A few bad apples

A line of five red apples in a row. The second one from the right is spoiled.
A bad apple in the midst.

A couple of weeks ago I attended the U.S. Department of State’s Strengthening Practice for the Future of Intercountry Adoption symposium in Washington D.C. [For Assistant Secretary of State for Consulate Affairs Carl Risch’s address at the symposium, click here]

I was part of a cohort of intercountry adoptees invited to learn, share our thoughts, and participate in the conversations about current intercountry adoption practices. Also in attendance were Adoption Service Providers (ASP), NonGovernmental agencies (NGO), adoptive parents, representatives of families of origin (also commonly referred to as birth families), and representatives of various government offices including staff from legislators, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), USAID, and others. Following the symposium, a group of us also met with staff from the Office of Children’s Issues Intercountry Adoption division (more on this meeting to come…).

The symposium overall could be the subject of several blog posts but I want to focus on a few things that others have not already discussed (for some other perspectives about the event, see ICAV’s post by Lynelle Long, Between Two Worlds post by Marijane, and Adoption and Birthmother’s post by Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy).

The title of this blog post is “A few bad apples” because it was one of the most common refrains I heard over the two-day symposium, and always by adoption service providers, adoptive parents, and government representatives. Sometimes it was slightly changed to “a few bad actors” and sometimes both metaphors were used at the same time. “Bad apples/bad actors” was uttered in defense of intercountry adoption practices whenever anyone brought up questions about unethical practices. As in, “not all adoption service providers…” engage in unethical practices. Only a few do, and they’re bad, but let’s not let that take away from the rest of us.

Given the racial tensions in our country as well as the racial and ethnic dynamics involved with intercountry adoption, I was rather astonished at the way “bad apples” was used as a defensive rhetorical tool. “Bad apples/bad actors” are what people say when defending the actions of police brutality, neo-Nazis/white supremacists, and corrupt governments or businesses – how often did we hear some official say, “Not all [fill in the blank] whenever accusations of violence toward a marginalized individual or community were raised? When I heard ASP’s and adoptive parents use the “those are just a few bad apples” I honestly was taken aback – but then I realized it made perfect sense. First, those raising concerns about the ethical practices of an organization or institution are typically the ones who are most vulnerable to unethical practices (or have already been victim to those actions). The defenders of the system are the ones who have all the power but act as if they are the victims – of activist media, people with grudges, or those who have tainted their reputation even if those accusations have some grain of truth.

By invoking the “bad apples/bad actors” metaphor, institutions are dismissive of those who have been hurt by the institution or system. They also deviate from the original meaning behind the phrase; the original context for this saying is “a few bad apples spoil the barrel” – meaning, of course, that if one does not address those bad apples, soon the rot extends to more and more – to the point where if we are not careful then yes, the whole system is corrupt.

The “bad apples/bad actor” metaphor wasn’t intended as a warning against over-generalizing, it wasn’t a “not all [fill in the blank].” The original metaphor explicitly says if we do not take care to amend and correct when there is corruption, how will we prevent the poison from ruining us all?

If those invested in intercountry adoptions really want to defend what they believe is a good institution and practice, then they need to be the first to stand up and take action against those bad apples. Don’t waste your time defending the system. Using the “bad apples” metaphor sounds like you are justifying collateral damage; if you are not the first to stand up and demand ethical adoption practices then by your silence you are complicit in turning your back to those who are most vulnerable and those who have been hurt. My call for action? It’s easy to be against unethical practices. It’s another thing to be actively engaging and setting up safeguards against unethical practices. This is a parallel to the non-racist/anti-racist analogy. This means yes, sometimes you have to call out your own when it’s found they have engaged in damaging and corrupt actions.

And PS. If you really are about actively engaging against adoption corruption, it helps if you have receipts to back up your words. Or in academic parlance, we want to see the evidence of your work.

2 thoughts

  1. Thanks for writing this post and pointing out that by using the metaphor bad apples/bad actors, institutions are dismissing those vulnerable children who were harmed by the very institution/system itself. When children are harmed, there should be pause. We cannot dismiss the life of even one child who is or was damaged by a “bad apple.” I am deeply disturbed and saddened that this is so difficult for some to understand. Yes, take a stand and work toward increasing safeguards.

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