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.) 



Anonymous said...

Finally, someone else who feels the same way I do about CHIFF!

Gina P said...

Excellent post Holly Mulford. What they also fail to mention in that answer is that CHIFF mandates concurrent planning strategies so that children will be considered for IA at the same time other local solutions are being sought and whichever solution is the quickest, will be the solution used (since 1000s of families are waiting for IA, IA will always be the quickest solution). Read Section 101(c)(3)(A),(B), and (C) together. Especially noting the section on Subsidiarity which redefines both the Hague and UNCRC rules of Subsidiarity. By accepting the US definition, countries would be violating international law via the UNCRC (which every sending country is a part of) and Hague( (if applicable).

Mama Ethiopia said...

So glad that you posted this Holly!

Katherine said...

Way to kick orphans when they're down, Holly. Good job. I see that you exaggerate allegations of fraud in a country that has already closed adoptions, and criticize CHIFF for not fixing all of the world's problems immediately. That's pretty ridiculous.

Holly said...

Katherine-I'm unsure how advocating for protection from exploitation is "kicking orphans when they're down." My assumption would be that the more protections in place to protect orphans from abuse is actually preferable. DRC adoptions are not closed. There is a suspension of issuance of exit letters by DGM (Congolese immigration), but as I pointed out in the post, adoption is still ongoing with judgements being rendered and visas being issued. I write this post because I feel that CHIFF is not going to protect vulnerable women and children in DRC from exploitation.

Katherine said...

But CHIFF improves protections for children: currently, consular affair officers see orphan petitions as solely immigration matters, without regard to children's best interests. Moving that processing to a human rights framework puts the best interests of children first, and therefore protects children who are already in families. The Hague Convention started things moving in the right direction; CHIFF merely continues that progress

Mamacita said...

Katherine, what exactly does any of that mean? "Children's best interests" as determined by who? Are we going to have American foreign service employees determining the best interests of foreign children? And what is the standard for best interests of the child? Those set forth by the UNCRC? Because if so, then the child's best interest would be to remain in his or her country or culture of birth -- period.

What your response sounds like to me is a whole bunch of buzz words strung together without any real substance. Nothing you have said actually demonstrates HOW this legislation will accomplish anything other than faster and easier adoptions for Americans. What does it mean to "move to a human rights framework?" How does moving to this imaginary, non-existent framework put the best interests of children first, or protect children who are already in families? Specifics would be hugely helpful -- i.e., CHIFF would create a specific agency within the Department of State that is solely tasked with doing X or Y. Coordination with foreign government on these issues would be achieved by doing X and Y. If foreign governments choose to not participate in this program, then X will result. But not a single CHIFF proponent can provide any of those details, because the legislation simply does not do any of what they're claiming. The phrase "best interests of the child" is completely hollow and meaningless in this context.

Anonymous said...

Mamacita - Didn't you camp out in Guat for months to complete the adoption of your child? Didn't you write a rather shameless and self-serving article on how all the corruption in adoptions from Guat wasn't the fault of adoptive parents whose money provided the incentive for the trafficking / corruption?

Anonymous said...

So, the underfunded, undercapable Congolese social services / government are the reasons why there's an "emergency" need to "rescue via international adoption"... yet it is these exact same pretty much non-existent social services who are responsible for verifying that each kid is really, truly in need of new, foreign parents?

Gee, the suspension of exit letters might not be the worst thing ever!

Holly said...

anon @ 7:12pm. I agree with you completely regarding your point about social services. They do not have the resources, support or staffing to be verifying the orphan status of all the referred children in Kinshasa. It is the very same reason I have serious concerns about the validity of an adoption agency paying their social services provided foster care families $600/month, given the same social services also give referrals. Or in other cases, agencies/organizations pay a referral fee to social services when they get a referral. I feel like this puts a lot of pressure on a very vulnerable system that is in place to protect children and instead could be pressured to exploit them.

Holly said...

Katherine, can you specifically explain how CHIFF would protect children from exploitation in DRC? Can you specify what human rights framework you are referencing? Would you consider reflecting on Gina's comment above regarding the violation of Hague law as it regards to concurrent planning strategies (and the principle of Subsidiarity? Thanks.

Rogue Mamacita said...

@Anon 7:03
Whoops! I should have checked before using that alias...I'm definitely not a Guatemalan AP, but a Congolese AP. And I sure didn't write any letter!

CongoMama said...

I think you have misidentified Mamacita but nice try.

Katie said...

Thank you for writing this holly! In a place like DRC, this legislation is the last thing vulnerable children need.

Bonnie said...

Great job Holly!!!! Sending sunshine your way!!! :)

L83 said...

I'm so very thankful for this post. During the 2.5 year long DRC adoption process I was constantly searching for some person/organization/entity who would speak boldly and truthfully. There were/are very few and now I understand why. Thank you for your honest and bold posts. They challenge other adoptive parents like me, as well as potential adoptive parents to ask hard questions and seek out truthful information about our individual situations. I'm also very appreciative of your devotion to and support of the most vulnerable children in Congo. You rock! Keep it up!

Anonymous said...

So, Katherine....or should I say Katie Jay....are you still claiming to others that Holly moderates her blog comments and won't let you comment?

It's pretty telling that there has been no substantive response to any of the questions/challenges about CHIFF. Just saying it does X or Y doesn't make it so.

Shea said...

Well, Katie Jay, I'm confused. According to you, all CHIFF opponents are anti-adoption and want orphans to die. Yet here we have a lot of thoughtful commentary from adoptive parents about the problems with CHIFF! How can that be?

This is a great piece, Holly, one of the best I've read on the subject, and Gina's comments are very thought provoking as well.

Many sponsors of this legislation deeply regret their involvement and have assured us this bill is dead, at least for this Congress, but we'll have to continue to work hard to press for oversight hearings and meaningful reform to end rehoming, ensure transparent and ethical adoptions, prioritize intercountry placement, provide post adoption support and resources, and do all we can to make the system truly work for children, not the adoption industry.

Lu said...

Just curious to understand who you propose to suggest proper adoption legislation if it's not by the people who know adoption best? We have a global crisis in the number of orphaned children and something needs to be done to protect them, birth families and adoptive parents.

I also think it's important to understand that not all difficult adoptions are fraudulent. A few bad apples are spoiling the cart.

Lu said...

Just curious to understand who you propose to suggest proper adoption legislation if it's not by the people who know adoption best? We have a global crisis in the number of orphaned children and something needs to be done to protect them, birth families and adoptive parents.

I also think it's important to understand that not all difficult adoptions are fraudulent. A few bad apples are spoiling the cart.

Anonymous said...

This is a very well written post. As an adoptive parent of a child from DRC you have given me a lot to think about. Thank you for shedding light on CLIFF

Anonymous said...

Too bad CLIFF is more interested in protecting agencies and their $$$

Rogue Mamacita said...

Presumably, when you say "the people who know adoption best," you mean adoption agencies. It's ironic that you think that agencies -- who make $$$$ from adoption -- "know adoption best" -- instead of people like adult adoptees, people who actually live & work in the country in question, and people who devoted significant time & effort towards ethical adoption practices, family reunification efforts and more. People who do not have a financial stake in the outcome are the ones who are best suited to be drafting this legislation (although I'm not sure why you think that if you oppose legislation, you then must say who could write better legislation). Holly very specifically listed groups whose involvement/support would be critical in this post -- so you could answer your own question by simply reading it.

When it comes down to it, agencies are the ones who create the mess in various countries. Those documents don't forge themselves, after all. It's crazy to think that the same people who foster climates of corruption would be the ones to make adoption ethical and transparent. These are the people who refuse to break down massive fees, won't provide receipts, won't give accurate stories as to how children come into care, won't detail how foster care money is being spent, won't provide basic information on foster parents, won't provide documentation that was required under Congolese law and that the parents paid for -- do any of these sound like transparent practices? Why would the agencies who do such things then be in the position of creating legislation that supposedly will ensure transparency? How does it make sense that the people who will lose money if children stay with their families instead of adopted internationally are the same ones drafting legislation about those same things? It doesn't make sense.

It's telling that nobody on Team CHIFF has a real response to Holly's questions/concerns. You can attack her for being negative, but that doesn't mean that her points are invalid. So far, nobody who has posted in favor of CHIFF has addressed any of these issues. Doesn't that speak volumes?

Laura said...

Holly- I get that adoptions in the DRC are a mess right now. And I can even agree that CHIFF isn't going to solve all the problems. But I'm not seeing how it will hurt. To me it is a good first step. The DRC isn't the only country being impacted by this bill. Many families chose to adopt now from countries with long wait lists partially because they want an ethical adoption. Having to constantly update paperwork and pay fees over and over again to our own government is a financial drain on families which does impact the children down the road. If CHIFF can cut some of the UN-NEEDED bureaucracy and streamline then I think that is a good thing.
If CHIFF can help struggling and countries with their processes and resources so they can process a few more then 1-2 a month then that is a good thing. In the DRC they may be pushing through adoptions way to fast but in others it can take almost a year for a social worker to even open a case file on an abandoned infant.
If CHIFF can result in international adoption not always being a back burner issue by our own government then I think you might have a shot at fixing some of the issues.

Holly said...

Laura, thanks for the comment. I totally get where you are coming from in the sense that there is a lot of bureaucracy and unneeded delays in the process (from the U.S. side). We experienced that ourselves as we had to work with three embassies to finish our adoption (because we were living in eastern DRC, it made it more challenging). And I agree there needs to be changes to help the process work more effectively (for instance, more staff on hand in embassies for investigations so there are less delays as cases pile up). However, I would disagree that CHIFF will do no harm. I think CHIFF will do a lot of harm. Especially in a country like DRC with few safeguards in place to protect vulnerable children. I try to outline this in my post, but the articles I reference are excellent to further understanding these concerns. Also, some of the comments here go into the problems that come with CHIFF. Though reform needs to happen, we shouldn't accept this legislation because in the end it will not only do harm to vulnerable children around the world (by not protecting them and by creating more ways that they can be exploited) but it also will bring more potential harm to adoptive parents. When children are being exploited and potentially taken away from families that wanted to parent them (which is happening in DRC), the adoptive parent ends up being a participant in this. Most adoptive parents do not want to adopt a child that has a parent that wants to parent them. Most adoptive parents want to parent a child that needs a new family. I have highlighted some stories on my blog of adoptive parents in DRC that found out their children have been trafficked. This is heart breaking for everyone involved. Any legislation that pertains to IA should make sure that there is more protection for all members of the triad, not less.

Gina P said...

As an additional point, one which makes me very fearful for vulnerable families is the addition to the leagl definition of orphan to include a child with living poaretns who relinquish that child solely for the purpose of adoption. This language will allow the practice of harvesting to fully comply with US immigration law and will likely increase the practice.

Gina P said...

sorry for the error in my comment- parents are permitted to relinquish a child solely for the purpose of intercountry adoption.

Margie Perscheid said...

Thank you! Well Said