Birthdays and Adoptees: Finding Power in Both

My sons were adopted as babies; my twin daughters at six years old. When they were little, we had the mad abundance of birthday parties, at the pool, the soccer field, the grandparents’ front yard. The parties were full of presents, friends, family, ice cream, and cake.

Who was missing at these birthday celebrations? The women who gave birth to the children. The people (fathers, siblings, grandparents) who are biologically related to them.

I can’t help but wonder what those birth days were like for those family members.

Birthday parties evolve over time. Some adoptees have a rough time on their birthdays. In our family, we have all grown in our understanding of how a child’s beginnings can affect the child, and how powerful memories can be. We have seen how longing for what is not conscious can be quite deep. We have lived watching the ways that trust can be broken and losses felt, and how hard it is to heal that broken trust. My children’s birthdays are still celebrated, of course: they can count on receiving socks every year. And other stuff too. But they are in their late 20’s now. Still very young, but hardly children–except in the sense that they are always my children.

They are also the children–always–of their first families. Each child has had a different approach to connecting with their family of birth, and those stories are theirs alone to tell.

Today is the 27th birthday of my twin daughters, Adanech and Aselefech, adopted from Ethiopia in 1994. Aselefech has been actively involved with the adoptee community. She wrote a wonderful post today at Lost Daughters, a writing collective of women adopted in the US or internationally as children. In it, she celebrates her connections with other Ethiopian adoptees whose hearts are in the country of their birth, their mother land, their home country. These young people, part of the diaspora, are actively working to help their younger selves in Ethiopia: children who witness their mothers die, children who are deeply loved but whose families are horrifically impoverished, children who beg on the streets, children who are unable to walk or to see, children who never go to school.

Happy Birth Day. May all children know safety, love, education, and hope. May these adoptees bring light and healing to each other and to the children. May all the voices be heard.

My daughters, my granddaughter, and me. © Maureen McCauley Evans

“Crowd Funded” Children: The Disturbing Products of World Adoption Day

Hollywood pastor Hank Frontener and others designated yesterday as “World Adoption Day.” Frontener, according to the World Adoption Day website, is the force behind AdoptTogether.org, the first crowdfunding site for adoption costs. It all sounds good, right? Look closer.

Crowdfunding is the practice of raising money by asking for contributions from lots of people–friends, family, strangers–over the Internet.

Private US infant adoptions (through an agency or attorney) and international adoptions can easily cost $35,000 or more. US foster care adoptions cost very little, so the AdoptTogether crowdfunding has nothing to do with those children.

Why is crowdfunding for adoption controversial?

For one reason, crowdfunding for adoption has the feel of raising money for charity. Adoption should not be seen as an act of charity, or of rescue, or of saving. That approach objectifies the adoptee as a “charity case,” as someone who should be grateful and pitied. That’s not a healthy way to build a family, and it’s an unfair burden for the adopted child (who grows up).

A related reason can be the association of payment for a child–not for the expenses involved in processing an adoption, but for the child. I’m sure I’m not the only adoptive parent who’s been asked “How much did they cost?” It’s demeaning and crass, and smiling while saying it doesn’t make it less repugnant. It’s particularly wrong in reference to an African or African-American child.

Another reason for controversy is that crowdfunding is an astonishing reminder of the economic imbalance between those who are adopting, and those whose children are being adopted. The families featured on the AdoptTogether page are looking to raise between $20,000 and $60,000. The children are from Africa (three from Uganda, one from an unnamed African country), from China, and from the US (an African-American girl).

People who adopt generally have a lot more money than the people who are placing their children. It’s safe to say that the US families adopting have much more cash flow than the Ugandan families, for example. The inequity is enormous. Poverty should not be a reason for a mother of father to lose their child forever, yet it happens again and again.

Imagine, for example, what $60,000 could mean to Simon, the Ugandan father of the twins featured on the AdoptTogether page, and written about in the adoptive mother’s blog (September 27 post, “the grand finale”). The twins also have older siblings in Uganda with whom they will not grow up.

The fact that I know that the name and have seen the photo of the Ugandan twins’ father is another example of why crowdfunding for adoption is so controversial: it often involves an unfettered sharing of extremely personal information. You and I now know more about these little children than they do at this point, and it’s all on the Internet forever, without their permission.

Another reason for controversy is that crowdfunding allows parents to pay for their adoptions completely, and then to receive the adoption tax credit.  In an article written by the CEO of the adoption agency Bethany Christian Services, Pastor Hank Frontener explained why he established AdoptTogether: “…many adoptions are out-of-this-world expensive – $35,000 on average for an international adoption. But…if we could crowdfund, and give people a way to be a part of an adoption financially and have a tax benefit to boot, we’d have something special.”

Indeed. The generous adoption tax credit allow families to recoup their adoption-related expenses for item such as travel, hotels, lawyers’ fees, and so on. The US government has given out $7 billion (yes, billion) in tax credits (not deductions), primarily for private and international adoptions, to adoptive parents. Read more here.

Pastor Frontener and others promoting yesterday’s first World Adoption Day invited “everyone worldwide to post a photo of themselves, their family and their friends with the hands up smiley face with the hashtag #WorldAdoptionDay.” Many did so. Others posted that hashtag along with #flipthescript, a successful, important effort led by the Lost Daughters to have the voices of adoptees included in the long-standing chorus of adoptive parents during November’s National Adoption Month. Learn more about #flipthescript here, and take a look at an excellent video about why it matters.

I tweeted yesterday about #WorldAdoptionDay along with #flipthescript. One of my tweets included a photo from the World Adoption Day store: their “Crowdfunded” tee-shirt.

IMG_6041

That photo, that “Crowdfunded” slogan on an ostensibly adopted child, generated quite a response, mostly of anger and frustration, and the tweets flew quickly.

Today, if you go to the World Adoption Day store and look for that shirt, you will get this:

IMG_6043

I don’t know if it was removed because of pressure placed on the World Adoption Day site, or if all the shirts were sold out. I appreciate the fact that the item is gone, in any case. It’s an example of commodifying a child, suggesting that there’s something cute about soliciting money from strangers to provide a child with a family.

Unfortunately, the World Adoption Day folks also thought it was cute to sell tee shirts that say “Love Child.” Sigh. Yes, maybe on some odd scale it’s less offensive than saying a child is crowdfunded. Still. “Love Child” has a different connotation than “Beloved Child,” for example, which is not one of the World Adoption Day tee shirts. Clearly “Love Child” as a product on the World Adoption Day site was considered a clever reference to the euphemism for an illegitimate child or bastard. But why should an adopted child bear the burden of reframing the definition of love child?

World Adoption Day’s main focus was to have people post photos with smiley faces on their hands, and to publicize a crowdfunding platform. Its focus was not to promote awareness of the commingling of love and grief in adoption, or to promote family preservation, or to insist that the voices of adult adoptees and first/birth parents be heard. It did not question the high costs charged by adoption agencies, nor promote the need for adoption from US foster care, for which adoption expenses generally do not need to be crowdfunded.

Let’s not crowdfund children either.

 

 

 

 

 

Is Probation the Appropriate Punishment for Abusing Adopted Children?

Douglas and Kristen Barbour pled No Contest in June to charges of child abuse and endangerment of their adopted Ethiopian children. On September 15, they will be sentenced. Both are asking for probation. Join me and many others in sending a message to the court that probation is not appropriate punishment.

If the court decides that probation is fair, what would the message be about the value of these children? What would it say about the responsibilities of adoptive parents to care for children? What would it say to Ethiopia about how their children are treated? Who will speak out on behalf of innocent children who are abused and endangered?

The Barbours adopted two Ethiopian children, ages 5 and 1, in March 2012. They had 2 biological children who were about 3 and 5 at that time. In October 2012, Douglas and Kristen Barbour (he was a state prosecutor; she a stay-at-home mom) were arrested for assault and endangerment of the two adopted children. The little boy was hospitalized for hypothermia, had skin lesions, and was dramatically underweight. The baby girl had healing fractures and retinal hemorrhaging. After being released from the hospital, both children were removed from the Barbours’ home by the state of Pennsylvania and placed in foster care. Read more about the case here.

The Barbours were well-educated people, experienced parents, middle class, with access to many resources they chose not to use. If a stranger had broken into the Barbour home and harmed the children the way their adoptive parents did, he would be sentenced to far more than probation.

Probation is not an appropriate punishment for broken bones, endangerment, trauma, and abuse, to which the parents did not plead “Innocent.” They pled no contest. Probation sends a terrible message to the community about the value of adopted children, and of children generally.

Please share your views about that punishment by writing to Allegheny County President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, Court of Common Pleas, 330 Frick Building, 437 Grant St., Pittsburgh, PA 15219. Fax: 412-350-3842

(Unfortunately, I do not have an email. If anyone has an email, please let me know.)

A brief note will do. We need to speak out for the children.

Write to Assistant District Attorney Jennifer DiGiovanni (attorney for the children) at Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, 401 Courthouse, 436 Grant St, Pittsburgh, PA 15219.

Send an email to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Paula Ward about fairness for abused adopted children, at pward@post-gazette.com.

On behalf of the children, thank you very much.

IMG_5974

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:

IMG_3585

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

Not any African orphans.

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

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

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

My concerns about the hearing are these:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3544

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