Wednesday, August 17, 2011

For all of us adopting parents and for those who consider it

I'm going to go out on a limb here.  I have been wanting to write this post for a long time, but couldn't find the nerve.

First I want to say I believe in adoption, international and domestic.  I believe that children that can't live with their family have the right to live in a loving family.  My life has been changed by adoption, my children's' lives have been changed by adoption, and we will forever be grateful that we were the ones to be given the opportunity to raise our two girls.  I have met wonderful, brave, courageous people who are adopting and who have adopted.   And I know of children who are now in loving families, or will soon be in loving families, that otherwise would never had had that chance.  And I'm so grateful for families that open their hearts and homes to the children of Congo, some of whom I know personally.

And I know many of them struggle with many of the same issues and concerns I have about the ethics involved in international adoption.  I went into adoption not knowing that much about adopting internationally.  I just always knew that I wanted to provide a loving home for a child (or children) one day and that I wanted to do adopt from where I was living (I NEVER thought I would live one day in DR Congo).  I have learned so much, good and bad, since we jumped international adoption 2 years ago.  I have heard many stories about adoptions in eastern DRC, some told me in secret and confidence.  I have come to the hard point where I find myself having grave concerns about the ethics involved in adopting internationally from DRC.

I have serious questions about whether or not international adoptions should be allowed to proceed in a country (DRC) with such little infrastructure (that is necessary to support and investigate abandonments, search for birth parents, and guard against child trafficking), with so little oversight, with so much corruption (leading to countless acts of unethical behavior), and with so little regard for child welfare.     International adoption brings with it money, power, and influence (and lots of very strong emotions).
I have such a hard time writing that because I know there are so many children who need homes!  

I want to engage in this issue.  I want to be a voice advocating for ethical adoptions in DRC.  I want to be a voice for change.  As I have thought so much about this over the past 2 years I want to share some of my thoughts about what ethical adoption should look like in DRC (given what I said about the country above).  I think we all care very deeply for the children here and with that in mind I hope we can all engage on what is necessary to change adoptions as they are currently happening in Congo, so that we can find children homes that need them, reunite children with their families if it is possible, and improve the living conditions and lives of those which we can do neither.

I believe that adoptions agencies and organizations should--
1.  Extensively visit the orphanages they are working with, form trusting and lasting relationships with their staff on the ground, and refuse to do adoptions from any orphanage that has a known or suspected corrupt leader/director.
2.  Require that all abandoned children not be immediately relinquished for adoption.  Instead, the agency or organization should pay for radio and tv ads to do a thorough search for birth family members that may be unaware of the abandonment and work with (or establish) local organizations to help with these searches.
3.  Connect birth families with organizations that do sponsorship if it is clear that a child was abandoned due to poverty, so that the child or baby can stay with the family and not be adopted internationally.  (Women for women is an organization that does sponsorships for women and their children).
4.  Support and encourage domestic adoptions and raise money to this end.
5.  Model and research organizations that do reunification work in other countries.
6.  Refuse to work with any orphanage that is corrupt and absolutely refuse to allow money to change hands in any way when their is a corrupt director in an adoption proceeding.
7.  Allow transparency and open communication with others in the adoption community to increase the knowledge base of other adoptive parents who often feel like they are kept in the dark regarding the money they pay for their adoptions, the orphanages the children come from, and the process over all.  And report unethical behavior or concerns regarding agencies or organizations to the U.S. embassy in Kinshasa.
8.  Truly make international adoption the last resort, and reflect this in their mandate and work.
9.  List all their fees to their clients in detail and justify why and allow for comparison and communication between agencies (which is currently unheard of).
10.  Only accept referrals from orphanages. And they should only accept referrals of babies and children who were not abandoned to that orphanage for the sole purpose of adoption.  I simply believe that the income difference between adopting international families and birth families is too big of an issue to overlook.  I believe that there are many poor families that would give their child to a "rich"(relatively speaking) family because they know that they will be better taken care of (and most of the time this means receive education, health care, food, and shelter).  I don't believe that adoption is about saving poor children out of desperate situations or out of poverty.  I believe adoption is about finding families for children who will never have a chance to live in a family.
11.  (and this is so important!) Work to decrease the underlying reasons why children are abandoned in the first place.  Come alongside existing organizations that help to prevent families from failing.   And this can be done with so little money.  Development on a small local level works and it makes a difference.  You can make a difference.  There are so many wonderful organizations out there that are making a difference.  A difference means that the overall health and well being of a family and community are raised and then there are less children abandoned.

One of the best things a prospective DRC adoptive parent can do to help increase the chances of an ethical adoptions is visit the country and child before the adoption is processed.  The next best would be to talk to others from other agencies and organizations very openly and transparently.  Ask hard questions.  Be willing to not accept a referral if any thing seems questionable or inconsistent in the story.

I do believe strongly that real work can be done on the ground to make a difference in the lives of orphans in DRC.  There are congolese women and men working hard to make a difference.

Living in Congo, prospective and current adopting parents wrote me about their agencies and organizations.  Every thing that I have shared here comes from my experience working with international adoption and knowing others in the process.

Tumaini, the organization we are starting, enables orphaned babies to have a fighting chance at survival.  All the children at the orphanage have lost their mothers, some their fathers as well, and they are sent to the orphanage from all over eastern congo.  Most are sent as newborns to prevent their deaths.  They all have known families.  We are trying our best to give them good care and then encourage them to be reunited with their families as soon as possible.  (More on this important last point in another post).

Interested in reading others' thoughts on international adoption?  I would highly recommend this post (and follow the links at the bottom, they are excellent as well).

This was a hard post for me to write.  I think some may interpret what I have written as being too critical and condemning of international adoption in DR Congo overall.  All I can say, is that I love my little girls too much to not write this post and I care too much about their country and what happens there to stay silent.  I will continue to wrestle with these issues and welcome discussion.

As always, thanks for reading.

Sabina, a very loved little girl, who needs one more sponsor at $25/month.  


Erin said...

Why do you believe that referrals should only be from orphanages? Isn't a foster care system better for the child, in many cases?

Also, what about the reality of rape for Congolese women? Or of death linked to severe malnutrition?

I understand the moral issues, but I don't know that it's as simple as that, or that keeping children with their birth families is the best outcome in all cases.

Holly said...
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Holly said...

Hi Erin,

As far as I know, in eastern drc, there are not licensed foster homes that social services monitor nor is there a system in place like there is here where parental rights are terminated and then the child is placed in the social services network of foster homes (with the gov't doing background checks, monitoring and ensuring standards). It is much less formal in DRC. I can see a child being moved to foster care after referral, especially if the child is not doing well in the orphanage.

Of course, I believe foster care in loving families is the best option for children, and that is actually how most orphans are cared for in Congo, in informal foster home settings (most likely with extended families). In a country with little oversight, with bribery and coercion being so common, unless you are on the ground to oversee the process, how can you ensure that the child being directly referred from foster care is an abandoned child with no chance of a family home? There is too much room for lying, bribes, coercion, manipulation of the truth, etc. if you don't have an agency on the ground (in the city) with staff that are doing thorough investigations and follow up to protect those children from exploitation. I think babies or children abandoned to orphanages or maybe functioning social services should be referred for adoption, not ones in informal foster care settings.

Rape and death related to severe malnutrition are real issues in DRC. However, I don't believe the solution to these problems is adoption. For a child rejected because of rape, often counseling can be done to support the mother (and I know of programs and people in eastern drc that do this, if you are interested) and help her not reject the baby. Most often women do not reject their babies, but sadly this does happen.

Regarding severe malnutrition I feel like the child needs food not a new family. I have worked with a feeding center in eastern drc, with severely malnourished children. Often, the state of severe malnutrition is a temporary state that families can move in and out depending circumstances. There are health centers in eastern drc with referral sites for severe cases. There are zones set up with clinics to treat the severe cases. One big question I ask myself in thinking about adoption is, if the families circumstances changed (if the family were moved out of the extreme poverty they are in, for instance) would they still want to give their child to a richer family to care for? Is it an issue of a child needing a family or a child needing food?

It is not simple, I completely agree. I feel like there is a strong need to talk about these issues as they relate to the context in eastern DRC. And of course, I agree that not all children are best taken care of by their birth families. I used to volunteer in the foster care system in the U.S. However, I would argue that most international adoptions occur because children are abandoned because of reasons due to severe poverty (not ALL) or social pressures related to stigma in countries (single mothers for example). For example, all the children at the orphanage we support have lost their mothers. Most because of death in child birth. Most of these deaths are preventable and are prevented in western hospitals around the world. It is because of the effects of severe poverty that the children there are orphaned.

My concern is that because of the relative ease of adoption from Congo more and more families and individuals will try to adopt from Congo, this brings more and more attention to adoption. With more adoptions come more money (lots of money) which, in a country where bribe seeking and extortion is common (with little oversight and infrastructure), increases the risks for child trafficking and exploitation.

Heather said...

Thanks for having the courage and taking the time to put all this out there. The last paragraph you wrote, in your response in the comment section, is something I can definitely see happening more and more in DRC. I only saw a little in the several months we were in process, but even when people have very good intentions, the government is really not set up to deal with adoptions on a large scale in an ethical way. It is a difficult truth. I have several friends/family members who ask me about adopting from Congo since we've recently done so, and it's hard for me to recommend this country to them.

I love the idea of counseling and supporting families to help children who are able to, to stay in their families. While there are so many children who truly do need new homes and families, it is not good to disregard this issue because our heart strings are (rightly) tugged. Compassion and action must always be accompanied with wisdom and discernment, otherwise our good intentions can very well do damage. Thanks again for posting on such a difficult and complex subject.

Megan Parker said...

I don't know anything about adoption in DRC (just know all about Uganda) but if I was adopting from there this is the kind of post I would love to read. People accuse me of discouraging International Adoptions when I speak out at the corruption but it is my greatest desire to simply discourage unethical and unnecessary adoptions. I love that you laid out so perfectly how IA in DRC should look in order to be ethical. I believe you are only empowering families to continue with their IA in a more ethical and educated way. If I was adopting from DRC I would LOVE to have you to give me advice :)

varouna said...

I like this post, and agree with a lot of what you have to say in it. I especially agree with the last paragraph of your reply in the comment section. I think as more and more families try to adopt from DRC, that the Congolese governemnt will want more and more money. I also agree that we, as adoptive parents, should be talking to many angencies and many people who have adopted. Agencies, in my opinion, if they're truely transparent would give prospective adoptive parents a list of families to contact - but not just families that give glowing reviews.

Anonymous said...

I rspect what you wrote with mixed feelings....My husband and didnt enter in this lightly, my parents foster and my youngest 3 siblings are adopted domestically, what I can tell you with out a doubt there is corruption domestically as well. We have faith that our adoption agency is thorough and does what they say. All kinds of things are written on the net some have merit and some cause hype. I do know that children in DRC need homes and deserve homes. I had a unique opportunity to speak with a gentleman who was adopted at 13 yrs from Romania the things he shared and his plight for all orphans will forever stay with me. Without a doubt DRC adoptions should move forward IF they are done respectfully and properly.

Holly said...

Heather--thanks for the comments. Really liked one of your last sentences, "Compassion and action must always be accompanied with wisdom and discernment, otherwise our good intentions can very well do damage. " When will you start writing again?

Megan--thanks for the comments and encouragement. It's hard to speak out against corruption without being interpreted as wanting to stop all international adoptions. Thank you for speaking out for Ugandan orphans.

Varouna--I definitely think transparency is a key piece, that more adoptive families should be able to contact other adoptive families (and cross agencies/organizations as well). Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous--I realize that no one enters into adoption lightly. As stated in my post, "I know many of them struggle with many of the same issues and concerns I have about the ethics involved in international adoption." I hope this is the case for all families adopting from any country or domestically. Yes, I agree there is corruption everywhere, but in this post I am specifically talking about DRC adoptions. We should work to decrease corruption (which can lead to child trafficking and exploitation) everywhere and do everything we can to stop it (whether domestically in the states or in the DRC, as I am arguing). My post is about ways to do this in DRC. I am not suggesting (at this point) that we should stop adoption in DRC (though I have serious concerns about it), just suggesting ways to move forward more ethically and things to discuss with your agency/organization and ways to research, to make sure that it is all done ethically. As I mentioned in the end of the article, what I wrote comes from my experience living in, working in, and adopting from Congo (from helping other families adopt as well) and from stories people have told me from their own experiences that have left me very concerned. Thanks for commenting.