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Perspective: After ‘Annie’ and Amy Coney Barrett, here’s where our adoption conversation went wrong

Little surprise that when Barrett had the audacity to mention “safe-haven” laws last week, the critics were off to the races

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Amy Coney Barrett attends her confirmation hearing.

Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett speaks during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington in this 2020 file photo.

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

When NBC decided to air a new version of the classic musical “Annie” last week, the executives probably didn’t expect that adoption would be one of the hottest topics in the news or that the country’s elites would be producing articles about how the trauma of adoption may actually be worse than abortion. And they probably missed the memo that transracial adoption — the lead role is played by Celina Smith, who is Black, and Daddy Warbucks is played by Harry Connick Jr. — is now being treated by some as the moral equivalent of colonialism.

As Ibram X. Kendi tweeted after Amy Coney Barrett was nominated to the Supreme Court, “Some White colonizers ‘adopted’ Black children. They ‘civilized’ these ‘savage” children in the ‘superior’ ways of White people, while using them as props in their lifelong pictures of denial, while cutting the biological parents of these children out of the picture of humanity.”

Little surprise then that when Barrett had the audacity to mention “safe-haven” laws during the oral argument in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health — laws that allow new mothers to drop off their babies at a firehouse or hospital, for instance, without being charged with child abandonment — the critics of adoption were off to the races.

Joy Ann Reid tweeted: “Gotta say; of all the things that shook my core this week, Amy Coney Barrett’s cold-blooded calculations about how convenient it would be to cast off a child born via uninvited trauma after nine months of anxiety and psychic horror was provably the most disturbing. Who is she???” In The New York Times, Elizabeth Spiers explained that “adoption is often just as traumatic as the right thinks abortion is, if not more so.”

Many of the critics claim that adoption proponents don’t understand how difficult adoption can be for a child. But in the past few years I have interviewed adoptive parents across the country and nothing could be further from the truth. Every adoptive parent I have spoken to recognizes that a tragedy has to have occurred in order for an adoption to take place and as happy as many of these families and adoptive children are that they have found each other, there will always be a sense that in a better world things could have and maybe should have turned out differently. 

Much of the recent criticism has come from adoptees themselves, who say that they have suffered from deep emotional distress as a result of their adoption or the things their adoptive family failed to provide them. Their “lived experience” is being treated as a trump card in this debate. But the truth is that many of these adoptees do not really understand the counterfactual. They imagine that parents could have kept them if only they had enough money or the proper support. But for the kids in foster care, sadly, this is rarely the case. The parents often suffer from debilitating mental illness or drug abuse that no amount of money could have fixed.

The belief among transracial adoptees that they have been even more traumatized by their experience is particularly strong. A few weeks ago I gave a speech to a group of college students in Florida, citing longitudinal studies that show there is no difference in outcomes for Black children adopted by Black parents compared with Black children adopted by white parents. Three students came up to me afterward to object. They were all Black, and one was adopted by white parents. She told me that she felt completely unprepared to be on a college campus with a majority white population, that she felt she didn’t know how she fit in with other Black kids on campus and was having a kind of identity crisis.  

Then the other two students started piping in, telling me that they too felt uncomfortable on campus and unprepared for the racial dynamics of the community. “Wait,” I said. “But you weren’t adopted. So you’re saying your own parents failed to prepare you for this?” I was not trying to play gotcha. I suggested to them that young adulthood can be a confusing time for everyone, Black and white, adopted and not. And that sometimes assuming that all of our problems come from one fact about our lives — our race or sexuality or country of origin or the shape of our bodies or the way our parents treated us — is too simple to account for the complicated human beings we are.

One might offer the same counsel to the writer Rebecca Carroll, whose new memoir, “Surviving the White Gaze” describes her life as the only Black girl growing up with an adoptive family in New Hampshire. Carroll blames much of her trauma growing up on her parents’ failure to recognize and talk about their racial differences. But then she also mentions that her parents were in an open marriage “liberally exercised by her father” as one reviewer put it. And then there was also the molestation she suffered by a family friend with her parents’ knowledge. Or what about when her biological mother invited a friend to take Carroll’s virginity at the age of 11.

One might speculate that these kind of factors would have a significant effect on a child’s psyche and in another world Carroll could have written a book about surviving a different kind of “gaze” that had very little to do with her racial identity or her adoption for that matter.

But when society only offers young people a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When the only way we define ourselves is through our racial identity, everything that goes wrong in our lives becomes a product of that identity. The reality is that adopted children enter a world of many challenges and, although there are certainly bad adoptive parents, more often than not families who choose to adopt help improve lives and outcomes for some of America’s most vulnerable children.

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.”