Monday, October 04, 2010

Adoption (or, me and my mixed feelings)

Yes, I have mixed feelings.

On many, many things.

And I'm over it.  :)  I've been indecisive and decision-averse my entire life.  So this is nothing new for me. 

'Tis a quirk that I've learned to live with.

Something I REALLY feel conflicted about though is adoption.

Yes, adoption.

And I'm an adoptive mom!

I know lots of other adoptive moms.

I know the sad truth of the global orphan crisis and the limited future that orphans face in a developing country.

But I also know the ethical problems and trafficking allegations and all-around yuckiness that inevitably comes with adoption.

As with most things (religion, life, parenting, everything) I wish there were a super easy, black-and-white, bottom line answer.  An across the board solution.  (If you couldn't tell, I LIKE having things tied up all neatly in a nice little predictable box.  And if you also couldn't tell, God has a fabulous sense of humor because He has blessed me with five small children.)

But there's not.

I think anytime there is a product for which there is also a demand, greed comes to call.  And when it comes to adoption (mostly I'm speaking of Ethiopian adoption, but this is true of many other countries as well), there is a HUGE demand-outweighing-the-supply problem.   HUGE.  Waiting lists for healthy baby girls are unbelievably long, for example.  On the surface, people might be tempted to think that this is a GOOD sign.  Families are lining up to take children needing homes.

But the problem is that there are so very many children needing homes TODAY, right now, this very second.  They are not generally, however, healthy baby girls.  (With the masses waiting in line for them.)  They are teenagers, sibling sets, HIV+, born with Down syndrome, diabetic, hearing-impaired, developmentally delayed.  They have Hep B and cleft palates and Cerebral Palsy.  They have "unknowns."  THEY are the truly waiting children.  THEY are the faces that comprise what we call the global orphan crisis.  Kids waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for families.  Considered unadoptable by most adopting families.

People don't like to talk about this aspect of adoption.  It's uncomfortable.  I think most adoptive families like to believe that not only are they adding a child to the mix, they are also helping a child without a home.  Giving a family to a child in need.  It makes us feel warm and fuzzy inside, and like we're participating in something bigger than ourselves and being part of the solution.  Not everyone is willing to shell out thousands of dollars and travel half-way around the world to make a difference, after all.

 This is what we tell ourselves.

I don't know if you've followed some of the stories of unethical agency practices.  I've watched with dismay as adoption agencies have witheld information, mixed up children (yes this happened to a sweet friend of mine), and participated in "harvesting" (going to rural areas and essentially "recruiting" children, from their birth families, for adoption.)  These aren't just rumors--some of this stuff is well-documented.  Law suits are pending.  Yet people continue using some of these agencies, mostly because I think anytime an agency claims to be "Christian", people assume they MUST be working ethically.

Honestly I think we'd ALL like to believe the very best about the adoption industry.  I know I would.  I don't WANT to think that people are profitting off of vulnerable children, or that they're not using "best practices."  I don't like the idea that some people actually believe that coming to America is always preferable to remaining in a developing country with birth family.  (This particular belief has been used to justify harvesting and who knows what else.)  I want to think--I want to KNOW--that my sons had no other options, that they NEEDED a family.

When we began our first adoption process over five years ago to bring home said sons, we hoped to adopt waiting children.  On that big, horrible, guilt-inducing list (are you willing to adopt a child with HIV?  missing limbs?  just one missing limb?  malformed fingers?  gunshot wounds?  large head circumfrence?) we checked off most things as "willing to consider."  We reviewed the current list of waiting children--most were much older than our biological daughter, and we didn't feel comfortable disrupting birth order by more than a year or so--though there were two little ones who we DID consider.  We reviewed their files but ultimately did not move forward.

It was awful. 

While we did feel open to most medical/special needs, one of the children was completely blind, and the other just had a whole lot of those "unknowns" I mentioned earlier.  Definitely very delayed, possibly autistic and showing signs of brain damage because he'd had Meningitis as an infant.

We really wrestled with that decision.  I hated having to turn down the files.  But we really felt that we were not meant to parent either of those children at that time.  (Both of whom have since found families.)  We just really did not feel God leading us there, or giving us peace about it.

Our agency did not place as many children then as they do now, so we DID end up waiting some number of weeks before the director called me with a unique situation: twin boys who'd already been adopted, but whose adoptive family got to Ethiopia and changed their minds.  They claimed one of the twins was autistic and sick and severely developmentally delayed.  He'd recently presented with an enlarged spleen and been diagnosed with asthma.  The director said she honestly thought he would eventually be fine, but they would have him re-evaluated, and would we be interested in considering these little guys? 

Um, yes please!

We'd hoped to adopt at least one girl, but whatever, these boys needed a family!  Someone to believe in them and take a chance on them.  Kevin and I had already made our decision before their file even arrived via Fedex the next day.

Turns out they'd been living in various orphanages for the past FIFTEEN MONTHS.  Ever since they were  a month old.  That was when their birth mother relinquished them to the government, because she could no longer care for them.

It also turns out that, yes, one of them was indeed decently developmentally delayed.  And had horribly low muscle tone in his teeny tiny legs.  I think he probably could have earned a Cerebral Palsy diagnosis.  Really. He also had a slew of emotional issues, but upon meeting him, we pretty much ruled out autism.  He was extremely sociable and loved engaging with us, when he wasn't lethargic.

We really never looked back when we made the choice to become Yosef and Biniam's parents.  There were some "unknowns" looming pretty large with Biniam's development, but we just believed that God would equip us for whatever lay ahead.  We felt open to medical/special needs--there ARE no "perfect" children, anyway.  We decided to give them TIME--to adjust and attach and soak up their new lives in a family.  Biniam eventually began walking (by FAR my proudest, and most rewarding, first-steps moment as a mom), and putting on weight.  He worked through his emotional stuff (mostly triggered by food), and today...well, today he's kind and outgoing and funny and loving.  He has some ADHD-ish tendencies which I DO believe are the result of early childhood trauma.  Yosef seemed to come with fewer health/emotional issues, but he has a hard time today with auditory processing and as a result has some learning delays.  None of it is surprising considering their early life experiences.

Where was I going with all of this?  :)  Well, my boys definitely needed a family.  They'd been relinquished independent of our adoption agency, we have all the papers, there was no funny business that we can see.  Overall, in spite of the strange situation with their first adoptive family, the adoption went as it should have.  Kids needing a family, a family meeting the need.  No they were not waiting children when we became eligible to move forward, but we were actively open to whoever God brought along, even if that included some medical needs.  AND, it is downright foolish to assume that ANY child coming from a developing country will be perfectly healthy.  They may seem that way, but years later may struggle with learning delays or ADHD.

Now that we're in process AGAIN, a lot of these same questions have risen to the surface.  What should adoption mean?  How should we be approaching the process?  There's actually a waiting list now for young HIV+ children in Ethiopia.  Which is nothing short of amazing--in a few years' time, these kids are now seen as adoptable.  This was not the case in early 2006 when we visited Ethiopia.

Which means that we have decided NOT to adopt children with HIV.  Anyone in the age range we feel comfortable with (which has gone down considerably due to some circumstances at the orphanage) already has a waitlist of people, ready to adopt them.  This has been a huge paradigm shift for us because, well, we had always wanted to pursue the adoption of HIV+ children.  In 2006 many were waiting for families, and people were, for the most part, not wanting to parent kids with this status.  But things have drastically changed--for the better--and there is no longer a PRESSING need for families to adopt young children living with HIV in Ethiopia.  (Though many older children still wait and are in great need of families!)

So we have ruled this out.

In our commitment to take harder-to-place children, those who truly need a home today, we have had to bid farewell to our expectations, look elsewhere, see where the need is.

And we have seen it.

It is new territory for us.  Both super exciting and terrifying all at once.  NOT what we would ever have expected.  But we believe it will be far better than anything we could have imagined.

And here's the thing: we all have those things we're equipped for.  That God places on our hearts.  This is just my opinion but it doesn't do anyone any favors to take something on that we have no business doing.  And this will vary from person to person. 

But sometimes conventional wisdom is for the birds.

And it SHOULDN'T be used as an excuse.  An excuse to not do great big things that God will equip us for and carry us through.  All the while seeing beauty made from ashes as God weaves His story of redemption through your family's life.

Sometimes I feel the need to qualify the statement, "I am passionate about adoption."  Instead, I suppose I am passionate about waiting child adoption.  Because I have seen the side of international adoption where families are glued to list-movement updates, where you have to fight tooth and nail to be approved for a medical needs adoption, where agencies gather up healthy babies but refuse to house or place children with medical needs--because THOSE kids are harder to find families for, and therefore not as profitable.

It's ugly.

Thus the mixed feelings I have about adoption.  Maybe it's less adoption and more "adoption culture" that gives me pause.  And no, no one likes to talk about it.  Least of all me.  It is convicting because there ARE placements that would not be right for our family at this time.  There IS a place for being wise and realistic about what we can manage.  I was NOT a pioneer in the movement to adopt HIV+ children, for example, though I tried to be an advocate. 

I love what my wise friend has said: that when they were adopting, they would pray that God would line up the biggest need that they could meet with the resources they had to give.  (I comPLETEly butchered her quote--Jennifer, I am so sorry.  It is far more eloquent and inspiring when you say it!)

And I suppose my main reason for sharing this today is that I wonder if we might all benefit from thinking and talking more about the realities behind adoption.  What is it?  What should it be?  How should it look?  I have a wonderful friend who completely changed directions and is adopting from an entirely different country (and pursuing a child with a different medical need) than she'd planned, because she wanted to meet a need and not go on a waitlist.  I am inspired by this.  I'm inspired by two other families I know who are currently each bringing home a pair of older children who've been waiting for a family.  Two of the children are also living with HIV.

If you are thinking about adopting, please be willing to have these difficult conversations.  Even though it's not fun.  Think through the principles behind adoption, supply and demand, and the fact that so very many little ones wait because they were born with medical needs, or are in a less-popular-to-adopt-from country.  (And this has changed over time too.)  You don't have to be a saint to pursue the adoption of a waiting child.  Far from it.  I know many, many families in this situation and they are all regular people raising kids and busy with the usual stuff of life.  But God is there meeting them and making something really beautiful out of it all.  Love it.

As our own process continues to move along (and yes, an update is forthcoming), I can say that I am utterly excited and passionate about waiting child adoption.  We have had these gut-wrenching conversations and have asked God repeatedly what He wants from us, and He has been faithful to answer.  Not on our timetable, because we spent a lot of time wondering what on earth we were going to do and how this process would end.  It was stressful.  Painful at times.  But God knew, and at just the right time--not a moment too soon, and not a moment too late--He spoke to our hearts and aligned the greatest need with our ability to meet that need.  And things are coming together.  In a messy, beautiful, we-are-so-going-to-need-God's-grace sort of way.

So I may have mixed feelings about the adoption culture, but I DON'T have mixed feelings about God's work or about the need for us--the church--to take up the cause of the fatherless.  And that means adoption in many cases.  But let's be wise, and sensitive to the truths--some of them difficult--behind the orphan crisis.  It is not enough to simply have good intentions. 

If we truly want to pursue justice on behalf of these children, we need to have our eyes opened and our hearts softened.  We need to seek out ethical adoption agencies and make sure our hearts are in the right place.  We need to understand our own motives. 

It's hard work. 

But these children are oh so worth it, and God may just surprise you by placing a waiting child, or two, on your heart.


r. said...

Thank you so much for writing this.

Cindy said...

Brianna- Thank you so much for this post. We have had a lot of changes as we move forward with our second adoption. A lot of hard discussion about ethics and IA culture. Some days it really feels like there are very few people that care about it....sigh.
Best Wishes!

A. Weiman said...

I love this post....and really appreciate all your honesty and insight....can't wait to hear what is unfolding for you!

Mama Mote said...

When my adoptive parents were in the orphanage and found me, there was a little boy that hung on to my dad's finger. He was 5 years old and had rickets. At the time, he was not allowed out of the country because of this even though my dad said we could help him in the USA. I would have had a brother. I just wonder what happened to him and if he is even still alive. You are Kevin are so special and I know God will reward your heart and your lives. love you

Janee said...

Thank you so much for this beautiful post. So, so needed. I am linking to you on FB (and thanks for linking to my blog!).

Beckett Franklin Gray said...

I just stumbled upon your blog and I completely agree with you. Having these conversations about adoption IS very important.

Check out my website and blog ... I try to tackle that somewhat.

Anonymous said...

I've never adopted and am not currently pursuing it. However, it's been on my heart for a few years now. How do you seek out ethical adoption agencies? How do you know one way or the other?

LJFEIER said...

Wonderful post. Thank you so much for your honesty and eloquence.

Marissa said...

I always love your posts on adoption. They are always so complicated and so true.

Kristi said...

Excellent thoughts well spoken. Lots to consider for those of us who haven't been down this road.

this is us said...

Such a beautiful and powerful post, Brianna. Book-worthy. You should write a book.

Brianna Heldt said...

anonymous, that's a good question. there are a few agencies out there with some major red flags--if you start asking adoptive parents about agencies (online forums can be helpful for this) you'll start to get an idea.

at the end of the day i think you make an informed decision and hope for the best. to me, an ethical agency is one that finds families for children, not children for families. they should be open to placing children with medical needs, and be completely forthright about a child's medical/social history before you sign anything.

for whatever it's worth, we use AAI (adoption advocates international) and have been extremely happy with them. i have no reservations recommending them, and i think the work they do in ethiopia is excellent.

Angela said...

Bravo sister!
Couldn't agree more.
Every child deserves a family.
Every child. "Healthy" and those with medical needs of all kinds. Praying for there to be a day when every.single.child. has someone standing in line for them. Internationally and here in Colorado, too.

Jenny said...


Days later and I keep thinking about this post. We were so very naive when we started Josh's (Ethiopian) adoption. Very. If we knew then what we know now...we would have went about it differently.

Also...occasionally hubs and I talk about up and moving somewhere (we're in Middle of Nowhere, Indiana), and I keep thinking that if we would ever move to Denver, we could be friends. I've been reading your blog for years and feel like I know you! I'm not a stalker, I promise.


Blog Template by