A few years ago a t least one well-known and poorly reputed facilitator made an attempt to put an end to the negative publicity she had garnered through years of corrupt behavior by bringing lawsuits against several parents for defamation after they spoke out against her corruption in public forums including a large email list. Some of these defendants later won the lawsuit brought against them but not before paying out significant amounts of money in legal fees. Other are still engaged in legal battles, to this day.*
Of course this facilitator, and others like her, have no legal case to speak of . However they often work for lawyers and so legal fees were no consideration. They also knew legal fees would be a very large consideration for these adoptive parents who speak out against them and might very well get them to shut up, fast, to avoid a large expensive battle to defend the bogus allegations of defamation. And while they are at it, maybe they would send a message to other brave and outspoken parents and scare them into silence as well.
This is not an original move on the part of these facilitator. This type of lawsuit has existed for a long time and has a name: Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation or SLAPP. They are filed against those who speak out in negative ways about a corporation or entity. The goal of these lawsuits is not to win but to shut up the opposition by scaring them into submission or outspending them and forcing them to settle with gag clauses.
In this day and age where we expect to be able to thoroughly research our options before paying out money for important goods and services, and during a time that the Internet makes research so incredibly easy, it is shocking to find out that such lawsuits are so common in the adoption world, of all places. I know I can research public opinion, safety records and customer reviews on a $20,000 car because people will talk, often loudly, about their experiences without fear that the dealership or salesman or manufacturer will take action against them for defamation. Even if the customer claims the salesman “ripped him off”, he knows he can say this without fear of retribution. But engage in this $20,000 transaction called adoption, where an actual human life is on the line, and suddenly mum’s the word? Something is very very wrong.
It may be a little extreme to suggest that you can tell an ethical agency by the lack of lawsuits against parents but I think the opposite very much is the case: the unethical agencies are the first to jump all over a parent who speaks negatively in an effort to keep the quiet. Their reputation depends on it and it is clear they won’t build a positive reputation through their actions, alone. They must use other more forceful bullying methods to make themselves seem more ethical than they are.
Do good agencies get negative publicity? Sometimes. But a truly ethical agency won’t blink in the face of negative publicity. Giving it attention just attracts more negative publicity. And as long as an agency is truly ethical, their own work and reputation will overcome the words of any disgruntled parent on a smear mission. A good agency knows that there is no point in threatening or otherwise engaging a parent with a vendetta. An unethical agency knows there is truth behind the negative publicity and knows to shut it down, fast, or face exposure. In a business where word of mouth is everything and corruption is a very bad word, it becomes quickly easy to see which agencies are more concerned with forcing negative publicity to go away through threats and lawsuits and which agencies are more concerned with developing a good solid ethical reputation through hard work and a proven track record.
SLAPP suits aren’t the only method of keeping parents quiet. It is not unusual to find some agencies resorting to gag clauses in the adoption contract to require parents to keep quiet and not just during the adoption itself but afterward as well. Gag clauses are a big red flag. When you read a gag clause, I hope you will read: We will do unethical things and this protects our reputation so you can’t tell anyone about it. Because this is the protection it provides. You don’t need to agree to not discuss your adoption for the rest of your life in order to adopt a baby! An ethical agency will not offer a gag clause.
Even without gag clauses I was alerted to a horrifying situation recently where a family who has not yet traveled but has received a referral was repeatedly threatened with removal and reallocation of that referral (in English: no more baby for you, we’ll give the baby to someone more appreciative) if they did not, in writing, agree to apologize for everything negative that they might have shared with higher level government officials, tell these same officials that they were lying and never speak negatively of the agency again (regardless of how negatively the agency speaks of this family to others). These kinds of bullying tactics are the lowest of the low. This is agency desperation – hitting a family where it hurts most. Do what we say or you will lose everything you love: your child. This is extortion. This is corruption.
Good news for families and bad news for corrupt agencies: we’re onto you!! The irony of the unfortunate lawsuits against parents is that it had the opposite effect intended: it did not shut down communication, ultimately it heightened it. It also educated parents about agency bullies. Their own lawsuit smeared the agency and facilitator’s reputations more seriously than anything that parents could have ever said or did in the first place!
Now we know that lawsuits can happen and we know the typoe of agencies who are likely to employ such tactics. These unethical agencies can keep trying to bully individuals with your emotional or financial threats but the Internet won’t be bullied!! More and more states have anti-SLAPP laws in effect to protect people and organizations from this type of bullying. More and more people are protecting themselves with insurance to cover malicious bullying lawsuits. There are legal precedents that cover Internet communications, now. People are sharing copies of agency contracts and names of agencies with known gag clauses. People who have their referrals threatened aren’t caving; they are sharing so others will know what agencies to avoid. Knowledge is power and people are talking. They are talking to each other, they are talking to the Embassy, to the USCIS, to the IAD. The Internet and email have made this a winning battle for adoptive parents. Finally, we are beginning to have the freedom to speak openly and freely and afforded the same protections as we have when we buy a car or elect a president. Free speech!!! Agencies that continue to threaten, bully and intimidate will quickly develop a reputation as agencies that use threats and bullying and intimidation – they will hurt themselves badly. Agencies that chose to let their reputations speak for themselves will quickly develop a reputation as agencies that let their actions speak louder than the parents who smear them and parents will trust them and recommend them.
Agencies need to understand that the adoption world, thanks to the Internet, is not the same as it used to be. Even in programs, like
Vietnam, where transparency is the goal but is still a long way away, the Internet’s many resources produce a kind of transparency that even governments can’t create with all their laws and decrees and agreements. There is no room for unethical agencies. They won’t be tolerated. They won’t intimidate. They won’t bully. They can try. But they will have to choose: act ethically or be prepared to be exposed. If government officials can’t or won’t, parents will. If acting ethically for ethics’ sake is not enough, perhaps knowing that they are fighting a losing battle will be enticing. But the bullying has got to end, one way or another.
*upon request, I have added information to this article from its original publication to reflect that at least one lawsuit from the past is still outstanding.