The orphanage director in Tanzania was initially thrilled to receive the email: "We want to adopt Freddy!" Freddy is five years old, was abandoned, and has HIV. He is handsome, friendly, and desperate for a family. In just a few short weeks, the plan was to transfer him to a long-term orphanage. This family would most likely be Freddy's last chance for a real home.
Then the director realized that the adoptive family are not residents of Tanzania; they live in America. They were working with a U.S. adoption agency who is ignoring Tanzanian residency requirements. She was devastated. She had to tell the family, "I'm sorry, you cannot adopt Freddy. My orphanage, and our local social workers, will not allow American families to break Tanzanian law."
Do you see the dilemma? On one hand, there are unscrupulous agencies, who are working with unscrupulous lawyers, who could very well make Freddy's adoption possible. He would no longer be an orphan; he would be a son and a brother and have every opportunity at his fingertips. Or, he could live the rest of his life in an institution where his needs will be met, but not much more.
It's the kind of ethics that college students debate about but never really have to face. Do the ends justify the means? Sure, we want to clean up international adoption. Sure, we want to end corruption and bribery. But what about the children? What about the ones who really do need adoption? What happens to them?
This is the question you must ask yourself: Is it worth it for Freddy to be adopted, if it means that hundreds of other children will be subsequently, unnecessarily, separated from their families? There's a strong correlation. Opening the way for Freddy to be adopted by breaking Tanzanian law would pave the road of corruption that leads to the exploitation of hundreds of other families. And I am confident of this because it has been documented in country...after country...after country.
This is why we simply cannot see international adoption as the answer to the orphan crisis. It is one of the answers, but only in countries where the process is heavily regulated by a strong central authority. That means that for kids like Freddy, it's much better to support, encourage, or even start(!) programs and plans within the country to help orphans, instead of adopting them out.
However, please know that there are plenty of countries which do have regulated adoption programs and enough government infrastructure in place to ensure they will be ethical. Though this series may come off as anti-international adoption, I assure you I am not. Please, please...if you have a strong desire to adopt internationally, go for it. Adoption is good and beautiful--and desperately needed for many children. Don't let the pitfalls scare you off. You just need to arm yourself with plenty of information and keep your eyes wide open. There are many ways to ensure you have an ethical adoption. So here's my advice:
1. Read this book.
In Defense of the Fatherless: Redeeming International Adoption and Orphan Care (by Amanda Bennett and Sara Brinton). In some ways, this entire series is a summary of this book. I have read over a dozen books on adoption, covering adoption theology, adoption processes, adoption options. Not one Christian book has dealt with the hard topic of adoption ethics until this book came out less than a year ago. This book is excellently researched, tough and truthful, yet compassionate. It is absolutely a must-read for any Christian considering international adoption, anyone involved in the industry, or anyone advocating for international adoption.
2. Choose a country before you choose an agency, and choose a country that is implementing the Hague Adoption Convention. Though this alone will not guarantee an ethical adoption, it will help significantly. Countries which have signed to the Hague Convention are required to have a program which prioritizes domestic adoption. They also must have a central authority capable of regulating international adoption, which helps to ensure that a particular child is truly needing adoption. Keep in mind that if you choose a non-Hague country, you must do far more research on both the country and your agency if you want to ensure the adoption will be ethical.
3. Do not choose a country based on whichever seems to be the fastest, easiest, and cheapest. Choose a country based on how well their adoption program is organized, and whether they have a long-standing, effective program. Do your own research as to the adoption laws of that country. Find out how the country decides whether a child should be adopted, and how they determine who can adopt that child. Find out for yourself whether or not you qualify. Unfortunately, you may not even be able to trust all of the information on the Department of State website, since it is currently not accurate for Tanzania.
4. This one is my own personal soapbox: If a country has a residency requirement to adopt a child....then either move to that country or choose a different country! You follow your own country's adoption laws....what gives you permission to break another country's laws?
5. After you have chosen a country, then look for a trustworthy agency that works in that country. During the course of this series, some people have asked me for a list of "good" and/or "bad" agencies. I can't do that. It is a spectrum. In all honesty, at this point I would have a hard time trusting most agencies that work in non-Hague countries--and there are probably hundreds of those agencies. Most agencies are not evil. However, many demonstrate ethnocentric principles that I cannot endorse.
Remember, the U.S. government has very few regulations in place to keep adoption agencies accountable. Therefore, you must be in complete control of your adoption process. That's why I encourage you to research and choose a country before you choose an agency. That will help you to know what is supposed to happen and what questions you need to ask. You must do your homework before you find an agency you can trust. Here are some sample questions:
- How long have you worked in this country?
- What is the process to match a child with a family? Who makes the decisions? (Should be the decision of a central government authority, not the orphanage or the agency)
- Who do you work with on the ground? (Again, should be a central authority, not a local social welfare officer, a lawyer, facilitator, or orphanage director.)
- Where does the money go, especially in-country? (You should expect nothing less than a very specific, itemized list of how money is spent.)
- Does the orphanage require a donation? (If so, then it's not a donation, it's a fee.) What kind of confidence do you have that the orphanage will use that money in an ethical way?
- What is your philosophy on family preservation? (You should receive a confident, well-thought out answer on how the agency works to preserve birth families.)
- How do you ensure that the child I am placed with is a true orphan with no family prospects? (Agencies should be wanting to guarantee that you will be given the true background of the child, and they should have safeguards in place to ensure the information is correct.)
More suggested questions for agencies here, from Jen Hatmaker.
Google the agency's name along with "corruption" and see if anything comes up. Pay attention to Facebook groups, blogs, and message boards by other families who have adopted from that country or with that agency. Do not discount what they have to say.
5. Choose a "waiting child."***
A "waiting child" is one who already has been deemed adoptable, and he is waiting for a family to select him. When you choose a waiting child, you are helping a child find a family. In contrast, when you send in a descriptive list of the child you are looking for, then the agency is helping you find a child--instead of helping a child find a family. See the difference? Read these quotes:
"While many assume the orphan crisis means there are orphanages full of babies who need to be adopted, this is simply not true. There is a significant need for international adoption, but there are very few healthy babies and young children waiting in orphanages." (Defense of the Fatherless)
"Most adoption demand in the United States continues to be for healthy infants or young children, whereas most of the children who are legitimately parentless or in need of an adoptive home are older, sicker, or more damaged from trauma than most families are willing to take." (Kathryn Joyce)
"UNICEF estimates that 88 percent of the world's orphans are over the age of five...However, 89 percent of children adopted by American families were under the age of five." (DF)
What this means: Do not go into international adoption if what you only want is a healthy baby--unless you are willing to wait for years to be matched. However, if you are willing to bring home an older child or a special needs child--a "waiting child"--then international adoption could be what you are looking for. Most of the corruption in international adoption has been fueled by the demand for healthy babies. Yes, there are some legitimately abandoned or orphaned babies available--but not often. Make sure you fully understand this reality before you decide to adopt.
***Special note on "waiting children." Unfortunately, I've heard situations where even this concept is abused by adoption agencies. Sometimes children are posted on websites as "waiting" when they are still living with family and haven't even been approved for adoption. Before you choose a waiting child, you must have already gone through all the other precautionary steps.