Filling in Blanks One Space at a Time
by Lisa Ritter Starr
Nowhere in adoption do children face more missing pieces about their lives as
they do in international adoptions. While adopting orphaned, abandoned, or
otherwise unparented children from other countries is no doubt a loving,
rewarding, and socially responsible choice, there are special issues involved
in this type of adoption that parents must address.
During the year I volunteered for Holt International Children's Services in
Eugene, Oregon (http://holtintl.org), I got a good look at how a large
international adoption agency is handled. Although such agencies are located
throughout the country, an overwhelming number of international adoption
placements nationwide are made through Holt, whose roots date back to just
after the Korean War.
Harry and Bertha Holt, parents already of six biological children, heard
about the orphan children of this war and worked to bring back eight of them
to join their family in Creswell, Oregon. This actually required a change in
international adoption law, but the Holts were not afraid to pioneer change.
In fact, since that first adoption, they have worked to gain permission for
U. S. adoptions from several countries, including China, the Philippines,
Romania, Guatemala, and Ecuador.
My first impression of the agency came directly from the people who worked
there. After all, I thought, a business is only as good as its people, so I
watched them busy at work whenever I could. I was happy to observe that these
people were "good" in the most traditional vein: caring, genuine,
good-humored, dedicated, honest, and sincerely interested in the well-being
of each child looking for a home. Whenever a match was made between family
and child, the Holt staff shared in the good news as if they were personally
involved. And in fact, in their own ways, they were.
I couldn't help thinking, however, about the birth families. Holt's policy
states that their first objective is to keep children in their birth
families; second, to place them in their own countries; and as a last resort,
to place them overseas. I knew that children were often abandoned and so the
birth family was unknown. Still, I wondered about the children and their
origins. Would they be curious about where they came from? What did the
parents know about the culture of their children's first country? Would they
be able to teach, or encourage their children to learn, about their
Such "training" is required neither by federal law nor by every international
adoption agency. However, some agencies have instigated their own
requirements of their expectant parents. In the September 8 issue of the
Sunday Denver Post (http://DenverPost.com), staff writer Jenny Deam reports
about some cultural aspects of international adoption in her article, "Why
Not Take All of Me?"
Featured in the article is Katy Robinson, a woman adopted at age seven from
Korea and author of the memoir, "A Single Square Picture." Robinson is among
the oldest internationally adopted Americans. While growing up, she felt a
definite sense of lack regarding her native culture. They didn't have much
information about it at the time, but people like Robinson could have
benefited greatly from her parents' education and training in these issues.
Agencies these days follow the progress of these first adoptees as closely in
order to learn as much as they can about the problems and successes of this
relatively new kind of family. They now know that many children may try
vehemently to deny their native culture, having felt odd or been teased for
being different. Many silently yearn for more information about or immersion
in their native culture. Some want to know who their birth families are, or
they want to be around people they look like or can relate to in a physical
or cultural way.
While it is easiest to provide access to or information about the birth
family in domestic adoptions, international adoptions can also do something
to help child and adult adoptees satisfy their natural curiosity. The
Adoption Alliance in Denver is an agency that actually requires all parents
to complete 20 to 24 hours of cultural training. Others don't push it, but
they make sure that such training and information is available for those who
In order to help their children grow up and feel like whole adults, parents
of internationally adopted children may want to inoculate themselves against
the issues that these children often face - even if their own agency does not
provide this assistance, others do. There may always be a few gaps in the
adopted person's history, but this is not necessarily a "bad" or even
uncommon thing. At least parents can try to educate and equip themselves to
provide whatever their children might need.
There isn't much more, or less, that true parenting requires.
Dean, Jenny. "Why Not Take All of Me?" Denver Post, September 8, 2002. See:
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