Adopting Across Borders
A new book about international adoption by Psychology Professor Rebecca Compton is informed by research—and her own experience.
Rebecca Compton had already spent six months in Kazakhstan, struggling to complete the adoption of a baby boy named Aldanysh, when an email message flashed onto her computer screen
The Ministry of Education had decided that she and her husband, Jeremy Meyer, should start over. With a different child. Compton was floored. And furious. Every day since they had arrived, the couple had visited Aldanysh in his orphanage, holding him, feeding him, loving him. They were as committed to him as they were to each other. And now a government bureaucrat thought they should, or could, leave their baby behind—moving on to another child as if they were changing a pair of socks?
Plainly, Compton thought, the people running the government didn’t understand international adoption. And, she knew, there were reasons.
At that time, in 2010, the news media blared the story of a Tennessee woman who put her adopted 7-year-old Russian son onto a plane to Moscow— with a note saying she couldn’t handle the boy and was sending him back. The coverage was heavy in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic. For many there, it confirmed the worst beliefs about the treatment of children sent across the seas to new homes in the United States.
When she got home to Pennsylvania, Compton, a veteran Haverford College psychology professor, began to think about how people could believe that—and to wonder if their condemnation might even have basis in fact. She wished someone would conduct an in-depth review of the scientific research, to see whether the negative perceptions were the result of bad practices or bad press. The more she read and studied, the more she decided she should be that author.
Now, Compton, 45, has written a book that examines the big question at the heart of her own hard experience in Central Asia and the controversy that can surround the creation of new families: Is international adoption good for children?
She found that the answer—spoiler alert—is an unqualified yes.
In Adoption Beyond Borders: How International Adoption Benefits Children, published by Oxford University Press, Compton documents how the children who have come to the U.S. from orphanages and institutions in places like China, Korea, Russia, and Vietnam almost inevitably gain from the experience.
Most children arrive with developmental delays, due to the lack of resources at overseas institutions, she writes. And the vast majority, once exposed to good food, medical care, stimulation, and attentive parents, quickly catch up and thrive—physically, cognitively, and emotionally.
That doesn’t mean the children don’t suffer real and meaningful losses in coming to this country, Compton writes. They lose their language, culture, and religion, along with the sights, smells, and sounds of their homeland. They lose the chance to grow up in the place where they were born. But children adopted across racial, cultural, and national lines appear to fare well in the United States, despite the work and challenges involved in constructing a sense of identity that includes both birth and adoptive families.
The adoptive parents, she found, are every bit as committed and invested as biological parents.
But that is a nuanced story, hard to tell in a 45-second television news clip.
“As I read a lot about adoption,” Compton said in an interview, “I felt a lot of the more recent writing had been negative, [and I] saw critical views that were becoming publicized.”
It was a tale contrary to her own experience, despite its tumult. Today, six years after his adoption, Aldanysh, now called Noah, is a bright, affectionate 7-year-old. He loves Star Wars, and owns enough toy lightsabers to equip a Jedi Academy.
The book combines the story of Compton’s life-changing experience in adopting Noah with a comprehensive survey and analysis of the best and most recent research on international adoption. And it’s getting attention, with Compton scheduled to write for Psychology Today and Foreign Affairs.
Writing the book took her into new terrain, a detour made possible, she said, by the generosity of the College. Haverford granted her the freedom to pursue the creation of her family and to explore a new realm of study. Not every college does that, she said.
Adoption Beyond Borders arrives at a time when the number of international adoptions has dropped dramatically, reaching their lowest level since 1981. In 2015, the State Department reported, there were 5,648 foreign adoptions to the United States, down about 75 percent from the high of 22,884 in 2004.
The reasons for the drop are complex and unclear, Compton said, but it’s not because there are fewer needy children in the world or fewer parents wishing to adopt. She cites a UNICEF study which showed that in 2010, more than 600,000 children—a population the size of Las Vegas—were living in institutions in former Soviet-bloc countries. Most land there because of poverty and family problems.
Many will “age out” when they turn 18, put onto the streets with no family, no support, and few resources.
“Environments matter,” Compton writes in her book. “There is strong evidence that international adoption is a highly successful intervention for children without parental care.”
But it’s hardly universally embraced. Russia, once a major sending nation, banned adoptions to the U.S. in retaliation for a new law that targeted alleged human-rights abuses there. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has suspended adoptions from Guatemala, Nepal, Cambodia, and other countries over concerns about corruption and baby-selling.
As those suspensions continue, the world’s orphan population grows by millions, and many countries seek American help in establishing adoption programs that could send parentless children to these shores.
Adoption, Compton points out, is hardly a new idea or practice. It wasn’t invented by 20th-century Americans. It’s ancient. And in some places, including certain Pacific Island societies, it’s the norm.
Yet international adoption provokes debate and disagreement, raising issues of culture and privilege, and bringing attention to dire conditions endured in many parts of the world, particularly among children hurt by poverty, malnutrition, lack of medical care, and, of course, absent parents. What many people know about foreign adoption comes through TV, usually when a wealthy celebrity shows up in a developing nation, or when an adoption goes wrong, as in the case of the boy on the plane.
To Compton, adoption seemed like an unmitigated good, a way to create a loving family without regard for blood ties. She found out, though, that by seeking to adopt a foreign child who had no parents, some believed she was enacting a form of racist, classist Western imperialism, committing a violence against the developing world. She learned that in places around the globe, and in Kazakhstan in particular, scientific knowledge about child development played no role in guiding public policy.
In Kazakhstan, many people believed—seriously—that foreigners adopt children so that they can later harvest their organs. Many resent adoptive parents who “steal” Kazakh babies who by birthright belong in Kazakhstan.
That all children could grow up loved and cherished in the land of their birth is a lovely thought. But, as Compton shows in her book, the idea that legions of native prospective parents are waiting to care for these children is a myth. In Kazakhstan, there’s a cultural stigma against infertility and a bias toward blood ties. In China, which has sent more children out of the country for adoption than any other nation, an entrenched favoritism for sons and blood lineage is only slowly changing. Programs aimed at increasing domestic adoption in Romania, Ukraine, India, Guatemala, and Ethiopia have had only modest success, Compton found.
Compton discovered that the belief that any domestic adoption is better than any foreign adoption—that international adoption should be only a last resort—seems to be based on political goals, and on notions of cultural pride, rather than on empirical evidence of what’s best for children.
For years, China, Russia, and Guatemala were the Big Three adoption nations. But as programs in those countries slowed or stopped, Americans began looking elsewhere. Compton and her husband, an attorney, chose Kazakhstan for a simple reason—it was where their adoption agency ran a program, and, as delays in Chinese adoption continued to grow, it seemed a reasonable alternative. Neither had ever traveled there.
Kazakhstan is physically huge, the world’s largest landlocked country, run by an authoritarian government best known for corruption and restrictions on freedom of speech, religion, and assembly.
Compton and her husband arrived there in December 2009, expecting to stay three months to complete their adoption. Aldanysh was 9 months old and living in what in Kazakhstan is called a “baby house.” His was named Umit, which means “hope.”
The couple fulfilled the requirements of U.S. and Kazakhstan law—but were stymied when a Kazakh judge denied their adoption petition, along with those of other foreigners. The judge contended that the orphanage had not done enough to seek domestic placements for the children.
A legal battle went on for a year, Compton trying not to despair as courts ruled against the adoption. Finally, Compton and her husband gained custody of their son and brought him to the United States in December 2010.
“It was definitely difficult,” Compton said. “But you find out in that situation that you can do it.”
Noah was then 20 months old—and had not spoken a word. Most children start talking at 12 months. For Compton, daily visits to the orphanage provided a radical lesson in the deprivation inherent in even the best institutions. The idea that her child and other children should stay there indefinitely, awaiting some possible, better future prospect, seemed inane.
Yet in Kazakhstan and other places, she found, proven scientific knowledge about child development played little or no role in guiding policy on child welfare. Government mandates and practices generally were driven by news coverage, much of it lurid, and much of it making adoption and adoptive parents seem abnormal.
That a desperate American mother would push her adopted Russian son onto a plane was widely covered. That Russian adoptive or foster parents had returned 30,000 children to Russian orphanages in the previous two years alone drew little notice.
Harsh views aren’t limited to developing countries. A recent study of U.S. college textbooks—the training guides for the next generation—found that when adoption was mentioned at all, the description tended to be negative, Compton found.
But in fact, Compton said, research data overwhelmingly contradicts the notion that adoptive parents are likely to abuse their children. One federal-government study found that the percentage of internationally adoptive parents who ever considered dissolving their adoption was zero. A Dutch study found that adoptive parents were actually less likely to mistreat their children than other types of parents.
The only stereotype that holds true for adoptive parents, Compton said, is that they are tenacious in asserting and protecting the rights of their children. That’s true in her house, where she and her husband try to keep Noah connected to his Kazakh roots—not easy, given the small immigrant community in Philadelphia—and share with other parents and researchers the insight that Compton developed in writing her book.
“I’ve tried to be open-minded, but I do have a viewpoint,” she said. “I’m surprised how many people are surprised that my son is adopted.”