This is the third installment in a series on adoption ethics, starting with Part 1 here, then Part 2 involving orphan care within adoption, and wrapping up today as we discuss orphan care outside of adoption.
Remembering the Numbers that Matter
Before we move on, let’s get our numbers straight There are an estimated 153 million kids who’ve lost only one parent (“single orphaned”), so the term “orphan” is somewhat misleading. Around 18 million kids are double-orphans, yet still most of those are absorbed into extended families and local communities.
UNICEF estimates around 2 million children in institutional care (some single, some double orphaned), although that number is admittedly low due to under-reporting and lack of reliable data from every country. Nearly half are in Central and Eastern Europe and neighboring Commonwealth of Independent States. Most of these kids are not adoptable, either because they live in a closed country or because they lack the necessary documentation for international adoption. In the U.S. there are 104,000 children in foster care currently waiting for an adoptive home (parental rights severed), with another 300,000 or so needing temporary placement.
International adoption has steadily declined in recent years—only 8,668 children adopted by Americans in 2012 (but 51,000 kids adopted through the foster system!). So even if we doubled the number of reported institutionalized kids to 4 million, absorbing some of the unreported children into the statistic, international adoption by U.S. citizens provides permanent homes for 0.002 percent of them.
That’s 1 child out of every 461.
Those are terrible odds. Clearly, if we are truly concerned about orphan care, international adoption simply cannot be where we concentrate all our efforts. It leaves too many children behind. It isn’t even remotely comprehensive, nor does it affect the millions of families on the brink of poverty-induced relinquishment. It is very good news for a very small percentage of genuinely orphaned children, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the crisis, will never address the root issues of disparity and oppression, and exists as a possible answer on the back end of a tragedy, not the front.
Ensuring Basic Human Rights
Therefore, we must turn our eyes to the orphaned (or nearly-orphaned) outside of adoption as well, as this is where the bulk of vulnerable children and families are located.
It is unacceptable that poverty makes orphans. That is a gross injustice at the root of these astronomical numbers. If you must relinquish your child because you cannot feed, educate, or care for him, the international community should rise up and wage war against that inequity. Every family deserves basic human rights, and I should not get to raise your child simply because I can feed him and you can’t.
To that end, what better response than working to preserve (or reunite) first families where poverty or disempowerment is an orphan-maker? Preventing or repairing a tragedy of this magnitude is holy work. When we come alongside our brothers and sisters vulnerable to economic despair, empowering and equipping them to raise their own children, we partake in something sacred.
There are fundamental building blocks of community development that provide first families the tools to parent and thrive:
Basic health care/immunizations
Education for all kids, especially girls
Birth control/family-planning education
Community education directed at men about valuing women and children
Drying up the donation pipeline of gifts that hurt instead of help
Supporting local churches as distribution and development centers
The connective thread between these social constructs and orphans is monumental. Hear this: if you work toward any of the above-mentioned initiatives, you are absolutely protecting children, refusing to “grind the faces of the poor.” For example, in Haiti with Help One Now, Chris Marlow explained the underbelly of donations. After years of exporting subsidized U.S. rice to alleviate hunger in Haiti, virtually all the local rice farmers were driven out of business and the entire economy was undermined. The leap to orphanhood is so short from there.
Help One Now approached the struggling rice farmers and asked if sponsoring their children would help them regain stable footing. Temporarily taking on the financial burden of school fees, uniforms, and two meals a day for their kids relieved the pressure, freed up income to rebuild, and allowed them to keep their families intact, as their children were on the brink of relinquishment with poverty as the only catalyst.
Channeling Our Resources
Do not even get me started on microfinance, easily one of the most important economic developments of our time. Small loans (sometimes as little as $50) providing capital for business development and entrepreneurship has such impressive yield in developing countries; it has benefited hundreds of millions already. It works for one simple reason: the vast majority of the poor are willing and able to lift themselves from poverty if given the opportunity.
Regular people like us can make as many loans through a trusted microfinance channel as we want. Brandon and I made a series of loans six years ago, every single one repaid, and we continue to reinvest the same money into new entrepreneurs. We recycle that money over and over, and not one recipient has ever defaulted. In The Poor Will Be Glad, the authors write, “Access to capital is the magic ingredient allowing even the poorest person to make better business choices. Microfinance simply makes good sense.”
What might just sound like community development actually has massive impact on the number of poverty-induced orphans created. These efforts fortify orphan prevention, and they can provide the impetus for family reunification. These initiatives lay the axe at the root of the tree, offering front-end solutions and sustainable enterprises without sacrificing dignity, children, or hope.
Closer to the bull’s-eye, we can support organizations committed to reunification (if healthy and possible) for children already relinquished. Heroes like my friends Jimmy and Rachel Gross with No Ordinary Love Ministries in Ethiopia work tirelessly to this end. Or let’s look for organizations like ReUnite (with WACIA: Women and Children in Africa) who work toward orphan resettlement in Uganda. People are quietly working in every country to strengthen indigenous families, support birth parents, and protect children.
Domestically, I cannot recommend Safe Families for Children enough, which offers sanctuary to thousands of children, minimizing the risk for abuse or neglect and giving birth parents the time and tools they need to help their families thrive. The ultimate goal is to strengthen and support parents so they can become safe for their own children, fostering a close working relationship between Safe Families, the local church, the referring organization, and the birth parents.
Building Fill-In Families
Far from ideal, we must also consider bolstering the quality and structures of group homes and orphanages. Research makes it crystal clear that children thrive in families but suffer emotionally, cognitively, and physically in institutional settings. Ideally, every child should be in a family. Realistically, adoption and reunification do not even remotely reach far enough, so we must also consider best-case scenarios for children that will never be placed within a family.
For example, Help One Now is building Ferrier Village in Haiti: small, family-oriented homes for girls aging out of orphanages as young as 13. Each home has 3–4 girls and a house mom or house parents. The alternative is inevitable trafficking or homelessness. The Miracle Foundation renovates and restructures existing orphanages in rural India with measurable, scalable interventions that guard against corruption and focus on the needs of the whole child, transforming institutional orphanages into stable, loving, nurturing homes where children can thrive. With more than 25 million estimated orphans in India and less than 1,000 adopted last year, we simply must consider initiatives like The Miracle Foundation who are addressing the needs of the masses.
A crisis of this magnitude is going to take us all—all the mamas, all the daddies, all the countries, all the workers. Some of us will raise the money, some will raise awareness, and some will raise the kids. Certain families will rally from here, and other families will pack up and move to vulnerable countries and do the work. Some of us will be starters, some executers, some funders, some visionaries. We collectively must insist on helping and not hurting, refusing to discredit the weak links in the system and instead insist on shoring them up.
We have to dig deep and reject the notion that Americans know best, are best, and are better. We have to listen to dissenting voices and carefully assess, prioritizing first families, first cultures, and first countries whenever possible. We move forward as if our goal was no orphans ever, setting aside our agendas, however altruistic. Our standard operating procedure must always include being Good News: good for children, good for birth mamas, good for the poor, good for other countries and cultures.
Within that framework, we’re all going to have to fight really hard together. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for justice translates “to set right.” May we be a people who bravely commit to set the wrongs right because being too poor to parent isn’t right. Being too sick to parent isn’t right. Being abandoned or abused isn’t right. Being discarded because of special needs or gender isn’t right. Being manipulated into relinquishment isn’t right. Wasting away unloved in an orphanage isn’t right. Being trapped in cycles of poverty isn’t right.
May we apply the same standards we insist on for our families to all families, unwilling to accept disparity and injustice. I’ll play my note and you’ll play yours, and by themselves, they’ll be sort of one-dimensional, but together they will create a song that sounds like freedom for the captives, liberty for the oppressed, and the beautiful sound of chains breaking everywhere.
This article first appeared on JenHatmaker.com and is used with permission.
Jen Hatmaker is the author of ten books and Bible studies, including Interrupted and 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. She speaks all over the United States. She and her husband, Brandon, lead Austin New Church in Texas where they are raising their five kids—three the old-fashioned way and two adopted from Ethiopia. Follow her ministry and blog at JenHatmaker.com.
Photo courtesy of JenHatmaker.com. Used with permission.