This is the fourth post in a series which began with Adopting a Child: Categories Unnamed.
The premise of this series is that -- despite many wonderful individuals who officially and unofficially work to bring adoptive families together -- the network of governments, policies, agencies and institutions in which they work do not see these children as individuals, but as a class of individuals that need to be categorized. Furthermore, because of what these categories say -- not about the children they classify, but the societies who create them -- these categories that cause children to languish without families remain largely unnamed. The second post in this series revealed that children are sometimes forced converts to preserve or promote a faith, the third that they are more commonly categorized as political pawns. The point of this series is to call out all the categories my wife and I and other adoptive parents encounter in order that we can instead call these children by name.
#3: Children as Assets and Liabilities
We will ignore for now the most obvious and egregious examples in this category, recent allegations that many foreign adoptions from such countries as Guatemala, Nepal and Vietnam have amounted to little more than baby selling -- whether by birth parents looking for more economic relief than what merely giving a child up for adoption may offer, or by criminals looking to capitalize on demand for children without regard for whether that demand comes from potentially loving families or something as sinister as the global sex trade.
We will also ignore the most recent case of the abandoned surrogate mother and child in Thailand, in which an Australian couple declined to take one of two twins born to the woman they contracted to get pregnant because the second child was diagnosed with Down's Syndrome, a condition they complained they did not have the means to accommodate (like a woman who would get pregnant for pay would be better equipped?).
I would like to believe that no matter how many times we hear such anecdotes, we hear them precisely because they lie so far outside the norm -- that their journalistic value stems in part from their relatively rare occurrence. Recognizing that any occurrence is one too many, we still have to admit that these are headlines because they are sensational. However, what does not make the headlines because it is not sensational -- quite to the contrary, because it is commonplace -- are the many officially sanctioned ways, often unrecognized by the public, in which we make our children into assets and liabilities.
For example, when China was more strictly enforcing its one child policy to limit the strains population growth placed on its economy, its doors were wide open to international adoption. Children were a liability it wanted to get off its books. However, once China realized strict continuance of this policy would eventually leave the nation with too small a working age population to support its elderly, those children suddenly became potential assets, and China's doors to international adoption significantly narrowed -- even if that meant many children would be raised to the age at which they could work from inside an orphanage.
Nor is such an example restricted to totalitarian states. The democracy of South Korea continued to be a major source of children for international adoption long after the Korean War, long after the tide of mixed race war babies who were not welcomed into mainstream society, and long after that "Asian Tiger's" economic prosperity meant, first, that far fewer adoptions were prompted by as dire economic circumstances as some families had experienced in the past, and second, that far more South Korean families were themselves economically capable of adopting their kinsmen. However, the cultural stigma for a family line to have a child out of wedlock, and for another family line to introduce such potentially inauspicious stock into their lineage, meant that many babies were left in a limbo from which only international adoption offered them hope for a family.
But again, looking at an aging population and a dwindling workforce to support them, the government of South Korea sought to change that stigma, shifting the shame from having or hosting a child out of wedlock to cultural shame for not taking care of one of your own, sending somehow inherently "Korean" babies -- and not just babies in need of love and care -- to be raised by foreigners. In a more favorable light, the question the South Korean government put to its people was, "How can we as a wealthy nation give away to foreigner's our most precious resource, our most valuable asset: our children?" The doors to South Korean adoptions narrowed.
Even model countries such as the Philippines -- a signatory to the Hague agreement on international adoption that agencies often cite as exemplary under those standards, with a transparent process truly focused on the well being of the child -- fall victim to such cost-benefit calculations. While we were waiting to adopt from there -- having been denied the opportunity to adopt from my wife's ethnically, culturally and geographically similarly situated homeland of Indonesia for the reasons sited in our first unnamed category: children as forced converts to preserve or promote a faith -- the Philippines was flooded with an unprecedented surge in foreign adoption applications. A trifecta of factors contributed to this influx: Russia had closed its doors to American adoptions for the reasons explored in our second unnamed category (children as political pawns); China and South Korea had narrowed its doors to international adoptions for the reasons cited above; meanwhile fears of baby selling from a host of countries either officially or unofficially turned prospective parents to more palatable alternatives. The Philippines -- previously overlooked by many families, whether because of the the relative size of its program or the greater length and rigor it took to get through its process -- thus became a desirable destination.
However, at the same time, the US and Europe were in the throes of the Great Recession while the Philippines, although economically far less advanced, was moving along at an admirable clip in terms of growth in GDP. Consequently, despite many unadopted children languishing as wards of the state -- no orphanage, no matter how good, can replace what a family provides -- and despite many more foreign families applying to adopt them, the Philippines government chose not to put any more resources into facilitating those adoptions. The calculus was two-fold. First, perhaps with recent economic growth more Filipinos could adopt these children, who would be a valuable asset once they were older, similar to China's and South Korea's line of thinking when they narrowed their doors to international adoption. Second, by not increasing the resources to process international adoptions to match the increase in applications, the Philippines also increased foreign families' already significant wait time (adopting from the Philippines typically took 3 - 5 years when we started our process). Perhaps those families would then consider adopting a more difficult to place older child, or a child with such a disability he or she would be unlikely to ever enter the workforce. Particularly the latter was perceived as permanent liability, at least in and for the Philippines, and so those placements -- the removal of those liabilities from the government balance sheet -- would be expedited.
The sad thing is, as cold as all these calculations may appear -- China's, South Korea's , the Philippines -- neither do they appear unreasonable. That is, they do not appear unreasonable until we stop looking at these calculations as concerned merely with the assets and liabilities of a government with scarce resources, but as children.
Individual children, each child having a name and a face, a hope and a history.
When we consider human life sacred, regardless of that life's putative economic worth, the calculus shifts. It is then that we stop adopting a category, and start adopting a child.
But governments do not think this way, not even our own, which sanctions and stands by those rules, and itself always balances the cost of bringing such children into our country with the desire of its citizens to do so. In the US, the tax credits to offset the substantial cost of adoption have historically differed depending on whether that child was from the US -- a certain short-term liability for the state that adoption would remove from its books -- or overseas -- an uncertain long term asset. The practical among us might say that is as it should be -- domestic adoptions should be favored over foreign ones. However, the equally practical who have the experience might cite all the other policies that undermine that tax incentive by making many US domestic adoptions more drawn out, difficult and with a less certain outcome in terms of obtaining final custody.
But that brings us to our fourth unnamed category for next week: Children as Culture War Tokens and Trophies.
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