Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)

Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)
Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)

International Adoption: Aid or Abduction?


When you see images of Angelina Jolie or Madonna with their adopted children, what is your reaction? Perhaps you see two women giving children born in poverty a better life? Or perhaps you view their actions as rich North Americans promoting their own self-interests, rather than those of the child? Dr. Karen Dubinsky (History and Global Development Studies) studies how perception and politics play into the adoption process – and how that affects not only the child, but also the culture and well-being of a country.

Originally an historian focused on Canadian history, Dubinsky became fascinated by the issues surrounding transnational adoption when she adopted her son from Guatemala. As she went through the process, she discovered both real problems within the system, but also perceptions about international adoption that weren’t necessarily true.

Photo of Karen Dubinsky, with a book open“Some view international adoption as a rescue operation for the child, while others consider it to be the worst kind of colonialization,” she says. “Each case is different, but I’ve learned that there is often much more going on than a simple adoption focused on the child’s best interests.”

Dubinsky has observed adoption practices from a number of perspectives – and notes that there are many factors and issues surrounding international adoption. “The pain of relinquishing a baby can be as acute for a community or a nation as it is for an individual mother,” she notes. “The impact, especially of large-scale adoptions, can reverberate for generations.”

Often, political or financial concerns can take precedence over the welfare of the child. In 1960, the CIA arranged for over 14,000 Cuban children to be sent to Miami in an operation dubbed “Peter Pan,” claiming that the Cuban government was planning to take the children from their families and send them to military schools and Soviet work camps. Russia recently implemented a ban on U.S. adoptions, citing child welfare concerns, although critics suggest the move is in retaliation against a new U.S. law that bans Russians charged with human rights offences from entering the country.

In Guatemala, a lack of formal processes led to children being kidnapped by attorneys who charged significant “fees” to adoptive parents, who in turn believed these were abandoned children at risk during civil strife. The country eventually closed to adoption in 2008, after having sent over 4,700 children to the U.S. in 2007, a significant number given the country’s size.

Dubinsky’s book, Babies Without Borders (2010) examines the political aspects of international adoption in Cuba, Guatemala and North America, looking at “projects” such as Operation Peter Pan, but also at adoption practices closer to home, including the relocation of native and black children in North America during the 1960s. Her work delves beyond the “kidnap vs. humanitarian aid” debate to observe the political symbolism of children and its impact on them.

Dubinsky’s current research is focused on examining how children’s images are used for a variety of messages that may or may not result in a positive outcome for them. She’s found evocative images from a broad range of countries and causes over decades – from children saluting in a Nazi party poster to a mother posing with a baby and a gun in a revolutionary image. “Sometimes these images portray children as empowered political actors, other times as a vulnerable population in need of rescue,” she says. “It’s not uncommon even today – think of politicians kissing babies, or the use of young children to elicit emotion in television advertising. It’s not necessarily bad – but it’s not necessarily in the child’s best interests.”

Dubinsky believes we need to better understand how our actions are motivated by our perception of children in various situations. “Our human love for children shouldn’t overshadow their rights,” she says. “Children are much more astute than we generally acknowledge. It’s time to consider how they represent themselves, rather than always speaking in their name.”