Let’s Get Real – Part 1

I want to start a series of posts addressing some common phrases I hear from adoptive parents. This is not meant to be critical of adoptive parents by any means! I’ve said these very same things and only through other people educating me can I speak with the smallest bit of authority. I have the most respect for people who are willing to sacrifice their lives, families, finances, and world views to adopt children. Some of my closest friends are adoptive families with amazing families that I want to model. Adoptive parents are heroes in my eyes.

But I get contacted from prospective adoptive parents every single week asking me my opinions and counsel about situations where they’ve ended up (by mistake, fraud or misinformation) in a situation where a birthfamily has come forward expressing an interest or ability in raising the children placed for adoption. These are not rare stories. And what I hear are some common phrases that I think are important discuss. This is open for dialogue! I want you to disagree with me and challenge me. I love that!

It’s not in the best interest of the child to stay in [DRC, Uganda, Ethiopia, etc.] with their poor families.” or “Their mother is too poor to care for him.”

Let’s question the standard that we use to determine best interest of a child and what it means to me “too poor.”

While an orphanage may provide shelter, food and education, the smart people have taught us that psychosocial and emotional needs of children are just as important as the physical and are not met in institutional living. Moreover, adoption itself causes trauma to children. In some cases, it’s absolutely necessary and the benefits outweigh the costs – for sure. But it’s not a neutral act to place a child in a new home, in a new family, especially across race and culture.

Poverty. Here’s where we are rich white Americans miss the mark so badly, so often. We see poverty when children don’t get an education, live in homes with dirt floors, and eat only rice and beans. But we don’t often see the poverty in a child who grows up lacking the connection to her biological family.

In a perfect world, all children would live with the parents God gave them through birth, live in a house in a gated suburb on a quiet street, go to school, and eat ice cream sandwiches every day [ok that’s my perfect world]. But alas, we don’t. Living in America ain’t perfect, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is. Many people in the developing world believe that it is, that there are no problems in America. But they are dead wrong, and we shouldn’t lie to them and say that it will be perfect for their kids in America. We have all heard stories of children being “re-homed,” abused, given up to foster care. While those stories are likely rare, they are real. Birth-families deserve the truth.

We need to stop measuring the best interests of children by the standard of wealth. We need to value families, attachment, and culture as much as (if not more than!) we value wealth. Just because we can provide wealthier, more economically advantageous lives than others does not mean it’s in the best interests of a child to be removed from the most important and influential relationships that they will ever ever have. If we adopt out of poverty, our children will ask us why we didn’t help their families keep them. It won’t be out of a lack of love for their adoptive parents, but they will ask the question.

Finally, we need to ask what it means to be “too poor.” I’ve heard stories of kids being placed in an orphanage for as little as a lack of formula. While the family was too poor to provide a year’s worth of formula before the child would no longer need it, that’s an extremely simple problem to solve. I’m not saying poverty is easily solved, but occasionally there are solutions that would prevent the trauma of a child being institutionalized and/or placed for adoption. We should ask those questions. There are ministries that have proven that with small amount of economic support (much, much less than the cost of adoption), many mothers are able to keep their children in their homes. As Christians caring for vulnerable children, it’s our duty to determine that before proceeding with an adoption.

The bottom line is that sometimes adoption is romanticized, and parents who have children through adoption will be the first to tell you that there’s very little romantic about it. While they absolutely love their children and don’t regret adoption at all, it can be extremely difficult work raising children from hard places – worthy work to be sure. And that’s ok that it’s hard. Let’s be a safe place where people can be honest. But we need to enter adoption with eyes wide open (as much as possible) and think about this child as needing so much more than food, shelter and education.

The birthmom came back, and now she just wants money.”

Ok. I’m going to get real here and be the advocate of the devil as BB says. How come it’s ok for every single person in the adoption chain to profit off of adoption except for the one person that is actually sacrificing? [I am not in any way suggesting that a birthmother should be paid for her child. Just trying to illustrate what I see as absurdity.] Seriously though. People are making obscene profits off of adoption, and we don’t bat an eye. $600/month for childcare in a country where people live on $2/day? Sure. $1000 for someone to go to the village and “find” an orphan. Why not? $10,000 for an unspecified “referral fee.” Where do I send the check? $500 for a fake post-placement report that is neither required or ever looked at. Absolutely. But that mother, living on the brink of death, dares to ask for $100 after relinquishing her child. The horror!

And for those of us who believe that non-profits aren’t making money. Here’s a small PSA. The legal and tax status of a non-profit does not mean that people do not get paid. When I pull the public tax records of an adoption agency, and it reports that the executive director makes a salary of $99,000 in a year, I would say that she is profiting off of adoption in the same way that I profited off of being a corporate lawyer. I worked, they paid me, I used the money to buy a lot stuff and coffee. Very few (pretty much no one) people in the adoption chain are doing it for free. [Also, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t get paid for services rendered. Capitalism rocks! But let’s not kid ourselves that non-profit = free labor.]

One last point on this. Remember who you are getting your information from. Adoption agencies and their lawyers (theirs, not yours!) have a lot to lose when birthmothers come back. They lose money if the adoption fails. They lose reputation if you walk away. I’m not saying they are evil or ill-intentioned, but everyone always looks out for themselves first. It can be a much more favorable story if they tell you that the birthmom just wants to sell her child (as opposed to that she just wants her child back).

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What are some other questions we should be asking? How can we better support adoptive parents through this process?

Faces of Adoption

I want to tell you a story of a family living in Kinshasa.

Grandma lives in Kinshasa in a humble home. She’s supported by her church since her husband was the senior pastor for many years before he died. They have six children and many grandchildren. One of their daughters was very successful working in Kinshasa. T first had a job with the government, and then was hired to run an orphanage and facilitate adoptions for an American adoption agency.

Life is hard in Kinshasa. It’s an expensive place to live, and unless you know the right people, it can be difficult to find work. The justice system is lacking, making life more challenging for the poor. Disease and conflict are common.

Grandma is raising about 10 of her grandchildren while her children work various odd jobs, go to school far from Kinshasa or otherwise live outside of Kinshasa.

By facilitating adoptions for this American adoption agency, T makes a lot of money, more money than she’s ever made. Her friend also works for the organization as the lawyer. He makes a lot of money too.

T sees Americans drive up to the orphanage in big cars. She sees photos of happy American families going to Disney World. She sees that they live in houses larger than any she’s ever seen, and she sees that all the children in America go to school, have medical care and never go hungry.

T has a daughter, a beautiful young girl that she loves. Seeing an opportunity to advance this daughter’s life economically, she fills out the paperwork to have the daughter adopted to America. She hopes that her daughter will keep in touch, and that the Americans will send her pictures so she can see the woman she grows up to be. Then T has her sister do the same for her daughter. Neither woman has ever heard from her daughter again.

Every time a new child comes to the orphanage or signs up to be adopted, T makes more money.

T has another sister, M. M lives with her husband about a 2 hour plane ride from Kinshasa. They have six children and another on the way. T tells M that if she gives her three middle children to the orphanage, they will be adopted by an American family to go to school in America. The children will stay in touch. The American family will send photos and be part of their own Congolese family. M’s family tells her that she is not a good mother and cannot adequately care for the children. With trepidation, she agrees.

The three chidlren live at the orphanage for one year. They see their aunt at the orphanage; they go home to the grandmother’s house when they fall ill. They are told that they will go to America to go to school.

This is what adoption looks like all too often in DRC.

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One day, with no explanation, the children return home for good. The Americans never come for them.

They now live with their aunt and their mother in Kinshasa with their twin sisters and a new baby on the way.

I met them three weeks ago. We were supposed to adopt them. At lunch, the aunt continued to try to convince me to take them while their mother wiped their noses and looked at the floor.

These three beautiful children, being cared for by not one, but at least 4 biological caretakers, were almost adopted by me. I almost caused them one of the greatest traumas that would have occurred in their lives because I didn’t know any better.

They spent one year of their lives in an institution because the staff of the orphanage was making money like they’d never seen by keeping them there and because the American adoption agency never bothered to verify that they were referring actual orphans for adoption.

By the grace of God, he spared these children the fate of being torn away from their family and country, but not all children are so lucky.

Seeing them was a sobering blessing to me. I have wondered at times whether we made the right decision walking away from this family, but I saw how the biggest mistake I made was walking into their lives in the first place. The worst thing that happened to this family was crossing paths with One World Adoption Services and me. Thank you Jesus for saving them from international adoption!

 

*** edited on February 6, 2014. I received a message from one of the family members who disagrees with some of the facts (such as whether the birth mother was married and the family history). I’ve researched this to the best of my ability, and the small facts are not relevant to the bottom line point of this message – that international adoption was not the right answer for this family. I’ve also removed identifying information to protect the family’s privacy.

 

A Time to Act

Thanks to you all for making yesterday’s post the most read on my blog. I didn’t get any mean comments, so that must mean a lot of you agree and want this madness to stop.

I received so many messages from people who felt like there was a bit of their story in the post – stories from Haiti, Guatemala, Uganda, Ethiopia. My heart breaks for you. Thank you for speaking out.

So we must now act. It’s time to stop the money train that flows to these adoption agencies who profit off the backs of widows, orphans and hard-working Westerners who want to open their homes to those in need. We need to say no when they charge $300 per month per child for orphan care when they have no intention of caring for orphans. We need to ask questions when the say they can’t get any information from their in-country staff. We need to laugh in their faces when they tell us that they have no control over what happens in the sending countries.

We’ve taken this abuse for too long. We sit silently by and let families on both sides of the globe get destroyed. No longer. We have the power. We control the money. When they stop making money, we will see change. As long as we continue to send them money, they will continue to exploit the poor. I wish it wasn’t true.

I know that many of these men and women didn’t get into running adoption agencies to traffic children. They believed they were doing good. But somehow, they’ve lost their way. When agency representatives pay bribes, falsify paperwork, smuggle children across the border, demand exorbitant fees, and withhold medical care to children who need it, then they are no longer trying to help children.

It’s time to read the handwriting on the wall. Adoption is a beautiful thing, but it’s become a business – a very, very lucrative business where children are commodities. Let’s stop buying them.

Weeping

Not everyone has a merry Christmas. This is an all too familiar story.

A mother is poor and struggling to care for her children. She is approached by a woman who tells her that there’s a place her children can go for help. A place where they can get food, medical care, shelter, and maybe even school. She makes the heroic choice to travel and take her children there, trusting in the person who seems to care.

Then she’s told that she can’t care for her children. She’s poor, uneducated. She has nothing. Her children will starve. They will die of malaria.

She’s told that instead of sure death in her care, if she signs a few documents, the children can go to America. They will live in a home with loving parents. They will go to school. They will get jobs. They will always have food.

They will have a second set of parents. They will write home, and she will receive updates. She will see their pictures as they grow and know that they are doing well.

When they grow up, they will return. They will never forget their family. They will take care of her. Maybe she will one day get to go to America.

The mother agrees. She takes her children to the orphanage. She tells them to be strong and that she will always love them. She goes home and weeps. She comes back to visit every week, but then it becomes hard. She’s still struggling, and she has to care for the older children who stay at home. She weeps, and she trusts.

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On the other side of the world, a couple desperately wants to adopt a child.  They believe that God has called them to care for the orphans, and they watch videos about children starving and dying. They don’t want to sit idly by. They want to do something. They weep.

They find a Christian adoption agency. The woman who runs it is an adoptive mother. She can empathize with their desire. She wishes she could adopt more children, but instead, she’s made it her mission to place more children in families. They weep, and they trust.

The couple takes out a loan. They clean out their savings account. They hold fundraisers. They tell their families that they are paper pregnant. They wait and wait. And wait some more. They start to get anxious.

The woman at the agency tells them that things are moving. She wishes she had more to update, but it’s really hard to get information from ______________.

Then the email comes.  It’s a little boy, three years old wearing tattered clothing. The paperwork says his dad died, and his mother abandoned him because she was poor and dying. The agency has no more information.  The couple weeps, and they trust.

A few weeks later, the woman at the agency calls. The boy has an older sister too! The couple weeps, and they trust.

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 The couple has an adoption shower. They pray that these orphaned children will one day know a parent’s love. They decide on names. They paint the bedroom. They weep.

The mother prays that the children will remember her and that they will be healthy and strong. She prays that they will do well in school and that they will laugh, jump, and play. She weeps.

The couple boards a plane. With fear, the children are placed in their arms. The children stare silently.  They wonder where their mother is.  The couple weeps, and they trust.

The mother returns to the orphanage to check in. The children are gone. No one will tell her where they went. She never met this new family. She didn’t get to tell them that the girl likes dolls, and the boy is afraid of the dark. She has no name, no phone number. She realizes they are gone. She weeps.

The woman from the agency tells the mother to stop calling her. She tells the mother that her children would have died in her care. She tells her they are gone, and she must move on.

The children tell the couple of their mother and the songs she sang to them. They tell their new parents of the father who taught them how to count. The couple is confused.

The woman from the agency ignores their calls.

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This is why I can no longer sleep. I can’t hear these stories any more without hatred in my stomach. These are not rare stories, not just a few bad apples. This is an industry of children and mothers whose lives are being destroyed for money. We must stop this now. Before another mother weeps.

Adoption Agency Accountability

I’m still pondering what we’ve learned.  I’m dabbling in a few different online groups and reading lots of stories of adoption that involve ethical disasters.  How I wished I would have read (or paid attention) to these things years ago!  But, like many things in life, I often have to learn the hard way.

I feel for adoptive parents out there.  You have this strong calling on your heart, and you are answering it.  You hear Russell Moore and the Warrens speak so passionately, and you refuse to ignore it.  You see the beautiful pictures and hear the stories of abandoned orphans now being part of a family.  We all want that to be our story.  None of us got into this to traffic children or to coerce children away from their families.  There are easier, more fun ways to spend your time and money than adoption.

What can we do?  I think we must must must demand accountability from adoption agencies.  Just as I am reading more about demanding accountability from chocolate, clothing and coffee manufacturers to ensure they aren’t using slave labor, so we must do the same with adoption agencies to make sure their children are legitimate, legal orphans who actually need to be adopted.

The first thing we must realize is that international adoptions in America is a business.  These agencies are out to make money.  Yes, they may have chosen this industry because they want to help orphans, just as Steve Jobs started Apple probably in part because he just liked computers and technology.  At the end of the day, money is why we do business.  Most of us would not go to work if they stopped paying us even if we really liked what we did.

We cannot be naive and accept that these agencies are full of good-hearted people who can do no wrong.  They may be good-hearted, well-intentioned people, but sometimes those people can do the most harm because they lack a certain cynicism necessary to do business.  At One World Adoption Services, Inc., for example, the director and staff were nice.  They cared about the children and the families.  But unfortunately, they have blinders on when it comes to doing business in the DRC.  They trusted the wrong people and refused to see their mistakes (and still refuse).  Are they kind?  Yes.  Are they Christians?  Probably.  But that is not enough to operate an adoption agency.

Follow the money.  We live in a time where the term non-profit has basically become meaningless except for tax purposes, yet we all believe that if we are using a non-profit adoption agency, then we are in the clear.  Wrong.  So wrong.  The agency directors and staff are making money off of these adoptions.  How else could they afford to do business?  They might not be getting mega-millions, but they are bringing home a paycheck.

It’s time we demand to know what these agencies are charging for.  What’s a referral fee?  To me, that sounds an awful lot like paying for the agency to find you a referral.  We shouldn’t need to find referrals.  There are either kids in orphanages who need to be adopted, or there aren’t.  Agencies should not have an incentive to “find” a child to fit the profile so they can collect the fee.

Agencies must investigate referrals independently of their in-country staff.   This is a no brainer.  One World told us that they do not ever investigate or verify any information they receive from the DRC.  This is appalling.

Agencies must have a presence on the ground on a very regular basis.  How can you oversee something but never see it?  How do you hire staff you’ve never met?  One World refuses to travel to visit the orphanage or check up on things, even after a large-scale scandal.

These issues are not limited to One World or DRC.  I have connected with many other families who have struggled with ethical adoptions from other countries with other agencies.  We cannot afford to turn a blind eye.  That would be a disservice to the orphans and widows we desire to serve.