Our goal was simple: to create an adoptee-centered series that disrupts the adoption storytelling that has become the norm in mainstream media. These feel-good stories from the perspective of adoptive parents rarely include the voices of adoptees or question the preponderance of “cheap, easy, and fast” transracial and international adoptions by evangelicals that amount to little more than child trafficking.
But the conversation surrounding adoption is beginning to shift, thanks to adoptees. In recent weeks alone, author and adoptee Nicole Chung wrote about the problem with adoption salvation narratives as part of November’s National Adoption Month and participated in a crucial public conversation about navigating transracial adoption and racial identity. (Chung’s award-winning memoir, “All You Can Ever Know,” details the unearthing of the “comforting, prepackaged myth” she was told of her adoption.) Earlier this year, Ethiopian adoptee Kassaye Berhanu wrote about the details of her “fraudulent” adoption by the “Christian humanitarian” organization World Vision. (Berhanu is currently working on an anthology featuring writings from 32 Ethiopian adoptees. Previously, she co-produced a radio and podcast series called “Out of the Fog,” a phrase adoptees often use to describe facing the reality of their adoptions.)
There is also essential work being done by people who are speaking out against the child welfare agencies they used to serve. The North Carolina organization Operation Stop Child Protective Services (CPS) was founded by Amanda Wallace, who spent 10 years as a child abuse investigator before realizing that “she had become the silent enforcer for an oppressive system.” She now lends her insider knowledge to families navigating the system and trying to regain custody of their children.
About 27% of adoptions are transracial, according to a recent survey from the Department of Health and Human Services: birth mothers are disproportionately women of color, and adoptive parents are overwhelmingly white. This is just one of the deeply troubling statistics that litter the modern adoption system. Given the legacies of colonization and chattel slavery that are baked into modern adoption practices, it should come as little surprise that low-income Black and Native American children are the most likely to be separated from their families.
According to a 2021 study looking at child protection involvement and the termination of parental rights in California, half of Black children and Native American children experienced a CPS investigation at some point during the first 18 years of their lives, illustrating “pervasive racial bias in the child welfare system,” Mother Jones reported. Dorothy Roberts delved into this history in her book “Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World.” According to Dr. Rachael Murphey, “poverty is read on Black families as neglect.” Murphey, a Duke University dean who teaches a class about the intersections of race, adoption, and foster care, is a transracial adoptee who contributed to this series.
When adoptees control the narrative, their voices have the power to fundamentally change how we think and talk about adoption—and now is a particularly good time for the nation to grapple with the realities of the adoption system.
When Roe v. Wade was overturned in June, white evangelicals wasted no time communicating their desire to take the babies that result from forced pregnancies. Never mind that most people denied abortion care simply become parents and that there is little evidence linking abortion bans to increases in adoption. The Supreme Court didn’t stop there, and now another foundational case to racial and reproductive justice is on the chopping block.
In November, the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Haaland v. Brackeen, in which the plaintiffs—white foster parents and the state of Texas—allege the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) discriminated against them on the basis of their race because it wouldn’t let them adopt Indigenous children. Before ICWA, state child welfare and private adoption agencies were responsible for removing an estimated 35% of Indigenous children from their parents, extended families, and communities. Studies later found that 85% of these children were placed outside of their families and communities—even when relatives were available to take them in.
When ICWA passed in 1978, it ensured that tribes could intervene in members’ child welfare cases, and it required local governments to make additional efforts to protect the connections Indigenous children have to their culture and kin. Haaland v. Brackeen poses a direct threat to the sovereignty of tribal nations, and depending on the case’s outcome, generations of Indigenous children could be removed from their communities, continuing a long, violent history.
As Cherokee journalist Rebecca Nagle has repeatedly pointed out, the mainstream coverage of Haaland v. Brackeen fails to meet “the basic standards of journalism” by excluding key facts in the case. The current makeup of the Supreme Court does not give adoptees much faith that ICWA will be upheld.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett—who, in the case of Roe v. Wade, perpetuated the myth that adoption is an alternative to abortion—has extreme Christian conservative views and a dangerous vision of tradition and history. She is also an adoptive mother with five biological children and two adopted children from Haiti.
Murphey told Prism that a moment in Barrett’s confirmation hearing stuck with her because it got to the heart of the deeply troubling dynamics of transracial and international adoptions. During her Supreme Court confirmation hearing, Barrett introduced her seven children. Her background on her biological children included details about their intelligence, their desire to go to law school, and their knowledge of mathematics. Meanwhile, the adoptees were characterized by their physical strength and “happy-go-lucky” attitude.
“It doesn’t take any knowledge around adoption to see what she’d done,” Murphey said. “The white biological children are intelligent, and the Black adopted children are … something else. The thing is, [adoptive parents] don’t even realize they’re doing this. I don’t think it’s purposeful. I just think they don’t have any fucking clue. In [Haaland v. Brackeen], the white parents think that God called them to do what they are doing. We should all be worried Amy Coney Barrett is a justice hearing this case.”
Time and time again, the solution offered to state violence is adoption, yet we fail to center adoptees whose lived experiences and areas of expertise touch every injustice and systemic problem our movements battle against. This is especially true when it comes to reproductive justice. While efforts are being made to explicitly discuss adoption as a reproductive justice issue, adoptees’ voices are still not being uplifted in these conversations. Adoptees are building their own movements—including groups like Adoptees for Choice—but will movements for sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice invite them into the fold?
The women of color featured in this series are not waiting for an invitation—they are already in conversation about how to carry this work forward. In the meantime, we hope that each of their narratives pushes readers to turn a critical eye toward the adoption system. Once readers have had time to digest everything they’ve learned, consider the question that HyeonBrooks posed to attendees of her conference session about reproductive justice and adoption: If you try to imagine new ways to create families that do not perpetuate the inequities, harm, and trauma of modern adoption practices, what could that look like?
Prism is an independent and nonprofit newsroom led by journalists of color. Our in-depth and thought-provoking journalism reflects the lived experiences of people most impacted by injustice. We tell stories from the ground up to disrupt harmful narratives, and to inform movements for justice. Sign up for our newsletter to get our stories in your inbox, and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.