The power of art

Many of  my friends know that way back when, my first undergraduate (almost) degree was costume and textile design. I dropped out of school a semester before finishing my program. When I decided I was ready to finally finish my degree, I went into social work but I have maintained my love of textiles. I am particularly drawn to art that combines textiles and social justice and sometimes imagine that I will someday create some of my own art using textiles.

So imagine my delight when I saw an announcement on Facebook that a Korean adoptee artist and writer, Mary-Kim Arnold, had an installation, (Re)dress: One for Every Thousand as part of the CON/TEXTILE/IZED exhibit at the Jamestown Art Center in Rhode Island. Imagine how excited I was to know I was going to be at the Rudd Adoption  Conference in Massachusetts during the exhibit’s run at the JAC. As soon as I learned about the exhibit, I started planning how I could see it while I was in MA and specifically planned a flight home that would allow me to drive down to RI to see the exhibit. Along with my friends Angela and Adam, we left early on Saturday morning and road-tripped it to beautiful RI. Not only was it wonderful to get a chance to see this exhibit, it was really meaningful to see it with two other adoptees.

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Arnold’s installation was incredibly moving for me. In her artist’s statement, she writes,

I was two and a half years old when I made the 18-hour trip from Seoul to New York on an early spring night in 1974. I don’t know who helped me dress that morning, but what they chose for me – a simple, a-line dress – has been the only tangible link I have to the country of my birth. Two years ago, when I discovered that I had misplaced this dress, I decided to re-make it as an act of reclaiming my own cultural lineage.

“(Re-)Dress: One for Every Thousand” is composed of 200 individually-made white dresses in a symbolic attempt to re-dress the estimated 200,000 Korean children adopted abroad. The dresses are made from recycled domestic linens – tablecloths, bedsheets – as a way to foreground the unknowability of their prior domestic life. The color white is traditionally associated with mourning in Korea, and this piece shifts the adoption narrative from the “happy ending” for the lucky orphan to a more complicated meditation on what is lost – for the child, for the culture, for the nation…

As part of the installation, viewers will be invited to contribute cherished childhood memories on white cards which can then be pinned to the dresses themselves. With this gesture, memories are gifted to the adoptees, who might not have such memories of their own. Visitors to this site may also contribute a memory through the link below.

The dresses are the first thing you see when you walk into the JAC. The dresses are displayed along one whole wall and up a short flight of stairs there is another display along with the artist’s statement and other materials, including the tags where visitors can write childhood memories to be attached to the dresses.

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The dresses are unfinished; the lightly frayed, unfinished hems symbolizing being sent too early; one of my friends who was with me, a Korean adoptee, said about the linens being used, “this is what would have been thrown away, disposed of.” The dresses are all exactly the same shape, but varied in the fabrics used, mimicking the way each of us adopted from Korea are both the same and unique.

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Many of the dresses have a brown, craft-paper tag with a date and the initials of a country. These represent the estimated birth dates of an adoptee and the country where they were sent. The dates span from 1949 to 2003. I spent some time looking for a tag that was closest to my birth date and found only one from the year I was born (1968) in my search, though from Arnold’s book, I saw there were four from that year.

 

 

 

Arnold writes, on her blog,

We are exposed to so many data points that stand in for human lives. Every day, I see the numbers of the dead – from the disastrous effects of climate change, from gun violence, from the endless wars in which we now participate. The numbers of stories of sexual assault and violence. The relentless stream of numbers can be deadening. It is too easy to gloss over, to lose track.

I don’t know what 200,000 Korean adoptees really means. There are ways I attempt to understand my own life, but I am only one in 200,000. This is my attempt to remind myself that each number is a life. This is my attempt to recognize the lives of the children whose earliest experience was one of rupture. To make space for them, even if only briefly.

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The exhibit will be on display until April 28, 2018.

 

Thoughts about the Hart family

The first thing I tried to do was find photos of the six Hart children without their parents, wanting to celebrate the short lives of these beautiful children and not include the parents who killed them. It’s actually difficult to find photos other than the staged one of Devonte tearfully hugging the police officer at a protest. I didn’t like the photo when I first saw it and learning now about the back story of how and why that photo came to be only increases the heartbreak I feel for those kids. There are a few other photos circulating that have a couple of the children, but these photos felt incomplete to me.

On my Facebook page, I began listing some initial thoughts I wanted to write about in this blog post. I will expand some on the points I made and include a few more.

I did not want this story to be the one that brought me back to blogging. I’ve been considering adding more content to the blog for quite some time, but I just wasn’t sure how and in what way. But ever since I first heard about the story, I’ve been ruminating about it constantly and I finally felt the blog was the best home for the thoughts I’ve been wanting to put down in writing.

This will be a long post, and it will not necessarily be logically organized. Also, it is important you keep in mind the perspectives I have about this particular case:

I identify as a transracial adoptee, so I have my own experiences and thoughts about what it was like to grow up isolated from my racial and cultural community (Korean Americans) and even though I had loving parents, the racial and cultural isolation and the assimilationist parenting practices they implemented at the advice of their social workers has had long-lasting effects in my life.

I also identify as an adoption professional. I have worked in many aspects of adoption: I’ve written home studies and conducted home visits (both pre- and post-finalization) with prospective parents; I’ve worked with foster kids, to help find and place them in adoptive homes; I’ve worked at a state agency level, doing among other things participating in reviewing and making recommendations about whether siblings in foster care should be separated for adoption and approving child welfare/adoption trainings and curriculum; I’ve worked at a non-placing adoption organization providing post-adoption services. I’ve also participated in work groups advocating for open records, adoptee rights, birth/first parent rights, increased post-adoption supports and services for all folks connected by adoption. I also do research on adoption. I’ve written and conducted trainings and presented on adoption for prospective and adoptive parents, foster parents, adoptees of all ages, first/birth parents, adoption professionals and social work and psychology students – the ones who often become adoption professionals. I shouldn’t have to document my professional status, but people are quick to dismiss an adoptee’s perspective.

All of these experiences have helped me understand the different perspectives of those involved in adoption, particularly those perspectives that differ from my own. These professional experiences have also helped me understand the systems, policies, laws, and cultural factors that work in concert to shape how adoption is practiced in the United States. The following words are my thoughts, my opinions, and my critiques based on my personal and professional experiences. As it pertains to the adoptive parents, while I am empathetic to the general experiences of adoptive parents I am not here to defend these particular parents in any way. Don’t come here to defend them, don’t leave “please to consider their point of view” in the comments – they took the lives of six beautiful children and there is no defense for that.

Here we go…

Isolation

The family started homeschooling after multiple reports of abuse after children revealed to teachers. I am not correlating homeschooling and abuse, but I think we need to understand that many abuse victims are isolated from situations where extra eyes are on them as a way to reduce scrutiny and potential reports to child protection or police.

Many of the cases we have heard about lately involving the death of adopted children involve children who were homeschooled. The significant part to me is not the homeschooling aspect itself – there are so many reasons that parents choose to homeschool their children. The part that I find significant is that they chose to homeschool – after – multiple incidents where the children revealed abuse to a teacher or school professional. Teachers and school staff get to know children and are often the ones to inquire deeper if they see anything troubling with a student – that is why they are mandated reporters. In this family’s case, I see their choice to homeschool as driven by the desire to decrease the chance that someone would see the abuse on their kids. Notice how often in these abuse cases neighbors or others in the community who interact with the family talk about how isolated the family was.

Pathologizing the children

These parents blamed the kids’ prior histories as excuses for why they disciplined them or to discredit the children’s accounts and accusations. This is always a red flag for me. I have frequently talked to parents, adoptees, and professionals about the importance of considering food insecurity as a hot spot in conflicts between adoptive parents and adopted children.

Many kids with histories of food insecurity steal, hide, overeat, or won’t eat. and parents often get very angry about the behavior. I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve talked with who think the children have food related behaviors just to make the parents angry. I’ve never understood this. Locking food, spoiling food (i.e. making it inedible), forcing children to eat, spanking them for what they do or do not eat, spanking them for taking, stealing, or hiding food for a child that has food insecurity only increases their fear of food insecurity! As Maureen at Light of Day Stories also reminded me, the other frequent hot spot is around toileting. Punishing children for bed wetting, soiling, and other problematic or non-developmentally appropriate toileting behaviors as well as food issues are clues to a child’s trauma – they are language that children have as their resource and when we get angry at them and punish them for it, the trauma underlying these behaviors can’t begin to heal and may instead get worse.

In their own writing on social media and in what others have shared that the parents verbally said, the Hart parents expressed frustration with their kids’ behaviors. All kids have behaviors that frustrate the crap out of their parents; kids with trauma histories, especially abuse and neglect, have behaviors that can not only frustrate but infuriate their parents. Stealing, lying, aggression, hurting others, hurting themselves – what adoptive parents need to understand is that these behaviors exist because it was a key tool for survival for the child and just because a child is suddenly placed in a “loving home” doesn’t mean that they will just shrug their shoulders and be like, “oh hey, guess I can stop lying now.” It may take years – YEARS – for someone to understand that these survival behaviors aren’t necessary any more. Maybe the adoptee will never get to that point. Punishing them for these behaviors may only reinforce the need to keep them. I am not saying that adoptive parents should allow a free-for-all – consequences are important. But what I often see in these battles is more about aa reflection of the parent’s image – centered around being seen as a competent parent and in control – rather than actually trying to help the child change their behavior.

There is a myth that white, liberal, progressive parents are less likely to abuse their children. Let’s take that off the table right now.

Transracial parenting

A few red flags: the parents were heavily involved in communities that espoused a “we are all the same under the skin” mentality and minimized racial and cultural identity. Some have called this community “new age” but I think it goes much deeper than that. Many in this community have defended the parents and I think that speaks volumes.

I worked in Minnesota for most of my career and conducted trainings that took me all around the state. I often heard from professionals and families that the area where the Hart family once lived is known to be one in which white adoptive were particularly problematic when it comes to transracial and international adoption. There was a lot of denial that race was important, there was a lot of isolation of kids, and there were lots of families seeking post-adoption services that focused on making the children behave better with no willingness to address the race and adoption factor or what transracial adoptive parents needed to do to support their children’s racial identity needs.

In some ways I was surprised that these parents intentionally chose over and over to live in these communities where not only is there little tolerance for racial differences, but also very little tolerance for LGBTQ families in general. I can’t help but wonder how much being in a racially homogenous community was more important for these parents than one that would fully accept their same-sex partnership.

White gay parents are not more likely to be anti-racist or affirm their transracially adopted child’s racial and/or cultural identity than white straight couples. The story about their lack of follow up on help with their kids’ hair was not surprising to me. I have done presentations at Rainbow Families/LGBTQ conferences about adoption specifically to address this. Being discriminated against for one’s sexual orientation or gender identity does not equate to understanding racial and ethnic based discrimination and oppression.

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One thing that has struck me from the beginning is what others have described as the parents’ using the children as props. My opinion is that this is less about an intentional attempt to use the children as props but I would agree that an underlying motivation is about the image these parents wanted to portray about themselves. I do not know why these particular parents chose to adopt and since I do not know them, I won’t speculate. From what we have been learning about this family, I do think we can say that whether intentional or not, they chose to participate publicly in venues that best highlighted their image as progressive, liberal parents. They often dressed the family in matching clothes or in similar looks; most of the pictures show a family that appears to be close. I am remembering my teenage years and I can tell you that dressing in matching clothes with my parents and siblings would be the farthest thing I’d choose to do on my own.

Abusive parents often punish children when they deviate from the “script.” For the Hart children to reveal the abuse they endured meant risking further abuse for telling. The six Hart children were teenagers. This is the time when they should be individuating and beginning to think about themselves and who they are and what they want to be. The children were all much smaller than what would be expected for their expected chronological age. I would argue they bordered on being malnourished. Perhaps the parents wanted to keep them young and controllable. Maybe they were having trouble raising six teenagers who have their own thoughts, ideas and dreams.

Also, white, liberal, progressive parents also adopt to rescue children – this is not the sole domain of conservative and religious families.

Systems failures

My final thought is about the system. When I worked in child welfare, we often talked about how families who were known to us in one county child protection office would just move to another county to escape/avoid CPS. Did you know there is no national child protection registry? A family can move to another county or state and unless the CPS worker specifically contacts other places the family has previously lived they would not know that there have been prior CPS calls/investigations. Additionally, the other states and counties do not have to respond to an inquiry. We called it “county-hopping” when families moved a lot in order to avoid having documented histories of CPS screenings/investigations.

I also think that we should be looking at why parents of color are more likely to have children removed than white parents. In my time in child welfare, many times I’ve been part of discussions that one of the problems may not be over-reporting of families of color, but underreporting of white families. I think this might apply to this particular case; white parents are more believed.

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All of this is to say that it’s often multiple factors in any family’s story that leads to tragic outcomes like this. Any of these alone means nothing; as someone who has worked in adoption for a long time though, I am devastated that these parents seemed unwilling to look at their own behaviors and instead, chose to selfishly destroy the lives of six beautiful children who deserved nothing less than parents who would guide and love them to their potential.