An Afghan family that arrived in the U.S. last year has sued a Marine, Joshua Mast, for kidnapping a three-year-old girl. After the girl’s immediate family was killed in a 2019 U.S. raid, Mast began “aggressively” petitioning to adopt her—though the Afghan government eventually located and placed her with her cousin and his wife, who raised the girl for two years. Arriving in the U.S. during the 2021 withdrawal with Mast’s assistance, the couple were then informed that a U.S. court had granted Joshua Mast legal custody of the girl, who was taken from the couple by force at Fort Pickett National Guard Base. “There is nothing to celebrate without her,” said her cousin, who was unaware of Mast’s intentions and is now awaiting the outcome in Texas with his wife and newborn. “We are counting the moments and the days until she will come home” (AP).
This case is shocking for many reasons. A U.S. court steamrolled international humanitarian norms and Afghan law to assign the citizen of a foreign country to a U.S. couple. It was decided that these strangers would do a better job raising this child than her actual family members, who were written off when she was declared an “orphaned, undocumented, stateless minor” (AP). And adoption was only possible because her immediate family was killed in an attack by the compatriots of the man who would legally kidnap her. Though international adoption lawyers are “baffled” by the case’s irregularities, they exemplify the troubling dynamics present in international adoption from the beginning.
• Support the Afghan Women’s Mission.
• Donate to reproductive justice and feminist organizations in the Global South like Fondo MARIA* (donate), the Institute for Women Migrants (donate), and the Global Pediatric Alliance.
• Support the Adoptee Citizenship Act to ensure all international adoptees get citizenship.
• Follow Nodutdol, Raha Feminist Collective, and Dissenters to learn how to oppose US military intervention and exploitative practices that create orphans for the adoption system.
During the Korean War, American forces intentionally targeted civilian infrastructure, deforested nearly the entire peninsula with napalm, and killed 20% of the north’s population (Truthout, Washington Post). South Korea became one of the poorest countries in the world (Brookings). Some women survived by having sex with American occupying forces. Their mixed-race children were the first international adoptees (USA Today).
The adoption of full-blooded Koreans, like myself, followed since outperforming the communist North was prioritized over supporting single mothers (The Korea Herald). Adoption, wrote adoptee Maija E. Brown, created “a paternal attitude between Korea and the U.S., where white Americans rescued Asian orphans, while concealing the U.S. responsibility in the Korean War” (University of Minnesota). In the words of Ju-Jyun Park, it’s one of the ways “the war lives on as a material fact” (The New Inquiry).
Approximately 200,000 Korean children like me were mostly adopted by U.S. families (NBC News). Thousands came from countries including Guatemala, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Thailand (Considering Adoption). We’re told our birth families and countries lacked the desire or means to take care of us, with U.S. families and governmental agencies cast as charitable humanitarians and allies. But in adoption, politics, power, race, and war play central roles (TNI).
Americans don’t get adoptees from England or France. Adoptees come from poor countries to rich ones and, more often than not, from mothers of color to white families. The U.S. has often caused the poverty of the countries forced to send children. The Democratic Republic of the Congo was destabilized when the United States helped overthrow Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in the 1960s (Guardian). Today, the extraction of metals like coltan for the world market drives domestic conflict (Dissent). Just as in Korea, the U.S. swept in to “save” children whose society couldn’t support them only because of U.S. actions. When trying to get custody, Joshua Mast claimed that if left with her family, the girl might be killed by a U.S. military strike (AP).
In some countries, parents place children in orphanages temporarily during hard times. Some returned only to find their child was sent to a different country in their absence (CNN, Firstpost). Other children are adopted after being kidnapped by child smugglers (ABC News). Some adoptees were not correctly registered for U.S. citizenship (The Intercept). Years later, they find they’re subject to deportation to countries they don’t remember (NBC News). The demand for adoptees is so strong that the welfare of actual adoptees can be an afterthought.
There are also problematic racial aspects to adoption. Black children cost less to adopt than white children (NPR). Of the few American babies adopted in other countries, a numerical majority are Black (CNN). And while only 10% of marriages are between people of different races, 44% of adoptions are transracial, with 77% of adoptive parents being white (Census, Christian Science Monitor). This means that many white people won’t marry a person of color but want to adopt a non-white child (Plan A Magazine). Many non-white adoptees grow up in “racial isolation” in almost exclusively white environments (Yes! Magazine).
Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author and founding director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, said there’s “a belief that too many White people have: if they have or adopt a child of color, then they can’t be racist” (Twitter). Systemic racism doesn’t disappear because an adoptive parent “doesn’t see race.” Adoptees need a multiracial community to provide the resources and resiliency to survive in a white supremacist society, skills that even well-intentioned white parents can’t provide.
We should interrogate adoption politics and the transfer of resources and children from poor countries to rich ones. We should question the use of children as markers of diversity. We should undo neocolonial structures (YouTube) that deny poor women of color the social support and reproductive care that would stop orphanages from filling up with potential adoptees in the first place.
• There’s a problematic history to transracial and international adoption politics.
• The countries that send children to the United States are often poor due to U.S. military and government actions.
• A color-blind savior attitude towards adoption is not allyship.