Dan was placed with Julie through a domestic adoption in Uganda. Dan was 4 1/2 when Julie became his Mom.
This should really be split into 3 separate posts but I am just going to divide it into three sections instead. I really appreciate and value all feedback and criticism. Please feel free to comment or email me at: email@example.com
Why numbers can send the wrong message
In reference to the number of orphans globally, the estimate usually falls into the 132-210 million range. While these numbers are shocking and can be helpful in raising awareness about the HUGE need for the church and international community to respond to the orphan crisis or as I would like to call the OVC crisis (Orphans and Other Vulnerable Children), these large statistics seem to, more often than not, misinform the audience they are intended for. It is my perception that when people hear these big numbers, they think that there are literally 100's of millions of children across the world ready and waiting to be adopted.
Now I am going to throw out a few other numbers (I know I know, everyone just loves numbers...I promise this will be the last time I throw statistics at you in this post)- While calculating an exact number is tricky, a recent estimate is that there are approximately 16 million children worldwide who have lost both parents. 8 million children are estimated to be living in institutional care internationally. So where do we get these big estimates reaching as high as 210 million orphans? They aren't necessarily wrong, however I fear they can be very misleading to the individual not willing to take the time to breakdown and understand what they are really saying.
What the numbers are saying- there ARE anywhere from 132-210 million children globally who have lost one or both parents. What the numbers are not saying- there are NOT 132-210 million children who are totally abandoned, unloved, and in need of our rescuing by way of institutionalization or adoption.
Yes, SOME of the children who fall under these large statistics have been abandoned or totally orphaned. Some children can not be kept in their natural families or country of origin because of stigmas, cultural barriers or extenuating circumstances that limit or prevent in-country placement. And it is critical for us to answer THAT call. To adopt the children where international adoption is truly their best and only option at having a family, and to promote in-country options for the larger majority of OVC. To love these kids so much so that we put their rights ahead of our values and concepts of what constitutes a 'good life'.
The Hague Convention and the U.N.'s Convention on the Rights of the Child have stressed the importance of striving for family preservation and when that is not possible, in-country options through kinship care or domestic adoption outside the extended family should be given priority over international adoption. As always I feel the need to say this: I am all for international adoption when it is in the best interest of the child, but what has become destructive is international adoption as a first priority. And that, that breaks my heart.
The "America as superior" attitude
It breaks my heart what we are saying to families when instead of working to help them keep their children, we take their children away in the form of well meaning institutions. It breaks my heart to think about what we are saying to Ugandan families when we don't first ask if they would like to adopt their children. Are we asserting that this isn't even worth exploring? That Ugandan families won't be able to provide the ideal 'better life' we have in mind for their orphans, so we must bring them to America? The colonial era in Africa has ended, but have we really progressed toward viewing the African people as equal? Or does our privilege and power as members of Western society come in handy in making decisions for other nation's children? It seems as though we still convey very imperialistic attitudes, and they are even well-meaning! The terms we all use, "developing", "third world", "less-developed"- they are more weighted than I think we realize. And when I see we, I truly mean we- myself included.
Those words carry with them a "less-than" connotation, whether we intend it to or not. That in countries like Uganda, they are "less-developed" than us, therefore awarding us a sense of superiority. "less-than" does assert we are "more-than", does it not? Before you get angry and think I feel I have some authority to preach on this, please know I am writing this to myself just as much as anyone else. I have the "I'm American, so I know best" mentality just as much as the next gal or guy. To make a long story short, I think that there is MUCH need for exploration into this arena. Please do not take this as an attack on the call to adopt or orphan advocacy. It's not. This is a plea with myself and with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to wrestle with our actions and decisions when we step out into the mission field. May we explore the possibility that wrapped up in our charity there can be very oppressive ideologies that inhibit true social justice for marginalized populations in the same countries we claim to love. Might these realizations convict us and help us move beyond charity and toward justice for the poor. This is after all what God has required of us. Jeremiah 22:3. Do justice and righteousness, and deliver the one who has been robbed from the power of his oppressor. May we not be the oppressor of the poor but the lovers who fight alongside them.
Are you turned off by this post all together? Don't give up yet! I am going to try and present this a bit differently and hope that maybe it offends you less and rather just gets you to start thinking about what it is I am really trying to communicate here.
There are many couples in the U.S. that can not have children. Some can have children and are just interested in expanding their family through adoption. There are babies born to women who can not or do not wish to care for them. Most of these birth moms will meet with a social worker and adoption counselor to make sure that they know and understand what signing over the rights to their child means- legally and emotionally. These professionals will make sure that the mom is aware of her options. That if she wished to keep the baby, there are safety-nets in place that would help alleviate some of the economic strain this baby would have for her. Even still, many mothers make the difficult decision to place their child with an adoptive family who will love and provide for the child in ways she doesn't desire to or feel she is fit to. We respect this decision, and while we mourn the loss of a child growing up with their birth mother, we celebrate the beauty God can bring through that brokenness- adoption.
Now imagine this: adoption agencies in the U.S. begin contacting European countries to ask them if they would be interested in adopting the available children in our country. Bypassing all the potential adoptive families in the U.S. for families in countries that are seen by the agencies as "more developed". They've heard people in Europe are quite happy with their national healthcare and extensive social welfare services, so the agencies figured they'd do better by placing these children in European countries instead. Would we sit idly by and watch this happen? No way. We would be holding onto those kids kicking and screaming. Questioning the agencies for their ignorance in assuming we wouldn't take the kids when, had we been asked we most certainly would. Had we been asked and then turned down the chance to care for those kids, maybe then you could place them in other countries. But you better ask us first. We are Americans and those are American children.
This same entitlement we would have to our own children, we have to Africa's children. I am really still in the processes of grappling with why exactly that is. Why when a brand new baby is orphaned in Uganda do we dream of the beauty God will bring through an international adoption to America instead of a domestic adoption into a lovely Ugandan family? And if you are convinced adoption outside the extended family just isn't something Ugandans do you can read all about some wonderful examples here: Child's i Foundation
Why Ugandan children are in institutional care and why it doesn't mean Ugandans don't love their kids
Something Megan pointed out that I was neglecting to address originally in this dialogue: If Ugandans are willing to adopt and care for OVC in their country through resettlement, kinship care, or adoption why is it estimated that nearly 40,000 children are living in institutional care in Uganda? In 2009, preparing to leave for my first trip to Uganda, I originally thought a child in an orphanage was just what I expected them to be, an orphan. I thought they were all children who had either lost both parents or had been abandoned and therefore had no one to love them. Boy was I wrong, but what else was I supposed to think? Surely a child would not be living in institutional care instead of their family if they had someone out there who loved them.
Adoption through kinship care has been and is still the most common practice for 'orphan care' in Africa- And many even consider it the best option for these children if proper supports are in place. Why then are so many children being pushed out of their homes and into orphanages? Yes, some caregivers on extended families truly do not want their child. I am however speaking to the majority where inadequate safety-nets and the economic strains of an additional child are the primary reasons for child abandonment or institutionalization. So the first challenge I have in this is that we start questioning the root causes of each child's case. That instead of assuming
that because a caregiver or family was unable to provide for them, it must mean they don't really love them- that we would make sure no mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandmother or grandfather is signing the rights away to their child because of money. And that we are providing a true alternative. That instead of simply providing the option of institutionalization or adoption, we say "If you were to keep the child, I would come alongside you and your family and help you". We wouldn't think it appropriate to remove a child in America from a family that loved them but was just too poor. We'd make sure they knew about the various government programs available to help alleviate the financial stress of caregiving. Family preservation efforts should be given just as high a priority in Uganda.
I want to point you to this quote for a quote from a Zambian pastor after a visit to America:International Adoption and the Western Mindset, " What I found rather surprising, however, was the lack of knowledge and appreciation of the African extended family system. So, although I initially set up this blog in order to give my church a peep into the outside world, I thought of writing a blog to inform the West about what is common knowledge back home. Whereas to the Western mind, an orphan, having lost both father and mother, is destined to either be adopted or spend the rest of his or her childhood days in an orphanage, to an African mind, the child still has many fathers and mothers, and consequently many homes to live in"
Now, for the children who can not be kept in their immediate or extended families through offering community and family based support. This is the grey area for many, and I don't think it's completely black and white for me either. That's why I feel it necessary that each child's case truly be assessed on an individual basis. Some children will be easy to place in a Ugandan family. Many Ugandans have and continue to adopt children outside of their family. It is possible. It is happening. If a child is difficult to place in a Ugandan family or you just can't find a family, I truly believe it is in the child's best interest to be placed internationally- and those international adoptions ARE beautiful. These are the ethical standards of the United Nations that I haven't been able to argue against yet. I am not going to do the usual listing of specific demographics of children that I think make for ethical international adoptions, because I think we can get too stuck on those categories dictating whether an adoption is ethical or not. Megan wrote a good post on that here: Total Orphan, I'm Sorry it's Not That Simple
What needs to happen, as I said before, is the assessment and adequate time given to each child's case. That a child is not removed from their family or country of origin unnecessarily because we make passionate and well-meaning decisions without giving proper attention to the alternatives and the possibility that we in fact, may not be the best option for that child. This was something I learned through Dan's story (pictures above). This is a journey I've been on and am continuing to process, and I would be happy to tell you more about Dan and his adoption if you'd like to hear about it!
In sum: This post is a reminder to myself, just as much as anyone who reads it. That my well-meaning actions and decisions can often be extremely detrimental to the culture and people I am working with. That I, as an American social worker, will always be at a disadvantage in adequately assessing the needs of children and families in Uganda. To be aware of how limited my knowledge is of the family dynamics and other cultural norms. To accept that there are just some decisions that are not mine to make. To ask questions and remain teachable. And to listen, and I mean really listen to the voices of the people I am serving. I think then and only then will we start to see a shift from our perceived needs of the Ugandan people toward addressing the deeply rooted structures and ideologies that have created or perpetuated these needs.