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The Netherlands’ proposed ban on foreign adoption and the (ab)uses of ‘scientific expertise’

The scholarly work backing a Dutch board's recommendation to ban all foreign adoptions has been attacked as 'unscientific'. Does that argument hold water?

A local women feeds orphaned children at the Pouponniere of Mbour, Senegal. Joe Giddense/Press Association. All rights reserved.

On 1 November 2016, the Netherlands’ Raad voor Strafrechtstoepassing en Jeugdbescherming (RSJ – in English, The Council for the Administration of Criminal Justice and Protection of Juveniles) issued a report (in Dutch) advising the Dutch minister of security and justice to ban all foreign adoptions. Among their reasons for coming to this conclusion were documented illegalities and unethical practices in the intercountry adoption system, as well as scholarly literature that argues that intercountry adoption can lead to greater institutionalisation of children and/or disrupt the development of robust child protection systems in the children’s countries of origin.

Several faculty members of the Leiden University Knowledge Centre for Adoption and Foster Care (ADOC) immediately criticised the RSJ report. Marinus (Rien) van IJzendoorn in particular questioned the quality of the research on which the RSJ report based their decision. This included one of my own articles, Addicted to Orphans: How the Global Orphan Industrial Complex Jeopardizes Local Child Protection Systems, which I co-authored with Karen Smith Rotabi.

The ways that van IJzendoorn’s blog distorts our article’s argument deserves a personal response. It also raises crucial issues about what constitutes ‘quality research’ and the uses/objectivity of ‘science’, particularly when it comes to social justice and protection for children. Whether or not one agrees with the RSJ recommendation, these issues should also be critically addressed in the debate.

Distortion of the facts

Van IJzendoorn’s outright dismissal of the RSJ recommendation is based on his assessment of the research cited in the report. According to him, much of that research is of insufficient quality because it does not have a quantitative basis. For example, he writes of my and Rotabi’s article,  

Where figures in this publication are given…the authors report 240 adoptions from Uganda to the USA in 2012, and an increase of almost 600 orphanages in the period between 2009 and 2013 in that country.

Though he stops there, he implies that this evidence is insufficient to warrant concern about the concurrent proliferation of both foreign adoptions and orphanages. However, what the article actually says is:

The number of childcare institutions increased from 212 in 2009 to over 600 in 2012 … by late 2013, the number of institutions had risen to over 800…

According to the US State Department, only 311 Ugandan children were adopted by US citizens from 1999 to 2010, but in 2011 alone, 207 Ugandan children were adopted by US citizens … In 2012, 240 of 400 total international adoptions were to the USA.

Van IJzendoorn cherry-picks the figures and reports them out of context as supposed proof that the research was poorly done, failing to mention the other numbers that show correlative increases/decreases over time. However, it is what he conveniently neglects in the argument that actually counts: The argument is obviously in the pattern over time, not in the two numbers Van IJzendoorn extracts and isolates in order to discredit the claim.

If numbers are so important to him, why does Van IJzendoorn distort the actual numbers presented? These reveal a clear pattern of drastic increase in intercountry adoptions and its correlate proliferation of orphanages in Uganda – which also importantly coincides with the international community’s discovery in 2007 of a legal loophole in Ugandan adoption law?

Further, van IJzendoorn fails to practice what he himself preaches: after distorting the figures in others’ research in order to reject their validity, he marshals absolutely no counter-evidence to show that the claims made in the articles cited are in fact false.

Children’s lives do not start in the institution, and there are a number of machinations that lead to children being placed in orphanages.

Conveniently, his blog does not include links to the articles he challenges or allow for comments. If you need to distort others’ work in order to defend your own position, then you are not the ‘quality’ scientist you present yourself to be. That is not science, but rather politics parading as 'science'. 

Quality vs. quantity in research

This points to a broader dilemma in the discussion over scientific validity. In fact, the only research van IJzendoorn considers even semi-valid is where “the authors put numbers in a row” (de auteurs cijfers op een rij zetten) – which of course my and Rotabi’s article did; just in a narrative form rather a table. Even when numbers are placed in a row, however, he rejects the research on the basis that the correlations established are irrelevant to the discussion of the broader push and pull factors that draw children into orphanages around the world. Instead, he insists on direct quantitative proof of causation between intercountry adoption and orphanage proliferation.

This is a very narrow, positivist view of research premised on the idea that only large numbers, representative samples, and complex metrics can provide proof of a particular social phenomenon, when in fact social processes are messy and complex. Moreover, this view entirely dismisses qualitative evidence that productively engages with such complexities. This is a very problematic approach to understanding social phenomena.

The quantitative evidence that ADOC has produced on adoption over the years has tended to focus on comparing developmental indicators of children in institutions with children after adoption. However sound it may be, this research is at best only half the story: children’s lives do not start in the institution, and there are a number of machinations that lead to children being placed in orphanages. What my and others’ research focuses on instead is how children get into institutional care in the first place. This requires a broader focus on the political economy of orphanages and adoption that examines sociocultural trends and policies over time (the quantitative element). It is further augmented by detailed qualitative evidence that reveals not only the what of the situation but the why and the how. Such qualitative evidence not only allows for a more nuanced analysis of the broader issues in intercountry adoption – beyond the question of child development – but a more holistic picture of the global politics of adoption that affects children and families. It is this angle that RSJ examines critically to reach their conclusions. To dismiss it out-of-hand is to play into the persistently troublesome narrative of intercountry adoption as child rescue that has been used to rationalise some incredible injustices in adoption practice and policy.

The supposed objectivity of science

The practices employed by ADOC researchers are not in fact unique but point to a broader prejudice inherent in claims of ‘scientific objectivity’: it belies the fact that scientific evidence is also prone to subjective interests. The field of ‘science studies’ has recently arisen to address this issue.

Scientific evidence is also prone to subjective interests.

Developmental psychologists have a notorious reputation in the scientific community for being rather haughty about their metrics and models, which are supposedly immune to the politics of their own knowledge production. But those measures can also be poorly constructed, based on subjective concerns and the a priori assumptions (“hypotheses”) of the researcher(s).

Research by child psychologists and development specialists such as those at ADOC has been widely cited to show the damage of institutional care on child development – but it has also been widely cited by the pro-adoption lobby to justify intercountry adoptions, using a dominant child rescue narrative to turn a blind eye to the growing evidence of exploitative practices that have come to mark intercountry adoptions.

Further, adoptees are some of the most studied people in the world, not only because adoption agencies have a vested interest in showing the positive aspects of adoption, but also because scholars and researchers have a vested interest, having built careers off of researching such children. So it is particularly troubling when such researchers disregard practices like kidnapping and trafficking into adoption simply because they fall outside of their narrow statistical models measuring child wellbeing only during and after institutionalisation.

Van IJzendoorn and his colleagues are prime examples of researchers who have built their careers on adoption. In fact, Van IJzendoorn neglects to mention that for years ADOC has been funded by Dutch adoption agencies and other organisations with a vested financial interest in foreign adoptions. Some ADOC faculty are also adoptive parents, so they have a personal stake that – unlike many other adoption studies scholars who are adoptees and/or adoptive parents – they habitually refuse to acknowledge. With many adoption agencies under financial stress, however, funding sources are drying up: ADOC has announced that they will be ceasing operations at the end of the year. Such constraints can put particularly acute strain on the continuance of one’s work, which inevitably has an impact on one’s ‘objectivity’.

Van IJzendoorn neglects to mention that ADOC has been funded by Dutch adoption agencies and other organisations with a vested financial interest in foreign adoptions.

The difference between such predominantly quantitative research and qualitative research is too often that the former continues to insist on complete ‘objectivity’ as a mark of ‘good science’ while the latter has acknowledged that all knowledge production is to some extent influenced by the subject position of the researcher – and has embraced the disclosure of positionality as an important standard of research quality. It would thus better serve the policy debate to acknowledge the stakes of research and individual researchers rather than to try to corner the market of ‘scientific objectivity’.

Implications for global social justice for children

Here’s the other problem with over-reliance on quantitative data: Van IJzendoorn compares the numbers of foreign adoptions with the numbers of orphanages and/or the number of children in them (as much as 98% of whom previous research has shown are NOT in fact orphans). He concludes that, compared to the number of children in care, intercountry adoption is just ‘an adoption drop in the orphanage ocean’ (Een adoptiedruppel op een gloeiende weeshuisplaat).

This is just the point, though: many social scientists are arguing that intercountry adoption, amongst other aspects of the orphan industrial complex such as orphanage volunteering and orphan tourism, contributes to the growing institutionalisation of children in poor countries of origin. In Uganda, for example, the vast majority of recently established orphanages are funded by foreign donors – and we know from qualitative interviews with stakeholders that some orphanages are set up for the express purpose of creating projects for their own international volunteers (e.g. church mission trips, school groups, or other paying voluntourists), or even to channel children into foreign adoptions.

The tragedy, then, is that intercountry adoption actually condemns many more children to a life of institutional care

The fact that ‘not many’ adoptions are completed as an outcome of this trend is not the issue per se; it is the fact that the children who are adopted are not typically the children who most need families. Instead, they are those ‘most marketable’: healthy infants and toddlers who are often taken out of one family, cycled through an orphanage to establish their legitimacy as ‘orphans’, and placed in another family abroad. The tragedy, then, is that intercountry adoption – while it claims to ‘rescue’ needy children for ‘a better life’ abroad – actually condemns many more children to a life of institutional care – care which Van IJzendoorn and his colleagues have spent a lifetime trying to prove is detrimental to children’s development and wellbeing.

Finally, this minimising of the impact of intercountry adoption on people’s lives is particularly insulting to affected families and children in countries of origin. We know children have been – and continue to be – trafficked to the Netherlands through adoption. If Dutch children were regularly being trafficked into adoption abroad, would Van IJzendoorn still consider this merely ‘a drop in the ocean’? If his child were trafficked, would he dismiss the numbers as being too low to raise concern? Such dismissiveness is profoundly disrespectful to the children, parents and families being torn apart by the orphan industrial complex; to the mother in Guatemala who is on hunger strike to get her kidnapped child back; to child protection defenders in Uganda, where a powerful foreign adoption lobby has directly impacted their ability to protect all children from abuse and exploitation. Just how many of these cases are enough for it to become ‘statistically relevant’?

About the author

Kristen E. Cheney is Senior Lecturer of Children and Youth Studies for the International Institute of Social Studies. Dr. Cheney has participated in research, consultancy, and capacity-building projects in Africa, Europe, and the Middle East on issues from children’s rights to youth sexual and reproductive health. Her current research concerns the political economy of the ‘orphan industrial complex’ and its implications for child protection in developing countries.


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