Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The cost of speaking out against injustice.

I recently had a conversation with friends about if we would speak up for something you believe in, especially injustice, if it could bring harm to yourself or your family.  We debated why someone would put their lives in harms way for a belief or cause and whether or not it was something we would ever do ourselves.  Being the ever idealist, I said I would.  I said I would stand up for by beliefs, even if it meant harm coming my way.  It was harder for me to say I would stand up for them if my children were in harms way.

In the end I think I am a lot of talk.  I've never had to take a stand for anything that put myself at risk of being harmed.  I think the riskiest stance I've taken lately is talking about unethical adoption in DRC.  The worst that happens because of that is nasty comments on my blog and I'm not included in most adoption circles.  That's nothing really.   And seems a bit lame on the scale of standing up for a belief in the midst of danger.

When I was in my 20s, I dated a guy who asked me if I had ever been arrested (on our first date).  I was shocked and said, "no way, of course not!".  I was sort of full of myself at the time.  He said he had and he didn't regret it.  He had participated in civil disobedience when he was protesting something (I can't remember what it was anymore) and had been arrested and released the same day.  He asked if I would ever do that.  I said, "uh, no way".

When I moved to eastern DRC I was a naive, scared, and totally out of my comfort zone.  I mean, I read the news, I knew that eastern DRC wasn't a place most Americans moved to if they had a family.  I had never lived overseas.  I was moving with my 8 week old little girl.  Somehow I managed to cross that border and we ended up living there for 4 1/2 years.  And my life was actually really safe (considering where we lived) and quiet.  While I lived there, I never took a stand for anything that put me in danger and I never publicly spoke out against the injustice I saw while living there (and there was plenty).  I stayed safe.

When I was pregnant with my second little girl I was still in DRC.  One day, when I was about 20 something weeks along I got really sick with some kind of GI bug.  At the time, I thought maybe I was in preterm labor.  I knew I at least needed IV fluids.  My OB worked at Panzi hospital about a 30 minute drive through town.  On the worst road you can imagine through the most congested and poor area of town.  Driving to the hospital on that road would put a woman in labor if she wasn't already in labor!

When I got there, I had to take a number to wait in line.  I got the last number.  I think it was number 40 or something.  Then I had to sit outside with all the other women waiting in line.   There wasn't any triage.  You waited with everyone else.   For hours.

I have to back up a minute and say that if you are a mzungu (white person) or a rich person of any skin color in this area of the world most of the time you didn't wait in lines.  You were treated differently, like you were a celebrity.  I never got used to that part of living there.   That day I was the only white woman sitting in that line waiting to be seen.  I was the last one in the line.  Most places in town I would have been somehow moved to the front, or I would have been shown a different place to wait that would have expedited my visit, a sort of VIP room.  And it would have happened whether I asked for that treatment or not, and I would have probably not been aware of it, if it did happen.

But not that day, and not with my doctor.  At one point he came out and saw the long line of women.  He looked exhausted and overwhelmed.  But he had a kind smile for us all.  He saw me (I stood out).  He came over.  He said, "I can't see you before these women, you will have to wait".  I think I might of audibly sighed in relief, as I said, "of course not".  It was one of the rare times in DRC where I was treated like an equal.  I was just like every other woman waiting in line, I wasn't special because of my skin color, and I didn't deserve different treatment because of my skin color. (Of course, it was embarrassing that he even felt like he had to come over and tell me).   I was simply a woman, waiting to see a doctor.  And this doctor saw all the women in line as equally important and valuable.  None was more special than the next.  They all were worth his time.  And my illness and pregnancy problems were not more critical than the woman in front of me with similar problems who had brown skin and lived in destitute poverty.

That doctor was Dr. Mukwege.  Please take a moment and read the link.

He is an incredible man, who not only treats women with respect, dignity, and equality, he fights for the injustice done to them in eastern DRC.  He is one of my heroes.

He recently came under attack, and one of the men who protects his home was killed.  It is unknown if it was because of his work and advocacy.  It is unknown if it was an assassination attempt.  But it is likely.  He takes a strong stance against injustice and names those who are the perpetrators (even when it is his own country and countrymen).  He stands up for the wrongs done to women, for the raping and damage done to women in eastern DRC.  He not only uses his voice to demand that world act against these atrocities done to women and to their communities, but he also uses his hands to repair their bodies after they have been violently raped.

He lives in the neighborhood next to where I lived in eastern DRC.   I think of my life there.  My quiet, safe life.  I think of his life, how it is the exact opposite.  And I wonder, if given the chance, would I do the same?  Would I risk my life for another?  Would I speak out and stand against injustice and for the truth?  Would I demand action at all cost to myself?  Would I rage against the atrocities done to women, to our sisters, on the other side of the world?

I am thankful beyond words for men and women around the world who do so.  Like Dr. Mukwege.  I can hope and pray that his courage and bravery will inspire others to fight against injustice as it has for me.   And I do hope, that if I am ever called on to stand up even in the midst of danger, I will remember   and take that stand.

And perhaps, when I reflect on my brief interactions with him during my time in eastern DRC, I most remember the humility with which he carried himself and the quiet dignity, respect, and compassion he showed all women, regardless of race, wealth, or nationality.  It's a good place from which to start.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

An incredible alternative to orphanages. Consider opening a home like this in Kinshasa!

My heart and passion is working in eastern DRC with vulnerable and orphaned children.

Perhaps yours is to work in Kinshasa or a different area of the country.  Perhaps you adopted a child from Kinshasa and you want to help other vulnerable children, the children you didn't adopt.  Perhaps you chose not to adopt, or your adoption fell through, and your heart is still there, with the children in Kinshasa.

Don't open a new orphanage.  Don't open another institution where children live for years and years.

I would challenge you to think of starting a project like this one.  Child's i Foundation is based in Uganda and it resonates with me on so many levels.  There are so many children abandoned in Kinshasa.  What if there was just one project like this one in Kinshasa?  They have already found families for 80 children IN Uganda.  They find the families of the children.  For those that can be reunified they do so. For those where they cannot find families they find Ugandan adoptive families.  They work on supporting families to stop abandonment in the first place.   Their children stay for a maximum of six months.  They support social workers and do trainings.  

What a wonderful way to help orphans, widows, and their families.  Take some time and explore their site.  Take some time and consider alternative ways to care for vulnerable, orphaned and abandoned children.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Guest post: What happened? (and things to read this weekend)

Amanda has given me permission to repost her story from her blog.  Remember those people I talked about at my last post that I respect and admire for speaking up and sharing the truth about their adoptions, and fighting for change?  She and her family are some of them.  Thank you, Amanda, your story is hard and not easy, you could have chosen to remain silent.  Thank you for being a voice for change in adoption in DRC.  

What happened?

The details, as promised.  Commentary to follow.  For now, just facts.

We signed on with One World Adoption Services, Inc. (“OWAS”) in November 2010 to adopt two kids under 4 from DRC.  In October 2011, after being told that our referral would come soon since May 2011, we were sent a referral for two children (who we called Carolyn and Freddy) (who were said to be 5 and 3 – thus outside of our range).  Their paperwork did not include any information about the biological family, except that the mother was unable to care for them, and the father was “unknown.”  We asked a number of questions about their birth family and where the children came from and were told by our caseworker that she would look into it.  We never heard anything further.  We naively accepted OWAS’ word that this was all the information that we would/could receive from DRC.
[Sidenote: I said commentary would come later, but I lied.  Never, ever, ever believe this from any agency.  Information abounds.  Just now I found the former orphanage director on Facebook.  People.  It's 2012.  Everyone has a cell phone.  Everyone has an email address.  Everyone has a computer.]
In February 2012, we passed court and received the parental authorization form.  This was the first time that we ever heard that the biological mother would have to be contacted and actively relinquish her rights.  Again we asked for information about her and her situation but did not receive any information from OWAS.  On the request for birth certificates, for the first time, we saw the name of a third child (Katie) and asked for information from OWAS.  We were then told that she was the children’s biological sister, who was raised with them and had been brought to the orphanage at the same time.  Based on this, we can only assume that when we had previously asked OWAS for information about the biological family, they were not attempting to get that information.  If they had looked into our questions, it would have been clear that the children had a sister in the orphanage.
We accepted the referral for the older sister not wanting to split up the siblings.  At that time, we finally received the “intake form” that included a little more information about the biological family, again stating that the father was “unknown.”
In the spring/early summer of 2012, the woman running the orphanage in Kinshasa was fired due to allegations of corruption.  This started raising our red flags.  When she was fired, she took (at least) three children from the orphanage to her home.  These children were later removed by the police, and she was arrested.  (This relates later.)
We passed court with Katie in March 2012 but never received all of her documents or confirmation that her birth certificate or passport were ever requested (we pulled out at the end of August).  This was concerning to us given the “shake up.”  We never got a straight answer as to what was going on with Katie’s case and whether OWAS had the documents, whether they were in progress or whether they were missing/lost/stolen.
In April 2012, we filed I600s for Carolyn and Freddy.  In June 2012, we received a request for evidence asking for more information about the mother’s situation.  OWAS was never able to gather adequate documentation, so we had to withdraw the I600 in order to avoid a denial.  Since we did not want to solely rely on OWAS, we hired another attorney in DRC to investigate.
It was at this point that the red flags became flaming red on fire flags.  First, our investigation revealed that the address given by OWAS for the biological mother was incorrect and that no one by her name had ever lived there, and no neighbors had ever heard of her.  Second, we then learned that Freddy was one of the children taken from the orphanage by the fired director, which explained why we had not received any photos of him for months while we did receive photos of the girls.  We asked for an update on him but never received any information from OWAS.  Finally, in another review of the documents, we saw that the biological mother had the same last name as the fired orphanage director.
In their attempt to respond to the request for evidence, OWAS told us that the biological mother could not be found and/or had moved.  However, days later, we received an updated “certificate of indigence” that said, on its face, she had recently appeared at social services and testified as to her status.  When we asked OWAS about this document, they told us that the officer had remembered meeting the mother (presumably a year before) and could sign the document based on her memory.  This did not sit well with us and looked a lot like a fraudulent document to us.
Based on this series of events, we decided we needed to conduct our own personal investigation since there were too many red flags for us to feel comfortable proceeding.  In August, we went to DRC.  We met with members of the children’s birth family and quickly learned that our suspicions were, unfortunately, true.  The documents that were used to support the children’s cases were all fraudulent.  The children were the nieces and nephew o0 the fired director, who had falsely indicated that the father was “unknown” in order to complete the adoption.  The mother and father are in a committed relationship, have other children and live about a 4 hour plane ride from Kinshasa.  Because the documents were fraudulent, we could not proceed with the adoption.
While we were there, we also learned that Freddy had been back living with his grandmother for a number of months after he had been removed (while we were paying monthly orphan support for him).  While in DRC, we met the children’s grandmother, and while she is not rich, by any means, we could see that she had some means to provide.  The children have been returned to her, and we are very glad for that.  Their grandmother loves them, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this is the best situation for them.
When we met with OWAS upon our return, they confirmed that we could not proceed with an international adoption where there are two known, living parents (not to mention fraudulent documents).  While we had hoped that they would work with us to resolve our situation, they refuse to refund any of our money.
These are the cold hard facts.  We have many other suspicions about further corruption in DRC and adoptions, and I will post my commentary another time.  Thanks for following our journey.  We are down, but not out!

She has a couple wonderful follow up posts here and here.  Definitely worth reading.  

Also, some more interesting posts to read today.   A very interesting program to help prevent orphans by supporting vulnerable families, for $35/month.  In Haiti, a local project to help farmers grow peanuts, create local jobs, and prevent malnutrition.  A wonderful post about the language of poverty

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Yes, I bribed DGM (or did I bribe DGM?)

I haven't written many of the details of my adoption out (the technical details).  Much of what got me started writing and advocating for ethics in adoption in DRC was because of all I learned by living in DRC while processing our adoption and helping others with theirs (and listening to others share their stories).  We were involved in every single step of the adoption.

For those of you that don't know, we stepped away from one adoption because of concerns about the ethics of the adoption.  We ended up adopting for a different orphanage.  The little boy we had been referred to originally still lives in the first orphanage.

Here is what I learned from both adoptions--

1.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  I was completely ignorant of what international adoption meant and the challenges of an ethical adoption in a country like DRC.  I thought I would be helping orphaned children that needed homes find a home.

2.  I learned very quickly how naive I was.

3.  I learned that paying off government and court officials was common place.  Giving a judge money to "close their eyes" was a normal activity.  When I expressed complete repulsion at the idea (when someone suggested it to us during our adoption) I was greeted with surprise that I would think that would be wrong.

4.  When we told people we absolutely would not be paying anyone off, our dossier was thrown out of the courts and we were told we had to re-submit it (and pay again) to have it considered.

5.  At one point when we asked to review all the paperwork being submitted we found a forged document.  No one admitted to putting it in our dossier and no one thought it was a big deal.  We did and we refused to allow it to go in our dossier.

6.  When we finally got to the point of getting DGM (DRC immigration) approval to leave the country, we were told "no problem".  We just had to pay them $3000.  We said, absolutely not.  It took us the next nine months to finally get permission to leave the country.

7.  The DGM exit letter (formal permission to leave the country) is free, THERE IS NO OFFICIAL CHARGE.  Any amount over that amount is a bribe.  That means even one dollar paid to DGM is a bribe.

8.  In the end we made a decision.  We had to decide if we were comfortable paying DGM a bribe.  We asked around and found out that minimum all other agencies/organizations were paying was $100 (of course most were paying $600 or more).  S0, we paid DGM $100 for each child to get a exit visa.  So, yes, we bribed DGM.  Put another way, we bribed the Immigration Department of DRC to get our girls permission to leave the country.  Doesn't sound so great when I put it that way, does it?

Am I okay this?  Absolutely not.  Would I adopt from DRC again right now?  No.

So, I speak out and try to give others the opportunity to do so, too.  It is only in speaking out about the truth about what is happening on the ground do we actually have a chance to change the corruption that is rampant in international adoption in DRC.  It is only in speaking the truth, without judgment, that we can work together to make change happen.  We can make a difference.  Many already are doing so, and for them (and others working to fight injustice done to orphans and vulnerable children), I have much respect.

Addendum:  I changed the title of this post to add "or did I bribe DGM?"  I did this to reflect the controversy over this topic, paying DGM any money at all, my views on it being indeed a bribe, and others who very much disagree with me.  The comments reflect the differing opinions on this well.  

Addendum #2 Feb. 12, 2014:  At the time we were adopting (2010 and 2011) no one was calling the money paid to DGM a "bribe", the U.S. Embassy in Kinshasa had on their website that paying DGM $100 as part of the exit process was to be expected and was a part of the adoption process in DRC.  When I first wrote this post I was trying to do my best to reveal what I knew about the truth of DGM "exit fees", even though it was in opposition to the embassy's guidelines to IA in DRC and also against all agency and organization behavior at that time.  As of Feb. 2013, the embassy website reports that any money given to DGM as part of the exit process should be considered a bribe.