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.
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.