Almost exactly two years ago in April 2014, I posted We Need To Take Care of Our OWN! which discussed why parents might choose to adopt from China rather than through foster care. It was the closest thing to a viral blog post I’ve ever written. It is still holds the record as my most read and shared post. I edited and expanded that post to become the chapter Handling Comments About Your Family, which I am sharing below. For the book format I switched to sharing links in an Additional Resources section at the end of each chapter rather than embedding links within the text.
Handling Comments About Your Family
One of the more challenging aspects of international adoption is that your family will visibly not match. Sometimes, you might feel a bit like a public spectacle as people turn and look when you walk into a restaurant or down the aisle in the grocery store, especially if you do not live in an area with a lot of racial diversity. When you decided to adopt you probably only thought of adding a child to your family. You might now realize that you aren’t prepared for the sheer amount of comments people will direct at you. You are now an ambassador for adoption whether you intended to become one or not. More importantly, you should be keenly aware that the little ears next to you are listening to your responses. Your child will internalize what you say as well as take their cues from you when they begin to respond to questions directed toward themselves as they grow older.
The most common comment you will receive by far is praise for what a good thing you have done. You will hear “It is so good of you to do that” or “I could never love a child that wasn’t my own” or “She’s so lucky!” The Chinese you encounter will inevitably say “You must have a good heart to do this.” Most parents find it easiest to deflect this praise by commenting “We’re lucky to have her” or “We’re so happy that she’s in our family.” This does not bog you down in a long discussion about your motivations for adopting. At the same time, your child will not hear you agreeing that she was lucky (to lose her first family and homeland?) or that she should feel grateful to be in your family. Instead, you are grateful for the opportunity to be her parent.
Most people will make comments out of curiosity and because they don’t know much about adoption they will say things you might find offense. It can be difficult to be patient if you receive many comments, but it is important to remember that it never hurts to be polite. Frequently, it will turn out that the person who asked you a question or made a comment is asking because they are considering adoption. So while many parents love to come up with withering sarcastic comments for stupid or offensive questions, that’s not my personal style. Remember that you always have a choice as to how to respond to annoying comments. You can choose to be offended, to educate, or to laugh it off. However you respond, remember that your child is the most important audience. How you respond will be formative as to how they handle comments and questions they will have to handle for the rest of their life.
If you are at a loss as to how to respond to comments or questions, remember that you have no obligation to answer. You can say “That’s personal” or “I prefer not to share personal information like that.” Miss Manners’s all purpose “Why do you ask?” is suitable for any occasion. If someone makes a rude comment you can simply observe “What a rude thing to say!” or remain silent, allowing them to draw their own conclusions about the appropriateness of what they have said. The Center for Adoption Support and Education publishes the W.I.S.E. Up Power Book, which is intended to teach adopted children how to respond to comments but their system is equally helpful for parents. Remember that you have the power to choose how to respond to comments. You can choose to Walk away, say It’s private, Share information, or Educate others. There are appropriate times for each of those responses; it’s up to you to decide which is best for the situation.
If you have adopted a child with a visible special need you will receive additional comments. The W.I.S.E. up options are helpful there too, but really most of your job will be rephrasing what they said using more positive language. “What’s wrong with his ear?” “There’s nothing wrong with it—it’s just shaped differently. He was born that way. Is that what you were trying to ask?” While many adults will ask these questions, children are often more openly curious. You can try to help them to understand that people have limbs that are shaped differently or have ears that need a little extra help or need a cane to help them find their way because their eyes don’t see as well. You can add that your child still likes to play just the same as they do. Sometimes it’s best to meet staring on the playground head-on by saying “Hi, her name is Lucy! Were you wanting to ask her to play? She really likes the slide.”
Tackling the foster care question
If you adopt internationally, you will get asked why you didn’t adopt from foster care. One time I was reading a newspaper article profiling an adoptive family and I noticed a particularly ignorant comment at the bottom (never read the comments!). I have preserved it in all its glory for you here:
there are THOUSANDS of children in the US of A that are in need of adoption… Yet this family paid $35k to adopt a child from a foreign country? This is what celebrities have done to America.. make it fashionable to adopt less fortunate children from other countries while drepriving children in the US of role models & a stable family… We need to take care of our OWN first! I dont’ have a problem with a family going outside the US to adopt.. IF.. they don’t claim the foreign child as a dependent & get a tax break from the govt that I pay my taxes to… When you do claim the foreign child as a dependent & get a tax break for it.. THEN it becomes MY business.. because MY tax dollars are then being used to support a child from another country when there are thousands of children in the US that need families or fostered…
I’m not offended by this, because I know the person who wrote this just has no idea about the realities of adoption. I know I had no idea about adoption before we started! This is a knee-jerk reaction that has no basis in reality. Because I know this is something that families hear all the time, I thought I would take some time to break down the issues involved in a family’s choosing whether to adopt from foster care or internationally. Hopefully, you find some information in here that you can use when you respond to people who bring up similar points.
First, while I am no expert, I don’t think you can claim a “foreign” child as a dependent. We couldn’t claim our son until he was adopted and after he was adopted he became a US citizen. He is now legally our child, no longer a foreigner but as American as any other citizen, and as such we can claim him as a dependent.
Second, your tax dollars are not being used to support children who are dependents. Getting any tax deduction means that the amount of your income which you pay taxes on is reduced. It means couples with children pay less in taxes than those without. Why do we allow this sort of blatant discrimination? Because children are investments. They grow up to pay taxes and will support people like the ones who wrote the comment above when they retire. Hear that, buddy? My foreign child will grow up to pay for your retirement.
What about the adoption tax credit? Isn’t that paying people to adopt foreign children? Nope. The adoption tax credit is also used to reduce your tax liability. It is not taking money from taxpayers and giving it to people so they adopt. It is used to reduce the amount of tax owed by people who adopt. So this commenter should be aware that his tax dollars are not subsidizing foreign adoptions. It is not a grant, like the Pell Grant, nor does it refund money to people who have no tax liability, like the Earned Income Tax Credit. But the people who adopt internationally do pay taxes, and their tax dollars support children in foster care and other social services supported by taxes. Even if an adoptive couple paid no federal taxes the year of their adoption, they would still pay state and local taxes that year, and the federal taxes in all the years that they didn’t adopt.
So now our irate commenter might be thinking, “Okay, but that’s still 20,000 more US kids who could have found families.” The people who adopt internationally have made the decision that it was a better fit for their family than adopting from foster care. Perhaps some of them would have switched if they had more information on foster care, but many of them had already eliminated adopting from foster care and were actually deciding whether to adopt internationally or to not adopt at all. The person who wrote the comment was insulted that a couple used $35,000 and somehow deprived US kids. However, they could have spent that money on a car or vacation, and then no child would have a found a family. Don’t all children deserve a family, not just American ones?
Here are some common reasons which people give for eliminating adopting from foster care as a choice:
- They aren’t eligible to adopt from foster care. The eligibility requirements can vary, but for larger families especially, state regulations regarding square footage or number of children in a bedroom can mean that they are not able to adopt from foster care but can adopt internationally. Military couples might find it too difficult to go through the process to become eligible to become foster parents, get a placement, and complete an adoption before they are moved to another state.
- They might have tried already. Many families try unsuccessfully to adopt through foster care for a few years and then turn to international adoption.
- They have had their hearts broken and they feel international adoption provides a certain outcome. Particularly for couples who come to adoption from infertility, they have endured the loss of control over their fertility and often have had many pregnancy losses. Some states require you foster children to be eligible to adopt, and they don’t want to chance falling in love with a child and then having the child be reunited with their family of origin. Because the goal of foster care is family reunification.
- They don’t want their children’s hearts to be broken. Some couples feel that they couldn’t bear the heartbreak of parenting a child for months or years and then lose the child to family reunification. For families who already have children in the home, not only do they not want to spare themselves the pain of losing a child, they also want to shield their children from that loss and uncertainty.
- The age of children in foster care. Most people who adopt would prefer a young child. The median age of a child in foster care is 8.5. I could not find the median age of children who are legally free to be adopted but when I searched waiting children at http://www.adoptuskids.org/ there were only twenty-two children listed under the age of four and almost all had major medical needs. For comparison, there were over 2200 children listed between the ages of 14 and 18, many of them in sibling groups. Although there is a great need for families for older children, few couples will wake up one day and decide to adopt teenage siblings.
- The perception that children from foster care are emotionally damaged. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology about 30% of children in foster care have severe emotional or behavioral problems. However, that means two-thirds of them do not. Many adoptive parents feel that they avoid a child with emotional problems by adopting internationally, although the reality is that children adopted from other countries can also have endured abuse, neglect, and trauma. Parents are becoming more educated about this, but this perception will play a part in many people rejecting foster care as an option.
- Couples with children might have fears that children from foster care would pose a danger to the children they already have. They might also have concerns that their own children could be removed from their home if a foster child’s biological parents report them to CPS as a form of payback.
- The idea that things are worse there than here. Yes, some children in foster care need a family (but not the majority, as we will see in a moment). However, children in US foster care receive food, medical care, an education, and the majority are in family homes rather than institutional care or group homes. Some families will choose to adopt internationally because they know that in some countries, children will grow up never leaving their crib in the orphanage. Many live on very little food. Few are given an education. Children die from lack of medical care or malnutrition. Some families will chose international adoptive over foster care adoption because the situation seems more dire to them.
Looking at numbers
There is certainly the perception that people are racing to adopt foreign children while American kids languish in foster care. This is not the reality. We keep statistics on this sort of thing, it’s easy to find.
- In 2014, there were approximately 415,000 children in foster care. Only about 25% were targeted as eligible to be adopted. The goal of foster care is family reunification.
- In 2014, there were about 108,000 children waiting to be adopted, and 51,000 who were adopted.
Did you see that? 51,000 were adopted from the US. Know how many international adoptions there were in 2014? About 6400. The number of international adoptions decreased by 9% from 2013 to 2014. The number of adoptions from foster care are increasing, while the number of international adoptions is declining. Even when international adoption was at its peak, it topped out at around 20,000 foreign adoptions, well under the amount of children adopted from foster care.
The facts to note here are that there are more children adopted from foster care than there are adopted internationally in the US. Most children in the foster system are not eligible for adoption. International adoption is not in competition with adoption from foster care.
How to respond
It is so difficult to find a short way to convey all of this information when someone you know or often a perfect stranger says to you “There are kids here in America who need homes too, you know!” You may feel hurt or angry. That is perfectly justified in that situation. The person making the comment is being rude and you have no obligation to justify your decision. It is helpful to have a response prepared. Here are some responses commonly given by families who have chosen to adopt internationally.
- You’re right, all kids deserve a family regardless of where they were born!
- International adoption was the best fit for our family.
- Our child was in China.
- Have you considered becoming a foster parent or adopting from foster care, yourself? It sounds very important to you.
The W.I.S.E Up! Powerbook by Marilyn Schoettle is published by the Center for Adoption Support and Education (CASE)
IRS website on the adoption tax credit
The AFCARS report on children in foster care
US State Department statistics on intercountry adoption
Children’s Bureau foster care fact sheet
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry foster care fact sheet
New York Times article on the decline of international adoption