Heading for Ethiopia: Family, Half-Marathon, and First Mothers Project

Tomorrow morning, my daughter Aselefech, granddaughter Zariyah, and I will leave for Ethiopia. We will spend time with Aselefech’s family, with whom she reunited in 2008 (having been adopted in 1994), and with whom she and I last visited in 2011. It will be my granddaughter’s first trip to Ethiopia, where she will meet her extended Ethiopian family–grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins. Zariyah will see where her mother was born and spent the first five years of her life, and where Aselefech would have grown up, if she hadn’t been adopted.

I know there have been many reunions and ongoing connections between Ethiopian adoptees and their original families. I wonder, though, how many children of adoptees have been able to meet their Ethiopian relatives.

It’s all about family, and how we define it.

Our time with Aselefech’s family is certainly a huge highlight for all of us. Another exciting part of our time there will be Aselefech’s Ethiotrail half marathon via Run In Africa, a business co-founded by renowned Ethiopian long distance runner Gebregziabher Gebremariam, who among other accomplishments won the New York City marathon in 2010.

Aselefech is running the half marathon to raise funds for Bring Love In, a nonprofit in Ethiopia dedicated to family preservation, by creating new families from widows and children and by keeping children out of orphanages and with their families. She set a goal of US$5000, and has exceeded that goal; all the money (except for a small percentage to CrowdRise) goes directly to Bring Love In. We are so grateful to everyone who has supported her and contributed to her campaign. More information is available here.

We will also be spending time in the capital city of Addis Ababa, visiting with friends and family, and doing some sightseeing of beautiful Ethiopia.

I also hope to begin work on my First Mothers project, to preserve and share the stories of Ethiopian original mothers, those who have placed their children for international adoption.

I’ll be posting occasionally during the trip, and no doubt quite a lot when we return.

Many thanks to everyone who has been with us on this journey, offering words of support and encouragement, sharing ideas and possibilities, and being vital, vibrant resources. Thank you (in Amharic): Amaseganallo.

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Adoption Agency Director Pleads Guilty to Fraud, Bribery in Ethiopia

An international adoption agency staff person pled guilty yesterday in a South Carolina court to providing fraudulent documents to the State Department and to bribing Ethiopian officials. The tragedies created by these actions are unforgivable, and families in the US and in Ethiopia continue to suffer as a result. The ramifications for other adoption agencies and the scrutiny they now find themselves under will be intense–I hope. Particularly important will be Ethiopia’s reaction to the bribing of officials there in the name of international adoption.

Alisa Bevins, former director of Ethiopia programs in the US for the adoption agency International Adoption Guides, yesterday pled guilty to fraud in Ethiopia adoptions. She admitted that she, along with others, submitted fraudulent documents to the US State Department and paid bribes to Ethiopian officials in order to facilitate adoptions.

The “others” would be Mary Mooney, former executive director of IAG, James Harding, former programs director for IAG, and Haile Mekonnen, the IAG Ethiopian programs staffer in Ethiopia. Mooney and Harding are awaiting trial. Mekonnen has not yet been charged and is, I believe, still in Ethiopia.

The fraudulent documents were created to move children from orphanages into adoptive US families, but these children may well have had living family in Ethiopia, may not have been eligible for adoption, and may not have been in orphanages listed on their paperwork.

According to the Department of Justice press release: “In entering her guilty plea, Bivens also admitted that she and others paid bribes to two Ethiopian officials so that those officials would help with the fraudulent adoptions. The first of these two foreign officials, an audiologist and teacher at a government school, accepted money and other valuables in exchange for providing non-public medical information and social history information for potential adoptees to the conspirators. The second foreign official, the head of a regional ministry for women’s and children’s affairs, received money and all-expenses-paid travel in exchange for approving IAG’s applications for intercountry adoptions and for ignoring IAG’s failure to maintain a properly licensed adoption facility. Sentencing for Bivens will be scheduled at a later date.”

Per my post “Trial Scheduled for International Adoption Guides,” Bivens could receive a lesser punishment for this plea, and will not go to trial. Mooney and Harding are still scheduled to go to trial in September. I don’t know what the impact of Bevins’ guilty plea will be on the Mooney/Harding trial, but they could make a plea agreement as well, right up to the time of the trial.

Many people for many years have raised concerns about the role of money in international adoptions. This case shines a light on money as bribery, offered to and accepted by those ostensibly involved in international adoption, not child trafficking. It’s painful to consider, and it would be extremely naive not to do so.

None of this can undo the damage done to vulnerable children and families here in the US and in Ethiopia. Let’s hope, though, that justice is served in this case.

 

Tatyana, Hannah, and the Gifts of Determination and Joy

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When you look at this photo, you don’t think disabilities, artificial limbs, or wheelchairs. You don’t think orphans, surgeries, abandonment, or amputation. You see exuberance and adventure. You see joy. You see two sisters, laughing and living out loud. You also see world-class athletes.

On the right is Tatyana McFadden, Paralympic gold and silver medalist, multiple winner of the New York, London, and Boston Marathons. On the left is Hannah McFadden, also a world-class Paralympic athlete, a swimmer and scuba diver.

Tatyana was born in Russia with spina bifida, an incompletely closed spinal cord, and did not receive surgery for three weeks after she was born. She spent her first 6 years in an orphanage, where there were no crayons, never mind wheelchairs. She moved around using her hands only. Hannah was born in Albania, with a congenital bone deformity: she had no left fibula or femur, and her left leg was amputated above her knee.

Both young women were adopted as little girls by my dear friend of many years, Deb McFadden, who made sure they got the surgeries and therapies they needed; they also have a sister Ruthie, adopted from Albania. Deb got her three daughters involved in lots of activities, and encouraged them to do everything they are capable of doing, in sports, in education, in life. That has come to mean world-class level athletics for Hannah and Tatyana.

The Paralympics are the parallel competition to the Olympics, though Paralympian competitors have some sort of physical impairment, including missing limbs, paralysis, blindness, and deafness. (The Special Olympics, with its own brand of hard-working athletes, is different. Their mission is to provide training and athletic competitions for children and adults with intellectual disabilities such as Down Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, autism, and Fragile X Syndrome.) The Paralympics began in the late 1940’s as a way of allowing injured war veterans to compete in high level athletic events, and have evolved into a global, elite physical competition.

In June, I visited with the McFaddens in San Mateo, California, where Tatyana and Hannah were competing to qualify for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. I saw and met many young military veterans who are astonishing athletes. I watched men and women with missing limbs participate in the long jump. I watched the McFadden sisters fly around the track in their wheelchair races. I watched blind athletes, accompanied by their “guide runners,” circle the track in a blur. This was not an event for pity or deficits. It was a tough, competitive environment of Olympic proportions and goals. No slackers here.

When I was in the stands cheering for Hannah and Tatyana, along with their mom and other members of Team McFadden, I was struck by the fact that my lack of disabilities made me different there. Most everyone else was in a wheelchair, or had missing limbs, or was visually impaired. They were intensely competing as top-notch athletes, guided by demanding coaches, sweating hard, and focused on winning. They were also young people being goofy, flirting with each other, joking, teasing, having fun.

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Back row r-l: Maureen Evans, Deb McFadden, Hannah McFadden Front: Tatyana McFadden

As I write this, the McFaddens are on vacation in the Caribbean. Below is a photo of Hannah and Tatyana parasailing, something I have never done and never will. There is nothing but joy in that photo. Well, maybe there is also some courage, some determination, some willingness to push boundaries and expectations. Mostly, though, it’s a picture of sisters, who have what outsiders might consider disabilities, who are willing to push themselves to great heights.

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Amid the Silence, Would CHIFF Give Up on Adoption?

It must have seemed like such a slam-dunk when the proponents of the Children in Families First act began to develop their plans for orphans. Who would oppose children needing families?

Since the bill’s introduction many months ago, though, it’s been a slow motion dribble to any movement, never mind passage, and the game clock is ticking loudly.

Recently the website, the Facebook page, and the Twitter account of CHIFF have all been noticeably silent.

Drawing from my time a while back in legislative advocacy, I am guessing that this means they are taking a new tactic, probably still lobbying on Capitol Hill, and probably considering making some concessions.They may have grown tired of having their information countered and questioned by people like me who believe, yes, children deserve families, but, no, CHIFF is not the right approach.

From the start, CHIFF has been silent on these vital issues:

  • Much needed funding for improved pre-adoption and post-adoption resources
  • Federal level legislation on “re-homing” of internationally adopted children
  • Documented cases of fraud and corruption
  • Support from the State Department
  • Support from international adult adopted persons
  • Support from international family preservation organizations
  • Support from international first parents
  • Pre- and post-placement resources, support, counseling, and information for international first parents
  • Citizenship for all international adoptees

That silence on those issues speaks volumes.

CHIFF has a few more cosponsors, but proponents have chosen not to draw attention to them publicly as they had previously done. The recent House Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Africa’s orphans was not a strategic success. The upcoming trial of International Adoption Guides via Department of Justice indictment has not helped. Court cases of adoptive parents for abuse and deaths of their internationally adopted children (Hana Williams, Hyunsu O’Callaghan, and the Barbour children are just a few examples) cast a tragic long shadow. Increasing numbers of internationally adopted children now in the US foster care system is of concern–at least, I hope it is. CHIFF is silent on that.

How about dropping international adoption from the bill, since that has been the main point of contention? CHIFF proponents have argued occasionally that the bill is not really about adoption, though that’s hard to believe, since almost all their endorsers and Executive Committee are adoption-related, and prospective and current adoptive parents are the main supporters.

Would that crowd, and the Congressional staffers and sponsors, rally and promote (through Facebook, Twitter, and their website) family preservation and reunification, instead of adoption? That would mean some $60 million for vulnerable children in adversity, not for a new bureaucracy or a small number of children who would benefit from adoption. Many more children would benefit from remaining with their families and not entering orphanages; many more mothers would not have to lose their children because of poverty.

Then perhaps we could all turn to genuinely overhauling and improving the international adoption process, with input from adult adopted persons and international first parents, not just adoption agencies and adoptive parents, and with a goal of addressing current, real needs in the adoption community.

That is something I could cheer for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?

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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.

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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.