We’re at the checkout at our local IGA, working fast because the kids have spotted the chocolates placed strategically at kid-friendly height. The woman next in line asks pleasantly, and within ear-shot of one and all, whether their ‘real’ parents are dead. I smile and say politely ‘yes’.
A friend of ours who has also adopted a little girl from Ethiopia said that she was approached by a woman one day at her neighbourhood park. The friendly woman asked why her child called her ‘mum; did she teach her to do that?’
Talk to anyone that’s adopted a child from overseas and you’ll hear similar stories. We’ve possibly all suffered the looks of disgust. We laugh and move on.
The recent spate of media attention focusing on a foreign inter-country adoption program involving Ethiopia children (yes, America is a foreign country) has led to speculation about the Ethiopian-Australian program.
Lost on the media reports is the clear understanding of all people that have adopted from Ethiopia that the Australian program has many requirements that exist because of the unscrupulous workings of the American program. So it is ironic that some elements of the media have drawn parallels between these two disparate contexts. For one, the American system is privatised and involves many non-government organisations; the Australian program is strictly controlled by governments, both state and federal in almost all jurisdictions.
Inter-country adoption is not a perfect process. But how can it be? We are involving bureaucracies with the establishment of families across diverse circumstances. Governments can only cope with generalisations while the circumstances and situations underpinning every single adoption are entirely different.
To give some background to our situation: we adopted our two children in 2004 when Eskindir was two and Eskedar was four years of age; they had been living with their grandmother since their father died in an uprising in about 2002; their mother is believed to have died soon after leaving the children with their grandmother. There is only one other sibling, Meron. She has been living with us in Canberra since mid-June 2009. She is in Australia on a student visa and is 17 years of age. They have been loved from birth and continue to be loved.
The act of adoption itself raises many ethical issues. In a perfect world we would never have had our children. Their biological parents would be alive; their father would not have become involved in an uprising and would not have been killed and their mother would be fit and well and thriving in a disease-free Ethiopia. In a perfect world we believe that children are best raised within their culture of birth. Yet in the case of our children, their sick grandmother and other relatives, felt that they could not care for them. In reality, we think we are better than an orphanage. If you don’t believe us, go and spend a day in one in Addis Ababa.
The other option: fund the children to live with their grandmother in their country of birth so that they gain all the opportunities that they would be offered here. Well this is where we face our demons; we wanted children. Yes, this could be called selfish, we still think of it in that way, but so be it. We are playing God. But all the journalists that jumped quickly on the criticism bandwagon are also playing God.
When they return to their comfy upper-middle class homes think of the children in orphanages in Ethiopia. Yes, there are problems with inter-country adoption, yes we should be striving to make the system as perfect as possible and no child should ever be adopted unless the Hague Convention requirements are clearly followed but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Let’s not see our government give up because it is all too difficult. We should be looking at our program, not in terms of what is going on in America, but in terms of the way that it is functioning in Australia. We should be seeking to constantly improve the program so that the needs of children are not misrepresented, here or in Ethiopia. Instead of looking down from the dizzy heights of comfort and casting quick judgements, why not try to understand the complexities of inter-country adoption and seek to see that the rights of children are always uppermost in our minds.
Every thoughtful Australian adoptive parent, when going through the process of adoption, is forced to think deeply about the rights associated with raising a child away from the child’s birth country and birth culture. Watching our children now, with more than five years of Australian culture under their belt, we can only see them as our children and the relatives back in Ethiopia, grandparents and cousins, are part of our lives too.
Yet like all parents, we worry; we worry not just about the day-to-day things that are part and parcel of parenting, but we worry about linking across two countries and cultures. We worry about their ‘acceptance’ in Australia. The current media attention has done nothing to ease our minds.
Tim Gavel is ABC Grandstand’s Canberra broadcaster.