The myth of the Safe Choice

If you do a google search, a blog search, a twitter search….any kind of search…on the topic of international adoption, you will get thousands of hits on feel good stories, blogs, books and even youtube videos that will make you tear up (oh yes, I have one of those too!) and that will inspire you to adopt. There is no shortage of feel-good adoption material  available to anyone looking. 

What you won’t readily find are the stories of international adoption gone wrong. They are out there but they are hard to find. Embarrassment, humiliation, a rightful desire to shield our adopted children or protect ourselves and our families from the (even far-reaching) possibility of losing a child we love, fear of lawsuit and contractual gag orders all work collectively to keep parents quiet. Those that speak out are often attacked, viciously, by people who want badly to believe this doesn’t happen and will go to any length to discredit those who threaten that perception.  Even in this age when big players in the international adoption business – Guatemala, Cambodia, Vietnam, Liberia – have halted programs due to lack of transparency and corruption; even when award-winning articles such as The Lie We Love that have gone viral throughout adoption communities; even when prime time media is daring to ‘go there’ and expose adoption corruption in countries previously considered ‘clean’, such as China, international adoption still has the reputation of being the Safe Choice.

Ask any group of adoptive parents why they chose to adopt internationally and you will undoubtedly hear many answers that involve this perception of safety: the birth mother won’t change her mind, the birth mother won’t try to reclaim the baby, the birth family won’t live nearby so contact will be a non-issue, the children will not come with the damage of abuse and neglect so prevalent in the US foster care system and you are guaranteed a baby, eventually. 
Add to that the perception, even in the face of massive education efforts to rise above such thought processes, that we are saving a child and you have a whole new set of reasons why international adoption is the Safe Choice. They won’t grow up in a disease-ridden, impoverished state. They won’t grow up having to work the field at 7 years old. They will have an education. They will not have to live in an orphanage. International adoption seems like the safe choice for adoptive family and adoptee.

For those of us who have lived a different truth either through international adoption directly as a member of the triad, through volunteering at a third world orphanage and being witness to corruption first hand, through investigative journalism or simply by keeping eyes and ears wide open to the possibilities and balancing information against the source, we know that the fallacy that international adoptions exist as the Safe Option is alive and well in this country.

I’ve been reading, with interest, the reaction to EJ Graff’s reporting on adoption corruption including her most recently posted adoption slideshow. Of most interest to me is the label loosely slapped on her by adoptive parents and perspective adoptive parents: anti-adoption. This is a label we at VVAI and other adoption advocacy groups are no stranger to. We hear it all the time, most typically from waiting parents  and those who somehow make their living off the perception that international adoption is not only the Safe Choice but a vast need. Our opinions are a threat. Exposing the myth of the Safe Choice is a threat. Therefore the conclusion must be that we are anti-adoption.

But I think it’s time to set the record straight: adoption advocates and those who work tirelessly to educate, expose corruption and work for reform are not anti-adoption.

We at VVAI are all adoptive parents who have experienced miracles through our adoption experiences. Most adoption advocacy groups are filled with members of the triad – those who have direct experience with the issues they advocate for. Sometimes it’s important to look at the motive of those whose voices we hear: What would possibly be the motive for being “anti-adoption”?

On the contrary, the benefits to us all from exposing corruption and working for a multi-pronged solution for children in need are far greater than the benefits from pretending it does not exist or misrepresenting the need for international adoption as greater than it is.

  • By exposing corrupt agency practices as well as players overseas, we empower parents to be aware and avoid falling victim to these same practices during their own adoption process. The result is that more families complete successful adoptions.
  • By advocating for humanitarian aid and domestic adoption programs before intercountry adoption, we reduce the likelihood that any given country program will collapse under the weight of demand-driven corruption that so often follows high-traffic international adoption programs.
  • By advocating for a clear, transparent process on all sides, we pave the way for our children’s histories to arrive with them, intact, and gift them with the opportunity for greater understanding that is lacking so often in international adoption.

The irony here is that the very people who often are considered to be the biggest threat to international adoption are often the ones working the hardest and doing the most to try to preserve adoptions.  We want every child to have a family to love them. But perpetuating the myth that most children in orphanages do not have loving families, that most children in need of homes are healthy infants or that international adoption is the only or the best solution has directly contributed to the destruction of the very adoption programs we all held so dear – including the program in Vietnam.

I believe we share some truths even with our readers who disagree with us the most:

  • No one intentionally hopes for or pursues an unethical or corrupt adoption.
  • We all think child trafficking and child buying constitutes unethical practices
  • We do not believe a child should languish in an institution if other options are available.
  • We believe international adoption to be among those options and believe that ethical adoptions can happen.
  • We know the closing of a country shuts the doors to true orphans with no other options within the community.

As long as we continue to report or convey international adoption as the Safe Option we will be negatively impacting the very goals we share. Being honest, reflective and open to the difficult information as it is shared will only help – not harm – the future of international adoption.

Advocacy and reporting of the tough stories does not invalidate the personal experiences each of us may have had. We have had comments on this site from people claiming we are trying to make them feel guilty or wrong for having chosen adoption. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is ok to be joyous over your adoption experience while open to the harsh realities of others’ experiences. It is ok to be thankful for the blessings in your life while advocating so that those blessings can continue for other families and children WITHOUT the cloud of corruption, questionable practices, exorbitant fees and lost histories surrounding them.

There will always be beautiful adoption stories at our fingertips to bring us to tears. But it’s time to be real, to talk about the risks to all members of the triad in international adoption and to acknowledge that exposing those risks does not make anyone “anti-adoption”. In fact, the future of adoption may very well rest in the hands of those who care enough to speak out against the wrong-doing so the right-doing can continue.


I adopted my daughter from Phu Tho province, Vietnam in the fall of 2006. I have seen, first hand, the corruption that can and does routinely occur both within agencies and within the government and I have seen parents held at the mercy of the corruption. I have also seen beautiful, ethical adoptions occur and these adoptions have inspired me to actively promote a more thorough education and understanding of adopting with integrity in Vietnam and worldwide.


  1. Great piece Nicki – After being part of the Vietnam adoption community for so long and going through the “I want an ethical adoption” debate, I went into our adoption in South Korea with my eyes much more open than I otherwise would have. I remember telling our social worker that I thought that the twin’s birth mother was “forced” to put them up in a way. I am sure she was threatened with VERY LARGE medical bills (they were 4 months premature), social stigma (she was single) and many other things. It took her over a month to relinquish them (and at that time no one had a clue that our daughter would end up being special needs), the paperwork states that until she did that she planned to parent them etc…and yes she knew it was twins. Our social worker told me “That would never happen in Korea.” WHAT…not only does it, it has and my guess will continue to happen. Just because South Korea is not the third world does not make it immune to these things. Someday I hope to find out this was not the case (thought admittedly I have resigned myself to the fact that most likely it is true) and yes for now I bury it in my head as we are supposed to wait another 18 years to find this woman, even though I would KILL for an open adoption now, some way where everyone could love them – I mean really what child can have too much love? (And if we really do move to Korea we will try to find her to have what is unheard of in Korea – an open adoption.)

    Someone needs to continue to advocate for the children and truly safe adoptions where there is no corruption. You go girl! Thanks for the article! And did you see the HBO special about China, it broke my heart to see the babies stolen or sold (some after being stolen and some to avoid the fee for a second baby – don’t get me started on that stupid policy and how I think it feeds into this)

  2. Thank you for your writing. I agree with most of what you said. I’m slightly confused by the phrase ‘safe option’ although I think I understand. I read on one woman’s blog that she chose international adoption because she didn’t want any contact with her child’s birth family and she feared that with domestic adoption. I cannot imagine that level of selfishness.

    I wonder how we can affect change domestically. I wonder if making some part of the process national rather than state run would help. we live in new york state and it’s very restrictive about which agencies we can use to adopt. if we had lived in another state if would have been much easier to adopt an African-American baby. As it is in NY there are not many African American babies placed and there is a large pool of African American families waiting. We were in a domestic program but then pulled out. We’re still open to domestic and pursuing it at the same time – but because we will not foster first, we are limited.

    Thanks again for advocating for the children. And for a transparent child centered approach to all of this.

  3. Why is it selfish to prefer an international adoption partly to avoid the birth family at a later date. It’s simply a choice that is available to those who chose international adoption. It’s not as if the parents would not feel sorry for the child who can never know their birth mother. But if international adoptions are closed, then adoptive parents can chose to go that route without being labeled. I would hardly call them selfish.

  4. Nick, We disagree on this. My husband and I want domestic or Ethiopia so that our child, if at all possible will know their family. The birth family is family. That’s just the way I see it. We did not consider any country where we wouldn’t have a chance to know who the family is and failing that (in a case where a child is abandoned) than at least know where they were from. This is a fundamental need for all people. To know their origin. I cannot imagine not allowing my child to know as much as possible about their family.
    The adoptive parents would feel sorry for the child? I’m not sure how that helps the child in any way at all. Who wants people feeling sorry for them? How is that healthy?
    Also, I do not think being a parent is a fundamental right. It is a honor. Not everyone gets to raise children. For the honor we should be willing to do what is best for the child. Not what is most comfortable or easiest for ourselves.
    Anything less than that is selfish.

  5. Excellent, so well written, Nicki. The five truths you list are at the root of all the debate, and boy do I wish people could come together across these!

    More discussion on this issue can be found in two posts about intercountry adoption at New York Times Room for Debate – both, especially the comments, are interesting:

    Also, I’m glad Nick posted his thoughts. I absolutely thought like you, Nick, when my husband and I adopted our first child (who is Korean) in 1989. What I had heard about mothers in US domestic adoption was largely shaped by myth and the media, and flew right out the window when our son arrived. Our children’s families aren’t people to avoid, they’re people we most of all should embrace. I will be forever regretful that I didn’t figure this out in time to forge connections.

    Thanks again Nicki!

  6. There are other reasons that parents chose international adoption beyond the “safe option”. That was not the reason that I chose international adoption. Like it or not – my child has no known birth family. There is nothing I can do about that. Perhaps we can do some kind of search for them – but with little to go on – we may never find them. I wish that we could for her sake.

  7. “Why is it selfish to prefer an international adoption partly to avoid the birth family at a later date.”

    Why does one want to avoid them in the first place? They’re not monsters. They shouldn’t be people that you fear – they create the children who are being ADOPTED. Shouldn’t that garner at least a little respect for the women who probably did not have a “real” choice?

    “It’s simply a choice that is available to those who chose international adoption. It’s not as if the parents would not feel sorry for the child who can never know their birth mother.”

    I’m sorry, I strongly disagree. I have many, many adoptive parents who comment on my blog about how they wish their child could know their China mommies as it would help the children have even more of a self-positive image and answer questions about their pasts.

  8. Great post. We adopted internationally, and would hate for both children and parents to lose that option.

    We started looking at an Eastern European country, then looked domestically due to the cost and many travel uncertainties, and had the state pretty much scare us off from pursuing the domestic route. I say shame on them for that; they were trying to make sure that people understood the worst case scenarios, I think, but we and a couple we left the info session with both ended up meeting again while pursuing an international adoption with a private agency and in talking with them, learned that they had the same impression we did.

    So we went to China, where my son’s birth information will never be known, but where his last name indicates the year of his admittance to the Beijing orphanage and every boy admitted in that year shares that same last name-so he does have a family of origin, of sorts, and we have a very tight yahoo! group just for parents who adopted from Beijing.

  9. My question is: hypothetically if an adoptive parent knows about the child’s biological parents, *knows* the parents want to keep and raise the child but just need a little financial help to do so – and are fully aware that they possess the privilege to either adopt OR “return” the child to the people who want to raise said child…

    Is that ethical?
    If they are advantaged through financial means and use that to ensure the adoption goes through – based on purely good intentions BUT also knowing the other parents were disadvantaged – then where is the issue of unethical means? Or does that not exist?

  10. I’m so over this blog and this is the last time I’m visiting it. Adoption isn’t a ‘safe option’ it’s an ‘only option’ for some, including my family and I will not continue to read from the people here who are hell bent on making people feel guilty for doing it.

  11. I think there are ethical issues with wealthier families adopting from poor families if the sole issue for relinquishing the child is poverty. I think the bigger ethical issue is that the child must truly be an orphan within the USCIS definition — and be legally fully relinquished by the parent’s own informed desire, with a waiting period to change their mind, before an international adoption plan is considered for the child. I don’t know if a child with two married parents can legally be considered an orphan.

  12. Ahh Janie, see that’s why you aren’t “getting” this blog…it’s not about the *only option* for YOUR family. That international adoption was “the ONLY option” for your family does not justify ANY of the unethical practices occurring to make your “only option” a reality. I am truly sorry that you adopted out of necessity, but just because adoption was the only way to bring a child into your family does not mean we should ignore the truths that often underlie adoption practices. No one is saying your are evil for adopting. As Nicki said, most of us here are also adoptive parents. We just want ethical adoptions.

    Nicki – FANTASTIC post. Well written and to the point. Painful truths, but truths we need to acknowledge nonetheless. Anything else would be plain dishonesty.

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