On Ugandan orphans and adoption
Most of my readers know we adopted our daughter, Gabrielle, from Uganda last year. Other than sharing a little of our experience adopting Gabrielle, I have been fairly quiet about Ugandan adoptions on this blog. I have wanted to be sensitive to other families in process. But at the same time, I have been learning everything I can about adoption and orphans - and I have been outspoken elsewhere in advocating for ethics in Ugandan adoptions. I think it is time to share what I’ve learned.
As I write about this difficult topic, please understand my heart. I love adoption. I love orphans. I want every child to have a family. I love Uganda. This country and its people have stolen my heart. But right now in Uganda - as in many other countries around the world - there is a high risk for corruption in adoption.
No family starts the process of adoption wanting to take a child from another family. We all want to give a family and a home to a child who would otherwise grow up in an orphanage or on the streets. But in Uganda, there are not adequate laws, systems and resources in place to protect vulnerable families and children from trafficking for international adoption.
At the same time, I am hopeful. There are a growing number of highly qualified lawyers, consultants and experts working together to reform orphan care and adoption in Uganda. As adoptive parents - and for those of us who consider ourselves Christians, as the people of God - we need to support this work. We need to open our eyes and take steps to “bring justice to the fatherless,” (Isaiah 1:17, ESV).
I am just a mom. I am not an expert in international adoption. But over the last year, I have learned a lot about the orphans and adoption, much of it the hard way. What have I learned?
There are 2.7 million orphans in Uganda. Approximately 1.3 million of these children have been orphaned by AIDS. Most of these children, however, live with their families. Most have one surviving parent and many of the rest live with their extended family. Millions of people have been affected by HIV and AIDS in Uganda, however as we think about this issue, we need to see the strength and the resilience of the Ugandan family and community system in caring for vulnerable children.
Though statistics are hard to come by – there is little research done into this issue – approximately 80,000 children in Uganda live in orphanages or “children’s villages”. Most of these children have families and are living in the orphanages because of poverty. This is because orphanages create orphans. When well-meaning (often Christian) groups build and support nice orphanages, families struggling with the cost of food, education and health care abandon their children. But orphanages are not good for kids. God designed kids to grow up with families. African families and American families. I think we often look at African families and perceive poverty where it doesn’t exist. We cannot imagine living like most Africans, so we try to rescue kids from poverty by buildling orphanages where the kids will live more like Americans. We then call these kids – who have been separated from their families by poverty – orphans. Building orphanages is not a good response to poverty. Furthermore, orphanages have financial incentives to keep children separated from their families. Orphanges depend on income from sponsorship, donations, and sometimes international adoption.
This needs to change. We need to take steps to support vulnerable families so that children are not placed in orphanages – or for adoption – as a result of poverty. We also need to take steps to help get children out of institutional care by reuniting them with their families or giving them new families through adoption.
Children need families. There are thousands of children in Uganda who are truly orphans, who have been abandonded, abused, neglected or separated from their parents by death, conflict or desperation. These children need families too. For these children, adoption is better than growing up in an orphanage or on the streets. But there is good news: more and more Ugandan families are interested in adoption. One organization in Kampala has a wait-list of qualified Ugandan families hoping to adopt. We need to celebrate this, not to grumble that it might take longer to be matched with a child for international adoption. There is a need for international adoption, but this need is primarily for older and special needs children.
But right now, the Ugandan adoption system is vulnerable to abuse. Here are the big issues.
Demand. A growing number of American families want to adopt from Uganda. There are more than six hundred families hoping to adopt from Uganda in 2012. That is more than the total number of adoptions in the last twelve years. Many of these families are hoping to adopt babies and toddlers.
Money. Adoptive families are willing to pay upwards of $20,000 to adopt a child from Uganda. Lawyers, orphanages, probation officers and others involved in adoption have the potential to make a lot of money.
Poverty. Most children are placed in orphanages as a result of poverty. Poverty also contributes to many children being placed for adoption. There are very few social welfare services available to support vulnerable families and children. Desperately poor families are vulnerable to exploitation because they may feel they have no other option.
Corruption. Corruption in Uganda is widespread, tolerated and systematic. Many officials will not do their jobs without something to grease the wheels. Adoptive parents often unknowingly pay bribes. Some bribes encourage officials to show up and do their jobs; other bribes pressure officials to break the law. As an adoptive parent, it is very hard to know the truth.
Legal Loopholes. The Ugandan law is unclear about the status of international adoptions. Most adoptions are actually legal guardianships for the purpose of adoption in the United States. The law does not set up requirements for adoptive parents or regulate agencies. There is a lot of ambiguity and a significant risk for people to take advantage of the system.
On the United States side, the law is also inadequate. The only way the US regulates adoptions in Uganda is through Immigration Law. After parents obtain guardianship of a child in Uganda, they must apply for a visa to bring the child home. In order to receive a visa, the child must meet the legal definition of “orphan” having lost at least one parent to death or having been abandoned. It is possible to obtain guardianship of a child in Uganda who does not meet the legal definition of orphan. In these cases – or in cases where there is fraud or corruption – the embassy cannot give the child a visa to return to the United States.
Many adoptive parents look at this as red tape keeping children from having a family. But that’s not entirely true. This process is the only way the United States can prevent children from being trafficked for the purpose of international adoption. This system is inherently flawed, lacking safeguards for adoptive families and children. Typically the adoptive parents are not involved in manipulating a child’s paperwork for the purpose of adoption. More often, it is adoption agencies or their overseas representatives – lawyers or orphanages - who falsify paperwork in the adoption and visa process. In the end, adoptive parents are punished while the people who are truly responsible for the fraud are not held accountable. It is difficult, however, for the USCIS to deny immigration visas – and as a result, children may be allowed to go “home” to their “families” even when there are significant “inconsistencies” in their file. This should not be.
If we love Uganda, if we love orphans, if we love adoption, we need to stand up and fight for things to change. We need to stop supporting harmful institutions. We need to support vulnerable families. We need to protect children from abuse and neglect. We need to encourage domestic adoption. We need to consider adopting the older, HIV positive and special needs kids who truly need adoption. We need to support churches in Uganda in stepping up to care for orphans and widows in their communities. We need to defend the rights of widows and children. We need to support sustainable development and fight poverty. And we need to support reform so that corruption doesn’t win – so that international adoption remains a possibility for children who cannot have a family any other way.
Will you stand with me to bring justice to the fatherless?