Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Why I won't support CHIFF and why it should matter to those who care about vulnerable children in DRC and elsewhere.

Last week, the most recent "Annual report on Intercountry adoption" was released by the U.S. Department of State. This annual report lists a variety of statistics related to intercountry adoption by Americans and from the U.S. for the previous year.  Each report is easily accessible to the public through the State Department website.  For Congo, these reports reveal a dramatic change.  In 2008, the State Department recorded only 5 adoptions of Congolese children to American families.  By 2009, the number had increased to 21 children -- a 400% increase. Looking further at intercountry adoption in DRC over the past four years shows some interesting trends: 
  • From 2010 through last year (2013), intercountry adoption from DRC has increased by 645%!  
  • In 2010, DRC ranked #21 in number of finalized adoptions per sending country.
  • In 2013, DRC ranked #5.  
  • While the top five sending countries have remained relatively unchanged over the past four years (with the exception of Haiti, the top five usually are China, Ethiopia, Ukraine, Russia, and South Korea), DRC has been steadily climbing every year.
There are many reasons why DRC has become such a popular sending country for Americans looking to adopt.  The program early on was known for it's speed (with adoptions being completed in as quickly as 6 months in 2010-11), relatively few requirements (most of which could be "waived"), and young, healthy infants (though often malnourished).  DRC was also viewed as a country with high infant mortality rates, high child mortality rates, and large numbers of "orphans".  Indeed, a popular agency that facilitates adoptions in DRC still reports on their website, "The DRC program has become very popular in part because of the great need in DRC and that very young infants are matched with waiting families." (per the agency MLJ, link to this quote is found here on their website).

As the number of adoptions has increased over the past four years (by 645%), tales of unethical behavior and rampant corruption have as well.  Stories about falsified paperwork, corruption, bribes, stories that differ on paperwork compared to independent investigations, allegations of trafficking and agency misbehavior on the ground, rumors of arrests and children being illegally moved over the borders have all become common.  More and more adoptive parents have publicly shared their stories of lost referrals, siblings separated, children that have "died" in the process only to have been referred to another family, birth parents coerced and intimidated, consistently deplorable orphanage conditions despite continued donations, and even child abuse.   Adoptive parents in the U.S. are sharing more openly about learning that their children were adopted from families that didn't know what adoption meant, from families that were lied to and coerced -- and more.

Beyond corruption, families are sharing their disillusionment with their agencies and facilitating organizations.  They are frustrated with the lack of information they are receiving, the high foster care fees, the refusal of some agencies to move their children from orphaages to foster care, and the poor orphanage care for their children despite continued monthly donations.  They are also tired of the lack of transparency by the agencies in terms of how their money is being spent on the ground, the failure of their agencies to provide them with copies of their documents (like their DGM exit letters), and the overall lack of control their agencies seem to have over their on ground staff and lawyers. 

Over the past year, the adoption process in DRC has become much more complicated, with delays in Embassy visa investigations and a suspension of exit permits by Congolese immigration (DGM).   Right now, international  adoption is at a standstill with more than 100 children waiting to exit the country despite having American visas in their Congolese passports.  More and more families are expressing their frustration that they cannot exit the country with their legally adopted children -- who, despite their adoption by American citizens, are still Congolese citizens, and subject to Congolese immigration laws.  Through DGM, the Embassy is communicating sometimes inconsistent and irregular information about who can exit and when.  The current state of adoptions in DRC can best be described as a mess.  But despite the suspension, agencies are still accepting new clients and giving out new referrals, adoption judgements are still being rendered by Congolese judges, and visas are still being issued by the Embassy -- but children cannot leave the country. 
The DRC program has become very popular in part because of the great need in DRC and that very young infants are matched with waiting families. - See more at:
The DRC program has become very popular in part because of the great need in DRC and that very young infants are matched with waiting families. - See more at:
The DRC program has become very popular in part because of the great need in DRC and that very young infants are matched with waiting families. - See more at:

All of this means that legislation that impacts international adoption should be of extreme interest to adopting parents in DRC.  In particular, the proposed Children in Families First Act -- known as CHIFF --should be scrutinized carefully by all Congolese adoptive parents and prospective adoptive parents.  In fact, I believe that the question of the value and usefulness of CHIFF as it relates to intercountry adoption should be applied to DRC first and foremost because out of the top 5 sending countries for adoption in 2013, DRC is the fastest growing over the past 4 years.

Does CHIFF protect all the members of the adoption triad in DRC?  I recently asked the following question of a member of the CHIFF working committee and I appreciated that she followed up by having the response put on the CHIFF faq page.  The question was, "I read the bill and I don’t see anything that specifically adds to make it a more ethical and transparent process. If anything it seems to make it easier (and potentially faster) to adopt internationally. In countries like DRC, where there are few safeguards in the country to protect children from exploitation, how does CHIFF help those children not get trafficked for the sake of adoption?"  In short, my biggest concern is how does CHIFF helps to protect vulnerable children and their families in DRC, a popular sending country for international adoption with very few safeguards in place to protect these children and their families. 

According to their website, CHIFF will supposedly protect vulnerable children and families by somehow gathering information about these children earlier in the process (source can be found here):  "CHIFF instructs the U.S. Government to support other countries in putting  mechanisms in place that will allow for much earlier identification of children coming into care, long before any discussion of what permanent solution a child might need.  By capturing information about each child early and seeking to use that basis to gather more information and ultimately develop a permanence plan for each child, CHIFF will facilitate better outcomes.  Children will only come into the international adoption stream after other options have been investigated and considered, in a timely fashion so as to avoid long-term damage from years of institutionalization.  The goal of CHIFF is for kids to be in a family, not to be in an internationally adoptive family. International adoption is one tool of permanent protection for children who may need it."

And that is it.  That is the answer to how CHIFF will protect vulnerable children and their families from exploitation.  That the U.S. government will "support" other countries in putting mechanisms in place that will identify children who might come into orphanages long before they need a solution like adoption.  They will capture information about each child early and identify permanency plans for each child.   CHIFF will therefore "facilitate better outcomes".  The U.S. will theoretically be working in DRC to make sure every child has a permanency plan and all options will be "investigated and considered" and then after all these options are "considered", they will then enter the international adoption stream.  CHIFF is apparently magical legislation that will simultaneously make it faster and easier for Americans to adopt internationally while protecting vulnerable children, keeping families intact AND ensuring ethics and transparency -- something that no other legislation has ever come close to achieving.  How exactly will this be accomplished, particularly in a country like DRC that is considered a failed state?  Will the U.S. open an office in DRC just to help accomplish this task?  Will such an office be located in Kinshasa or elsewhere?  (After all, DRC is a massive country, roughly the size of the entire American midwest.).  What if DRC (not being a Hague country and not bound to the principle of subsidiarity) does not want to work with the U.S. in making a permanency plan for every child?  Will the U.S. withhold aid money if the Congolese government refuses to go along with this plan to make international adoption easier for Americans?  What will the U.S. government do if the Congolese government doesn't actually want foreigners to continue adopting its children?  CHIFF is remarkably short on details on HOW they'll accomplish these goals -- which isn't surprising, given that such a broad policy statement will be nearly impossible to enact (remember that DRC is home to the largest UN peacekeeping force in the world, yet still struggles with rebel activity/civil war.  If intervention by other nations could solve DRC's problems, then it would no longer be one of the poorest countries in the world, the "rape capital of the world" or a failed state.).  In reality, the ONLY one of CHIFF's stated goals that will be accomplished will be more streamlined adoptions for American families -- which is why CHIFF has the support of the groups most likely to benefit or profit from increased international adoption (particularly adoption agencies) and does not have the support of groups who seek to protect vulnerable children from exploitation and who want to ensure that international adoption is ethical and transparent. 

Moreover, nothing in this response answered my question about how children will be protected from exploitation or how CHIFF makes the process more ethical and transparent, particularly in a country like DRC where there are extremely high levels of corruption, little infrastructure and few safeguards to protect vulnerable women and children (consider the high levels of violence against women and girls in eastern DRC).  Likewise, nothing in this answer helps me understand how it is okay for a Hague approved agency in DRC to require adopting parents to pay monthly child care fees of up to $600/month/child to foster families who are licensed by DRC social services.  The same social services who provide all their referrals for their adoptive families (source found here on the MLJ website).   In my opinion, this would clearly put pressure on a fragile system for social services to "find" referrals for waiting adoptive parents. 

These two issues -- how to protect children and how CHIFF will ensure transparency -- are far from my only problems with CHIFF.  Many of my concerns about CHIFF have been discussed far more eloquently in other forums.  For example, how are the concerns of adult adoptees addressed by CHIFF?  These articles are posted at the end of the post, and provide excellent food for thought.

A final thought on CHIFF:  on its website, CHIFF supporters claim that their commitment to ethical adoptions is demonstrated by their support of the Univeral Accreditation Act.  The UAA comes into effect in July 2014, and will require that all international be processed by Hague approved or accredited adoption agencies (unless they're supervised by an accredited or approved adoption agency, or exempt from the requirement:  Though this might look like a commitment to ethics, I would argue that this really means nothing when it comes to adoption in DRC (a non-Hague country) and provides little support, protection, or accountability for all members of the adoption triad.  In DRC, tales of massive corruption have come from ALL corners -- including from families using Hague-approved or accredited agencies -- so this Act is unlikely to have much of an impact on the overall ethics of adoption from DRC. 

Finally, though CHIFF has some lovely language about family preservation and support, I believe that the proposed legislation will do little to protect vulnerable children in DRC.  It will also fail to provide the increased accountability, transparency and ethics that adoptive parents should be demanding for their adoption in DRC. Fancy language is no subsitute for an actual plan for how to make these things happen.  The supporters of CHIFF have been blunt about their intentions: the primary goal of CHIFF is to make international adoptions faster and easier for American families.  But when it comes to protecting vulnerable children and ensuring ethical adoptions, CHIFF falls short.  For this reason, CHIFF does not have my support -- and it shouldn't have yours, either.

If you're interested in learning more about the proposed legislation, here are some links to get you started: 

CHIFF (Children in Families First).   This is the website where you can find links to both versions of the bill, faqs, who is on the working committee, and who supports the bills.  I'd suggest that you read the full text of the bill rather than the talking points provided by the politicians and lobbyists.  Also, I would suggest closely reading some of the faqs that are provided, many bring up more concerning issues with CHIFF --for instance, the answer to the question about the principle of subsidiarity and concurrent planning for in country solutions and IA, is very interesting and worth examining closely (while keeping in mind DRC is not bound to this principle as a non-Hague convention country), found here 

Children in Families First (CHIFF) and the Evangelical Adoption Movement. (Feb. 22, 2014)

Captain America does it again! Troubling International Adoption Legislation (CHIFF). Huffington Post (March 2, 2014)

PEAR statement on the proposed "Children in Families First Act".  (October 1, 2013)

Angela Tucker or the Illusion of Bipartisan Collaboration in International Adoption. (March 25, 2014)

Banned by CHIFF?  (March 5, 2014)

My letter to congressional reps: Thanks you for not co-sponsoring CHIFF.  (Note:this article was added after this post was first published)

*As a final note, if you are not adopting from DRC, you can still ask these same questions about how CHIFF would work in your child(ren)'s country.  For instance, how would CHIFF stop situations like this from happening to you if you were to adopt from Haiti?  Please, take the time to read the stories found here about one agencies actions in Haiti.   (Also, this agency at one time also had connections with a popular agency that facilitates adoptions in DRC, named MLJ.  For more information on that connection, please read this post, especially the comments.)