I'm a mother of three adopted boys; I love all things computer science; and I'm a former teacher and administrator. Love wins.
If children in overseas orphanages don't get adopted as children, it is at best a life of suffering and at worst a literal death sentence.
Before I adopted my first child from an orphanage overseas, I did some research online about adoption. This was several years ago, but as we're now adopting our third, my research energies have been relaunched. Sadly, what I find now is the same as what I found then: most people don't get it.
When you're adopting internationally, the question that gets asked over and over is, "There are so many children here who need homes. Why not adopt a child here in the U.S.?"
Why Not Adopt Here in the U.S.?
It's Different Than Foster Care
What so many people fail to understand here is that the foster care system here in the States, while riddled with problems and areas for reform, is basically humane, at least in principle.
In general, care for orphans in many other countries is nothing like that in the U.S. It is not based on a familial structure, the way foster care is. The court is not trying to facilitate an improvement in the birth parents' capacity and behavior, with an ultimate goal of family reunification. Here, the foster family has mandatory training and oversight, and the overall objective is to help the child maintain some sense of normalcy and stability, however remote that might actually be.
In many other countries, large quantities of children are dumped into institutions that we know as "orphanages". And for special needs children, abandonment by their families might even be encouraged. An orphanage is often a place where children are just kept alive, and sometimes barely. There is typically no plan for their education, for their specific medical needs, for their social and emotional needs, for their futures. Really, there is no "life" per se...pumping a human with a bare amount of food and liquid a few times a day does not a life make. The scene of the human pods in The Matrix comes to mind, but at least in that example, they're not experiencing pain.
Our First Adoption
When we adopted our first son David from a country in Eastern Europe, these are the conditions we found:
- Children nine years old, weighing 10 lbs.
- Skeletal-looking teenagers still lying in cribs
- Children in diapers that were changed every 12 hours (our son had constant UTIs when we first got him)
- Because our son had not been out of his crib prior to age four, he had not grown hair on the back of his head due to lying on his back all day.
- The orphanage was full of special needs children who had never gone to school or received any kind of intervention or therapies.
- Hardly any of them spoke, and it seemed this was because no one had ever talked to them.
- Several of the children, as was the case with our son, just rocked and banged their head on their cribs or the wall all day for stimulation and to help soothe their discomfort.
- Our son was about to turn five —he was about two feet tall and 20 pounds. When we first took him outside, he began eating leaves off the ground.
- The upstairs floor was the "dying floor". The children whose conditions deteriorated the most were moved up to the most inaccessible part of the orphanage to die—nameless and alone.
I know of other children, adopted from similar situations, who have had refeeding syndrome; this is what survivors of concentration camps had, which is why they could not immediately be served large meals. Basically, when someone has been starved, the body becomes unable to process food. Children like this have to be hospitalized as soon as they arrived in the States if they survive the long adoption process and the trip home.
In spite of this (and contributing to this), international adoptions have declined 50% since 2004 according to the Show Hope foundation. It might raise the question why more families in such countries don't adopt. Many do, but the need outweighs the available solutions. This will be discussed more in an upcoming post.
Children Who Age Out
Once children reach an age where they are no longer adoptable, the prospects are almost worse, if that can even be imagined. For children who are somewhat independent, they would often be turned out onto the street as teenagers with no money, no means to support themselves, no network of support. For many, this means a life of drugs, prostitution, and suicide.
As an aside, there are many children who have chosen to live on the streets rather than endure life at an orphanage...this is a topic for another post.
For special needs young adults, it means they will spend the rest of their lives in an adult mental institution—medicated, tied to their beds, and occasionally with chores to do around the institution, such as emptying the toilets. There are many children who simply die when they get transferred to an adult institution because the life there is so hard.
Some Countries Have Better Foster Care Systems in Place
Caveat: It bears mentioning that some regions in some countries are trying to break the cycle by placing more children in foster care. But understand, in 2015 there were 140 million orphans worldwide according to UNICEF. (Why is this the case? How did so many children become separated from their families? That will be discussed in an upcoming post.)
And rather than accuse the caregivers at the orphanages of being cold and indifferent, it helps to understand that many are well-meaning but are untrained, underpaid, overworked in places that are understaffed and underfunded.
Also, the orphanage from which our second son was adopted -- in a different country -- was warm and pleasant. He received very good care there, so it's not accurate to say that all orphanages are categorically horrific.
Still, to answer the question of why we have not adopted in the U.S., the answer is that as many problems exist with our domestic foster care system, it does not rank with the systemic abuse and neglect that so many orphans experience worldwide.
- Orphans | Press centre | UNICEF
UNICEF and global partners define an orphan as a child who has lost one or both parents. By this definition there were over 132 million orphans in...
- 3 Things You Should Know About the Orphan Crisis—Show Hope
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.