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Social Text 21.1 (2003) 111-127

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Patterns Of Shared Parenthood Among The Brazilian Poor

Claudia Fonseca

By the end of the 1980s, just as in numerous other donor countries, it was to a great extent the increasing presence of foreign adoptive parents that led Brazilian policy makers to turn their attention to the plight of the country's children and refine policies concerning in-country adoption. At the time, Brazil was in fourth place among the world's largest furnishers of internationally adopted children (behind Korea, India, and Columbia). To the growing consternation of government authorities, by the early nineties greater numbers of Brazilian children were being legally adopted by people in France, Italy and, to a lesser extent, the United States (Kane 1993). 1 Rumor had it that even more were being smuggled illegally over the borders. However, despite lingering tendencies in the poorer and more remote parts of the country, by 1994 the tide of international adoption had turned, reducing the outgoing flow of children to a slow trickle. 2

A series of factors contributed to the decline of intercountry adoption in Brazil. Local-scale influences included nationalistic zeal against what was seen by many as a predatory threat from abroad, the enforcement of increasingly stringent legislation (including widely publicized jail sentences handed out to public officials involved in irregularities), and the growing popularity of national adoption. On the global level, one should not ignore the importance of international legislation aimed explicitly at curtailing the South-North flow of children 3 as well as the sudden availability for adoption of an immense number of Chinese and Russian children (see Fonseca forthcoming).

Although today Brazil is no longer counted among the world's major furnishers of internationally adopted children, a close look at local child-raising practices and national policies on adoption still raises many issues relevant to the field. For example, fifteen years of intensive intercountry adoptions have left their mark on national legislation. A clause in the country's 1990 Children's Code stating that poverty alone should, under no circumstances, justify the loss of parental authority has been attributed by certain analysts (Abreu 2002) to the reaction against the plundering of Brazilian children by "rich" foreigners. 4 Another even more consequential legacy of Brazil's experience with intercountry adoption concerns the high value placed by contemporary policy makers on in-country adoption and, in particular, plenary adoption, seen by many as the ideal solution for children [End Page 111] in dire need. 5 In this sense, it would seem that although the wave of intercountry adoption has receded, it has left in its wake, embedded in contemporary legal regulations, certain globalized principles based on the modern nuclear family that may or may not be relevant to many of the country's citizens.

The possible difference explored here between national adoption legislation, in tune with cosmopolitan sensitivities, and local-level practices is highly relevant to general debates in the field of intercountry adoption. In many respects, the ethnographic material presented here portrays a reality similar to that described in other Third World countries that continue to send children abroad. 6 Furthermore, the gap in Brazil between national legislation and local-level sensitivities may be taken as symptomatic of the even wider gap between values embedded in international conventions on intercountry adoption and those of poverty-stricken sending families in Third World countries.

Elsewhere, I have considered in greater detail the attitude of foreign adoptants as well as the evolution of Brazilian adoption laws (Fonseca 2001, 2002). In this article, on the basis of my ethnographic fieldwork among the urban poor of Porto Alegre, Brazil, I dwell on examples that illustrate local child-raising dynamics. 7 Pointing out how extremely poor women resort to a wide range of strategies—from charitable patrons and state-run boarding schools to mutual help networks involving a form of shared parenthood—my purpose is to contribute to the rethinking of national as well as intercountry adoption from the bottom up.

A Helping Hand

I was drawn to the subject of lower-income families...


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pp. 111-127
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Archived 2005
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