Feature Stories

Somebody’s Children

Examining adoption and reproduction politics across race, culture, and country
  • Mother and child in Ixil community in the highlands of Guatemala.

Briggs’ recent book, Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption, is the 2012 winner of the Organization of American Historians James A. Rawley Prize.

Adoption in all its many forms - across race and nationality - is regularly in the news as we become an increasingly global world. UMass Amherst professor Laura Briggs is illuminating some of the major sociopolitical factors linked to transnational adoption and other social welfare policies.

Briggs, chair of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department, weaves together her expertise in international policy, feminist science studies, and reproductive politics to better understand the underlying dynamics and politics of adoption and care-giving. This interdisciplinary and intersectional approach exemplifies the work of the department.

Briggs’ recent book, Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption, is the 2012 winner of the James A. Rawley Prize, given annually by the Organization of American Historians for the best book dealing with the history of race relations in the United States.

Somebody’s Children is notable for its unique approach to the issues surrounding adoption; focusing on transracial adoption within the United States and transnational adoption across the Americas, both from the perspective of the birth families. Briggs examines community vulnerability on both a national and transnational scale, and the ways in which it indicates a country’s sociopolitical and economic position.

“It’s a very different take on transnational adoption, which usually starts with adoptive families or adopting nations and works backwards from there. I was trying as best as I could to start from the birth families and work forward,” Briggs says.

Domestically, she examines the politics of transracial adoption of black and Native American children and its relationship to welfare policies. For her analysis of the politics of transnational adoption, she has traveled to Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and other Latin American countries to conduct investigative fieldwork.  She has worked with nonprofit organizations including Pro Busqueda and Todos Por El Reencuentro, two Latin-American non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) that focus on searching for children who disappeared during civil war. Working hand-in-hand with these NGO’s, lawyers, activists, and other researchers, Briggs studies postwar communities across the Americas and beyond to determine how and why these children are brought to the United States for adoption.

“For a mom or a couple to lose their kids to strangers, or relinquish their children to strangers, is a sign of social or political tragedy. Something terrible must have happened not only to them but to their community for them to be that socially naked, and that’s the story I’m trying to bring our attention to,” Briggs says.

Transnational adoption is a booming trend that Briggs argues targets the socially vulnerable. In Latin America, it is war, disenfranchisement, and impoverishment that weaken communities, making it difficult to raise children. Briggs is unearthing stories of kidnapped children, a significant factor contributing to the influx of adoptive children, as these youth are often sent to the United States.  

Briggs hopes to see a day where the underlying issues tied to adoption are a more mainstream concern.

“There’s a trend among scholars and journalists to raise increasingly critical questions about adoption,” Briggs says, adding that adoption is gradually rising to the forefront as a prominent issue.

Briggs’ new research will culminate in a book, All Politics are Reproductive Politics, which focuses on welfare reform, immigration, gay marriage, and other issues in the political limelight, drawing attention to their ties to reproductive politics and care labor.  In this research, Briggs is illuminating the care labor force and its relationship to the illegal immigrant population in the United States.

“I’m concerned about questions of globalization, I’m concerned about problems of race and racism …and why some people get poor and some people get rich,” Briggs says.

Briggs describes the care labor market as a vicious cycle in which Latin American mothers leave their children to join the U.S. care labor force and care for the children of middle-class American families. The result is a neglected population of Latin American youth who are often transitioned to kinship care or even orphanages because their mothers cannot provide adequate care.

The extensive, cross-cultural work that Briggs conducts in her research and shares as an educator in the classroom speaks directly to her aspirations to make a difference. By tracking the intersection and influence of war, the economy, and policy she works to elucidate the effect of social welfare policies such as transnational adoption.

“I want the world to be a better place for women and children. The well being of each of us is critical to the wellbeing of all of us”, Briggs says.

Diana Alsabe '15