Congo Recap

I’ve been trying to take it easy this week, which means that so far today I took a two hour nap and watched Miracle on 34th Street (the original).  [I also went on a 5 mile walk, so not super easy.]

The past two days I’ve been reviewing our photos and videos from our trip to DRC and Paris.  [It’s a lot  like when Clark Griswold gets stuck in the attic and watches the slideshow.]  This is the first time I’ve looked at them.  At first it was because I couldn’t handle it.  Then I just sort of forgot.  It has been fun recalling the adventure, and I wanted to share with you some highlights of the trip.

Here we are packing up the car to head to the airport. Image

My parents took us to O’Hare.  We flew to Brussels and ended up scoring a free upgrade to Economy Plus.  Awesome!  Of course our flight sat on the runway at O’Hare for over an hour before taking off.  Since we had a very quick layover in Brussels, we were sure to miss our second flight.  When we landed in Brussels, we pushed our way to the front and ran as fast as we could to the gate.  We made it, but our bags didn’t.  We were lucky though because the people who missed the flight ended up spending almost two days in Brussels before they got to Kinshasa.

We landed in Kinshasa around 6 pm.  The airport was super small and in the middle of a field.  We flew in over the Congo River.  It looks exactly as you would imagine it (see blog banner if you can’t imagine).  We found our escort upon exiting the plane and then we waited for about two hours to see if our bags made it.  We were sure they didn’t but felt it was prudent to wait around.  The baggage claim scene was unique, to say the least.  People actually hire help to push their way to the front and retrieve their bags.  I sat back and enjoyed watching my adorably pale sweetheart do his best to fight the fight.

We piled into a van with about eight other passengers from Europe – none of whom spoke English (and neither did our driver).  By now, it was dark and late.  Thank God BB asked the flight attendant for water for his pregnant wife.  Those two liters of water were life-savers for the multi-hour journey to the guesthouse.  Our guesthouse was the last stop.  Matthew (our driver) told us he would come back in the morning to take us to get our bags.

We arrived at the guesthouse around 10:30 pm. The receptionist didn’t speak English.  Luckily, my high school French came back to me well enough to communicate our situation.  He promptly told us that our reservation wasn’t until the next day and that he didn’t have any rooms for us.  Apparently my French gets better with anger and exhaustion (this will come back later), and we were able to persuade him that if he didn’t give us a room, we were going to sleep in front of the desk since there wasn’t exactly a Best Western across the street.

We had arrived and could finally sleep.  Praise God!

Here I am at the guesthouse.

St Anne

Since we weren’t in Kinshasa for vacation and only ended up being there for four days, we didn’t do much sight-seeing or exploring.  We spent a lot of time at the guesthouse and a lot of time at the Brussels Airlines office trying to get our bags (at lease one trip a day – we finally got the last one the morning before we left).

Here we are at the Brussels Airlines office!

BA

On our second day there, we took our journey to meet the birth family of the kids.  I like to call it our “Nicholas Kristof: On Assignment” adventure.  P picked us up in his car that morning, and we headed out.  Where?  We basically didn’t know.  We first went to the market to pick up some food items to deliver to the family, including some frozen chickens.  [This is relevant to later in the story.]  We drove to pick up the kids’ grandmother at her church and then headed to her house.  Along the way, the car broke down.  Twice.  It overheated.  Both times P was able to get it back running.

On our adventure.

Car

About halfway through the drive, it occurred to me that we probably should have told someone in the world where we were going and with whom.  Sorry Dad – I’m sure you taught me this growing up!  I’ll try to remember that sooner next time.

It was hot.  Luckily, we had our cooling system on our laps – remember the frozen chickens!

We finally made it and enjoyed a nice afternoon with the family.  The women complemented my large hips, butt and boobs.  Much appreciated.

We left to start the long journey back.  We have some videos that I want to share, but apparently I need to upgrade my blog to do that.  We sang praise songs most of the ride home because we didn’t know what else to say.  I’m so glad we have those videos to remember how we felt.  It was such a bizarre mixture of joy in knowing that we had learned what we needed to and also sorrow knowing that the adoption was over.

That night we mourned.  I’ll spare you the details except to say that God was so present with us.

We were able to leave about 50% of what we brought to Kinshasa with us.  We gave the clothes and toys to the family for the kids.  We were able to leave food, dishes and other things with our friend from church’s family in Kinshasa.  That was a huge blessing and helped us to feel like God really used our trip for good.

We then planned our trip home.  A few photos of the drive to the airport.

Street1Street2

One more story about how my anger helped me communicate in French.  As we were boarding the plane, the security guard told me I couldn’t bring my water.  I won that debate.  I’m pretty sure at one point I told Bill – they can take my kids, but I’ll be d***ed if they take my water!  I think he thought about leaving me there at that point.

As much as the trip was hard, we had so much fun, and it was filled with beauty.  We got part of the adventure that we wanted.  We met beautiful, kind, loving people.  We saw the dark side of adoption (not just the fraud but some less than lovely behavior from American adoptive parents).  Our hearts were broken for the DRC.  We mourned more than we ever had before, but God never left us.  We were blessed to put his promises to the test.

Every moment of the trip was foreordained by the Lord.  We felt we were exactly where we were supposed to be and are still so grateful that we went.

Kinshasa is a beautiful place with a rich and sad history.  I hope to return someday when I can spend more time and explore more.

 

Comfort Ye

This Christmas, BB is singing two Messiah concerts.  As I listened this past weekend, I pulled out the Bible to follow along with Isaiah 40 as he sang:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

One of my favorite prophecies of Advent. There’s no way that the Isrealites could have really understood what God was promising them.  Nor could they have known how long it would be before that voice cried out from the wilderness.

Yesterday I decorated the Christmas tree.  I love decorating the tree.  Put on my Bing Crosby Holiday Pandora station and pulled out the bins from the basement.  It’s such a Christmas tradition – transforming our residences into a festive celebration.  I loved doing this as a family when we were kids.  We would pull out the old ornaments, trying to remember who made which ones.  There’s this Christmas tree ornament that my parents still hang that I made in preschool.  It’s just construction paper with a few crayon scribbles.  My sisters try and convince my parents to throw it away, but it keeps surviving each year.  [I’m watching you girls.]

The holidays for me are a time to remember.  I remember leaving out cookies for Santa, and in the morning, there would be crumbs and a thank you note.  I remember waking up really early one year when Santa decided to save money on wrapping paper (I think my baby sister was about 6 weeks old at Christmas), so all the gifts were laid out under the tree unwrapped.  I was able to play with my new Barbie and swimming pool before anyone else awoke.

This year I found the Christmas ornaments that my mom made last year for Freddy and Carolyn.  I found the stockings my Grandmother made for them.  I remember.  Last Christmas, we were sure that it would be our last Christmas without them.  They had a few gifts under the tree, lovingly selected and wrapped by their soon-to-be new grandparents, aunts and uncles.  It felt slightly risky, but we were confident that God was bringing them home to us in 2012.  We were filled with anticipation and excitement for the next Christmas when we could share with them our holiday traditions.

A friend of mine is in China right now picking up her son.  Another friend is returning from Uganda tomorrow with her son.  We were all in the adoption process together – supporting each other, praying for each other.  While I am so happy for them, I am jealous.  So very jealous.

People always ask us if we are relieved that the adoption didn’t work out since we are pregnant, and four kids would have been too many.  Meaning well and admittedly, we were quite overwhelmed with the idea of four kids at once, the answer is a resounding no.  We are gladdened that the children have been reunited with their family – it’s where they should be.  But we do not feel relieved of the burden.  We feel cheated.  We are still grieving this loss.  It was a burden we wanted.  It was a burden we prayed for, hoped for, longed for.

Unlike the Isrealites, I am blessed to know exactly how the story ends.  I know that God is not promising me an earthly victory.  There’s no promise that next Christmas we will be parents.  But I have promises that are much bigger than parenthood. I will take comfort in those promises knowing that God will supply all my needs.

 

Thank you!

I can’t thank you all enough for your lovely notes, texts, FB messages and comments.  It’s lovely to feel so supported.  I started this blog as a way to remember the adoption and to process through all the crazy things that we were learning.  It’s evolved to a broader spectrum of topics and a way for me to journal all aspects of my life.  Thanks for reading!

I hope to keep blogging about adoption and orphans even though we aren’t officially in the process anymore.  We are currently researching foster care, and all options for growing our family and loving orphans continue to be on the table.  Our eyes and hearts have been opened to some big issues in the world over the past few years, and we feel a little overwhelmed about what our response should be.  In some ways we are just throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks.  We pray that God will continue to use our lives for his kingdom work, and we are open to anything. It’s possible that it will be something much different than adoption.

Currently, we are feeling God pull us into local ministry here in our neighborhood.  BB is reading Brandon Hatmaker’s book Barefoot Church (http://www.amazon.com/Barefoot-Church-Serving-Consumer-Exponential/dp/0310492262), and it’s safe to say that our Hatmaker love continues to grow.  One of the topics in the book is serving local needs and not necessarily through your church or other Christian organizations.  We live in a neighborhood with lots of needs.  It’s a neighborhood with lots of violence, drug use, prostitution, and homelessness.  The schools are under-resourced, and there is a large population of people with mental illnesses.  While it sounds discouraging, in all this hurt, there are so many opportunities to show God’s love.  We’ve barely scratched the surface.  We are excited to see where God leads us.  We’ve already formed some relationships with some of the homeless people in our neighborhood, and we have been beyond blessed by those interactions.

In the meantime, I’ll still be here blogging about the mundane things in my life, encouraging you to change the world by not purchasing mainstream chocolate (http://www.rageagainsttheminivan.com/2012/10/the-inconvenient-truth-about-your.html), engaging in Jen Hatmaker-hero worship, talking about reducing our consumerism, and sharing my experience with pregnancy.  Keep reading!  I love being the center of attention!

 

Questions we should have asked

I wanted to offer a little practical “advice” from what we learned through our experience for those of you considering international adoption or in the process already.  I still wholeheartedly believe in adoption and believe that it can be done ethically, but not without significant work by the families themselves.  No matter how reputable your agency, you really cannot and should not rely solely on the information provided by them.

1.  Ask the agency what investigation is done by them prior to giving a referral.  One World Adoption Services, Inc. (www.oneworldadoptions.org) told us (after the fact) that they do nothing to validate the stories provided by the orphanage. And they did not know how the orphanage was obtaining the children.  If it’s a case of relinquishment by a family member, how does the family member find out about the orphanage?  Who advises her about adoption and the permanency? Are any attempts made to assist the family to keep the child? What are the circumstances leading the family to want the child to be adopted? If it’s a case of death or abandonment, how are stories validated?  Do they advertise in the newspaper or radio?

2.  At some point (preferably before accepting a referral because that’s when you pay the big money), you must do an independent investigation.  Depending on the country, this could be difficult and expensive.  But, adoption is difficult and expensive, so you don’t want to skip this step.  Personally, I would recommend going over and visiting yourself.  If the child is older, they should have a story to tell.

3.  Beware of any agency that has rules about visiting the orphanage or communication with the in-country staff.  One World refused to let people visit if they happened to be in DRC.  This is very suspicious and suggests that the agency is hiding something.  With advance notice, there should be no security risk to a visit to bring gifts, medicine, etc.  I also have yet to hear a good reason why adoptive parents should not be copied on communications or included in calls with the in-country staff.

4.  Don’t accept the “no information” line.  One World regularly told us that communication with DRC was nearly impossible and that information was “not available.”  While not all information is available, push for more.  You should be included on communications between your agency and tin-country staff.  We regularly asked for specific information about who,what and when One World was communicating with their staff and never received any concrete answers.

5.  If there’s even a hint of impropriety, you must not ignore it.  We want to believe the best in people, but these issues are too messy and too important to ignore.  Agencies operate with willful blindness.  When we started our investigation, we  were told by a case worker from another agency that we shouldn’t ask questions about the father because we might find the answer, and it could ruin our adoption.  When we were in DRC and our situation was unfolding, another adoptive family told us that their agency warned them not to ask questions.  This is unacceptable and unethical.  Not to mention that it would be very difficult to explain to your child later in life that you never asked specific questions about his family because you didn’t want to risk the adoption.  We should not be involved in adoption by any means necessary.

6.  Get itemized breakdowns of the fees.  One World never provided receipts or breakdowns of fees despite repeated requests.  You must follow the money.  When we were in DRC, we spoke with a lawyer who told us that of course gifts were given to family members and orphanages for referrals.  She did not see this as buying children, but some people may see it that way and not be wrong.  A $10,000 “referral fee” means nothing.  Where does each dollar go?  Many people pay fees for orphan care or foster care.  Receipts should be provided to show how that money is being spent.  In DRC, many agencies are paying fees to DGM for exit letters, which fees are most certainly bribes as the exit letter does not cost money.  If your agency refuses to provide this information, it is a red flag.

I want people to know that these issues are not limited to DRC or Africa.  Google corruption in adoption, and you will see these issues in all countries where adoption is an option.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a Hague or non-Hague country.  When we adopt a child from another country, it is a monumentally large undertaking.  We cannot be afraid of messing it up or of losing a referral.  We can’t cut costs or shortcut the timeframes.  We cannot be afraid of making people angry with our questioning.  We are fighting for innocent children who have no voice.  It should be hard to adopt a child, and we owe it to our (future) children to be able to say we did what we could to make sure our decision was right and in their best interest.

More reading for those interested in ethical adoption

After my last few posts, I’ve had the good fortune to connect with others who have faced similar unethical practices in their adoptions.  They have beautiful, convicting stories to tell:

http://www.gracelings.org/2012/07/guest-post-walking-away-from-ugandan.html

This post hit home since I was at the Summit, and while I don’t agree with everything he puts forth, I shared many of the same concerns while in attendance:

http://fleasbiting.blogspot.com/2012/05/saddleback-church-orphan-summit-five.html

Food for thought…

 

 

Are we helping orphans or creating them?

This is such a hard post to write because I am still processing.  I will start by saying that I don’t have the answers, just the questions.  One question that keeps coming up in my mind is whether we are helping orphans through international adoption or creating them.  When we were in DRC (the fraud and legal issues aside), we kept asking whether we should adopt the children since it’s what the parents had chosen.  Didn’t they have the right to choose to relinquish their rights just as parents in the US do?

It just didn’t sit right with us.  We didn’t get into this to traffic children to the US.  We got into this to help orphans.  A child that has a parent or parents is not an orphan in my mind.  This is where it gets tricky.  The children we were trying to adopt were no doubt vulnerable children in a difficult situation, but orphans?  No.  This is why all those “147 million orphans” ads and similar statistics don’t sit well with me.  I know it’s advertising and the point is not accuracy but shock and awe, but why isn’t 17.8 million orphans shocking enough (that’s the actual estimated number of children who have lost both parents according to UNICEF)?

It’s worrisome to me that these parents in DRC (and probably many like them) placed their children in an orphanage to be adopted to the US.  This family has a home, a car, some members with jobs, food, health, and love.   It’s even more worrisome to me that the orphanage accepted them given those known circumstances and that One World Adoption Services, Inc. advocated and endorsed their adoption.

OWAS touted their orphanage as the best in DRC – healthy, loved kids with the best access to food, medicine, care.  We loved that about it and now it makes us sick.  Why were those kids so healthy and loved?  Is it because they came from families who loved them and were caring for them? It’s even worse that it’s what we wanted.  We wanted perfectly healthy, beautiful, happy, well-adjusted kids.  Um, that’s not generally what we should be seeking when we want to care for an orphan.  I may be so bold as to say that there is no such thing.  How could there be?

I can’t help but struggle with the question of what about the true orphans?  The street kids, the sick kids, the kids with truly no one to care for them.  Why aren’t they in the “best” orphanages?  Why aren’t they being sought in droves by us Christians?  Why aren’t they being adopted at the same rate as the healthy babies?  Why are there waiting lists for healthy babies if there are 147 million orphans?

I’m not trying to judge.  If anything, I judge myself.  We got into this saying we wanted to be “all in” for Jesus and “all in” for the orphan…so long as we could get a beautiful, perfect, healthy, infant because we didn’t feel “called” to care for kids with “issues.    (Apparently, we hadn’t yet read the Bible to know what our true calling is.)

If families with means can get their kids into orphanages and adopted to the US because their kids are young and healthy, that’s a grave injustice to the kids who will die on the streets alone.  We need to do more than adopt.  We need to do more than trust these agencies that make money when we accept a referral and are incentivized to “find” kids to meet our parameters (no matter what they say, that is what’s usually going on). We need to stand up for the least of these.

It’s an ugly world out there.  People in desperate situations do desperate things.  I don’t blame that family for wanting a “better life” for their children.  Of course, they should be free to explore all options for their children.  But, I also need to see what’s going on and say no when it crosses a line.  If we, having the mind of Christ, don’t say no, who will?

 

What happened?

The details, as promised.  Commentary to follow.  For now, just facts.

We signed on with One World Adoption Services, Inc. (“OWAS”) in November 2010 to adopt two kids under 4 from DRC.  In October 2011, after being told that our referral would come soon since May 2011, we were sent a referral for two children (who we called Carolyn and Freddy) (who were said to be 5 and 3 – thus outside of our range).  Their paperwork did not include any information about the biological family, except that the mother was unable to care for them, and the father was “unknown.”  We asked a number of questions about their birth family and where the children came from and were told by our caseworker that she would look into it.  We never heard anything further.  We naively accepted OWAS’ word that this was all the information that we would/could receive from DRC.

[Sidenote: I said commentary would come later, but I lied.  Never, ever, ever believe this from any agency.  Information abounds.  Just now I found the former orphanage director on Facebook.  People.  It’s 2012.  Everyone has a cell phone.  Everyone has an email address.  Everyone has a computer.]

In February 2012, we passed court and received the parental authorization form.  This was the first time that we ever heard that the biological mother would have to be contacted and actively relinquish her rights.  Again we asked for information about her and her situation but did not receive any information from OWAS.  On the request for birth certificates, for the first time, we saw the name of a third child (Katie) and asked for information from OWAS.  We were then told that she was the children’s biological sister, who was raised with them and had been brought to the orphanage at the same time.  Based on this, we can only assume that when we had previously asked OWAS for information about the biological family, they were not attempting to get that information.  If they had looked into our questions, it would have been clear that the children had a sister in the orphanage.

We accepted the referral for the older sister not wanting to split up the siblings.  At that time, we finally received the “intake form” that included a little more information about the biological family, again stating that the father was “unknown.”

In the spring/early summer of 2012, the woman running the orphanage in Kinshasa was fired due to allegations of corruption.  This started raising our red flags.  When she was fired, she took (at least) three children from the orphanage to her home.  These children were later removed by the police, and she was arrested.  (This relates later.)

We passed court with Katie in March 2012 but never received all of her documents or confirmation that her birth certificate or passport were ever requested (we pulled out at the end of August).  This was concerning to us given the “shake up.”  We never got a straight answer as to what was going on with Katie’s case and whether OWAS had the documents, whether they were in progress or whether they were missing/lost/stolen.

In April 2012, we filed I600s for Carolyn and Freddy.  In June 2012, we received a request for evidence asking for more information about the mother’s situation.  OWAS was never able to gather adequate documentation, so we had to withdraw the I600 in order to avoid a denial.  Since we did not want to solely rely on OWAS, we hired another attorney in DRC to investigate.

It was at this point that the red flags became flaming red on fire flags.  First, our investigation revealed that the address given by OWAS for the biological mother was incorrect and that no one by her name had ever lived there, and no neighbors had ever heard of her.  Second, we then learned that Freddy was one of the children taken from the orphanage by the fired director, which explained why we had not received any photos of him for months while we did receive photos of the girls.  We asked for an update on him but never received any information from OWAS.  Finally, in another review of the documents, we saw that the biological mother had the same last name as the fired orphanage director.

In their attempt to respond to the request for evidence, OWAS told us that the biological mother could not be found and/or had moved.  However, days later, we received an updated “certificate of indigence” that said, on its face, she had recently appeared at social services and testified as to her status.  When we asked OWAS about this document, they told us that the officer had remembered meeting the mother (presumably a year before) and could sign the document based on her memory.  This did not sit well with us and looked a lot like a fraudulent document to us.

Based on this series of events, we decided we needed to conduct our own personal investigation since there were too many red flags for us to feel comfortable proceeding.  In August, we went to DRC.  We met with members of the children’s birth family and quickly learned that our suspicions were, unfortunately, true.  The documents that were used to support the children’s cases were all fraudulent.  The children were the nieces and nephew o0 the fired director, who had falsely indicated that the father was “unknown” in order to complete the adoption.  The mother and father are in a committed relationship, have other children and live about a 4 hour plane ride from Kinshasa.  Because the documents were fraudulent, we could not proceed with the adoption.

While we were there, we also learned that Freddy had been back living with his grandmother for a number of months after he had been removed (while we were paying monthly orphan support for him).  While in DRC, we met the children’s grandmother, and while she is not rich, by any means, we could see that she had some means to provide.  The children have been returned to her, and we are very glad for that.  Their grandmother loves them, and there’s no doubt in my mind that this is the best situation for them.

When we met with OWAS upon our return, they confirmed that we could not proceed with an international adoption where there are two known, living parents (not to mention fraudulent documents).  While we had hoped that they would work with us to resolve our situation, they refuse to refund any of our money.

These are the cold hard facts.  We have many other suspicions about further corruption in DRC and adoptions, and I will post my commentary another time.  Thanks for following our journey.  We are down, but not out!