We’ve had an amazing time on our family cruise this week – I’ve got lots of stories to recount once we are home and unpacked. But I wanted to share about our day in Haiti. This was Kembe’s first visit back since he came home shortly after the earthquake, and our first trip as a complete family. It was surreal to return via a cruise ship since last week I visited with a Help One Now and saw some of the most impoverished conditions in Haiti. The little stretch of beach that Royal Caribbean visits is hardly representational of the entire country . . . but at the same time, Labadee embodies the beauty and hospitality of Haitian culture (in a safe, touristy way). I think that this made it the perfect way to introduce Kembe to his culture, which he has not been keen to embrace in the past few years. My goal for this trip was for him to have a positive experience in Haiti, and we succeeded on that front. In the future, we can work on more cultural accuracy. The beaches in Labadee (and in most of Haiti) are quite beautiful. The water is crystal-clear and the sand is soft . . . we had a great time just chilling by the water. I had a couple people make some critical comments about us going to Haiti on a cruise ship. One person asked what the benefit was. As I mentioned, the one benefit was giving Kembe a positive experience. But I also believe that tourism could be a hugely beneficial industry for Haiti. It was in the 80’s, until political unrest scared visitors off. But I don’t think people should be dissuaded from visiting Haiti for leisure just because it’s typically thought of as a place of need. In fact, that’s all the more reason to go spend your money there. Haiti tourism, FTW! That’s not to say there weren’t moments of cognitive dissonance. The cruise ship served lunch on the island – a huge buffet with a ridiculous amount of food. It was hard to see this knowing that there were people just over the fence who were in need. How do I know there were people just over the fence who were in need? Because they were yelling at me while I took this photo. They were yelling, and miming “bring me food”. Not at all awkward. Jafta noticed these going-oins and asked if we could take them some. While I’m sure this broke the rules, Mark made them a big plate and snuck it back to them through a whole in the fence. I’m not even sure that was the right thing to do, but it made the boys feel good. After lunch we gave the kids some spending money for the marketplace, and a quick lesson in bartering. Despite me wanting them to buy traditional Haitian artifacts, the girls insisted on using their money to buy crappy plastic fans that were probably made in China. They were originally priced at $10 each, but my girls scored them for $3. Such a bargain, and such a meaningful souvenir. After shopping, we headed over to a little water park. You know, just a typical Haitian water park. There is one on every corner in Port-Au-Prince. Jafta scoured the beach for a coconut and finally found one that had fallen from a tree. He was determined to get that thing open and eat the contents. I swear, this kid should start a survival show where he just forages and eats weird plants and animals. I tried to tell him that the coconut wasn’t ripe yet, but he would not be deterred. He opened it after quite a bit of effort, and declared it delicious. (It was not). There were several installments of traditional Haitians dancers, joined by traditional aging drunk sorority girls. Oh look! Another traditional Haitian water park! Kembe had a blast in Haiti. He also got a lot of attention. Every where we went, locals asked me if he was Haitian. It’s so funny how they could tell. NO ONE asked about Jafta. Kembe was getting hi fives and “my brotha!” waves from every merchant. As silly as that was, I think he relished the attention and was walking a little taller by the end of the day. Over the next few days I heard him tell other kids that he is from Haiti – something he previously was reluctant to share. The one purchase I was excited about (beyond the plastic fans, of course) was an old Haitian license plate. We’re planning to hang this in Kembe’s new room. After we bough it, someone told us it was illegal for them to sell it to us. Whoops! The Howerton family: food smuggling, license-plate-buying international outlaws. *A huge thanks to Fisher Price for inviting us on this cruise to experience their onboard partnership with Royal Caribbean!
our documentary debut, the alliance for the study of adoption and culture, and the dramatic debate that wasn’t
About a year ago I was contacted by a graduate film student at USC who was working on a documentary for her final thesis. Her chosen subject was transracial adoption, and she wanted to know if they could follow our family around for a few days and interview us. I was a little uncertain at first . . . with the working title “Color Blind”, I was apprehensive as to how we might be portrayed. (You can read about my issue with the concept of colorblindness here). At the same time, I often feel that it’s the most awful adoptive parents who tend to get the most press (i.e. the lady who returned her kid to Russia), so I figured if we could be a normal, relatable adoptive family in the film, that it could be a good thing. The filming ended up being a good experience. We got to attend a screening of the film in LA last year and I really liked it. I’m a documentary nerd, so I appreciated that the filmmaker Khadija Diakite wasn’t too heavy-handed in presenting transracial adoption as either “all good” or “all bad”. She followed another family as well, and we all talked about race and adoption issues pretty frankly in the film. She also interviewed an adult adoptee who advocates against transracial adoption. It made for an interesting moment in the film, because while she was saying that kids should be left in their culture of birth even if it means growing up in group settings, it cut to me talking about how most orphaned children aren’t that familiar with their culture of birth while living within the walls of an orphanage. (I’ve written about how I believe that “orphanage culture” is the prevailing culture for children in group settings in this post). There was another point where she argued that “the jury is still out” as to whether growing up in a family setting is more important than growing up within a person’s country of birth, and there was an audible groan from the audience . . . which was interesting, given that most of the audience was there to watch a documentary about fast-pitch softball. I think that even for those not familiar with adoption, this idea of culture trumping family just seems wrong. Not to mention, the jury really isn’t out. I think you would be hard pressed to find someone with expertise in child development who would say that the bonds of attachment and nurture for a child fall in second place after the maintenance of cultural ties. (Not that I think cultural identity is not important, mind you. I just don’t think it should come at the expense of family). The documentary was being shown again last weekend, at the The Alliance for the Study of Adoption and Culture. Mark and I were asked to sit in on a panel about the film, along with the director and the other couple featured in the movie. We went up a day early so we could attend some of the other conference sessions. It was a fascinating conference and really different from any adoption conference I’ve attended in the past. I really appreciated the fact that there were no adoption agencies present. I feel like this lent to a more honest conversation. Adult adoptees were well represented, and there was a focus on academic research that I appreciated as a former researcher. At the same time, as is often true with academia, sometimes I felt like we were talking about so much theory that we were losing site of the very human aspects of adoption and family. Many of the sessions were extremely though-provoking. It was nice to be away from the kids and to process all of it with Mark. I’ll hopefully have some time to download some more thoughts this week, because I would love to talk more about the intersection of feminism and adoption, which was a major and slightly controversial theme at the conference, as well as the idea of narrative choice in adoption identity. I was a bit apprehensive about the panel we signed up to do, because a few days prior I found out that Lisa Marie Rollins was going to be our moderator. Lisa Marie writes the blog A Birth Project, which I’ve read for several years. She’s passionate about educating parents and supporting kids in transracial adoption,, and even though we don’t agree on everything I’ve always respected her writing. However, shortly after the earthquake Lisa Marie and some other activists authored a joint statement in regards to the orphan situation in Haiti. At the surface, I agreed with the major premise:
“Removing children from Haiti without proper documentation and without proper reunification efforts is a violation of their basic human rights and leaves any family members who may be searching for them with no recourse.”
Okay, yeah. Totally. I think most everyone agreed that reunification efforts were priority #1 for any child who was found to be unsupervised after the earthquake. While there were some people (and even celebrities) expressing their desire to run in and rescue an orphan, no one in power was actually proposing that children orphaned by the earthquake be shuttled out of the country immediately. So that part I supported. But then there was this little tidbit:
“Western and Northern desire for ownership of Haitian children directly contributes to the destruction of existing family and community structures in Haiti. This individualistic desire is supported by the historical and global anti-African sentiment which negates the validity of black mothers and fathers and condones the separation of black children from their families, cultures, and countries of origin.”
Um . . . okay. While I suppose it’s possible that there are some people who sign up for adoption out of some anti-African motivation, I don’t think that’s what drove most of us to that decision. Also . . . in an ethical adoption, it’s not adoptive parents who separate a child from their family – that already happened. I don’t know any adoptive parent who wanted to take a child away from willing parents, black, white, or otherwise. That part was cringe-worthy. But here’s the part of their statement that gave me a record-scratch moment:
“Immediate removal of traumatized children for adoption—including children whose adoptions were finalized prior to the quake— compounds their trauma, and denies their right to mourn and heal with the support of their community.”
So – this wasn’t just about making sure earthquake orphans had proper reunification efforts. This was about halting adoptions in general . . . even for kids whose adoption were final . . . even for kids with everything but a signature separating them from orphanage life and a loving family, kids who had waited two or three years, kids like Kembe, sleeping in a driveway while an understaffed orphanage tried to make due while dealing with injuries, crumbled walls, aftershocks, death of friends, food shortages, and looting. Kids who weren’t at great orphanages like Kembe’s who were left to fend for themselves while the orphanage staff went to care for their own families. Kids who were sleeping like sardines in the back of trucks or on tarps in the hot sun. Let’s take a look at some of the days after the earthquake to see what mourning and healing “with the support of their community” looked like for orphans in an earthquake-ravaged third world country: I’m sure these kids are comforted to sleep in the knowledge that they are in no threat of losing their native language. My son is sleeping in the photo above, in the driveway of his orphanage. You can imagine the kind of mama-bear feelings this statement evoked in me, after experiencing the earthquake and the aftermath and having to leave my own kid in Haiti. Hearing there was a group of people fighting to leave there was infuriating. And finally:
All adoptions from Haiti must be stopped and all efforts to help children be refocused on giving aid to organizations working toward family reunification and caring for children in their own communities.
This is the point at which I felt like the statement was less about ensuring reunification for earthquake survivors (which was always, always the goal of those in power in Haiti) and more about taking a tragedy and making it a talking point to stop current adoptions. It felt opportunistic, and I was angry. Angry for the parents who were scared to death for their kids, angry for the kids they would leave there under some illusions of idyllic cultural community mourning, and angry for the new orphans who were denied a spot in a safe orphanage because kids who were already legally adopted (or very close) couldn’t leave because of red tape. I should add that, despite circulation amongst a circle of adoption blogs, that this particular statement did not shut down adoption from Haiti. It was through a joint agreement between the US and Haitian governments that allowed a provision for kids nearing the end of the adoption process to enter the US to live while their adoptions were finalized. This did not fast-track their adoptions, nor did it apply to children orphaned by the earthquake. But it did allow about 1000 waiting children to join their permanent families as Haitian orphanages began to recover and care for new orphans. So . . . I was a bit disconcerted when I learned that one of the biggest proponents of this statement was going to be on the panel. I knew I had talked specifically and critically about this statement during the filmmaking, and couldn’t remember if it had made it into the film or not. I was imagining this turning into a big debate between Lisa and I. I wondered how I would keep my composure if it came up. I wondered if she was going to use my family as an illustration – if some nuanced interaction between us in the film would become grist for an agenda . . . proof of the ills of transracial adoption. As it turns out, none of that happened. The part I was worried about didn’t even make it into the film. My beef with the Adoptee Statement notwithstanding, Lisa Marie was lovely and smart and funny. She asked great questions and gave great feedback and I thought the panel went really well. It was a reminder to me that, while some of us may come to different conclusions about transracial adoption, there is so much in the middle where we can agree. We both think it’s vitally important for parents to understand the unique needs of a child living in a culturally and/or ethnically different family, and we both see that, in transracial adoption, culture and language can be a collateral loss in the forming of a permanent family. I get that some people have come to the conclusion that this loss is too great a cost, but my opinion is that for children with no other options, having a permanent family will create a foundation from which a child can explore and build on every aspect of their identity. This conference was very stretching for me, and I continue to believe that adoption needs reform and that poverty should not be a barrier to keeping a family together. But I also remain steadfast in believing that the greatest need for every child is to be raised by a loving parent. By the way, the documentary Color Blind has a facebook page that you can follow to see if there is a screening near you. It will be at the Mixed Roots Festival in Los Angeles this summer. I’ll leave you with a description and a couple screen shots from the film:
Whether it is walking down the street, or on the cover of a magazine, a black child with a white parent elicits a response. Approximately forty percent of adoptions in the United States are transracial- and international adoptees are the fasting growing group. Often, adoptees live a political existence, as many have strong political opinions on transracial adoption. Color Blind looks at how two different white families who adopted from Haiti are dealing with race and identity. One family has recently moved to an African-American community . The other family has two biological daughters and an adopted African-American son and recently adopted their fourth child from Haiti. Will they be up to the challenge of raising self-identified black men? And, finally, we hear from an adult Korean Adoptee about some of the cultural problems international adoption raises. Going beyond the headlines and the image, Color Blind asks the question: how do families that adopt children outside of their race navigate culture and race?
This month, we added up all of our adoption expenses and I was a little shocked at how much we spent on our adoption from Haiti. Because I had to type up an itemized list for our taxes last week, and because I’m a believer in transparency in adoption, I thought I would just share what we spent, so people can have an idea of where the money goes.
Our adoption expenses are a bit atypical because we didn’t use an agency. There are some pros and cons to this – the pro being that had we used an agency, it would have added about $8,000 to our total cost. I really didn’t love the idea of handing over a lot of money to an agency, and I was comfortable doing a lot of research and legwork myself. In theory, an adoption agency cam help to assure than an adoption is ethical. In reality, every adoptive parent needs to research and dig to make sure their own adoption is handled in an ethical manner. We had a lot of trust in the missionaries who ran the orphanage and who would be handling the paperwork process. I didn’t have a lot of trust in the Haitian officials, but being with an agency would not have shielded us from getting stuck in the their social services quagmire.
Anyways, here is a breakdown of our adoption expenses:
Before compiling this list, if someone had asked me how much our adoption cost, I would have said around $10,000. I knew that the big expense was the $8000 we paid to Heartline, but I don’t think I really realized how much the rest of it added up over the course of those three years.
The fees we paid to Heartline to process the adoption are often referred to as the “in-country fee”. This money went towards the orphanage taking care of him, but also went towards an attorney processing our paperwork, and any fees on the Haiti side. Because it took three years for Kembe’s adoption to finalize, I can tell you that $8000 was insufficient to even cover the orphanage’s cost of caring for him, especially because he had a private hospital stay during that time.
The next largest expense was travel – which again was affected by the three year span it took to finalize the adoption. During those three years our family took a total of eight trips, and we often took our kids. In total, we spent $6,156. That number only involves airfare. That expense is a lot more than we expected, but for people adopting from African countries that require two trips, travel expenses can be even higher.
The next expense is the $2600 we paid to US social workers to approve us to adopt. Honestly, I don’t think these fees are all that exorbitant. Home studies by professionals are a good thing.
I think one other surprise is that we spent nearly $1.500 on filing forms with the US government. This one seems high to me.
So . . . even looking at our own expenses, I can’t really directly answer the question of why adoption is so expensive. There are a lot of steps and a lot of people involved in making sure a couple is eligible, and then making sure a child is truly in need of a family. I think those steps are good. I understand the concern that people are “making money off of adoption”, but at the same time, these people (the translators, the government officials, the lawyers, the social workers, the notaries) certainly shouldn’t be expected to work for free. I think it’s a fine line. I do think that adoption fees are too high, but when I look at our expenses, I don’t see a clear area where it could have been trimmed (beyond USCIS). Now, had we paid an additional 8 or 10k to use an agency . . . that might be a question mark for me. If we paid this much to adopt an infant in the US, I would definitely have some questions about where the money went.
I do think that there are some professional who make a lot of money from adoption, and I don’t like it. But I didn’t really like seeing my OB driving a Porsche, either.
Speaking of my OB, this was an interesting revelation. I actually paid more money to deliver Karis than I did to adopt Kembe. Our adoption cost just under $19,000. Karis’s delivery cost nearly $26,000 out-of-pocket.
Okay, so now to answer the two inevitable questions that arise from a discussion of adoption expenses: how did we afford it, and why didn’t we just send that money to Haiti?
We definitely didn’t have $19,000 just laying around. Our first step was to take out a home equity loan in 2006 when we started the process. (I haven’t even calculated how the interest rates of a three year adoption have affected our expenses. I think maybe I don’t want to know that.) In addition to the loan, our church gave us a gift of $2000 from their adoption fund to pay for our homestudy. After Kembe came home, we did a t-shirt fundraiser and, along with a grant from Lifesong for Orphans, we raised $4000. We also expect a tax refund of $13,000 thanks to the adoption credit. So, that is how we could afford to adopt.
Now to the other question we get in relation to adoption expenses: why didn’t you just take that money and give it to a Haitian family/give it to a mission in Haiti/buy a well? First of all, because we wanted to build our family through adoption. I don’t think it’s either/or scenario (we DO give money directly to Haiti) but I don’t think you can put a price tag on a forever family. Also – I don’t think that adoptive families should be held to a standard of charitable accountability that is beyond what we would hold the general public to. I mean, why isn’t everyone sending $20 grand to Haiti? Yes, adoption is stupid expensive, but so is a boob job. So is a new car. So is having a new baby. (For the record, I’ve never had a new car or a boob job. I’m just sayin’, adoption is not the only expense that could be foregone in favor of third-world financial assistance). Ironically, I have never had someone leave a comment on my blog asking why I chose to have another biological child instead of sending that money directly to Haiti. In fact, the next time I’m asked that question, I might ask that person to go around and quiz pregnant women on why they are being so selfish. Or I might just punch them in the face. I’m going to wait until the moment and see how I feel.
I mean, why are we questioning adoptive parents about money when there are people buying these things?
I feel really passionate about helping families in Haiti, and I would venture to say that most adoptive families tend to be pretty involved in assistance after they’ve spent any time in the sending country. But I don’t like the way the decision to adopt somehow raises the question of how money might be better spent because there are a million examples in this world of how money could be better spent, and providing a family for a child is a really, really worthy use of money, in my book.
If you have adopted and feel like sharing, I would love to hear your perspective on the expenses of adoption. Where did you spend the most money? Were there fees you were uncomfortable with? Why is it so expensive, and is there something to be done about it?
About six months ago, I had my first parent-teacher conference for Kembe. We started him in preschool after he had been home from Haiti for about four months. We would have waited longer, but he learned English very quickly and he was soon begging to go to preschool like his brother and sister. I had some reservations about it, but we gave it a shot and he really, really liked it. In retrospect, I think the preschool environment was much more familiar to him than a home environment. He liked the structure, the noise, the crowd, and the ability to blend in without a lot of intense adult contact. When I went for my first conference with the teacher to see how he was doing, I had no idea what to expect. Things were not going so well at home. Kembe was in the midst of a hard transition. He was rejecting me, and simultaneously trying to engage me in conflict all day. It was a lot of drama at home, and his behaviors were unpredictable and difficult. There are other words I could use to describe his behavior . . . but I’m going to try to be diplomatic in case he reads this some day. (Kembe, I love you, but you gave your mom a very hard time). Things at home were rough. I assumed this was spilling over at school. I was surprised to hear the director say that he was doing great at school. She described him as a respectful, happy little boy at school. She even called him “delightful”. And as glad as I was to hear things were going well at school, I couldn’t help feeling ambivalent about it, too. Why wasn’t he respectful for me? I wasn’t seeing much that was delightful. Why was he sparing everyone else all of the negative behavior that was being heaped on us at home? Moms who deal with attachment issues know this dynamic, and it is a hard one. Our kids can be lovely to others, because there is not as much fear of rejection. I had read about this before we adopted. But I didn’t realize how personally I would take it. I never imagined that a good parent-teacher conference could leave me feeling so sad. Kembe has come a long, long way in the past six months since that first conference. Sometimes it is hard to measure progress as we are entrenched in the day-to-day, but having a new conference this week was a good reminder of how much things have changed. The preschool teacher was again very complimentary of Kembe’s behavior. Of course, he’s not perfect, but in all he is doing well with his peers and being respectful and appropriate in the classroom. But this time, I recognized the boy she described. It was consistent with who he is at home now. Again, not perfect . . . but for the most part, delightful. Even to me. I left the conference this week with a heart bursting with pride for how far he’s come.
The Orange County Register ran a story on our family this week. They had contacted us a while back, wanting to do an update since Kembe’s homecoming. They ended up writing from the angle of us being together for our first holiday . . . a nice surprise, and echoing so many of my own thoughts. I love the photos that Mindy Shauer captured. She wanted to get snapshots of our everyday life, and I think she really did. Especially the one of the three kids jamming on the coffee table. And if you look closely, you can see my beans and rice cooking in the kitchen. Just a typical day. Aside from the tie Kembe is wearing.
(Also, as my luck would have it, our photo shoot was scheduled at the point when his braids had become more Coolio than cool, and without a three-hour time block to change that fact. So now I can be forever memorialized in print as the white woman who neglects her son’s hair. Yeesh. Since that day it has been cut and retwisted. I promise.)
Photos: Mindy Schauer, The Orange County Register
I have some ambivalent feelings about being in the media. On the one hand, I like putting a face to adoption beyond the typical stories of parents returning their children. It is usually adoptions gone wrong that make the headlines, so if our little slice of life brings some normalcy to the public perspective of adoption, then I think it’s a good thing. At the same time, as an introvert in can be a little challenging in terms of privacy, and it also opens us up to random criticism. Obviously, writing a blog does that as well, but typically speaking blog readers are a self-selected audience. When your story hits the papers, it’s open season.
For whatever reason, one of the resounding comments we get when random people hear our story is, “Why do these people have to adopt kids from other countries? Why can’t they take care of the kids here in the US?” This question is so common that literally, before it went to print, I jokingly asked Mark how long he thought it would be before someone posed that question. And, ding! ding! ding! Within about an hour of the story going live, we had a winner.
(There were also some digs about white people adopting black children, but those were deleted).
This question both angers and amuses me. Amusing because it is so completely petty and almost always posed by people who are doing absolutely nothing about the “kids here in the US” that they are so indignant about. And angering because it is so ridiculous to assume that children born in other countries have less of a right to be adopted into a loving home than those born in the states.
I typically don’t feel defensive by this question (obviously, since we DID adopt a child from the US), but it does irritate me. My friend Alida commented back and I really appreciate what she said. She is a former foster child herself, an African American/biracial mom of five, and she is in the process of getting her fostercare license. So I think she knows a little something something about all that.
“One thing to consider, at least here in the US we have foster care. The government sets aside money for each child to have the basics, food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, developmental services, therapy, etc. In Haiti, Africa, places in S. America, Asia, there is NOTHING! You are a FORTUNATE orphan if you have access to the few poor overcrowded orphanages available. Even still you are probably malnourished. Those not in orphanages are often forced into child traffic, slave labor, criminal activity, abuse, begging, uneducated sick, and expose to the elements. Having been in foster care myself, it wasn’t pleasant but my basic needs were met. I have lived in group homes here and they were nice. It wasn’t perfect but I never went to bed hungry. There are well over 153,000,000 worldwide and as many as 163,000 right here in the good ole US of A in need of adoption, 500,000 here needing foster homes. If you are concerned with US orphans, I’d encourage you, to sign up today. There is also a special need for domestic adoption of black or biracial infants not in foster care. I hope that the many folks that so quickly ask the “why adopt from there when there are children here ” are the same ones I see in my foster/adoption classes. Have you ever tried to adopt from the foster care system? It is difficult, time consuming and a VERY intrusive process. I should read you some of the homestudy questions! You’d blush! There are SO MANY REQUIREMENTS. You may or may not meet the requirements based on your family size, home size, views on birth control, parenting style etc. You could have a child or children in your home for YEARS and never be able to adopt that child and call them your own. You may have a child or sibling set that you have tenderly loved and cared for and have to return them (yes even years later) to the SAME drug addicted people that abused or neglected that child in the first place! We are trying to adopt a sibling set from foster care and the hoops I have to jump through to do it make international adoption look oh so appealing. It works for many and I hope we are successful. I pray each US child finds a forever family, but I can easily see why others chose international.”
I think so much of this is true. Having worked in group homes for many years, I can say that there is truly no comparison between US fostercare and third world orphanage conditions. And adopting from the US fostercare system is an excruciating process. Most DCFS offices are understaffed, underpaid and incompetent. Even with the best-intentioned staff, it is simply not set up to adequately care for the number of children in state care, and the permanency of children is what hangs in the balance. I could complain all day about how poorly foster parents are treated by the system . . . but the real injustice here is to the children, who sit for years in a limbo between family preservation and adoption. My friend Esther is experiencing this right now and reading her story is a painful reminder of all we went through with Jafta. I don’t have easy answers, but I do know that the system is very broken, and it is failing children by making it so difficult for prospective parents to adopt kids in fostercare who need families. If I wasn’t so exhausted from our own battle, I would pick up the torch and fight for reform. Some day, I will. Today, I have more important matters to attend to. Like packing lunches for preschool tomorrow. And sleeping.
Anyways, as always, my response to the question of “why adopt from there when there are children here?” is:
Why don’t YOU?