Thursday, January 26, 2012

Ownership in Adoption

When does a child “belong” to their adopted families?

This is a question I’ve been contemplating the last few days because I think it's a question that is at the heart of adoption ethics.

I think often times an adoptive parents finds themselves in the middle of a very unethical situation because they have come to view the adoptive child as theirs and will go to any lengths to get their child home.

They’ll lie on documents or to the courts.

They’ll bribe officials.

They’ll ignore red flags.

They’ll view the birth parents as threats.

Because in their mind this child already belongs to them and naturally we would do whatever it takes for our children.

So is this wrong? Many waiting adoptive parents do believe the children they are matched with belongs to them. They believe that God has ordained them to be their son or daughter- that the day they were born they were meant to be a part of their family. They get that referral picture and they believe that all their dreams have come true. They look at that picture and see their son or daughter.

I get this. I walked through an international adoption with my aunt a few years ago. When we got that referral she was ours. The moment that picture was in our hands she was a beloved daughter and granddaughter and niece and cousin. I know about sneaking downstairs in the middle of the night to watch the two minute video of the waiting child on repeat over and over again. I know about tracing the lines of the one photo you have until it's worn around the edges and there isn't a single detail you haven't dissected. We hadn't met her but we already loved her as our own. She was ours.

This is a natural reaction but is it a right one?

At what point does the child belong to the adoptive families? If there is birth family involved when does their ownership end? Officially it would be in court, but for many adoptive families it is much earlier than that.

What do you think? Should adoptive families view children they are matched with as “theirs”? Is it wrong to have a sense of ownership over a child with birth family or parents?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Total Orphan? I'm Sorry, But it's Not That Simple

One of the reoccurring themes I hear in the conversations about orphan care are the words “total orphan”. Often a parent is defending or bragging about the ethics of their adoption by claiming that their child was a “total orphan” or potential adoptive parents are saying they are looking to adopt a “total orphan” as if that makes it all magically ethical.

According to UNICEF a total orphan is a child who has lost both their mother and father. I know quite a few adoptions of total orphans that I find unethical. And I know quite a few adoptions of children with one or both parents alive that I believe are completely ethical.

It’s just not that simple.

Just because a child has lost both their parents doesn’t mean there aren’t aunts, uncles, grandparents, or cousins that wish to care for them…. Or that they cannot be adopted domestically. Consider a child who has lost both their parents to AIDS but lives with their aunt and uncle as a welcome member of the family. Through tragic circumstances the child is separated from the aunt and uncle and brought to the orphanage. The aunt searches tirelessly for her niece and months later finds the orphanage where she was brought. Sadly the orphanage has already given her up for adoption. The aunt and uncle grieve as if their own child has just died. Was that ethical?

In another circumstance a child is severely beaten daily by her mother. Her mother refuses to feed her and screams verbal abuse at her whenever she is home. One day she pours scalding hot water on the child and the child ends up in the hospital. A missionary couple hears word and talks to neighbors and discovers the abuse. They search out the father to find he is an alcoholic who is barely taking care of himself and has no interest in his daughter. The couple are refugees and have no other extended family that could take the child. The missionary couple pursues adoption. Was that ethical?

Sadly, in a country like Uganda these stories are not as uncommon as we would like to think.

Adoption ethics are complicated and unique to every situation. I’m sorry but we cannot simplify them by only pursuing the adoption of total orphans… and we cannot pass judgment on a family simply because their child has birth parents.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

We don't need no education...No wait, we really do.

Unethical Social Welfare: Progression At Home While Continuing to Offer Sub-Par Level Care Overseas

To anyone who reads our blog, I am going to be sort of a ‘guest writer’ with this post I guess. Truth is, I really am not “In the know” when it comes to the blog world. I only read a blog post if someone sends me a link to it, and as you can tell, I don’t write too many of these myself.

There is something I have been wrestling with A LOT over the past few months. Something blog worthy? Maybe. I’ll let you decide. I need to provide a little disclaimer before I begin: When we discuss the ethics of orphan care, it is just that a discussion.

I study Social Work at University. This semester I had an adjunct professor who just so happens to be a supervisor at DHS in Philadelphia (Department of Human Services). He liked to tell stories, maybe a little too much. But that’s okay, because I’m pretty sure all of his stories helped me realize how upsetting the gap is between our services for Children and Youth here in the U.S. and the services we offer to the developing world. In this post I am going to question most directly why individuals from the developed world, individuals from countries with progressive social welfare systems- why on earth we think it is okay to move backward and continue offering solutions that have been found ineffective and actually damaging in our own countries. Obviously we have moved away from institutional care in the U.S. (with a movement toward family preservation), but we insist on offering the developed world this sub-par level of care that countless studies have proven damaging not only to the child and family, but to entire communities and cultures.

In Philadelphia, families who DHS feels it necessary to separate are scheduled to be seen in court on multiple occasions. To give you an idea of what this would look like, individuals present at said hearings would most likely include: a judge, a child advocate, the child(ren), parents, other family members, a case worker, and a lawyer defending the parents. These court hearings are held to make sure all parties are doing their job. The judge wants to see evidence that there is a movement toward permanency for the child. If at all possible, it is in the form of reunification with the natural family. For a child to be released back into the care of the home they were removed from, the caregiver must take the necessary steps to make their home a safe place for that child.

Anyone at DHS would tell you that as often as they are referred to as “baby snatchers”, that is not what they are about. Not at all. The social workers, supervisors, and department heads all want to see children out of foster care and reunited with their biological family. They want to see caregivers making the necessary changes to help bring their children home. And it is in fact the case workers’ job to do everything in his or her power to make this possible. Whether it is providing transportation to NA meetings, helping the caregiver look for employment, or finding necessary mental health treatment- the caseworker serves as a broker and advocate for the caregiver.

What I walked away from that class with this semester was DHS’ overwhelming focus on family preservation. So many of the things we are fighting for in Uganda, DHS has and continues to fight for here on the home front. Why? Because they have studied the effects of institutional care on children. They have understood that it is a child’s right to grow up with their God given family. They have realized that it is unethical to automatically write a caregiver off as unfit regardless of your gut feeling. They have understood it entirely necessary to provide a caregiver with the tools to bring their children back home. Does it always work? No way. There are many parents who don’t take advantage of the services provided to them. They do not do their part in completing the steps to make reunification possible, and in this case the caregiver’s rights would be terminated. The point is, they ARE to be given every opportunity to make it possible for their child(ren) to return home. It is up to the caregiver to choose whether or not they will take responsibility and work with the case worker and the courts to meet the requirements for regaining custody of their children.

In Uganda at-risk families aren't even presented with this choice. Just imagine how the number of children living in institutional care would decrease if instead of simply placing children in orphanages, we came alongside the parents and gave them a choice. What if we focused on empowering and helping link them up with the necessary resources to keep their children? We could prevent family separation in the first place.

In some cases there is a definite need to remove a child from the home, however there is a major difference between the care provided when this occurs. One of the major differences between orphanages and foster care as temporary solutions- when children are placed in foster care in the U.S. a social worker is working with their parents to help them regain custody. In Uganda when a child enters an orphanage, the orphanage is not working with the caregiver to help improve their situation- thus the orphanage becomes more of a long-term solution for these families. One of the big questions I want to ask is: If we really love these kids, why aren't we loving their families too?

Why am I presenting you with all of this? Because when we measure services offered to at-risk families in the U.S. against what we fund and promote in Uganda there is a disparaging gap that should upset all of us. I don’t believe in satisfactory care. I believe in researching and educating ourselves before starting NGO’s in cultures SO vastly different from our own. I believe in offering the best care possible, whether it is in North Philadelphia or East Africa. Because if you are not doing this, you are committing a serious disservice to the population you are serving. And you just might be doing more harm than good.

This is only the beginning of this discussion. I tried to keep this post short and to the point, to maybe gain some insight on what others think before expanding further. I plan to address the problem of cultural discrepancy in relation to orphanages in Africa as well as expand further on why family strengthening makes sense as a foundation for addressing care for OVC in Uganda.

Also please read: The Rileys In Uganda.

***Something VERY important I forgot to address in the original post: The focus of this post was on the use of orphanages as permanent, long-term solutions in the developing world. There are orphanages who function as a transitional or interim period for OVC. These orphanages work to resettle children with their families, work to place children in domestic families, and when necessary adopt children internationally. The point I am trying to make here is that these institutions recognize the need a child has for a family, and if at all possible work toward permanency outside of the orphanage. Over the past two years we have been very fortunate to work with and see such a good example of this. Amani Baby Cottage ( has provided Megan and myself with the unique opportunity and experience in resettlement work in Uganda. I (Kelsey) also got the chance to work with international adoptions for a brief period as well. I can say with all honesty, in seeing Amani from the inside out, it is one of the most ethically run orphanages in Uganda we have ever come across. The children are well cared for, well loved, and the director/staff are actively working on executing exit strategies for each of the children in their care. Thank you for your example and all you have taught Megan and myself. We would not be where we are without you.


Sunday, January 1, 2012

You're Gonna Miss This

There’s nothing like a good country song to bring you to tears while you’re speeding down 95.

I’m Gonna Miss This by Trace Adkins did that to my today. The song goes through a girl’s life, when she’s in high school just aching to be an adult, when she’s a young married wife longing for children, when she’s an exhausted mother just wanting to sleep through the night. And through each of these life stages someone gently reminds her…

“You’re Gonna Miss this, you’re Gonna want this back
You’re gonna wish these days hadn’t gone by so fast
These are some good times, so take a good look around
You may not know it now, but you’re gonna miss this”

Such truth. Because no matter what stage of life we are in, there are always gifts that we need to just soak in. Most days I wish I was leaving for Uganda tomorrow, but in that car with this song playing and tears rolling I realized…

I’m gonna miss my brother’s goofy grin

I’m gonna miss the way my sister leaps into your arms after a long day

I’m gonna miss my baby sister’s sweet baby scent

I’m gonna miss creating crazy weird science experiments with my cousin

I’m gonna miss laughing and being with friends and family

I’m gonna miss comfy beds where you can snuggle under layers of covers

I’m gonna miss fall leaves and cold snowy Christmases

I’m gonna miss driving along smooth roads with the radio blaring music I actually like

I’m gonna miss all this food

I’m gonna miss getting crazy lost in DC but knowing my dad is only a phone call away to help me find my way

I’m gonna miss this. I’m gonna want it back… and I’m definitely going to wish it hadn’t all gone by so fast. I have a year and a half to soak all this up. To fill my memories up with baby scents and goofy grins and preschool hugs and crazy science experiments. And if I spend that year and a half wishing I was somewhere else I’m going to miss out on all of it. So here’s to living in the moment. For stopping and seeing what gifts God has for you in the here and now.

Because you may not know it now… but you’re gonna miss this.