Thursday, June 16, 2011

a boat that needs rocking

Within the long list of Haiti topics that are difficult to write about and cause controversy, you'll find orphans, adoption, and orphanages. These issues are never black and white and one answer doesn't fit all. It is all so.very.complicated.

For those that are engaged in the battle for justice for children, it can be frustrating to navigate what options are legitimate and what is deception, or simply show-business.

Be warned, this post will be semi-rant-like and weave many directions before it arrives at its main point. We write this from a pro-adoption stance. We are for adoption. We love adoption. We built our family with adoption. At the same time though we're for children staying in their families of origin whenever it is possible. (Yes, there are plenty of situations that don't allow for that.)

While adoption can be incredibly challenging, it can also be beautifully redemptive. We suggest that all in the process or considering adoption research attachment disorders and try to go into adoption prepared with realistic expectations. Talk to others that have adopted and are raising kids from hard places. If you are considering adopting, Heather wrote this post about the complexities of orphan care and things you might wish to look for in an international program.

The main reason we're writing this is because adoption is not ever going to even begin to touch the giant and growing orphan crisis.

We're writing to challenge our own ideas and approaches and systems.

We learned the hard way that people usually don't want to face ugly things. For a number of people denial and looking the other way is easier and it is impossible to convince them to engage in facing hard truth. This means that when you say or write things that are  challenging they will often turn on you personally rather than consider and pray about what you've said/learned/shared or begged them to see.

In 2003 we and many others helped confront an American that was running an orphanage without integrity. Man, did we take a beating from people who couldn't and wouldn't face it. She was breaking U.S. and Haiti law, she wasn't able to guarantee that the kids within her care were being fed and cared for well, she was in over her head and the way she dealt with it wasn't okay in any way. It was really hard but in hindsight we know we did the right thing even if it made us the temporary nemesis of many adoptive parents. Doing the right thing doesn't equal popularity. 

Instead of being upset at her lack of integrity the parents were mainly upset with us for exposing it. They couldn't see past their own interests to the larger picture. They loved their (soon-to-be)adopted kid(s) and were afraid. That part makes sense. It is certainly difficult to do the right thing when you fear losing a child you wish to adopt. Unfortunately adoptive parents get so emotionally involved that it becomes common for them to ignore when things are done illegally or without integrity. All of a sudden "if you can't beat em join em" becomes okay.

It is never okay to look the other way when a child is not legally abandoned by their own parents. It is never okay to listen to someone that tells you it doesn't matter that the child's real mother didn't sign papers and agree. If you willingly do something like that - you are a kidnapper. We know that a few people have been advised by Haitian social workers (that stand to profit) that it is okay that someone else claimed to be the mother. It is not okay. That's why DNA is ordered frequently, to protect children from people that lack integrity and from things that occur when people allow emotions to drive their actions and decisions.

All that aside, the truth is, most kids placed in orphanages in Haiti will never be adopted and will never leave Haiti. (A few hundred kids leave each year but there are an estimated 380,000+ kids living in institutions. (Nobody knows a real number.) Most institutions are not licensed to have and care for kids let alone process an adoption.)

Some children that are placed could have stayed with their family of origin had anyone thought or wanted to try to help them stay together. Sadly, many of the orphanages are run without the best interest of children at heart, but instead as a profit center for the "Pastor" in charge of it. (In Haiti the title of Pastor is used loosely and doesn't mean what people think it does.)

Birth-families often place their children under the assumption and hope that their children will be fed and cared for better than they themselves could. Unfortunately that's not typically true. Show up unannounced at most orphanages and the conditions will shock you. Truly the children could have lived with greater dignity and protection from harm had they remained at home.

Most children that leave Haiti to be adopted have living birth-families. Our Haitian kids do. Because of poverty and situations in their lives they made a choice to place them. We hope that they weren't promised anything in return, but we cannot confidently guarantee that our orphanage director acted in integrity. We don't regret that we adopted them. Not at all. They are precious gifts. We only regret that we weren't more informed and willing to ask the hard questions back in the beginning.

Thankfully our interaction with their birth-mothers has been redemptive. We've built good relationships with the two families of our kids and they seem to have no regrets about their decision(s) but we'd be lying if we said it was totally without complication. 

It is much harder for those emotionally involved in adopting to question the status quo. For this reason those that are not adopting but are interested in fighting injustice could help by engaging in the larger conversation.

It is easier to question things after you witness the lasting damage that institutionalized children experience. Things grow clearer as adoptive parents begin to understand poverty and the attitudes we all have toward it and as the emotional upheaval of the adoption process itself dies down.

The entry below was written post Earthquake in a moment of frustration. It addresses whether growing up in an institution is best for a child. It shocks me that this is even up for debate. The comments and full original post can be found here. 

Last night on AC360 Anderson visited an orphanage outside of Port au Prince.

As he interviewed the people overseeing the orphanage they said things and he repeated them in agreement. It was the "let's all agree and not think critically" segment.

During the interview one women admitted that most kids were placed in the orphanage as a result of financial hardship in the birth family. She did not claim the children had deceased parents. (Although some of them probably do.) She went on to explain that they would not want to offer adoption as a choice because these children need to stay in their own culture. Anderson did not ask a single hard question and just nodded in agreement. In reality orphanages are a subculture and cannot effectively preserve the culture that they so adamantly claim needs preserving.

AC went with the unicef line about how much better it is to be raised in an orphanage in your own country ... preserving your cultural norms and avoiding adoption at all costs. (Meanwhile unicef spokesperson Angelina Jolie adopts children from other cultures and ruins their chances of growing up in an orphanage - yet somehow that is different. You must need to be a uber famous celebrity to break unicef rules.)

The weird thing is, they stood in an orphanage meant to house 100+ kids at once and literally said "We never want to take these kids from their parents, their parents love them." Yet the kids are LIVING in the orphanage ... do they not count that as taking them from their parents?

Basically, you can take them from their parents to raise them in your crowded institution - but you cannot take them and place them in nuclear families abroad ... that is abusive. They sat there saying that the kids were placed mainly due to financial reasons, then tried to say that they must be raised in Haiti to be able to help Haiti some day. One teenage girl spoke on camera, saying something like "If you adopt all the kids out they won't be here to help their people, and that is what we want." It was an odd soundbyte by someone who is likely on a short-term visit to Haiti and has very little  big picture perspective.

I hardly think anyone is suggesting that we take every.single. child in every.single. orphanage and move them out of Haiti. OF COURSE NOT. As usual, they change the argument into something it is not. ALL children leaving Haiti is a bad idea. An idiot knows that. You cannot remove the entire next generation. But, ALL children staying in Haiti (closing down adoption on the whole) is a really bad idea too.

The same thing applies as in every other argument ... it is not a black and white, one size-fits-all argument. Different situations warrant different responses ... there is no hard and fast rule, no one response to the orphan crisis. Keeping hundreds of thousands of orphans (with or without living birth-parents) in institutions and thinking that these institutions will prepare them to "give back to their country" -- is nothing short of totally ignorant. The vast majority of orphanages in Haiti are horribly understaffed and overcrowded. Those conditions don't turn out world leaders.

Most orphanages look different on the days that visitors come. They are not wonderful, loving, centers of cultural goodness. 100 kids living in one building was presented as a brilliant idea by Coop last night. I am not exactly sure what he was thinking. Live in an orphanage for three months when there are no cameras around. THEN come tell me how totally awesome it is to stay in your home culture.

I don't know why Anderson is generalizing and suggesting one solution for the problem of orphans in Haiti. These one-sided platitudes must be encouraged by unicef or by those ten people that tried to take kids illegally ... but either way they are misguided. I'd love to see Anderson actually report on this issue looking at BOTH sides.

Adoption is not warranted in every situation. Of course not. But keeping all orphaned kids from the opportunity to be adopted in order preserve their fabulous (orphan) culture and keep unicef in business, is not a one-size-fits-all solution either.

Since the earthquake Haiti has been inundated with new churches and missions groups and small and large organizations that are seeking to help. Most of them probably have really great hearts and decent intentions. The problem is that many (and I mean many) have come to build their own orphanages. That seems to be the hip thing to do right now. A lot of them probably have no grasp of what is already taking place on the ground. They come without the benefit of years and experience and the understanding of culture. They come thinking that taking in and housing/feeding children can only be good. They want to offer children things their poor families cannot. They come thinking that when someone brings them a child they are hearing the true and accurate story about the reasons the child must be abandoned there. Some come forgetting that starting an orphanage is at least a 20 year project unless you plan to bail-out a bunch of kids mid-stream.  

We should all be asking if this is the best use of funds and energy? We should be asking if this is good for Haiti? Is building new very expensive structures to take in children with families good stewardship? We should be asking if giving people more places to put their children might possibly create more orphans? Seriously. We should. We should be asking if it might be money better spent by investing in existing structures that either do things with integrity and take excellent care of kids or in programs that work to keep families together and help support women to raise their own children.

It should be wrestled with constantly. Couldn't we think outside of the box about ways to support families to keep their children at home? Wouldn't that cost less than building giant buildings? With upwards of 400,000 institutionalized children and just a few hundred adoptions, doesn't it make sense to search for better alternatives?

I tested this thought on Facebook last week. The feedback on Facebook was mainly in agreement but truthfully that means nothing, it just means that people who agreed spoke up. This is what was posted along with a small sampling of the responses:
"In the mood to say something unpopular. Here goes. Haiti does not need more people/churches to come build more orphanages. There are plenty of orphanages. Hundreds and hundreds actually. The money would be better spent on programs trying to keep children with their families.

    • AMEN! I endorse this statement 100% and will now repost.
      June 9 at 9:57am ·
    • (Uganda doesn't either as it turns out.)
      June 9 at 9:59am ·
    •  let's spend the money on empowering women to keep their children, have a skill, a job, a house and hope! I'm saying this as a pro-adoption person, those needs will always exist. But, orphanages here are often overcrowded, understaffed and kids are not cared for well. Kids need their moms and we can work together to keep them together! That is why our women's program exists.
      June 9 at 10:03am · ·
    •  totally agree--and I'm mom to three Haitian-born babes by adoption. I know their manmi would have kept on loving them in her care if she had access to help, to be able to hope.
      June 9 at 10:07am · · 
      Tara, that topic exactly has been on my "need to write" blog post list. Do we know how many families would keep their children if we simply provided free school with a hot lunch? Or how about a community center with a hot lunch and classes to teach parenting skills? 
      June 9 at 10:10am ·  
    • Amen. Way to rock the boat, friend because this particular boat needs dumping over.
      Can I just say I am so freaking proud of Elica Betor for fighting to keep kiddos in their families. So dang proud.
      June 9 at 12:15pm ·
    •  Radical thinking!
      June 9 at 8:39pm · 
      I met with the gal who heads up the Saddleback orphan care initiative and she kind of blew my mind with their model: no more orphanages, and all mission teams are there to find permanency options. Find the families - try to get them the re...sources to take back their kids. If it's not an option, get the paperwork moving for adoption. One or the other, no more filling up orphanages. I love this model.  
    • So many don't want to help an existing program, they desperately need to have it have their name on it. That bums me out beyond description.
      [ our NGO] started an orphans at home program. We help them have all the things they would get in an orphanage but they sleep at home with their family. But they are fed, educated, clothes and doctored. We can do tremendous more kids for the same amount of money we could do an orphanage for. We totally agree. 

I am not claiming that the organizations and churches that have come here post earthquake to start new programs for orphans are bad people.  Not at all.  I am only saying that we should try not to be defensive and instead be asking really hard questions about this and about our motivation and we should be wrestling with the very uncomfortable stuff. Why build orphanages? Should we take children from their parents simply because their parents are poor? Do we really want to open up these places and do we know it is best? Can they be run with integrity and a high quality of care? How do you guarantee that? Can you guarantee it for the long haul? Also, is the  model to have multiple visitors in and out month after month in order to oversee it a healthy thing for the kids?

In her struggle with it Heather said this: (click link for full post and comments that followed)
"When it comes to orphans, I'll get a little more strong in my language.  Please forgive me ahead of time.  I'm not always sure it's healthiest for team after team to come in, hold babies, semi-connect with children who are living in an orphanage, and then leave.  Yes, the American holding the baby may be changed by the experience.  The baby or child left in the orphanage?  Another rip.  Another tear.  Another moment when connection was jump-started, only to have the kill switch pulled.  Healthy?  I'm having a hard time seeing how that could be good for a child.  This is a tough situation, because we want hearts to hurt for the orphan, and seeing a child in an orphanage is a sobering moment.  But I find myself asking, "Would it be better for churches to fund higher ratios of native nannies in orphanages who will love the kids, every single day, and connect deeply to each child?"  Connection. A sense of belonging.  Consistency.  These are things an orphan is longing to have." 

It is good and healthy and necessary to be challenging our own desires and asking ourselves tough things. I realize some reading are currently involved in doing exactly what I am questioning. This probably stings. I'm sorry if this put anyone in a defensive place but I believe strongly that if we care about Haitians as much as we claim we do we need to examine these things. I also believe the last thing Haiti needs is more cement structures that house large numbers of children with living parents.

If we (and/or our churches) have the money it takes to build fancy buildings, there has to be something more we could offer Haiti other than to institutionalize their children.

Maybe you're thinking, "This is all a fund-raising pitch for Heartline because Heartline is working to help women keep their children."  If you're thinking that you're partially correct.

Of course we believe in the work of Heartline. However, we assume God moves people to act on their passion in multiple creative ways and we trust Him to provide for us.

Maybe your passion isn't even for Haiti. Maybe you want to help advocate for children somewhere else. If you've done your research and tried to become informed of all sides of the complicated orphan equation, it matters not where you ask your church to give or who you personally support. Kristen Howerton wrote a post recently full of all sorts of ideas - it can be found here.  Don't take our/her word for it. Ask around, read, pray, research.

We're praying that collectively we can begin to ask critical and uncomfortable questions about why we and our churches support the things we do. Perhaps some of our responses have unintentionally played into the problem. As we struggle with these questions we can find ways to advocate for children to remain with their families whenever it is a viable option. How can that ever be wrong? A poor family doesn't necessarily equal an unfit family after all.

wrestling and questioning,

T & T

"Dear Lord, I will remain restless, tense, and dissatisfied until I can be totally at peace in your house. There is no certainty that my life will be any easier in the years ahead, or that my heart will be any calmer. But there is certainty that you are waiting for me and will welcome me home when I have persevered in my long journey to your house."
-Henri J.M. Nouwen
Related Posts: Looking at STM and Respecting the Poor