Structure and Agency in Adoption

The structure vs. agency debate is one that many anthropologists have attempted to explain and apply to various concepts, and in this case it is applied to adoption. There are many factors that make adoption, especially transnational and transracial adoption possible. According to Linda Seligmann, author of Broken Links, Enduring Ties: American Adoption Across Race, Class and Nation, adoption can be analyzed by categorizing it into the structure of the organization and the agency of the individuals who decide to adopt across borders and races.

Seligmann is able to demonstrate the structure that exists in the world of adoption by discussing various domestic and international laws that are put in place to protect the children that are put into the adoption system. She mentions the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) / Interethnic Adoption Provisions (IEP), laws meant to keep “racial matching” from occurring in the adoption process. Although these laws were created for more equal adoption across races, it has not been effective. Again, Seligmann is able to explain this failure by the structure which exists in American society. For example, she provides the cultural practice of African Americans (AA), who place more importance on “informal kinship care” rather than actual adoption (36). In other words, AA are more likely to take a family member in as their own rather than going through the legal process to officially make them a child legally under their care.

Another structure which exists within the world of adoption is that of the adoption workers such as social workers and brokers/adoption agencies. Adoption agencies themselves can add even more requirements onto the process, especially if the agency is from abroad. An unavoidable aspect of adopting from abroad is often times the amount of money and time that will be spent travelling, take the example of Russia, prospective parents are expected to visit the country at least twice (39). These rules also shape adoption in that only certain type of families, middle or upper middle class families, will be able to adopt Russian children, or children from countries with regulations similar to theirs. Also, regulations like this make adoption a classist organization, in that for whatever reason, if a family is unable to or simply refuses to adopt local (American) children, they have the financial means to adopt a child from across the world that will meet their needs. Seligman brings attention to the fact that even though various laws and regulations exist within the adoption process, there are ways for prospective parents to take the process into their own hands.

As previously mentioned, international adoption can be a time consuming and expensive process. However, some parents are willing to take on this task in order to have a child that could look like it was really theirs (89). Here, the agency of parents takes laws created for adoption on the back burner. Laws such as the MEPA/IEP were put into place to keep parents from choosing the race of the child they want to adopt, yet other avenues exist in which parents can do this. So as these laws are made to keep certain practices from taking place, they still occur because of the fact that some parents simply want their child to look like it could truly be their biological child.           Another reason parents choose to adopt internationally is the distance that is provided between the biological parents and themselves (93). Parents who are capable of this type of adoption are uncomfortable with the mere possibility that American families might want their children back, whereas if adopting from abroad the return process, if you will, would be much more difficult. Once the process is complete, some parents face a new ordeal, depending on the racial and international components of their adopted child. In the case of Chinese children being adopted by white American families, the stories provided by some families illustrate the emotional ties the parents felt during the process that made them want their child to know their history. However, one family, the Laskas, expresses their discontent with the idea of returning to their children’s homeland. Mother of the family Jeanne Marie Laskas, essentially states that China never really was a home for their girls and that people often romanticize their children’s heritage by dressing them in silks and getting their photos professionally taken to be sent out to friends and family members (102). She ends her story by simply stating that, “My girls are home. My girls are part of a family.” (102). The Laskas provide a great example of the agency that parents assert in their relationship as new adoptive parents.

Adoption can be a stressful and expensive process due to the structure created by national and international laws and agencies. However, once a child has been successfully adopted, parents face new obstacles in which they have to decide what is best for their child. By making these decisions according to their roles as parents, they are exercising their agency in this newly formed relationship. Even though these decisions may not always be based upon the child’s ethnic or geographical background, parents who often base their decisions on these factors are exercising their agency within the structure of their child’s background itself. Of course, parents could completely ignore these factors about their children and act solely upon their own emotions and judgments as parents. But, one can ask, is this possible in a situation of transracial or transnational adoption? Can or should a parent ignore the structure that exists due to the identity of their child? More importantly, would the answers to these questions be based upon your own experienced structure or agency?

by Mercedes Gonzalez

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