Thursday, March 17, 2011

The tough stuff in international adoption (Ghana-flavored)

The other day I posted THIS POST on the blog. That post motivated blog reader Laurel to put several questions in the comments area. I figured so many questions were worth their own blog post! Below is the way I would answer her questions. This post is not how all agencies would answer, or even how the agency I work for would answer. I guess I feel comfortable saying I am speaking for the program I coordinate within the agency I work for, but nothing should be taken as official AAI commentary. How is THAT for disclosure! Have I covered myself enough?!

1. Why are there families on waiting lists (waiting for the "perfect" child that "fits their criteria"), rather than international adoption focusing on the children that are waiting for families?

I think a lot of agencies out there would love it if the children on the waiting lists all of the sudden all had willing and qualified adoptive families. That just isn't the case. The fact is that it takes a LOT of skill and experience to adopt children who are much older and/or with special needs. As much as agencies want to place their older waiting kids, they also want to match kids with families who can actually deal with the many difficult issues that come with older waiting kids. If the adoption disrupts at a later date, nobody wins.

Another thing to think about--particularly in a country like Ghana--is that the "waiting child list" is not necessarily indicative of the number of orphaned children who are in need of international adoption. In Ghana we have no central authority who has a master list of childrenin need of adoption. The children/families in need must be identified one by one, step by step, and then referred to Social Welfare for further investigation. It's a very slow process. The "waiting child list" might be very short, but that doesn't mean the need is any less. Instead, the process to identify those truly in need adoption is extremely complicated.

2. If there are families willing to pay large sums of money for the "right child", then doesn't this promote the thought of agencies actively looking for the child to fit the family (and sometimes doing unethical things to "find" that child), rather than focusing on finding a family for the waiting children

Yes, absolutely. There are many potential adoptive families who are able to pay a lot of money for their adoption. Some agencies feel the need to try to "fill the order." However, I would argue that a responsible agency should not do that. The team I work with in Ghana is not told how many waiting families we have, or what age/gender child those families are waiting for. Why in the world would I tell them that? With that knowledge there would be an automatic inclination (even if it were unconscious) to be biased towards locating children of a certain age/gender. We need to protect our in-country partners from that temptation. Allow them to work to assist children/families who need assisting--regardless of the age/gender of the child.

At the same time, some consideration has to be taken with the age of the children. It's not realistic that a program can survive if all of the children entering the program are 10+ years old. Agencies stay open through adoption fees and donations. With a program where most kids are 10+ years you'd just have a lot of families waiting and a lot of kids waiting. It would be adoption constipation! For one thing, it's a lot harder for adoptive placements to be successful with a much older child. And obviously, there are very few families open to a child that old. With that in mind I do think it makes sense to assist children of ALL ages (withsponsorships, family preservation efforts, etc.), but also consider that there has to be a balance of children who would be considered "more likely to be placed" and "less likely to be placed." For that reason our program (and I'm assuming others) focuses on children 10 and under for adoption, knowing that if ever there were a family requesting a 10-15 year old there are many children within Ghana
that could benefit from adoption.

I have to mention the "willing to pay large sums of money" thing because I think there is a *HUGE* myth out there that all adoption agencies are somehow making money off of adoption programs. Seriously, that is simply not the case with reputable agencies. Instead, those agencies are trying to figure out how to make ends meet to both cover the actual expenses involved in the adoption process and all of the humanitarian projects they sponsor within the country. I promise! I'm telling you this as someone who 4 years ago would have never guessed the TRUTH! I thought they brought in the bucks too! I hate it that some agencies out there have inflated fees in order to have cushy offices or higher paychecks, and caused ALL agencies to suffer because of the myth. The program I run didn't come close to being balanced last year. Much more was sent to the country than was collected in fees or donations. Donations we receive don't have a penny taken out for administrative costs. It ALL goes to the designated project. Please, help me in educating others that there are many agencies who are NOT financially benefiting from the work being done.

3. If there are (1)47 Million orphans waiting for families, then why are there families waiting many months, or years, to move up the waiting list for the child that they want

Because there are not 147 million children waiting for families. The large majority of those 147 million children would not qualify for international adoption, nor are most of them in need of international adoption. That number is quoted all of the time--which is good for Christians who are called to care for the orphan (and widow). Most of those children are living with extended family members or others within their community--not rotting away in horrible orphanages. Adoption is not the only way to care for these children. Only a small number of countries are open to international adoption. Adoption is not the answer here.

Families wait on waiting lists because they are honest about the child they ARE prepared to bring into their home. And that child may not match up with the many older/special needs children who are in need for adoption. I really don't buy into this notion that families who wait for a referral should in some way feel ashamed of that. No way!!! Wait! I worry much moreabout the families who refuse to wait and only go to programs that promise quick matches and endless available children. Families should NOT compromise on the child that is right for their family dynamic. That is a recipe for disaster and disruption (IMHO). I have no problem if a family comes to me in the Ghana program and says the would like to adopt a child 0-3 years old. If they know that we only hear about 1 or 2 children like that a year, and are willing to wait, more power to them. Obviously, I celebrate when a family comes to me and is ready to adopt a child 0-12 years old of either gender, single or sibling set, as long as that family is really ready and able to do that! Please, let us not vilify families with more narrow requests. There are lots of factors within families that make one "type" of child more "right" for a family than others.

I'm going to share a short of off topic pet peeve. Families that wait don't bug me. But families who refuse to wait, who are bound and determined that they will ONLY adopt from a waiting child list, that can get old. Really? They are all orphans. A child who happens to be waiting isn't in more need of adoption than a child who is referred to a family immediately. I know there are valid reasons for wanting to only adopt from a waiting child list, but sometimes I get the feeling it more about the parents' desire to find the "most needy" child rather than their desire to find the best program and agency and child for their circumstances.

I think maybe I get what you're saying though. Some families ARE incredibly narrow with their request for a child. It can start to feel like "filling an order." I think this is something agencies can help with by creating policies that discourage that type of "picking and choosing." Some agencies don't allow families to request a certain gender in young children. Some don't allow an age range of something like 2-3 years old (only one year instead of several). Hopefully families are not trying to do a "designer child" through their referral request, but are instead considering what their real limits for success are.

4. Should international adoption be focused on "the needs of the orphans" or the "desires of the adoptive families"

Needs of the orphans. Hands down. Period. [Except you know I'm going to say more!] As much as I want the families I work with to know who their children will be, it is not as much about the families as it is about the children. If one month (or 2, or 3, or 6) goes by where not a single child comes into the adoption program, I celebrate! That means that our partners in Ghana were successful at counseling and assisting families to remain together!!! Maybe it isn't like this everywhere, but my families know that when they sign up with our agency, they may wait longer than other families with other agencies. We are not "shopping" for kids. We are assisting kids who have little or no hope for long-term loving family care within Ghana. I think that many adoptive parents recognize that it is more about the kids than it is about the families. However, in the heat of the moment when you are tired of waiting and beyond ready to see your future child's face, lots of adoptive families would compromise their values. That's why agencies (or orphanages, facilitators, etc.) *MUST* be strong when the family can no longer be strong. Sometimes the people assisting with the adoption must protect an adoptive family from their own desperation because in the heat of the moment we adoptive families would do almost anything to get "our" child home.

5. Should our focus as adoptive families be on "how can we help the children" or "what do WE want in order to complete our family"? It just doesn't make sense to me ...

Both. We must have a duel focus. First, we can think about "how to help the children" without adoption even entering the scenario. Don't even get me started on the whole "saving a child" thing. In the course of an adoption it may turn out that our child was "saved" from something, but it should not be an adoptive parent's first priority when choosing to adopt. When you choose to adopt you must do so because you sincerely desire to add to your family. YOUR FAMILY! Not your ministry. YOUR FAMILY! If adoption works well, it's a double blessing, isn't it? I got to be mommy to four amazing children. As it happens, that act of adoption may have saved the life of three of my children. The "saving" was a side-effect of the family building, not the motivation for the family building.

Adoptive families have to be realistic about adopting a child that they want to parent and a child that they can effectively parent. It's just silly--to me--to think "I'm going to adopt the oldest, most special needs, most messed up kid out there and watch God heal him!" God gives us wisdom. God expects us to take care of the family we have currently--the kids already home. Yes, I know--"He equips the called." But I think some families decide to go for the biggest leap of faith they can find, assuming that's what they've been called to. A lot of those families seem to end up in disaster a few years later.

I have lived "He equips the called" through our adoptions. If the Lord wants to place you with a child who needs much intervention, He can do that without us trying to find the biggest "project child" out there. Eric and I adopted a healthy infant. We got a child who is 10 years later finally working towards a solid attachment. We adopted another healthy infant. We got a child with a disease that rocked our world and was expected to kill him before adulthood. [Then God healed him!] We adopted a child with severe malnutrition, expecting issues related to severe malnutrition. We got a child with severe anxiety that he was probably born with. We adopted an HIV+ child who had been given drugs and alcohol throughout pregnancy, and who was neglected after birth. [We were outsmarting God, right?Getting the kid that we KNEW had problems!] We ended up with a child who appears to have NO long term effects from any of her past illnesses/abuses. He EQUIPPED us to deal with each of those children and their special circumstances as they came along. We didn't have to try to find the biggest "project" kid. We didn't have to work hard to jump outside of our comfort zone. Each time we chose as wisely as we could the age range and special needs we felt equipped to deal with, knowing that IF he intended more for us, he would give us the tools to deal with it at that time. And each time, the Lord stretched us and grew us in ways that benefited Eric and I as well as our children. [Sorry so long on this. I probably haven't stated things as diplomatically as I would have liked to, but there it is.]

6. If a family really wants to adopt an infant, aren't there infants on Waiting Lists in some countries? If not, then maybe they need to pursue an independent adoption in the U.S., rather than insisting that an international adoption agency "find" them the "perfect child".

I think there are very few countries at this point where someone can adopt an infant under one year (or even two years). The face of international adoption is changing. Ten years ago it was a lot of tiny babies and toddlers, with a few older kids thrown in for good measure. As international adoption develops in the next 10 years I think we will see a shift towards toddlers, preschoolers, and older children (with toddlers being in the minority). I agree with you that it makes no sense for a family to put a square peg into a round hole. If you want to adopt from X country and X country has very few infants, X country might not be the best option for you. BUT, if X country is definitely the country you want to adopt from, and you're willing to wait for years, welcome to the program. Don't expect us to "find" a young one just because you're here. It doesn't work that way. The square corners on your peg will need to wear away with time until it's round and fits in this country's hole! =-)


7. Even though you have told us many times that Ghana is NOT the place to adopt an infant or toddler, there ARE agencies/orphanages in Ghana that are "finding" babies for families that want them. How does this happen?

Oh, it happens very easily. Pick a village. Any village. Now, as an NGO person, walk into the village and make it known that you are in some way involved in adoption. Before you know it there will be a small line of ladies with babies on their hips saying they want their child to be adopted. [I can personally attest to this.] (1) Do they know what adopted really means? NO WAY! When they find out what it means, half the ladies walk away. (2) Now, do they expect that there will be some sort of gift or payment for them giving their child to a rich American family? ABSOLUTELY! That is very much a cultural expectation in Ghana. When they find out they will receive absolutely no gifts or payment for giving their child for adoption, more ladies walk away. (3) Do they expect at least that their child will come back to Ghana and support the family when they are an adult? Or that the adoptive family will assist the child's family in Ghana? ABSOLUTELY! When they find out that there is absolutely NO GUARANTEE that they will EVER see the child again, and absolutely NO assurance that the adoptive family will ever assist the bio family, more ladies walk away. (4)Who is still sanding there? The lady still standing there is the one who is probably making a life or death decision for her child. Maybe she abuses the child. Maybe she has nothing to feed the child. Maybe she just really does not want to parent the child. [That happens, whether we like to think about it or not. Not all bio parents are wonderful people.]

Now, the agencies/facilitators that are "finding" the babies and toddlers.... Where do you suppose the above conversation ends? Is it the first question? The second? Or maybe, the answers given are different? I believe that is how infants/toddlers are "found" for adoption in Ghana.

BUT, sometimes there legitimately are infants in need of adoption in Ghana. Imagine, even knowing all of the above the parent/guardian feels adoption is the best plan for their child.

Even then, what about domestic adoption? Efforts should be made to make sure there is no domestic family willing to adopt the child within Ghana. Yeah, I know, the Ghanaian moms don't want their children to go to Ghanaian families. If that's the case, if they will keep their child rather than let them go to a Ghanaian family, then adoption really isn't the only option left for the child, is it? Mom is willing/able to keep the child if the result isn't what she wants. The Social Investigation Report that frees a child for adoption very clearly states that it could be domestic or international adoption. [Sorry, I know I don't sound very sympathetic here, but I just feel very strongly that making an adoption plan should not be about getting your child to America.]

Sometimes...every once in a while...a baby, despite all of the above, will make it all the way down to international adoption--the last option. Social Welfare confirms they have no domestic family waiting for that child. Those babies usually have some sort of special need. After all, we're told there is a long list of Ghanaian families ready and waiting to adopt healthy young infants. However, sometimes there are even healthy infants that have legitimately been freed for international adoption by Social Welfare. When those babies come along, we're thankful for them and just as happy to identify their adoptive family as we are for any other child.

That happens about 1 or 2 times a year in the program I know--babies 0-2 years.


8. How do agencies determine when they cross the line between "helping families" and "buying children"? How can agencies/orphanages justify giving money to families that are relinquishing their children? I totally understand the desire to HELP, but I don't know how/where the line should be drawn.

For me, this is a pretty clear line, although there are times when it's blurry. I think that the first line of defense against "orphanhood" should be family preservation. We may give food, or educational assistance, or medical assistance to a family struggling to stay together. We're trying to keep an orphan from being created. But if that fails, and efforts to help the family remain together are not effective, the "help" comes in the form of counseling about adoption and assisting the family to work with Social Welfare on steps towards an adoption plan. Once there is an adoption plan, there is no more "family preservation" assistance. Because of the laws we work under in the United States we are absolutely prohibited from giving any gifts or compensation to a family that is placing their child for adoption. Not even a bag of rice if they're hungry. [And yes, this sucks. But it's the law.] It has to be that way or families would give their children for adoption in order to be better supported.

Having said all of that, at the end of the process, when a child has been adopted and adoptive family meets biological family, if the adoptive family buys a bag of rice for the village to share, do I see that as "child buying?" Absolutely not. Is that one bag of rice going to cause the village to start giving their children left and right? Absolutely not. Bottom line for me is, I don't want to do anything that would cause there to be a future "culture of adoption" in Ghana, where a family gives their child for adoption because of any perceived or actual future benefit. As much as we rich Americans want to come back and help in big ways, we need to do that through organizations rather than through directly supporting our child's birth family. I know others may not agree. Sometimes I don't even agree with myself on this one. It's tough.

9. Where do agencies draw the line between "paying bribes" and paying unofficial "fees" to expedite the paperwork process?

This is absolutely the stickiest question you asked! By far! Again, I'm sure you'd get a ton of answers from a ton of agencies. Even if you're just asking me what I think about this, it's a tough question to answer. There are some instances where a fee is really a set and standardized fee--but its not up on a fee schedule in the office like it would be here in America. We have expediting fees we can pay to get our passports more quickly and nobody bats an eye. It's right there in writing! Well, in Ghana, there's nothing in writing about expediting. The fee is just as standardized though. There's one fee to pay for a normal processed birth certificate, and another fee to pay if you need to expedite it. To me, those fees are so standardized within the country (although unofficial), that I don't see any way around them. I doubt an adoption program would be very successful if they had to wait years for a passport rather than "only" months. The bad thing about these unofficial fees is that they tend to go up and up and up because people will pay them. Hmmm...but now USCIS comes to mind. How many times have their fees gone up in the past 5 years?

To me, a bribe is something you pay that could change the outcome of what would have otherwise been. The judge doesn't allow a family with more than X number kids. You pay him some money. Now they family can be granted the adoption. BRIBE. The Social Welfare officer would write one thing in the report, except that someone gives him some money to write something different. BRIBE (and fraud). A letter is required to enter the embassy. You have no letter, but you have money. You are then granted entry without the letter. BRIBE. The judge requires parents to appear in court. You don't want to go. You give him a gift. You can then stay home. BRIBE.

But what about extortion? Social Welfare Officer has a valid case to investigate, and is willing to do it--but not for the usual cost of transportation and time. Instead, he wants to make a flat out profit. Let's have $500 instead of the $100 that would have paid for transportation and time. No $500? No investigation report--at least not until he is to the bottom of the pile that will pay the $500. That scenario is VERY common in Ghana. What is an agency to do? Well, our answer has been to go elsewhere or to wait until we work our way to the top of the pile. Some entire regions are full of officials like that. Go elsewhere. Thankfully, there are regions (and officials within regions) that are doing their work for a decent living wage and in order to benefit children. Believe it or not, there are some very ethical individuals working within the courts and social welfare offices of Ghana. Corruption is there, but you can work around it if you are only patient.

Now the blurry lines.... Adoption Decrees. Do you pay to have them come out more quickly? It's not quite a bribe because the outcome would be the same either way. But it's not a standardized and expected thing either--lots of people wait in line and get the decree out within several weeks. With blurry lines I tend to head towards the white side, but I can understand how some might go for black and not feel that they have compromised their ethical code. The thing is, eventually this issue could go up into the extortion category. Will there be a time when a person MUST pay in order to get the adoption decree at all (or within a year)? Are the people taking the money to "quick process" the decree going to see exactly how high they can go? This one is a slippery slope to me. I'm going to have a very bad day the day I learn our families can't get their decree within several months without paying something. That is not something that was there before international adoption. That is an example of corruption being CREATED by international adoption.
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If you're still reading you must have had a few free moments on your hands! Again, these are just my little 'ol opinions. I don't know it all. Five years from now I might feel different. But this is a snapshot of my feelings on these issues at this time. If I stepped on your toes, please know it was not intentional.



Renee 5:37 AM  

Wow, really great conversation, thanks for posting this!

whenpigsfly 10:28 AM  

Kuddos Anita!! Having navigated these waters for almost 10 years and almost 10 children (still waiting for the last 2 older kiddos) in three countries: a special needs baby, a VERY special needs baby and 7 much older children as well, "good agency" and "bad agency" and independently,I have to agree with all of your assessments. Thanks for putting it all together in one very read-worthy post!!!

Mama D.'s Dozen 11:32 AM  

Wow! I certainly wasn't expecting a whole (loooong) blog post for an answer. I wasn't actually expecting an answer ... just thought I'd share some of my ponderings.

I want to make sure that you know ... and your readers ... that I was not AT ALL questioning your work with AAI. These were just Big Picture Ponderings ... about multiple agencies ... in multiple countries.

Having been involved in the adoption community for nearly 4 years ... having many friends who have adopted ... and reading may blogs of adoptive families ... I am aware of a LOT of different situations that have raised questions of ethics.

THANK you for all of the time that you took to answer these questions. I hope that this will help many of your readers to have a better understanding of the Big Picture.

I'll write up a little post with a link over here, for any of my readers that may have pondered similar questions.

Hope your weekend is BLESSED!

Laurel :)

A. Gillispie 2:30 PM  

Oh Laurel, I don't know how anybody could take it that you were questioning my work with AAI. Seriously, I didn't even see a hint of that. I talk about my work with AAI on this blog because that's where my lense comes from, but my answers are my PERSONAL answers and may not at all reflect what AAI would say as an agency, if asked the same questions.

A. Gillispie 2:32 PM  

Also, I think these questions are an "iron sharpens iron" thing. It's good for me (and I think all of us adoptive parents) to think about these things in depth. By writing it out, I can do that. That's exactly why I have this blog. Writing for me, is a way to file information in an organized brain in my head. Without writing it's like having a huge pile of papers on my desk with no organization!

Jenni 1:02 PM  

Thank you for posting your thoughts on the subject! Our family is only considering waiting children and do not feel that those on the waiting list are doing anything wrong. This is just the path our family is on and God lead us to Ghana where we believe our children are. It is sometimes hard to wrap my brain around the 147million orphans figure being tossed around. More than anything, we pray that our children are true orphans that have no other way to survive than adoption. Thanks again for advocating for the orphans!

Jena 4:32 PM  

Thanks anita, another great post, especially for those of us in the Vietnam Adoption Community who are looking at the program reopening...

Karen 10:22 AM  

Excellent post! I found you through "Mama D.". And I think I'll link to this. :-)