Q and A About Our Work in Relation to International Adoption

Below is a little follow up on our most recent post about international adoption in Ethiopia.

Because we are parents through adoption and because our daughter is from Ethiopia, people are a little surprised when they hear that the children’s home where we work in Ethiopia is intentionally not involved in adoption.

Here is a quick Q & A to help explain it.

Q.  Why is the Children’s Home not involved in adoption?

A.  There are two primary practical answers to this question:

1.  There are many international organizations in Ethiopia focused on international adoption, but international adoption is not a possibility for most orphaned children.  Many orphaned children do not qualify for international adoption and even among those who do, once an orphaned child is older than four, the odds of him/her being adopted are slim.  While 50% of international adoptions (by U.S. citizens) are of infants and 90% are of children under the age of five, 95% of the orphaned children of the world are older than five (these stats are specific to international adoptions by U.S. citizens, but the U.S. is the largest “receiving” country of international adoptions and the trend is similar with other international adoption “receiving” countries).  This Children’s Home has intentionally chosen to fulfill a need for quality care for older orphaned children.  The Home provides care for children ages 4 through older teens.

2.  In the early years of the Children’s Home, a few children were adopted internationally.  This was a difficult experience for the home and the other children.  It created a climate of competition and disunity among the children as each vied to be the next to be adopted.  It impeded efforts to create a healthy home environment for all the children.  The Home made the decision to no longer deal with international adoption and instead focus on providing the best care possible for all the children in the Home.  This policy has been coordinated with local government and other organizations.  If international adoption is a possibility for a certain child and an assessment shows that it would be a good option for that child, he/she is referred to an organization that works in international adoption.  If a child does not qualify for international adoption, he/she may be referred to us.
Q.  Why do some orphaned children not qualify for international adoption?

A.  It is important to recognize that the UN definition of “orphan” is a child who has lost one or both parents (see UNICEF article: www.unicef.org/media/media_45279.html).  According to UNICEF statistics (2005), of the 132 million orphaned children in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, 13 million have lost both parents.  It’s clear from this stat that the large majority of orphaned children have one parent still living.  Even among the 13 million who have lost both parents, a grandparent or other extended family member is often still living.  In many cases, this living family member cannot care for the child (because of disease or lack of economic resources, for instance), but does not want the child adopted out of the country.  In some cases, the living family member intends to place the child with an orphanage for a temporary period of time, and hopes to be able to support that child in the future.  Understandably, because of this a child does not qualify for international adoption unless no living family can be found (determined after a formal process of searching for living family), or the living family member willingly relinquishes custody of the child.
Q.  As adoptive parents, how do you feel about not working with adoption?

A.  This was actually one of the aspects about this Children’s Home that drew us to the work.  Since we first started traveling to Ethiopia, we have felt conflicted about international adoption, and through our own process of adopting from Ethiopia, we became more acutely aware of the limitations of international adoption as a solution for orphaned children in Ethiopia.  We believe that a healthy and loving family is clearly the best option for a child.  If that option is not available in Ethiopia, than a family outside of Ethiopia can be a very good alternative.  We are daily grateful for our own daughter and have seen her grow and develop in ways that never would have been possible if she continued her life in an orphanage with 450 other children.  However, our daughter’s adoption still left 450 other children in that orphanage, almost all of which will grow up with that orphanage as their only home.  We are excited about working here to help provide, as best as possible in an institutional setting, healthy and loving care to children for whom a traditional family is not an option.
Q.  But is institutional care really a good option for children?

A.  It is certainly not the best option.  The best option, without question, is to grow up in a loving, nurturing family.  Unfortunately, for many reasons such as disease, death and poverty, this option is not always available to children in Ethiopia.  We are trying to provide a healthy home for children who have no family who can provide one for them.  Part of our role here at the Children’s Home is to help continue to improve the care of the children in the home and develop programs and policies that help the kids develop into healthy adults despite the institutional setting.  It is certainly a flawed setting for a child to grow-up, but for the kids who live here, it’s better than some of the ways they could be spending their childhood.  We are also interested in exploring other ideas for addressing the care of orphaned children in the region.  Some organizations are working on ways to draw along side of grandparents and aunts/uncles, etc. to help them care for orphaned children within their extended family.  Others are looking at ways to develop and support a form of “foster care” to help with the care of orphaned children.
Q.  What are your personal feelings about international adoption in general?

A.  This is a tough question for us.  We are adoptive parents and have seen the great benefits of adoption for our own daughter.  We also have concerns about the international adoption process.  Here are a few of those concerns (our knowledge is mostly about Ethiopia, and so these concerns stem specifically from our experience with adoption from Ethiopia and may not apply to adoption from all countries):

1.  It is estimated that only about 1.5% of the world’s “double-orphaned” children (children who have lost both parents) are adopted each year.  International adoption only helps a small percentage of orphaned children, but because so much attention and so many resources go into international adoption, it can distract from the pursuit of other, and perhaps better, solutions.

2.  International adoption does little to address the care of older orphaned children.  Because the large majority of adopting parents prefer to adopt an infant or younger child, once an orphaned child is a toddler, his/her chances of adoption are significantly reduced, and once the child is older than four, his/her chances are very small.  Assuming that the trend of international adoptions of older children (older than 4) adopted by U.S. citizens (approx. 10%) is similar to the worldwide trend (which it seems to be), one could estimated that only 0.15% of the world’s older orphaned children are adopted each year.

3.  Because international adoption agencies are funded by the fees they charge to adopting parents, they can sometimes tend to answer to interests of the adopting parents more than the interests of the child or the child’s birth family.  This has sometimes led to the cutting of ethical corners in the adoption process.  It is not usually an issue of out-right child trafficking, nor is it even an issue of all-out corruption.  It is usually much more subtle.  For example, a grandmother may bring an infant to an orphanage because the infant’s mother has died and she does not have the capacity to care for the infant.  The grandmother may have hopes that the situation will only be temporary during the vital infant age.  She may hope to return to care for the child once he/she is a toddler.  Given the agency’s list of waiting adopting parents, you can see how the orphanage may have an interest in convincing the grandmother that it is best for the infant that she relinquishes custody.  This is a subtle thing, but it has significant ethical implications.

4.  The recent move by the Ethiopian government to greatly reduce the rate of international adoption approvals (about a year ago) has raised the question about the future of international adoption in Ethiopia altogether.  Other countries have closed their international adoption programs because of persistent concerns over corruption and ethical gaps in the system.  This further highlights the limits of international adoption as a sustainable, viable solution for the care of orphaned children in Ethiopia.
Q.  How can I learn more or respond to this?

A.  We’d be happy to dialogue further on these issues.  Feel free to respond to this post or email us at nfhaines@gmail.com or richelle.haines@gmail.com.

Our Thoughts and Observations on International Adoption

Since we’ve been here in Ethiopia, on several occasions we’ve been asked our thoughts on international adoption from Ethiopia by parents exploring the idea of adoption.  This is partly because we are an adoptive family and our adopted daughter is from Ethiopia.  It is also partly because we live and work at an orphanage.  It is not an orphanage that deals with adoption albeit, but we’re still familiar with the issues and concerns of OVCs (Orphans and Vulnerable Children), alternative care for children, and international adoption in Ethiopia.

For what it’s worth, below I’ve pasted a slightly edited version of an email response that we recently sent to just such a question.  But first, I want to reiterate that international adoption is a very complicated and somewhat controversial matter.  There are significant political, ethical, sociological, cultural and racial issues connected to international adoption.  The email response pasted below only begins to scratch the surface of these issues.  We’d be more than willing to further engage some of the questions and issues if any readers are interested.  We also want to recognize that there are people who we love and respect that have very different perspectives on this issue.

For the sake of full disclosure, let it be said that we are an adoptive family.  Just over two years ago, we adopted a beautiful 3 ½ year-old girl from Ethiopia.  She’d been in an orphanage since just a couple of months after birth.  We met her while visiting an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity (the order started by Mother Theresa of Calcutta) in Addis Ababa.  We love our daughter dearly and are so glad to have her as a part of our family.  We have no regrets about adopting her whatsoever.  Despite the high-quality, loving care provided by the Mother Theresa sisters and the staff, we firmly believe that she’s been able to thrive and grow as a part of our family in a way that she would never have been able to if she’d continued to grow up in institutional care.  Having said all that, through our own adoption process, our connections in the adoptive community, and our experience living and working at an orphanage here in Ethiopia, we’ve become very cautious and critical proponents of international option.  We’re still proponents, but we’ve come to recognize that international adoption is not always in the best interest of every orphaned child.  Before pulling a child from family, community, culture, language and country, one has to think hard about the best interest and specific situation of that child.  We have also come to recognize that, while international adoption may improve the life of a specific child, it is not a social solution for the larger issue of orphaned children in Ethiopia.

My email response was as follows:

“Hey —-… we’re happy to help you think this through a little.  One warning, though… this email is epic.  It’s just such a large matter and we feel strongly on some aspects of it.

First, let me say that we’re very happy to hear you considering adoption.  We think, in the right circumstances, adoption can be a beautiful thing.  We love our adopted daughter so much and are so happy that she’s a part of our family.  She’s adjusted well and is growing strong and healthy in every way.  We also have a very special place in our hearts for Ethiopia.

Having said that, we’re also glad to hear you asking questions and doing some exploring before jumping into this.  We think it’s very important to pursue international adoption cautiously and realistically, recognizing that there are some real potential pit-falls.  First, for a couple of the simple points:

  1. Adoption from Ethiopia has become very slow in the last year.  Depending on the age of the child you are adopting, it could take several years to complete the whole process (even up to 4 or 5 years).  The Ethiopian government has intentionally slowed down adoption processing considerably and western embassies (U.S. for sure… I expect others as well) are doing a lot of their own investigations into adoptions before they issue visas, which has further slowed processing down.  Prior to a year ago, Ethiopia was processing about 50 adoptions / day internationally.  It was a pace that allowed for and even created some corruption in the system (and not just on the Ethiopia end, by the way).  Because of the demand for Ethiopian children internationally through adoption, agencies, orphanages and gov. officials were not always doing their due-diligence to investigate cases and make sure they were legit orphan cases.  There were also officials and agency staff pocketing a lot of money along the way.  Even a whole industry of guesthouses, tour operators, drivers, etc. had developed up around international adoption (crudely, we came to call it “adoption tourism”).  In the past year, a number of agencies and orphanages have been closed down because of alleged corruption and the process has slowed considerably.  This is especially true if you want to adopt an infant.  You can expect between 3-5 years to process the whole thing from start to finish.  If any agency tells you much less than that for wait-time, I’d be suspicious of the agency.
  2. When we did our adoption, adoptive parents only had to make one trip to Ethiopia (we made several, but that was because of some unique circumstances in our adoption).  You didn’t have to be in Ethiopia for the court date; your agency could simply represent you.  The adoptive parents only had to show up to pick up the child and go to the embassy appointment (for us, the U.S. embassy) for the visa processing.  That has now changed.  As another measure of protection, at least one of the adoptive parents now has to be in Ethiopia for the court date (when Ethiopian gov. legally approves the adoption) and then at least one parent has to return about 2-4 months later to pick up the child and process the visa at the embassy appointment.
  3. International adoption is very expensive.  In the U.S., we were able to claim some tax credits after the fact that reimbursed a chunk of the costs, but just to give you a ball-park, with travel, agency fees, medical backgrounds, security background checks, home-study, etc., you can probably expect it to cost in the range of $20,000.

Okay… now for the more subtle points…

International adoption is a very complicated issue.  I don’t know about other countries, so I can only really speak to Ethiopia.  In the past 10 years, international adoption form Ethiopia has become quite popular and “sexy” (Angelina Jolie, etc.).  In the case of infants, there is actually more “demand” than “supply.”  Those are terribly crude terms, but they explain the situation.  There are actually more adoptive parents in North America and Europe waiting for Ethiopian infants than there are orphaned infants in Ethiopia; thus the long waiting lists.  This strikes me as concerning.  There is actually a situation of parents waiting for children to be born and orphaned.  These adoptive parents are in the process not to adopt an orphan, but to adopt a potential future orphan.  I have problems with this for 2 reasons:

  1. There are thousands of actual orphaned children in Ethiopia that are passed up for adoption simply because adoptive parents want an infant and would rather wait for a future orphan baby than adopt a child that is actually orphaned and in need of a family now.
  2. It creates lots of potential for abuse in the system.  Because agencies and orphanages have waiting lists of parents waiting for an infant and they get their funds from processing adoptions, there is a certain incentive to cut corners in investigating supposed orphan children, or to even “find” or “recruit” infants or to subtly council parents/extended family to give up infants (though with some help, the parent/extended family/community may be able to care for the infant themselves).

So, I would think hard about adopting an “older child.”  By older child, I mean a child that is 2 years old or above, which means that you’re actually adopting a currently orphaned child, rather than waiting in a line for an infant to be born and orphaned.

I would also do a lot of research into whatever agency you use and make sure that agency is really doing its due diligence to investigate the case of the child.  You want to be completely confident that it is in the child’s best interest to be adopted internationally.  We personally believe that before a child is considered for international adoption, all possible options with parents, family and/or community should first be exhausted.  If there is any way that a child can remain with parents, extended family, or community, we believe that is usually best for the child.  All too often, children are brought to orphanages by parents or extended family simply because they hope that the child will have a chance at adoption, sometimes because they hope to get some personal benefit from it.  Unfortunately, the popularity of international adoption has in some cases encouraged the orphan problem in Ethiopian by taking the responsibility away from extended families and communities to raise the orphaned children in their midst.  Why sacrifice to help raise your neighbor’s child, when there’s a very well resourced, USD-financed orphanage in town where the child may have the option of being adopted to America?

Lastly, we always encourage couples to consider a child that for one reason or another is considered “less adoptable.”  This is often because of some illness, disease, disability, or simply because of age.  This is difficult, because it certainly presents some great challenges for the adoptive parent, but often the “diseases” and/or “disabilities” that make a child less adoptable in international adoption are minor and manageable issues.  Unfortunately, there are thousands of relatively healthy orphans lingering in orphanages in Ethiopia because of manageable health issues that prospective adoptive families are intimidated by and therefore these kids are passed over.  For example, it is often very manageable these days to adopt and care for a child with HIV.  This is something that one would need to do a lot of thinking on and a lot of research, but with the availability of ARVs, it’s a very doable thing.  Most children with HIV today, if properly cared for and provided with ARVs, can live long and healthy lives.  At one orphanage in Addis Ababa where we’ve spent some time, there were nearly 500 HIV positive children and with ARVs, the vast majority of them lived very healthy lives and will continue to do so.  Unfortunately, because of their HIV status, most will never be considered for adoption (though this is slowly changing).

I hope that helps.  Adoption can be a very beautiful thing, but there are some horror stories of good intentioned adoptive parents getting involved and discovering much later some of the complications, abuses and problems in the process and finding themselves unintentionally in the middle of them.  We think it’s really important to have lots of realistic information up-front.”