Mothers

I was sick this weekend, but I’ll focus on the good parts – like how Freddy got to go swimming with his dad, and BB makes a mean chicken soup.

I haven’t posted much about adoption lately since we aren’t in the process, and we’ve been taking part in the greatest transition of our lives that never seems to end – failed adoption, pregnancy, birth, moving to Africa – you know, just a typical year in the life!

Adoption is on my brain again.  We are surrounded by adoptive families (yay!) and ministries that support orphans here in Rwanda.  Truly, one of the big reasons we wanted to come to Africa was to get a better picture of this orphan crisis we hear so much about in America.

I never referred to this article when it came out because I had a few other things going on (see first paragraph), but our story was highlighted in the NY Times back in June.

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/01/us/moved-to-adopt-evangelicals-find-children-and-pitfalls-abroad.html?pagewanted=all

I was honored to be a part of this article on such an important topic and in such a widely-read publication.  Also, I’m relieved that the one (and probably only) time I’m quoted in the NY Times, it doesn’t involve me being mugged or an article about eating one’s weight in chocolate covered pretzels.

Last week I was humbled to go with a mother as she placed her 11 year old daughter at a boarding school for children with special needs. I lack the eloquence to describe this bittersweet moment, but it reminded me of so many conversations I’ve had (with myself and others) about birthmothers.  Spend enough time in the adoption world, and the issue of birthmoms relinquishing their kids will come up.  This came up with One World Adoption Services adoptions often because almost all the kids they adopted out had living birthmoms (and often two living parents, as we now know).

Since our experience, I’ve openly stated that if we ever adopted internationally again (and I hope we do!), we would not adopt a child with a living parent. While legal to do so, the standard for immigration in the US is that if there’s a sole surviving parent, the parent must be destitute and unable to provide for the child. Given what I know now, I’m not comfortable adopting because of someone else’s poverty. Reasonable people can disagree on this, but my personal opinion is that there are better ways to solve a person’s poverty than by taking her child away.

When I was with this mother taking her child to boarding school, I saw first hand the reasons why I couldn’t adopt a child with a living mother.

First, this mother was relying solely on word of mouth from other people in the community and her daughter’s counselors in deciding to take her child to this boarding school.  She doesn’t have the ability to do countless hours of research on schools to find the best situation for her daughter. There aren’t many schools to choose from, and her means and circumstances don’t allow her to make the inquiries we are used to in the developed world.  She has to go on trust.  In this case, she was given trustworthy advice.

A mother who takes her child to an orphanage does the same.  She hears things in the community or maybe someone encourages her to do so.  In some cases, it’s likely the right decision and gives the child a more stable environment with his or her basic needs being met.  In some cases, she may understand that her child is now an “orphan” according to international standards and looked upon as a child needing a family.  But how could I, as an adoptive parent, ever know for sure what this mother was thinking at this drop off?  How could I be sure that those who she trusted in making the decision were trustworthy?  Add to it the fact that, in our case (and many many like it), the orphanage director who was counseling mothers was making money off of referrals, and there’s no possible way that this mother had a trustworthy and objective counselor. If the orphanage has something to gain by a birthmom placing her kids with them or placing them for adoption, you can be 100% sure that any adoption would be tainted with corruption and coercion.

The second observation I made was when the school staff was informing the mother about her visitation rights. It reminded me of comments I’ve heard from adoptive parents (and things that I previously thought as well).  I often here well-intentioned adoptive parents justify adopting a child with living parents because if the parents were truly loving they wouldn’t take them to an orphanage and then not visit them.

I have no doubt in my mind that this mother I met loves her daughter.  I watched her wash her child’s feet before we left, nervously enter the facility, and hand the director her daughter’s blanket – her one solitary possession.  But I also can’t imagine the challenge it will be for her to visit.  Between finding someone to care for her other children, walking to the bus, waiting for the bus, paying for the bus, and walking up the mountain the rest of the way, the challenge overwhelms me.  If she doesn’t visit, it’s not for lack of desire or love.

Similarly, there’s no doubt that most mothers who place their children in an orphanage do it as a loving gesture – an attempt to provide a better life (at least by some standards).  Many do so with the intent of returning, but returning and visiting isn’t as easy as hopping in the car and driving over.  In the case of our adoption, the birthparents were a plane ride away on the other side of the country, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t long to see their children, and it also doesn’t necessarily mean that they no longer wanted to be the children’s parents.

I came to Africa to see this side of things.  It’s easy when we sit in our big homes in our cozy neighborhoods for us to judge the woman who leaves her child with strangers.  It’s something that almost never happens in the developing world.  Now that I’ve seen, I can start to understand a small piece of the life of a parent who struggles to care for her children.  I write this to memorialize the love of mothers for their children and to honor the love and trust that mothers have when they place their children in other people’s hands.  I want the world to know that an African mother loves her babies, just as mine loves me.  We need to do more for her so she can love them in her own home.

It is well

BB and I are in a big fight today because he wanted to take my computer to work, and I said I needed it.  Now I have to blog and upload photos and Skype with people all day to prove that I was right.  That’s marriage advice for you, free of charge.

I have the day off today because it’s Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.  As usual, it’s another gorgeous day in Kigali.

Maybe we are fighting because this week marks the one year anniversary of our trip to DRC.  About this time last year, we were waking up at St. Anne’s guesthouse in Kinshasa terrified that we were either going to meet our kids or that we weren’t going to meet our kids.  Tomorrow is one year to the day that we knew it was all over.

[Side note:  Almost every day since we’ve been here, we have broken out into gut wrenching laughter at the absurd things that the staff at One World Adoption Services told us about Africa.  Our favorite: they told us they couldn’t possibly get info about the kids background from DRC because there are no cell phones in Africa.  We knew that was ridiculous then, but it still makes me laugh.  I don’t think I’ve met an African who owns fewer than 2 cell phones since we’ve been here.]

Being back in Africa has stirred up these memories.  I was flooded with memories long-buried when we got off the plane.  I know it’s a different country, but the sights and smells of Kigali are not unlike the smell of Kinshasa.  It feels like the kids might turn a corner here and run into our arms.  I can still picture every part of them even though it’s been a long time since I studied their photos.  In fact, we actually found some of their photos in our luggage here – photos I hid in the suitcase when we were in Kinshasa. Funny how they continue to travel with us.

Here in Kigali, we meet a lot of families who have adopted.  I think Africa gets in your blood in a way that you can’t get rid of it.  If you’ve adopted, you are forever connected. If you’ve traveled here, you have to get back.  I love meeting these families, but the jealousy comes.  My heart is still raw.

Months ago I started reading Finding Fernanda, a book about corruption in Guatemalan adoptions.  I put it down because it was too hard.  Last night I picked it up, but I had to put it down again.  It’s as horrifying as you can imagine – stolen babies, duped mothers. How is it that we live in a world where millions of babies are aborted and then other babies are stolen from their mothers (literally from their wombs) and sold like a pair of shoes?  It’s impossible for me to not believe in the fall of man.

Thursday, August 9, 2012 was the worst day of my life.  The scary thing is there will be worse days to come – that’s just part of living.  Weeping and thrashing, unable to sleep, the Lord met me – through my husband’s embrace, through middle of the night text messages with friends in America, and through his promises.  Through our tears, we sang.

 When peace like a river attendeth my way

When sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say

It is well.  It is well with my soul.

Today we remember Chaty, Ivonne, Ives.  We pray that they are well and that we will meet them someday and thank them for teaching us to see God.

 

 

 

Is it possible?

There’s a lot of press these days about ethical adoptions.  A number of new books have recently come out, a documentary is making a nationwide tour, and the DRC has been seeing some ups and downs with its program (maybe other countries too, but I mostly follow DRC).

On one of my FB group pages, a common question is posed:  How can we ensure that adoptions are ethical?  I love the hearts of the adoptive parents out there.  We all want to have ethical adoptions.  No one gets into adoption to traffic a child.  I personally know parents who have discovered that their adoption shouldn’t have passed muster, and the heartache is great.  But is it possible to avoid this?  The how is so much harder.

Faced with the difficulty of ensuring an ethical adoption, parents can go one of three ways:  give up entirely, go forward in the face of possible shady circumstances, and move heaven and earth to try and do it ethically.  There are certainly pros and cons to each approach, and it’s hard to say which is really the right answer.  The waters are muddy.

And isn’t that what’s so hard about ethics?  Once you are sure that no laws are broken, there’s still an area of gray.  Sometimes the answer is unclear.

This is why I am still on the fence about starting again.  I don’t want to give up, but I am scared of getting back in the water.  I don’t want to screw it up!

As a Christian, I am called to get into the water.  All the way to the deep end.  Yes, we can’t fix all the problems with international adoption.  The whole idea comes out of a broken, messy tragedy.  Same with global poverty, world hunger, sex trafficking, war.  There are no easy answers.  But we have to try, don’t we?  Because sometimes it works.  Sometimes there is redemption.

And, really, what else do we have to do?  Isn’t this why we are on earth?  To work towards redemption and restoration.  I can’t sit home and just focus on myself and my family.  That’s not why I was put on the earth.  I have been given so much, and I have a responsibility to use my resources towards this goal of restoration.

It’s scary.  It’s hard.  I don’t have any answers.  But I will keep walking forward in obedience to the One who does.

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!