sure consequence of disaster: adoption
Siri Agrell, Globe and Mail, February 6, 2010
a group of American missionaries was arrested last weekend after
smuggling 33 children out of Haiti, troubling questions began to arise
about the impulse to whisk kids out of disaster zones. But trends in
international adoption have always followed close on the heels of wars
and humanitarian disasters, according to Queen's University professor
Karen Dubinsky, whose book Babies Without Borders: Adoption and
the Symbolic Child in Canada, Cuba and Guatemala will be
released this spring. The story is always the same, she says. The
disaster produces interest in orphaned children, an adoption system is
opened, scandals develop and the system closes down. Move to another
location and repeat.
adoption of foreign children began in the United States during the
Korean War from 1950 to 1953, when an American evangelical couple named
Henry and Bertha Holt began a campaign to fight communism one child
at a time. "They had missionary zeal and the Cold War behind
them," Ms. Dubinsky says. "Some historians say they
single-handedly invented international adoption."
Canada, the first spike in international adoption began at the end of
the Vietnam War, spearheaded by three Montreal housewives who got
involved in a U.S.-led campaign called Operation Babylift. More than
3,300 infants were removed, although it was later revealed that not all
were orphans. The project earned notoriety after an Operation Babylift
plane crashed after takeoff in Vietnam, killing 141 children and
volunteers. The adoption campaign led to a change to Canada's
immigration policy, creating a new category for unaccompanied babies.
1960 to 1961, 14,000 unaccompanied children were sent from Cuba to Miami
as part of Operation Peter Pan. Although parents were promised that they
would be reunited with their children, more than 7,000 were permanently
stranded in the American foster-care and orphanage system after the Bay
of Pigs invasion ended U.S.-Cuban relations. Decades later, one of those
children - Maria de los Torres - would sue the Central Intelligence
Agency for access to documents that revealed Cuban parents were
responding to an American rumour campaign suggesting Fidel Castro was
about to nationalize children. Now, there are rumours of a Hollywood
movie about the event.
Nicolae Ceausescu was overthrown and executed in the 1989 revolution,
media attention directed at the sorry state of Romanian orphanages
created a bump in interest about adoptees in former Soviet Bloc states.
1990, Russia made adoption open to foreign parents. Ms. Dubinsky says
interest was fuelled by U.S. investigative television shows that aired
hidden-camera footage of substandard orphanage conditions. Unlike with
other countries, the narrative around Russian adoptions focused on the
physical and mental health of the children.
the early 2000s, Guatemala had the dubious distinction of having the
highest per-capita adoption rate in the world. Civil wars in Latin
America drew international attention to the region, and soon the poor
country was cashing in on its children. "In Guatemala, it just
started to become a business, nothing more," Ms. Dubinsky says.
"It was a country in deep poverty that began to see its only value
in exporting its children."
increase in adoptions from China did not emerge out of a single event.
The introduction of the country's one-child policy in 1979 and the
Tiananmen Square massacre a decade later drew global attention to the
country's human-rights abuses, and adoptive parents to its shores.
In the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami, many well-meaning families
rushed to adopt as an immediate way to provide help. "That's
probably one of the first times that ever happened," Ms. Dubinsky
says. "It's also the first time mainstream child-welfare
organizations started saying it wasn't the right response."
from Africa were not popular until the late 2000s, despite decades of
well-publicized suffering, and were influenced by the celebrity families
of Angelina Jolie and Madonna. Ethiopia experienced a surge of foreign
adoptions three years ago.
recent global conflicts have been focused on the Middle East, Islamic
nations are the exception to the adoption trend. Muslim nations do not
allow Western-style adoptions, although they do have a system for caring
for orphaned children. "It's an interesting parallel," Ms.
Dubinsky says. "I don't think we saw the same kind of human-rights
coverage and calls to adoption agencies after the Iraq and Afghanistan
Dubinsky is troubled by the news that one of the same Miami groups
involved in the Cuban airlift of children n 1960 has re-emerged in
Haiti, calling itself Operation Pierre Pan.
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