Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Introductory Essay

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Introductory Essay

Article excerpt

Introductory Essay

Suppose you want to write

Of a woman braiding

Another woman's hair--

Straight down, or with beads and shells

In three-strand plaits or corn-rows--

You had better know the thickness

The length the pattern

Why she decides to braid her hair

How it is done to her

What country it happens in

What else happens in that country

You have to know these things

--Adrienne Rich, "North American Time"

Although Adrienne Rich tells us we "have to know these things," we are often willingly blind to the rich stories of those with whom we are most intimate. You may braid someone's hair without knowing very much about her. You may even write about it, though the writing would rapidly become very dull. In this issue of Law & Society Review, the authors examine how legal regimes facilitate knowing (and ignoring) stories when making families. For people seeking to adopt a child in western national states, the law has sometimes made it easy not to know about who bore a child, why she is available for adoption, and why a family might have raised her one way rather than another-braiding her hair in cornrows or in plaits. Also, in intercountry adoption, children often arrive with no history available, a condition legal adoption allows and often facilitates. We need not know "what else happens in that country." Recent scholarship notes the historical and cultural specificity of the practice of ignoring. Adoptees, mothers who have placed their children for adoption, and adoptive parents have all claimed a right to know their own or their child's history, sometimes for different reasons. Scholars have followed, explaining that creating an "as if"family, in which all of this knowledge is foreclosed, does not fit with the experience of families. Articles in this issue address three interlocking themes that question the practice of not knowing: the commodification of children and family in a market economy, contests over the framework of choice in the making of a family, and the identity of children.

The legal framework of rights colors the entire discussion. With all the routes to becoming parents that have opened, many adults may think they have a right to a child, even if no positive law grants it (Sacker, 2000). Gay and lesbian parents claim rights to raise children. The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption (1993) holds that children should have a family, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) provides for the child's right to an identity. In the United States, adult adoptees claim a right to know their biological heritage; and some birth mothers claim a right to know the children they have placed, while others claim a right to privacy against searching for one's birth parents. Legal regulations that attempt to recognize rights and fix children in one home and with one family set the context for explorations of how law makes families.

Plenary adoption, in which children are fully transferred from one set of parents to another, has become the dominant legal model for the transfer of children. Plenary adoption, or even fostering of children sent far away, ensures that adoptive parents know only the most general story of why a family decided to place a child for adoption or what that meant to them. Even if a sending country keeps good records, children may not grow up knowing both sets of parents. In the 19th century charity organizations sent children west from New York City on orphan trains; placing organizations only occasionally kept records that allowed children to track their parents (Carp 1998:9-13). With the development of the profession of social work, record-keeping in licensed adoption agencies became much better. Through the early 20th century, adoptees could ask placing agencies for identifying information, and they often obtained it. Still, the practice of placing children for adoption with strangers and through agencies meant that this type of adoption excluded knowledge about how a child got to be where she was. …

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