Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of adopted families.
As soon as #shoutyourabortion started trending, another hashtag surfaced: #shoutyouradoption. Adoption is a fantastic way to save a child, grow a family, and come alongside a mother who may be unsure or afraid of the way forward. But successful adoptions—especially international ones—typically require years of waiting, mountains of paperwork, and exorbitant amounts of patience and finances before families can bring their child home. It shouldn’t be that way.
According to UNICEF, more than 130 million children in the world today have lost one or both parents. Marie and David Friess wanted to parent one of those children and, after one failed domestic adoption, began the process of adopting in Rwanda. In 2012, after waiting three years, they were finally matched with—or referred, in adoption lingo—a child. (Although Rwanda officially closed its program in 2010, one year after the Friess family began, they allowed families who had already started the process to continue.) Five months later, the Rwandan government determined the 13 referred adoptions that existed within the program would be permanently frozen and those children would be adopted domestically. After looking for more than a year, the Rwandan government has yet to successfully find a local family for the child who remains in an orphanage, despite being referred to the Friesses.
Stories like this showcase one of the many reasons international adoption (IA) has, according to the U.S. State Department, dropped nearly 60 percent from 22,991 adoptions in 2004 to 9,319 last year. Other contributors include a slowed economy, an increase in domestic adoptions and special needs and older children available for adoption, and a concerted effort to crack down on fraud and corruption—the selling or trafficking of babies and children.
Following a trend of baby selling and kidnapping scandals, in 2008, the United States entered into the Hague Adoption Convention, an agreement meant to establish safeguards to ensure adoptions are above-board. Hague applies to adoptions between the United States and the other countries that have joined the agreement. Not every country has, and the differences between signers and non-signers is vast. In Hague countries, a central authority and database exists. The government investigates the background of every orphanage and child to create accountability and a single standard.
Dave Wood, the international director of adoptions for Lifeline Children’s Services, an Alabama-based nonprofit, says that while Hague might slow adoptions down, it “serves a wonderful purpose” and he wishes “every country had a Hague standard.” The alternative, he says, is worse: Non-Hague countries are fraught with opportunities for lying and bribery. For the last three years, Americans have adopted most children internationally from China and Ethiopia. Of the five countries Americans most often adopt from, only China practices Hague. In March 2011, Ethiopia decreased its adoptions almost 90 percent in an effort to reduce rampant fraud.
Stuck: Between a Parent and Child
To adopt internationally, it takes an average of anywhere from 79 days (in Madagascar) to 694 (in Chile), and the average wait is two years, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2011 “Annual Report on Intercountry Adoption.” Nearly every family experiences hefty expenses. Adoption Service Providers (ASPs) reported “charging between zero dollars and $64,357 for all adoption services, with half charging less than $26,559.50 and half charging more.”
Unfortunately, the Friesses, who moved on from the Rwanda program only to experience another failed adoption in the Ukraine, now hope to adopt a child in China. Marie thinks that, despite all the good they do, organizations like UNICEF “[are] a huge hurdle to the completion of adoptions” because they have pushed “sending countries to stop selling, or giving away, our most precious resources.”
While she believes a domestic option is the best and should be the first choice, many times it’s to the detriment of children who languish in orphanages while they wait for a domestic program to accelerate.
Africa: The Wild West
Another piece that complicates the adoption puzzle is that every country, beyond whether they’re Hague or not, handles the legal, social, and financial aspects of adoption differently. In Ukraine, all adoptions are “blind,” meaning parents don’t even know what the child looks like until they arrive. China is Hague, and Wood describes their program this way: “If the government says you are going to receive your child at 2:00 p.m. on a Friday, the doors will open at 1:59, and you will have your child in your arms at 2:00 p.m.”
Africa however, is another story. Because there are many non-Hague countries on this continent, there are few reliable statistics about the number of completed or disrupted adoptions, but struggling economies, corrupt governments, and culture differences combine to make much of Africa a different experience altogether.
While Americans adopt children throughout Africa with few hurdles, many people, like Jessica and Zach Mansfield, experience a whirlwind of problems. Through a large, reputable adoption agency in the United States, Jessica and Zach received referrals for two (unrelated) children in Uganda. Upon arriving, they met their first child and experienced a smooth transition.
Excited to meet their second child who would soon complete their family, Jessica recalls, “L was quick to run to us, hug us, and immediately began calling us ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy.’” They spoke with L’s birth mother through a translator, and she urged Jessica and Zach to love her as their own flesh and blood. In an ideal adoption, the Mansfields would meet with a local judge who would review their case and allow them to “pass court.” In some countries like Ethiopia, families might return to the United States to wait for the U.S. Embassy to complete a visa, then make another trip to retrieve their child. In Uganda, though, the Mansfields hoped to return the United States with their child and finalize the adoption here.
Unfortunately, during their first court visit, which had already been delayed a week since they’d arrived in Uganda, the judge sensed something amiss and demanded the birth father—whom the birth mother claimed had been absent since birth—consent to the adoption before anything further could proceed.
Although it’s unusual to demand the consent of an absent birth father, Jessica and Zach agreed to pay a large sum of money to help the birthmother find the father so they could proceed. Jessica remembers how they felt: “All along, L was in our custody, bonding with us and with our new daughter. We fit so perfectly as a family, but my husband and I had a terrible feeling that something was going wrong. Our family at home had no advice for us. Our agency had no advice. We were all alone in Uganda, with no help, no guidance. Plus we were running out of money due to the unexpected expenses.”
After a month passed, it finally became clear that a man L had been calling “uncle” was actually her birth father and had been in front of them all along. The birthmother’s pastor had coerced the couple into putting their daughter up for adoption, convincing them that once their daughter had traveled to the United States they would be able to retrieve visas and their daughter. That would be small sacrifice to obtain the American Dream.
Jessica Mansfield thinks this experience is due in part to cultural differences: “I don’t think we will truly understand the desperation and vulnerability these people feel. We come in with all these good intentions about rescuing these children and we overlook the fact that there are people making a profit off these vulnerabilities. These countries see it as a business. Westerners see it as an emotional calling.” If a family doesn’t already have a referral, she recommends they don’t look into adopting in Uganda because there is “so much to be lost through this process.”
Freda Luzinda worked as an adoptions officer at the U.S. Embassy in Uganda for two years, and ultimately left because of the amount of adoption fraud she witnessed—not unlike the Mansfields’ story. She said the biggest preventable IA problem in African countries is fraud. “Most children that are adopted are not genuine orphans at all.” She says child laundering—children illegally taken from their parents through coercion and false pretenses—occurs often, in addition to pressure from Congress to process adoptions regardless of the situation.
The Road Home
It’s easy to read stories like the Mansfields’ and Friesses’ and blame an agency or foreign country. Before changes can be made in countries in Africa, Wood thinks one of the best ways to make international adoptions easier is to start at home. “Everything about adoption boils down to expectations,” Wood said. Marie Friess also believes families should be more intentional and gather as much information as possible before they are even referred a child.
“Families have a lack of knowledge going into IA about the complexities of adoption within the sending country, the significance of political actions and undercurrents on the future of IA worldwide,” she said.
For example, said Wood, “Many adoptive parents treat another country like a grocery store and the child like a gallon of milk. Even for these third-world countries, their children are their greatest commodity.” He described a recent trip to Uganda where he met with the two judges who were approving all the adoption cases in Kampala, the capitol. The judges are generally pro-adoption, but few ASPs file post-placement reports, so there’s little evidence children are thriving. It’s a common belief among Ugandans that Americans adopt a Ugandan child to harvest his organs for a sick sibling.
ASPs have a duty, as Luzinda describes it, “to keep their eye on the ball by making the needs of the children first and foremost. She encourages agencies to “make sure all reasonable attempts at family preservation and reunification…are made before jumping to adoption. Finding families for children, not the other way round.”
Wood says one of the ways Lifeline does this is to work closely with homes or orphanages to ensure the children there need new homes. They employ nationals and attorneys in each country who investigate families before Lifeline considers including them in their database. Families looking to adopt need to research their ASP to see how they receive information about orphans from homes in respective countries.
If knowledge is the best tool pre-placement, community seems to be the sharpest weapon after the battle to adopt has taken place. For many families, another battle begins at this point. Like the baby blues or postpartum depression many women experience after giving birth, according to PAC—Pre-Adoption, Post-Adoption, Permanency Advice and Counseling—in England, “60% of adoptive parents experience post-placement blues.” Feelings of sadness, anger, and disillusionment can occur within families who have completed a smooth adoption. These can compound if the process felt more difficult than expected. The need for these families to find friends, family, and church support cannot be overstated.
Tapestry, a volunteer-based adoption ministry of Irving Bible Church in Texas, began seven years ago with 20 people who wanted local churches to help people going through the adoption or foster care process. With the motto “inform, equip, encourage,” Tapestry embraces a different emphasis than most adoption ministries: They don’t recruit people to adopt. They focus on the “back-end” of the adoption process.
Now, 1,500 people—20 percent of whom are “unchurched”—annually take advantage of informative classes that show people what Michael Monroe, a member of the Tapestry leadership team, describes as “how to wait well.” Their website, Empower to Commit, partners with the Institute of Child Development and offers a free online study guide with parenting tools.
While Monroe, an attorney and adopted dad himself, thinks adoption represents a great metaphor for God’s love for humanity and the salvation He offers through Jesus Christ, he thinks many Christians misunderstand the picture. “We cut the metaphor short if we just look at bringing the child in. Healing is part of the process and the picture of God’s love. We have to be more complete. At Tapestry, we strive to provide that.”