In loving memory of Abeli, Mwamini, and Maria.
(This post was first written last night).
(This post was first written last night).
Tonight I received a text from Reeds of Hope’s manager in eastern DRC. As I previously noted, he is traveling all over Eastern Congo to visit the school children supported by our program. Some live in very remote locations that can only be reached by moto and/or by foot. He is very committed to visiting these children and has been very moved by their stories, struggles and strength. Earlier today he sent a text to say that he had had trouble with the moto, but had been helped by some men in one of the villages and was hoping to make it back to the orphanage today. I waited anxiously to hear that he had arrived safely back at the orphanage. When I finally heard from him, his text message was devastatingly straightforward: "Today is not a good day for us because this morning Abeli died." Another baby had died at the orphanage.
Three babies over the past 3 1/2 weeks.I am left wondering what to share, and what words to say. These three children — they mattered. Their lives mattered. Every one of them was loved and wanted. Every one of them was precious in the eyes of God and to their families and those that cared for them. I loved these babies. I knew their faces and their names. I have met some of them.
This news forces me to ask some hard questions and to do some soul searching. The babies at the orphanage are loved — and not just by me or by the staff, but by their families. They deserve our best efforts to keep them safe and healthy. But the simple reality is that we don't run this orphanage. We support it and help to fund it, but we have been prevented from doing much of the family reunification/support work we would like to do. We have been able to work on making sure there is enough formula every month and hiring extra staff to care for the babies. We work closely with the lead donor and founder, but otherwise we do not have a collaborative relationship with the other main donor.
The orphanage is in Kaziba, a remote area in the mountains of eastern DRC. It is removed from much of the insecurity that plagues other areas of eastern DRC. Almost all of the children have living and known fathers, most of whom are extremely poor. They all have lost their mothers. Most of their families are from remote villages, and if they are employed at all, they work as farmers and miners. These fathers are desperate when they bring their babies to the orphanage, hoping that although their wives have died, their babies will not. Almost all of these babies have siblings that live at home with their fathers or other family members. The children have to leave the orphanage by 5-7 years old, though most have left before then to be reunited with their families.
Because they have families that intend to return for them when they leave them in the orphanage’s care, most of these babies are not eligible to be internationally adopted. The Kaziba orphanage's role is the same as most of orphanages across Africa: to be a temporary place for families in desperate situations in a country where there are no safety nets to prevent families from falling apart when tragedy strikes.
Tonight, the deaths of these three babies weigh heavily on my heart because I feel partially to blame for their deaths. Please bear with me here while I try to explain. Just over four years ago, I visited the Kaziba orphanage for the first time. I met the director and he immediately struck me as man that loved the children under his care. He took meticulous care of them and worked well with the little resources he had. They were in desperate need of support because they didn't have enough formula or resources and the children were starving and severely developmentally delayed. We met those immediate needs, but instead sitting down and meeting with the families of the children in the orphanage, I suggested that he think about international adoption so they wouldn't be left in the orphanage. I didn't even begin to consider that maybe they had families that loved them and wanted them.* I share this part of my story .
Since that time, I have learned a lot about family reunification work. As a result, I have stopped facilitating or helping directly with adoptions and I have advocated for a change of focus. Instead of international adoption as a first resort, the focus should be on quality short-term emergency care with family preservation as the priority. But through this process, I have learned something: it’s incredibly hard to move the focus away from international adoption when it is embedded in an orphanage. Family support and reunification isn't well understood by most traditional aid organizations, and it can be complicated. It requires a deep commitment to family preservation and the inherent dignity of all families in DRC. It demands deep respect for Congolese fathers and their families.
It is much easier to fundraise for adoptions than for family support and reunification work (following the alternative care model) — despite it being the right decision for most of the children. At times, I struggle with anger towards international adoption. It seems that it takes away attention from those left in the orphanage — the kids who won’t be adopted. The director's time is often consumed by all the needs of international adoptions: obtaining consents and proper documents, counseling birth families, escorting children and birth parents across the country, traveling internationally to visit adoptive families, and helping to fundraise for the organizations that facilitate adoptions. These are important roles of the person who works as an adoption facilitator, but it raises some important questions. Should this role be filled by the director of the orphanage himself whose actual job is the direct care of the children living in the orphanage? Should someone that isn’t in charge of the care of the orphanage perhaps fill this role? Does this time-consuming work detract from spending time with birth families of the children that live in the orphanage and working towards getting the children home sooner? Does this time spent away from the orphanage decrease the care of the children that are left living in the orphanage?
I would argue that the children that live in the orphanage today need him more — they need him the most. And this is what international adoption can do at an orphanage if careful safeguards are not put into place: it takes the focus, drive, passion away from the children that need the most care and places it on the few that are to be adopted internationally, because international adoption consumes the resources and time of those that facilitate adoptions. And maybe even more importantly, the money that comes to an orphanage (either through fees/compensation or donations of aid) with international adoption puts pressure on a fragile institution that combined with no safeguards to protect children from exploitation leave these same children even more vulnerable to abuse. The director of an orphanage should never be in charge of facilitating adoptions; that role should be left for someone who isn’t directly responsible for the daily care of the children. I know that the director of the orphanage loves the kids who will not be adopted just as much as he loves those who will be or have been adopted. He should not be forced to choose between caring for the children left in the orphanage and facilitating international adoptions. Maybe these three children would have died even if the director had more time to be in the orphanage, overseeing their care. But maybe they wouldn't have — maybe they would have had more attention and focus and been treated earlier. Maybe. It's hard to know for sure, but these children deserve all of our efforts to prevent further deaths.
What I do know for certain that over the past four years of our involvement at the orphanage, we have never had so many children die in such a short amount of time. Any time this happens, we must ask hard questions and search our hearts.
Where do I go from here? I'm not sure, honestly. We still don't run the orphanage. Unless there is clear agreement from all the different partners that donate to Kaziba, it is very difficult to move forward with a clear focus and cohesive plan. If all parties don't strongly believe in quality short-term care focused on the end goal family reunification, then it is almost impossible to move forward together. We can't all pull in different directions; the children will only suffer from such division. We have been in long discussions with some of the upper leadership of the orphanage to see if the vision and direction of Reeds of Hope still fits with the vision of the leadership of the orphanage. We have been asking hard questions. Ultimately, we must do right by the 46 babies and children that live every day at the Kaziba orphanage.
|Abeli, sick most of his life and in the hospital, 11 months old here|
|Taken the week before she died, from malaria|
*If you are interested in reading an excellent paper on the human rights implications (and potential violations) of offering international adoption before (or even at the same time) family reunification, family support, family preservation and alternative care, please go here: Intercountry Adoption and Poverty: A Human Rights Analysis.