Joint Council on International Children’s Services is Closing

Today at the “Putting Family First” conference of the National Council for Adoption and  the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, it was announced that Joint Council will close. There will be no merger with NCFA. JCICS agencies will be eligible for a membership with NCFA.

Some people will be rejoicing at this news. Others will be sad that the organization is closing.

Certainly there were some clues about this. The decline in international adoptions has meant a decline in business and revenues for adoption agencies. Many have closed. I’d argue that assisted reproductive technologies and surrogacies have meant that people who otherwise would adopt internationally are no longer doing so. The indictments, lawsuits, and bad press about agencies have not helped. JCICS did not undertake a search for a new executive director after Tom DiFilipo was fired. The JCICS Board of Directors had dwindled to 5 people.

We all wonder what this means for the future of international adoption. Children still need families, and adoptions need to be done with integrity and transparency. I’ve long said we are in a perfect storm of adoption policy and practice. There could be some significant opportunities for genuine change. Here’s hoping the voices of adult adoptees and of international first parents are at the forefront.

Predicting the Future of Intercountry Adoption at the JCICS-NCFA 2015 Conference

Yesterday I attended the “Putting Families First” conference held by the Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS) and the National Council For Adoption (NCFA). My workshop proposal for the conference, “Finding Common Ground in Policies and Practice, which included three adult adoptee panelists, had been rejected, but I was invited to participate on a panel titled “Predicting the Future of Intercountry Adoption.”

The audience was standing room only. I’d guess about 100 people attended.

Adoption professionals cite the Hague Convention, the Council on Accreditation, and the Department of State as reasons for the decline in the number of international adoptions. I argued that adoptions have declined because of the following:

  • Fraud and corruption.
  • Reports of maltreatment and abuse of international adoptees.
  • The role of money in adoption: high costs to adopt; the economic imbalance between adoptive parents and first families; the adoption tax credit; online fundraisers for adoption; adoptive parents’ financial contributions to first families after adoption; and more.
  • Religion: complications and misunderstandings of Christianity, Biblical interpretations, “savior complexes,” and more.
  • Social media: bloggers and twitter campaigns, especially by adult adoptees.
  • Increasing awareness of the need for family preservation: the economics suggest far more children could be helped that way (and kept out of orphanages) than through intercountry adoption.

I argued that if you are responsible for policies that involve children of color and immigrants, you must welcome, instigate, and engage in the complicated conversations around race, racism, systemic oppression, and white privilege.

All of these issues should be the subject by themselves of future conferences and workshops by JCICS and NCFA.

I asked these questions:

Given that there are hundreds of thousands of adult international adoptees, why are so few adoptees involved in adoption advocacy?

Please pause over that question.

Why do adoption conferences and policy meetings have almost exclusively western white people, many of whom are adoptive parents?

I believe that historic marginalization of adult adoptees is the reason. I’d argue that it’s because their voices and experiences have been marginalized in the past. From my speech: “The traditional narrative has been gratitude and integration. The adoption community, dominated by adoptive parents, has not always wanted to hear the struggles and the grief of many adoptees and first families.

Many adult adoptees do not want to express any unhappiness for fear of hurting their adoptive parents, or of being dismissed as ungrateful. That said, many adult adoptees are speaking out publicly now, creating new organizations, criticizing agencies, using social media, and publishing books. It makes no sense to ignore them. If international adoption is going to continue, adoptees—the activists, the academics, the writers, the therapists, the bloggers, the researchers, the playwrights, the poets, the artists–need to be robustly invited into development of policies and practices. They are not going away. Until they have a place at the table, international adoption will continue to decline.”

Adoptions will also decline unless the voices and experiences of international first families are documented, preserved, and shared in a meaningful way, anytime that there are policy or practice discussions. Their absence at those discussions speaks volumes about whose perspective is most valued in international adoption.

Would we be okay with a conference on Christianity that had only a few Christians attending? A conference on social work that had no social workers? Why are we okay with adoption conferences and policy meetings that are missing significant segments of the adoption community?

In terms of predictions, here are my thoughts:

  • Adoptions will continue to decline unless adult adoptees and first families are included in conferences and policy discussions in advocacy groups, Congress, the Hague, and around the world.
  • Adoptions will continue to decline unless fraud and corruption are overtly acknowledged, not just discussed among agency workers.
  • Openness will be the norm in international adoption, and needs to be promoted by agencies as a positive development. That said, openness is complicated.
  • DNA technologies and social media will expand connections between adoptees and their birth families.
  • Most international adoptions will be for special needs children, another reason that pre- and post-adoption and resources must be strengthened.

While the conference goes on for three more days, I attended only yesterday. In a follow-up post, I will write about the topics explicitly missing from the conference workshops (i.e., assisted reproductive technologies, “re-homing”), and about an exchange regarding  adoption activists ( a term which apparently functions as a code word for “angry adoptees”) in Korea.

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New England winter. Photo © Maureen McCauley Evans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Tempest of Rachel Dolezal

The story of Rachel Dolezal doesn’t have legs: it has octopus arms and labyrinthine twists. Its reach and longevity have been astonishing, and speak to the fragility and pain of understanding race in this world.

I wonder about giving so much attention to someone who has not brought something good into dialogue. That, of course, is too often the nature of information and media today.  The people laboring in civil rights and human rights–doing positive, life-changing work–will never get the kind of coverage that Rachel Dolezal has received.

Among the many mysteries of the Dolezal story has been the role of adoption and the meaning of “transracial.” As the white parent of four transracially adopted children, now all young adults, I’ve never been and never will be black or biracial. I believe I’ve been an imperfect ally, aware of both racism and of white privilege, aware of the need for mentors and role models for my children, aware that exclusion, indignities, and micro aggressions are part of my beloved children’s lives.

The novelty of Rachel Dolezal has captured many keyboards, many hours of time by many people. As someone long involved in transracial adoption issues, I hope to see conversations about race and identity continue, especially in a public forum, though not necessarily focused on one individual. We have such a long way to go, and so many people in our racial and adoptive community continue to be voiceless and vulnerable.

All that said lol, as an ally, I’d be remiss if I did not mention these articles about the realities of transracial adoptees in light of the Dolezal discussions. Important words here.

“Transracial Lives Matter: Rachel Dolezal and the Privilege of Racial Manipulation”

“Rachel Dolezal Draws Ire of Transracial Adoptees”

“Open Letter: Why Co-Opting ‘Transracial’ in the Case of Rachel Dolezal is Problematic”

 

Mary Mooney of International Adoption Guides Has Changed Her Plea

Mary Mooney, the former executive director of International Adoption Guides (IAG) indicted by the Justice Department for fraud and corruption in Ethiopian adoptions and who pled guilty in January, has recently asked the judge to change her plea from guilty to innocent.

You can read about her guilty plea here. You can read the Department of Justice’s February 2014 press release on the indictments here.

Alisa Bivens and Jim Harding, the other two IAG staff people also indicted by the Justice Department, pled guilty last year. None of them has been sentenced yet. There will now be a delay in their sentencing pending the outcome of the judge’s decision as to whether Mooney can change her plea. It is unclear when the judge will rule on Mooney’s request, but it probably won’t happen until sometime this summer.

As far as I know, the fourth person indicted, an Ethiopian citizen apparently now living in Ethiopia, has not been arrested.

I am not a lawyer, and I have no inside information about this. Defendants can indeed change their plea, and will do so for various reasons: new evidence is uncovered, they want to have a trial, the lawyer didn’t provide adequate information about the plea, the deal worked out with the judge and prosecution under the guilty plea was unacceptable to the defendant, or some other reason. I don’t know if making this request six months after pleading guilty will have an effect on the judge’s decision.

If the judge allows Mooney to change her plea to innocent, the whole legal process starts again. She could then go to trial, or there could be a deal worked out between the defense and the prosecution to which the judge must agree.

I don’t know how much this has cost the Justice Department for years of gathering evidence for the indictment, nor how much has been spent for the legal process of the three current defendants.

I do know this is one more level of heartache for the families who adopted from International Adoption Guides.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Status of Child Citizenship Act Amendment

Let’s not compromise on this:It seems: Adopted children deserve the same protections as non-adopted children. These protections include safety and legal status. Congress is considering two issues related to the safety and legal status of adopted children: citizenship and re-homing.

The US, for decades, did not automatically give citizenship to internationally adopted children. These children entered the US legally and transparently. But if the adoption agencies didn’t make the citizenship process clear, or the parents failed to follow through, some adoptees did not become US citizens.

An amendment to the Child Citizenship Act, providing citizenship to all internationally adoptees prior to 2000, is currently being discussed in Congress. It has not yet been introduced. Information is available here, at Gazillion Strong. None of the adoption advocacy groups–the National Council for Adoption, the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, or the Congressional Coalition on Adoption–publicizes “citizenship for adoptees” as an active, important concern for them. Maybe it is. How would we know if we are just the public, not insiders, and there’s nothing on their websites?

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) will apparently sponsor the citizenship amendment. I hope all sponsors believe that all international adoptees deserve citizenship because, by virtue of the legal process of being adopted to the US, they are part of an American family. 

Tragically, sometimes children don’t stay with their first adoptive family. Re-homing is a big safety and legal issue. Moving adopted children from one home to another with neither legal oversight nor counseling is disturbing. Some states have passed legislation about re-homing. Federal legislation has been introduced.

If adopted children need new families, protection and legal oversight must be provided. By the same token, all internationally adopted children deserve the protection and legal oversight of citizenship. As an adoptive parent, I believe that my children are entitled to all the rights and responsibilities of other families. That’s what adoption is supposed to mean.

The retroactive citizenship amendment should provide citizenship to all international adoptees whose parents failed to get citizenship for them. That would include adoptees who have committed crimes and, because they did not get naturalized as children, are subject to deportation. Therein lies some resistance to the amendment.

US citizenship should be provided to all international adoptees because they are the legal children of US citizens. Two governments (the sending country and the US) approved the adoptions. If adoption agencies failed to make clear the importance of citizenship, or if the parents failed to get them citizenship, it is not the fault of the adoptees. The end. That’s the bottom line to me.

I hope that all those advocating for the citizenship amendment–whether adoptees, members of Congress, adoptive parents, adoption agency groups, paid lobbyists–will not founder and provide retroactive citizenship only to those without criminal records. No one is condoning crime here. The adoptees who have been convicted have served their time in the US justice system. They have not gone unpunished. I know: they wouldn’t face deportation if they hadn’t broken the law. But here’s the thing. These adoptees should have the same rights as arrested/convicted children of members of Congress, or other members of US families. The adoptees do not deserve deportation. They are our legal children, our family. Adoption gave them that status.

As we now work hard to protect minor adopted children from illicit re-homing, we must also work hard for those whose parents did not get them citizenship when they were minors. Anyone who believes in the integrity of adoption and family must stand firm on citizenship for ALL international adoptees.

If not, Congress is saying that international adoptees are not (never were) genuine family members. That’s not my idea of being an American, or of being family.

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Interview With Korean Adoptee Soojung Jo, Author of “Ghost of Sangju”

“When I reunited with my Korean family, and finally learned the whole truth from Omma’s letter, it was like an implosion for me. There wasn’t so much a motivation as a need greater than breathing. It was like bleeding. Writing wasn’t something I wanted to do, it was something I could not stop myself from doing. Finishing wasn’t a goal, it was a necessity.”

Soojung Jo was three years old when she was adopted from Korea by a Kentucky family, and 37 years old when she learned the truth of her history and identity. Along the way she graduated from West Point and served in Korea. She became a mother to four children. And she has now written this powerful, evocative book. “Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation” is important for the adoption community. It’s bigger than that, though, because it’s a fascinating story, with powerful emotions, hard decisions, warmth, confusion, candor, love, discernment, and hope.

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More information is available at Gazillion Strong, including purchase information and Book Club questions. A new review by Mila Konomos at Lost Daughters is available here.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Soojung about “Ghost of Sangju,” about writing, and about adoption.

Soojung, what writers inspire you? What books are you reading now? 

I’m borderline obnoxious about my passion for reading! As a writer, I’ve been powerfully influenced by some particular books that I think everyone must read: John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Karl Marlantes’s “Matterhorn,” Adam Johnson’s “The Orphan Master’s Son,” Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible,” and Alexandre Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Also I love Hemingway’s voice, and I’m a shameless Stephen King junkie!

As for what I’m reading now, I always have a book on Audible, one or two on Kindle, and a hard copy in work. I’m listening to “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (Betty Smith), just finished “Americanah” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), and just started “The Secret Wisdom of the Earth” (Christopher Scotton).

What was the writing process like for you? What motivated you to write, and to finish, your book?

There was this accumulation of all the experiences and my primal but unexpressed emotional responses to them: being taken from my Korean family and country at age 3, my Kentucky childhood, the West Point experience, returning to Korea in the Army, becoming a mother biologically and then through adoption. When I reunited with my Korean family, and finally learned the whole truth from Omma’s letter, it was like an implosion for me. There wasn’t so much a motivation as a need greater than breathing. It was like bleeding. Writing wasn’t something I wanted to do, it was something I could not stop myself from doing. Finishing wasn’t a goal, it was a necessity.

The writing process was evolutionary. Although I had this story fighting its way out of me, I forced myself to be patient and learn a little about writing a full-length book. I read “Bird By Bird” (Lamott), “On Writing Well” (Zinsser), “On Writing” (King). I read interviews with memoirists I admired: Jeannette Walls, Frank McCourt, Cheryl Strayed. I reflected on what elements made the most powerful memoirs work. All these pointed to the same themes: Write without inhibitions, and then edit ruthlessly. Truth is the goal; nothing less will do. These rules sound basic, but they are far from easy. Do you know how hard it is to make one sentence flow into the next? To remove half the flowery words you’ve crafted into something that felt like a masterpiece but reads like a legal document? Even this interview should probably be edited at least five times just to make it readable.

But the most difficult aspect of good writing is achieving truth. Being honest. Sifting through the difficult layers and offering the ugliest parts of yourself to the story. Everything has already been thought and said in this world, so why should anyone care what I have to say? The answer is this: the truth is always compelling. A true, open story from a real and vulnerable storyteller always resonates.

Absolutely. What’s your next/current writing project?

Actually, I’m not writing at the moment. This book seared its way out of me, and I think I’m recovering a bit from it. I would hope everyone could experience something so consuming yet cathartic in their lives as this book was for me.

I said in my review of your book that I took breaks while reading it, given the poignancy of your search for your Korean family. International adoption is at a volatile, critical juncture right now, in South Korea and around the world. How does “Ghost of Sangju” fit into the complexity?

You are right—international adoption is having a pivotal moment, and this is largely due to the fact that a critical mass of international adoptees have grown up and spoken our truths. We have voices and we won’t be ignored. We are varied, complex, and our experiences and opinions range across a full spectrum. Mine is only one story, but it’s a challenging one that needs to be told because it shatters many traditionally held views. I hope that, without having to over-explain these complexities, readers will experience them as I did through my writing.

If readers come away from this book with an expanded view of what is really happening in international adoption, and an appreciation for the complexity of having lived through international adoption, then I’ve done my job as a writer.

How have your family members reacted to the book, as well as to your search and reunion?

Maureen, I don’t really know. I know what they tell me, but I don’t believe their words really touch on their true reactions. In words, they show support and love. But I’m not the only one in this crazy life going through complex, dissonant emotions about this. I can only imagine how my parents have worried, have regretted, have feared, and have wished that my story had been as straightforward as the agency had promised them almost 40 years ago. I’ve done my best to be sensitive to what they’re going through, but it’s not easy.

No, it’s not. Adoption can be complicated  If you could change policies and practices in international adoption, what would you do?

This is such a difficult question. I have many adoptee friends who are activists, but honestly I am not cut out to talk policies and practices. I know many others who are. I know things need to change, because so many elements of my own story still happen today and that’s unacceptable. I can’t say with authority what should be changed in policy. That’s not what my voice contributes. Instead, my voice speaks of little known truths and buried secrets, and I hope to use this voice to change hearts. Maybe those changed hearts can contribute to changed policies and practices.

I hope that too. What have you learned about yourself, about life, in the process of writing the book? Not so much the factual information as the perspectives, awareness, priorities.

Maureen, I learned so much in writing this book. This was no intellectual exercise! The first few revisions, I stuck to a story that I thought was acceptable. It was a bland, diluted version of my truth and it was terrible. My early pre-readers, my counselors and cheerleaders, asked, “Soojung, this is beautiful, but it isn’t you. Where are YOU in this story?” They asked me this question gently and often enough that I began to wonder myself, where am I in this story? That’s when the real work began, the work of digging into the most real parts of myself, my life, and my emotions. I had to let go of so much fear of showing this awful, beautiful story in all its grittiness. I learned that I, too, am gritty. I’m raw. I have so much strength and weakness and they terrify me, but they are real and therefore they are worthy.

The bland version of my memoir was okay, people liked it well enough, but the real version was amazing and people have responded so deeply to it. Likewise, the bland, pleasing version of myself is okay, but the real version is so much better. Does this mean I’m capable of being this true in real life? No, but at least I know it’s possible. It’s aspirational.

What would you like readers to take away from reading “Ghost of Sangju”?

Although the story is rooted in international adoption, there are universal themes of family, identity, and parenthood that I think all readers can connect to. I want readers to gain an understanding of a life that most probably haven’t lived. I also want readers to appreciate and respect the complexities of being an adoptee, especially international and transracial. I want readers to learn, and to feel less alone.

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Many thanks to Soojung Jo for this conversation. Congratulations on the publication of “Ghost of Sangju.”

Ethiopia: If Adoptions Decline, What Happens to the Children?

What happens to the children when a country cuts back significantly on adoption?

Last week, the US State Department issued an update about adoption from Ethiopia, noting that several Ethiopian regions closed adoptions as of 2014, and will continue to do so. The number of adopted children is a tiny percentage of the children who are part of struggling families or dire circumstances. What happens to all those children?

Poverty may be the main reason that adoptions have occurred in Ethiopia.That is of course an oversimplification: for many reasons, children are unable to stay with the family into which they were born. Still, the average annual income in Ethiopia is around $450, or less than $40 a month, barely a dollar a day.

As a result of living constantly on an economic precipice, Ethiopian children are placed in orphanages because their parents can’t afford to feed them, or because one parent has died (or left) and the other cannot afford the child care needed to go to work. Some parents have untreated illnesses that cause them to fear for their children’s futures. Some children have illnesses for which treatment is (relatively) expensive or unavailable.

I recognize that adoption can be life-saving for some children. At the same time, I am hardly the first to point out that the amount of money for one Ethiopian adoption ($25,000-$40,000) could help many more children if it went toward programs that preserve and empower Ethiopian families. The economics are obvious. I also know it’s a hard sell. Donors are far more willing to contribute to families raising funds for one “orphan” adoption than they are for programs keeping children out of orphanages.

Still, it’s worth thinking about the many possibilities to improve outcomes for vulnerable children. As Ethiopia considers its child welfare policies, and as adoption agencies move out of the country, here are some of my hopes:

  • That the Ethiopian government will include adult adoptees and first/birth parents in their discussions and policies regarding adoption. Some 14,000 Ethiopian children were adopted to the United States between 1999-2013. Several thousand others have been adopted, such as those adopted before 1999 as well as those adopted to western and northern Europe, Canada, and Australia. My dream: Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora is one example of adoptees becoming active and empowered. Wouldn’t it be amazing if there were a conference held in Addis that invited adoptees and first/birth families to participate in molding the future of adoption in Ethiopia?
  • That organizations such as Ethiopia Reads, Roots Ethiopia, Weema, Clinic at a Time, AHope for Children, Connected In Hope, and others will be sustained and enhanced. One consequence of adoption has been the formation and sustenance by adoptive parents of many non-governmental organizations in Ethiopia. These organizations provide clean water, literacy, jobs, and health care, which means that families are less likely to place their children in orphanages. Please support them as much as possible.
  • That many more people will sponsor children and families, to keep children with their families and to alleviate enormous financial burdens for young people aging out of orphanages. One example (and the organizations above also have sponsorships): Encourage Africa. There are women now involved with Encourage Africa who were formerly living with their children in latrines, and, yes, that is as horrible as you might imagine. They had nowhere else to get a roof over their heads. Sponsorships change that. Other programs (there are many; the monthly costs are usually $25 to $50) include Mommas With A Mission and Mamush. My dream: Everyone who has adopted an Ethiopian child, or considered adoption, will spread the word about sponsorships, and become a sponsor if possible.
  • That there will be a transparent, uniform system of records’ maintenance, for both adopted persons and for first/birth families. When adoption agencies close or end programs, it’s often unclear where their records and files go. When adoptees search for information (and that could be years after adoption), they are often unable to get any records from the main source: the adoption agency. Further, adoptive families are supposed to send reports annually to the Ministry of Women’s, Children’s, and Youth’s Affairs in Ethiopia, until the child is 18. There is controversy about whether to send the reports, whether they are ever read, how they are filed and preserved, and whether the first families have access (or were promised access) to them. It would be wonderful to know that the reports were being preserved (perhaps even translated), and made available to Ethiopian families. My dreams: All Ethiopian families who yearn for information about the children they placed for adoption are able to receive that information. College and graduate students and/or professors in Ethiopia might consider this as a project for an Information Management class. 
  • That more families in Ethiopia and around the globe will participate in the work of Ethiopian Adoption Connection. EAC has already built a strong database and helped to reunite families. The site is available in English and Amharic, and they are expanding their possibilities.
  • That significant post-placement support programs may be created for Ethiopian birth/first families. Adoptive families have access to post-adoption resources, not nearly enough, some better than others. There are Facebook groups, therapists, support groups, adoption agency workshops, adoption conferences, international adoption clinics, and more. Ethiopian first/birth families too often have nothing in terms of post-placement support. Nothing. Some changes are happening, slowly. We adoptive parents need to demand more for the first families of all the children, especially as adoption agencies withdraw from Ethiopia.

This is a volatile time in adoption. We have tremendous opportunities to bring about meaningful change, as a community, for children who need families, and for the families who love them.

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Original artwork by Adanech Evans. Used with permission. Photo © Maureen McCauley Evans

 

 

Remembering Hana: May 12, 2011

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Rest in Peace. Rest in Power. Rest in Paradise. Hana Alemu, we are thinking of you today and honoring the life that ended much too soon.

It was four years ago today that she died outside her adoptive family home, from malnutrition and hypothermia, having suffered through so much.

Many people have kept her memory alive, and remember Hana as a source of inspiration to fight for the safety and well-being of all children.

Her cousin Haimanot helped raise Hana in Ethiopia before Hana came to the US. Haimanot has a potentially life-threatening medical condition for which she has received surgery, but will need more. You can read about her here, and you help by donating to or sharing the fundraising site here. Haimanot is working hard to survive and thrive. Any help you can give her would be wonderful.

Hana’s adoptive parents, Larry and Carri, remain in jail in Washington State, having been convicted in September 2013. Both filed appeals in fall 2013 to their murder convictions, and the process is moving slowly through the appellate courts.

Today, let’s think of Hana. May all children be loved and safe.

 

 

Being “Home,” Being Adopted, Being Lemn Sissay

In the journey to and from home, there are many intersections, places where 2 or more roads meet. When you are expecting a delivery to your home, what do they ask you?

“What’s the nearest intersection?”

The synonyms for intersection are circle, cloverleaf, crossing, crosswalk, interchange, junction, stop.

Let’s make that a poem:

Intersection

Circle, cloverleaf, crossing, crosswalk.

Interchange, junction.

Stop.

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©: Maureen McCauley Evans

Consider the intersections of the poet/writer/broadcaster/foster care alum/Ethiopian adoptee/British citizen/MBE Lemn Sissay. “His head is in London where he’s based, his heart is in Manchester where he is not, his soul is in Addis and his vibe is in New York where his mother lives,” according to his website.

Lemn Sissay has a new BBC radio broadcast, taped at the Ghion Hotel in Addis, called “Homecoming.” He speaks about the various crossings of his life, and brings in several people who have traveled on some of the same roads as he has. He interviews two Ethiopian adoptees, raised in Holland and now living in Ethiopia, (An intersection: my daughter and I met also with those two lovely people in Addis last August.) He talks about Prince Alemayehu, about whom I’ve written several times. Lemn cooks with his Ethiopian sister. He recites poems to his audience at the Ghion. You can hear the cloverleaf of language in the broadcast, where Amharic is spoken, though not by Lemn, who speaks English, though he is Ethiopian.

He shares this poem:

…When I found out I am Ethiopian, I come home, and I am asked how Ethiopian I am.

At the end of the day, you are home where you are accepted. No?

You make home where you are accepted, and, in making that home, you accept it.

Home is not one place.

“Home” can be complicated, whether we are connected to adoption or not. I’d argue that the roads to adoption and from adoption are especially complicated. Lemn writes that “home” is not one place. It’s certainly not just a house or hut or hospital room, because those can and do disappear, either physically or in our memories. Perhaps adoptees start in one place, and often travel through many places which others may call “home” but they don’t feel fully safe, fully comfortable, fully right–until they do, until they can claim it themselves, in a way that no one else can. Perhaps in a way that no one but an adopted person can understand fully.

The radio show is called by the BBC a “Comedy of the Week,” in (I suppose) the English major sense of “comedy:” not everyone dies, the situation of the protagonist goes from bad to good, there is a happy ending. (Is that how adoption goes? Sometimes. Not always.) You might not laugh out loud while you listen, though you’ll likely smile. You may sigh as well, thinking about the losses alluded to, the roads not travelled, the differences made by wrong turns, missed exits, sketchy directions.

Lemn Sissay writes that, at the end of the day, you are home where you are accepted. Another innovative thinker wrote that, “We are all just walking each other home.”

May we be kind to each other on our journeys, and may we stop to understand those whose lives intersect with ours along the way.

Part 1 of Lemn Sissay’s Homecoming broadcast is available here. Part 2 will be available May 12.

Orphan Hosting Programs: Giving Hope or Creating Trauma?

Programs which host orphans for a brief, fun visit to the US have been around for at least 15 years. They are one of those efforts that often seem wonderful, but are in fact much more complicated than they might appear initially. Among adoptive parents and adoptees, they evoke a volatile range of emotions. We all agree that children deserve safe, loving families. How we get them to (or keep them in) those families is full of controversy.

What are “Hosting Programs for Orphans”?

There are many of them. I think the earliest program to bring children from orphanages (in Kazakstan, I believe) to visit the US was Kidsave, started by two adoptive mothers in the late 90’s. Project 143 started in 2010, and has a format similar to other hosting programs. They have worked in China and Latvia, and have a new Ethiopia program this year. Children are selected on the basis of age and ability to benefit from the program. Age is a factor because the focus is often on children who are older, who have been in the orphanage a long time, and who are likely to age out of the orphanage without being adopted. Some of the children have special medical or other needs. Good behavior and academic success are listed as criteria in some programs. Host families in the US agree to have a child or children live with their family for four or six weeks (the length of time varies in different programs), and show the orphanage children what life is like in a family in the US. The host family also agrees to get medical and dental care for the children; the insurance is usually covered by the hosting program, not the family. The children must return to their country at the end of the hosting period.

The cost to the host family is in the range of $2.000 to $3,000.

The children may or may not be legally available for adoption. And here is where things are murky. While some host programs are seen as “cultural experiences” and some are to share Christian faith, their underlying purpose usually is to get the children adopted. Some hosting programs are run either directly or indirectly by adoption agencies. The host families are not supposed to talk about adoption with the children. The children are not supposed to know that they are being considered for adoption. The host families may pursue adoption after the hosting program, but are under no obligation to do so. Adoption costs are generally in the range of $25,000 to $40,000, and must be completed by an accredited adoption agency.

The main countries from which children visit are (or were) Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, China, Colombia, and Philippines. Other countries, such as Nicaragua and Ethiopia, have hosting programs as well.

Arguments For the Summer Hosting Programs

The hosting programs may be the children’s best (last) chance to be adopted and to have a permanent family. The adoptions that occur as a result of the hosting programs probably never would have otherwise occurred. According to Kidsave, for example, “We have found that during the summer, miracles happen, and many children are adopted by American families they meet during the Summer Miracles program. Since 1999, more than 1,700 children have participated in the program and over 80% of them have found permanent families as a result.”

The children who are adopted through hosting programs often advocate for the children left behind in the orphanages.

The host families who don’t adopt often become informal sponsors of the children they hosted, keeping in contact, providing financial assistance, and in other ways mentoring and helping the child (teen, young adult).

The strategy is similar to approaches used in the US foster care community to find families for children who are older and in danger of aging out of the system, often to very difficult situations. Getting the kids in front of families is a powerful way to promote the orphans as individuals deserving a family.

Regardless of whether they are adopted, the children learn some English, and they receive medical and dental care here in the US, some of which may have been unavailable in their country.

The hosting programs raise awareness of the needs of children in orphanages, and this can mean increased assistance and donations to the orphanages.

Hosting programs offer children the experience of being in a family, role models for healthy parenting, and hope. From a Christian perspective, via New Horizons for Children (the largest faith-based program, facilitating orphan hosting nationwide), “Receiving unconditional love and nurturing and being treated as a member of their host family who will usually maintain contact even after the child returns home to their orphanage. This gives them hope. Learning that they do have a Father, the same Father in Heaven that we all have…who loves us dearly and is always with us and lets them know they are never alone.”

Arguments Against the Summer Hosting Programs

The hosting programs increase the layers of trauma for children who visit and are then not chosen for adoption.

The children may bond with the family during the visit, and then never hear from them again, another trauma in a life of many traumas.

There is controversy about mission trips and orphanage tourism. The hosting programs are a “reverse mission trip,” where the children are brought here instead of the family going there. Some argue that orphanage tourism does more harm than good. Can we learn from that?

It is unclear how a brief, “summer camp” experience in the US is inherently better than no experience at all for an orphanage child. It is unethical, perhaps even cruel, to show a child a “Disneyland” view of life, and then send him back to poverty and hardship.

There is little or no research on outcomes for these children, either those who are adopted or those who are not. We need to know outcomes for children adopted after being hosted, especially given concerns about adoption disruptions and re-homing. We also need to know the impact of the programs on those who are not chosen for adoption: what are the ethical responsibilities to those children?

The hosting programs focus on bringing the children to the United States, rather than seeking out local families (in Ethiopia or other country of origin) to host the orphans. Why not work with families in-country who could show examples of strong parenting and economic security, instead of bringing the children around the globe?

The majority of the hosting programs are started and run by adoptive parents, with little or no involvement by adult adoptees. Some see this as an ongoing marginalization of adult adoptees, and the continuing use of white privilege.

There may be unintentional and unavoidable pressure on host families to adopt the orphans who visit. (Some of the programs take place at Christmas time, which for Christian families could be especially emotional.) The decision to adopt should not be impulsive or without significant preparation. Knowing what the child will return to in the home country may impel a decision that is not best for anyone.

It’s unlikely (though possible) that the children do not know they are being considered for adoption. This gives the prospective parents an ability to screen or “test drive” children, which has an uncomfortable ethical element in terms of international adoption practice.

If the program goes on for more than one season from an orphanage, and some children are adopted as a result, surely the next wave of children will be aware of the possibilities of the hosting program as an audition for adoption to the US.

The amount of money involved (about $3,000 for the hosting, potentially $25,000-$35,000 for adoption) could be better used for family preservation programs or other investments that either keep families together or prevent children from ending up in orphanages. That money would help many more children than the few who end up being adopted from these programs.

The children are not necessarily orphans at all. They may not even be eligible for adoption, something that might not be known until a family looks into adopting the child. Children who were thought to be orphans have later been found to have living family members, or to have been adopted under fraudulent circumstances. This has been true in recent years in many countries, and it is one of the reasons that international adoption has declined.

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Plane at LAX. © Maureen McCauley Evans

 

What’s the bottom line here? The argument that “Imperfect as it may be, this is at least one way that orphans find families” is the perhaps the strongest motivation for the hosting programs. But at what cost, and to whom?

I am going to continue thinking this through, and I hope you will also. So much is at stake.