Placing children out of their families is an American tradition

“The consequence is, that an immense proportion of our ignorant and criminal class are foreign-born; and of the dangerous classes here, a very large part, though native-born, are of foreign parentage.”

– Charles Loring Brace, Dangerous Classes of New York (1872, p. 35)

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This is going to be a long and winding blog post.

Over the past week I have been heartbroken to see what is happening with the refugee children being separated from their parents at our southern U.S. border. Honestly, most days I feel completely tongue-tied when even attempting to talk about what is happening; I can’t even put to words how I feel or what I am thinking. I’ve been writing this blog post for several days and am still struggling to write this.

And then, the news broke that Bethany Christian Services an adoption agency, took in 81 of the children to be placed in foster homes in Michigan – raising concern for all of us who care about ethics in adoption. Transporting children across the country from their parents, particularly without a systematic plan for reunifying them, looks like a fast-track to adoption. There are already reports coming in that many of the children in Michigan have no identifying information that could be used to help them get reunited with their families.

Once again, our history books will tell the story of that time in the late 2010s when first we conducted a mass separation/incarceration of immigrant and refugee children from their parents, and then began sending them hundreds and thousands of miles away to be fostered. The question now remains: will these children ever be reunited, or will they become just another population of children torn away from their families because those in power have defined their parents as unworthy?

In the 1800s it was Charles Loring Brace, whose disgust of the “dangerous classes” of immigrants led him to create a charitable organization that decided to gather up poor immigrant children and send them by train to rural towns where townspeople literally went to the train platforms to “pick out” a kid to work on their farm or in their home. This is literally where the phrase “put up for adoption” comes from. Brace’s seminal book describes “German rag-pickers,” “Ignorant Roman Catholics,” “poor Italians,” and the disproportionate number of Irish females who are criminals. The country of origin differs from today but the sentiment is similar – blaming immigrants for all the economic woes and taking their children as a way to assimilate them away from their “foreignness.”

We did this with Native American children too – using industrial boarding schools and the Indian Adoption Project. We ripped African American children from their parents during slavery.  Did you know it is a common practice to take children from their families as part of political ideological movements and as a way to control populations? In Canada, Australia and New Zealand, indigenous children were forcibly placed into institutions and foster/adoptive homes as intentional assimilation projects. Argentina and El Salvador are two countries where children were “disappeared” during the civil war, many placed out for adoption.

Mass separations and evacuations of children are a common reality during times of war, whether physical or ideological. The podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class did an episode called Six Impossible Episodes: Evacuating Children, broadly describing Operation Pied Piper (the evacuation of British children during WW2), Operation Pedro Pan (Cuba), Operation Babylift (Vietnam), the Kindertransport (German Jewish children), the evacuation of Finnish children just prior to and during WW2, and finally the evacuation of Guernican children during the Spanish Civil War starting in 1937.

Several years ago I (along with Shannon Gibney, Lisa Marie Rollins, and John Raible) did a workshop at the Pedagogy Theater of the Oppressed Conference in Minneapolis on this topic. We began the workshop by having participants go around the room where we had placed photographs of children and writing down their thoughts about the images.

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Images of child displacement – Pedagogy Theater of the Oppressed Conference                        (Photo © JaeRan Kim 2009)

Pedagogy Theater of the Oppressed Conference                        (Photo © JaeRan Kim 2009)

Pedagogy Theater of the Oppressed Conference (Photo © JaeRan Kim 2009)

In our daily lives it might be easy to think of each of these cases as an individual moment in time, but for many of us adoption and child welfare scholars, we see these as interconnected movements of children as pawns for power-hungry political leaders.

In 2010 I attended the Intercountry Adoption Summit at University of Waterloo. This summit and conference took place nine months after the earthquake in Haiti and many of us in attendance were concerned about the mass efforts to send Haitian children out of the country. If you recall, many orphanages were physically devastated by the earthquake and two of the responses that were widely reported in the news included the attempt by Laura Silsby and her group of missionaries who tried to illegally smuggle 33 children out of Haiti for adoption, and the airlift of 53 children on the order of Gov. Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania – some of those children who, it turned out, were not in process for adoption. Once they arrived in the PA ended up in the U.S. foster care system.

If there was one main takeaway from one of the policy sessions I attended: government actions to “rescue” children during times of crisis are bad policy decisions and always have devastating unintentional consequences.15641

There are two main themes I’ve found when looking broadly at the pattern of evacuating children, whether by force (i.e. indigenous children) or rescue (i.e. Operation Babylift): first, as Rachel Rains Winslow points out in her excellent book, The Best Possible Immigrants, nation states can be persuaded to take possession of foreign-born children as long as they are not tied to their foreign-born parents – they are acceptable specifically for their assimilability and loss of ties to their birth families and cultures. This is why nation states are more likely to take children but not families, which would include adults. In the podcast I mentioned one of the themes from the WW2 mass evacuations all hinged on the fact that they were only rescuing children, not full families, because of the concerns that refugee adults would “take away jobs” and take up valuable economic resources. Hmmm, where have we heard this rhetoric recently?

The second main theme is that these efforts at “rescue” are often stated to be temporary separations but in reality nearly all become permanent. Looking back at all of the examples that I have outlined here – separations and evacuations in the U.S. and other countries, we need to understand that despite the assurances by organizations promoting these evacuations and rescues, in reality most will be permanent. History has not shown it differently.

Indeed, John Sandweg, former ICE Director under the Obama administration, in an interview with NPR said,

SANDWEG: It’s a very real possibility. When the child ends up in the foster care system, now you bring into play a whole bunch of state laws that complicate things even further. You know, you have a 3-year-old child, they can’t speak for themselves. A guardian is then appointed to represent the best interests of the child. Meanwhile, the parent is shipped off let’s say to Honduras. There they are. They don’t speak English. They don’t have any money for – hire a U.S. lawyer.

And now their child is caught up in the state child welfare system where an advocate might argue it is not in the best interest of that child to be sent back to violence-ridden Honduras to live in a life of poverty and under threat of gang violence. It gets very difficult. The parent no longer can appear at some point, depending on the state laws. Parental custody rights are severed.

And if the parent can’t appear in state court – which of course they can’t because they’ve just been deported or they’re in detention – they run a serious risk of being – you know, losing their rights as a parent to control where their child goes. I think there is a very serious risk that of the people who are already deported, that they are not going to see their child again, you know, anytime soon, at a minimum – if not, you know, until adulthood.

As a former child welfare worker, I can attest that Sandweg is correct. This is not a new practice –  parents who have been detained or deported have, for years, have had their parental rights terminated because of their status or because they can’t participate in their “case plan” for reunification which usually includes visitations with their child. At a conference a few years ago I actually attended a session where this was discussed as a problematic new practice and the presenter warned us that these children were likely to become the “new option for adoption.”

And here is another thing that I know – despite the posts on social media talking about the longterm effects of the trauma of separation, in actuality there is very very little research on the longitudinal effects of these separations.  In the numerous cases I’ve mentioned, mostly there’s been an “act now, consider later” mentality though there’s been very little “consider later” that’s been done. The few exceptions have been undertaken mostly by indigenous scholars who have looked at generational trauma among the indigenous children forcibly removed. The case of the British children who were removed to the countryside during WW2 were the catalyst for John Bowlby (and his colleagues) work on attachment theory.

I took a look at Bethany’s website to do a quick content analysis of their services for refugees. What is striking to me: of the many services they tout, very few include full families.

On social media, I’ve seen lots of cries of “this is not who we are” – except this IS who we are. It seems we, as a country, did not learn from our past; and we are in the process of repeating our mistakes.

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Here are several adoptee bloggers who have shared their thoughts:

John Raible

Red Thread Broken

Lost Daughters

Kimberly McKee

I am heartened to see many organizations taking a stand. I would like to see other adoption agencies and child welfare organizations keep Bethany accountable and ensure that these children do not get fast-tracked for adoption. I think it is a great tragedy that the organization has responded the way it did; why bring those children to states so far away from their families? We need to get those children back to their parents AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.

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How to help:

Hi, my name is [YOUR NAME] and my zip code is [YOUR ZIP]. I’m urging the Senator/Representative to denounce Trump’s family separation policy and use all of Congress’ authority to stop it.

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