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With the Family First Prevention Services Act passed in February to promote families staying together, members of the ICCSD community share the impact adoption has had on adoptees and adoptive family members alike.
December 21, 2018
From “The Fosters” to the “Annie” remake, adoption is portrayed more and more often as a sensationalized portion of media pop culture. However, these stereotypical Hollywood images do not encompass the entirety of an adoptee’s story. Dramatized productions often distort reality, as outlets portray adoption as either a horror story or fairy tale.
As a result, many misconceptions about adoption and the children involved spread, with the adoptees’ perspectives often ignored.
“I think something that gets left out a lot is that adoptive parents have always held the microphone,” said child and family therapist and City High alumnus Olivia Louko. “They’re adults, so people listen to them whereas adoptees, their stories stop after they’re adopted. They’re just the baby who was adopted and has a good life now. If we don’t seek out and listen attentively to adoptees, then we’re not getting the full picture of adoption.”
There are millions of people around the world who have a story to be shared but are often overshadowed by the logistics and motivations behind their adoption. According to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), over 440,000 children were in foster care in 2017 in the United States alone.
However, while there are many cases of children entering the foster system, adopting children from foster care is typically treated as a last resort in the United States, according to Louko. Instead, the priority of many child welfare systems, organizations created to ensure the safety of children, is the reunification of children with their biological family.
“The biological family should always have the priority to raise the child,” Louko said. “In my view, it’s wrong to remove children from their families unless it’s the last resort, because to raise them outside of their family carries with it all of these issues that can become harmful.”
Following the goal of reunification to prevent these potential detrimental situations, on Feb. 9, the United States government passed the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFSPA) as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act.
“In the past, most of the funding [the federal government] gave to the states for the child welfare system came after [the] removal of children from the home,” said Director of the Iowa Department of Human Services Jerry Foxhoven. “This act says, ‘Let’s put more money upfront to prevent removal,’ and the federal act then allows for more federal dollars to come in if we spend it on preventing the removal instead of removing first.”
The mission of FFSPA is to prevent as many children from entering the foster care system as possible by focusing on keeping families together. Some of the services provided to achieve this include offering federal reimbursement for both mental health prevention and substance abuse treatment, as well as training in a variety of parenting skills.
But what happens if staying together is not a possibility?
“Oh, I thought you spoke Mandarin.”
Anya Emerson ’21 is no stranger to this phrase. Contrary to many people’s beliefs, although Emerson was born in China, she cannot speak the language at all. She lost this connection to her birth country and language at an early age.
Emerson was born in Hunan, China and put up for adoption at the age of one. Even though she looks Asian, she identifies more closely with her adoptive parents’ culture and background, as she was not brought up with Chinese traditions. This is due to the fact that both of her adoptive parents are American. However, the assumptions that people made about her based on her appearance have caused her to feel isolated from the group she personally identifies with.
“It’s just kind of shocking that sometimes people will just assume something and just ask either rudely or not rudely,” Emerson said. “They wire a certain group like this, and they assume I’m part of that group, and it’s very ostracizing [and] … disorienting.”
This is a common experience for many adoptees, especially those that are a different nationality from their adoptive parents. Despite growing up in a specific country and experiencing that country’s culture for their entire lives, the rest of the world will always tend to see them as the nationality they were born with. As a result, not having that connection to one’s roots and culture leaves many adopted children questioning their identity, as they try to balance a multitude of contrasting cultures.
“If you’re adopted cross-culturally, you lose a language, all of the customs that you would’ve grown up with, and there’s no replacement for culture,” Louko said. “A lot of adopted children struggle with identity because when you don’t know where you came from, it can be hard to know who you are, and so throughout life, it’s a continuous process of figuring that out for yourself, so I think people struggle with that at different levels, at different times and different ways.”
Another West High student who has firsthand experience with conflicted identity is Catie Miller ’20, who was adopted from Beijing, China. Miller celebrates Chinese New Year as a way to keep in touch with her culture. Although celebrating this traditional holiday helps Miller maintain a connection to her roots, this event holds a deeper meaning than just honoring her culture. Through this celebration, she is able to retain something besides her appearance that reminds her of where she came from.
“It’s helpful because then it’s like I have at least a part of me besides my looks that helps me connect to my ethnicity,” Miller said.
Emerson’s parents also encourage this connection back to one’s roots. In elementary school, Emerson recalls her mother celebrating Chinese New Year with her schoolmates and bringing in routines about lion dances, as well as traditional Chinese cuisine. Not only does her family celebrate Chinese New Year but also moon festivals with Emerson’s cousin, who was adopted as well. Louko believes this link to one’s origin is imperative to better understanding and coming to terms with one’s identity.
“If you adopt a child from Korea and you never teach them about Korea, … they’re not going to know what it means to be Korean, and they might not even think of themselves as Korean,” Louko said. “The problem is that the rest of the world will always see them that way. You can’t escape being Korean just because your parents didn’t talk to you about what it means to be Korean. So, to not do that is to just totally deprive someone from that part of their identity.”
For those who have the resources, traveling back to their homeland is a powerful way to stay in touch with their roots. This opportunity allows adoptees to immerse themselves in the language, food, clothing and many other aspects of their culture, gaining a firsthand experience of the place they were born. For example, Emerson’s parents are very open about her adoption and have always told her if she wanted to visit China or look at her adoption papers, they will utilize their resources to try to comply with her request, as they still have all of her legal papers and Chinese citizenship.
This openness regarding her adoption has played a significant role in Emerson’s ability to accept and understand her own adoption, as well as her birth parents’ motives for giving her up. By understanding her past, she feels more confident about being adopted.
“I honestly usually don’t have a second thought about adoption. … I’m really proud to be adopted. It’s never been something that I’ve hid, … and I think [my parents’] open communication with that has really helped rather than being, ‘Well, you were adopted, but we don’t talk about it,’” Emerson said. “It’s just been a fact that I was adopted, and I have a really good understanding that [my birth parents] couldn’t take care of me. … It worked out in the end, and I don’t blame them for anything.”
However, adopted children still tend to struggle with self-identity due to many unknowns: where they came from, who their family was or why they were given away. That, added to assumptions society places on how certain groups of people should act and look, is a huge burden for adopted children. Many feel the pressure to balance how society expects them to act and how they choose to act.
“I want to know what my real name is, not the name that my parents gave me, the name that my biological parents gave me,” said Sam Nester ’21, who was adopted at three months of age from the country of Georgia. “That definitely carries on through your life if you’re adopted.”
Not only does the curiosity about an adoptee’s history carry on throughout their life, but the emotional turmoil over why they were given up and learning to adapt to a new family do as well. Nester believes that while he personally does not feel disconnected from his adoptive parents, he understands why others do.
“[Teenagers are] all talking about how much we don’t like our parents, and I’m over here not knowing who my parents are,” Nester said. “Living through life not knowing who your real parents are is not that great of a feeling. … It’s as if you’ve been taken in by two complete strangers. It’s like moving, but on steroids.”
Although balancing several cultures and not having definitive answers about their identity is something that adoptees cannot control, they limit how those factors affect their everyday lives and influence their sense of self-worth.
“Know who you are and don’t let being adopted affect who you are, and if you’re confident that you know who you are as a person, don’t let the assumptions that people make affect you,” Miller said.
Nester emphasizes this idea of not letting the opinions of others interfere with adoptees’ self-confidence and that adoption is nothing to be ashamed of.
“Stick through it; be proud of where you came from,” Nester said. “Even if it’s a little hard, it’s who you are.”
Finding a New Home
For months, Lee Longmire had stared at a photo of a child. It was a picture of the little boy from South Korea who would soon become her son.
Along with her four biological children, Lee has four adopted children: Philip, Jake and Hannah, all from South Korea, and Thad from China. Because her grandfather was adopted, she always wanted adoption to be part of her family.
When she first adopted Philip, she filled out a medical checklist asking if she would accept a child with medical conditions, ranging from mild to severe. She initially checked ‘No,’ but due to recent changes in South Korea’s adoption system, the only adoptions they allowed were for special needs children. From there, Lee matched with Philip, and ever since, she has only adopted children with some sort of physical challenge, from vision impairment to missing limbs.
“I thought that I couldn’t handle having a child that had a medical condition or some kind of condition. Through adoption, I think it just really opened my eyes and opened my heart,” Lee said. “It opened the world to me that these things that might look scary on paper are just scary on paper, and in real life, these are just normal, everyday kids.”
Lee’s children bring cultural differences to the family as well. When the Longmire family decided to adopt Thad, Lee and her biological daughter Mary Longmire ’19 traveled to China. Although there were language barriers, they quickly bonded.
“Thad and I were very close, and we were just hanging out, and it was a lot of fun,” Mary said. “It was a really different experience, but it was a good one. I’m definitely happy I went because I feel like I know more about the process.”
After fostering seven different children, chemistry teacher Michelle Wikner also understands the adoption process well. Prior to fostering and meeting her future adopted daughter, Eva, Wikner’s previous experience growing up with an adopted sibling influenced her decision to adopt, in addition to Eva already living with her family at the time.
Although some parents prefer to have their own biological children, Wikner believes there are benefits to not having children be exactly like their parents.
“Some of the interests [of] my kids have absolutely nothing to do with anything that I would ever do or be interested in, but they’re really into,” Wikner said. “I feel like it has expanded my horizons just by going with what things they’re interested in and finding out more about them.”
Despite contrasts between adoptees and adoptive parents, these children are just as much a part of the family.
“[Mateo has] always thought of our home as his, and as far as he knows, he’s just a part of the family,” said Garth Anderson ’19, who has an adopted brother with Guatemalan-Mexican roots.
Similar to Wikner, Anderson’s family was involved in the foster system and fostered Mateo for eight months after meeting him in the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics where Anderson’s mother works in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
“There’s some sort of support to really have a family rather than just nurses taking care of you but actually a place you can call your home,” Anderson said.
In addition to gaining new family members, Lee says that adoption has opened her family to becoming more accepting of others’ differences.
“We have a lot of limb-different friends and Paralympians that we can now count as friends, and it’s just really opened up a whole world to us,” Lee said. “It’s raising awareness that sometimes you think that every family is like your family, and you don’t realize that there are children and people out there … who maybe aren’t as fortunate.”
One piece of advice Lee has for potential adoptive families is to educate themselves about the adoption process and background of adoptees. This is partially due to the fact that while adoption is a chance for children to grow up in a stable, loving environment, it does not come without some sort of loss.
“A lot of people think that it’s this beautiful hallmark moment when you adopt a child that the child is just running into your arms and happy and everything. It’s not like that,” Lee said. “Anyone who goes through it [needs] to educate themselves … [and] bring the culture into your family, to allow them to experience their culture, talk to other families who have adopted … and really just try to learn as much as you can.”
Wikner believes one of the roles of an adoptive parent is to guide their children through times of confusion regarding identity.
“[Adoption] worked really well for our family and … teaching my daughter to be an advocate and to let people know you’re adopted [is important]. It isn’t anything to be ashamed of in any way,” Wikner said. “We were always really open about it. … She’s always known that she was adopted. I think we all feel pretty bonded and connected to each other.”
With eight children, the Longmire family is a busy household, but they cherish the memories they make together.
“Having a big family and having it the way we have it has had a great impact,” Lee said. “I love the way that our family laughs, jokes about things and the experiences that we share.”
Imagine not knowing anything about your past: family members, your given name, the story of how your parents met and your medical history.
To many, this information may seem obvious, but that is not the case for many adoptees. David McNair, former West and current Liberty High School Spanish teacher, has firsthand experience with the struggles of not knowing everything about oneself. McNair wanted to find out about his medical background to see if anything ran in the family before deciding to start a family. However, he was unable to obtain much information about his biological mother and father due to his adoption being closed, meaning there is no identifying information between the adoptive and biological families. Yet, there has always been a curiosity about his past within him. Throughout his life, he went through different phases of emotions, such as anger and guilt.
“When you’re younger, there’s all these things rushing through your head. [I was] very confused, and I still have thoughts about that; it never goes away,” McNair said. “I’m just an adult now with experience and know how to better deal with it and to handle it. There’s definitely no anger. That’s completely gone. The curiosity is still there. I think it will always be there.”
Similarly, being adopted from China, Louko has experienced the loss that comes with not knowing about one’s birth family. Looking back on her experience growing up as an adoptee, Louko believes one of the most beneficial actions she took to retain more of her culture and background was studying Chinese and joining several Asian organizations. Although getting in touch with this part of her identity helped Louko feel connected to her Asian ancestry, what helped her complete her identity was joining organizations of other adoptees.
“I found that even though I might not gel completely with each adoptee, I still have a connection with them and an understanding I’ve never had with anyone else about adoption,” Louko said. “When I’m with another adoptee, I don’t have to explain what it’s like to be sad about adoption, because they already know.”
While adoptees often research the culture they were born into, they are not always able to learn about the history of their specific family tree.
“The part that’s hard is that I don’t have family history. I can learn about my roots as far as being black in the United States but not my roots as far as my black father. … That’s part of the curiosity too that I don’t know if I’ll ever have answers to,” McNair said.
This curiosity has remained with McNair for the past 46 years of his life and still does to this very day, causing periods of loneliness throughout his life, as he is reminded that he does not have a blood bond with anyone. This lasted until the birth of his four and seven-year-old children.
“[My kids] are the only two people on the planet right now that share my DNA, my roots … It’s not like I ever saw my father in me, because … on that biological level, we don’t share any features,” McNair said. “I wouldn’t say it’s better or worse, [but] it’s different, and I’m experiencing that now a little bit through my children. It’s my first taste of that biological bond.”
Community plays a major role in influencing how adoptees mold into an identity that is comfortable for them as well.
“I think that your community has a huge impact on your identity, so if you have a community that’s really supportive and you feel like you can fit into, it’s going to be different than if you’re surrounded by people who are always reminding you that you don’t belong there,” Louko said.
Growing up as a biracial child in Boone, Iowa, a predominantly white community, was not always easy. McNair and his family experienced racial discrimination and harassment — him for having darker skin and his parents for having a black baby. His mother was German and his father Scottish, so the differences between them were painstakingly obvious.
“My mother had some run-ins in the grocery store because they were white and had a black baby,” McNair said. “[There were] looks and, ‘Whose baby is that? Is that your son?’”
Today, McNair has embraced his black culture and has plenty of chances to delve not only into his culture, but a wide variety of other cultures as well. He believes that if people want to truly understand someone else’s culture, they have to fully experience it.
“Unless [the general public] takes the time to learn things and get into that culture, put that lens on and see life through that lens, they’re not ever going to know exactly,” McNair said. “If you want to learn and understand a different culture, … you kind of have to live it a little bit.”
Getting to explore has helped McNair become aware of all the different cultures around him, and he has come to realize that is what makes the world so unique. Similarly, having different kinds of people, adopted or not adopted, makes the world special.
“I want to know about all the cultures,” McNair said. “To me, that’s the spice of life. To me, the spice of life is that we’re not all the same.”
How It Works
In a place filled with metal cribs and crying kids, caregivers scramble from room to room attending to the cries of children ranging anywhere from infants to teenagers. All of them are orphans, awaiting their fates and hoping to be taken in by a loving family.
The Immigration and Nationality Act defines orphans as children who, due to the “death or disappearance of, abandonment or desertion by, or separation or loss from, both parents” have lost contact with their biological parents. They may also be considered orphans if an “[unwed mother or surviving parent] is unable to care for the child properly and has, in writing, irrevocably released the child for emigration and adoption.” These children enter into orphanages, institutions dedicated to caring for children as they wait for permanent adoption placement.
The adoption process varies depending on the circumstances of the adoption and the agency handling the case. This is especially true if the adoption is done domestically or internationally, as the two processes differ.
“There’s two types of adoptions that can occur. One of these adoptions is from DHS [Department of Human Services], where the parental rights have been terminated by the state because the parents haven’t been able to get their act together,” Foxhoven said. “The other type is … private adoption, and those are where people either voluntarily give up their rights or it might be a foreign adoption.”
One of the differences between domestic and international adoption is that international adoptions are usually closed. In addition, if families are adopting internationally, they must fill out an orphan petition to be approved and apply for a visa, since internationally adopted children are considered immigrants in the United States, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Orphanages remain one of the most popular systems for adoption. According to UNICEF, there is an estimated 153 million orphaned children around the world. While these establishments remain in use worldwide, the United States have ceased orphanage usage in favor of the foster system.
The foster care system encompasses foster homes which typically only have a small number of children, sometimes only one, living with a single family who is in charge of their well-being. Historically, orphanages were overcrowded and children were kept in poor living conditions. As child protection and U.S. adoption policy laws began forming, traditional orphanages quickly faded. By the 1960s, the foster system became a government-funded program, according to American Adoptions. However, the foster system is far from perfect.
“With regards to issues that you see with foster care, and even with adoption, is that … there is such a shortage of foster parents who are adoptive parents that a lot of times, the adoptive parents or foster parents aren’t great parents, so there is a large number of issues that arise,” said Juris Doctor (J.D.) attorney-at-law Tucker Kraght.
In addition to not having experience with caring for an adoptee, many children in the foster care system come from difficult circumstances such as mental, physical and emotional abuse that may have resulted in trauma. This is often difficult for foster families to handle, especially if they do not have access to appropriate resources.
“[Fostering is] difficult to begin with, and … foster care can sometimes exasperate that problem because foster care parents aren’t necessarily always prepared to take on some of the challenges,” Kraght said. “There’s an understanding in society that foster care is this thing that you do because [someone] likes kids and wants to be helpful, but they don’t understand that they’re taking on the legal responsibility … for another human being’s life. … They’re creating a bond that’s meant to last a lifetime, if not longer.”
According to Foxhoven, some other problems with the foster system include not putting enough money into preventing family separations, leading to children having to be removed from their homes, as well as the uncertainty of having a permanent, stable family potential adoptees can depend on.
“It can get really complicated, and a lot of times it’s a process that is stressful and understandably, has a lot of emotional complexity,” Kraght said. “At the end of the day, the impact on the children … should be minimized as much as possible. If anything, it’s the safety of the child and the best interest of the child that always comes first.”