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.

Korean adoptee film, The Return

Last weekend I was very lucky to have the opportunity to preview the film, The Return, and interview the lead actor Karoline Sophie Lee. The film by Danish Korean Adoptee Maline Choi was shown as part of the Seattle International Film Festival. A friend of mine asked me to co-interview and co-write a piece because of my positionality and research and I am so thankful. I hope that this film gets released to a wider audience and that everyone has the chance to see it.


Here is the link to my piece in the International Examiner.

Mother’s Day as an adoptee


It’s that time of year again. If you know me at all, you know that I’m not a fan of over-sentimentalized holidays that have been so overly commercialized that non-participation now ensures you just look like a social a-hole.

The photo here is of an awful, racist card that I picked up at a cute little boutique in Minneapolis a couple of years ago. I bought it and saved it as a reminder that this holiday is, in so many ways, really really problematic.

I will admit that it was nice to have my kids make me breakfast and cards on Mother’s Day and I always recognize my mom and my fantastic mother-in-law on this day. I consider myself very fortunate that I can – many people can’t for any number of reasons.

So, here is my standard Mother’s Day recognition:

Today, I recognize and honor all of the mothers of loss, those who didn’t get the opportunity or recognition to mother their children because of death, adoption, incarceration, estrangement or other reasons. On this day I also hold up everyone who has experienced mother-loss; those of us who have a mother or mother-figure we are unable to wish a Happy Mothers Day to because of death, adoption, incarceration, estrangement or other loss. Let’s take the time to reach out to our friends and family who may need extra support today.

And finally, please – if you’re tempted to make or purchase a card like this one – just don’t do it.

“Forever families” returning adopted children

I follow a well-known re-adoption site on Facebook. For a few years now, I’ve been following this site, after the Reuter’s re-homing story came out, and I was looking to see if there were similar sites on Facebook. This site, which I am not naming (but others in the linked blog posts below have) is not a re-homing site in the strict sense because these re-adoptions are supervised under an agency. However, the result is largely the same – children who were placed in their “forever family” are now living with the reality that that “forever family” isn’t at all “forever” but just another temporary pit-stop in their already bumpy road to long-lasting, securely attached relationships. Most of these children, from reading the descriptions, have behaviors that the current/recent adoptive family finds too problematic. Sometimes, these are because of disabilities, but it is hard to know that for sure.

For the past few years I’ve been tracking the postings on this site, collecting data that I hope to analyze at some point. A couple of weeks ago one of the postings caught my eye because of the time span involved. A child was adopted from China, and the adoptive parents were seeking a new home for this child after less than two months. From other commentary I read online it seems likely that the adoptive parents knew they were not going to keep this child and had planned to try to “re-adopt” her once she arrived in the U.S.

pid_23481I happen to also be reading a book I just learned about, by Leslie K. Wang, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Massachusetts Boston. Wang’s book, Outsourced Children: Orphanage Care and Adoption in Globalizing China, discusses the movement of Chinese children – particularly girls – to U.S. and other Western countries for adoption and about the boys and disabled children left behind, cared for largely by “donations” resulting from the adoption fees. For the past several years, the availability of “healthy infant” girls from China has been very, very low. It’s pretty well known now that most of the children available for intercountry adoption from China are “special needs” so I would have hoped that this family had worked with an adoption agency that had helped them understand that any child they adopt would be highly likely to have one or more disabilities. Then again, from my own research and that of Liz Raleigh and others, we know agencies are not always helping prospective adoptive parents understand this reality.

The post on this Facebook group was particularly difficult to read; the adoptive parents who decided they didn’t want to care for this girl nonetheless had a lot of demands for who they thought should adopt – including, “her current family will consider a new family who is Evangelical Christian and committed to teaching Sophia about the love of Christ and how to have a personal relationship with Jesus.” Interesting, that the family who is giving her up, has so much power to decide what type of family to whom they will release the child. I’d say the parent’s religion is less important than finding parent(s) who won’t re-home her would be ideal, yes?

The re-adoption post for this little girl from China was making the rounds at the same time as a UK adoptive parent’s first-person account of returning two children back to the child welfare system after four months.

Four months.

Two months.

Much of my current research looks at and analyzes adoption displacements – temporary or permanent placements of adoptees from their adoptive families. In both of these cases, the adoptive parents argue that the agencies did not disclose medical histories and that the adoptive parents were not prepared for/did not have resources to manage their adopted child’s needs. I believe it – sometimes full knowledge is not disclosed; intentionally, because it’s not known, or because the agencies were unable to get the full information themselves. Sometimes out-of-home placement for treatment is needed. But to abandon that child you so faithfully and legally swore to parent “as if they were your own” in a court of law?

Many adoptive parents are strongly upset at the notion that they are not considered the “real” parent. If we are to consider all children, no matter how they came into the family, as just “our children” then I have a question for those who re-home or re-adopt their “child.” Would you re-home or place for adoption a child born to you after you discovered they had disabilities?

For more reading:

Red Thread Broken: Disrupted Adoption of Five-Year Old

Sunny J. Reed: Dear White Woman Who Returned Her Adopted Children and In Response to Those Who Support Returning Adopted Kids

[Cover image from Pinterest]

Book review: Selling Transracial Adoption

downloadI recently finished Liz Raleigh’s book, Selling Transracial Adoption: Families, Markets and the Color Line.

The research that is the basis of this book is incredibly important and ground breaking. As a self-described systems person, I was thrilled to read a book that really explores practice, and Dr. Raleigh’s research does this well. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the research approach itself and the care in which the stories of the adoption professionals are told.

Throughout this book, I found myself nodding my head in agreement often; I’ve heard similar things from adoption professionals I’ve worked with over the years, and in an interesting turn, many of the things I’ve heard from adoptive parents over the years are echoed in this book as well. There were multiple times when I wanted to say out loud to someone, “Yes! What this worker said is almost word-for-word what [adoptive parent] said!”

…which then led me to a question – in what ways is the “script” so entrenched in our culture that the discourse of adoption is not just predictable, but frighteningly verbatim? It’s almost as if certain discourses of adoption are so culturally embedded that when we think we are describing processes, feelings, behaviors and/or thoughts about adoption in our own unique way that in reality we are only parroting what we have heard a million times before? I almost wanted to do a side-by-side comparison of Selling Transracial Adoption to my dissertation study because the discourses are so parallel.

But to get back to my original review: another part of what I appreciate so much about this book is that it shows the systems processes that are often larger and broader than what individuals tend to recognize. Adopting a child is very much experienced as an individual/family action with individual and/or a couple’s motivations and desires. Whether a person is adopting or parenting children born to them, most of us don’t think about how our own parenting motivations and processes contribute to larger social, cultural, capitalist, bureaucratic and institutional systems. Within intimate family spheres, we also can dismiss the injustices that are present in the larger systems and when it comes to adoption, this is particularly true when thinking about race and disability.

Some readers might be challenged with the main arguments of this book, particularly if you come from an individualistic perspective. Some parents might also feel that their choices to adopt are pathologized; I encourage you to read through and think less of your own particular story and really pay attention to Dr. Raleigh’s sociological analyses. This isn’t about any one family or any one adoption agency. I thought it was very clear that this book is not about blaming individual adoptive parents, adoption workers or adoption agencies. This book does, however, ask us to thinking about how the racism, ableism, and adult-focus (even within a supposed “best interest of the child framework) of our culture and society (in the U.S. at least) plays out the way we practice adoption. This book really asks us to step back from our own personal stories and ask a couple of important questions:

  • In what ways does our social and cultural environments mask our individual choices? That is, are we being misled to believe we are making independent and ethical choices regarding adoption or is the structure of the adoption industry actually leading us through well-established channels in ways we don’t even know?
  • Why has adoption become one of the social services that has become financially stratified in ways that mirror consumer/business services – where the child becomes commodified?
  • How can adoptive families reconcile the reality of this racially commodified “service?”

I highly recommend this book – if you are a social worker and you work in, or are considering, child welfare/adoption work, this is a MUST READ. I would include this as a required text for anyone who thinks they want to do adoption-related work.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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…


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.


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.


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.

Presentation on Korean Adoptees as parents study

Each year University of Washington Tacoma invites faculty to present on their research and I was fortunate to be asked to participate in this year’s Lightening Talk. These are very short presentations (5 minutes!) with timed slides. It was challenging to condense a research study into 20 slides in five minutes, but here is a video of my presentation, highlighting the findings of our study on Korean adoptee parenting.

For more information about this study, please click here.


I’ve started to upload some of my older presentation slides and scripts, as well as some articles I have written for publications that no longer exist. You can find them via the tabs menu or click here.

Please cite and link me if you plan to use this information in a presentation or paper or blog post; I have provided a suggested citation (APA format).