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Children at the Nyumbani Orphanage for children with HIV in Karen, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.
Associated Press/Photo by Ben Curtis
Children at the Nyumbani Orphanage for children with HIV in Karen, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.

Adoption under fire

Adoption | During November, National Adoption Month, watch for noisy attacks on international adoption. Not getting as much attention: hundreds of thousands of dead orphans

Issue: "Probing international adoption," Nov. 16, 2013

International adoption is under assault. In 2013 a rash of negative stories with sensational titles, such as “Evangelicals and the Fake Orphan Racket” and “Orphan Fever: The Evangelical Movement’s Adoption Obsession,” have made their way into print, and Kathryn Joyce’s The Child Catchers has spawned articles about child trafficking and corruption. The attacks are propelling questions: What’s in the best interest of children? How important is cultural continuity? Should children have a right to a stable family, even if the family is in a different country? Do children belong to the state?

Although intercountry adoption has many prominent supporters, the hostile-to-adoption side is winning: In 2012, only 8,668 children found families in the United States through intercountry adoption. Eight years earlier, 22,884 orphans did. Even at its peak, intercountry adoption provided families for a mere trickle of the 17.9 million double orphans—those without mother or father—in the world.

The war on international adoption is succeeding because Joyce and others emphasize adoptions gone awry. Stories about adopted parents indicted for abuse, children who say they were stolen from their homes, and a desperate mom sending her Russian son back to Moscow have all received massive play. But what about the 300,000 orphans under age 5 who die each year in sub-Saharan Africa? We rarely hear moving stories about them because for the most part they are invisible to Americans.

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I did hear the story of one orphan with nut brown skin and eyes, and soft dark hair with a suggestion of curls. Tymm and Laura Hoffman were in the process of adopting the baby they named Brighton Asher, but they never had the opportunity to cuddle him, change his diaper, or learn his various cries. He died in Ethiopia on Jan. 9, 2008, in a hospital thousands of miles from the Hoffman’s home in Atlanta. He had spent most of the 76 days he lived in an Ethiopian orphanage, where he eventually became sick with pneumonia and diarrhea.

I also spoke with the would-be adoptive parents of a 2-year-old they named Cruz Chernat Besk. He was suffering from malaria, TB, and kwashiorkor, a severe form of malnutrition, when his father brought him to the orphanage. The staff sent him to Addis Ababa, where he spent 25 days in the hospital, received nutrients through a feeding tube, and had two blood transfusions. Then Cruz went from the hospital to a transition home to await adoption.

Catherine and Kenny Besk of Santa Cruz, Calif., learned on Aug. 15 that they had been matched with Cruz. They talked to specialists at Stanford so they could hit the ground running when he arrived in America. A friend in Ethiopia visited Cruz at the transition home and taped a short video, which shows him sitting up and flipping through a book of family photographs sent by the Besks. He looks at the camera and chants, “AYAY! AYAY” (“you see, you see”), just as the video clicks off. The next day, Cruz—nicknamed “old man” because he knew everyone’s name—went to the hospital. On Sept. 12, 2013, he died—25 months to the day after his birth.

Cruz’s death wasn’t directly caused by adoption delays. He was sick, and couldn’t overcome his poor beginnings. We know his story only because he was in the adoption pipeline, but hundreds of thousands of similar children die under the radar. Tymm Hoffman says in the past seven years he’s talked to more than 50 families with the same experience. Adoption proponent Elizabeth Bartholet of Harvard Law School says tragedies like those of Brighton and Cruz are frequent: “For most unparented children the real alternative to international adoption is life, or death, in institutions or on the street.”

Research backs that up. In “Who Wants to Adopt and Who Wants to Be Adopted,” Christopher Balding and Feng Yan, both Ph.D.s., studied orphans in sub-Saharan Africa and found that orphans who live with extended family members receive “less education than biological siblings.” When resources are scarce, orphans “were given less developmental assistance … even when provided with additional public assistance.”

Similarly, Princeton researchers found “orphans are significantly disadvantaged” when it comes to school enrollment. Ann Case and her co-authors found a bias against orphans, which was worse when children lived with distant relatives and nonrelatives: “The degree of relatedness between orphans and their adult caregivers is highly predictive of children’s outcomes.”

David Smolin of Samford Law School agrees that some institutional care is harmful, but dwells on positive in-country solutions for orphans: family preservation, domestic adoption or foster care, and “family-like” institutional care—“in effect, boarding schools for the poor, providing children with opportunities for education and adequate nutrition.” 

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