Why Did You Opt For An International Adoption? Americans adopt thousands of children from other countries every year. The process can be tricky, and would-be adoptive parents often face the question "Why not adopt an American kid?" If you've adopted internationally, or are considering it, tell us about it.
NPR logo

Why Did You Opt For An International Adoption?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/102842642/102842631" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Why Did You Opt For An International Adoption?

Why Did You Opt For An International Adoption?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/102842642/102842631" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Last week, a court in Malawi denied Madonna's effort to adopt a three-year-old girl from that country. Because a pop star was involved, the case got considerably more attention and debate, but many thousands of Americans adopt children from other countries every year. Their reasons vary but they all face the same set of difficult questions: Why adopt internationally when so many kids in this country need parents? What country do you choose and why? And how do you make sure the child wasn't sold or stolen? If you've adopted internationally or if you're considering it, we'd like to hear about your decisions. Give us a call 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org, you can also join the conversation on our Web site that's at npr.org, just click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Henry Louis Gates Jr. on the great historian who inspired and challenged him, the late John Hope Franklin. But first, international adoption: we begin with Isolde Motley the co-author of the forthcoming book "You Can Adopt," herself the mother of two adopted children. And she joins us from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much for coming in.

Ms. ISOLDE MOTLEY (Co-author, "You Can Adopt"): Hi, Neal. Thank you so much.

CONAN: And you've done this both ways - you've adopted domestically and internationally - what are the differences?

Ms. MOTLEY: I don't know that there are differences so much. There are differences in the process but the end result is the same: you have a child in your family. In our situation - I'm Irish-American, my husband is African-American - and we had a biological child. And when we were thinking about having a second child, we learned that American agencies had great difficulty placing mixed-race boys. So we called a non-profit agency in New York and three months later brought home a healthy baby boy. And then we thought about having more children but sort of thought we were too old.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

And in 2004, we learned that Ethiopia had established a really transparent, clean adoption process because they were facing a tremendous AIDS epidemic and had over a million children who needed families. And so we went to Addis Ababa and brought home our second son who was then seven - he's now eleven. And so, yes, we have done it both ways and in both cases we adopted from groups of children who needed homes. But it was never about philanthropy. It was about having more children.

CONAN: Yet there are clearly easier ways to get more children than going to Ethiopia.

Ms. MOTLEY: I don't think that's true. What you look for if you're doing this is a country that has a well established process where the rules are clear. And you look for an agency that's been doing it for a long time and that also has humanitarian programs - whether that's in the U.S. or internationally. And in our case, the Ethiopian process was really easy. It took six months.

CONAN: So the American process is more complicated? Was it more expensive?

Ms. MOTLEY: No, they both cost about $9,000 before travel. The difference is that in the case of our older son - I mean, that was 14 years ago and that was when American social workers were still race matching.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MOTLEY: So they were very keen to find mixed families who could take mixed children. So they actually - believe it or not, I have a price list from our agency that gives half-off for non-white children. That's been phased out, obviously.

CONAN: Yeah. In a way, you were race matching too.

Ms. MOTLEY: Exactly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOTLEY: We were, and it works.

CONAN: And it works?

Ms. MOTLEY: Yeah.

CONAN: And how are the kids doing?

Ms. MOTLEY: They're great, all three of them. They're very different. They look very different from each other. Our biological child looks, sort of, Eurasian. She's about to graduate from college. Our American-born son turned out to have straight fair hair and blue eyes and what looks like a permanent tan. And the youngest is the only one who looks like my husband. So they draw great comfort from each other. They all recognize their differences but they can compare notes on all being somewhat other.

CONAN: And you said this was never about philanthropy but about family. Nevertheless, obviously you went to places where there were people, children in need.

Ms. MOTLEY: Yes. But it's really important to distinguish between philanthropy and adoption. They are separate. They can be connected. They can inspire each other, but a child should never be adopted because you feel sorry for them. If you want to help a child, give money. If you want to have a family, that's the reason to adopt.

CONAN: And those are two very different things?

Ms. MOTLEY: Yes.

CONAN: As you look at the publicity that surrounded Madonna's attempt to adopt a child in Malawi - it's easy from this remove to be critical - was she acting philanthropically do you think, or…

Ms. MOTLEY: I wouldn't comment on her because we adopted shortly before Angelina Jolie adopted her daughter from Ethiopia. And the numbers were very small then and everybody in that community knew what was going on with everybody else. And I was appalled at the reporting on Angelina's adoption. It was wholly inaccurate. People said that she had swooped in and jumped the queue and picked out the child and taken it home and that the child wasn't really an orphan. And none of that was true.

She went through exactly the same process as I did. It took exactly the same amount of time. So I wouldn't comment on Madonna's adoption because I'm not a social worker, you know, I don't know exactly what happened. I would say that -as we say on our book, "You Can Adopt," that if you are going to adopt internationally, you look for a country that has had an adoption program going for a while, that is managed by a central government agency and you follow all of the rules because if you skip any of those steps, you are inviting corruption and you are inviting abuse.

CONAN: And that's an increasing problem?

Ms. MOTLEY: Yes. It's an increasing problem in any country that has adoption. What tends to happen is that you start off with desperate need. Some people, either Europeans or Americans, go in and adopt children and then it becomes known. And the fees look absolutely enormous by the standards of the country that you are adopting from. I mean, our adoption from Ethiopia was relatively cheap by international standards. It was about $9,000. But the average annual income in Ethiopia is $200. So, you know, this - obviously, a tremendous incentive to corruption. At the time we adopted, it certainly wasn't an issue. People were not queuing up to adopt Ethiopian children. And people are still not queuing up to adopt older Ethiopian children. But there may be corruption creeping in at the infant level.

CONAN: Isolde Motley, thank you very much. We wish you and your family the best of luck.

Ms. MOTLEY: Thank you.

CONAN: And good luck with the book too.

Ms. MOTLEY: Thank you.

CONAN: Isolde Motley joined us from our bureau in New York. She is co-author of the book "You Can Adopt," which is due out in July. And joining us now from member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon, is Susan Soon-Keum Cox. She's vice president of public policy and external affairs at Holt International, the worlds largest inter-country adoption agency. And it's very good of you to be with us today.

Ms. SUSAN SOON-KEUM COX (Vice President, Public Policy and External Affairs, Holt International): Thank you, my pleasure.

CONAN: And in Isolde's case, as she was talking to us about choosing to adopt children in need, well, most people who adopt do it to fill their family. Is this a question of people - when they can't conceive, for the most part?

Ms. COX: Very often, families come to adoption because they were not able to have children biologically, but that's not always the case. There are some people who choose adoption first. Or they will have biological children and then decide that they also would like to adopt. So infertility is not always the reason for adoption.

CONAN: People's reasons are as varied as there are people.

Ms. COX: There are, and one of the things that happens is a family will adopt, and then their friends, their community, their other family members, watch that family come together and think, you know, we would like to do this.

Very often, you see families that adopt in clusters of communities or workplaces or neighborhood.

CONAN: And again, the conversation almost always begins with: Why do you need to go to places like Ethiopia or China or wherever when there are so many kids in this country who need parents?

Ms. COX: Well, you know, one of the questions those of us who are adopted also face is who are your real mom and dad.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. COX: And people look at you - and with obvious differences of race and nationality, the fact that you are adopted is so apparent. And it is true. There are many children in this country who need and deserve to have families. But I think it's important that we begin to look at the world's children as not them and us but, in fact, that the children are ours and that the borders really disappear, and we look at the needs of the children.

Adoption should be always finding families for children, not children for families. And sometimes, that family is in another country, but it certainly doesn't diminish the need or the appropriateness of adoption.

CONAN: And as you mentioned, you were yourself adopted from Korea. And a lot of people wonder: you were moved from a cultural milieu, you know, a new language, incredibly different places - from your experience, how did it work out?

Ms. COX: Well, I have to say that the goal of adoption is not taking a child from one country to another - and in particular, to say that a child is better off leaving a poor country, going to a wealthy country. It is leaving a situation where they're in an orphanage or an institution or without family, to go to a family. And that was certainly my experience.

One of the things that I would add from your previous guest, when she says that there is no difference in adoption and giving birth, I really support the idea that in terms of the connection, the feeling that you have for your children, whether it's through birth or adoption, that that is the same. But there are huge differences when it comes to international adoption in terms of a child who leaves their culture, their identity - that's one of the nuances of international adoption, that families who are adopting from another country must be prepared to not only embrace the child but everything about where they've come from.

It is not the fact that you are a Caucasian family that just happens to have adopted a child from another race and culture. You become an interracial family.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. We'll continue that conversation, because that's pretty interesting, when we come back after a short break. So stay with us. Our guest is Susan Soon-Keum Cox of the Holt International, the world's largest inter-country adoption agency.

We're talking about international adoption today. If you've done it, if you're considering it, call and tell us about your decisions. 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today about international adoption and the decisions that go into that process. Our guest is Susan Soon-Keum Cox, vice president of public policy and external affairs at Holt International, the world's largest inter-country adoption agency.

We want to hear your story. If you've adopted internationally, if you're considering it, please call us and tell us about your decision-making process and the challenges you faced along the way, 800-989-8255. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. There's also a conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Elizabeth is calling from Newton in North Carolina.

ELIZABETH (Caller): Hi, how are you?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

ELIZABETH: Thank you for taking my call. I wanted to comment. My husband and I have two biological children, and we adopted a daughter from Ethiopia. She came home to us about 15 months ago. And when we began the adoption process, we looked into domestic adoption first.

We thought that we would address needs in our county and went to our county family-builders association and were encouraged rather than to adopt, to foster, and were essentially told that there were no children available for us unless we were willing to foster first.

I love - I think fostering is a noble pursuit, but as your speakers have talked about, we were looking to build a family, and we were not willing to build a family at the risk of losing a child.

And they actually encouraged us to adopt internationally at that point. And that's what we did and have never looked back and regretted it. It's been an amazing gift to our family.

CONAN: And did you ask them why?

ELIZABETH: Well, you know, it's a problem with the way that our foster and our adoption system is set up in this country. The goal is always reunification with the family, with the birth family, and that's just not something that we were willing to open our hearts to.

It may be something in the future, but at this point, we were looking to add a child to our family as a permanent member of our family.

CONAN: And how's it working out?

ELIZABETH: It's working out great. You know, it really is about building a family. And I would add that though that was our goal, because our awareness has been raised about situations in Ethiopia that we have become philanthropists, as well.

We have given money in instances that we would not have been aware of had we not had our level of consciousness raised about issues in Africa and Ethiopia.

So through our daughter, we have become philanthropists, even though that wasn't our goal. I would also add that our daughter came to us with profound ear problems due to chronic ear infections. And because of the medical care she has received since she's been adopted, she now has perfect hearing. And I can't imagine what her life would have been like had she stayed in Ethiopia because she would have gone deaf.

CONAN: I just also - excuse me, I didn't mean to interrupt - but wondered if I could follow up on what Susan Soon-Keum King - Soon-Keum Cox, excuse me - was talking about just before the break. Do you now consider yourself an African-American family?

ELIZABETH: We consider ourselves a family. We do a lot to involve the Ethiopian culture with our daughter. A number of her friends, interestingly enough, who were in the orphanage with her have ended up in the Southeast, and we make time to see them. We have family vacations with them. We eat Ethiopian food. We celebrate Ethiopian holidays.

So it's enriched our lives as much, if not more, than it has enriched her life.

CONAN: Elizabeth, thank you very much, and we wish your daughter and the rest of your family the best of luck.

ELIZABETH: Sure. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And Susan Soon-Keum Cox, that story about being discouraged by the local family agencies, does that sound familiar?

Ms. COX: It does sound familiar. And one of the things that happens very often is that people come to inter-country adoption after they have tried other ways to be able to adopt.

I do have to say that I think it's getting easier. But if you are a family that has to - is looking to build a family as your caller described, that's a very difficult thing.

It's certainly important to try to keep families together, whether it's in the U.S. or in any other country. But many of the children who are adopted internationally, that possibility has already gone away.

They're either in an orphanage or an institution, and so the idea of reunification has - is not going to be possible. So adoption actually happens more quickly.

So that's one of the reasons, but there's certainly - the process of adopting domestically is improving, but it's still, it does take a long time.

CONAN: Let's get Tim on the line. Tim's with us from Columbus, Ohio.

TIM (Caller): Yeah, hi Neal and Susan. Let me just say thanks for just daring to tackle this kind of thorny issue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TIM: My wife and I adopted our daughter from Liberia in 2007, and basically, it just came about. We had some friends that had adopted from the same orphanage. We went directly through an orphanage in Liberia, which may or may not have been the wisest decision, but they had a great experience. And we thought, you know, we had said to ourselves we want to have children.

You know, we kind of hit that point where couples get in their 30s, and you're like well, we want to have kids eventually. When do we have kids? And this seemed, oddly enough, to be a practical solution because there were kids in need of homes, and we felt sort of a connection to Liberia and Liberia's strange past with the United States and kind of felt something, I don't know, in our hearts that we wanted to reach out there.

CONAN: Why do you say the decision to go with the orphanage may or may not have been a wise decision?

TIM: Well, that's - if you read any news about Liberian adoption these days, they've actually shut down adoptions from Liberia. And it goes back to this whole debate about: are kids being trafficked, are they not. And there's just a lot of conflicting news out there.

And when you go it alone, and you take the word of a particular orphanage that they are doing everything on the level - you know, you're dealing with a third world country and limited information. And I believe our orphanage was on the level, but they are now being accused of a lot of different things. They have actually been shut down temporarily.

CONAN: Susan, was Tim right to worry about this?

Ms. COX: He is right to worry. One of the things that Mrs. Motley was talking about was the importance of who you work with. You need to be able to know with certainty when you're looking at your child that they came to you because there was no other family available for them.

And so you have to ask questions about how does the child come into care? What happened with the birth family? What's the history? There should be a great deal of transparency. If you are working with an agency that's hesitating to answer any of those question, that should be a red flag to you.

And one of the things that happens with an agency is that they're required to know the laws, the rules, the regulations, and it's a very complicated process that goes between two countries and cultures and governments and languages.

And when you are the adoptive family, you are also very emotionally involved in this. And so a professional, competent agency is there to guide you through and actually to protect both the adoptive family, the birth family and the child because the stories of trafficking and inappropriate, unethical adoption, that puts to risk for all children the possibility of inter-country adoption for them as an option to have a family.

CONAN: And should you worry if the agency, or wherever it is you're dealing with, tries to get you emotionally involved with a child, saying well, well, these are details. We'll get to those later. Here, meet this charming, amazing kid. Should you worry that you're being played?

Ms. COX: You should worry. If it sounds too good to be true, it's probably too good to be true. And especially in countries that are just developing an adoption program that they're learning the process, the barriers are still to be learned. That is especially when you need to have an agency that's competent.

Recently, in fact last April 1, The Hague Convention on Inter-Country Adoption was ratified in the U.S.,. And that is a process that is going to help to protect the process in all countries to be more ethical and protect everyone involved in the process.

CONAN: Tim, thanks very much.

TIM: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Mary in St. Louis. We adopted our daughter from Belarus in 1995. She's now 14 and doing great. We understand Belarus has closed its doors to international adoption for political reasons.

This saddens us, as we know there are children there in need of homes. Would your guest expand on this situation with international adoption?

Ms. COX: You know, one of the saddest things is that children are used as part of a political process. And there are a number of countries - for example, Romania is a country that had great need, and adoption was stopped there. And I doubt that it's going to reopen.

It's one of the reasons why adoption needs to be done very carefully and ethically. You can't do things in a hurry. You can't do things that the country's not ready for. The systems need to be in place to protect children and families.

One of the reasons that it is so expensive to adopt is because of all of the things that have to be processed both in the birth country - the sending country - and the receiving country. You know, adoption is generational. It's not only the generation that your child comes into your family - your family tree is altered forever.

And in particular, when you're adopting children of another race and nationality, while those children grow up, they are going to be judged by their packaging. And when they're with their adopted parents, it is a very different kind of experience than when they're out there on their own.

So that's another responsibility that parents have: to be informed, to be educated - and that the agencies have to make sure that all of those considerations are well taken care of as the adoption takes place.

CONAN: Let's talk with Judy, calling us from Boston.

JUDY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Judy.

JUDY: My parents adopted my youngest brother from Korea in the '70s, actually through Holt. You know, I love my brother. I think we had a very happy family. But, you know - none of us can imagine life without my brother, and thank God for Holt for bringing us all together.

Having said that, I think my parents made the mistake of assuming since they were indifferent to the race issue, everyone else was. And I don't think that they understood the stress that my brother faced of being the only Asian kid in a predominantly white town, family, everything.

They were completely oblivious to the fact that my brother was constantly being asked questions or being stared at. And I think, you know, as his siblings, we were as well. We didn't realize until we were older what his experience must have been like.

Ms. COX: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: And Susan Soon-Keum Cox, this is, in part, your story too.

Ms. COX: Yes, yes. I mean, Judy, I so appreciate your coming forward with those remarks, and that's what I think parents really need to hear.

And it isn't that it interferes with - or has anything to do with how much they love their child. It's the reality for children who grow up to be able to go out into the world, confident, ready to face whatever is going to come their way, and differences of race matter.

And of course, it doesn't matter in terms of how much the family loves each other. But it does matter in terms of how the child is prepared to face, you know, the rest of their lives. And that's why inter-country adoption has to be a part of a comprehensive preparation and education for families as they go forward.

CONAN: Judy, what's your brother doing now?

JUDY: He works for a biotech company in Reno, Nevada. He's a great guy, but, you know, he's - I think - he's been through a lot because of being adopted. And we'll never understand all of it.

CONAN: We - thanks very much.

JUDY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking about international adoption today. Our guest is Susan Soon-Keum Cox, who's the vice president of public policy and external affairs at Holt International.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Hope is with us, another caller from Boston.

HOPE (Caller): Hello, Neal. Thanks. This is a great program.

CONAN: Thanks.

HOPE: We adopted our son from Guatemala seven years ago, and we were looking for - we have two biological twin daughters and we wanted a boy. And we went to an agency that has domestic and international adoptions. And the domestic program, it was hard to get - we wanted as young as possible - and it was hard to get an infant.

And the issue of the biological parents wanting to have contact was something we weren't sure we were comfortable with, of the open adoption being a possibility.

So since we've adopted our son, he ended up being a year old by the time we got him, and we have initiated contact with his biological siblings who have been adopted into the United States.

CONAN: And his parents are dead?

HOPE: His parents - well, we - there's a mother listed on his birth certificate in Guatemala, but we've never had any contact with her. And it would be very difficult for her to find him. But she did make available three other children for adoption from the same agency.

And so, just by contacting our agency, asking if there was other birth siblings in the United States, we got a list of several.


HOPE: And it's been a great experience for him to know that he has other Guatemalan siblings in the United States.

CONAN: And in a sense, they're your family too, now.

HOPE: They are family too. And they call each brother and sister.


HOPE: As he calls his sisters in our family, sisters.

CONAN: So your family got quite a bit bigger.

HOPE: It did. But it's been very nice for him. It's made him feel more connected to, I guess, more people.

CONAN: Hmm. That sense of connection with biological relatives, Susan, is that something that a lot of people worry about?

Ms. COX: You know, I had the wonderful opportunity to actually be reunited with my birth family. I searched for and found half-siblings. My mother had already died.

But one of the things that sometimes happens for families, as your previous caller has talked about, is that they look at inter-country adoption as a way to avoid the idea of birth family reappearing or be involved in children's life. And I have to say that that is changing dramatically.

First of all, I don't think you should be fearful of the birth family because after all, every child comes to their adoptive family having had a birth family. And that connection to them may or may not be important to the child as they grow up, depending on their own temperament and how they feel.

But the fact is there are increasing numbers of adoptees going back to, in particular, Korea, to Vietnam, and being united with their birth family. There's also birth families who are coming forward and trying to search for their biological children who were adopted.

So, that same feeling of connection and longing that people have known about for a long time with domestic adoption - is only natural to assume that it's going to be a part of inter-country adoption in the future, and increasingly so.

CONAN: Hope, thanks for your - thanks very much.

And Susan, we just have a few seconds left with you. But you look at the statistics, Americans are adopting fewer kids from overseas in the last couple of years, and the trend is downwards. How come?

Ms. COX: Well, sadly because a number of countries are no longer doing adoption at this time - Guatemala, for example. The numbers from China have - are lower. Vietnam is closed to adoption right now. Cambodia is closed.

It's one of those realities that there are fewer children available for adoption from other countries for a variety of reasons. It doesn't mean that the need is less. In fact, the need for families and for children doesn't ever seem to diminish.

CONAN: Susan Soon-Keum Cox, thank you very much for…

Ms. COX: My pleasure.

CONAN: You'd think I get Soon-Keum all right and I mess up on Cox. Thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Ms. COX: Thank you.

CONAN: She joined us today from member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon, where she works for Holt International.

Coming up, from one scholar to another, Henry Louis Gates remembers John Hope Franklin. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.