Sunday, March 13, 2011

What is an Orphan? Is there an "Orphan Crisis"?

I think part of what makes PAP/APs so quick to overlook "a few, isolated cases of abuse" in Ethiopian adoptions is the prevalent belief that there are 6 million orphans in Ethiopia that are institutionalized or living on the streets, and they need homes.

Now, I applaud the parents who recognize that there are many children who need parents/families and who are willing to become a part of the solution. But the view that international adoption is the "fix" for the orphan crisis in Ethiopia is as naive as believing that there are millions of orphans just waiting to be adopted.

I was privileged to have Amanda Cox, a Christian International Development Professional share with me the following information, which looks at the definition of orphans, street children, and the need for solutions.
UNICEF (and thus, worldwide child welfare organizations) defines orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents. So "orphans" worldwide are living...with their surviving parent. Yep. Up to 90% of "orphans" live with a surviving parent or a relative. (Emphasis mine)
First, I would like to point out that it is UNICEF's numbers that are quoted when we talk of the number of orphans in Ethiopia. In 2005, UNICEF estimated that there were 4.8 million orphans in Ethiopia, and so the number 5-6 million is generally used these days (new numbers from UNICEF are pending, so I will use the number 5 million since it is an easy number to work with.) But up to 90% (4.5 million) of those children still reside with a parent or other living relative. Yes, there are a lot of orphans in Ethiopia, but a rough estimate for the number who are in need of adoption (approximately 500,000 or less) is significantly less than the number "6 million orphans" that is used by adoption agencies to convince adoptive parents they are "rescuing" a child.

Well, what about the undocumented children? The children of poverty? The children who have nothing? The street children?
... "street children" is actually broken into two: Children of the street (those are the ones actually living alone and sleeping in the street) and children on the street or in the street. Those are more likely the vast majority of the ones you see in Ethiopia begging, selling gum, etc. They go home to their families at night. (Emphasis mine)
Yes, there are children who are living alone, in child-headed households, and/or sleeping in the street. But these children do not account for the majority of "street children" who we see in those poignant pictures... the ones we are heartbroken to help. So, if these numbers are true, why do we still persist under the belief that there are 5 million orphans in Ethiopia who need our help?
I've found that what we can see with our eyes when visiting a developing country or what we can discern by reading a website or blog are not always the realities on the ground. The reality on the ground in Ethiopia is that some children need intercountry adoption. The vast majority need family strengthening and preservation support. And reduced barriers to education! (Emphasis mine)
These children do need our help. But the help they need is not mainly through international adoption. It is primarily through the humanitarian work that will help them remain in their first families, receive education and health care, and provide for a bright future for them in their own family, country and culture.
... years of experience has definitely taught me that the average person (honestly no offense meant) cannot discern the on the ground, in the community, on the streets truths from a visit or two or from scanning basic literature. Each country has its own complex set of problems and each "solution" (including IA) can easily lead to a whole other and equally complex set of problems.    
Yes, international adoption is sometimes the appropriate and needed solution for some children. But even then, it does not come without a plethora of associated complications and problems. They are serious and complex, from the trauma, loss, and grief that adoption causes to the child, to the unethical and corrupt practices that can stem from an over-stressed system struggling to meet the demands of wealthy Westerners... practices that can include harvesting and trafficking.

Sadly, though, while many well-meaning people speak out and condemn child trafficking that results in children being placed into sex slave or slave labor situations, they condone child trafficking that results in children being placed into affluent, loving, Western/American homes. I believe this is partially because they want a child to love, partially because they do believe that a few trafficked children is worth the cost of many children being placed into homes, but mostly because they believe they are giving the child a better future- a future that anyone should want- that anyone should be glad to have.... even if it's at the cost of losing their first family and native culture.

So, is there an "orphan crisis" in Ethiopia? 

We see the orphanages and care centers that are filled to and beyond capacity. And we know that there are orphans in Ethiopia. We know that there are children for whom, sadly, family preservation efforts would not work because their birth family had died or is otherwise unavailable or unable to care for them. We know that there are some children who have been institutionalized for years. But does this constitute an "orphan crisis"?

Consider this: before IA became well-known within Ethiopia, there were only three orphanages in the country. Yes, they were crowded, but they were it. A handful of the children in the whole of Ethiopia. Most other children- even those considered orphans, were cared for in families.

But then the word was spread (by adoption agencies and their on-the-ground partners) that children could be placed into American homes. That children could have a better future, an education, health care. That they could go to America and grow up, and then come back home to their village. That American families would support the siblings and parents who remained in Ethiopia. That money was available for families who placed their child or children into orphanages for adoption. Suddenly, and not surprisingly, there was a boom in the number of children relinquished and abandoned... and adoptive parents had an endless supply of young, relatively healthy children.

This may sound extreme- cynical even. But this is what happened that led to orphanages full of children. I certainly believe that there are still many children who are orphaned and in need of adoption, but these children are rarely 2 month old healthy infants. They are the older children (older than 3, but most older than 5), children in sibling groups, children who have developmental delays, health concerns, HIV, deformities, etc. These are the children that are waiting in orphanages... I saw them for myself, and the numbers provided by people on the ground, working with orphans support this.

So, is there an orphan crisis? I believe that any child who is without a family is in crisis, so in one way, yes, there is a orphan crisis. But there is not an "orphan crisis" as you are led to believe by people who are trying to get you to spend money and adopt through them. There are not 6 million orphans in Ethiopia waiting for loving homes. Even the "orphans" who have no living parents and who cannot be maintained in their villages are not always legally available for adoption.

There is a crisis in Ethiopia. A crisis that is based on the lies of those who harvest and traffic children for profit. A crisis that comes when people make money by placing children for adoption and lose money when assisting children to remain with their birth families. A crisis that ensues when the limited resources of a country are expected to be used for the smallest percentage of vulnerable children, while the vast majority of vulnerable children are left unserved by the government and NGOs. There is a crisis in Ethiopia, but it's a humanitarian crisis. It's a crisis that diverts resources from the many, many unadoptable children in favor of freeing resources for the few children who will be adopted. This is a crisis... a crisis for the many children who are and always will be left behind.

And I believe MOWA's recent actions place them in the best position to address the crises facing the orphan care system in Ethiopia: the crisis of corruption and the crisis of limited resources for a vulnerable population.

1 comment:

M. said...

As an Ethiopian I can only thank you for the brilliant analysis. I knew this to be true (I lived there until recently), but news/media and adoption advocacy groups prefer the sensational but inaccurate statistics instead of the truth. It's truly unfortunate.

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