December 12, 2008
The problem with saving the world's 'orphans'
By E.J. Graff
December 11, 2008
IT'S THE TIME of year when we are deluged with appeals to save the
world's millions of orphans. On TV, in the newspaper, in our
mailboxes, we see sad-eyed children who are starved for food, clothes,
and affection. Surely only Ebenezer Scrooge (or his Seuss-ical
incarnation, the Grinch) could turn away with a hard heart.
But when these appeals are combined with glamorous examples like
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's world adoption tour, would-be
humanitarians can arrive at a dangerous belief: Western families can -
and should - help solve this "world orphan crisis" by adopting.
It's true that, sometimes, international adoption can save a child's
life. But be very careful. By heading to a poor, underdeveloped, or
war-torn country to adopt a baby, Westerners can inadvertently achieve
the opposite of what they intend. Instead of saving a child, they may
create an orphan. The large sums of money that adoption agencies offer
for poor countries' babies too often induce unscrupulous operators to
buy, coerce, defraud, or kidnap children from families that would have
loved, cared for, and raised those children to adulthood.
How does this misunderstanding happen? One problem is the word
"orphan." UNICEF reports 132 million orphans worldwide. UNICEF's odd
definition includes "single orphans" who have lost just one parent,
and "double orphans" being cared for by extended families. Admirably
enough, UNICEF is trying to raise money to offer assistance and
support to these children's families, and to build functioning child
welfare systems that will benefit entire communities. But few
Americans would think of these children as "orphans."
Another problem is that the abandoned or orphaned children who
actually do need homes are rarely the healthy infants or toddlers that
most Westerners feel prepared to adopt. The majority of children who
need "forever families," as the adoption industry puts it, are five or
older, disabled, chronically ill, traumatized, or otherwise in need of
extra care. The exception is China, where the one-child policy led to
an epidemic of abandoned girls. But China's abandoned babies are
historically unique. In Africa, for instance, children may be orphaned
because their parents have died of AIDS or malaria or TB. In the
former Soviet bloc, the parents may have died or lost custody because
of alcohol-related illnesses or domestic violence. In Asia, the
children themselves may be HIV-positive or suffer from chronic
But from an adoption agency's standpoint, these needy orphans are not
very "marketable." So here's the bad news: to meet Western families'
longings to adopt healthy babies, many adoption agencies pour
disproportionately enormous sums into poor, corrupt countries - few
questions asked - in search of healthy children ages three and under.
Those sums can induce some locals to buy, coerce, defraud or kidnap
children from their families. Traumatically, these children are
deprived of their families, and families are deprived of their
Consider that, after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989,
institutionalized Romanian children desperately needed families.
Thousands of generous Westerners went to Romania to adopt - but were
swindled into buying babies directly from families who would not
otherwise have relinquished. Similarly, for more than a decade in
Guatemala, few Westerners were adopting needy abandoned children; far
too often, they were effectively - albeit unintentionally - buying
healthy babies solicited (in some cases, apparently, conceived and
borne) specifically for the adoption trade. Guatemala and Romania have
halted international adoption because of widespread corruption. As the
respected nonprofit World Vision UK put it, "The urge to adopt across
continents is well meaning but misguided."
Don't harden your heart to those sad-eyed "orphans" - but don't feel
guilty if you can't (or don't want to) become a Jolie-Pitt world
adoption mission. Rather than trying to rescue a single child, which
can induce trafficking, invest in and rescue a community, thus
preventing children from being orphaned by poverty or disease. Buy
supplies for underprivileged schools. Invest in clean water or
housing. Go on a medical mission. And remember that most families -
like your own - would do almost anything to keep their babies home and
to raise them well.
E.J. Graff is associate director and senior researcher at Brandeis
University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Read her
investigation into adoption corruption at www.brandeis.edu/investigate.