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CCF founder Barbara Bennett Woodhouse analyzes intercountry adoption in Weyrauch lecture


Barbara Bennett Woodhouse discusses intercountry adoption at the Fifth Annual Weyrauch Distinguished Lecture in Family Law Wednesday, Oct. 27. (Photo by Joey Springer)

By Whitney Smith

Barbara Bennett Woodhouse, former David H. Levin Chair in Family Law and founding director of the University of Florida Levin College of Law Center on Children and Families, was welcomed back to UF Law for an annual lecture Wednesday, Oct. 27.

Woodhouse analyzed intercountry adoption laws — a controversial topic that has undergone multiple shifts in thinking since she adopted a child cross-border from Canada in 1972.

Woodhouse delivered her lecture, "Regulating the Global Market in Babies: No Private Placements, No Choice of Color, No Returns," to over 100 UF Law students, faculty and guests for the Fifth Annual Weyrauch Distinguished Lecture in Family Law.

Woodhouse, the LQC Lamar Professor in Law at Emory University School of Law, specializes in adoption, child welfare law, family law and children's rights.

In her lecture, she discussed the adjustments of adoption law over time, and how comparative law has played a role in looking at the dramatic differences of intercountry adoption laws. She used the example of Italy, a country typical of the European Union, to compare U.S. adoption law and the approach of other countries.

She focused on three main themes, as noted in the title of the lecture, including the issue of private placement. In the U.S., such arrangements between birthparents and adoptive parents are common, with the parties arranging for the placement of a particular child. In contrast, there are no private placements in Italy — meaning the state must play a significant role in the adoption process. There can be no private arrangements between birthparents and adoptive parents.

She also discussed the role of race in placement — more specifically, that parents who specified a preference of color were not considered suitable adoptive parents in a recent case decided by the Italian Supreme Court, in contrast to the common practice allowed in the U.S. where adoptive parents can specify whether they are willing or unwilling to adopt children who do not match the parents racially.

The "no returns" part of her lecture involved the difference between the treatment of faulty or problematic adoptions. In the U.S., if there is a problem with adoption, it is automatically treated as faulty, and the child is returned to the birthparents. A prime example of this involved two Indian girls advertised as 11 and 12 years old. When they arrived to the adoptive parents, the couple was horrified to learn that the girls had been stolen and were 15 and 21 years old. The girls were soon returned to their birthparents.

In contrast, a case in Italy involved an abandoned newborn who had been placed in foster care. The foster parents asked the agency multiple times to adopt the child, but instead, another prospective couple was granted the adoption. The court considered that since the children had been in the second placement for some years, returning them to the original foster parents would not be in their best interests. The foster couple was awarded 10,000 euros in damages and 5,000 euros in legal fees.

Among the factors that affect shifts in thinking are children's rights, increased respect for the role of nature as opposed to nurture, and increased respect for culture.

She acknowledged that some African-American scholars have challenged conventional ways of thinking about adoption, and cited Prof. Shani King's article "Challenging MonoHumanism: An Argument for Changing the Way We Think about Intercountry Adoption."

In his article, King outlines five narratives and critiques them with data and logic: The Humanitarian History Narrative, The Rescue Narrative, Improved Life Changes Narrative, the Invisible Birth Parents Narrative and the Natural "Market" for Intercountry Adoption Narrative.

"We currently have a distorted and artificially narrow conception of intercountry adoption, a conception that I have referred to in this article as MonoHumanism," writes King.

King's concept of MonoHumanism is one where the American culture is a superior one to that of other countries, and that the United States has substituted its own view for positive knowledge of other countries.

Woodhouse focused on several fundamental differences between the adoption laws of the United States and Italy, and said that statistics show a decline in intercountry adoption. Perhaps, she said, access to new reproductive technologies has opened up new avenues to becoming a parent.

"There are children who truly have no one to care for them," Woodhouse said. "Currently, there are over 120,000 orphans in the United States."

She also mentioned a concern for racism in the United States for a wanting specific type of child — typically white, female babies. Non-African-American babies are seven times more likely to be adopted than African-American babies, and the "global market" in babies seems to be following this trend, she said.

Once a country emerges as a new place for adoptable babies, it sometimes leads to abuse of the system for monetary gain. A non-African-American female child typically costs around $38,000.

"What role does international law play in moderating this [system abuse] and protecting the children?" Woodhouse asked.

She mentioned the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the first legally binding international instrument that incorporates the full range of human rights – cultural, economic, civil, political and social — with 54 articles and two Optional Protocols that spell out the basic human rights to which every child is entitled.

The Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption establishes co-operation between parties involved in international adoption.

Woodhouse made a pitch for comparative law — the best way to avoid MonoHumanism is to gain positive knowledge of other countries, she said.

Some of the most notable differences between United States and Italian adoption laws include the absence of provision for voluntary surrender and no process for involuntary termination of parental rights — a child in Italy may only be placed for adoption if it has been abandoned. The U.S. considers a child adoptable in situations of voluntary surrender and as a result of involuntary termination of parental rights — for example, severe or chronic abuse or neglect, abandonment, long-term mental illness or deficiency of the parent(s), or long-term alcohol- or drug-induced incapacity of the parent(s).

In Italy, every effort is made to place the child within the country of origin, and if that can't be done, then a matching system is implemented to find a fitting home for the adoptable child.

"There is much to learn from comparative law," Woodhouse said. "These Italian laws may actually present a viable alternative. They push us to explore how two countries can reach two different conclusions on what is right and just."

The Weyrauch Distinguished Lecture in Family Law is hosted by the UF Law Center on Children and Families. The lecture was established in 2008 in honor of Prof. Walter O. Weyrauch, internationally known for his work in foreign and family law. He retired in December 2007 after 51 continuous years of distinguished teaching and scholarship at UF. Weyrauch passed away Oct. 17, 2008.