Sunday, February 19, 2012

What are we so afraid of, anyway?

There have been many reasons I haven't written in awhile, among them are I have been working a lot, have had sick kids,  have been sick parents, visitors, and so on.   Another reason I haven't written is that I have been struggling with some deep discouragement regarding the state of international adoption in DRC (and I've been doing some reading along those lines).  I have never said straight out that I think adoptions in DRC should stop.  But I will now say that I think they should be put on hold until more regulations are put in place that protect children from exploitation and trafficking.  Yes, I think that protecting the one child that is trafficked is as important as the other children that are to be adopted into homes here in the U.S.  The questionable fate of the latter doesn't justify ignoring the plight of the former.

I recently was told that if we (adoptive parents in DRC) talk out publicly about our concerns that adoptions would stop in DRC.  There is a lot of fear about talking out.  I have been told to talk about my concerns quietly, to the embassy or to "others" who can help change happen.   Then I read this today.  And I became more discouraged.  I'm told to expect that the embassy in Kinshasa will stop corrupt adoptions from happening.  I think that may be a bit unrealistic.

I wonder sometimes about the obvious questions as to why there is a fear that adoptions will stop if we start asking questions and publicly voicing our concerns?  What that fear tells me is that there are things that are happening in international adoption in DRC that are very concerning.  Concerning enough to shut it all down.  What could that be?  Child trafficking, abuse, and exploitation of children.  Yet, we are told we should not speak up about these things.  We should not publicly air our concerns.  (Or, we shouldn't involve journalists, the media, or campaigns that fight to end injustice using social media in a public way).   Why is it not okay in international adoption but it is okay to raise our voices loud, together, publicly when it comes to rape in eastern DRC, sex trafficking of children around the world, or other injustices that happen on a daily basis.  Whey don't we stand up and post on our facebook pages "End child trafficking and exploitation of adopted children in DRC now!".

Why don't we demand--
-answers from our agencies about the money they spend on the ground,
-investigations on our abandoned children that involve radio ads, newspaper ads, independent investigators that search for parents or extended family that might care for the children,
-that there will be no bribes given (or "expedited fees" that are bribes),
-that we will not pay orphanages money to release the child for adoption,
-that orphanage directors are held accountable for the money given them (or better yet, that they be given no money), that transparency and follow through happen every time "humanitarian donations" are given (including follow up that proves the money and donations are being used for the children and not put into the director's pockets),
-if there is abuse in an orphanage, all adoptions stop and the orphanage is investigated thoroughly,
-if there is any corruption in an orphanage, all adoptions stop and the orphanage is investigated,
-histories that are consistent and accurate about our children,
-we have a place to voice any concerns (here are a few ideas),
-information about our children while they are in "foster care",
-better regulations and controls be in place to protect children,
-that agencies/organizations duly work towards reunification/domestic placement as a first option for the children of DRC,
-that if a mother/father/extended family member is relinquishing their child for adoption because of poverty (and not because that child has no family), that the agency/organization work towards ways to help that family keep their child,
-that if we hear of children being referred for adoption that have family members that want them, that we be allowed to talk about this and stop children from being trafficked for adoption?

We love our children this much, don't we?

Maybe you are reading this thinking I am over reacting.  I'm not.  Adoption in DRC has the potential to spiral out of control because of little to no structures in place that protect children from organized trafficking schemes (which I know are being done on an unorganized level now).  Think that the State Department and USCIS can stop it?  They can do a lot less than we might think they can (and I don't mean this in a harsh way, I think we tend to over estimate their role internationally).  WE as the adoptive parents are the ones that can stop corruption, exploitation, unethical adoptions.  WE are the ones that pay the money to the agencies/organizations which then send it to the DRC.  WE are responsible for what happens to these children.  It is OUR money.  WE are the ones with the power and the ones that can demand for change to happen.  It is in OUR hands.  Please don't stay silent.  Please ask questions.  Please talk out and demand change.  Don't let adoption in DRC become what is has in other countries.  WE are the ones that can make it happen.

What are we so afraid of, anyway?

(And as a final note, yes, I believe there is a place for international adoption.  A place for children who need a family, to have one.  I believe that a lot of children that are relinquished for adoption don't need a family, they instead need to be relieved from the effects of devastating poverty.  And I believe that international adoption in a country that is ranked at the bottom of corruption indexes and ranked #41 out of 46 (in sub-saharan Africa) in a scale of ease of doing business should be examined a little closer to look at if an ethical adoption is even possible.  Consider this final quote--

"The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence on 30th June 2010 against a backdrop of weak state authority, a culture of impunity, deepening poverty, continuing violence in the northeast and a significant worsening of sexual violence. Decades of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo have discouraged private investment, destroyed infrastructure, hindered development and considerably weakened the capacity of governance institutions. The DRC ranks at the bottom of every corruption index; pervasive corruption undermines peace, increases business costs and strengthens the predatory state." 
Source--United States Institute of Peace, web address here.  Bold area my own.  

Does this sound like a country that has the ability to regulate international adoptions to make sure they are being done ethically?)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Questions for DR Congo prospective adoptive parents to ask their agencies/organizations and overseas staff

One of the groups I am a part of worked together to make a list for DR Congo PAPs to ask their agencies/organizations/on-ground staff/lawyers.  I thought I would share it.

Questions for Prospective Adoptive Parents (PAPs) to ask agencies, care centers and lawyers 

“How long has the child been in foster/orphanage care?"
Favorable answer for abandoned child:  At least 6 months
Favorable answer for relinquished child: Varies and depends on situation
"Red flag" answer for abandoned child: A very short time, not enough time to have made a thorough attempt to locate birth family or find a domestic placement.
"Red flag answer for relinquished child: The child is not currently in care, they are still with extended family.  Once a family commits to the child, we will move the child into care.

"What attempts have been made to locate any living relatives?"
Favorable answer for abandoned child: Radio and newspaper ads (copies of which are available) were run soon after the child was found (in addition to a police report).  And yes, this is possible in DRC.
"Red flag" answer: There is nothing (no records of newspaper ads, radio ads, etc) to demonstrate a sincere attempt to locate relatives. It is expected that the PAP will pay for the ads, and nothing is done until the PAP is in the picture.

"How are you working towards family preservation as well as international adoption?"
Favorable answer: Sponsorship programs, supporting birth families.  Working actively towards reunifications as a first alternative for abandoned/relinquished children.
"Red flag" answer: International adoption is our preferred option.  It takes a long time to find birth families and hard work to reunify the children with them.

"If money were not an issue, would someone in the family be able to care for the child?"
Favorable answer:  Even with sponsorship/financial support, the family cannot or is unwilling to care for the child.
"Red flag" answer: Yes, they want to care for the child but don't have the financial resources to do so (or don't have the financial resources to provide what we, as Americans, consider a comfortable lifestyle).

“Can you show all the steps and paperwork involved in determining that the child is truly an orphan?”
Favorable answer: For abandoned child: ads (newspaper and/or radio), police investigation. Allowing sufficient time for birth family to locate and reclaim child.
For relinquished child: Care order (parental rights relinquished) completed before PAP enters the picture.
"Red flag" answer in either case: One or more of the above steps has not been completed.

"Does this child meet the USCIS definition of an orphan?" 
Favorable answer: Legally, it is the adoptive parents' responsibility to ensure that the child meets the USCIS definition of an orphan. Still, the adoption agency, orphanage and/or attorney should be taking steps to make sure every child they refer for adoption fits this definition and understand who can be adopted under US law. Here is the USCIS definition: In most cases, children should have either been abandoned or have experienced the death of one or both parents.
"Red flag" answer: The adoption agency/attorney/orphanage seem unaware of the criteria for a child to be considered a orphan under US law. Even worse, those responsible for the child are willing to manipulate paperwork to make the child appear to be an orphan.

“What is the process for determining which children are eligible for adoption and who makes that decision...orphanage worker? agency? What is the criteria?”
Favorable answer: If there are not any living relatives who are able to care for the child and, if abandoned, all searches have turned up empty, an attempt was made to place the child with a local family. If no one was willing/able to foster or adopt the child from within DRC, the child was considered eligible for international adoption. If with an agency, the country director has verified that this is the case and that an effort has been made to locate any living relatives PRIOR to considering the child adoptable. If independent, the DRC attorney/investigator has verified the accuracy of the story before the child is considered adoptable. 
"Red flag" answer:  A potential adoptive parent identifies a child that they are interested in, and then a determination is made about adaptability; the investigation is started after the referral is already made. 

"Tell me about your in-country adoption program?  Have there been any attempts to place this child domestically?"
Favorable answer: We try to place children with suitable adoptive families in DRC before making them available for international adoption. There are Congolese families willing to adopt, especially young, healthy children.  There is a huge informal network of foster homes, usually of extended family members, throughout Congo.
"Red flag" answer: The orphanage claims that Congolese are not willing or able to adopt.

"Can you give us a fee schedule, and are there any extra fees or additional costs that I should be aware of?"
Favorable answer: Here are a list of our fees. The fees should be itemized and should make sense.
"Red flag" answer: Attorney/agency will not firmly commit to amount upfront (or has a history of being unreliable) or the fees change during the process without a clear reason. Fees classified as a "foreign program fee" or "humanitarian assistance" need to be explained fully.  After the adoption the agency refuses to itemize at least 90% of the money spent (and it should be collaborated that those are industry standard and consistent to other adoptions in DRC).  Red flags--refusing to say where the money was used, saying that it is impossible to get receipts in DRC, saying "this is Africa", that's how it is.  Saying that it is for humanitarian reasons and not showing proof of accountability, transparency, and follow-up.  

‎"Do you require families to make a donation to the orphanage?"
Favorable answer: No (in most cases). It may be appropriate for parents to pay for documented expenses incurred by the home during the adoption process. Some adoption agencies may ask families to pay fees that support humanitarian programs in the country or around the world. If this is the case, you need to ask if any donations are made to the orphanage in exchange for each child placed for adoption. It is best if the humanitarian programs are not dependent on children being placed for adoption.
"Red flag" answer: Yes.  When orphanages rely on support from adoptive families or adoption agencies, they become financially dependent on continuing to place children for international adoption.  Which then motivates them to produce children for adoption to continue the support.

"When do I pay my attorney fees?"
Favorable answer: Typically, families pay a deposit (between $500 and half of the attorney fees) when the case is filed in court and the balance after judgment is granted and when the lawyer gives the family the papers they need for the embassy including the passport, judgment, etc.
"Red flag" answer: All, or almost all, of the attorney fees must be paid prior to court/embassy.

"Are you familiar with the embassy process?"
Favorable answer: Yes, the process is known and documents that need to be taken to the visa interview will be provided
"Red flag" answer: No, this is not part of the attorney's work or no, they are unfamiliar with the requirements and regulations of the embassy

"Have any children from your agency, orphanage or whom you represented in court been denied an orphan visa from the US (Canadian, etc) Embassy? If so, how was this resolved?"
Favorable answer: No. If yes, there is a clear and reasonable explanation.
"Red flag" answer: Yes, and there is not a convincing explanation.

"Do you allow 3rd party investigations of referrals?"
Favorable answer: Yes.
"Red flag" answer: Not at all. In fact, many adoption agencies have in their contracts wording that prohibits adoptive families from using a third party investigator. Remember, most agency contracts serve to protect the adoption agency from lawsuits in the United States and absolve the agency from any responsibility for their behavior or the behavior of their representatives outside of the United States.

"Who is on the ground in DRC? What are their credentials? For agencies, how often does someone from the US visit DRC and how much time to they spend?"
Favorable answer: The agency has staff working closely with orphanages or organizations in DRC. The U.S. representatives visit regularly and have close relationships with the staff OR someone is on the ground in-country full time. These are certified social workers who are familiar with international adoption and USCIS rules and regulations. 
"Red flag" answer:  There is no one working on the ground in DRC or there is someone without qualifying experience. Representatives visit periodically or have only visited DRC on a few locations. All information is obtained second-hand from others who are in country. Turnover rate is high or staff does not possess qualifications pertaining to adoption (ie- they are not social workers, welfare officers, attorneys, etc).

"Are you asked to sign privacy clauses that prevent you from speaking about your experiences with an agency/organization?"
Favorable answer:  No, we are allowed to talk publicly about our experience and our adoption.  All our questions are answered promptly and we are encouraged to be transparent and open about the process with other PAPs.
"Red flag" answer:  Yes, we had to sign a lot of privacy agreements.  We have heard of other people speaking out from our agencies and getting harassed or told they will be sued if they keep talking.

"How much do we pay for DGM exit letters?"
Favorable answer:  $200 or less, this is standard in country fee for DGM exit letters.  
"Red flag" answer: $200 or more (or even much more concerning, over $500).  This is a bribe.  

"How much information will we receive about our adopted child while they are in DRC?"
Favorable answer:  You will receive updates about their situation, their medical condition, their measurements, and their foster care/orphanage situation.  You will also learn the basics about their culture, what language they speak and their daily routines.
"Red flag" answer:  You will receive their name and picture at time of referral with an initial medical report.  They may say you will receive updates and you never do.  When asked, they say it is a chaotic country and it is impossible to get measurements, know much about their situation, know their medical data, know their daily lives.  If this is the case, you should seriously consider what kind of on-ground staff they have; there is no reason that they shouldn't be able to get this information for you.

What other questions should be added?

Addendum on 2/3/12:

Two more questions I thought of that are important--

"If I gave the orphanage director $2000 do you have any way to verify the money was used to help orphans and any way to keep account of the money and trace how it was spent?"
Favorable answer:  Yes
"Red Flag answer: No, and see this post.  

"Is your agency under investigation in another country or by your accrediting state?"
Favorable answer:  No
"Red Flag" answer:  Yes

And a reader submitted the following question:

Will we be able to meet with the birth family (or neighbor, or police who found the child) and have an independent translator and be encouraged to keep in touch with them?
Favorable answer: Yes, and they also give you concrete ways as to how you will be able to do this (email updates, letters, photos).
"Red Flag" answer:  No, we don't encourage open adoptions internationally.  Please see this post.  

The title of this post was changed to reflect the content of the post, that these questions only relate to international adoption from DRC (which is clear from the questions).