'It is our moral duty to put the best interests of the adoptee first'

15 September 2021

The public outcry about the adoption break, which has since been discontinued, diverts attention from what the discussion should really be about. So says Sophie Withaeckx, who was part of the expert panel on intercountry adoption for two years. "The experience of adoptees who have been victims of systematic malpractice is real."

BI was part of the expert panel on intercountry adoption for almost two years. In this I contributed to a thorough reflection on the question of whether and how it is possible to prevent malpractice in intercountry adoption. The final report was drawn up on the basis of intensive research from various scientific disciplines.

The report includes 20 recommendations. On the one hand, they are aimed at a thorough reform of the adoption landscape, and on the other hand, they aim to do justice to adoptees who have become victims of malpractice. The latter can be done, among other things, by expanding aftercare, providing remedial measures and offering public apologies to victims.

The adoption break is necessary for a thoroughly reformed adoption practice that must be free from malpractice.

After the report was published, there was immediate outrage. Unfortunately not because intercountry adoption can still be accompanied by malpractice, but because of the recommendation to take an adoption break pending the reform of the system. That pause is, however, necessary for a thoroughly reformed adoption practice that must be free from malpractice.

Efforts were also made after the report's publication to discredit the investigation. For example, it was stated that adoption services were not questioned and that the malpractice only took place in the past. Both claims have since been debunked , both in the final report and the sub-reports.

The real problem

In the public and political debate, the actual problem is cycled very carefully. For example, on the Growing Up website (in which Kind en Gezin, Jeugdhulp and part of the Flemish Agency for Persons with Disabilities merged, ed.) we read the following in the notes to the reports:

'In recent years, more and more intercountry adoptees have asked questions about their adoption history and the adoption procedure,' it reads. Also that the expert panel was set up 'to respond to the questions and concerns of adoptees'.

It is not about vague questions or concerns, but about very concrete testimonies about malpractice in adoptions.

But it was not about vague questions or concerns, but about very concrete testimonies about malpractice in adoptions from Ethiopia. These led to a parliamentary hearing and raised questions about the state of affairs in other countries of origin. This also concerns recent adoptions, because the adoptions from Ethiopia took place until 2017.

Moreover, Ethiopia is a country that never signed the Hague Adoption Convention. Still, it became popular with destination countries after other major source countries such as China, Russia and South Korea scaled back adoptions, often following scandals or reforms in the adoption system. Ultimately, it was Ethiopia itself that decided to stop intercountry adoption in 2018 due to the seriousness and extent of reported malpractice.

But these malpractice are just the latest in a long line that has plagued the adoption industry for decades. These are discussions that are part of a broader, international dispute about intercountry adoption. Countries of origin are also gradually realizing that thorough reflection and reform are urgently needed.

The best interests of the child

You would expect that proposals to eradicate malpractice and its traumatic consequences for victims would be welcomed with open arms. And that the public discussion and outrage would also be about that. In the end it comes down to the best interests of the child, right?

Unfortunately, the discussion quickly fell into recognizable strategies within what we call “adoption mythology”. Adoption is seen as an inherently good practice, with malpractice as unfortunate exceptions, or collateral damage in a system that is considered the ultimate win-win.

Adoption is seen as inherently good practice, with malpractice being unfortunate exceptions.

But those arguments have been debunked countless times. For example, reference is made to millions of orphans who would languish in orphanages in poor countries. Adoption is seen as the “only solution”. But most of these children are not full orphans and only a minority of them are actually eligible for adoption.

Our moral obligation to lift children out of poverty is emphasized and adoption is presented as “the last chance” for children who have no other options. But the moral duty to help children in poverty does not equate to the moral duty to adopt. Helping children in poverty can be done in many ways. Adoption is not always the most appropriate.


© Gie Goris

'Shall we have poor Flemish children adopted by rich Rwandan families?'

Our final report, like the Hague Adoption Convention, therefore applies the subsidarity principle. Adoption is part of a series of measures to protect children. In the first place, that is: keeping vulnerable families together and supporting them. Due to its drastic nature, adoption may only be used exceptionally.

Welles staple game

When victims of malpractice speak, their testimonies are usually countered with positive stories from adoptive parents and adoptees. Of course, many experiences are also positive, but they do not magically erase the malpractice. Nor do they make the negative experiences of victims any less real.

It's not a well-being game. Malpractice is real, known, provable and occurs systematically and repeatedly. It concerns fraud and forgery of identity papers, deception, kidnapping and pressure on parents in countries of origin, actively preventing adoptees from obtaining information about their background, failing to intervene when malpractice is reported…

The moral duty to help children in poverty does not equate to the moral duty to adopt.

It causes countless human dramas that have also been contested in the meantime in the case of domestic adoption. But even there, victims are still too often left out in the cold. Playing off “positive” and “negative” experiences therefore seems more aimed at minimizing malpractice so that the positive image of adoption can be preserved.

More importantly, it diverts attention from what really matters: the adoptees who have been victims of systematic malpractice. This makes our final report not a manifesto for or against adoption, but a contribution to creating the conditions for malpractice-free adoption procedures so that all adoptees can share positive experiences.

While the Flemish majority and the adoption sector focus on an adoption pause, I notice feelings of recognition and gratitude among many adoptees for this report. They finally feel heard. Meanwhile, the Flemish majority ruled that a pause is not necessary to organize adoption free from malpractice.

So be it. It is my hope that the coming reforms will not be guided solely by stakeholder perspectives, and that both the government and the adoption industry will now devote themselves with equal enthusiasm to achieving an adoption practice that is 100% free from malpractice.

If not, we'll have this discussion again in a few years.

This opinion reflects my personal view and is not a collective point of view from the expert panel.