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One sure consequence of disaster: adoption

By Siri Agrell, Globe and Mail, February 6, 2010 

When 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.

Korea: The 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."

Vietnam: In 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.

Cuba: From 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.

Romania: After 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.

Russia: In 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.

Guatemala: In 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."

China: The 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.

Indonesia: 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."

Ethiopia: Adoptions 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.

Middle East: Although 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 invasions."

Haiti: Ms. 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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“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 





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