NewsAdopting Children From Abroad: Just a “White Savior Complex”?

Adopting Children From Abroad: Just a “White Savior Complex”?

A few days after her birth in Sri Lanka, Dilani Butink was adopted by a Dutch couple. Today she knows: The international adoption took place under dubious circumstances. Like thousands of others from the Global South, she has little chance of finding her biological parents. By Sarah Tekath

The first photo tells the whole story. A dark-skinned baby in a diaper that is far too large is placed in the arms of a white couple by a woman in a sari. Since Dilani Butink is a few days old, the couple are her Dutch adoptive parents. The photo was taken in a hotel in Sri Lanka, a few weeks later they all three left.

She grows up in Nijverdal. Apart from her brother, who is also adopted and not biologically related to her, there are hardly any BPOC children there. “I’m too brown to be Dutch,” she says. Today the 29-year-old lives in Amsterdam and works as a photographer. In her apartment she shows the documents that summarize her life: a baby picture album and two thick cardboard folders with papers.

Dilani Butink ist heute 29 Jahre alt.


Dilani Butink is 29 years old today.

What looks like a lot is actually nothing. Because file numbers, dates and names are not correct. “I was in Sri Lanka in 2015 and looked at birth registers and adoption center files. There is no person with my mother’s name and date of birth. The case numbers on my documents are held by another child in Colombo.”

In 2017, she saw a documentary about international adoptions by the TV channel BNNVara. “I knew now that I wasn’t crazy with my feeling that something was wrong. There are thousands like me.” This is confirmed by investigations by a Dutch government committee. These were commissioned in 2018 and published in February 2021. They show that from 1957 to 2019, more than 40,000 children in the Netherlands experienced the same thing.

Adoptions from abroad: False promises were made to the biological parents

They come from 80 different countries, but most come from China, Colombia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. The high point of adoptions from abroad was in 1981, when almost 1600 children were placed. In 2004 there was another increase to 1400, after which the curve falls continuously.

As with Dilani Butink, the local circumstances at the time remain unclear. The research of the journalists of “BNNVara” revealed that children were sold and false promises were made to the biological parents or that the death of the baby was fooled into their heads. As soon as the results of the investigation became known, the government decided to stop international adoptions immediately. The licenses granted by the state to the agencies are no longer valid.

Umgerechnet 3500 Euro hat die Adoption im Jahr 1991 gekostet.


The adoption cost the equivalent of 3,500 euros in 1991.

This also applies to the “Kind und Zukunft” agency, through which Dilani Butink was placed with her parents. Butink has the invoice that was issued for her in 1991: the sum was almost 7,300 guilders, which today corresponds to around 3,500 euros. The organization offered its services until October 2020. The homepage is still online. It says: “We have made it our goal to help children in need. We do this by mediating between people who live in the Netherlands and children who have no chance of a decent future in their countries of birth or whose existence is threatened.”

Child adoption: With price list as in the catalogue

A photo album on the website shows smiling children from China, Lesotho, Poland, Nigeria and Congo. A price list is also available. Compared to when the Butink family adopted Dilani, the cost had increased significantly – to more than 16,000 euros. Almost half of the sum went to the agency as ‘office expenses’. Before intercountry adoption was banned in the Netherlands, there were three other licensed agencies.

Butink explains the success of such agencies with the so-called “White Savior Complex”, i.e. the conviction of white people that they have to save children from countries they imagine to be underdeveloped. “Even my mother has trouble seeing what went wrong with my adoption. My father is more understanding. My mom told me she wanted to adopt black babies because she thought they were so cute. Sometimes I feel like I’m a project for them.”

International adoptions in Germany

The Adoption Assistance Act has been in force in Germany since April 2021. Since then it has been forbidden to adopt children from abroad unless the procedure is accompanied by a state-certified body. According to the Federal Department of Justice, international adoption is subject to government approval and control to prevent child trafficking and illicit placement.

The following offices are permitted to adopt children internationally: The central adoption offices of the state youth welfare offices and the adoption offices of the local youth welfare offices.

Independent institutions that have this approval include foreign placement agencies recognized by the State Youth Welfare Office and international organizations that have permission from the Federal Justice Office. FR

A pattern Kristen Cheney knows well. She is an anthropologist and professor at the “International Institute of Social Studies” at Erasmus University Rotterdam and has been dealing with the problematic system of international adoptions for years. Cheney says: “It’s not about the well-being of the child, it’s about the individual desire to have children.” According to the expert, it depends on what kind of child it is. “Nobody wants older street kids who could get difficult. Instead, the greatest demand is for healthy babies that are as young as possible. They are also the most expensive at most agencies. However, if a child is HIV-positive, the costs are considerably lower.”

Adoptions from abroad: How to feel like a lifesaver

Cheney sees structures of neo-colonialism in the idea of having to save a baby. “Many agencies still advertise today, for example when it comes to children from Uganda or Rwanda, with terms like war orphans – the war is long over.” Within this system of foreign adoptions, the wish of the benefactors is addressed above all: inside as To see lifesavers of a child. “Children are made objects of charity here. If it were really about the well-being of a child, that person could also adopt a child in their own country.”

Anthropologin Kristin Cheney.


Anthropologin Kristin Cheney.

It is true that families often state that strict rules in their own country make adoption more difficult, which is why they would switch to international adoption outside the EU, says Cheney. But it is also due to the fact that fewer and fewer healthy babies are being given up for adoption in the EU. In addition, there would be stricter controls within the EU, in accordance with the The Hague Convention. Parents would then look to other continents. “So my argument is that this demand for healthy babies creates supply that encourages corruption and fraud in international adoption.”

Cross-country adoptions: Numbers are also falling due to artificial insemination and surrogacy

The investigations by the aforementioned independent commission also show that the demand for domestic adoptions has fallen sharply, from around 500 completed cases in 1977 to 150 cases in 2019. Foreign adoptions were also only around 200 cases in 2019. “This decline is also aided by options such as artificial insemination and surrogacy,” Cheney said.

Mit dem „Pink Cloud Project“ soll das Thema mehr Aufmerksamkeit erhalten.


With the “Pink Cloud Project” the topic should receive more attention.

The neo-colonialist ideas also include the fact that most of the adopted children are orphans. According to Cheney, that’s not true. “According to UNICEF estimates, 80 percent of the children in the orphanages in Africa or Asia have parents or family members close to them.” The orphanages are used by the poorer population because they promise free care and schooling. “Parents are deliberately misinformed,” explains Cheney. They are told that the children, for example, go to school in the capital – while at the same time being put up for adoption.

From her point of view, it would be much more sustainable to donate the money to local families instead, to help them out of poverty. Because that is the reason why children would end up in dubious orphanages. “But in the case of a desire to have children, ‘saving’ a child just makes you feel better.” On the question of whether this system is acting in the best interests of the children, UNICEF published a report in 2014 and argued that intercountry adoption is only one should be an option if there were no comparable opportunities for help in your own country.

International adoptions: Many believe that they are only helping the children and families

Dilani Butink believes that this causes discord in many adoptive families. “Parents had this beautiful notion – sometimes for decades – that they saved a child from certain death. They don’t want to admit that it wasn’t like that at all and that they were part of a very questionable system.” That’s why the relationship with their adoptive mother is complicated. “I have a very good relationship with my father. He was also part of my search in Sri Lanka. But I think my mother has the ‘White Savior Complex’. To this day she still thinks everything went well and then we get into an argument about it.”

After the TV documentary, Butink decides to sue the Dutch state in 2017 in order to have her adoption officially recognized as unlawful on the one hand and to raise awareness of the issue on the other. In 2020, a court decides at the first judge’s decision in such an adoption case that the case is statute-barred. The deadline for this is 20 years. “The state denies responsibility. The adoptive parents should have checked the circumstances. The state issued licenses to the agencies,” says Butink. She and her lawyer are appealing, and the case is still ongoing. In the meantime, more adoptees have filed lawsuits, but the cases have not yet gone to court.

Adoptions from abroad: What is really behind the desire to have children?

Butink is currently working on the Instagram photo project and podcast “Pink Cloud Project”, in which she photographs and interviews adult adoptees with their baby photos. She wants people considering intercountry adoption to be self-critical and ask themselves if they’re trying to help a child — or just their own ego. Butink is skeptical about the future search for her birth parents. With false documents, you lack the starting points. The tracks are just too blurred.

This text has already been published on the “Deine Korrespondentin” platform and is published here as part of a cooperation with the Frankfurter Rundschau.

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