Last week, the largest Christian adoption agency in the United States announced it will end international adoptions. More than 15,000 children had been adopted since the late 1970s through Bethany Christian Services.
Bethany’s decision was not because they didn’t believe in the program but because of their “desire to serve children in their own communities,” said Kristi Gleason, the vice president for global services at Bethany, in a statement. “The future of adoption is working with local governments, churches, and social services professionals around the world to recruit and support local families for children and to develop and improve effective, safe in-country child welfare systems.”
To that end, part of these efforts has meant turning away from institutionalized care, or orphanages. One of the leaders in this effort has been Ukraine, says Micala Siler, the executive director of A Family for Every Orphan.
“From what I've seen in Romania and Ukraine firsthand most recently, because of the hard work of Christians to change cultural mindsets and help refine government system, these countries have the foundation to be countries without orphanages in the next 15 to 20 years.” said Siler.
Siler joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss the bigger reasons why there’s been a move to move children from orphanages to familial situations, how adoption culture is growing in countries around the world, and the difference Christians have made in this conversation.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #198
When we're talking about adoption and adoptees, who we're actually talking about?
Micala Siler: That’s a bit of a loaded question because how we define the word “orphan” really makes a big difference.
In a recent USAID document, they defined “single orphans” as children who've lost one parent and then “double orphans” as children who had lost both parents. But then there's a whole spectrum of “social orphans,” who basically just don't have a parental figure caring for them in a family setting.
So who's eligible to be adopted today is generally children without living parents—both are deceased—they're the ones who are first eligible to be adopted. And then children whose biological parents’ rights have been severed for whatever reason. It could be the social factors such as they were doing drugs and they just never were able to get themselves rehabilitated and to a point where they could care for their children successfully what could have been any other number of factors.
So generally it's children who've gone through a formal process of having their parental rights severed from them or children who don't have living parents.
In most of the countries, or at least the countries that you're working in, is there always like the same kind of legal framework as far as severing parental rights? Is there always this kind of like intricate legal component that is present there?
Micala Siler: It's less formal in some of the less developed countries, as far as their legal practices and their social welfare services.
I can speak mostly to Ukraine since I've been here for about six months now and we've been working here for the past 10 years. I can talk to the fact that it is different. Their process for determining the rights of parents. Sometimes different countries have different levels of supporting parental rights versus the child's rights, so they might go through a very different process in determining that parent no longer has legal rights to their child.
In countries that have a developed social welfare system that leads to adoptions and foster care, they generally do have some formal process for severing the rights of biological parents.
So what has changed? And what's been the driving factors on some of this change that we're seeing in adoption practices?
Micala Siler: There are so many factors that influence the development of the infrastructure for adoption and foster care in any country.
One thing that I've noticed in our time with A Family for Every Orphan is that a lot of countries who've had international adoptions happening in them start to see adoption as a viable solution. There are also requirements in order for countries to be part of, for example, the European Union, they have to have some sort of child protection laws and they have to be part of the Hague Convention now, which has regulations on the process for legally adopting a child, whether it's international or within the country.
Some of these regulations have helped to prod governments forward in developing their social welfare services, in developing models of best child welfare practices, that we've already benefited from in the United States and other countries like the United Kingdom or Germany. I think that would be the reason that there's been a shift.
As a country is working through a lot of other problems, this particular issue may have taken a back burner while they're trying to figure out other parameters for legal institutions and everything else.
Is it generally a shift from adoption to foster care? Or is it a shift from international adoption to in-country adoption?
Micala Siler: I think what we're seeing in Ukraine specifically—since I can talk to that most firsthand—is that it's both.
The issue is that adoption is limited. It's basically a discrete number. The number of children that can be adopted out of the system is only as high as the number of children who have an adoptable status—so we’re talking about their parental rights have been severed or they have to be defined as a double orphan.
In Ukraine, there are only 6,000 children in the system with this adoptable status. The issue that you run into is that you need an alternative form of care to provide a family-based solution for children who don’t have this status. And that's where foster care is incredibly important—either as a temporary solution for children whose rights they're trying to determine or as a solution for children who will have a difficult time being placed long term for any number of reasons. It could be children with special needs that may not be as easily adoptable in some developing nations, where they don't have the services to support caring for a child like that in your home environment.
Is there a difference between the families that are passionate about adoption versus the families that are interested in foster care?
Micala Siler: It’s hard to categorize all of the families into one personality or one community. But I think trends are showing that these families often have ideals or values that would lead them to want to care for children. And generally, Christians have the concept of caring for orphans placed on their hearts and minds from a very early age.
It says in James 1:27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.” I think a lot of Christians have taken that as a value that they are required to somehow care for orphans, whether it's through adoption or foster care. And so those are the families who are willing to foster, then, of course, their values are going to be in line with the families who are willing to adopt.
One problem that we have seen—and this was reiterated when I was in Romania recently—is that having an incentive for families to foster is often necessary because there are families that are very good, have very strong values, and very good philanthropic hearts and want to help children, and they want to do it for the right reason, but they just need a little bit of assistance to be able to provide the resources to the children that they don't have otherwise on their own income. But there is a problem with some families doing it simply for money.
How do you incentivize a program like that, or provide aid to families who are doing it for the right reasons, without then bringing in a group of families that may not have been as well equipped, or the best-case scenario for a child to be living with, simply because they really like to make a few extra dollars on the side?
So that is a problem that they're addressing in Romania. How to incentivize it and provide the support necessary, but also to make sure that the families who are in those situations are the best possible case for each child, and that they're doing it for the right reason.
How do international NGOs play into some of those conversations?
Micala Siler: I can say that one way that they're doing it in Ukraine is that there's a movement here called Ukraine Without Orphans that is a national Christian movement of organizations and churches that have all recognized the need for working together to help provide families for children.
As just an example, they are going into churches and speaking on the necessity of having families adopt and foster. And so you're seeing Christian families coming forward with values based on biblical principles of caring for other people for no other reason than the fact that they love Jesus. And so when a lot of Christians are stepping forward and trying to provide this type of care, these church leaders can often vet the families that are coming forward as willing to adopt or foster.
In Ukraine, they've been able to use this opportunity in a setting where a lot of the laws and systems hadn't been established yet. They were able to be part of writing the policies and the infrastructure for vetting families and for setting up systems. And so churches were actually involved in developing some of the social welfare system.
This is true in the United States as well. You've had churches in Texas and Colorado come forward with these plans for social welfare services and providing homes for foster children. They've reduced the number of children in foster care who've now ended up getting adopted permanently by a huge percentage.
But a lot of times these churches and Christian NGOs were able to bring to the government something that was needed and that the government could say, “We recognize that you have a good concept, you have a good policy, have a good packet” or “We'll provide some of the development of this system, if you get good results, then we can work together.” And so it's using the platform of the church or even the platform of non-faith based NGOs to basically provide the government with a resource that they didn’t otherwise have, and then help implement a program that can really impact children down the road for a long time.
What about countries that don't necessarily have foster care or adoption type programs? What do they have instead?
Micala Siler: What we're seeing a lot in Africa specifically, and I know there are other cultures in South America and Asia—the Philippines is another example—there's a very much of a culture of caring for children, especially by extended relatives. And so you might have a four-times removed relative, but it's culturally the norm that he would provide family or some sort of care for that child. And so while it may not be a formal practice in many of these places, there's still often a culture of needing to care for the most vulnerable and needing to care for children.
And so while some of these countries don't have that in place, they do have these informal systems of trying to get children into families that could help them. But sometimes that backfires too, and sometimes the children's rights are not well protected. There are many cases of countries where they have a lot of children who are basically trafficked as slaves or servants or anything else in order to get them off the streets.
For an organization like your own is the hope in those countries to do something that's a little bit more formalized or do you want to create a system that seeks to preserve the best parts of that type of highly relational, less formal system that these countries have?
Micala Siler: Well, in every country that we work with, one of our prerequisites is that they have to be willing to have a very collaborative spirit with the government leaders. If there's not a collaborative spirit in working on a formal process, there's concern that children will be put in very vulnerable situations.
I think that's a very important aspect. Having some form of trying to develop a system or trying to have formal child welfare practices that are in that are on good sound methodology is really critical if you're going to support programs or projects for children in another country.
We’ve done some reporting on how orphanages globally are closing as more orphans are placed within home families. Is there any place where orphanages are still part of the ecosystem or has the tide completely gone out on an orphanage model?
Micala Siler: It's interesting that you asked that question because I actually just had a conversation about that with another NGO leader the other day. He works for a really great organization called Orphan Outreach.
We were talking about how especially when a country is going through a de-institutionalization process, it would be dangerous to just completely empty the orphanages and have children go somewhere besides an institution where there's some sort of regulation or some sort of a health check.
It would be absolutely dangerous, and putting children in much more vulnerable situations if there wasn't any type of an orphanage or institution system during the process of de-institutionalization. While they're going through this process, there's a time and a place to have institutional care.
And if we're honest about it, we don't call them orphanages in the U.S., but there are larger foster homes and there's still residential care for certain categories of situations that children are in. While we don't have orphanages and we don't want to be a culture of institutions, there are times when having the option for institutional care is very important.
I've heard of stories where even in the U.S. they were unable to find foster families on an immediate emergency basis that there were social workers sleeping in a hotel room with several children while they tried to find an emergency placement type of situation. This is in the U.S.
We have to be very careful not to demonize institutional care, as long as there's a mindset that we want to do it for the best interest of children in the long term. And with putting children into families, we've seen so many statistics and so many pieces of information that have promoted the idea that growing up in a healthy family is really the best place for a child. But that being said, we have to be very careful not to be polarized on the issue, that there is a place for orphanages in this process of de-institutionalization across the globe. And we have to have to be sensitive to that and careful that we don't do it too quickly so that it puts children in very serious and dangerous situations.
What drove the move away from orphanages in the first place?
Micala Siler: Well, in the last 20 years there have been a lot of studies on what happens to children after institutional care. And so this is one thing that we've become very involved in. And sometimes in the best case scenario, children will still have these very severe results or significant issues once leaving the orphanage.
For example, in Russia, they had statistics that show that about 50% of children had grown up in institutions were prone to a life of crime, 10% ended up committing suicide. You had about 40% of girls getting involved in some form of prostitution. There were studies in Romania that were done on children while they were in the institution, where they compared three different baby homes and they provided different models of care in each of these three, and the ones that were structured to be most like a family showed very significant differences in their abilities, in their social IQ, their emotional development, their cognitive and physical development even.
There's been some scientific proof as to why a family is a better situation than an institution. At the same time, when we're talking about does an institution have a place ever in this conversation, I think that's a different conversation because an institution might be necessary for a period of time while you're trying to transition a country to be able to safely put children into families.
How do you guys try to bring out the best of what the foster care system can do with regards to this family situation? And are there any things that you have learned from the American system and it's particular dysfunctions, and try to correct in other countries?
Micala Siler: That's another really interesting question and conversation because it is something that we're very aware of, especially when talking to our Ukrainian partners. So our Ukrainian partners have a very different perspective on, and definition of, what foster care is.
So foster care is much more long-term in general in Ukraine. It's similar in Romania where it's a much more long-term arrangement. But what it also means is that the child was first in an institution for a period of time, during those critical times when we might consider it in the U.S. to be an emergency placement into a foster home.
A lot of the volatility and the moving around we see in the U.S. often has to do with children going back for a period of time to biological parents that were trying to rehabilitate. And then potentially being pulled back out. This was the case for several of the foster children in my own family—I grew up as a foster sister. My parents were foster parents. Sometimes we saw that happen when children were pulled out of our family to be placed either with an extended relative for a period of time or they were placed back into their biological family situation. And then sometimes that went south, and they were replaced into another foster family or had the potential to come back to our family. So there is a lot of volatility in the foster care system, and I've definitely witnessed that firsthand.
What I think other countries are trying to do, and sometimes more successfully, is to make them more permanent placements. But then, for example, in Ukraine, they don't have a very good system set up for emergency foster care, on that initial stage when it's been determined that a family is unsafe for a child to live in. They don't have this list of foster families on call to say, “Can you take this child for this short period of time while we figure out and assess the situation better?” Either reunite them with the family or make a move to get them into a more permanent situation.
So I think you're seeing less volatility because they have more of an inclination to go straight to the residential or institutional care. But I can't speak to a lot of countries and what they're doing. I do know that in America there's a lot of experts working around that issue as well. That's going to be something that we're contending with as long as there's that issue of children needing a safe place to go for a short period of time.
What are some of the ways that American Christians are still going to be able to engage deeply with international orphan care? What can American Christians do beyond writing checks of support for international adoptive families and support families?
Micala Siler: A lot of people, a lot of donors, that we deal with would like to have more of a personal connection. I know that I can speak from my own personal perspective that there's a desire to be very connected to the children that you're trying to support and help.
One thing that's important for all of us to do is to become more educated, especially if there's a region or a country that we have a lot of interest in. It’s important is to get a lot of good information and to try to research as much as possible, and understand the situations that they're facing.
The more we have opportunities to travel to those countries and meet with leaders who are working on these problems at a national level, in organic organizations that live in a particular country that's trying to address domestic adoption and the legal infrastructure for foster care and everything else. The more information we have about that, the more we understand what they're going through, the more that we can help to make connections for them, or help to facilitate discussion, or work on their behalf to support the efforts that they're making or the progress that they're making on these issues. That's one avenue or one step.
We can't underestimate the power of prayer as well in this whole problem of trying to solve how children should best be in families.
I know that personal desire to want to reach out and actually touch the children and be able to do something for them is critical. And so I think another way might be to it—especially if people are interested in mission types programs—maybe they look for organizations that are doing something, especially with foster and adoptive parents. There’s a huge support and community that they need behind them in order to do it well, and especially in developing nations where they don't have a lot of money, don't have a lot of resources. And I'm not talking about just writing checks, I'm talking about somehow getting personally involved with these organizations that are providing support to local adoption and foster care projects. If there are ways to come to a country, to visit with those children, or to provide them with opportunities to go to trauma training or camps.
Or stay in touch via letters. This is something that some of our donors have done. They've stayed in touch with individual families that have made this big leap of faith to adopt children into their family. It's been a really special relationship and process as they hear the encouragement of other people from across the world.
With this trend away from international adoption, is there a feeling of angst among international adoptive families? Do these families need extra care right now?
Micala Siler: I certainly hope not. Jedd Medefind, the leader of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, just wrote a piece kind of in response to the decision that Bethany House Christian Services made with some takeaways that we can have as Christians.
And it was along the lines of like, it's very important for us as Christians not to be polarized on this issue. We need to recognize that adoption by any family, especially a family who has the best interest of a child in mind, is much better than the alternative. We have to recognize that there is a need for international adoption. There are many children that would have a very difficult time getting adopted locally within their respective countries of origin.
In response to your question, I really hope that there's not a new situation that adoptive families of internationally adopted children are finding themselves in. I really hope that we can, as Christians remain unpolarized on this issue and supportive of all families who've taken this great plunge to care for children.
International adoption is always going to have a place, and I really hope that organizations won't stop supporting that effort if it's something that they've been doing already. Bethany Christian Services’ decision to do that did reflect some of the same values that our organization has. We're excited about their affirmation of our shared values of partnering with national leaders and empowering local families to bring children to their homes. At the same time, I do hope that organizations will continue to facilitate international adoptions that already have been doing that.
While developing domestic adoption is so critical to helping as many children as possible, international adoption has and will continue to have a very important role and providing loving families for thousands of children every year who would not be adopted otherwise.
And so I hope that no family who's adopted internationally would ever feel that this is somehow a black mark against what they've done. I would hope that they feel that they've done their very best in providing a child who would not otherwise have a family with a family. And that's the most important thing that as Christians, we need to see and to support and being encouraging of.
Should we expect more organizations to make the same decision regarding international adoption that Bethany recently made?
Micala Siler: I do think with some of the regulations that have come down on international adoption—both been from the U S and other EU countries to try to prevent any sort of corruption or child trafficking and then there have also been some of the developing nations who placed restrictions on international adoption—it has caused a decrease in the number of opportunities for people to adopt internationally. And the cost has also increased because of some of the legal and bureaucratic work that's required to break through the barrier of international adoption. So it may be a trend that we'll see in the future with other organizations.
But as I said, I do really hope that we'll continue to see international adoption as a viable option and that there will be good regulations surrounding it so that it can continue as an option or alternative for domestic adoption when they're in children who would have a very difficult time being placed in their own country.
When I say that, I’m referencing children who may have large sibling groups or children with very special needs, where their country may not have the capacity to support treatment of those special needs within their communities currently. Children like that, I really hope for their sake and for the sake of many other children who are older in the adoption system, that they would have an opportunity to be adopted internationally as well.
Any other predictions about how things might change in the next century with regards to these children being taken care of?
Micala Siler: It is my firm belief in the next century, we're going to see significant progress in de-institutionalizing orphan care around the world. And when I say deinstitutionalization, this is a kind of a term that they've been throwing around a lot in Ukraine and other EU countries.
They're trying to develop systems that can provide family-based care for children. And I do think that from what I've seen in Romania and Ukraine firsthand most recently, that because of the hard work of Christians to change cultural mindsets and help refine government system, these countries have the foundation to be countries without orphanages in the next 15 to 20 years.
And I hope that they've had to be example of countries like Ukraine that have become kind of world leaders for other developing nations on this particular issue, that we will see a change in the number of adoptions happening domestically and the number of institutions that are closing because their community's willing and able to support foster care, adoption, and all of the preventive services needed to keep children with their biological families.
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