, become depressed, get in an auto accident and lose a limb or suffer brain damage. When you become a parent, you take on the responsibility of a lifetime of chance… Adoption does allow you to start out with more specific characteristics (sex, age, obvious medical condition), and yet with closed adoption there is no family history, no understanding of how to help your child overcome genetic traits that leave her vulnerable to medical problems you have not even thought of… (an aside: last year, an adult adoptee friend of the family dropped dead at 48 from an undiagnosed heart condition – this happens with biological children, too, but having a family history could have made him more aware of this possibility and prevented it…)
    When we were in China, a family in our group was given a baby who did not seem quite right. The mother worked as a therapist with severely handicapped children and recognized that something was seriously wrong. Our adoption agency sends an American doctor with each group. When he examined the child, he concurred and they, along with our guide, took the baby to a Chinese Hospital for more testing. The child had CP and possibly more. The director of our agency is from China, and spent a long time speaking with the director of the orphanage and the family and doctors. They family was given the choice – you may keep this child, who has been with you for 24 hours, or have another child placed with you. Because of her work, the mother was very aware of what a child with severe needs would mean for them. After getting reassurances that the child would be placed in a special program and get medical care, they made the decision to adopt a different child. It was not easy for them – but they were very educated about these needs and did what was best for them. I think it is important for families to be educated about the needs of their children (this applies to issues of transracial adoption, as well as medical needs). The right decision for one family is not right for everyone. Another friend of ours adopted from a country where you are not assigned a child until you are in country (and the pressure to accept what you are given is high). They went over expecting a 2 year old and were offered a 10 year old. They came home with her, not knowing anything about the issues she may be facing, coming home to a house where instead of being the baby, she was suddenly an older sister to their other children. Resentment all around. They are struggling, to say the least… Yes – there will be struggles with bio kids as well, and you don’t just ‘hand them off’ (although many people do place difficult teens to other family members). But to go into adoption, knowing you are over your head, unable or unwilling to become educated about these new needs – that is not a good situation for anyone. A child who is different cannot be made to fit into a preconceived box – the parents must understand this and say no when they cannot make it work for whatever reason…
    Sorry this is so long – I have a lot of person experience with friends and family in various situations…other friends have a severely mentally challenged child – I watch their struggles and tensions and see the older brother’s guilt about the anger he feels over the attention his brother gets… another friend making the decision to abort in the 2nd trimester because of the severe impact the severely disabled child would have on two other children… these are not easy issues, for bio or adoptive parents…

  9. Adoption is a choice, not an obligation the way parenting is for biological parents. I really don’t think it’s fair for you to demand that adoptive parents take in children with needs that would place great demands on them in excess of average parenting. It is really up to the parents to decide what they can handle as a family.

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