Last year, a couple of weeks before Christmas while my husband and I were out shopping, he turned to me and said, “Why don’t we just adopt a child from Syria?” His statement was due—in large part—to the current and ongoing refugee crisis and a result of reading and viewing horrific news almost daily about families forced to flee their homelands for safety. My husband obviously knows that there’s no such thing as “just” adopting, but he was expressing his solution to a need.
“It’s not that easy,” I began, “to adopt a refugee child.” I continued to share what I have learned over the past couple of years on the topic:
‘It’s actually against U.N. Regulations to adopt refugee children from many countries because there has to be proof that no relatives exist. That is a process which could take years.”
I continued, “The purpose of fostering unaccompanied refugee minors, however, is not to adopt but to help the youth adjust to a new culture, learn the language, and basically learn whatever skills are necessary for them to live independently as an adult.”
I purposely stressed the word “fostering” because providing refugee foster care is a topic I have discussed with my husband on more than one occasion over the past couple of years. More than once, I have contacted the director of an agency in my state which contracts with Catholic Community Services to provide foster homes for unaccompanied refugee minors. I grilled the director with many questions about the requirements and training process to become a foster home and even the backgrounds of the youth who are available to foster. This director was gracious and more than happy to answer all of my questions. After much discussion, my husband and I decided that although fostering unaccompanied refugee minors is something that we would like to do in the future, for various reasons the timing is not right for our family right now.
My husband became angry after my response about not being able to adopt refugee children so easily. He wasn’t angry at me, mind you, but at the inequality which some people—namely refugees and orphans—must face. He retorted with a rhetorical question: “Then what good is it for a child to languish in an impoverished camp when there are homes that are more than willing to take them in?!” Sometimes I wish more people were like my husband—when he sees someone in need or marginalized in some way, he becomes very driven to make the situation fair.
It was ironic that the month my husband and I had our aforementioned discussion was December—Christmastime—and there was also a feature story in Time Magazine about the lives of four different babies born in the war-torn region of Syria. There will be further issues which follow up on how each baby and their families are faring.
Doubtless, there may be some reading this post who are thinking, “But why are you worried about children from across the world when there are hundreds of thousands of children right here in the U.S. foster care system who need homes?” This brings me to an observation I’ve made about some members of the fostering/adoption/orphan care community:
I’ve noticed that sometimes people feel so passionately about a cause that they assume everyone should feel the same way—or perhaps they feel that a cause they are drawn to should take precedence over other similar causes. Of course, this happens in a very general sense with a variety of issues but what I’m talking about specifically is those who have fostered or adopted from foster care and feel that their route to adoption is more noble or worthy than, say, a private domestic adoption. Or, those who are so concerned about orphans around the world that they push for international adoption but don’t focus on foster care adoption. Which cause is “right or wrong”?
In my opinion, anytime someone feels inspired to help another human being—especially children, who are the most vulnerable of humans—then it is a worthy cause. Period. Therefore, domestic adoption is right. International adoption is right and worthy. Foster care adoption is a right and worthy pursuit as well. It’s not a contest or debate between which cause is worthiest or which way is best. I do, however, feel strongly that certain individuals feel “called” to very specific types of adoption, based —among other things — on what is best suited for their family. Allow me to share an example:
I have a friend who is a mother to six children. She has more than one child with special needs—including Down Syndrome—and two of her children were adopted. This friend, Rebecca, has become a huge advocate not only for adoption but for special needs adoption because of her family’s experiences. I might add, her adopted children are a different race than her biological children, so she’s well versed in the complexities of interracial adoption issues as well. I was delighted to learn that Rebecca is in the process of adopting an older child with special needs from China.
A major motivation for Rebecca advocating for the adoption of special needs children in China is the realization that many of these kids with special needs—which covers a huge definition and range of circumstances—run the risk of aging out of their orphanages as young as 14 years old and then they are left to live in an institution. If these same children were able to live in the United States, or another country, they could have access to so many services not available to them, not to mention they could live in a FAMILY rather than an institution for the remainder of their lives.
Back to the point of this example: Shortly after Rebecca publicly announced her family’s plans to adopt from China, she answered a frequently asked question. Although I love Bek’s humor and frankness in answering the question, I also thought it was very sad that she even had to explain or justify her family’s plans to adopt:
- “Why China? Aren’t there enough kids in America that need homes?” (unspoken, and sometimes spoken— “that seems selfish”).
- (Unspoken, sometimes spoken). None of your business! Actually, as Bek and her family are learning, being an out loud family means questions or comments are part of the package. Teaching moments abound. “Why China? I don’t know, really. One year ago, I had never spent ten seconds thinking about China. Every family is different. For my family, that’s where our kid was.”
I don’t know any family that goes into adoption without thinking long and hard about what works for them. It’s pretty personal. I know some people who have always dreamed of adopting from there. For us, we live in a place that has lots of Mandarin speakers, restaurants, and have close friends who are Chinese. Our boy won’t lack for people to help him transition. Our cousin lives in our apartment and is not only the best auntie around, she also speaks Mandarin!
And … there ARE lots of kids in our country that need homes. If you have seven hours, I can have that conversation with you. Kids in our foster care system often have lots of trauma before they are available for adoption. Not everyone is equipped to parent that kind of need. And the very last thing that is good for kids is to have a placement disrupted because no one was properly prepared. So, if you are going to float that question with anyone—especially me—the first thing I will ask you is either how many kids from foster care that YOU are adopting, or I will ask something very intimate about your sex life. Like a person’s sex life, choices on building a family belong only to the people involved. Mostly, people are curious. And that’s ok! It’s fun though to play around with the crunchy people.
I happen to feel very passionately about foster care. There is such a need for good foster homes. However, I would never pressure anyone into fostering because it’s hard work and it’s not for everyone. But, I myself have been guilty myself of judging others for not recognizing the need of providing children in the United States with temporary or permanent homes. Allow me to share one example:
A couple of years ago, a dear friend of mine visited Africa as part of a humanitarian trip. As part of the services rendered, she was able to visit an orphanage. She immediately fell in love with the children she saw, especially those with special needs who could benefit greatly from advanced medical care and early intervention services available in the U.S. Before returning home from her trip she confided in me that, as crazy as it sounded, she wanted to bring home one of the babies from the orphanage to adopt—literally.
Of course, when I heard of my friend’s plans I was like, “Whoa, Nellie! I know you have contacts over there, but what agency do you plan on going through? Is it a Hague Accredited Agency? Otherwise, you could legally run the risk of human trafficking regardless of how worthy your intentions might be. Adoption isn’t a process like picking out a puppy from a pound and taking them home. There is a LOT of paperwork involved, research, and how are you going to get a home study approved so fast and background checks for all members of your family?”
My friend is extremely compassionate so her desire to bring relief to the orphans she
interacted with came as no surprise to me. After all, who wouldn’t be moved to bring home a child from an orphanage after visiting, right? It was the way my friend was approaching the situation, rather than her desire to help, that concerned me. And here’s where I started to feel somewhat judgmental towards my friend. I thought to myself, “If she wants to adopt a child or provide an environment and opportunities to a child that they would not have otherwise why is it that she has to go halfway around the world to do that? There are literally over 100,000 children in the U.S foster care system legally freed for adoption who would benefit from being in her home and in her family. Are these kids not exotic enough or special enough?”
Fortunately, I recognized that I was being judgmental and so I settled down and just left it at “That’s AWESOME that she had a life-changing experience. She wants to make a difference. Good for her!” And, in case you’re wondering, she didn’t end up adopting an orphan but she does have additional humanitarian trips planned in her future because of her experiences.
My point in sharing these stories and experiences is that it really is rather silly to argue about which path to adoption is best, or most needful. Every family or individual’s decision to adopt is a very personal one. It’s kind of like, when I see people getting into heated political arguments about “Which is better: to use our tax money to support homeless veterans or to provide relief for refugees?” My personal feeling is that it’s not an either/or situation—how about BOTH!
So the next time you hear someone expressing a view, about which is “better/more needful”—adopting a child from another country, adopting domestically, adopting an infant, or adopting an older child—perhaps we can remember that ALL of them are wonderful options!
Mary Memmott is a mother, blogger, and soon-to-be graduate student of social work. She and her husband have three children who joined their family through domestic and foster adoptions. The Memmott family has been fostering children in their home for over ten years and Mary enjoys writing about her experiences on mamamem.blogspot.com.