In Relinquished (St. Martin’s, Feb.), Sisson examines how the American adoption industry targets vulnerable families.
How would you describe the current discourse on adoption?
Our narrative about adoption as a social good focuses on who is able to become a parent through adoption, not on families separated by adoption. Those stories are much harder. We don’t want to recognize that there’s a loss when those families are separated.
Yet both sides of the political spectrum support adoption.
For conservatives, it ties in with their anti-abortion messaging, but also upholds a very specific idea of what families should be. They don’t want systems of support for single parents, for instance. It’s easier to just take the baby from this poor parent and give it to a middle-class family and say, ‘This is so beautiful.’ On the left, adoption is beloved in queer communities because it allows for family-building. And both liberals and conservatives believe that adoption gives women an alternative to imposed motherhood—that without adoption, we’d be forcing people to parent who are not interested in parenting. That is not what I’ve heard from the women with whom I spoke. The vast majority wanted to parent.
You describe adoption as an extractive industry.
Adoption is most frequently about money. When we look at relinquishing mothers in America today, the majority have less than $5,000 of annual income. Children adopted internationally are usually from countries that are in turmoil. When the country stabilizes, then children stop being exported. After the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, missionaries and private adoption agencies came in and removed Haitian children. And now you see people voicing the idea, ‘Can we adopt Palestinian children?’ That’s the American response: ‘Oh, this country is in crisis; can we have their children?’
How do adoption agencies convince mothers to relinquish their children?
Adoption agencies aggressively market themselves. Mothers who search “help for single moms” on Google see advertisements with pictures of prospective adoptive parents’ gorgeous suburban homes. Plus, almost no mothers would relinquish if adoption weren’t open—if they weren’t going to have ongoing contact with their child. But openness is not legally enforceable in most states. Openness is routinely used to sell adoption in a way that’s inconsistent with what it legally offers.
What about children living in dangerous conditions?
A mother told me she relinquished because she didn’t have a safe home to bring the baby to. I asked, ‘Was it a safe home for you to be in?’ She said, ‘No, of course not.’ I said, ‘Well, then we’ve already failed, right?’ I’m not saying I want the baby to go to that unsafe place. I want the mother to have a safe place to raise that baby.