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In the Son - Pepperdine Magazine

In the Son

Communication professor Bert Ballard digs into his past to impact the future of intercountry adoption.

In 1975 more than 3,000 orphaned children were evacuated from South Vietnam during Operation Baby Lift at the end of the Vietnam War. Like many of those children, Bert Ballard grew up curious about the circumstances surrounding his adoption.

The Seaver College associate professor of communication would often ask his adoptive mother who his birth parents were, why he looked so different from the other kids, and how he arrived at the An Lac orphanage in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975.

In the Son - Pepperdine Magazine

Bert Ballard and his family, including adopted son Jayden, in front of the An Lac orphanage in Vietnam.

Over the years, Ballard looked deep within himself and his family, devoted his professional life to studying adoption, and eventually adopted his own son from Vietnam. Through it all, Ballard discovered the complex problems and multiple viewpoints on issues of ethics, identity, and culture related to intercountry adoption—the adoption of a child from one country by a family from another country—and felt the need to give back to the adoption community.

In a unique, cross-disciplinary collaboration, Ballard partnered with three professors from the School of Law—Naomi Goodno, Robert Cochran, and Jay Milbrandt (MBA ‘07, JD ‘08)—to examine those difficulties and produce new insights in The Intercountry Adoption Debate: Dialogues Across Disciplines. Spanning multiple countries and religious and cultural perspectives, the book brings together the voices of scholars, adoptees, adoptive parents, birth parents, and professionals in one volume.

In this exclusive excerpt for Pepperdine Magazine, Ballard introduces four observations about intercountry adoption in light of the dialogue, debate, and conversation that has taken place in recent years.

Read more about Bert Ballard's journey in an exclusive web feature.

In the Son - Pepperdine MagazineFrom 2004 to 2012, there was an estimated 60 percent decline in intercountry adoptions around the world (Selman, 2014). This decline has coincided with a rise in critical views on intercountry adoption (ICA) practice— allegations of corruption, the widespread influence of money, and claims of long-term negative effects on the adoption triad (birth parents, child, and adoptive parents), among others, have raised concerns about the once unquestioned value of placing a child with a family of another nation. Still, supporters of intercountry adoption continue to call upon human rights, the importance of family in a child’s development, and the plight of orphans to advocate for the important and necessary role of intercountry adoption in addressing the needs of children around the world.

In recent years, discussions about ICA issues have become prominent. The 2010 Intercountry Adoption Summit in Stratford, Ontario, Canada; the third and fourth International Conference on Adoption Research in 2010 (Leiden, the Netherlands) and 2013 (Bilboa, Spain); and the 2013 Pepperdine University School of Law Nootbaar Institute Conference on the Intercountry Adoption Debate (Malibu, CA), among others, have created spaces for dialogue, debate, and conversation.

From these gatherings, four important observations about intercountry adoption can be made.

First, the intercountry adoption dialogue is global in scope. No longer is the conversation primarily dictated by receiving countries. Today, there is recognition of the interconnectedness and interdependence between origin countries and receiving countries. Bilateral agreements between origin and receiving countries are unable to address the larger systemic issues and cultural differences plaguing ICA, and a global perspective is necessary to understand both the scope and solutions. Further, origin countries are gaining influence with their perspectives, viewpoints, and cultural experiences, along with the experiences of birth parents and birth families, being increasingly included and acknowledged in discussions of intercountry adoption (although more efforts need to be made).

Second, dialogues about intercountry adoption have shifted to questioning the merits of adoption itself rather than a solution-oriented focus of improving policies, procedures, and processes. Advocates of ICA now find themselves defending the relative “good” of placing a child with a family in another country. With the pendulum shifting away from ICA as an unquestioned good to one where critics have raised difficult and unavoidable questions, the current discourse has become more complex than ever, with tensions riding high for both advocates and critics. Indeed, today’s conversations often feature supporters, critics, practitioners, and researchers on panels together debating and discussing important issues and questioning its intent, ethics, and impacts. Spirited debate and passionate exchange is commonplace.

Third, the gatherings reveal how intercountry adoption is truly interdisciplinary. For a long time, intercountry adoption was dominated by a few scholarly disciplines (law, psychology, social work, anthropology, and medicine). Today, however, many disciplines contribute to research, knowledge, and discourse about intercountry adoption. Sociology, religion, history, communication and others are significant contributors, with faculty and graduate students seeing the value of different disciplinary perspectives in understanding ICA. These multiple and diverse perspectives, approaches, and foci have identified new trends, successes, problems, and complexities in intercountry adoption.

Fourth and finally, the gatherings illustrate how intercountry adoption is inter-sector. Scholars can no longer afford to research, criticize, and express positions without engaging and conversing with policymakers, government officials, adoption agencies, and even adoptees. Yet those same groups can also no longer afford to operate without the research and perspectives of scholars. These gatherings have been intentional in order to create opportunities and spaces where individuals can hear and learn from each other as well as engage in debate and the passionate presentation of perspectives.

Combined, these four themes reveal a complex, nuanced, and often charged view of intercountry adoption. To participate in the conversation about intercountry adoption is to be engaged with a wide range of ideas and perspectives, deeply and personally held, and all with a claim of importance. Money, politics, culture, race, law, international relations, religion, policy, identity, institutionalization, nutrition, trauma, health, family, and many, many other factors are important to the discussion about placing a child for adoption with a family in another country. Discussing intercountry adoption, its merits, and its impacts requires engaging multiple and complex levels and processes across geographic borders and across different cultural beliefs and systems.



Robert (“Bert”) L. Ballard is an associate professor of communication at Pepperdine University. He researches adoptee identity, adoptive family identity and communication, and communication ethics. He is a Vietnamese adoptee and adoptive parent.

Jay A. Milbrandt (JD ‘08, MBA ‘07), is an assistant professor at Bethel University, Minnesota, and Senior Fellow in Global Justice with the Herbert and Elinor Nootbaar Institute on Law, Religion, and Ethics at the School of Law. His books and articles focus on the intersection of global justice, faith, and adventure.

Naomi H. Goodno is an associate professor of law at Pepperdine University School of Law and director of the Byrne Judicial Clerkship Institute. Her research focuses on the intersection of jurisdictional issues with social justice, particularly for children or victims of violent crimes.

Robert F. Cochran is the Louis D. Brandeis Professor of Law at Pepperdine University and the founder and director of the Herbert and Elinor Nootbaar Institute on Law, Religion, and Ethics at the School of Law. He has written on diverse topics related to law, community, moral responsibility, and religion.