Friday, January 18, 2013

a story (his, mine, and how the love was left out)

His hands shook mine with vigor and hope, despite devastating loss.  He said, "Thank you.  Thank you so much for bringing milk here so my baby can live."  His wife had just died giving birth to their 10th child, a son named Benjamin.  He was a local pastor.  Women were there mourning and leaving the baby behind because no one could pay for his milk, the family was extremely poor.  He said, "I will come and get him.  When he is a little bigger.  When I have married again."   And every time I saw him over the next 6 months when he was visiting his son (named Benjamin), he would repeat those words again, "thank you, I will come and get him."


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.


Dani said...

WOW! THANK YOU! Thank you, thank you! This post nails my issue with adoption from living birth family.

Catherine said...

Beautiful post, Holly. Thank you for putting into words the thoughts that have been mulling around in my head for the past few years.

dustypaths said...

courage, dear friend, courage. well done.

Mark and Keren Riley said...

Wow Holly - thank you for your bravery and humility in sharing your story x

veggiemom said...

Thank you for this.

Christy said...

Thank you for sharing your story. It echos so much of our journey...and is why we are working in Ethiopia doing family preservation. Blessing to you and what you are doing. And for speaking out and sharing what you've learned!

Anonymous said...

This issue is unfortunately not just found internationally. I have a friend who is adopting a baby girl domestically and the parents chose adoption based on their inability to afford another child not that they did not want to raise her. I am happy for my friend but find it heartbraking for the bio parents and wish something could have been done to assist them. Thank you for sharing your experiences. If only those adopting chose to find out a bit more on the familial situation.

Anonymous said...

Seriously? What do you expect your friend to do - offer to pay for the child to stay with the birth family?

Anonymous said...

Interesting that you concluded many adoption from this particular orphanage are unnecessary since the babies have families that love them - desperately poor families, who with the tiniest bit of assistance will be able to raise their kids which is AWESOME, by the way!! - after you adopted two kids (who had families that likely could have raised them).

Ironic, non?

Holly said...

Yes, I expect those that want to care for the children in eastern DRC to also support caring for the families of those vulnerable children. There are many ways to do so--here is a wonderful example of projects in Uganda that work with reunification. I would certainly support such work and have no problem sponsoring women/families to care for their children, especially if it is school fees/support/access to medical care. If you are interested in this more, my post directly before this one is such a wonderful example of this. It shares how your money would be given in support of starting medical clinics for vulnerable populations. Women for Women sponsors women and their children to help them get back on their feet with job training in eastern DRC. City of Joy is another great example. There are many many ngos/charities/missionaries that work with families and do amazing work with microfinancing, job training, schooling, and on and on. So, the answer to your question, is yes, because I certainly would be about supporting vulnerable families in eastern DRC (we worked there for 4 1/2 years and that is what we did).

Holly said...

Yes, I agree. And I know I will get written off right away because of that. I can't change it, but can be honest about it.

I actually do know a lot about our girls' situation and (ironically, given I was so naive at the time), they needed a family because of a different situation (surrounding their birth and story) not because of poverty (yes, they were poor but that isn't the reason they were still at the orphanage). So, in the end, they weren't adopted because of extreme poverty, but honestly, I really didn't know much at the time (like I wrote) and could have easily adopted a child that came from a desperately poor family.

Honestly, when it comes down to it, I could choose to stay silent or I could choose to speak up. I know it doesn't cast me in a good light but I hope I have been honest and I hope the fact that I am trying to change what I started (doing adoptions without social support/social work in place) based off of my convictions reflects some integrity and commitment to the congolese people. I hope somehow, we are all able to give each other enough grace to change and grow as our own convictions do the same.

Jodie said...

Great post. To go even further, our daughter who was adopted from DRC had an amazing woman who took her in off the street and loved and cared for her. With 4 kids of her own, she simply couldn't afford to keep her and heart broken, took her in to be placed in an orphanage. While we feel our daughter came to us by the grace of God, I can not forget the love this woman had for our daughter. No one ever told us about this woman or how much she loved our daughter until we did an independent investigation afterwards. In our daughter's case, if social service programs were available, and families in the US were willing to support families in the DRC, the woman could have fostered our daughter and our daughter would have had a loving home and the woman would have had help in supporting her other 4 kids. That was never an option. Agencies that do international adoptions are just checking the USCIS box that qualifies the child as an orphan. On the surface, our daughter met the requirements for being an orphan, but there is so much to her story that we never heard beyond the label of "orphan".

Anonymous said...

I actually wasn't questioning your post, Holly, but was answering the anonymous person above me with the domestic adoption story.

Holly said...

Thanks for claryfing! I didn't realize that.

Ted said...

Surely there are large numbers of resources out their that could have assisted that domestic family. But the unfortunately, and I'm conflicted by this is, that they didnt want the child. Its a blessing they choose life over abortion. But is unfortunately in our society people are not always responsible for their actions.

Ted said...

True True True Dear.. But for me on the surface I'm deeply conflicted. Yes if the resources and social care were in place she could have had a loving DRC family. But we both also know about the challenges our Daughter faces. Clearly, those could not have been resolved in the DRC. And the only conclusion I have is that its pointless to 2nd guess (though I still do it often). If we trust in the Lord, and we believe we were following his will in our Live, then #3 was meant to be in our home. If not. We'll have some x'planin to do when we stand before God. and I've come to terms with we did what we thought was right.

As an aside, I think its interesting the class of APs that seems to change their view on IA after they are done. Its apples and oranges to those that (on the surface to me appear to) suggest bringing Kids to the US is the primary answer.

Anonymous said...

Ted -

You think that the parents keeping the child they do not want is more responsible than giving up the child for adoption to a family that likely very much wants a child, am I understanding that correctly? I would think that outside of using birth control, that making an adoption plan for a child that isn't wanted is being responsible.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your post, Holly.

Ami said...

I think this is a super important discussion to have. Holly, you have opened yourself up for so much because you desire the truth to be OUT THERE. Thank you.

What is so sad is that I *know* there are SO many children who DO need adopted. It's just that they aren't what people are usually looking for: older than 5, a sibling group, or a child with SN.

I hope people will start doing research and making sure that the children they are adopting *ARE* without capable, loving parents. I hope that others will open their homes to the "less desirable" children. I hope that others will work HARD on family preservation here and abroad.

It's not about finding children for families; it's about finding families for children. And if relatives can be those people, then that should be the first choice.

~all this from a PAP :)

Holly said...

Thanks for the response Ami. I wholeheartedly agree. There ARE so many children that do need families that aren't their original families and for some of those (esp. those that are older, siblings, SN) it does mean international adoption. Children need families. Most of all they need to belong. Thank you again for your encouragement, writing this post did open me up to a lot of criticism, but I feel like there are so many people out there that really do want to help children be in families. That really have lovely, caring hearts.