Adoption Ethics

I want to begin this short essay on adoption ethics with a quick note - I know this is a sensitive subject. I don't write to judge anyone at all; my purpose here is simply that I feel the need to make my convictions on this topic so clear, and to empower any other potential adoptive families with information.

The concept of adoption ethics is something I think is so important that adoptive families are aware of. We must be aware of so many things, including the message that international adoption sends to local communities about privilege and their capabilities. We must be aware of ways we can work to partner alongside communities to care for children in need of family. We also have a responsibility to be aware of certain issues that currently exist within international adoption. Within the past decade or so, a large volume of international adoptions have shifted from places like China (where huge amounts of infants were legally abandoned due to the one-child law), to places in the global South where situations are not always as clean-cut. These days, I can be picky about the times I choose to be an advocate for adoption.

I know: “wait, what? Don't you come from a big, multiethnic family with lots of adopted kids?” Yeah, I do. I was a big part of my siblings' adoptions, actually. 

Since then, though, international adoptions have surged in popularity amongst Western families, creating some really complex situations in adoptive countries, including orphanage and government corruption and unnecessary child abandonment.. People in countries like the United States want to respond to the needs of children living in orphanages around the world. People want to live generously and love sacrificially, and that is so good. Unfortunately, the fact that this surge in international adoptions has not been matched with efforts to prevent children from being left at orphanages is creating some complex challenges.

Adoptions happening in parts of the world with political instability, high levels of corruption, or inconsistent legal processes much be approached with so much caution. We must know the right questions to ask to not only protect children, but their birth families - who are often young, who are often unaware of their legal rights, and who are vulnerable to manipulation and often desperate because of poverty. In countries such as the Congo where there is civil unrest, children might simply be separated from their families (not actually abandoned or orphaned). Families might be told they will get to join their child in America. Families might be told the adoptive family will send them money. I have heard, first hand, stories of newborn babies being stolen from the hospital, and their mothers being told that their baby has died. All of this because international adoption brings a lot of money to the people involved in facilitating it. This isn't always the case. But the fact that it sometimes is should make us so, so very vigilant and cautious in every step we take in international adoption. 

This is the source of my wholehearted conviction that our passion for adoption should always be matched with an equal or greater passion and devotion to empower vulnerable parents to raise their children well, rather than feeling that they have to leave their children in orphanages in order for them to survive. 

I'm going to pull a series of quotes from another blog by a Christian author named Jen Hatmaker, who has become something of a specialist in international adoptions. These quotes should shake us into completely new perspectives regarding international adoption; ones that strive to honor and protect birth families with an equal amount of love and protection that we reserve for the adopted children in our lives. (Find her article here).
  • I keep hearing it over and over in Ethiopia, Haiti, Uganda, Congo, everywhere. The missionaries and local [people] are saying something very disturbing: often vulnerable birth moms are coerced and misled, families are manipulated and deceived, children are flat out bought. (This is not always the case, but the fact that it does happen should make us extremely, extremely cautious).
  • There are very real orphans all over the earth, but most of us don’t pursue the kids there are; we pursue the kids we want. (Waiting lists for infants and children with no special needs grow and grow, while older children and children with disabilities who truly need placements wait and wait).
  • I’m not hearing enough about prioritizing birth families and empowering them to raise their own children, not even from well-meaning adoptive parents. Isn’t that what we want? Shouldn’t intact families be our highest goal? 
  • What would happen if we reallocated a percentage of the millions we spend on adoption toward community development? What if we prioritized first families and supported initiatives that train, empower, and equip them to parent? This would absolutely be Orphan Prevention, not to mention grief prevention, loss prevention, abandonment prevention, trauma prevention, broken family prevention. 
  • I simply believe it is time to take our good hearts and add our good minds.
  • Discussing unethical adoptions, I am not saying [there is] always [curruption, lack of ethics, etc]; I am saying sometimes, and if there is a sometimes in the mix, then we must go on high alert. We have to. We cannot simply hope we have no part in the sometimeswe must insist on the never.

What makes a child an orphan? 

Sometimes, children are separated from their families due to situations that threaten their safety - criminal activity, dug addictions, mental illness, sexual abuse. Sometimes, the child has lost both of their parents due to death or accidents. Sometimes they are being raised by a single mom who becomes terminally ill. Sometimes children are born with special needs that seem overwhelming, and they are relinquished. Sometimes, infants are born to young teenagers who have been sexually abused, and are unready to become a parent. These kids need families. These kids need adoption. When no relative or local family is willing to step forward to welcome these children as family, adoption is needed for these orphaned children.

A lot of children living in orphanages, however, are only there because of poverty. They are there because their parents feel desperate. This is something that is easy to prevent. Here are the numbers, according to Jen Hatmaker: "Around the world, there are an estimated 153 million orphans who have only lost one parent (“single-orphaned”). Obviously, not all these children need adopted. Most single parents raise children valiantly in their own community and extended family. There are about 18 million orphans who have lost both parents (“double orphaned”) and are living in orphanages or on the streets." We tend to call children who have lost one parent an "orphan," when the reality is that doing so often discredits the incredible efforts of the parent that remains. 

I am strongly convicted that if we are called to adopt children who need families, then we are also called to come alongside vulnerable parents and help empower them to be able to keep their families together. Because these parents deserve the dignity of being able to raise their kids. As it turns out, orphan prevention is very possible. I have been committed to working alongside communities in Kenya and Uganda over the past several years to build programs that work to prevent kids from being orphaned. I realized I had to be just as committed to vulnerable  kids like Sarah, And Stella in Kenya as the ones in my own family. I learned that the best way to build a really strong future for those girls was to invest in their mom, Neema. Neema is a single mom who is fierce and passionate about her kids. Moms like Neema work so very hard to care for their kids, but often the resources they have access to are not enough, and that is often how kids end up in orphanages. Instead, Neema was able to build her business and glows with pride when she talks about how well her girls are doing in school. We need more stories like that.

I also want to mention the tremendous efforts I have witnessed of local people adopting orphaned children into their families. In Uganda, I work with a group of incredible women who have adopted orphaned children from their communities. There, I love and adore a little girl named Shifrah. I met her when she was just two years old, and she had been orphaned. She lives with a wonderful widowed woman named Florence in a little brick house with no running water or electricity. Florence feeds her big bowls of sweet potato and porridge and lets her chase the chickens around the yard. I LOVE Shifrah. I also love Florence and her heart for orphaned children in her community. Would it be better for me to take Shifrah from Florence and bring her to the US to be my child, removing her from her warm, sunny afternoons in Uganda's tropical hills, from her older sister Shadia, who Florence has also adopted, from her chickens and her friends and everything familiar to her? Would it be better for me to tell Florence, who lost both her husband and her daughter in her 30s, that it's not enough that she's given everything to take care of these children, and rob her of the joy and fulfillment they bring her because I thought they would be better off in the US? OR would it be better for me to come alongside Florence and commit to working together to raise this little girl, in Uganda, so that she can grow up delighting all of her neighbors with her sunny smile. So that she can grow up to become a doctor or a teacher in her country. I love Shifrah. I miss her when I'm not in Uganda, I think about her a lot. I'm helping raise Shifrah, and helping empower women in her community to adopt their own country's children - and they are doing a fabulous job. 

One negative side of international adoption that I see in the communities where I work is that it spreads a message to local people that their monumental efforts to build a better world for their children are not enough, because they're not American, or they're not among the wealthiest populations in the world. There are people out there doing everything they can to help children in crisis, and we need to come alongside them in doing that.


Steps Towards an Ethical Adoption

Despite the complexities that surround international adoption these days, the fact remains, and will probably always remain, that there are children in need of families and homes. Our task is to ask ourselves if we are able and equipped to adequately address the needs of these children from complex backgrounds within our own families. We see other families who have adopted and we see a beautiful thing, but it is also a really hard thing. It is a commitment you make with your whole life. Especially if we are committed to adopting the children who truly need families - those who are above the age of 5, and those with non-minor, non-correctable, lifelong disabilities. (Another quick quote from Jen Hatmaker:
"It is simply this: the line for adoptable healthy babies is very long, and every last one of them will be chosen, even those not born yet. In the meantime, tens of thousands of older kids are waiting right this second. Unicef reports approximately 95% of orphans over the age of 5. So if our motivation includes mitigating the orphan crisis, then we need more parents willing to adopt older kids, sick kids, and sibling groups, including here and abroad.")
Questions to ask yourself in the pursuit of an ethical adoption:

  • Are we willing to take the route that is not the easiest or most simple?
  • Are we adopting from a country that is in an unstable political situation? (In this, case, many children in orphanages are simple 'displaced' or 'lost' - this included Haiti directly after the 2010 earthquake, and countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who are very unstable politically).
  • Are we willing to make significant sacrifices and changes of lifestyle in order to meet the needs of this child?
  • Are we willing to provide necessary professional counseling for this child?
  • Are we willing to commit ourselves to a bonding process with a child who is not an infant or toddler?
  • Are we willing to help them preserve their past, their identity, language, and connection to culture?
  • Are we willing to adopt a child with special needs that go beyond the range of minor and correctable?
  • Are we willing to embrace, learn about, and enter into this child's background and culture just as much as we are expecting them to enter into our own?
  • How does our agency research the backgrounds of the children that they are placing? What are their practices on thorough background investigations? How can we be sure that every person in this child's potential support network is aware of, consents to, and understands the implications of their adoption?
  • Are there high levels of corruption in the country from which we are planning to adopt? (This is particularly true of countries such as Uganda and Ghana, potentially some Latin American countries, but that doesn't mean it's any less likely to be present anywhere else as well). If so, are there any pieces of information at all during the process that seems to be hidden; can you validate every single piece of information you are told about your child's background? Are your questions answered clearly or are they dodged?
  • Does the agency with whom you are working also work to preserve families in the countries they adopt out of? What is their perspective on family preservation?
If you are seriously considering adoption, and you would like to learn more about adoption ethics, I highly recommend reading these articles and blogs. I couldn't say it any better than they do, and these are things that are your responsibility to be aware and cautious of when navigating the waters of international adoption. Like we all keep repeating, these corruption and original-family exploitation is not always the case, but because it sometimes is, it requires us to be careful and responsible in our approach, our perception of adoption, and our compassion towards birth families.

You can help prevent children from being orphaned and/or abandoned

Many of the factors that lead to children being orphaned or abandoned are preventable. When parents pass away, it's often to preventable or treatable disease. When children are legally abandoned, it's often because parents are overwhelmed by extreme poverty and feel unable to care for the needs of their child. This is not true 100% of the time; there are certainly cases that would be very difficult to prevent. But what if, when a child is brought to a children's home, instead of taking that child and attempting to place them with a new family, their parent was counseled and was equipped to address whatever crisis situation they are facing? What they received life-saving treatment for illness, or were able to embark on a path of empowerment that leads to sustainable income sources, food and education for their children, and healthy community. 

This is what we are doing at Under the Same Tree. You can help ensure that children are given the opportunity to be raised by their birth parents instead of within a children's home. You can help equip parents to raise their children well, and to provide home and family to the children in their community who have been orphaned. Equip vulnerable parents economically / partner with a parent to raise their kids well.

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