An adoption social worker in Iowa shares her personal story of conducting homestudies for Operation Babylift children, amidst the complexity and anguish of the end of the Vietnam war.
By Pam Correll
" Des Moines is not happy," my supervisor, Theresa, said, lighting one cigarette off the butt of another. "Other states are getting more of those kids than we are and Lydia called me at home last night. The Department wants every adoption worker in Iowa to turn in a home study a day until this is over." She peered down her long nose at me through a haze of menthol, "Capiche?"
We sat in Theresa's office at the Regional Department of Human Services, talking about the children called Bui Doi. We had been told that Bui Doi meant "the lowest of the low " or "the dust beneath my feet." They were given this name because they were believed to be the children of Vietnamese prostitutes who slept with African-American soldiers, and thus were left to grow up or die on the streets of Saigon."This is blowing up," Theresa hacked, a smoker's cough, "Everyone knows Saigon is going to fall any day now. There are adoption agencies all over the damn country to place these kids, and DHS wants Iowa to gets its piece of the pie. You will have to do a home study a day."
"But a home study takes at least six months." I said. I had spent the last two years teaching myself to do painstaking adoption studies. As the only state adoption worker in seven counties, I had done numerous home studies for families whose children who were already placed here. Many more Bui Doi were waiting in Viet Nam for the inscrutable, endlessly frustrating bureaucracy to allow them to come to their American homes."The way you do it, it does." Theresa stared from across the wide expanse of her cluttered desk. As usual, I looked away first, abashed. "You're too damn concerned with the niceties. Make them have their references ready when you come, one visit, write it up, done."
"We can't possibly know anything about the families in just one visit." I had been adopted myself, and I felt acutely that I was holding a child's life in my hands with every home study and placement I approved. In interviewed everyone, including biological parents where possible, references, and extended families. In the case of foreign or special needs adoptions, including older children, I considered educating and counseling adoptive families to be a crucial part of my job. "Are these going to be all day visits?"
"These people want the kids and the kids need homes. We need to get them here." Theresa waved away my concern, her cigarette scattering ashes onto the papers on the desk.The imminent fall of Saigon and the loss of the brutal, unpopular war, added to the growing sense of urgency about saving Bui Doi from poverty and discrimination because of their race. I was uneasy about the adoptions, but had no idea of the long term nature of that unease.
"Does this mean no reference checks? No education, no counseling?"
"We know they've applied to get kids out of a war zone, and a lot of them have paid agencies through the nose for the privilege. That's all you need to know. "
"I knew you wouldn't like this, Pam, and frankly I don't care. You're way too wrapped up in being adopted yourself. It's time to grow up and look at the big picture." She stabbed her cigarette out in the glass ceramic ashtray. "They're lined up out there to get your job. This thing is happening now, and if you don't do it, believe me, someone else will."
"This goes against everything I know, everything I believe." No one ever said no to Theresa. Especially not someone like me, 30 years younger, under her direct control.
"Not my problem," she snapped. "We're getting kids out of a war zone and into American families before God knows what happens when the Communists take over." Theresa's eyes were hard. I had the fleeting thought that maybe her job depended on it. "I'm not interested in your feelings." She lit another cigarette and picked up her phone to make a call.
"And another thing, before you go," she said, putting the phone back on its base. "There are rumors that those Bui Doi kids are being evacuated in cargo planes, twenty and thirty at a time. Most without escorts. People believe that the Communists are going to come through and shoot all the kids in American orphanages."
"Do you think that's true?" I asked. Forty years later, I would learn something closer to the truth that the children evacuated in what came to be called "Operation Babylift" were not the children of prostitutes, nor were they abandoned or orphaned. Newsreels from that time show frantic parents and caregivers thrusting small children into American cars and helicopters, into the hands of strangers, just because they believed the children had to be removed from Viet Nam to save their lives.? Who believed this? The parents? The Americans?
"I lived through World War II. Who's to say? Whether you believe it or not, enough people do that we're going to take a lot of heat if we don't get as many of those kids here as humanly possible. You can do this," Theresa took a long drag off her cigarette, "Put your own feelings to the side, and don't let your education get in the way of your good sense. You're not alone. Every other adoption worker in Iowa is doing the same thing." She shuffled through her papers and handed me a flyer.
"There's a meeting tonight of the Rainbow Families, all FCVN, at a church in Hagerton. These people want to adopt, and they want to know why we're not getting more studies done faster. They're up in arms, and ready to complain to Des Moines. A couple of them have already called me. We can't have that. Go to that meeting and assure the folks that saving those kids is our only priority right now, and that you'll be doing nothing but home studies to get those kids here safely."
I left her office with a sinking heart. Because I was the only state adoption worker in seven counties, I was the only one whose services were free of charge. Although families could pay for these services from agencies, this was very expensive, and the waiting lists were long. As a result, most foreign adoptions came through me.
Until public awareness of the existence of Bui Doi, there had been few foreign adoptions in our area, and they went through an extremely reputable agency called Holt Adoption Services. It was from working with Holt that I had learned how to conduct an adoption home study that met the needs of all involved, with emphasis being on the welfare of the children.
With the increasing clamor to adopt Bui Doi at the end of the war, adoption agencies had sprung up around the country to meet this demand and serve as a conduit of these children. Many of these were sponsored by religious organizations. The best-known at the time, in our area was called Friends of Children of Viet Nam (FCVN), based in Denver. This organization dealt exclusively with children from Viet Nam, almost always Bui Doi, and was very popular with the increasing numbers of prospective adoptive parents. Because they were a new agency, and handled only Vietnamese adoptions, parents could be served more quickly than they could if they waited for a more experienced organization, like Holt. By the fall of Saigon, in April, 1975, the agency was well known in the United States. At the time, there was no e-mail, so, around the country, people dialed Denver with increasing hysteria as frantic adoptive parents and professional personnel attempted to get information about the children. As far as I know, FCVN, along with the many other agencies that had been set up to bring children to America from Viet Nam, disappeared immediately after Saigon fell.
Meeting with angry adoptive parents, mostly FCVN, in Hagerton was a daunting thought. Hagerton is a suburb of Waterloo, an industrial city in northern Iowa. Almost everyone in Hagerton worked on the line at the John Deere Tractor Works. These were hard-nosed, scrappy people. Explaining often indefensible Department of Human Services policies to a group of hostile taxpayers was going to be what the social workers under Theresa called a "crucifixion."
I considered myself lucky to have this job. I had campaigned hard to get it. There was considerable competition among those of us with Bachelor's degrees in social work, at the Department of Human Services. Before this, I had been a child abuse investigator and youth services worker. I learned a lot, but wouldn't wish those jobs on anyone.
I was a young woman who always aimed to please. On this day, though, I remember going back to my office and shocking my reserved office mate by muttering "God damn it!" as I sat down at my own desk. It was piled high with files, much more cluttered even than Theresa's. I made a half-hearted attempt to organize the mess, then dropped a pile of the files on the floor, where I left them. I couldn't help reflecting on the irony of my position. Five years earlier I was a college student, protesting the war. I was extremely ambivalent about the concept of these adoptions. I felt that, with these adoptions, the US was stripping Viet Nam of its only remaining resource, its children.
In spite of my ambivalence, I had come to love some of these families. They had prayed and petitioned for the adoption of their children, whom they knew only through grainy black and white photos on their refrigerators. They were named, and written to, sent pictures and gifts - clothes, toys, books, presents for birthdays and Christmas. I knew so many little Jasons, Mollys, Sarahs, and Amandas, each only a tiny picture, or series of pictures, sent by their agencies. Families referred to them by name, and that's how we discussed them. "Have you heard from Molly?" they would ask, as though my communication with their agencies were actually some engagement with the child. Many of the agencies had caretakers who would write letters for and about the children, and the families would call me with news that little Jason had taken his first steps, or Sarah recognized a picture they had sent of their family at Christmas. I rejoiced with them in each case.
These families had endured invasive, often soul-crushing interrogations from eager, idealistic bureaucrats like myself. In America, the children's pictures peered from photos on refrigerators and bulletin boards. They could not possibly imagine the home that awaited them whenever the bureaucracies lumbered through their cumbersome and endless details. They were growing up in a war zone, despised, often without friends or family to offer nurturing or comfort. In spite of my liberal leanings and history, I found myself asking how this could be wrong?
There was little time for reflection. The phone rang nonstop. By early 1975, it had become apparent that the fall of Saigon was only months away. The families waiting for children underwent trauma of their own. In those days before Skype, imbedded journalists, and the 24-hour news cycle, no one knew what to make of each news story. We were all glued to our TVs. The images only got worse, prompting phone calls from frantic adoptive parents wanting to know about their child, what would be his or her fate, how could I get them home and out of danger.
"Phone for you," the secretary called out. "It's Mary Inman."
I had done the Inmans' adoptive study eighteen months before. At that time, the child they were in the process of adopting, a girl they called Hannah, was two. They knew her only from black and white photos sent from her agency, FCVN. Legal matters related to the adoption in Viet Nam caused interminable delays, as attorneys in both countries tried to navigate the constantly changing regulations and bureaucratic confusion, all governed by the fluctuations of the endless war. I knew and liked these people, but I really didn't need the interruption just then. I reached for the phone with a bit of impatience. Another question I probably couldn't answer, I thought.
The Inmans had two daughters in elementary school. He was a teacher; she a stay-at-home mom. They had heard about Bui Doi and decided to adopt to give a home to a child who needed one. They, and families like them, had restored my faith in the basic goodness of people.
"Pam?" Mary Inman sounded anxious, as she began, "I know you must be so busy. I just wondered if you'd heard anything about Hannah. Dave and I are so worried. Is it true what they're saying about the Communists? That they're going to shoot all the children in American orphanages?"
" I've heard the same rumors," I replied. "We have to remember not to believe everything we hear. I haven't heard from FCVN in days, although I've tried to get through to them. We all have. The minute I hear anything, I promise I'll let you and Dave know."
I didn't have the comfort and assurance she needed; that we would surely get Hannah home safe. It was another frustration for me; a heartbreak for her.
"What if Saigon falls before we get her out? Dave and I have talked a lot about this," she continued. "We'll take out a second mortgage, we'll do anything we can. We'll use all our savings if we have to. Is there anything at all we can do to get her out sooner?"
"There's nothing I know of, Mary. I'm doing all I can, and I know you and Dave will do whatever you can, too."
"We know you'd have Hannah here if you could," she sighed. Her voice seemed to break.
"There's a meeting tonight of the Rainbow Parents, in Hagerton, if you and Dave want to go," I offered. "There are so many people who share your concern. It might be helpful to talk with others who are going through the same thing. I'll be sharing some new policies the Department will be putting in place to respond to this crisis."
"'It's supposed to snow. I think we'll stay home with the girls and pray for Hannah's safety."
"Pray for everyone's safety," I thought, but didn't say.
We hung up, and I began to prepare for the meeting. I took seven more phone calls from worried parents before 5:00. Some blamed me, and the adoption process itself, for the fate of their children still in Viet Nam. Most were worried sick and feeling more helpless than they had ever imagined possible.
The meeting was, as I had feared, a "crucifixion." I was offered coffee and cookies, but barely had a chance to take off my coat before the thirty people in the room began firing questions.
"Why can't you get Hanoi Jane back there to get Ho Chi Minh to let those kids go!" one man shouted, referencing Jane Fonda's recent return from Hanoi. "Hell, yes," another agreed. "At least she could talk the bastard out of shooting all those babies!"
There wasn't time for me to respond. I tried to remember to breathe, and to maintain a calm, professional appearance. It was clear to me that most of the people in the room were not there to listen, but to vilify me. Looking back, I also think I represented, a tangible target for blame, and for their frustration over the loss of the war and their helplessness in the face of unimaginable global events.
A woman stood up and wagged her finger at me. "You and all those bureaucrats in Des Moines are no better than accessories to murder!" I heard murmurs of assent around the room.
I was shaking. I remember wondering why they couldn't see that I was just a cog in the wheel, doing my job, just like they did theirs. I knew many of these people, had done their home studies, and followed them through the long process of adopting a foreign child.
"The Department has been making some changes," I struggled to control the trembling of my voice. "All of the adoption workers in Iowa will do nothing but these home studies until this is over."
There were murmurs around the room of "damn right!" and "about time!"
"So what are you doing to get our kids here?" one man called out.
"There will be just one visit per home study. We won't be interviewing references, or offering education or counseling except in the one visit."
The murmurs grew louder. "Why the hell weren't you doing that before?' several people called out. "It's all just bureaucracy; they want to keep their jobs," a woman said.
In adoption home studies, there can be an element of resentment toward the person who determines whether a family will have a child placed. In this case, I was 26 and childless, the ink barely dry on my college degree. The people in this room were in their thirties and forties, long established, many with children of their own. Usually, the resentment is never directly expressed. Now, the group had a focus, the very social worker who had decided whether they were approved as adoptive parents. They were filled with righteous anger, and I was the recipient.
"This is what you should have been doing all along!" a man called. Another said, "Ann and I had to wait for six months to be approved to adopt one of those kids, and now you're going to do it in a day? Why did we have to go through all of that?
"Yeah! Do you think our time isn't as valuable as yours?" someone shouted.
"The home studies you all went through were for your protection, as well as the protection of the children you're adopting," I said I was feeling very intimidated, and not as articulate as I would have hoped to be. "We're suspending all the requirements, just to try to get the children to America before Saigon falls."
"What the hell good are you, if you can't get those kids out of Viet Nam?" a man demanded. He was so close to me that I could feel his spittle as he expressed his contempt.
"Easy, Sam," the tall man next to him put an arm around his shoulder. "It's not her fault."
"You and all those bureaucrats ought to be fired! You can't even do your damn jobs!"
It was apparent to me that the people in that room were not interested in policies as much as expressing their frustration and fear. I did the best I could to explain the new procedures, then beat a hasty retreat.
The days became a blur as I moved through the home studies, one a day, one visit per family, just as Theresa had demanded. The secretaries had been told that this was the highest priority. I dictated a home study every night, and it was on Theresa's desk the next day. I was on autopilot. Many of the home studies were for FCVN, the largest conduit of Bui Doi children in the US.
One Tuesday morning I got to the office to find the office manager looking at me with concern. "Theresa wants to see you right away," she said.
I knew I'd been meeting my "quota," and I didn't think anyone had complained. What could be wrong? I entered Theresa's office with a sense of impending doom.
"Shut the door!" She barked. I did. She lit a cigarette. "You know that family you have out on Ansborough?" She glanced at a sheet of paper. "The Inmans?"
"I got a call from Lydia in Des Moines, about midnight. Their kid was on a C5A that took off from a runway in Saigon. It crashed right after takeoff. Everyone was killed."
I was stunned.
"Des Moines called the family right away, so they know. You'll have to go over there today and do what you can."
"Please tell me she had an escort?" My voice was a whisper. I thought of Hannah alone and afraid, her American family not even knowing what she was facing.
"Probably not. She was four years old, and Bui Doi. Even babes in arms don't have escorts now. We've heard they're just shoved on the planes in boxes, dozens and dozens at a time."
"I need to get over there," I murmured.
"You can't help those folks if you fall apart yourself. I'm sorry. I know this is a shock. You'll get through it, Pam. I know you can do it." She gave me a rare look of caring and concern. "Pull yourself together, kiddo," Theresa said. "I'm right here if you need me."
Somehow, I rose and left the office. I don't have any memory of crossing the hall to my own, or of looking up the Inman's number in my Rolodex to make the call. When Mary picked up, her voice was ragged. I could tell she had been weeping.
"Mary, it's Pam," I said. "Theresa just told me what happened to Hannah. I don't even know how to begin to say how shocked and sorry I am. I can't imagine what you and Dave and the girls must be going through."
"No one told us she might be evacuated. We would never have let her go on one of those planes, unescorted. How could this happen?"
"I don't know. We heard some rumors in the past couple of days, but I had no idea it had anything to do with Hannah? Would it be okay if I came over?"
"Yes, please come - " and she dissolved in tears again.
What followed was one of the most grueling days of my 47 years as a social worker. Dave's eyes were red when he opened the door.
Megan, their younger daughter, was six. Her glasses were fogged over from crying. "Was Hannah afraid?" she asked. "Did it hurt her?" Her class had been going on field trips, and the children were encouraged to stay in pairs, as "partners." "Did Hannah have a partner?" she asked.
We got out their scrapbook about Hannah, and looked at the pictures the agency had sent, as she grew from a toddler to a four-year-old. It has always been amazing and inspiring to me that a family could grow to love and accept so completely a child they never even met. She had drawn them pictures, and seen pictures of them, her "American family." In Viet Nam, in the chaos of those final days of the war, her death was possibly never even recorded. We can never know whether her death was grieved or even known to her Vietnamese. I get a Christmas card from the family every few years. There are pictures and cheerful news of their grandchildren in the requisite "Christmas letter." In a handwritten note, they always say they remember me, and always remember Hannah, especially on holidays. If she had lived, they say, some of their grandchildren would look very different. To one family in America, she was "their Hannah," the daughter they lost, and they grieve her still.
In spite of the aching loss of the children on that plane, we raced on, "a home study a day." More and more as the war ground to its tragic conclusion, the photos on refrigerators, frayed with aging, became a terrified three-year-old, or a toddler of heartbreaking beauty. They learned English with the facility children have, and their American parents got to hear them say "I love you." It seems now that we hardly noticed that their first sentences were often questions about their "mama with the long hair." They lost their Vietnamese quickly. Every one that I knew identified themselves as black, often the only black child in a rural Iowa community.
Gradually, the nightly news became almost impossible to watch. The whirring of helicopters and the images of boys who could have been my classmates became, insanely, routine. Around the country, more groups formed and cried out for ways to find, certify, and somehow make legal provisions for hundreds of children who would presumably be executed when the Communists found them in American orphanages. When I look back, it seems the national panic about losing the war became focused on what turned out to be an entirely unreasonable panic about the impending mass murder of children. I've wondered, too, if some people believed they were saving children from the evils of Communism. The families whose children were already "home" held them even closer, while those families who were waiting formed more groups, found their voice in the media, and demanded even shorter home studies and fewer delays. They knew they were without power in a global catastrophe.
For many years, I lived with guilt, wondering how those home studies, which were really nothing more than the recording of a few facts, had resulted in homes for the children. In fact, there was a legal case in Iowa that was resolved in favor of Vietnamese parents who had never wanted their children evacuated or adopted.
My husband and I had a son of our own three years after the end of the war. As I watched him grow, I naturally thought of my own birth and adoptive parents. I never stopped thinking of the children I had helped placed. They existed in my imagination as sepia shadows - sometimes I could almost see them over my son's shoulder as he grew and reached each new milestone. I never stopped seeing Hannah's face. I thought I'd never know if the children whose lives I had helped to shape were better off. I was so thankful for our son's health and well-being, and I prayed for the well-being of those other children, too.
Years passed. I earned a master's degree and eventually got my "dream job," working as a marriage and family counselor. I loved it, and stayed with it for 27 years.
One day about fifteen years into my career as a therapist, 32 years after the end of the war in Viet Nam, something extraordinary happened. I noted in the morning that I had a new couple, referred for marriage counseling. The information sheet stated they'd been married about a year, and the problem was "communication."
Over the years, some things about my office have stayed the same. The neutral carpet, couch and chairs, the view outside my one window of a brick wall and a parking lot. What changes is the energy each client brings, with their unique problems and personalities. Over the years I have learned to rely on my intuition to guide me in my work.
This new couple, in their thirties, brought the energy of youth into my office.
The husband, who I will call Joe, was a black man. The wife, who I will call Terry, was white, from a well-known, financially privileged family. She made the appointment, and was quite brisk and efficient. Joe was more reticent.
As soon as they sat down, Terry pulled a small leather notebook from her bag, which she referred to during the session.
"He just won't communicate," she began. Joe looked down, arms crossed. "It's become a real problem for us. I try to talk to him, and he just agrees with me and goes on about his business. I think it stems from his early years. He just won't talk about it."
"Do you agree?" I asked him.
"I've never been much of a talker. I know she thinks I need to talk about my childhood, but I just don't think that much about it."
"What is it that you don't want to talk about?" I asked.
He talked about his early years, being the only black kid in Webster City, Iowa, but had difficulty articulating what had happened to him.
"I came over on a C5A, right before the end of the Vietnam war." He spoke slowly. "I've always thought of myself as American. In high school, I was athletic, the big football hero. It kind of made up for being black. Nobody picked on me, anyway."
As he spoke, it seemed to me that time stopped. At that moment, I saw him; I saw the Asian slant of his eyes, the elegant high cheekbones. I sensed that all three of us felt the electricity of that moment. I felt riveted in a way that the couple sensed was unusual as he spoke.
"One of the sisters from the orphanage put us on the plane. I didn't know where we were going, or why. She told me to hold the hand of a little boy about two years old. I was four. I was alone, and scared to death. Years later, I found out there were supposed to be escorts for all of the kids, but there were only four adults on that plane."
"The trip seemed to last for days. I peed in my pants, and I tried to hide it. Some of the kids were screaming. A lot of them were like me, and too scared to make a sound. When we got to San Francisco, somebody took the little boy away. I never saw him again. I tried to help him, and comfort him, during the trip, the best way I knew how. I held his hand and I told him it would be all right, even though I didn't have any idea what was going on."
For the first time, his eyes filled with tears. His wife tried to put her arm around him, but he shrugged her away.
"I didn't speak English. Some people came up and made noises at me and took me with them. I screamed and fought them. All night in that hotel room with them, I screamed and fought them. I didn't know what was going to happen to me."
His wife's eyes were full of tears. It was all I could do to hold back my own.
"My parents were good to me.," he went on. They're farmers, and they had two girls of their own, my older sisters. I grew up working on the farm and playing sports. The hardest part was being the only black kid in Webster City. I got a football scholarship, and my folks helped me out with college. I remember hardly anything about Viet Nam, but I do remember that plane ride, and that first night in the hotel."
For just a fraction of a second, it seemed I could see her, his "mama with the long hair," a sepia shadow, just over his right shoulder. At that moment I would have given anything to be able to tell her, "He's here, in my office. He's strong and healthy, and has a good education and a beautiful wife. You did the right thing." And then, so quickly, the vision faded. I was back in the room, and the couple was waiting for me to explain my reaction.
"It seems like a miracle to me that you're here," I wiped my eyes as they watched me closely. "I was one of the adoption workers at the end of the war and I helped place the children called 'Bui Doi' with families in Iowa."
Terry looked at Joe and then at me.
"I've always wondered how the children we placed were doing," I said.
There was a moment of silence, as all three of us processed this information, and what it meant, given our present circumstances.
"Well, with all due respect, I don't know how you could be our marriage counselor," Terry broke the silence. "You seem to feel so strongly about this, and it's such an important part of Joe's history."
"I can understand your concern," I replied. "This unexpected connection is a bit of a shock for all of us,"
"It's just that I'll always feel you'll be on Joe's side."
"I can see how it might make it hard for you to trust that I could be impartial. Under the circumstances, perhaps it's best if I give you a referral," I could feel Terry relax. I assured them that I wouldn't charge them for the session and wished them the best. "I can't begin to tell you how much it's meant for me to have met you."
"Actually, there's a little more," Joe began, slowly, in a tentative voice. Terry glanced at him, surprised. "I came to the US with my original birth certificate and a letter from my birth mother. It was translated long ago, by Vietnamese friends of my parents'." He hesitated. "Would you like to see these documents?"
"But how?" I was stunned.
"I know how impossible it seems," he said. "Though I know I'll never find her, all these years her letter and these documents have kept me believing in God."
"I would be honored to see them," I was almost whispering.
About a week later, I was surprised when the secretary said someone was at the front desk to see me. It was Joe, holding a manila envelope.
"Here they are," he said, as he handed the envelope to me. "I'll be back to get them in about a week. Please take good care of them. These are sacred documents." And he left.
I guarded that envelope like I've never guarded anything, before or since. His birth certificate, in the spidery Vietnamese language which had once been so familiar to me. A handwritten letter, folded many times, the ink faded and barely legible. It is heartbreakingly brief. The English translation says she is a Christian woman, who knows she can't care for him. She has sent him to the nuns, believing they could give him the care and opportunity she could not. She promises never to forget him, and to pray for him every day of her life.
I couldn't help wondering what would have become of him had he grown up in Vietnam where he would have been known as "Bui Doi." There is no way of knowing. It had haunted me for thirty years; the idea that I had sacrificed my integrity in the service of what someone else told me was the "greater good."
In spite of my original objections to the hasty process of adopting these children, I'll always be grateful to have known so many families whose love was never deterred by the atrocities of war, the endless limitations of geography, language and culture, and especially the burdensome peculiarities of bureaucracy. The unwavering devotion of these families who loved the children as their own, stands as a testament to the power of love in a world gone mad.