Monday, July 18, 2011

Birth Family Preservation

That’s a picture of Solomon, our first adoption referral that we received way back in January of 2009. I remember getting Solomon’s photo and info, taking one look at his smile, and immediately falling in love with him. I pictured him as my son from the day I saw his face. I was certain that he was the one God had pulled us all the way across the world to. He was the one that my heart had carved out a little spot for. He was the one that I felt had been missing from our family photo on our fireplace. We had waited just a few short months to receive our first referral from our adoption agency, and when Solomon’s came our way, I emotionally entered in right away.

There was one thing that did bother me about Solomon’s situation though. Both of Solomon’s parents were still living when he was referred to us for adoption. I thought that was very strange. However, we were completely new and green in the ‘adoption world’ so I reasoned that possibly situations like his must come up more often than what I knew of. I also attributed it to the understanding that orphanages were not at all prevalent in Ghana as they are in say Ethiopia. So, I assumed that in Ghana we would likely be adopting out of a family situation rather than an orphanage. But to be honest, I thought it would be more like us adopting a 2 year old who was being taking care of by a 70-year old grandmother, than a situation like Solomon’s.

When Jake traveled to Ghana to meet Solomon, the pictures of seeing Solomon with both his mother and father didn’t sit right with me. I started wondering why on earth we wouldn’t just give all this money we were paying to our agency to Solomon’s family instead. That way they could stay together and provide for themselves. As our adoption of Solomon went on, I wrestled with this off and on, but eventually my emotions for Solomon masked my questions. I attributed my questions to my lack of knowledge about adoption, and told myself that our agency knows what is best and they wouldn’t refer a child to us if the child didn’t need to be adopted.

Eventually, social welfare in Ghana counseled Solomon’s parents and helped them find a way to stay together as a family. On our end we were devastated. We had envisioned Solomon as part of our family….and to have that taken away was an awful feeling. I wanted to be happy for them….and I knew it was right and better for him to be raised by his birthmother and birthfather. But I was hurting and frustrated.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that this sort of counseling normally takes place long before a child is placed on any sort of adoption list. However, with our agency, it just didn’t happen that way and so we experienced some heavy heartache. This situation did, however, make me more aware of a topic within international adoption termed (birth) family preservation. Family preservation should be a high initiative of any adoption agency, or any group offering humanitarian support in impoverished countries.

Of course many of you may be wondering why this idea of family preservation even comes into play within adoption. Doesn’t adoption entail giving an orphan a family? And doesn’t the term ‘orphan’ mean that a child has no living parents? Well, actually no. The legal definition of an orphan via United States Citizenship and Immigration Services is this:

A child may be considered an orphan because of the death or disappearance of, abandonment or desertion by, or separation or loss from, both parents. The child of an unwed mother or surviving parent may be considered an orphan if that parent is unable to care for the child properly and has, in writing, irrevocably released the child for emigration and adoption. The child of an unwed mother may be considered an orphan, as long as the mother does not marry (which would result in the child’s having a stepfather) and as long as the child’s biological father has not legitimated the child. If the father legitimates the child or the mother marries, the mother is no longer considered a sole parent. The child of a surviving parent may also be an orphan if the surviving parent has not married since the death of the other parent (which would result in the child’s having a stepfather or stepmother).

And that’s why this can all get so hairy. A child can be adoptable with or without living birthparents if their situation meets the above criteria. And you better believe that there are agencies and orphanages out there who disregard the importance of ensuring that adoption is in fact the correct choice for every child of an impoverished widow, sole-parent, or struggling family. However, it is my opinion that for adoptive families, this is the last thing that we ourselves need to be deciphering. There is too much emotion involved on our end.

I would instead hope that we, adoptive families, could receive our referral and have absolute surety that our child was only placed into the adoption program because every effort made to help our child remain with their biological family failed (if the child had living birthparents). I am starting to realize that this should be at the TOP of our list when shuffling through the millions of options for deciding on an adoption agency. If your adoption agency does not have family preservation as a priority then who will? For me, incorporating family preservation efforts is a sure sign of an ethical adoption program, one that I had no idea about when we first started our adoption process.

In Ghana, birth-families often relinquish their children for adoption because they cannot provide for their children’s basic needs. They would rather know that their child is going to be well-cared for, fed, and loved, then to have to suffer under their care. So what exactly do family preservation efforts look like in these sorts of situations? How does an agency or group go about helping an impoverished family turn their situation around? I don’t have all the answers, but I have come across an adoption agency who is doing this exact thing in Ghana. Here is a list of how Adoption Advocates International has implemented this exact sort of humanitarian support into their Ghana program. The following is taken directly from their information packet:

AAI places a heavy focus on family preservation within Ghana. A child is only placed in the adoption program after efforts for him/her to remain with their biological family have failed. We support Ghana's children and families in a number of ways. A significant portion of adoption fees go directly to provide humanitarian support. Primarily, donations are made to NGOs who focus on orphan care and family preservation. Funds are donated to support the following types of programs:

•Educational sponsorships for vulnerable children still living with their family.
•Sponsorships to cover the cost of medical care for persons living with HIV/AIDS or other
chronic diseases.
•School uniforms and books for low income students.
•Seed money for start-up businesses, in order that families can continue to care for their
•Funding for families to secure health insurance through Ghana's national health insurance
•Employment opportunities for widows, single mothers, or other at risk women who would
like to care for children in foster homes or children's homes.
•Provide nutritional support for struggling families, children's homes, and school children.
•Free HIV/AIDS educational seminars throughout Ghana.
•Free child care, nutritional, and first aid seminars within the community.
•Sponsorship for young adults in need of vocational training.
•Assistance to struggling new mothers (hospital bills, vaccinations, infant care education)
•Support and assistance to mothers and children living on the street or in market places.

I’ve been working with The Ripley Foundation in Ghana on Christian’s case, and they are one of the NGO’s that Adoption Advocates International supports in Ghana so that these types of programs can be run. Significant portions of the program fees that adoptive families pay to Adoption Advocates International goes to supporting Ghana’s families so that they do not need to relinquish their children for adoption.

All that being said, of course there are situations in which a child has living birthparents but it is NOT in the child’s best interest to be under their care because they have been severely mistreated or neglected. In Ghana, these types of cases also happen, but often at some point the child has been abandoned and is not living with their birthparent(s) at the time of social welfare investigation (such was the case for Christian).

Here are a few more posts on this topic that I have read recently:

This one was written by AAI’s Ghana program coordinator Anita…..short and sweet and to the point. This is a story out of Ghana:

This other post was sent to me by a friend. This one is very long, complicated, and reveals that this is quite a controversial topic. This post relates directly to Haiti and poses the opinion that overloaded orphanages are due to few family preservation efforts in Haiti.


Sarah said...

Great post, Janel! When a prospective adoptive family asks me about choosing an agency, I always encourage them to find one that first and foremost works for family preservation. This is so important! Thank you for writing about this. (one of my soap box issues!)

Tamara B said...

one of my soap box issues too. And why we're getting more and more involved with Friends of Orphans and Vulnerable Children (FOVC). I know that in our experience in Ethiopia, family preservation is hugely important. In fact, the agencies are required to have family preservation programs in tact to even be able to work in adoptions. I love that. Of course, I also love org's like FOVC who are working to serve the widow and the orphan (a type of family preservation) and aren't directly involved with adoptions. Thanks for sharing Janel!!!