OPINION | Revolt of the widgets: The geopolitical becomes local in international adoption downsizing

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As I told a coworker, about to enter the same policy degree program I graduated from, policy school is a mind-changing experience. You get the chance to take apart and put together policies, for practice, in a safe, apolitical environment, and see what makes things work. It’s a grind learning it. But there is a point. Ultimately, it can give you a handle on what government does well, and what it does poorly.

Policy analysts (not me, but others I admire) are an interesting mix —- some are weird bean counters, and others are big-thinking idealists. The really good ones —- the ones that can really get things done —- are a magical combination of both.

I did a lot of fun and useless armchair analysis last summer during the state government shutdown. On the one hand, I found the shutdown to be completely irritating and unnecessary. On another level, I was fascinated to watch a system simply breaking down, and trying to figure out why it happened.

Just recently, I experienced a similar episode of fascination in the announcement by two large, local adoption agencies, Children’s Home Society and Family Services (CHSFS), and Lutheran Social Services (LSS), about their recent merger. Their announcement, which made the Star Tribune and also Minnesota Public Radio, explained that they will combine services for international adoption and will be co-locating at the CHSFS headquarters in St. Paul, with LSS as the managers. The reason —- international adoption is on the decline.

A panel of experts on the radio talking about the merger and the reasons for it really got the attention of local adult Korean adoptees —- three of the four experts on the show were adoptive parents, and there were no adoptees represented. There was an advance alert online by one adult Korean adoptee about it —- soon, through the phenomenon of social media, there were many comments and demands to get the adoptee community’s point of view on the air and on the record.

In the end, there were two shows, a week apart. The first show was with agency leaders and non-adoptee adoption experts, and a second featured adult adoptee experts, who talked about international adoption from a more in-depth perspective. Kevin Ost Vollmers, a local Korean adoptee activist and originator of the blog Land of Gazillion Adoptees, called into the first show, featuring CHSFS and LSS staff.

As he was listening, Vollmers said, he realized that the panel’s whole approach to the topic of the decline of international adoption was “a glossing over of the facts.” Korean adoptions are decreasing, in part, he said, because of the new Special Adoption Law in Korea, engineered in large part by Korean adoptees and “first families” in Korea (a group of primarily single mothers). This law change, which KQ has reported on in the recent past, gives single mothers more benefits and more rights; as a result, the trend for single mothers to raise their own children is expected to increase, and international adoptions will decrease. This is only one of the many complex reasons for the decline. “It’s geopolitical,” he said. But that show never mentioned any geopolitical changes, which he found to be frustrating.

“What I asked,” he said, “pointedly, was ‘what are you going to do for the, literally, tens of thousands of adoptees, and their families who live here, in this state?’” In the face of the decline, Vollmers said, agencies are trying to renew and create new relationships with international adoption partners in new places. They are acting like a business. What’s more, they are a business. “From a business perspective, you are looking for new markets,” he explained.

When it comes to selling widgets, looking for new markets is a good idea. When it comes to distributing scarce resources in downsizing adoption agencies, looking for new markets becomes problematic, particularly in thinking about those of us who need the post-adoption services right now and in the future. What happens with the relationships between Korean and U.S. agencies, for example, when Korea is no longer placing adoptees in the U.S.? The idea is troubling.

All of us associated personally with Korean adoption locally, know that post-adoption services are meager, while pre-adoption services are large. We are also realizing, with surprise and gratitude, that Korean adoptee organizations are starting to step into that gap. Notably, AdopSource is conducting a large and well-organized needs assessment of how post-adoption and other social services might be structured in the future for international adoptees. These are baby steps, and they are doing it on a shoestring budget, but nonetheless, it’s happening. These organizations are also struggling with the business model. Post-adoption services are just not that profitable.

From a policy perspective, this issue is apparently a case of so-called “market failure,” which occurs when a worthwhile public good cannot be profitably supplied by private business. Public transportation systems are often pointed to as examples of this. If the bus riders themselves cannot support that system; who is going to pay for the buses that need to run on schedule, nearly empty, in the early morning or late at night? Ultimately, government needs to keep some systems running.

Post-adoption services, and adoption itself, is in that category, I would argue. One adoption researcher, InSun Park, an innovative thinker and former adoption social worker in Korea, told me once in an interview that “adoption should be free.” The reason —- the profit motive needs to be removed in order for the system to run ethically. If it were free, the Korean government would be working very hard to find alternatives to continuing expensive intercountry adoptions. Those that did occur would be absolutely necessary, and receiving families in foreign countries would be chosen in a more competitive environment, not self-selected by their income.

Post-adoptions services? “Free,” she told me. The government owes the people it places for intercountry adoption. They should get the services they need from that government, not be paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to find their own birth parents. If such services were free, the Korean government would have the incentive to make access to records better, and more consistently available to searching adult adoptees.

Just because we are only cogs in the works does not mean we shouldn’t look at the whole machine and evaluate whether it’s the wrong machine for the job. An organization, once formed, will struggle to perpetuate its own existence. That is not always a good thing. Our community should continue to be listening to those who are analyzing this system, and pointing to a better way.

International-adoption-related interests can come together for some issues, as evidenced by the recent signing on of more than 20 organizations to a letter sent to President Obama by Twin Cities adult adoptee advocacy organization AdopSource demanding a revision of the Child Citizenship Act. This revision would end deportations of non-citizen adoptees whose citizenship was not obtained due to errors of omission or negligence by parents or guardians. With the recent announcement of “deferred action” on non-citizen young adults whose immigration status was jeopardized due to their parents’ visa lapse, there is a recent understanding that strict immigration policies that do not consider the circumstances can be disastrous to individuals who are Americans in every other way.