On Gratitude, Rumi, Reflection, and Gold

Now that it’s Saturday morning, I’m reflecting a bit on this past week.

I leave for Ethiopia 2 weeks from today, with my daughter Aselefech and her daughter, to visit Aselefech’s Ethiopian family. This week, Aselefech reached–and exceeded–her fundraising goal for Bring Love In, a nonprofit that creates new families from widows and orphans in Ethiopia. She is running a half marathon on August 17 for the fundraiser, which continues until that date. Aselefech continues to run and train hard. I continue to admire her.

An adoptive mom challenged me about something I mentioned in a post that disappointed and displeased her. She was candid, clear, and gracious in her challenge. It’s no fun disappointing and annoying others, whether it’s reasonable (as this was) or not. I am grateful that she spoke up. We texted back and forth. She started out with, “I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to help you anymore,” and we ended by her telling me about a new project she’s working on, one that I look forward to supporting fully.

We both talked about how we have been slammed (sometimes pretty viciously) for our views on adoption, our stance on agencies, our past work, and current hopes. What a gift she gave me in telling me her truth, and in listening to mine. There are many reasons to be angry, so when we can meet in honesty, listen genuinely, and then move ahead together on separate paths–well, it’s amazing, and deserves reflection.

Rumi wrote: The wound is the place where the light enters you.

I heard from someone this week whom I love dearly, who has had multiple hard struggles, some of his own creation, some beyond his control. He can go a long time without communicating. The entire message: I miss you. The light that has entered through his wounds has not created healing–not yet. I have to hope that it will.

I Skyped with my 84-year-old Dad, as I do every Friday. The wi-fi connection was terrible. Dad, in middle stages of dementia, handled it pretty well. Each time we reconnected, he was again in the moment. He’s fading these days, though he always asks if any of my kids are getting married soon. (No.) He has a friend, Katherine, in the assisted living facility where he’s lived for 3 years now. She was married for 50 years; her husband passed away recently. My dad and mom had been married for 50 years when mom died in 2003. Mom would have been 84 this July 28. I’m grateful that Katherine and my dad share a history of happy marriage, and that those memories have likely brought them together. She always holds his hand, and reminds him to wear a hat when they go outside. Like Dad, she probably remembers fewer and fewer of life’s details. Like Dad, she remembers the familiarity of love.

I learned this week about kintsugi: the Japanese art of creating a perfectly imperfect piece of beauty: finding beauty in brokenness, and reimagining it, not by pretending the cracks don’t exist, but by reinventing and healing them with gold. It’s focused on ceramics, but I can see a lot of other applications.

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May we know that our wounds can let in light. May our loved ones find peace and healing. May we see beauty, even in brokenness.

 

 

Trial Scheduled for International Adoption Guides: Victims, Speak Up

In February 2014, four employees of the US adoption agency International Adoption Guides (IAG) were indicted for fraud by the US Department of Justice. Three former IAG staff members–Mary Mooney (IAG Executive Director), James Harding (IAG International Programs Director), and Alisa Bivens (IAG Ethiopian program director in the US)–were arrested. Haile Mekonnen, the IAG program director in Ethiopia, remains in Ethiopia and has not yet been arrested.

Mooney and Harding’s trial (before Judge Sol Blatt in US District Court, Charleston, SC) is scheduled to begin September 16. Alisa Bivens will go to court (also before Judge Blatt) on August 7 and plead guilty.

I’m not a lawyer, but this looks to me like Bivens has agreed to plead guilty so as not to go to trial and perhaps will now receive a lesser punishment. I have no insights as to whether she provided information about the other defendants, or if they provided it about her, but that is not an uncommon scenario. Also, many criminal cases these days never go to trial, but are resolved through a plea agreement. That could certainly happen in regard to Mooney and Harding, right up to the time the trial is scheduled to begin.

What did all these people do, between 2006 and 2011, according to the Department of Justice?

  • Fraudulently procured adoption decrees
  • Misrepresented relevant information relating to the adoption of children
  • Fraudulently signed off on adoption contracts
  • Misrepresented to the US State Department and the US Department of Homeland Security that the children had been lawfully adopted
  • Submitted counterfeit forms (Form 171-H) so that adoptions would be processed more quickly
  • Instructed prospective adoptive parents not to talk about their adoptions during the process
  • Made corrupt payments, gifts, and gratuities to Ethiopian officials

They also damaged the lives of many families in the United States and in Ethiopia. Allegations like these, drawn over years from the interviews and experiences of many IAG clients, are tragic in their impact.

The Department of Justice encourages victims to speak up. This is from the DOJ press release in February:

“If you believe you have been a victim of this crime involving the named individuals or International Adoption Guides, please call 1-800-837-2655 and leave your contact information. If you have questions or concerns about adoptions from Ethiopia in general, please contact the Office of Children’s Issues at the Department of State through the email address AskCI@state.gov. If you have specific questions about an adoption from Ethiopia that IAG facilitated, you should contact the Office of Children’s Issues at the Department of State through the email address IAGadoptioncases@state.gov. 

This ongoing investigation is being conducted by the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.   The prosecution is being conducted by Assistant United States Attorney Jamie Schoen of the District of South Carolina and Trial Attorney John W. Borchert of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section.”

Victims–anyone affected by the alleged fraud of IAG–are strongly encouraged to speak up. Victims will be allowed to speak at Alisa Bivens’ plea hearing. I hope that many will be able to do so, either by actually being in court August 7, or by contacting the Department of Justice and the Office of Children’s Issues. Additional charges could be filed against Harding and Mooney, so it’s not too late for anyone to offer information. Please speak up.

The bribery, fraud, counterfeiting, and lies are almost overwhelming. How deep did all this corruption spread in the US and in Ethiopia? How can international adoption continue under clouds like these, along with what happened to Hana Williams and the Barbour children, as well as Tarikuwa Lemma and too many others?

What more do we need to know to demand that international adoption policy be overhauled if we are going to genuinely meet the needs of vulnerable children and families?

justice.gov web page

justice.gov web page

 

 

 

 

 

Adopt an African Child–Through US Foster Care

It’s true. There are listings of African children (from Ethiopia and elsewhere) who are now available for adoption through the US foster care system.

Here’s the deal: these children left their first country, after their American parents had (we hope) followed all legal requirements to adopt them. They then lived with those parents, in the US, with all those adjustments of internationally adopted children. Then those parents terminated their parental rights (voluntarily or otherwise), the children ended up in foster care, and now they have to find another family.

Wow.

Since they usually become US citizens upon arrival to the United States, internationally adopted children who end up in US foster care may not be immediately or publicly identified as international adoptees. I feel confident there are plenty of other internationally adopted children (from Russia, Guatemala, Haiti, and elsewhere) who have joined the approximately 100,000 children looking for families through the US foster care system. Children in foster care spend an average of 2 years there, while reunification and adoption are considered.

About half the children in US foster care return to their families. That does not seem a possibility for these internationally adopted children: they can’t return to their original countries, and they no longer have a US family.

In other news:

Black American infants, primarily from Florida, are being placed with Canadians, ostensibly because many of the mothers don’t want their children to face the racism here in the United States.

Petitions and protests are being heard from American parents who have legal custody of children from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is not issuing exit visas to the children, because of concerns around fraud and corruption.

The Facebook site Second Chance Adoptions has many postings about internationally adopted children from Congo, Russia, Ethiopia, and elsewhere, whose placements with their American families have disrupted, and now they need new families. These children aren’t in public foster care, and they aren’t being re-homed in a Wal-Mart parking lot. I’m not sure who has legal custody of them, but the process and expense, I imagine, for a new family will be the same as a private adoption here in the US. In these cases, though, it’s the (first set of) adoptive parents who will sign legal rights over to the (new) adoptive parents. Many of the adoptions are eligible for the adoption tax credit. I wonder how many of their first adoptions were also eligible for the tax credit.

The adoption agency behind Second Chance Adoptions is Wasatch International Adoptions, located in Utah. On their web page, they offer information about adoptions of children from the DRC, with this caveat: “Children who come into our orphanage are generally between the ages of 2-5 or 6. We do not have children who are older because we have found that older children do not adjust well to an American home and family.”

I can only how imagine how they learned that sobering bit of information.

I have a few questions, although my head is spinning.

What more evidence do we need that better pre-adoption screening and better post-adoption resources are needed?

What is the trajectory for these internationally adopted children who arrive in the US and then their adoptive placement falls apart?

Do the US adoption agencies which placed the children the first time have an ethical responsibility to the children? And the second time? What does that responsibility look like? What is their ethical responsibility to the country of origin, if not the family of origin?

How does the US foster care system deal with the needs of internationally adopted children? How are their needs different from US children born here, raised here, and placed in foster care here? Children generally end up in foster care because of abuse and neglect. The international children would likely also have experienced that either in their country of origin or here in the US or both, but have some extra losses by virtue of leaving their countries.

What is the role of racism in the lives of any of these children who are from Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, or Asia? They go from living someplace where most people look like them, and then enter the US and live with families who may not look like them at all. Maybe they live somewhere in America where few people look like them. Then they must leave that family for another family (maybe). Racism here in the US will impact them now and for their entire lives, along with whatever issues of loss and trust they may be dealing with. Meanwhile, black American children are going to Canada, where the First Nations and the Inuit have certainly had their struggles

All children deserve safe and loving families. I hope that all these children find families and healing.

What is going on with our child welfare system? Before we consider anything like the Children in Families First act, we need to resolve the many issues facing current international adoptees.

My head hurts and my heart aches. That discomfort pales beside what these children are going through.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both Ends Burning and CHIFF: Losing Credibility, Spurning Opportunities

Imagine if the Ethiopian government decided to hold a hearing on the US foster care system. What if one of their main witnesses was an Ethiopian lawyer who had never been to the United States, and had no direct connection or experience with US foster care?

Would you find him credible?

What if the US government held a hearing on the African orphan crisis, and had as one of their main witnesses an American lawyer who had never been to Africa, and had no direct connection with African adoption?

That’s what happened yesterday, when Kelly Dempsey testified at the House Subcommittee on Africa’s hearing on The Growing Crisis of Africa’s Orphans.

Ms. Dempsey is general counsel and Director of Outreach for Both Ends Burning. BEB lost a huge amount of credibility at the hearing, by sending in someone who has never even been to Africa. Ms. Dempsey is an adoptive parent, of a child from Vietnam. Both Ends Burning squandered an opportunity to demand that African orphans/adoptees speak on their own behalf.

Yet that’s consistent. They did not reach out to adult international adoptees when they helped craft the Children in Families First (CHIFF) legislation, which has a 3% chance of passage. Neither did they insist yesterday that the voices of African first/original parents and extended family be heard in this discussion of African policy. That, of course, is consistent with their movie Stuck, which barely includes any mention of original parents and of their grief and struggles.

Indeed, Ms. Dempsey ‘s testimony and her responses to questions focused almost exclusively on the State Department’s role in adoptions from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The State Department was not there to refute or respond, though they may be at a future hearing. More significantly, there was no one from the Congolese government to testify on the rationale for the DRC’s decision.

BEB might say that there are not Congolese adoptees old enough to testify, since Congolese children (and the State Departments’ failings) were the sole focus of Ms. Dempsey’s testimony. I don’t doubt the heartache and sincerity of the prospective adoptive parents of Congolese children. I hope their adoption agencies told them how enormously risky the adoptions would be from the DRC. This was, though, a hearing on Africa’s orphans, and I can assure BEB and the House Subcommittee on Africa that there are thousands of African adoptees who could speak very powerfully to the subject.

Perhaps the BEB folks lobbied the Subcommittee for Ms. Dempsey to be a witness. The chair of the subcommittee, Rep. Smith, seemed familiar with Ms. Dempsey’s work, and referred during the hearing to Whitney Reitz, a senior staff member for Sen. Mary Landrieu. Sen. Landrieu is the main sponsor of the Children in Families First (CHIFF) legislation, of which Both Ends Burning is an ardent proponent and Executive Committee member.

Though Both Ends Burning is enthusiastic about Congressional lobbying, petitions, and resolutions to revitalize international adoption, they are far less enthusiastic about adult international adoptees, who are markedly lacking in support for CHIFF. It’s almost as if BEB and CHIFF supporters are unaware that adopted children grow up. Some of those adults could provide valuable perspective about what adoption has meant to them. If their views are critical of international adoption, BEB doesn’t want to hear it.

Imagine if CHIFF and BEB were open to adult adopted persons sharing their views and experiences, especially the negative ones, in an effort to learn how to craft adoption legislation that doesn’t keep making the same mistakes. We need international adoption legislation that provides citizenship retroactively to all international adoptees (CHIFF doesn’t). Legislation that insists on rigorous, robust pre-adoption counseling and post-adoption resources (CHIFF doesn’t). Legislation that demands that the same level of pre- and post-adoption services be provided to original parents, in whatever country an adoption agency has placed the children from, as are provided to adoptive parents (CHIFF doesn’t). Legislation that has federal level policy and enforcements regarding “re-homing” of adopted children through illegal and unethical means (CHIFF doesn’t).

Adoptive parents and adoption agencies are the bulk of CHIFF proponents. None of the more active, adoptee-led, adoptee-centric (non-adoption agency related) groups have signed on. You can understand why.

Save the Children and Zambia Orphans of AIDS, the two organizations that testified at yesterday’s hearing, are not listed among CHIFF’s endorsing organizations; that could be for a number of reasons. Representatives, one Ethiopian and one Zambian, from the organizations spoke about the need for increased family-based, family-strengthening resources in Africa. They politely acknowledged intercountry adoption as an option for a small number of children, though they urged Congress for a broader base of funding and programs to help many more African children.

Yesterday was an opportunity for BEB and CHIFF supporters to speak out for family preservation and reunification, an ostensible goal of theirs, but they spurned their chance. It was a missed opportunity to move away from the dominance of adoptive parents in the narrative of adoption and child welfare legislation. It was a missed opportunity to engage adult African adoptees.

Africa’s orphans, and their families, deserve better.

Back Camera

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today’s Hearing on Africa’s Orphans: No African Orphans or Adoptees Spoke

I watched today’s live video stream of the House Subcommittee on Africa’s hearing on “The Growing Crisis of Africa’s Orphans.

No adult African adoptees or orphans testified.

The speakers on the first panel were Nancy Lindborg, Assistant Administrator for the US Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, and Robert Jackson of the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs. Ms. Lindborg emphasized the goals of the Children in Adversity report. She noted the need for strong beginnings for children, in terms of nutrition and emotional support, as well as the importance of putting families first. Extended families are very important in Africa, she said, and those families need to be strengthened. Mr. Jackson discussed the State Department’s efforts in regard to child trafficking, child soldiers, and children orphaned from AIDS. He mentioned the need for ethical, transparent adoptions meeting the goals of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. At the State Department, the Office of Children’s Issues serves as the Central Authority for the Hague Convention.

The first speaker on the second panel was Kelly Dempsey, the attorney from Both Ends Burning. Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX) asked her how many times she has been to Africa. She has never been to Africa, she said. She is an adoptive parent, not of a child from Africa but from Vietnam. In her statement and responding to the questions from the Subcommittee Chair Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ) and from Rep. Stockman, she spent most of her time strongly criticizing the US State Department for its handling of the adoptions from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC is not, by the way, a signatory to the Hague Convention. You can learn here about the differences between adoptions from countries that have and have not signed the Convention.

Another speaker was Jovana Jones, who has legal custody of a deaf little girl she and her husband hope to adopt from the DRC, which has suspended adoptions. She spoke of all the work her family has done in preparation for the child’s arrival, and of her concerns for the child’s educational and developmental needs. Rep. Stockman asked if Ms. Jones had been to the DRC, and she said she has not. Rep. Stockman has traveled there, and noted that the DRC is an inherently challenging country, not just for adoption but for travel.

The 2 most compelling speakers to me were Shimwaayi Muntemba who is from Zambia and who co-founded Zambia Orphans of AIDS, and Muluemebet Chekol Hunegnaw, who is  from Ethiopia and is a Senior Director with Save the Children. Both African speakers were powerful in urging that a systemic, holistic, family-based approach be taken to the needs of Africa’s orphans.

Speaking after Ms. Dempsey, Dr. Muntemba mentioned her family members lost to AIDS, and that she raised her sister’s son. She noted that for Africa, adoption is new, and is one opportunity for children. She stressed though that the breakdown of family systems and resources in Africa is where help is much more needed, particularly higher educational opportunities for girls, and greater support for child-headed households (where children as young as 7 are caring for ill parents and grandparents and often younger siblings as well). Greater political will is needed, she suggested, to better meet the needs of the orphans.

Ms. Hunegnaw from Save the Children said that in terms of looking at the magnitude of the crisis of Africa’s orphans, a systemic approach that supports more kinship care, provides resources for families, and considers the holistic needs of the children should be the priority. She urged the Subcommittee to maintain funds for family strengthening programs in Africa and to codify in legislation the goals of the Children in Adversity report.

Both Dr. Muntemba and Ms. Hunegnaw stressed the traditions of kinship care in Africa. While both acknowledged that intercountry adoption could be an option, they emphasized that well-focused resources could lead to better family stability and prevent children from becoming orphans or entering orphanages.

I didn’t hear the other speakers on the panel acknowledge the benefits of resources to improve African family preservation and prevent children from becoming orphans. Ms. Dempsey’s focus was essentially only the State Department, which she called a failure and an obstacle.

Two bits of news:

Rep. Stockman said the president of the DRC will be coming to the US in a couple of weeks, and Reps. Stockman and Smith are planning to meet with him and share the concerns from today’s hearing.

There will be a Part 2 to this hearing. Rep. Smith made a point to say that Ambassador Susan Jacobs (or her designee) would be invited. (Apparently she had been invited to this hearing.) He said nothing about inviting adult African adoptees or orphans.

You can watch the entire hearing, which lasted about 2 hours, by clicking here.

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Update on African Orphans’ Congressional Hearing

I got my hopes up a bit when I saw that the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa had updated its witness list for tomorrow’s hearing on the “Growing Crisis of Africa’s Orphans.”

Then I saw that there is still no one listed as having been an orphan, no one listed as having been adopted as a result of being an orphan, and no one listed as being a family member of an orphaned child.

I am not suggesting that any minor children who are orphans should be speakers, but here’s a reality that too many people forget: orphans grow up. Adopted children grow up. There is no shortage of adults who could speak of their experiences as orphans and as adoptees, but, as is often the case, they are not included here. Equally marginalized are the extended family members of orphans, family members of children placed in orphanages, and original/first/birth family members of adopted children. No one on the speaker list is identified with having that actual life experience. No organization committed solely to family preservation/reunification is on the list.

Here’s a photo from the Facebook posting today from Abide Family Center, a family preservation organization doing great work in Uganda, and among those not included in tomorrow’s hearing:

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Such joy. The story behind those beautiful faces: This is Janet and her daughter Queen. Janet was referred to Abide by a local orphanage. She had approached the orphanage looking to place her two daughters there so she could work and find a place to live. Abide Family Center was able to help Janet achieve both goals without separating her girls from her.

That is what can happen to children who might otherwise be placed in an orphanage, though they are not orphans and are in fact deeply loved.

So who is going to speak at the hearing tomorrow?

In addition to the representative from Both Ends Burning (an attorney and adoptive parent) and from Zambia Orphans of AIDS, there will be two policy experts, one from the US State Department and one from the US Agency for International Development.

A (prospective) adoptive parent of a child from the Democratic Republic of Congo will speak. She has been part of Both End Burning’s campaign regarding the DRC’s decision to suspend adoptions in light of fraud and corruption. The US adoptive parents have been granted legal rights, but have been unable to get exit visas for the children. There has been a great deal of controversy around the efforts of the US parents and government to pressure the DRC to release the children.

The final speaker listed as of today is with Save the Children, which published the 2009 report Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions: Why We Should Be Investing in Family-Based Care.While Save the Children is about a wide range of child welfare programs, they place an important emphasis on family preservation.

From pages 4-5 of the Save the Children report:

One of the biggest myths is that children in orphanages are there because they have no parents. This is not the case. Most are there because their parents simply can’t afford to feed, clothe and educate them.

For governments and donors, placing children in institutions is often seen as the most straightforward solution. And it’s a way of sweeping out of sight the poorest and most discriminated-against children with the biggest problems. Encouraging parents to place their children in care is even used as a means to make easy money by some unscrupulous and unregulated institutions.

But, with the right kind of support, most families would be able to keep their children.

Supporting families and communities so that they can look after their children themselves might seem more complicated in the short term. But in the long term, it pays enormous dividends. Not only are individual children more likely to thrive and
go on to be better parents, they are more likely to contribute to their communities and to their country’s development.

Children deserve families, and institutions are not the right place for children to be raised. Absolutely right. No disagreement there. I applaud the report’s point that most children in orphanages are not orphans, and that there are huge long-term dividends to keeping children with their original families.

Here’s a quote from a ThinkAfrica press article, “Adopting From Africa, Saving the Children?”:

It is estimated that there are 58 million orphans on the continent. While the proportion of these adopted may be small, it is clear that the trends are significant enough for government officials from over 20 African countries to have convened at the Intercountry Adoption: Alternatives and Controversies of the ACPF Conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in May 2012.

What is shocking is how these orphans are characterised. According to Save the Children, over 80% of children in orphanages around the world have a living parent and most are there because their parents cannot afford to feed, clothe and educate them. In Ghana, the figure is as high as 90%. In Ethiopia, the government recently attempted to trace the families of 385 children from 45 institutions; the families of all but 15 children were located.

When seen through this lens, the African orphan crisis is more of a crisis in family support. Poverty is not a reason to remove a child from his or her parent, yet this is exactly what is driving Africans to give up their children in what they perceive are temporary arrangements which will give their children stability and an education before returning home.

Adoption is a viable option for a small number of children, especially those with medical issues. All adoptions, though, should be done with complete transparency and integrity. Too many African “orphans” have turned out not to be orphans at all, and those are important voices that will not be heard tomorrow. Too many first parents have lost their children because of poverty. Too few family reunification/preservation programs have adequate funding, support, and prominence.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights,and International Organizations hearing on “The Growing Crisis of Africa’s Orphans” is scheduled for July 16. The announcement is here. You may be able to watch a live video feed of tomorrow’s 2pmEDT hearing here.

 

 

 

 

 

“Poverty alone should never be a reason for adoption”

Amy Davis is mom to 3 little boys. She and her husband planned to adopt one or maybe two little girls from Uganda. After much paperwork, time, money, prayer, travel, energy, and high hopes, they learned that Eliana, the little girl they thought would join them in their Tennessee home, has a living mother. A mother who wanted to keep the child, but was desperately poor.

So Amy and her husband decided not to take Eliana to a place of love and economic prosperity. They chose to leave her in a place of love and abject poverty, having helped put a plan in place to move the child out of the orphanage and back to her mother, a plan that partners with a family reunification organization in Uganda.

In her moving and heartfelt blog post, Amy wrote:

The (Ugandan) family felt hopeless, but when asked privately, they said they WANT their daughter and granddaughter, if only they could support her financially. At first thought, I said to myself, “well, they can’t financially care for her, so she can’t stay there.” But the more John and I thought about it, the worse and worse we felt.

Poverty alone is never a reason to adopt. It’s not right, it’s not ethical, and it’s certainly not biblical. We said from the beginning, we wanted to commit ourselves to an ethical adoption, one in which the mother and father are deceased or if alive, want nothing to do with their child. A Ugandan child that has a mother that wants her should be with her mother. Period. And if we truly are caring for orphans and widows as we were originally called to do, then it certainly isn’t taking someone’s baby due to poverty. 

A harsh truth is that many children are placed for adoption internationally because their parents–who love them–are desperately poor. If they had the money, they would keep the child. The amount of money they would need per month is about what we pay for one tank of gas.

Adoption should be an option for children who genuinely do not have families. Adoption agencies and governments must do stellar work to ensure that the story accompanying a child is truthful. Prospective adoptive parents must demand that truth. How else can we look our children in the eyes, and claim them as our own?

I know many families who are committed to open international adoptions (which have their own complexity, joy, opportunities, and integrity), connecting with the original family, assisting family members, ensuring that the children understand their truths and are surrounded by love.

That said, while I believe in adoption, I speak out as much as possible about family preservation. It’s less heartwarming than adoption. My daughter Aselefech’s fundraising campaign for an Ethiopian NGO that creates families from widows and orphans has not been of interest to many people, it turns out, compared to fundraisers by prospective adoptive parents. Yet the $5000 she hopes to raise will keep 10 families together (food, education, clothes), and the children out of orphanages, for a year.

As the poet ee cummings wrote, “now the ears of my ears awake and now the eyes of my eyes are opened.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Congressional Hearing on Africa’s Orphans: Who Is Speaking For Them?

Who is speaking at an upcoming Congressional hearing on the “Growing Crisis of Africa’s Orphans”?

Not any African orphans.

Instead, Kelly (Ensslin) Dempsey, an attorney and adoptive parent, will be speaking. She’s the General Counsel and Director of Outreach and Advocacy for Both Ends Burning. BEB founder and adoptive parent Craig Juntunen has often been quoted about his goal for the organization: A Culture of Adoption.

Like Dempsey and Juntunen, I’m an adoptive parent. I believe in adoption, if done with transparency and integrity. I argue that we need to give much more room to the voices of adopted persons and first/birth parents, especially in international adoption where economic inequity is a prime reason for parents to place their children in orphanages. I’d like to see a Culture of Family Preservation.

Also scheduled to speak at the hearing is Shimwaayi Muntemba, Ph.D., a co-founder of Zambia Orphans. I applaud their work, which focuses on education and job training for children who have been orphaned due to AIDS.

My concerns about the hearing are these:

1. How disappointing that the hearing includes no speakers with genuine experience of being orphans from Africa. Why exclude their valuable voices?

One reason could be that inviting them simply did not occur to the hearing’s organizers. Another could be that many African adoptees have turned out not to be orphans. Another reason could be that (too many) African adoptees have been re-homed, or are living outside of the families who brought them to the US as forever families. Another reason could be that many adult adoptees are speaking for family preservation in their country of origin, rather than for adoption. Whatever the reason, adult African adoptees/orphans should have had a place at this table.

I am not suggesting that minor children who are orphans be exploited in any way, or that a child should be a speaker at this hearing. Orphans, like adopted children, grow up. As adults, their experience as orphans deserves our attention, and we should welcome their perspective when crafting public policy.

2. How disappointing that the hearing does not include African family members caring for children (who may or may not be genuine orphans), who can speak out about what they genuinely need.

I recognize and respect the fact that Dr. Muntemba, a Zambian, will speak. Rural, poor Africans who have lost family members to AIDS (or to adoption) also deserve an actual place at this table.

Both Ends Burning is a huge proponent of the Children in Families First (CHIFF) legislation, a bill surrounded by controversy. One of the many concerns is the failure of CHIFF to include adult adoptees and original family members (birth family) in crafting the legislation, which is backed almost exclusively by adoption agencies, adoptive parents, and adoption attorneys.

The exclusion of the voices of adoptees and of first families is unfortunately echoed, yet again, in this hearing.

3. How disappointing that the hearing fails to include family-oriented organizations such as Bring Love In and Selamta Be at Peace from Ethiopia, both of which work to create families in AIDS-ravaged communities and keep children from entering orphanages. Reeds of Hope in the Democratic Republic of Congo works to educate and feed vulnerable children, and to provide sponsorships to help children stay with their families.

The hearing also does not include Alternative Care Uganda, which is doing ground-breaking work to preserve families in a transparent way.  A quote from them: “The over emphasis and often misrepresentation of ‘orphans’ distracts attention, resources and programmes away from other vulnerabilities and what is really necessary to improve the wellbeing and livelihoods of Ugandan families and communities including vulnerable children.” Read more here.

These are only a few of many wonderful organizations doing amazing family work in Africa; no hearing could possibly have them all speak. My point, though, is that these organizations have proven how right and possible it is to create families from widows and orphans, to keep children (many of whom are not actual orphans) out of orphanages, and to preserve and reunify families after a parent or parents have died, working with extended family and community members.

Instead of continuing to exclude them, let’s invite and listen carefully to the voices of African orphans, of African adult adoptees, and of African birth/first families.

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The House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights,and International Organizations hearing on “The Growing Crisis of Africa’s Orphans” is scheduled for July 16. The announcement is here. You can email the Chairman, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), here

 

 

 

Crime, Punishment, and the Undervalued Lives of Adopted Children

Imagine you are the mother or father of a 5-year-old little boy and a 1-year-old baby girl. For complicated reasons, you must put the children in the care of others. In this case, the children will be sent to live with a lawyer and his college-educated wife who live in a big house with a nice yard for kids. Good people.

About 6 months after your children have been with this couple, your baby daughter is diagnosed with retinal hemorrhaging, brain injuries, and fractures of the skull and femur. Baby girl’s leg apparently was broken for about 3 months before the couple sought medical help. Your little boy is hospitalized because of a body temperature of 93.6, an infection, possible hypothermia, and malnourishment. In fact, the boy had lost about 10 pounds, or about a third of his body weight, at the time he was admitted to the hospital. Both children are removed from the “care” of the couple, and now, after this abuse, violence, neglect, and trauma, are placed in foster care and must find a new family.

Imagine these are your beloved children. What do you think a fair punishment would be for the people who were entrusted with your little ones?

How about probation? No jail time. PROBATION.

If a stranger had broken into the Barbour home and harmed the children the way their parents did, he would be sentenced to far more than probation.

That certainly sends a message, doesn’t it, about the value of the adopted children, and the punishment a court will mete out for breaking their bones, starving them, and denying them care, as well as for violating the understanding that an adoptive family will care for and cherish children who need families.

The couple, Kristen and Douglas Barbour, adopted 2 Ethiopian children, ages 5 and 1, in March 2012. They had 2 biological children who were about 3 and 5 at that time. In October 2012, Mr. and Mrs. Barbour (he was a state prosecutor; she a stay-at-home mom) were arrested for assault and endangerment of the two adopted children. They pled no contest to the charges this week. They will be sentenced September 15. Douglas Barbour will receive probation, according to news reports. Kristen Barbour will request probation, though it is possible she will get some small amount of jail time.

Where is the adoption agency in all this? Pound Pup Legacy reports that the home study agency was Bethany Christian Services. This means that Bethany did the home study with the Barbours, who would have attended their classes and met whatever requirements Pennsylvania, the US government, the Ethiopian government, and the agency have. The placing agency was, according to Pound Pup, International Adoption Guides of South Carolina. IAG would have referred the children from Ethiopia to the Barbours, and Bethany would be responsible for the post-adoption work with the family.

IAG closed its doors recently, as its staff was arrested due to a Department of Justice investigation for fraud and corruption. You can read about the IAG indictment here. Thus it’s unclear what sort of cloud these children arrived here under, given the reputation of and allegations against IAG. It adds to the overall heartache for this little boy and girl.

It may be that Bethany Christian Services is stepping in and helping now, though a tragic amount of water is under the bridge. I’d welcome news that they are advocating aggressively for these children.

Where is the court in all this? The judge is on record in this case as saying that this whole thing seems to be “a significant act of charity gone awry.”

To me, that statement is shallow, naïve, and callous. It condones the abuse and cruelty of defenseless children at the hands of people who have been selected to protect them, after their original family was unable to do so. It reeks of a sentiment that suggests the children came from a destitute place, and anything they get is better than what they had–and maybe more than they deserve.

Amanda H.L. Transue Woolston (MSW, author of/contributor to many books, adopted person, The Declassified Adoptee, founder of excellent resource Lost Daughters) phrased it this way: “If the court can think of no better conclusion than abuse of adopted children as “an act of charity gone awry,” clearly it has failed to acknowledge the humanity of these children. Adoption is not charity. Adoptees are not charity cases. The rights of these children have been violated and the court’s response is morally bankrupt at very best.”

The court and the defense attorneys apparently also believe there was no malice here.

From news reports: “They tried to do something wonderful to provide a better life for these kids,” said Kristen Barbour’s lawyer, Robert Stewart. “This wasn’t an act of malice.”

Multiple fractures, malnutrition, possible blindness, another loss of family, emotional abuse.

“It appears this simply became a situation that was overwhelming,” said Charles Porter, Douglas Barbour’s lawyer.

Adults who had parenting experience, who had resources, and who had choices in how to care for children, were overwhelmed. These adults refused to act on the advice of medical professionals, failed to bring a child with a broken leg to get medical help, and insisted that “rules must be followed in our house.”  Until the children were removed by the state.

Allegheny County Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning said he believed the couple acted without malice.

What would it take for this treatment of vulnerable children to reach the level of “malice”? My understanding is that, as a legal term, malice means there was a deliberate intent to harm someone else, a wrongful act done intentionally, without just cause.

I cannot imagine what the “just cause” was, then, for the treatment the adopted children received, since it was significant enough for the state to remove them and terminate the Barbours’ parental rights. Broken bones, retinal hemorrhaging, weight loss, infections–all inadvertent?

The Barbours seriously harmed their adopted children, physically, emotionally, and psychologically. They are smart, well-educated people, who apparently decided, deliberately and knowingly, to ignore the advice of medical and other professionals. They continued to inflict harm on young, adopted children, harm they did not inflict on their biological children. The bio children, who likely witnessed their parents’ mistreatment of the Ethiopian siblings, were returned to the parents: the people who had two children removed from their care by the state because of the harm done to them.

Would you be okay with your children being in the care of people who had endangered and abused two little children, who pleaded “no contest” to the charges? I wonder if the people who returned the bio kids to the Barbours thought, “Well, they’ll be okay. It was just the adopted kids that were the problem.”

The Barbours are, after all, “good people,” according to their lawyer. I doubt that would be the view held by the Ethiopian government, who trusted that the children would be safe. I doubt that would be the view held by the children’s original families, whose vulnerable voices are silenced here. As an adoptive parent of 4, including twin daughters from Ethiopia, I struggle mightily with that characterization. I struggle also with the court’s narrow view about the harm that has been done to these adopted children, now in foster care, who are left to recover from tremendous, undeserved losses and injuries, at the hands of people who freely and legally agreed to protect and care for them.

People who will likely receive probation as punishment.

Share your views about that punishment by writing to Allegheny County President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, Court of Common Pleas, 330 Frick Building, 437 Grant St., Pittsburgh, PA 15219.

 

 

 

Romanticizing Adoption Is a Disservice to Children and Families

The romanticization of adoption is common, draining, and harmful. If I say “adoption,” and you say, “Awwww,” picturing cute waifs on a charming playground smiling with their  interracial family–well, you have bought into a Disney/Hallmark version. It’s unattainable because it isn’t real. Yet it’s rare for someone to say to a biological family what is all too often said to parents who adopt: “Wow, I really admire you. You’re a saint. I could never do that.”

That romantic view is pervasive and powerful, one that puts a burden on adoptive families and adopted children. It allows, even encourages, parents to embrace unreasonable expectations, and then pass them, unfairly, on to the child.

What happens when the child does not and cannot meet the romantic image?

Two unromantic realities that some adopted children deal with are (1) hoarding and stealing food and (2) difficulty with appropriate bathroom behaviors. These behaviors can be very frustrating to adoptive parents, especially those who have raised bio children, and who are used to setting limits and being obeyed.

Hoarding food, overeating, and stealing food are common behaviors for adopted children, at least early on after their arrival in a home with plenty of food. Hoarding food can give a sense of control to a child, a back-up in case the food disappears again. We might look at hoarding as survival skills for children who have, in their short lives, been deprived of food, been painfully hungry, or have been forced to compete or struggle for food. Or we can see it as defiant and selfish.

This was true for Hana and Immanuel Williams, and apparently for the two Barbour children: Allegations of hoarding and stealing food are part of these child abuse cases, and the children were viewed as rebellious.

In the case of Hana and Immanuel, the parents did not seek help; in the case of the Barbours, they ignored it. In both families, the children were abused and endangered.

For unprepared adoptive parents, the hoarding and overeating behavior can seem insolent and pointless. Maybe the adopted child snatches food from the bio child. Maybe the adopted child continues to steal snacks and perishable foods (sticks of butter, grapes, cheese, hot dogs) and stuff them in between mattresses or in coat pockets–even though he’s been told repeatedly not to, or has been punished severely.

Restricting food, as Kristen Barbour apparently did for the 6-year-old boy, and as Carri Williams did for Hana and Immanuel, is often an unsuccessful approach. Hana died from malnourishment and hypothermia. The Barbour boy was diagnosed with malnutrition and possible hypothermia as his body temperature was 93.6 when he was admitted to the hospital and removed from his adoptive home.

Food issues are challenging in our society, and we often don’t like to talk about them. They can be huge in adoption. A child who hoards and steals food, who overeats compulsively, who constantly asks for food even when he’s likely not really hungry–it’s not attractive behavior.

Even harder to talk about and even less attractive are toileting issues. Toilet training is a major obsession and developmental issue for us as parents, never mind for the children.

They can be enormous issues for adopted children, since peeing and pooping are self-regulatory processes that are affected by emotions, fear, trauma, genetics, a need to control an unsettling situation, and medical conditions. And we don’t like talking about any of it, so too many people, including children, suffer alone. The Barbour boy had lesions on his skin because he’d been made to stay in urine-soaked clothing. Immanuel Williams was sprayed with a garden hose, and made to sleep on the floor of a shower room, because he peed on himself.

Children often regress in toilet training when there is trauma in their life. Some children forget to take time to pee until it’s too late; some children hold poop in until it’s dangerous to their health. Boys take longer than girls generally to master the art of toileting. Did you know that some children who have been sexually abused defecate in their beds to keep predators away?

As a society, we generally don’t like to talk about urine and feces. As adoptive parents, we like to think that we can get these long-hoped-for, finally-arrived-home children to behave nicely and politely and appropriately. We want to be the Hallmark card.

That can be an absurd expectation, at least early on and sometimes years after placement in an adoptive home, especially for children who may well have experienced trauma.

Here’s a further complication. In addition to expecting the same behaviors from adopted children that non-traumatized, physically healthy bio kids from birth have, one of the biggest burdens in adoption is the wrongful expectation that the adoptee should be grateful for being adopted. It’s difficult being the child of a saint, I imagine. Gratitude is complex in adoption. So are the notions of “rescue” and “saving.” What happens when a child is not grateful for being adopted? (“We adopted you, and saved you from the hellhole you were in, and you steal our food and pee on the floor?”)

Let’s do a much better job preparing prospective parents for the scary things, many of which may not happen–but could. Let’s celebrate the joy of becoming a family by understanding that the child had and lost another family before this one, something that can create a trauma even for infants, and let’s be open to the child’s needs. Let’s emphasize the benefits of flexibility in handling children’s behaviors, and decrease the element of shame in seeking help.

Let’s stop romanticizing adoption, and Hallmarking adopted children and their adoptive parents. Let’s build families in a positive, healthy, and realistic way.

You can find information about adoption and hoarding food here and here, and information about adoption and toileting issues here and here, as well as many other places on the Internet and elsewhere. Finding information and community is key. There are plenty of solutions and approaches to hoarding and toileting that don’t involve abuse.

My post “Does “Adoption” Really Equal “Trauma”? may be of interest as well.