Adoption Podcasts

One of the projects I’ve been thinking about adding to this blog is a podcast, so I have been listening to adoptee podcasts. I listen to podcasts a lot while I’m working out. As we wind down National Adoption Awareness Month, here are a few adoptee podcasts for you to try.

Born in June Raised in April – April Dinwoodie

April began her podcast in February 2016 and is regularly updating. She covers a lot of topics, sometimes by herself and often with guests.

Adapted  – Kaomi Goetz

Kaomi writes that Adapted “explores the experiences of Korean adoptees, from post-reunion stories to living in Korea as adults…The experiences of adoptees are as varied and unique to each circumstance; yet we start from a similar starting point: as transnational adoptees from Korea.” Adapted is on it’s second season.

Adoptees On – Haley Radke

Haley is the host of Adoptees On and has four seasons so far. Haley also has a curated list called Adoptees On Healing. According to the website, this podcast “is a gathering of incredible adopted people willing to share their intimately personal stories with you about the impact adoption has had on our lives.”

The Rambler – Mike McDonald

Mike is no longer updating the podcast but there are 59 episodes you can access. Mike writes that the podcast was a “candid, one-on-one style interview chronicles the lives of adoptees and people’s lives who were touched by adoption, good, bad, and everything in between!”

Out of the Fog – Co-hosted by Kassaye McDonald and Pascal Huỳnh

Out of the Fog, produced by CKUT 90.3 FM in Montreal, Canada, was a radio podcast where stories about family, adoption and power. Their mission was to “break the shame and isolation surrounding the lives of those affected by family separation through frank and open conversation.” Though the last podcast episode was Nov. 2017, you can access the archive here.



My first Thanksgiving in the U.S. was in 1971 – shortly after I was placed with my adoptive family. That year, the Thanksgiving holiday also fell on my 3rd (presumed) birthday – as it does now every 9 or so years – and my adoptive family has always made a big deal of this fact. The holiday and my birthday have always been connected. My birthday has been so tied to Thanksgiving that after I grew up and left the home, my parents often forgot to call me on my actual birthday if it didn’t land on the holiday.

My parents are traditionalists and I grew to love the Norman Rockwell idea of Thanksgiving. Usually my mom hosted and both sets of grandparents attended, sometimes with other relatives as well. We did the same thing every year – roast turkey, stuffing, green bean casserole, sweet potatoes with roasted marshmallows on top, and pies. We also had a birthday cake every year. Most years the table was decorated with assorted crafts that my siblings and I had made in school – inspired by the lore of the “first Thanksgiving” shared by Pilgrims and Indians. This false presentation of the relationship between the colonial settlers and the first nations peoples became paper pilgrim hats and hands eagle feather headdresses on the dining room table. We always held hands and took turns saying what we were thankful for. I was never one who comfortably publicly stated thanks in a circle, not as a child and still now as an adult. Fortunately, my adoptive parents have never made me feel like I should express gratitude for having been adopted; though they were quick to give thanks for my presence in the family. My dad or my grandfather would say the grace, always including thanking of “the hands that prepared the meal.” Never did the Thanksgiving dinner prayer include a land acknowledgement that we were on stolen indigenous land.

It wasn’t until I was in my undergraduate social work program that I first really learned about the extent of the Native American boarding schools and the Indian Adoption Program. Learning about the removal of Indian children into white adoptive families and boarding schools as a form of cultural genocide was a defining moment. I had already begun the work of critically analyzing Thanksgiving as a problematic centering of white settler colonialism. As I described in my essay in Parenting as Adoptees, when my daughter was 12, she became upset when her grandmother asked her to read a story about the “first Thanksgiving” that she knew was problematic. Back then, however, I wasn’t ready to take a hard stand; I learned from my daughter that trying to placate family came at the cost of one’s own moral self. I was still setting aside my own values in order to maintain peace in the family.

The idea that we were supposed to go around the table and be thankful on a day centering the attempts to excise indigenous people – including through adoption – became more difficult for me each year. And for this day to be so centrally tied to my own birthday, or rather the date assigned to me because there is no way to verify my actual birth date, seemed like one more lie, on top of lie, on top of lie. Thanksgiving had become our family’s version of “gotcha day,” and I realized that in addition to staying quiet about problematic narratives about our first nations people, I’d been expressing thankfulness for problematic narratives about my adoption. Of course, it didn’t have to be either/or; we could have acknowledged that both gains and losses could occur as a result of adoption. But in my family, like the fake Thanksgiving story about the “first shared dinner” between Pilgrims and Indians, only one side of the story was allowed.

One of the other concerns I have about the holiday is that since 2004, it has also become National Family Health History Day. This initiative is sponsored by the Surgeon General’s office every year and the idea is that while everyone is sitting around the dinner table eating their turkey and mashed potatoes, that the family will talk about the health patterns that run in the family. Great idea – unless there are adoptees at that table, who have no access to our family health history.

This year, my kids are visiting us. My kids are adults and live in another state so we don’t get to see each other as often as I’d like – so we are taking advantage of the long weekend and flying them out to visit. I will cook a big turkey dinner on Saturday with Mr. Harlow’s Monkey’s brother and wife, and we will have all the traditional food I’ve grown to love. And we will talk about our family’s health – including the lack of health that I, and my kids, have. Our conversation will have to focus on what we can and must consider as people without full access to our genetic health history.

But today, we will be celebrating our Korean American family. I made kalbijim, a savory short rib and vegetable stew. We will sit around the table to make kimbap and homemade mandu – things I wish I could have done with my Korean family. And we will make pies. The holiday is, after all, supposed to be about celebrating the harvest and recognizing the hard work that results from the seeds we plant.

I am striving to pass on different traditions to my kids, ones that I hope they will pass on with their friends and families. This is what I am thankful for; this is what I planted and nurtured for many years and now have the benefit to reap: a family that celebrates multiple identities and values, a community of social justice-minded friends and colleagues, and the ability to make and enjoy life together. I miss my potluck gang in Minneapolis this time of year the most. We often celebrated “Cranksgiving” together. We were (and still are) a hodgepodge of folks who had formed into a family of another kind. Most of all, as I turn 50 this year, my 47th in the U.S., I’m thankful to have found my community and my voice and the opportunities to be part of a larger reframing of the adoptee narrative.

Adoptee narratives

Over time I have collected a number of adoptee memoirs. The image above shows just a part of my collection that I have read. In this blog post, I wanted to highlight two additions to the growing body of adoptee memoirs, Susan Devan Harness’ Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption and Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know.

The transracial adoptee experience is still unique enough that when I share my own experience to those outside of my professional adoption world I often get that range of responses generating from a sense of pity – everything from “I’m sorry” to “Weren’t you lucky!” I know I am not a unicorn – but sometimes I wonder if because I’m so open about being a transracial/transnational adoptee that maybe it’s just that most people don’t talk about it much and that is partly why most of the general population has such limited information about what it is like to be an adult adoptee. As an adult, without the white adoptive family around, most people would not know we are transracial/transnational adoptees. We can finally blend in, the adoptee part of our identity no longer has to be front and center. At the same time, this can also somewhat obscure what is a big part of our identities and make it more difficult for others to see how our experiences affect us our whole lives.

download.jpgThis is why adoptee memoirs are so needed. My thoughts here are much less about the actual books than about some of the thoughts that they generated for me, in part because there are so many excellent reviews out there but also I want you to encourage you to discover these treasures for yourself without my giving too much away. This post is a strong endorsement for both of these memoirs – very different in style and tone – but both beautifully written. Chung and Devan Harness are skilled writers and that shows in the way they craft their narrative.

Both Devan Harness and Chung write about their birth family searches, and the ups and downs of what they discover. For many adoptees, the “reunion” is a Pandora’s box; for every question that is answered, three more come up. I’ve seen this with numerous adoptee friends of mine over the past 20 years. For better or worse, the break-up of the first family leads to chasms that often can’t ever fully be repaired.

allyoucaneverknow-final-1519426444.jpgBoth of these memoirs provide intricate and detailed descriptions of the complicated, but beautiful and touching, relationships that were built with siblings. It makes so much sense to me that the exploration of the often asked, “what if?” isn’t always fully answered and instead, could lead to tensions of who gets to say what “better off” means.  I don’t believe in predetermination myself. It’s not that if we had stayed in our birth families that we would have had the same experiences as our siblings; also we cannot say that if our siblings had switched places with us that their lives would have had the same outcomes as ours. There are so many random incidents, events and experiences that happen in each of our lives that any one thing can change our trajectories.

I have been searching for information about my Korean family for almost 20 years now. A dear friend of mine recently found her Korean family through a genetic testing site and it has brought back all of my feelings about searching again. I’m planning to be in Korea next summer and one of the decisions I’ll need to make between now and then is if I reboot my search. At this point, I’m not sure – but reading these books has given me a lot of things to think about.

The last thing I want to mention is how well both Chung and Devan Harness describe the experiences of being raised as a child of color in a predominantly white family and community. Their stories reinforce my belief that children of color KNOW – from a very early age – when people treat them differently because of their race, and they also know from a very early age whether their adoptive parents are going to be safe people to share their feelings and experiences of racism and discrimination. I will strongly push back on any white adoptive parent who swears their transracially adopted child doesn’t feel this deep in their bones. If your child doesn’t tell you about these experiences of being a transracial adoptee it’s not because they don’t have thoughts. They have decided, maybe unconsciously, that it’s not safe to talk to you or think you won’t understand.

If your child is not overhearing you talking to others about racism, racial injustice, prejudice, and discrimination, then how will they know you have the capacity to validate their concerns and feelings? It can be hard, but you must start the conversations. It’s not your child’s job to come to you first.




Found in the cabbage patch

Yesterday morning, as I was scrolling on social media, I came across a story about the history of the Cabbage Patch dolls and it was interesting to reflect on the phenomenon of this popular 1980s toy trend and all of the ways this doll and adoption are intertwined for me.

The sensationalized story titled “The cutthroat saga behind the Cabbage Patch Kids craze” written by Leslie Gonzalez was originally published on the History 101 website (October 17, 2018). According to this article, the doll was patented in 1978 by Xavier Roberts and it turns out that while Roberts made his fortune from these dolls, he actually stole the idea from a woman named Martha Thomas who had been making these dolls and selling them in craft fairs in the Midwest.

One of the ideas Roberts stole from Thomas was the idea that these dolls were “adoptable.” Each doll had a story and a certificate of adoption with the doll’s unique name and “birth day” and the rest was blank for the child to provide his or her name and address as the adoptive parent. Both Thomas and Roberts had, as part of the production and sales of their dolls, the idea of having people pay “adoption fees” rather than buying the dolls. Of course, Roberts made millions of dollars off of the “adoption fees” for these dolls.


Sample of the Cabbage Patch “adoption papers”

I was 15 in 1983, the year of the big Cabbage Patch doll craze, when people lined up in stores and fought over the dolls. I was aware of the dolls even though I wasn’t personally interested. I remember thinking about the name, the idea behind the “cabbage patch” and the adoption certificate. Then my maternal grandma gave my sister and I cabbage patch dolls for Christmas. Because back in those days they had only white and black dolls, my white sister received a blonde girl doll and I received a black girl doll named Addie Mae. Even though I wasn’t very racially aware back then, I remember feeling like the name was a stereotype.

In my family, we didn’t talk about the fact that I was a different race than anyone else. My family did not single me out for being Korean, and never made me feel like I wasn’t part of the family. I appreciated this in many ways since at the time I felt hyper-visible and targeted as an Asian in my nearly all-white school and community. Yet I also did wish there was some recognition of my difference. So while it felt somewhat odd to receive a black Cabbage Patch doll, I was grateful that my grandma knew enough to not give me a white one. I knew she understood it would mean a lot to me to have a doll that acknowledged that I saw myself as not white.

The Cabbage Patch Kids are still available and on their website you can “find your baby,” and your “perfect match.” Just like an adoption list website, you can “see adoptees” sorted by their eye color, gender, hair color, size and skin tone. Each photo lists the doll’s “adoption fee.”

You can also visit BabyLand General Hospital in Cleveland where the employees dress like hospital nurses.

From the official website: “As you move through the swinging port-hole doors, you will enter our nurseries for hand-stitched Original Kids and Babies. These extra special works of soft-sculpted art continue to be lovingly hand crafted by local artists in Cleveland, Georgia. These Originals are available for immediate adoption. Feel free to pick them up and give them a hug. They love the attention!”

After customers pick out their dolls, according to the website, “you will be invited into one of our adoption offices to take the oath of adoption and complete your papers. Each hand-stitched Original comes with its own birth certificate and adoption papers. Congratulations! You just became a new parent.”

I’m not sure if the use of adoption in marketing dolls to children began with Cabbage Patch dolls but it didn’t end there, and This American Life has an episode about an FAO Schwartz newborn doll department set up as a “nursery” for adoption and what happens when all the white dolls sell out. The episode, Babies Buying Babies originally aired in 2008 under the show, Matchmakers.

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When I talk about the way we are socialized in particular ways about adoption, this is what I’m talking about. As a researcher who studies adoption, one of the things that struck me the most about the Cabbage Patch doll narrative is how much it actually aligns with how adoption is practiced today and how the process of “adopting” a doll socializes children about adoption. The language used – “meet the adoptees” – and that you can search for the one you want by a number of characteristics, including race, and you receive adoption certificates and can even change the name of your doll – all of these are strikingly on point.

We are socializing children to think about adoption from very early ages. And as the This American Life story illustrates, race is part of this socialization. But, so is demand, and the framing of the “parent” as having all of the options and choices they want.

When my daughter was young, around 3-4 years old, I once caught her and a few of her friends playing “giving birth” with their dolls. One girl was on the floor, with a doll under her shirt, while the other two were saying, “push, push!” I also saw my daughter and her friends play-nursing their dolls. Of course, they were modeling what they saw in their own lives. Yet my daughter and her friends also knew a lot about adoption – from the media they consumed (think Disney) and from the language they heard in society in general. Both of my kids, but especially my oldest, was very interested in adoption because so many children’s tv shows and movies included adoption and child separation. My daughter knew the musical Annie by heart and thought all orphanages – including the one I once lived in – looked the same.

Socialization is powerful. The example of the Cabbage Patch Dolls are just one example. I think about all of the “adoption” campaigns our children (and the rest of us) see, many that are never discussed with us, and how these contribute to the grand master narratives about adoption. Adopt a highway, adopt an endangered animal, and of course, shelter pet adoption commercials and campaigns. My daughter now works with dogs professionally and we talk about how similar the ways dogs in shelters are described for adoption like they are for children in foster care. And when I was working in foster care, one of the youth I was working with to find an adoptive home told me that working on their description made them feel like they were, according to their words, “a puppy for sale in a window.”

Reading about the Cabbage Patch Dolls and realizing that not only do they still exist, but the adoption storyline has continued so strongly in contrast to American Girl dolls, which have no adoption component even though many of the other aspects are the same (such as picking out characteristics of the doll you want). But there are other doll companies that use adoption as a theme.

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Adora has a selection of dolls for adoption. The description from the website: “Adopt one or all of Adora’s Adoption Babies and bring them to their forever home!…There are four sweet and adorable babies to choose from, each with a different skin tone and eye color. There is Hope, Cherish, Precious and Joy – and each come with a certificate of adoption, pacifier, hospital bracelet, disposable diaper and is swaddled in a cuddly soft microfiber blanket…Your little one will build a special bond with their Adoption Baby as they experience what it’s like to bring a baby home. Little parents in training can name their baby, and start their very own baby doll family while learning to nurture and engage in pretend play.”

Then there is the Little Mommies Adoption Center where, similar to the Cabbage Patch doll’s Babyland, a child can go pick up their new doll in a hospital and formally adopt their new “baby.” Screen Shot 2018-11-04 at 8.43.41 AM.png

What other ways do we socialize children to the master narrative of adoption?




November is an important month to me. It’s the estimated month of my birth, which as many adoptees know can bring conflicting emotions. This year is particularly significant in that I will turn 50, a big milestone in any person’s life but has made me particularly reflective this past year as I head toward my AARP membership.

November is also the month my oldest child was born and again, as an adoptee, having my children – especially my first – and knowing she was the first person I had a genetic relationship with was so powerful. My oldest was due on my birthday that year, but came a couple of days early. Still, sharing our birthdays so close together, has always felt like such a gift to me. Having my children and being able to raise them has been a healing journey and I feel so fortunate to have had that opportunity.

Finally, November is National Adoption Month. For a history of National Adoption Month you can visit the official website hosted by the Child Welfare Information Gateway (here). As an adoptee, as a former adoption professional, and as an adoption scholar, this month involves a lot of work – formal and informal – as I weed through the many news stories I am sure will be featured on every news site and online publishing venues and blogs and social media outlets.

This annual campaign to promote adoption has traditionally focused on adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents. As Maureen at Light of Day Stories writes, it has only included adoptee voices – particularly adult adoptee voices – in the past few years through the intervention of adult adoptees who have challenged the dominant narratives of adoption and advocated for an expanded narrative that includes adoptees and birth/first parents.

Here at Harlow’s Monkey, I have been wanting to post more and so I am going to use this month as a starting point to update more regularly. I have several things I want to write about and share; memoirs by adoptees that I have recently read (including Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know and Susan Devan Harness’ Bitterroot: A Salish Memoir of Transracial Adoption); new films and media projects including Glenn and Julie Morey’s SideXSide Project; reviews of other adoption books, my thoughts on the recent ASAC/AI conference; and reflections on some of the current research I’ve been working on including adult Korean adoptees and parenting, the displacement experiences of Intercountry adoptees, adoption professionals training and preparation, and how adoption agencies can incorporate stronger supports regarding open adoptions between adoptive and birth/first families.

Thanks for joining me on this month’s journey.  As always, my blog will be adoptee-centric and will privilege and highlight adoptees voices first and foremost. I think we will have lots to talk about.

Call for Papers: Adoption Quarterly Special Issue

I’m guest editing a special issue of Adoption Quarterly with Bibiana Koh. Please forward to your colleagues and let us know if you have any questions!

Call for Papers
Special Issue of Adoption Quarterly: Ethics and Adoption

Adoption Quarterly invites abstract submissions for consideration in a special issue critically examining the intersection of ethics and adoption. Ethics are implicitly embedded in nearly all aspects of adoption including (but not limited to) pre/post-placement assessment, clinical practice, education, policy, placement/matching, disruptions/ dissolutions, search/reunion, bioethics/genetic testing, demographics, and economic factors. The aim of this special issue is to broaden our knowledge of how ethics explicitly intersects with these areas (and others) of adoption.

Examples of questions that this issue seeks to better understand may include (but are not limited to) the following:
• Ethics and decision-making in adoption: What ethical theories guide adoption professionals’ ethical decision-making in public and private adoptions?
• Ethics and professional codes of ethics: How do professional disciplines’ (e.g., social work, marriage and family therapy, psychology, medical, etc.) codes of ethics help to navigate practice?
• Ethics and adoption search and reunion: How do codes of ethics inform the use of technology (e.g., social media) in adoption search and reunion practices?
• Ethics and placement/disruption/dissolution: How do adoption agencies handle ethical dilemmas in placement, disruption, and/or dissolution?
• Ethics and policy: How do ethical theories explicitly inform adoption policy at the local and/or global level?
• Ethics and pre-placement: What ethical frameworks explicitly guide/inform the assessment and training of prospective adoptive parents (i.e. home study) and matching processes (i.e. use of child photo listings)?
• Ethics and birth/first parents: What are the ethical considerations in working with expectant parents in options counseling, and/or termination of parental rights for adoption?
• Ethics, ethnicity/culture, and education: What are agencies and/or adoptive parents’ ethical responsibilities in educating transracial/intercountry adoptees?
• Ethics and global considerations in adoption: What are the key ethical considerations in adoption globally?
• Ethics and clinical practice: How do our codes of ethics inform our clinical practice in adoption?
• Bioethics and adoption: What ethical theories and/or ethical decision-making models are guiding/informing the use of mass, consumer genetic testing for various purposes (e.g., searching, medical information, ethnicity, etc.)?
• Ethics and legal aspects: What are the potential conflicts of interest when representing more than one party within a given organization (e.g., adoptee, expectant parent, prospective adoptive parent, etc.)?

Abstract submissions may be theoretical, qualitative, or quantitative in nature; empirical submissions are strongly encouraged and may be given priority. Submissions must be original and not previously published. All submissions should explicitly utilize ethical theories/frameworks and/or relevant codes of ethics/standards.

Please submit a 500-750 word abstract no later than February 1, 2019 to Bibiana Koh ( Authors will be notified of decisions by March 15, 2019. Manuscripts for accepted abstracts must be submitted by July 31, 2019.

Bibiana D. Koh, Ph.D., LICSW
Assistant Professor & MSW Field Director
Batalden Scholar in Applied Ethics
Augsburg University
Social Work Department, CB #51
2211 Riverside Avenue
Minneapolis, MN 55102

JaeRan Kim, Ph.D., LISW
Assistant Professor, Social Work and Criminal Justice
University of Washington, Tacoma
Box 358425, 1900 Commerce Street
Tacoma, WA 98402-3100

An open letter to the children being separated from their parents at the border

Dear dear young friend,

I am sorry. As a fellow, formally displaced child, I am sorry you have to go through this separation.

On behalf of the millions of people watching you being taken away from your parent’s outstretched arms, placed in chain-linked and concrete buildings, outraged and angry and grieving, we are sorry.

We are sorry that we are living in a country where the politicians care more about their image and television ratings and money and power than about the people they claim to serve. And I am sorry that despite the hatred and animosity shown to you from millions of people that greet you here, that your family experienced worse where you were and that the U.S. offered at least a glimpse of hope. Because as Warsan Shire said,

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

Six years ago I stood on the grounds of Ellis Island, where hundreds of thousands of people came in search of a safe place to live; the ancestors of those who are now screaming at your families to “go back to your country.” How soon they forget; that once it was their families who were the ones pleading for a chance. And the others, whose ancestors came here illegally and stole the land from those who were here.

My young friend, you have sadly joined the thousands of disappeared children, whose names and identities were changed. Who were separated from their families because of war, genocide, natural disasters, politics, religious ideology, patriarchy and above all, adults determining “the best interests of the child.” You are now part of a legacy. You have join the hundreds of thousand of us children in this country who were stolen from their families and sent to Indigenous boarding schools, or sent away on orphan trains, or brought here from other countries for adoption. You will be told it will be for a better life; it will come at a cost. You will be required to forget who you are.

It is possible that you will not see your families for a very long time. Remember their names. Remember your name. In the movie Spirited Away, the witch Yubaba changes Chihiro’s name to Sen. Chihiro is told that when she forgets her real name she will forget who she is. Don’t forget your name; even if they make a new name for you, never let anyone take your name away. Say it every day, write it down, keep it safely tucked inside your heart; it is your prayer to yourself, your parents, your ancestors.

Perhaps you, like many of us, will have adults and institutions and organizations and agencies and countries who will destroy all evidence of who you once were in an effort to make you palatable to those who hate everything you stand for – your foreignness, vulnerability, your youthful hope for a better world. Maybe you will be fortunate and have people caring for you who will love and treat you with care and compassion. Some of you will not. We, the disappeared children, know that it’s all the luck of the draw to whom and where you land.

In twenty years time, seek us out. We will be there for you. We are here now. We exist. Many people see you right now as small and vulnerable and cute; you will not always be seen this way. The bigger you get, the more they will no longer like you. Even if you lose your accent and cut all ties with your culture of origin. You will be simultaneously invisible in terms of your needs, and hyper-surveilled, in terms of your behavior. It will be a difficult journey, but remember we are here. And no matter where you end up, do what Mr. Rogers advised and ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ 

When you are ready, we will encourage you to tell your story in whatever way makes sense – through poems or music or paintings or tattoos or film or food or work or in the ways you live and love people.

We, your community of displaced children, love you for who you are and where you came from. You will never need to apologize. You might feel pressured to be the shining, perfect example of an “American.” But you do not need to lose your accent or change your name or say the pledge of allegiance or hang a flag on your house or get a specific occupation to prove your worthiness to us.

We see you

With love and solidarity,

The Current and Former Displaced Children of the World

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)


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.


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.


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.


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.