Orphans and Their Parents

A couple of years ago, we were saints--now we are evil. Americans have been adopting Vietnamese children quietly for years. It is a lifetime commitment for all of us. But the "babylift" had to happen fast--it couldn't be done quietly--and things never work right when they're done fast. The reaction to it was that it was bad. But lots of these kids were almost dead. Even if the communists do have fantastic day care centers, the children would have died before they could be set up. We were talking about kids who right then needed help. Now all the racist comments they're subjected to will become part of their heritage. Pam Larsen, adoptive parent of a Cambodian and two Vietnamese children

For more than a month after the airlift of orphaned and abandoned Vietnamese children that preceded the collapse of the Thieu regime, the adoptive American parents of these children have felt dogged by hostility. The Catholic Relief Services and the American Friends Service Committee--groups that might have been involved in the airlift in Vietnam--refused to have any part in it. The revolutionary government in South Vietnam, various antiwar groups in the United States and "Doonesbury" joined the list of those who condemn the adoption of war orphans and question the motives of their American families. These parents were accused of eleventh-hour guilt reactions, robbing Vietnam yet again of its natural resources and violating the Geneva convention that requires that whenever possible, war orphans should be educated within their own culture. Controversy over the children was superseded by the influx of Vietnamese refugees, but even as the outcry over the refugees seems to be subsiding, some adoptive parents continue to experience derogatory remarks in supermarkets or the disapproval of neighbors.

Their reaction in some cases is bitter, in others disturbed but almost taking the hostility for granted. Overall, they seem to share a conviction that adopting their children was right and that they are sensitive enough to the issues involved in interracial adoption to raise a foreign child.

"Most of the parents I know are not ambivalent about having the kids." Mary Williams, the adoptive mother of four children, two of them Vietnamese, says. "The children require enormous amounts of effort, and the parents try to think carefully about what they do for them. The parents themselves cover the range of philosophical and political positions--they are hard to characterize except that they are nurturing people. They love children and they're the kind of people who are willing to stand up and be counted."

The inter-country adoption process is elaborate. Richard Darby, adoption director of International Adoptions Inc.--a program set up by My Friends House, a Newton organization which ran a nutrition center in Saigon--says that most prospective parents have considered adoption for at least one or two years before applying. Either before or after the prospective parents submit their application, a licensed state or religious organization studies their home, usually for two months, to determine their motives and their ability to rear a child from another culture. After the home-study, it may take a year or longer before the parents are matched with a child and the adoption process is completed. Many of the people involved in the adoption of foreign children fee, that in the furor over the orphan airlift, many critics completely overlooked the amount of time, thinking and preparation that goes into adoption, and focused instead on the would-be parents who rushed to adoption agencies at the time. "There was a lot of emotionalism prompted by the Vietnam crisis," Darby acknowledges. "Most of the agencies accepted few of the applications made at that time."


Before the airlift, about 2700 Vietnamese children had been placed in American homes. Sixty came to Massachusetts, and the airlift brought some 40 more to the state. According to Williams, roughly 30 per cent of the children are not full Vietnamese. To a large degree, all the children have entered a small community within the larger one--the world of adoptive parents and related agencies and organizations.

Parents of Vietnamese children, organized as the Friends of Children--Vietnam, made preparations before the airlift to handle a large number of children unassigned to parents if they came to the state. Working with Children's Hospital, they set up a Vietnamese clinic to screen the children for disease. "The children arrived in horrible physical shape," Williams said. "The spectrum between healthy and unhealthy was very small." Local doctors, nurses and dentists volunteered, she says, to treat everything from syphilis to scabies.

A larger organization, the Open Door Society, has a statewide membership of 500 couples and single adoptive parents. Formerly called Families for Interracial Adoption, the Open Door Society is open to all adoptive families and provides support and advice throughout the adoption process. Local branches of the society sponsor regular evening sessions to discuss problems and adjustments arising from adoption, as well as such activities as overnight camping trips, picnics, programs on Indian lore and other cultures, and combined Tet and Martin Luther King Day celebrations. Other organizations conduct home-studies and act as bridges to inter-country adoption agencies in other states. For example, International Adoptions concentrates on the "hard-to-place" child--children who are handicapped or of mixed blood or older than the infants usually sought by adoptive parents. It has placed 17 children in Massachusetts over the last year.

Adoptive parents and these groups' administrators know each other and get together often, both formally and socially. Williams, who recently joined her husband in acting as godparents to friends' adopted Cambodian child, says. "It's natural for families to search out other families where the children would be comfortable. But we don't see each other exclusively--that would be unhealthy."

Philosophically the Open Door Society is committed to the belief that "all children have the right to a loving, permanent family." "You have to be ready to see a child who needs you, not one that you need," Louise Lazare, the adoptive mother of seven children, three of them Vietnamese, says. "You have to have an interest in the country and a delight in the child for what he is." Lazare says that most of the parents she knows well who have adopted Vietnamese children were involved in the antiwar movement but, she adds, politics was not their sole motivation for adoption. "Those people would find that they could help the children in other ways," she says.

Before the large-scale adoption of Vietnamese children, most overseas adoptions came from Korea. Like Vietnam's, Williams says, Korea's traditional society will not fully recover from its war for generations. "Korea cannot support the children," Lazare says. "It's better for the child and for the country that they are adopted." But Lazare says that Vietnam has always been "riskier" for adoptive American parents than Korea. "The ages are guess-work and it is not the same as getting a healthy infant," she says. The Vietnamese children American families adopt are either orphaned or abandoned (in Vietnam, an "abandoned" child can be one whose parents have signed a release form to an orphanage.) They are the survivors of orphanages where a death rate of 90 per cent is common, thanks to epidemics, malnutrition and a lack of staff and supplies. "These kids are stronger than Americans," Lazare says. "Those who survive are unbelievable people they're going to make it."

Lazare seems less convinced, however, that the children would "make it" in their own country where the war and the appearance of handicapped and mixed-blood children have broken down the old system of caring for orphans through extended families. "The majority of children in Vietnam are in families, not orphanages," Lazare says. "The

Lazare says that Vietnamese society will not fully recover from the war, for generations. "It's better for the children and the country that they are adopted."1

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