By SunAh M Laybourn
You’ve seen the photos: a young child holds a sign stating the number of days they were in foster care and triumphantly declaring that today is the day they were adopted. A big smile is on the child’s face. The professional sign is often accompanied by a professional photographer, implying that this is a day to be remembered. It’s of little consequence whether the child is old enough to understand the moment or give consent to be portrayed like this. The joining of parents and child in the bonds of “forever family” is a feel-good moment that all of us can share in.
In 1995, President Bill Clinton designated November as National Adoption Month, a month to promote awareness of adoption issues and bring attention to the need for adoptive families for children in the foster care system. Since then, the month has only expanded. There is National Adoption Day, observed on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, when courts across the US open their doors to finalize and celebrate adoptions from foster care. On the second Sunday of the month is Orphan Sunday, an expression of ecumenical commitment to care for orphans, especially globally. Every November 9th, World Adoption Day features a social media campaign to celebrate families, raise awareness for adoption, and fundraise to support adoptive families. Participation is signified by drawing a smiley face in palm of your hand and posting a picture with #WorldAdoptionDay.
For all that National Adoption Month seeks to highlight, it also obscures. Hidden behind the viral photos are the structural conditions, policies, and biases that lead to the removal of children from their birth families, the voices of birth mothers and fathers themselves, and the depth and breadth of adoptee experiences. Instead, the perspectives amplified throughout the month are those of adoption professionals, nonprofit organizations, Christian churches, and adoptive parents. Adoptees are largely relegated to props in narratives promoting the adoption process.
However, adoptees have their own stories to tell. Enter: National Adoptee Awareness Month.
Adoptees – domestic and international – have reclaimed November as a month to bring awareness to the complexity of their lives and the ongoing impact adoption has beyond a single moment of legal transfer of parental rights. While it may seem obvious that people should be able to tell their own stories, a common adoptee experience is being silenced, shamed, or reprimanded for sharing anything that goes against the popular narrative of forever family and the happiness and gratitude that adoption is expected to engender.
In Out of Place: The Lives of Korean Adoptee Immigrants, I share a more nuanced adoptee story. I center Korean transnational transracial adoptees’ lived experiences. The adoptees I spoke to, surveyed, and hung out with were born in Korea and adopted to the US into families of a different race, primarily white families. Their stories are marked by tension as they are out of place in the societal expectations for familial, racial, and national belonging. However, adoptees themselves are active in remaking belonging. As the adoptee stories featured in Out of Place demonstrate, while adoption may be a discrete legal action, being an adoptee is an ongoing process. Adoptees continually negotiate that process individually, collectively with other adoptees, publicly through creating mainstream media, and politically when advocating for adoptee citizenship rights.
Although policies have been put into place to facilitate the creation of “forever families” there are countless transnational adoptees who find themselves outside of the national family. Due to a loophole in the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, there are transnational adoptees who, though legally adopted to the US from abroad, are not US citizens. Now in adulthood and undocumented, these family members are vulnerable to deportation. In fact, over a dozen international adoptees have been deported to their birth countries. As legislation to remedy this policy oversight continues to fail, we must ask ourselves where else might our commitment to children and families fall short. Where else might our attitudes and policies belie our belief in “forever family?” It’s time for policy makers, adoption professionals, the general public, and even adoptive family members to expand their understanding of adoptees’ lives beyond feel-good moments and photo ops. Adoptees have long been voicing their stories. When will we listen?
SunAh M Laybourn is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Memphis. She is the co-author of Diversity in Black Greek Letter Organizations: Breaking the Line.