Both Ends Burning and CHIFF: Losing Credibility, Spurning Opportunities

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

Would you find him credible?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back Camera








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

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

No adult African adoptees or orphans testified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two bits of news:

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

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

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






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.


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