The war in Syria, orphans from the refugee crisis, Hurricane Matthew’s destruction in Haiti and other wars and natural disasters around the world move Americans to want to adopt children in need. Moved by the images, stories and the devastation these children face, families feel called to help however they can and for many they begin to explore intercountry adoption. As the former Executive Director of Joint Council on International Children’s Services, I regularly handled the rising prospective adoptive family interest in intercountry adoption as a response to war, famine or natural disaster. However, for a myriad of reasons adoption of children abroad is not the appropriate response to a natural disaster, epidemic, war, or international crisis situation.
1. Intercountry Adoption Involves Strict Safeguards for Children
During a crisis situation, children are most vulnerable to abduction, trafficking, sale, and illegal adoption. Strict safeguards are in place to ensure the safety of children through legal requirements that must be met to ensure the protection of children affected by war and disaster. Regulations from the country of origin, United States regulations and the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption which was implemented by the US in 2008.
2. Often the Children are not Orphans
According to UNICEF’s most recent report on orphans, there are over 132 million orphans in the world. UNICEF and other child permanency organizations define an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents. 13 million children worldwide have lost both parents.
Oftentimes in the crisis of war or a natural disaster, a child may become separated from their parents or other family members, and their family is in search of them. It is also not uncommon during a crisis for parents to temporarily leave their children in institutional care or send their children out of the area for their own safety. Children and families may also become separated during an evacuation, resettlement, or if they are migrating refugees. Efforts to reunite such children with their parents or families must be paramount.
3. Support Families of Origin
The United States Government Action Plan on Children in Adversity, which gives the framework for international assistance through 2017, references that between 2 million and 8 million children are living in institutional care, or “orphanages.”
Studies suggest that a large percentage of children in these care settings have one or both parents living. Often they are placed due to in-country crisis, poverty rather than abandonment, or death of the parent. More needs to be done to support the families and communities of these children to ensure they can be reunited with their families of origin, even if extended, which is in the best interest of the child according to child welfare professionals.
4. Hierarchy of Permanency
Most adoption, child welfare, and permanency professionals and organizations, as well as the United States government, agree that there is a hierarchy of permanency that is in the best interest of the child. Children do best in permanent family care with their birth parent or parents. Where that is not possible, it is best for the child to be placed with extended family in their country of origin. Only once a child is identified as a true orphan with no family of origin in their country of birth should intercountry adoption be pursued as an option of permanency.
It can be extremely difficult during the aftermath a disaster such as Hurricane Matthew to ascertain whether children are actual orphans with family or eligible for adoption. The loss of paperwork, displacement, and cessation of function of civil authority during a crisis make intercountry adoption not in the best interest of the child as the first means to permanency.
5. In-country Support of the Family and Child Should be Paramount
During a crisis, instead of looking to adopt the children caught in the middle of war, famine, natural disasters, and political unrest, we should support the systems, organizations and families to best provide safe, permanent, loving care to these children. Effective strategies need to be implemented and resources need to allocated to preventing child abandonment and supporting families to remain intact or be reunified during a crisis. More needs to be done to support birth families and their children.
Investment in families and their communities through the giving of your time, talent, and treasure can make more of a difference in a life of a child abroad than intercountry adoption. When we devote our passion for help and resources to organizations who are making a difference on the ground in disaster locations, we can further the lives of these children by giving them a means to stay with their birth families. More can and needs to be done to support family and child welfare systems in developing countries so they can best support their children. Intercountry adoption is a critical and important piece in providing children a forever family, however it should not be the first option to help fix these perilous situations.