Dr. Jane Aronson is a beloved and dedicated figure in the world of international adoption. It's a big deal when she weighs in, which she did this week in response to recent coverage of adoption fraud like the exposes in The New York Times about China's system along with extensive coverage by the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, ABC, and other weighty news outfits. (I've reported extensively on the underlying systemic issues; you can find my work and related resources here.)
Here's what matters most: Aronson told the adoption lobby that adoption is not the solution for the world's needy children. She asks:
Why did we create such a marvelous bureaucracy to improve international adoption practices and not pour some of that money into the welfare of mothers in these countries?
Substitute "families" for "mothers" -- some of those children are living with grandmothers, sisters, or cousins -- and that's the right question. Although UNICEF is often quoted as saying that there are 163 million orphans today, few people understand that the vast majority of those have lost only one parent -- and most of the rest are living with extended families. In much of Asia and Africa, when children are living in institutions, it's not because their parents are dead; rather, it's because their families are too poor to keep them alive or have no childcare during the long days of bringing in the harvest. What we might call "orphanages" are usually child-welfare centers, places for the families to be certain that children are fed, housed, and educated. One African social-welfare minister declared, years ago, that there are no orphanages in Africa, just boarding schools for poor children. Our country has gone through that phase as well; a family friend of mine grew up spending his weekdays in an orphanage in Cleveland, going home to his working mother on the weekends.
Adoption, as Aronson emphasizes here, doesn't solve this problem. What does? I've heard about some incredibly simple initiatives to enable children to stay with their families: PEPFAR gives seeds to grandmothers so they can grow vegetables and feed their AIDS-orphaned grandchildren or pays those children's school fees so they can get an education without being officially relinquished. (Free public education is a developed-world luxury.) Sometimes needy children do need new adoptive families -- the post-Soviet countries, in particular, still have many orphanages filled with developmentally starved children who were genuinely abandoned or taken away from alcoholic or abusive families -- but far more often, what's needed is support for existing families,so children are not given away because of parental illness or destitution.
But here's what Aronson overlooks: The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, the "marvelous bureaucracy" of which she speaks and that was created to respond to growing reports of adoption-related fraud, coercion, and kidnapping, doesn't merely put in place regulations to oversee adoption agencies. It also requires that its signatory countries create a healthy social-welfare infrastructure that assesses what kinds of help families might need to care for their children -- and if those families are abusive or incapable, finds the right kind of homes. The Hague Permanent Bureau sends teams to evaluate and improve that infrastructure. So does UNICEF -- which is, you may be surprised to know, hated by a large part of the adoption community. So do UNAIDS, PEPFAR, USAID, and a variety of dedicated nonprofits and NGOs -- none of which work on adoption. Many different actors are working to help families keep their children home. Needless to say, none are adequate.
But it is important that the United States and other countries watch out for fraudulent adoption practices -- because such fraud can undermine all those folks who are trying to do good. So long as local entrepreneurs in poor or corrupt countries realize how much money there is to be made by exporting healthy children, they will find ways to hijack humanitarian aid, development money, and international donations into "orphanages" that are actually profit centers.