When a former Democratic staffer asked some basic questions about Judge Amy Coney Barrett and her husband’s adoption of two children from Haiti, all hell broke loose. A conservative radio show host, in the current overblown fashion of radio talk show hosts, called the questions the “vengeful will of an angry mob, with the selfish mind of a spoiled child.” Senator Tom Cotton, who has set up a “war room” to deal with Judge Barrett’s nomination, tweeted that the questions were “Disgusting. The left now smearing Amy Coney Barrett for adopting children.”
Thus, the simple issue of raising questions about the Barretts’ two intercountry adoptions became a touchstone, one built on an issue that gets packaged any number of ways, depending generally on your political views, background, and connection to adoption. For conservative Republicans who support the nomination, inquiries into the Barretts’ adoptions are considered “off limits,” outrageous even, an affront to the unquestioning “beauty” and necessity of adoption itself. For opponents of Judge Barrett’s nomination—and for critics of intercountry adoption generally—questions have been raised about the process the Barretts followed, specifically whether the adoptions were legal, transparent, and involved the relinquishment of an actual orphan, especially the 2010 adoption during Haiti’s recovery from a devastating earthquake. The issue for many critics thus became one of structure, questioning intercountry adoption itself and raising issues that have long plagued the packaging and marketing of “adoptable” children, primarily adoptees of color who are born in developing countries and adopted by white parents.
The Few Facts As We Know Them
Given the secrecy that surrounds adoptions generally, little specifically is known about the adoptions other than the information supplied by Judge Barrett and her husband. And while I feel strongly that we should keep their children out of the spotlight as much as possible, the Barretts—particularly Judge Barrett herself—has not had an issue introducing her kids at hearings and meetings and has specifically highlighted her adoptive children and their adoptions in numerous public statements. It ultimately has become part of her judicial and conservative brand, an obvious counterweight and supplement to her judicial and personal views in opposition to legal abortion.
We know little about the first adoption other than Vivian was adopted at 14 months old, in approximately 2007, and had previously lived in a Haitian orphanage.
The second adoption of John Peter, however, occurred during a chaotic and troubling period in Haiti immediately after a massive 2010 earthquake, when Christian evangelists and adoption opportunists—primarily from the United States, France, and Canada— rushed in to adopt thousands of suddenly available “earthquake orphans.” While the Barretts had apparently started the adoption process for John Peter prior to the earthquake, it had ground to a halt and they had ultimately decided not to adopt in December 2009. Judge Barrett explained that:
there were a number of paperwork snafus and it looked like it wasn’t going to happen and then they told us it wasn’t going to happen because of paperwork things had just gone south. And so mentally and emotionally we had closed that door.
Everything changed when the massive earthquake hit the island less than a month later, on January 12, 2010. As Judge Barrett explained:
the adoption agency called us and said any child who had an adoption in progress at the time that the earthquake happened the State Department will lift some of the paperwork requirements that were keeping them in the country. So are you still willing to take him [and we] said of course. They said ‘well we’re not we’re not sure that we’ll be able to get him out we’ll see.’ Everything was very fluid at that point.A Conversation with Judge Amy Coney Barrett ’97 J.D. (Full Interview), YouTube, August 8, 2019.
Ultimately they either adopted John Peter in Haiti or, more likely at the time, obtained a humanitarian visa from U.S. immigration authorities to bring him to United States prior to finalizing the adoption here and, presumably, securing U.S. citizenship for him later. He arrived with Jesse Barrett in Chicago (and ultimately the Barretts’ home in South Bend, Indiana) as a three-year old at the end of January 2010, during the height of Haiti’s natural disaster and in the middle of a humanitarian intercountry adoption crisis. As Kathryn Joyce and others have reported, this came at a time of intense pressure from evangelicals, missionaries, and U.S. politicians to speed up the adoption process and to fast-track already-approved adoptions (those already with a court order in Haiti) as well as a more ambiguous set of adoptions involving children who had not yet been approved for adoption but had nevertheless been matched with families. According to Joyce, it didn’t necessarily matter if the orphanage or home where the child lived at the time was damaged or destroyed or even affected by the earthquake. It only mattered that the children appeared available. John Peter was apparently one of these children.
Do these set of facts—at least those that we can gather from available public records and statements— warrant inquiries into the adoptions as part of the Supreme Court nomination process? Of course they do. Given the chaos associated with adoptions in Haiti in 2010, we deserve not only to ask some basic questions but to get accurate answers from the Barretts, without being called “spoiled children” by political hacks and supporters. Some basic questions include:
- What agency handled the adoptions?
- What is the record of that agency in facilitating intercountry adoptions from Haiti and elsewhere?
- What “paperwork snafus” existed in December 2019 that “closed the door” to John Peter’s adoption?
- How did those paperwork snafus disappear over the next month?
- How was John Peter’s adoption handled during the midst of a natural catastrophe in Haiti?
- Did John Peter have available family in Haiti and did he meet U.S. immigration law’s definition of orphan at the time?
How those questions and others are asked and answered—given that the Barrett kids are still kids—is important. I’m an adoptee myself, though born in the United States. I can empathize with adopted children who are suddenly thrown into the limelight and whose identity and legal origins are questioned, if not used as a political kickball in a national arena. The adoptees in the middle of this—Vivian and John Peter—must be centered. And if you want to hear from intercountry adoptees themselves, including those who speak about and publish research about intercountry adoption, I’ve listed some resources here. I’d recommend talking to an intercountry adoptee before spouting off about what it means to be adopted.
Questioning Intercountry Adoption (or Any Adoption At All)
Well-documented corruption has followed much of intercountry adoption wherever it goes, especially in developing countries. Guatemala, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo are just some of the countries where corruption has plagued adoption, to the extent that some countries either ban intercountry adoption altogether (Ethiopia) or the U.S. bars its citizens from adopting from those countries (Guatemala). This does not mean that the Barretts engaged in corruption or took advantage of it, but the Senate Judiciary Committee and the American people especially deserve to know more about the context of John Peter’s adoption in 2010. After all, the Barretts had all but abandoned the adoption in December 2019 because of unexplained “paperwork snafus.” Yet one month later—after an earthquake rocked Haiti and the legal requirements to adopt from the country radically changed—they ended up a month later with a three-year old child in their Indiana home.
Do I think that the Judiciary Committee will pursue any line of questioning? No, I don’t. After all, Senators and well-connected government officials also had their hand in the Haiti adoption crisis in 2010. Ed Rendell, the democratic governor of Pennsylvania at the time, flew 54 children to Pennsylvania from Haiti, though it turned out later that at least ten of the children were not even in any process to be adopted from the country. Senator Amy Klobuchar, the former democratic presidential candidate and a current member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, helped bring 39 Haitian children to Minnesota and urged fast-tracking of others for adoption in Minnesota. Because she was one of the first Senate representatives on the ground in Haiti, it’s possible that she can bring more context to adoptions from Haiti at that time, and seek answers from the Barretts about John Peter’s adoption. My guess, though, is she’ll stay far away from it. After all, as Kathryn Joyce wrote about corruption in intercountry adoption and the Christian evangelism driving it:
Government officials often bend to pressure from constituents when it comes to adoption, seizing the opportunity for an easy PR boost and not recognizing the rationale behind adoption restrictions.—Kathryn Joyce, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, Public Affairs: New York (2013), p. 21.
The politicization of the Barretts’ adoptions from Haiti (which they’ve clearly politicized themselves) highlights the rift between concept and reality in intercountry adoption. The Barretts and many others, particularly evangelical Christians, portray intercountry adoption as a solution to the “problem” of orphaned children, though the term “orphan” has often been misappropriated to mean “available” and may not mean that the child has no family members or parents still alive. Behind the “solution” to orphan children is yet another purpose: Christianizing children of color by adding them to white Christian families and ultimately to “God’s flock.”
Intercountry adoptees, especially those whose U.S. citizenship remain in limbo or whose experiences do not match the ideological glowing rhetoric of adoption, provide a much more critical and personal perspective, one that is necessary whenever intercountry adoption is discussed. I ask that you listen to those voices and, if intercountry adoption is questioned, you take a step back and take into account the reality of lived experiences, which will be varied but will often be critical. And if you want a thorough adoptee-driven perspective—one that needs to be seen, heard, and understood—I suggest you read through adoptee Daniel Drennan ElAwar’s excellent 30 Answers to 30 Questions, which he put together as part of the annual “National Adoption Awareness Month,” celebrated in November. As Professor Drennan ElAwar writes when he talks about the questioning of adoption and adoptees generally:
the answers to the questions [about adoption], when removed from a personal or individual emotional plane, and instead focusing on the economic and political realm, are harder to justify by those in power—and thus the retaliation, the backlash, and the twisted framing of the dominant culture of those seeking infants as being somehow minority, victimized, and on the defensive.National anti-adoption awareness month: 30 answers to 30 questions, Daniel Drennan ElAwar, November 1, 2013
That’s what we are seeing today: over-the-top defensiveness on the part of those whose faith and world outlook depend on the “beautification” of adoption and who use adoption as a means to expand Christianity while overlooking issues of cultural heritage, poverty, family support, and economic exploitation. Ask away. We need answers.