Can you introduce yourself, where you were adopted from, why you were adopted?
My name is Joseph Terranova and I was adopted from Beirut, Lebanon in 1985. The reason I was adopted is quite complicated, but it boils down to the fact that there was a civil war in Lebanon going on in 1985, and many children had ended up being adopted from there at the time – we were adopted to countries all around Europe, and to the U.S as well.
Your life would have looked incredibly different if you were not adopted. Did you think about this often as a child? Do you still think about it now? Can you reflect and expand on this?
As a child, I didn’t really think about “what life would’ve been like” if I hadn’t been adopted. In reality, I felt really comfortable with my adoptive family, especially given the fact that my adoptive mother’s heritage is 100% Lebanese (a large reason she wanted to adopt from Lebanon).
It seems like I think about this question more as I get older. I think about what school I would’ve gone to, what religion I would be a part of, what language(s) I would’ve spoken – things like that. Most of all (and it may seem obvious), I think about who my family and friends would’ve been if I hadn’t been adopted – what they would’ve been like, how old they would’ve been, how many siblings I would’ve had. All of these “would haves” pop up for me periodically, and I have learned to never ignore them, as fear may have me do, but rather to reflect on and acknowledge them as honest questions in my life which have no definitive answer, but are nevertheless a part of who I am.
There is always loss involved in adoption. I want to make sure in this interview I don’t gloss over that. That’s why I believe that the “Flip The Scipt” narratives are incredibly important. What do you believe are some of the most prominent losses experienced by adoptees?
Well, I can only speak for myself here, though I’m sure other adoptees have experienced similar feelings. The biggest, and most obvious loss is that of biological family. I believe adoption is a beautiful thing; a Godly thing even. But in a very real sense, there is no true replacement for one’s biological family. And therein is the biggest loss, or losses, really – the loss of identity, culture (in an international setting) and in a profound sense, certainty.
In the last few years you were able to take a trip back to your birth country with your wife. Can you share a little bit about that trip with us? Did that bring about any change in your identity? Any sense of healing or peace? Any negative emotions?
In 2010 my wife and I went back to Lebanon. It was an unbelievable experience for the both of us, to see where I came from. My identity was strengthened by that trip in many ways, though probably less than it would’ve been had I not grown up with my adoptive Lebanese family (on my mother’s side). Not only did my wife and I go back to Beirut, but to the actual orphanage that I was adopted from. The most amazing thing about the trip back to the orphanage was that there was a nun (it is a Catholic-run orphanage) who was there in 1985. For me, it was like a connection like no other one in my life to any other person – a truly unique experience that I am thankful for. This experience, in a sense, brought about peace for me.
There are many folks who have been adopted internationally who have had negative experiences. Many feel that they were robbed of the chance to grow up in their family and culture of origin. As you know, poverty, poor governance and lack of proper infrastructure have created the space for many children to be wrongfully placed for international adoption. How does your experience differ from these situations?
The need for me to be adopted was straightforward and clear – it was a situation for which there was no other solution. But for many children, other options would potentially exist, through organizations such as Abide, who strives to keep children in their families if at all possible.
I have not had negative experiences in my life directly related to being an international adoptee. While unable to grow up in my biological family and culture of origin, I do not see this as something terribly negative, but something that was just meant to be the way it is. Everyone has hurtles in life, and some of my biggest ones have to do with the fact that I was adopted – but I don’t let this stand in the way – I am thankful to be where I am and to have had the blessing of growing up in a loving family.
How would you respond to the statement, “Adult adoptees are bitter, angry and want international adoption to be shut down so no other children need to experience the same things that they have experienced”? Is this an accurate generalization? Is this a far reach? Or do you think the truth lies somewhere in the middle?
Of course such a big generalization like this one cannot be taken seriously. Every adoptee’s experience is unique in their own way – some are good and some aren’t. It’s important to understand that sometimes “flawed” personality traits of adult adoptees are linked back to their adoptions, when in truth the fact that they’re adopted may have nothing at all to do with it. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.
You have spent quite a bit of time in Uganda working to economically empower vulnerable women. Now you live back in America but are still engaged in development work. Can you think back to your time in Uganda and reflect on the relationship you saw between economic empowerment of vulnerable families and international adoption? What connections can you draw now or were you able to draw then?
This is a really good question. The economic empowerment of vulnerable families must be understood as a powerful tool to keep children in their families, especially in a country such a Uganda, where both the poverty level and number of orphans is very high. I believe it is a great injustice when a family is unable to keep their children because of economic reasons – and this is why empowering vulnerable families as a measure to reduce the amount of unnecessary international adoptions is, for me, a cause well worth investing in.
Obviously the first priority should always be to keep a child in his or her biological family. In your case, this was not possible. In your case a domestic adoption placement was also not possible. Can you personalize your response and speak to how you feel about folks who speak out against children being placed for international adoption who do not have the option of staying in their biological family or being placed in a family domestically?
Yes, both of these solutions were not possible in my own personal situation. And though many adoptees have come from situations similar, rarely is it the case that both keeping a child in their biological family and domestic adoption are not options. To those who may speak out against children being placed for international adoption without these options, I would ask them what the alternative might be. If they would rather see a child sit in an orphanage or other forms of institutionalized care, I would certainly question that. I believe that is an example of a really unfortunate solution to an unfortunate problem, when there are better solutions that exist. International adoption can be a beautiful thing and to me, is a solution that is often warranted, but only when absolutely necessary.
Have you witnessed ethical adoptions happen from Uganda? Have you had friends adopt children where you believe every effort was made to keep the child with the birth family and then look for a domestic placement?
This question is a bit of a loaded one for me. While I’ve seen some ethical adoptions from Uganda, it pains me to say that these sorts of adoptions are rare compared to what I would call ‘unethical’ adoptions – adoptions where not every effort is made to either keep the child in his/her birth family, or look for a domestic solution. Too many times I have seen well-meaning but misguided adoptive parents know little to nothing about their perspective child’s background, and not ask questions or even consider for a moment what it actually means for that child to not have had the opportunity for solutions which are more in line with best practice. Too many times orphanages neglect to dig into the history of the child and especially to look for solutions other than international adoption. We have to face the fact that international adoption is a huge moneymaking business. I don’t doubt that good intentions are present, but good intentions aren’t enough, especially when it comes to the protection of children.
Because adoption does not come without incredible loss, we should work to keep children in their families first. What would you like to say to folks involved in the orphan care movement who continue to start orphanages and promote adoption of children when they could be strengthening families?
I would encourage those folks to do some research and to ask themselves and those supporting them some very serious questions. It may be uncomfortable, but unless we are introspective and ask ourselves about our motivations, we cannot come to the truth about the situation. And the truth about the situation is that often times it is our own selfish desires which encourage us to not take seriously the fact that real children and real FAMILIES are being affected by our decisions. Often times we want to be the hero. Often times we want to “change the world” without changing ourselves first. When one seriously wants what is best for orphans in our world, they must come to the realization that it is best for that child, if possible, to remain with their biological families. And if this isn’t possible, domestic adoptions are second best. Institutionalized care such as orphanages and children’s homes do not strengthen families or communities, but take children out of them. Yes, they’re sometimes necessary, but only when they are necessary should we consider promoting them as a solution to orphan care.