Is international adoption always best?

By Troy Hillier (2L)

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake that rocked Haiti on Jan. 12 killed more than 200,000 people and displaced millions more. Rescuers poured into the country in the chaotic aftermath of the disaster, but the imprisonment of 10 American missionaries caught leaving the country with 33 children — many of whom had surviving parents in Haiti — shocked the world.

News coverage of the adoption scandal and the tens of thousands of Haitian children orphaned or abandoned because of the earthquake opened an interesting dialog about international adoption: What is best for these orphaned or abandoned children, why, and who should decide?

Shani King, a University of Florida assistant professor of law ponders these questions in his recent article published in the Michigan Journal of International Law titled, “Challenging Mono Humanism: An argument for changing the way we think about intercountry adoption.”

King, who serves as the co-director for UF Law’s Center on Children and Families, doesn’t presume to give final answers to these questions, but instead attempts to broaden discourse on the issue.

“I wrote the article because I wanted to contribute to and expand a debate that often seems binary and underinclusive,” King said. “That debate has recently become particularly polarized. On one hand, there is the argument that international adoption violates the human rights of children, sometimes the rights of their birth parents, and wrongly protects the rights of adults who want to become parents. The other view, much more widely accepted, is that international adoption protects the rights of children and provides them the only chance they will have to grow up in a loving home with a family that cares for them. ”

King aims to broaden this debate by identifying narratives in legal scholarship that reflect a narrow conception of children that often fails to refl ect their family, community, and culture. His work provides possible counter-narratives designed to make society rethink the conversations we have about international adoption. For example, King identifi ed what he calls the “improved life chances” narrative, which suggests that the United States provides better opportunities for children from developing countries.

“There are children who clearly would have a bleak life and few opportunities in their countries,” he said, “but legal scholars tend to describe all sending countries as poor, impoverished and bereft of opportunity, when the reality is more nuanced than that.”

King said these dominant narratives reflect only one side of the story, and his scholarship seeks to contribute to the creation of a healthier and better-balanced discourse.

“I’m not saying that there’s no truth to these narratives,” King said. “But while there is some truth to them, we should have a more nuanced conversation about international adoption if we are to protect all children, including those who may have a legitimate option of being raised by their birth parents or other caregivers in the context of their culture.”

The importance of this discussion is not just a mere scholarly conversation for King. Hanging in the balance of this question is the future of thousands of children, and King said his main goal is to give them a voice and to assure their rights are protected.

“I think it’s only through a nuanced and more accurate discourse that we’ll meet our true responsibilities under international law to protect the international human rights of these kids,” King said.

“It’s important that when we think about and talk about international adoption, we think about the concept of societal responsibility,” he said, “and whether we’re meeting our collective responsibility to these children.”