Monday, February 20, 2012

A well-meaning but harmful approach to OVC care in Africa

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:

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.



  1. Yes. Thank you. Keep on, Kelsey and Megan.

  2. So good Kelsey. There are a lot of different points I could make here but will save that for another time :) I would love to hear what happened with Dan and share with you what is going on with Philip and Angela, who were reunited with their BM.. and thriving 13 months later. I really am thankful for your research and insight into this side of OVC. There is a model that the Baker's are using in Mozambique that is working and is my heart personified. It is centered around evangelism/church planting; they have planted over 10,000 village churches through preaching the gospel in village outreach settings/meeting immediate urgent basic needs etc. Each pastor, a local to the village of course, is discipled and taught the word and command regarding orphans and widows and they lead their churches by example, caring for orphans and widows. The people's hearts are being changed by Jesus/ the word of God and love and truth is spreading throughout Mozambique. This is really what has happened with Philip and Angi's mom too. She came to Christ and got clean from drugs and alcohol. She is being discipled in the ways of God and now not only cares for her own 3 children, she makes a living caring for the 35 orphans that live on the compound... and a few months ago she took in an orphan that has CP and severe brain damage as her own. She has found her identity in Christ and has self worth in being able to make a living and support her children instead of having to send them to the street for survival. My own heart has been changed as I see this all happening before my eyes. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. To know that God redeemed this woman and now her children get to be raised by their mother. I miss them but nothing compares to what they have now, so missing them is totally worth it. I really love what you girls are doing. I will be watching for more posts and praying that the Lord continue to lead you in this amazing call He has on your lives.

  3. Tonya- WOW!!!! What an amazing end to P & A's story. Well, not really an end, but you know what I mean. How stinkin' beautiful is that? Do you think you and C will be back to visit them? Oh man, to see it with your very own eyes, I can't imagine the tears and the joy. I love the model you just shared in Mozambique. How cool is it that God uses our experiences to teach in unimaginable ways to shape and shift the burden He places on our hearts. Thank goodness He brings us to places of brokenness and humility so that our eyes would be opened and that we'd love His people in a way that aligns with His heart.

  4. Kelsey, thanks for sharing this post. This is something I'm thinking about and struggling with a lot lately. I'm an American and a foster care social worker currently, but I've lived/worked in children's homes in Latin America in the past and dreaming about starting a project similar to what you're talking about here in my husband's home country of Honduras. There are SO MANY children's homes in Honduras, with so many kids being brought to children's homes when poverty is the main reason that they can't stay with their parents or even relatives. Thanks for walking before me and sharing the knowledge you're learning.

    1. Hey Suzanne- I would love to speak with you further on this! Thank you for getting in touch and responding to this post. While things in Honduras look different, I'm sure we are seeing a lot of the same heartbreaking/frustrating things going on with the most vulnerable children and families in both parts of the world. Please feel free to call or email me and I'd love to chat about your experiences/further thoughts on all of this- my cell- (610)764-1694 & email-

  5. We will for sure be back in Africa, and most def see the kids again... just trusting Jesus each day to show us the way. I'm excited to talk with Maria and to see what her thoughts are about re-entering the K-jong community; where her heart is with that. You know they are in Kenya right? The last time a muzungu went to see the kids, Angi hid behind her mom and cried. She wouldn't go near the white girl! That was just six months after being with her BM and all the trama she has experienced in her young little life. I'm just amazed and thankful for redemption! She started baby class in January and Philip has been going to school for a year now and loves it. I can't wait to see them again. I especially want to spend some time with Maria.... I just love that woman and can't wait to witness the new her and see how they interact as a family unit etc... ahhhh, God is so faithful! Write about Dan!? I have no clue what happened????

  6. Wow Kelsey, ok it was a long post so I will try and remember it with my ADD not totally confusing me. First I do wish the whole one hundred million plus orphan thing was made clearer to all the masses that just see a t-shirt and believe but lets just say we all know that it is really 16 million. There were about 11,000 international adoptions in America in 2010 (could be off some just got it from an adoption sight) that is from many countries. There are the 8 million in institutions and lets say 50% to 65% may have family, we still have 2,800,000 to 4,000,000 that need a home. The sad truth is incountry or international millions are not going to have a home. In an ideal world...and I know you know this....Americans would look to the needy in their own area first but there are differant reasons that bring people to want to adopt. Some come to Uganda and love the people so much they get a heart for adoption when it wasn't something they had even talked about before. Some have a friend and they think well we can do that to and well, it seems like a chain reaction. Even with locals here it has happened that way. Sadly not enough as in America there are many children waiting for a family and for the majority it is not going to happen. Last year was our lowest ever for local fostering, after the big push in Kampala we had only one local foster a baby. I am so thankful that this year we have already had one fostered by locals and pray this year is better in numbers than last. I think the responsibility lies with the organizations that are on the ground to practice these things you are talking about. People want to help and if we allow it then they will. If "helping" means adopting they are willing, I don't mind families that want (ok I do mind the saviour mentality) to do this if they feel it is a need. I do mind the NGO's that let them believe that they are the only way and not let them know that thses feelings are good but maybe not quite accurate. Sorry if I am jumping around......There are not thousands of Ugandas that want to adopt every year but there are thousands of children that need a family. Part of the problem is just a bout every baby here will get one, local or international but the thousands of older children will remain in an institution and there will be thousands of orphans, as there is in the States. When does it become about them and not about us? Adopting here is losing some of the stigmatism but there is a lot of that to work through. I would say we are maybe where we were at in the States about 40 years ago. I am all for keeping them in the country but have to also say as Christians we have culture/family that is more important then any country or ethnic background and here or there that comes first for me. Ok so not sure if I am making any sense, I think your frustration is right and I think it needs to be directed at the institutions but I also think that we can't quench the international adoption spirit (not saying you are) because even though there may be some who are the big shinning American thinkng they are saving the day there was still just about 11,000 that came in 2010 and I wish that number were higher because there are orphans all over the world that are not being adopted incountry and that is kind of a pathetic number for a country full of Christians. Ok I just looked at your post and saw the other things you talked about but you know my beliefs on a child staying with their families. So it is 1am over here please excuse the bad spelling and jibberish if any I am to tired to make sure I made any sense .....goodnight

    1. Danyne, great thoughts. I am curious if you have any thoughts as to why Amani saw a decrease in domestic adoption this year? We've been hearing of an increase in Kampala but perhaps we make a mistake in assuming that is spreading outside of Kampala. Do you think maybe there are more orphanages (so therefore more options) for Ugandan families looking to adopt? Maybe the rate from Amani has decreased but not the rate nationally? Could the over all economic climate in Uganda play a role? Or perhaps it is just a coincidence and will hopefully increase next year :)

  7. Hahaha- Danyne! It was like I was actually listening to you say all of this as I read it. I loved it. You raise some really important points, and I agree- Adoption outside the extended family isn't as popular in Uganda as it is in the U.S. I wouldn't argue that at all- and there definitely are children who should be placed in the U.S. or other foreign countries- what i'm speaking to really, is this "supply and demand" of healthy infants from Africa. This is what we saw happen in Ethiopia, is it not? And much why international adoptions from Uganda have risen 300% over the past few years. Wow. At face value we might think that is a good thing, and for many children who are orphaned/can not be kept with extended family, this could be a good thing. What gets scary is all of these orphanages being opened by adoption agencies- I can't help but speculate there is some "recruitment" going in there- maybe not entirely...that children are being handed over not naturally, but because profit is to be made (obviously all invovled are at fault for that, not placing the blame for this on any 1 party's shoulders)...Also your thoughts did make sense- And that's really what I am trying to bring to light here, that as Christians we are adopting children truly in need of international placement- children who are a bit older who may be more difficult to place in a Ugandan family, children with disabilities. If the adoption truly is about the child and not us, we'd adopt any child that needed a home, not just healthy beautiful babies under 2. Don't get me wrong those adoptions can be ethical too- if we can't find Ugandans willing to open their home. However, as you've seen many of Amani's Mamas and many other Ugandan families- they ARE willing to! Do you think there is any place for considering that maybe this is a newer concept in Uganda- something that needs encouraging and monitoring, but overall can and should be done? Curious what you think of the campaign in Kampala to promote domestic adoption. I'm sure we probably had to do something like that before adoptions really took off in the U.S. too. A lot of Ugandans might be willing to adopt, it just isn't a concept they've thought of or had the support to do. That's kind of how I see Dan's story. We help pay Dan's school fees, and help Julie financially- sort of like the idea behind foster care stipends provided to foster families in America. Any child who doesn't have a chance at a family within Uganda should be considered for an adoption rather than long-term institutional care. 100% agree with it seems, for the most part we agree. Imagine that! ;)

  8. Kelsey, yes pretty much agree with all that. I think a lot of it has to come down to it what the government of each country allows. They had or have a law in Ethiopia that allowed agencies to open their own home which of course went the wacky way. If a country has a law that allows people to move children in a legal way then it is going to happen. Of course it is going to happen when it isn't legal also but in a pure evil way. But we are talking about the legal way and how it becomes unethical and governments can and should put a stop to it. The sad thing for ignorant families adopting from here, and I am sure other countries, that have this trust in something they want to believe so much. They go through all the emotional and legal process just to reach the American Embassy thinking its a done deal only to find out that there has been deciet and there is a Mom , Dad, or family member that does not want to give up the baby and they are not going to get the babay home. Of course they blame the Embassy and think America doesn't want us to adopt internationaly, and Christians resort to saying it is Satan not wanting the adoption to happen when it is our government employees doing their job to protect the kids and America. I am so glad we have laws that are followed and people working diligently to make sure it is all on the up and up. I do think the adoptive families should do their homework but in the end they can do nothing without the laws and institutions allowing them. It's so sad in our world isnt it....something that should be
    beautiful gets turned to such ugliness. There will always be corrupt people who are looking for new ways to put extra bucks in their pocket. If they can find a way to scam on dogfood they will. We really need to keep the government here and in the States in our prayers to have wisdom and take action when they should. And yes I think local adoptions will be more accepted every year here. I don't know how effective the push for adopting has been. Like I said we had out lowest year ever last year for local adoptions. It may be that there are so many more babies homes and some Ugandas that would have come to us a few years ago now have more choices in their own area. And thats OK as long as they are doing it. I guess it may not mean there are less just more spread out.

  9. oh and I think there could for sure be more cases like Julie and Dan. I would rather a family be able to fiancially take care of them but in cases where you could trust the intentions of the foster family it could work.