Children Adopted Internationally Do Have Birth Parents

Full disclosure: In the beginning, we were looking at international adoption because I believed a bunch of the common domestic infant adoption myths, including the whole “the birth parents can come back at any time” issue. However, once I learned the facts, I really wasn’t afraid of birth parents. Now that research is showing that open adoptions are better for adoptees, I’m especially glad to have contact with my children’s birth parents.

That said, I was talking about adoption on Facebook. One thread was in an adoption group, in which a person asked “Why did you choose to go international vs. domestic adoption or vice versa?” One thread was in a group completely unrelated to adoption, but in which an adoptive mom has been matched with an expectant mom, and people were wishing her well and asking a few respectful questions.

In the first group, someone posted  that she wanted to know that the child she is adopting has no other parents. In the second group, someone posted that she chose international adoption so she could have closed adoptions.

I am not vilifying these people. I’m sure that their thoughts on adoption and  birth parents are more complex than can adequately be conveyed in comments on a Facebook thread. However, it is those simple, sound bite thoughts that frustrate me when it comes to talking to new prospective adoptive parents.

You see, children who are adopted internationally do have birth parents. These kids didn’t just spring to life fully formed next to a river or on the steps of an orphanage. In international adoptions, people are finding that children who end up in orphanages do have at least one living parent, a lot more often than we think. It’s very complicated, and one of the reasons why international adoptions are plagued by ethics concerns.

But even if they don’t, even if they were truly abandoned or their birth parents are verifiably dead, children adopted internationally still have birth parents.

The difference is, they may never know who their birth parents are. Instead, they have an idea in their head – probably many ideas throughout their lives – of who their birth parents are/were. Adoptive Families has covered this a few times, and it makes sense to me. If kids don’t know who their birth parents are, that doesn’t mean that they don’t have birth parents. It just means that they have phantoms, or fantasies, that they live with in place of the blood and tissue birth parents that children in open adoptions have. Adoptive parents still have to honor the birth parents of children adopted internationally. Birth parents still need to be a part of the conversation.

Again, I’m not saying that the parents who made these comments are doing anything wrong. I think it’s hard to express one’s self in the comments on Facebook. That’s actually why I came over here to write a larger piece than a comment would allow.

Why would I bother? Because I think it’s easy for people who are new to adoption to assume that, if they adopt internationally, they won’t have to deal with birth parents. However, they do have to deal with birth parents, just in a different way. I think that I once thought of birth parents as something other, separate. Now, I see them as family, warts and all. I think that people who adopt internationally must also come to think of their children’s birth parents as family somehow, even if they never meet and don’t know who they are. I imagine that has to be very difficult for them.

My point? If you’re reading this blog post and thinking “Should I adopt internationally or domestically?” I urge you not to choose international adoption primarily because you won’t have to worry/deal with/have contact with birth parents. There are other reasons to choose international adoption, but my opinion is that the absence of birth parents shouldn’t be one of those reasons.

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23 thoughts on “Children Adopted Internationally Do Have Birth Parents

  1. Excellent post. I think some prospective adopters are scared of the concept of openness. I saw it in my work as a foster/adoption social work, and it makes sense that more folks with that fear would head towards international adoption, hoping that “out of sight” means “out of mind.” But it doesn’t. Not for anyone.

    • I know that a lot of PAPs are scared of openness, at least at first. In foster care, there’s a different reason for the fear, I think. In foster care, the child has been removed from his/her parents’ care for a reason, so the fear is for the child’s safety, even if simply contacting the biological parent wouldn’t be a safety concern.
      The fear of birth parents as being another parent, someone with whom to compete, I think that’s the fear that inspires the move to international adoption.

      • I am an adoptive parent of a foster child and we are open with his half-brother’s biological dad’s family, but not his bio mom. Not for any competition reason, but because it would confuse him (he’s 3 and I’m the only mom he knows having been in foster care since 5 mos), and because his bio mom’s overwhelming neediness and emotional instability make her a high risk for kidnapping him if we were to do visits of any kind, I do not let him spend the night at his bio half brother’s house as there is photo evidence of them allowing his half brother to be at the mom’s house alone with her and such. I used to be an ALL “open adoption” person, but I do believe it should be on a case-by-case basis. excellent article! I believe this is also a reason for foster/adoptive parents wanting infants rather than older children who may remember their mom and make their own comparisons both openly and privately.

        • When there are legitimate safety concerns and/or when the child is old enough to say “I’d rather not visit/talk to this person”, then openness with that individual is not in the best interest of the child at that time. However, there are often other individuals in the child’s biological family with whom openness would be a good idea. Obviously, one size does not fit all. But whether or not you have contact with birth family doesn’t mean that the birth family never existed.

      • Hey Robyn and Anonymous – my experience of foster/adoptive parents is that they have a range of reasons for being reluctant to have openness. For some, there is a safety concern – whether it’s grounded in reality or not! For others, there’s a concern about influence – maybe the first family will be a bad influence on the kids. In those situations, it is up to the adoptive parent to make a good case-by-case determination. Like Anonymous said, one parent might be so emotionally needy that the contact would be harmful to the child. Or like Robyn said, the child might be old enough to express their desire to not have contact for a season. But I also see foster parents presenting with reasons similar to those that we do see in domestic infant adoption & international adoption — basically, the desire to help the child not be confused by two parents, or the wish that the child will never remember that they have a real, live, other family, and those latter rationales scare me a bit because, as often as not, they reflect the perceived needs of the adoptive parent to be viewed as “The” dad or “The” mom, rather than the kids’ need for mitigated losses. Robyn, your post is good advice for -any- prospective adoptive parent!

  2. This is a GREAT post. Back in the day when we adopted our children, this kind of thinking can probably be more expected since there wasn’t access to information, especially that written by adult adoptees. But today it’s so sad that adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents can still think that way. Thank you so much for bringing this up.

    • I felt guilty for posting the comments here, but in a forum where people are asking “why should I choose international over domestic?” I think we have to recognize that birth parents are important.

  3. I’m a foster/adoptive parent and have adopted 3 beautiful girls through it. While there is the fear of a certain level of unwanted contact (from birth parents/relatives who are unfit and unsafe due to drugs/alcohol etc.) we can say we have a much larger extended family through domestic adoption. Through no fault of their own, there are many aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and even some of the birth parents who would miss out on sharing the love of our girls if it had been a completely closed adoption. As it is, most are content with the barest ‘touch’ of contact. On the other side, our girls know they can ask questions and, for the most part, get answers for their past. Only one birth parent out and out wanted nothing to do with one of our girls and it breaks my heart that she’ll know that one day. I believe that, whenever possible, open adoptions to some level are always best for the fulfillment of the children being adopted. If nothing else, they get a sense of past connection and the medical stuff is invaluable. Thank you so much for your positive and encouraging post! Things are changing for the better!

  4. Interesting , as an adoptive mother from a domestic adoption , both my girls have had contact with their families , I cannot tell you how difficult this was for me . As time has gone I have accepted this and my children have been able to fill in the gaps and it has helped them to make more sense of who they are . Not knowing can sometimes cause more pain mentally .

  5. DNA typing is another consideration for people who wish to pretend their internationally adopted child’s parents don’t exist. I’m a domestic adoptee who had her DNA typed a couple of years ago. At that time, the databases consisted of mostly adoptees. But in two short years–and especially since Ancestry.com launched its own DNA typing service–DNA family finding has exploded, and as awareness and databases grow, identifying family connections via triangulation becomes easier and easier. Soon, there will be no way for anyone to bury an adoptee’s first family.

    Which is exciting news, of course. Every human being is entitled to know his own family truth and heritage. Adoptees aren’t Cabbage Patch dolls. We have families and identities prior to adoption, and both should be celebrated.

    • That’s a very good point. DNA typing is relatively new, and there’s a little bit of controversy/hesitancy about it in the adoption community, but I think it’s great. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  6. I love this. I actually wrote a blog post about international adoption recently…inspired by someone saying on a board that he and his wife were adopting internationally precisely to “avoid contact with the birth family.” Just…ugh. Sometimes I feel it’s hopeless. You (not you specifically) will always have contact with the birth family of ANY child you adopt in the form of that child, whether you have actual physical contact of some sort or not. My daughter is her own person, but she definitely is a part of her birth father and me.

    Thank you for speaking out about this.

    • Thanks Monika! It always frustrates me when people want to sweep birthparents under the rug. I’ve recently “met” some foster/adoptive parents online whose children truly suffered at the hands of their birthparents. However, they’ve still found ways to be in touch with safer bio family members. If they can see the benefits to open adoption, I don’t see why others can’t.

  7. This is a great post. Things may be “easier” with an international adoption with respect to birth family relationships in the early years, but I can only imagine that it gets much trickier as the children grow up and need strong answers for some pretty big gaps. “Birthparent fear” seems irrational in some ways, but it’s very real, isn’t it?

    • Thank you for reading and commenting. I have a hard time with fear of birth parents, because I do not recall having that fear, at least, after I learned that the “birth parents can take the baby back” myth was just that – a myth.

  8. Pingback: Favorites of 2013 | The Chittister Family

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