Benjamin came to the orphanage (which was set up to be a place to give babies formula after their mothers died until they were weaned and then they all went back to their families) when there were few newborns, actually there was only one other one, a little girl named Chantal. Both of them arrived right after birth, after their mothers' died. Chantal's father was in the military. I never met him, but he called the orphanage often to check on her. To make sure she was doing well. Or if he couldn't call, he had someone else call to check on her.
Because they were the only two newborns at the time, they received a lot attention. We had just done a lot of training with the women about how to mix the formula correctly and we had assured them we would bring it every time we visited. Benjamin and Chantal thrived compared to the babies that had arrived only one year before.
Around the time they arrived at the orphanage, I was asked to do a pilot adoption program at the orphanage for the organization, Our Family in Africa (OFA), that helped us start our adoption (we finished independently). I had little to no knowledge of international adoption, but went forward with a lot of prayer and good intentions. I wanted to help children find families, so I brought adoption to the orphanage.
I was confused about how to go about referrals and matching families and so was the director of the orphanage. When I learned ALL the children had living fathers, I was surprised to realize that none of the babies were orphans. I immediately thought, "can adoption from here be legal because they aren't orphans?". (Again, I didn't know anything about international adoption). Because OFA was used to abandonment cases from Kinshasa and other areas of DRC, they hadn't worked with many cases of known birth parents so these were new questions for them as well. So after being assured that yes adoptions could be done from the orphanage, I started doing some research and some reading because it still didn't sit well with me (I mean, the babies and children all had fathers and families and most had siblings that still lived with the fathers or with the fathers and their new wives). I had heard that step mothers could sometimes reject the first wives children, but in getting to know more and more congolese families during my time living in DRC, I really felt like this was the exception rather than the rule. Something didn't add up. How could adoption from this orphanage be okay?
I quickly searched out the USCIS definition of "orphan" as it relates to the immigration of a child. The part of the definition that applied to the children at this specific orphanage was--"The child of a...surviving parent may be considered an orphan if that parent is unable to care for the child properly and has, in writing, irrevocably released the child for emigration and adoption"(source). So, I had the weight of the USCIS behind me; it was okay for these children to be adopted. I started facilitating adoptions for families. But something still didn't feel right, there was an unease in my heart and my prayers felt restless.
One the one hand I found my self supporting the adoptions of the children, but on the other hand I was also becoming more and more aware of the extreme poverty of the families and asking myself some hard questions. And in the meantime, I was witnessing corruption in the process and trying to keep it out of the adoptions. Until finally this tension was too much and I stopped facilitating adoptions; though OFA still continued facilitating adoptions.
And then, I finally put my finger on what was bothering me. About adoptions in DRC in general and about adoptions at the orphanage in specific. And it goes back to Benjamin, Chantal and that USCIS definition. I never even considered Benjamin and Chantal for adoption. Of course not. Something in my gut said, don't even ask about them. Maybe for some of you it isn't obvious, because it was certainly clear that the fathers in both cases were "unable to care for the child". What was bothering me was what was missing from that definition.
It was love. Love was the missing part of the definition. Even though extremely poor, those two fathers LOVED their babies. And had every intention of coming back to get their babies one day. Most of the fathers and families that drop off their babies have that same intention, it was love that motivated the action to bring the babies to the orphanage in the first place because they were doing the only thing they could to keep them alive. Yes, they are unable to "care" for their children and yes, if you asked them if they want their babies to go to the U.S. or europe to be adopted (i.e. to be given food, healthcare, education, advantages they would never dream of being able to provide for their children), most would say yes. If you asked them "can you care for your child?" And then followed that question up with, "because if you can't, your child can be raised by a loving family in America. He/she can be adopted. Do you want this?". The answer would be adoption. The choice was "adoption to the states" or "home with you in desperate poverty". When adoption is the only alternative offered to destitute poverty with the family, I began to wonder if there was really a choice at all. In fact, I began to feel the injustice of such a request. The inequality is revealed and the lack of respect and rights it showed towards the congolese "birth" family. I began to wonder, what if I asked, "can you care for you child?" And then followed that up with, "tell me why you can't care for your child? what are your dreams for your family, for your child? what are your skills? what are the barriers to caring for your child?" And then, "we want to partner with you, we want to help you keep your child, we want to give you support (if it means job training or child care classes) to care for your child, how can we work together to do that?".
And that began to sit with me more and more. I began to think about those two fathers and their love for their children and I felt less and less like I wanted to support adoption but that instead I wanted to support family reunification. Because poverty wasn't reason enough to take a baby away from their family anymore.
Benjamin's father changed everything for me. Because it was abundantly clear he loved him. When Benjamin wasn't quite one yet, I heard that his older siblings were begging their father to bring him home, to go get him and bring him back to their family. And eventually he did. Benjamin now lives with his family. I want to be a part of helping more children go back to their families. With the help of good social work, figuring out the barriers to bringing them home. Finding ways to partner with families and access the village and community to support families.
Chantal went home too. And so have others. And so will more. Yes, there are a small number of children at this orphanage that can't go home, but that number is very small. Much smaller than I thought originally. And we still don't know what those barriers are and it is possible with good social work that maybe even a family in the community/church would take raise them as their own if their own family cannot. It certainly is done in that area of DRC. And there may still be a role for international adoption at this orphanage after there is social work and thorough investigations of families conducted of their needs, barriers to taking their children home, and safety of the homes.
You may wonder about this post, given I have two adopted daughters from this orphanage. You may wonder about their story and their situation. It is theirs to share. You might wonder if I regret helping with adoptions. I will say there was much I didn't know then and, as a believer, I do think that God was with me and the director as we made the decisions we did, so I continue to feel hopeful that the adoptions I helped with were those that did truly need new families (some I know for sure that is the case). I believe in grace.
Now, I feel like I am responsible for the information I have since learned and the ways that I feel God has convicted me about his Word as it relates to families and keeping them together and supporting them. And I feel compelled to do my best to make sure that if the child is wanted by their father or another member of his/her family, loved and hoped for by that family, then the child is kept with their family, that that child belong to their family. I want to make sure that poverty doesn't prevent a child from being with their family. I feel like that is what God has taught me through the story of my time in DRC working at the orphanage, that I should be about keeping the families He created, together, and not be a part of pulling them apart.
And this is why I am committed to family preservation.
(I write this from the perspective of having lived in eastern DRC for 4 1/2 years. I worked directly with the orphanage and it's director for two of those years.)
Part 2 of this post can be found here.
Addendum 1/19/13--This post was not meant to be about OFA. I included their name because it felt like I would be trying to hide something about someone if I said "this organization", and I have nothing to hide, and though we may not agree on everything they helped us tremendously with our adoption and other adoptions as well. As I pointed out in the post, the adoptions were all legal. It was meant to be about my journey of coming to the conclusion that before adoption is offered to families of children in orphanage, good social support and services should be offered first (please read my post). If I am critical of anyone, it is my own role in not realizing the importance of these services, how they are essential to keeping families together. That in the end, I have realized my passion is for family reunification and family support. This post was about me (and Chantal and Benjamin) and how my beliefs about adoption have changed. I also wanted to say that these views have come over a long hard two years of struggling with these issues. I haven't facilitated any adoptions since the end of 2010, but I have helped 5 families with independent adoptions from the orphanage since that time; I didn't feel like it was important to point that out, but I have been questioned about this so I thought I would share my role in adoptions more completely (I provided contacts and helped with how to set up a dossier and answered questions). I have been so thankful for the wonderful group of people I have met through adoption and my work with adoptions at this orphanage, many of whom are also passionate about family preservation. About 6-9 months ago, I finally came to the strong conclusions I stated in this post about adoptions at the orphanage. As I state in the post, I am not against international adoption. (I am against corruption in international adoption). It may have a role again at this orphanage in the future. But first, I strongly believe they should be put on hold while a social worker gets up and running to do thorough family assessments and find the barriers that prevent families from taking their children into their homes and then give support to the family so the child can stay with the family. All the children at this orphanage have families and wide extensive family networks. That is what my post is about. We started our own adoption with OFA and finished independently because we were living in eastern DRC and our adoption was processed through three embassies in three countries and it made more sense to be independent at that point. Please, feel free to contact me about any questions you may have about my post or what I have shared. I have nothing to hide and would be happy to talk to anyone about it.
Part II of this post is found here.