Guest Post: The Business Of Adoption Agencies From The Inside (A Korean American Adoptee's Perspective)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

By Kevin

Please bear with me as I indulge some of my personal rants. Specifically, please be patient as I vent about the largest adoption agency in the lovely state of Minnesota.

My name is Kevin, and I’m what some call a KAD – Korean adoptee. Yes, I’m Asian. Yes, I’m Korean. Yes, I’m transracial. Yes, I love me some kimchi. And, no, strange girl from UCLA who opted to go off on Asian students, I don’t talk on the phone in the library.

I’m also a recovering “agency person” as well. A few years ago I worked for the largest adoption agency (as well as the second largest agency) in Minnesota.

Here begins my story . . .

During my time with this agency, I was a part of the team that recruited new, potential adoptive parents. I even worked with adoptive parents after they finalized their adoption to recruit other adoptive parents! It was fantastic. I was pretty good at my craft. Not as great as Blake from Glengarry Glen Ross, but I was a “closer.” Let’s just put it this way. There was a demand for a particular “product” and I helped meet that demand. Heck, I would go as far as to say that I even helped create a need for this demand.

At the same time, I was given the task of expanding the agency’s relationship with international and domestic adult adoptees, a significant group in its “constituency” with which it had an up-and-down relationship. Let’s just say that this agency had a knack for pissing off adoptees; it had a habit of blowing off adoptees and their thoughts and perspectives. In performing my duties as assigned, I attempted to cultivate deep relationships with some of the more vocal and active members of the adoptee community. I did so by reaching out to adult adoptees, meeting with them in person, inviting them into the agency to talk with members of the leadership, setting up an adoptee forum, creating an adult adoptee “advisory group,” etc. You know. I did all of that “relationship building” stuff.

Simultaneously, in performing my duties as assigned, I confronted, head on, the vocal and active members of the adoptee community who took issues with the practice and business of adoption. For instance, I had no qualms about openly criticizing adoptees involved in Adoptee Solidarity Korea (ASK) and Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea (TRACK)!

Again, I was pretty good at my craft. I wasn’t a “closer,” but, at the very least, many of the adoptees with whom I engaged trusted that I was working on their behalf, which I too believed.

I was so naïve . . .

In the whole scheme of things, this adoption agency was good to me. It brought me to the states as a seven year old and placed me with my adoptive family in rural Minnesota. It was somewhat involved in my reconnection with my birth family in Korea. It additionally created a new position for me after I was let go by the second largest adoption agency in the state. And I made lifelong friends there; I consider one of its past vice presidents and directors true adoption advocates. Yeah, it was good to me.

Conversely, I was good for the agency. What better way to recruit adoptive parents than have a composed, well adjusted, transracial Korean adoptee who loves adoption? (“It’s the best thing since milk and cookies!”) What better way to engage potentially pissy adult adoptees than with an adoptee who openly talked about his pissy, non-well adjusted past? What better way to confront strong adoptees, with constructive arguments against adoption than with another adoptee who could easily express, with conviction, equally compelling arguments in support of adoption? Yeah, I, the poster boy transracial adoptee, was good for the agency. I played the “good Asian” role very well.

As they say, all good things must come to an end. I left the agency in 2006, absolutely disgruntled with the whole “adoption thing.” Through my job, I came into more contact with other professionals from different agencies and much of what I saw didn’t please me. Many adoption professionals, for example, are frankly patronizing to adoptees who work in agencies: “Oh, isn’t that precious? An adoptee who’s ‘giving back.’ Good for you.”

Some are self aggrandizing. “This is God’s work. I’m saving the world’s children! Do you know how many children I’ve placed?” The job got me to a point in which I started getting a tad bit pissy at certain adoptive parents. Some adoptive parents ask the most obscene questions: “Has my son’s teenage birthmother had another child so that she can put him/her up for adoption? Boy, my son would love to have a sibling!”

Some are the most entitled people in the universe: “Would it be possible for me to expedite the Russian adoption process for my wife and me? We could just pay the $35K right now. We have the money. Do you want a donation?” Some adoptive parents, in particular adoptive parents who work for adoption agencies, are frankly clueless: “Why would any adult adoptee have ill feelings about adoption agencies? We gave them good homes!” (uttered by a current president of a well known agency).

The job also got me to a point in which I started getting frustrated with certain adoptees. Let’s face it. Some of us adoptees are the most self centered individuals, and some of us just take ourselves way too seriously: “We bear all of the burdens in adoption!”, ”Do you know how hard I work in this adoption agency to make sure that the much needed voices of adult adoptees are heard? Do you have any idea how important that is? Don’t even think about questioning my motivation!” (uttered by me *sigh*).

The job, more than anything else, got me to a point in which I started questioning myself. After leaving the agency, I repeatedly asked “Have I been wrong this entire time?”

Fast forward. Within the last year, I had an employment conversation with the largest adoption agency in Minnesota, well, at least a few members of the agency’s leadership. I approached the agency not because I needed a job (I offered to take a very drastic pay cut.) Rather, I approached the agency because, like many nonprofits, the agency was financially struggling. As a result, it was laying off a number of people (individuals whom I considered friends) even though, in my estimation, some of the people the agency was letting go were the best employees for aiding the agency to rebound financially. Furthermore, the agency was hacking away at its already minuscule post adoption education budget when, at least in my estimation, post adoption services could actually be the “money maker.”

For me, as a fundraiser (the career path I chose after leaving adoption) I saw a great opportunity for this agency: what better time than now to reach out to adoptive parents and adoptees? What better time than now to ask for them to reconnect and remold the agency, to make it a better place?”

I talked with a few of the agency’s leadership about the idea of me rejoining “the team” to help fundraise. We talked about how I could help the agency to philanthropically engage adoptive parents and adult adoptees: to work with the leadership in creating lifelong relationships with adoptive parents and adoptees; to work with adoptive parents and adoptees to support the agency’s general operating expenses and post adoption programs. Gasp! I even suggested for this agency to reach out to the Korean adoptees living in Korea who are advocating for the end of international adoption in that country. What a statement it would make if the largest Minnesota adoption agency, in conjunction with their international counterparts in Korea, crafted a plan with ASK and TRACK that would aid Korea in thoughtfully ending international adoption!

I was so naïve . . .

The conversation went sour. The folks with whom I had been in talks decided that, if I were to join the team, I would only raise money for humanitarian aid – not for general operating costs and certainly not for post adoption education.

I fumed. I declined the employment opportunity.

Why? What’s wrong with humanitarian aid you ask?

Altruism definitely plays a key role for adoption agencies that have humanitarian aid programs. Many of these programs are run very well and support some fantastic endeavors in orphanages and child caring institutions.

However, there’s another reason why adoption agencies have humanitarian aid programs. Money. Money plays another key role for adoption agencies that have humanitarian aid programs. Humanitarian aid programs function as a way for adoption agencies to keep their international country partners (i.e., the individuals running institutions like orphanages) happy: “Hey, my favorite international partner in China! Did that supply of goods make it to your place? How’s that building we helped you renovate? You know there’s way more where that came from!” Happy country partners are much more apt to make more referrals, i.e., the children whom the partner agencies recommend for waiting parents to adopt. For adoption agencies in the US, more referrals mean more families moving through the adoption process. More families moving through the adoption process means more money for agencies.

Oh, right. I’ve failed to mention that the agency in question was having referral problems, that referrals weren’t coming quickly for them . . .

To put all of this differently, the agency was, once again, asking for me to help them “create” more adoptive parents and adoptees. They wanted me to do so without focusing time on another pivotal component in the field of adoption – post adoption education, support, and outreach for families and adoptees after the fact, something that the agency promises. Trust me folks. There is a significant amount of adoptive families and adoptees out there who would benefit from something as straightforward as an outreach program.

Yeah. Intentionally or not, the agency wanted me, a former orphan and a person who identifies as a transracial Koreaan adoptee, to sell out my own kind . . . again.

When I left this agency the first time, I absolutely felt as though I had sold out my own kind. Much of the anger I felt was directed internally. I had, for years, advocated for the business of adoption, and I had perpetuated one of the biggest lies in adoption – adoption agencies are there for adoptive parents and, most importantly, the adoptees for the rest of their lives.
Patently false. Absolute bullshit.

Most adoption agencies only care about the creation of adoptive families. The Minnesota agency in question serves as an example. Contrary to what the largest adoption agency in Minnesota says, its post adoption program exists only on paper (to interested folks, check out the agency’s website, read what is supposedly offered, and then call the agency to obtain more details. You’ll be very disappointed after the phone call). But, hey! If one takes a look at the agency’s last newsletter, there are plenty of events and information sessions for individuals who are interested in adopting and for potential adoptive parents who are in the process of adopting.

From what I understand, the agency has no plans to ramp up its post adoption services. To quote one of the individuals from the agency’s leadership, “Post adoption has never brought in enough money.” It has no plans, even though there is a great need for post adoption education, outreach, and support in the state of Minnesota, which is home to tens of thousands of adoptees. It has no plans, even though the agency has no qualms about placing children of color into heavily Caucasian communities in Metro and Outstate Minnesota.

I can see it coming now. The largest adoption agency is going to say, “Listen. I don’t know what planet you live on, but we’re in a recession. We can’t afford to have a lively post adoption program. And, you know what, we offer way more than the other agencies.” Well, in case the agency decides to respond in this particular manner, I have a few suggestions:

1. Perhaps it’s time for you to focus some attention to raising money for areas within the agency that actually matter. Perhaps it’s time for you to raise money for programs that people find of interest.

2. Perhaps it’s time for you to get creative. Perhaps it’s not working for you to continue the practices that you’ve been using for the last however many years. Perhaps your ideas are stagnant.

3. Perhaps it’s time for you to develop deeper relationships with some of your oldest constituents. Perhaps it’s time to work with adoptees, adoptive parents, and birthparents as equal partners.

4. Perhaps you would be surprised by all that you could accomplish if you quit being so interested in money.

5. Perhaps you’ll surprise many of us, but most likely not. Who am I kidding . . .

Ok! That wraps up my rant! If none of it makes sense, so be it!

And oh…before I forget. To the largest adoption agency in Minnesota . . .

I just brought it. I invite you to, ah, bring it.