Saturday, April 05, 2008

International Adoption

This is an essay I wrote in November 2006 while in Haiti, awaiting the completion of our son's adoption. I submitted it a couple places, but it wasn't accepted. Yet another great reason I started this blog. . . the joys of self-publication!

The piece is a little dated, but my reasons for writing it remain.

My husband and I are in the poverty-wracked, Caribbean-island nation of Haiti, where we’ve spent the last five months waiting for the adoption of our three-year-old son to finalize. During this time, the media has thoroughly reported the Madonna-adopting-an-African-child saga. Talk about a collision of two worlds. Madonna’s ersatz celebrity world intersecting with the brutally real life of a poor, illiterate, African farmer highlights both the bizarre nature of existence and also important considerations regarding international adoption. Some of these considerations we’ve faced in our own adoption

As I can tell you, and as even Madonna confirmed, despite her superstar status, there is nothing quick and easy about international adoption. We started the process 18 months ago, assembling a 119 page dossier consisting of a home study, criminal background checks, reference letters, financial documents, physicals, psychological reports, and other legal papers which had to be notarized, authenticated, legalized, and translated into French.

We sent this paperwork to our Haitian attorney in October 2005. We also had to be fingerprinted by the Department of Homeland Security and pay fees to the U.S. government to receive their approval to adopt, which is mandatory for our child to be allowed to enter the United States.

As I write this, we are awaiting our final legal adoption papers from the Haitian government. With these, we will be able to obtain a Haitian passport for our son. U.S. officials at U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services in Port-au-Prince will conduct an investigation to ensure there was no fraud in the adoption. Finally, we will go to the U.S. consulate in Port-au-Prince, and after we turn in some forms, pay another fee, and have an interview, our son will be granted a precious U.S. visa.

We spend more time in Haiti than the average adoptive family, as my husband, John, works as a physician in clinics and hospitals around the country for several months a year. We also have a program called Haitian Hearts that brings children to the United States for heart surgery. As frustrating as our wait has been, we are fortunate to be able to spend this time with our son in Haiti. We discovered him in March 2005 at a hospital, where he had been left. When we arranged for him to be moved to an orphanage so that we could begin adoption proceedings, he had been living at the hospital for more than nine months.

Through our experiences in Haiti, we have met other adoptive parents. Many of these parents have unique horror stories about their adoptions, involving botched paperwork, unethical orphanages, and birth parents who change their minds about the adoption. They also have stories of the glorious homecomings of their children with the pain of the process forgotten like that of labor and delivery. I explain the difficulties and delays in our adoption by knowing that Haiti is a broken country from top to bottom. If it weren’t, an estimated 200,000 orphans wouldn’t need homes.

We have also met many birth parents who have placed their children ranging from newborn to preadolescence at our son’s orphanage. Most parents in developing countries who place their children for adoption do so because they lack the financial ability to care for their children. These parents love their children, but they live in a 19th century world where malnutrition and diseases like tuberculosis and malaria snatch 120 out of 1,000 children from life before their fifth birthday.

In an ideal world, children would be raised by their biological parents. When circumstances don’t allow this, there is unavoidable pain for the child and the parents, even when a loving adoptive family is found. While this pain isn’t on par with the pain of dying from malnutrition or becoming a child slave, it shouldn’t be ignored.

Unlike Madonna’s situation, our son’s birth parents are unknown to us. Our little boy’s joyfulness and intelligence belie the deprivation of the first three years of his life. He received these qualities from his parents, people he will never know, and it must have been agony for his mother or other relative to leave him with his orange hair in that hospital courtyard. Facts like these should remind us children are available for adoption in poor countries because of tragic and often preventable circumstances that we should work to eliminate.

The increasing number of these circumstances, including the millions of children in Africa and elsewhere whose parents have died of AIDS, likely means that numbers of international adoptions will continue to rise in the United States. In 2005, Americans adopted 22,728 children from abroad, triple the number from 1993. These adoptions are good for the children, good for the adoptive families, and good for the country, but they should be done with some sensitivity for the massive injustice that permits them.

Americans often disregard history. Even when we don’t, a tour through an orphanage in a developing country can obfuscate the meaning of history in the emergency of the present. Children need parents. As the paternal grandmother of Madonna’s adoptive son said, "No one here could take care of David. He needed good milk and nutrition. We are too poor even to properly feed ourselves.”

We are humbled to be parents to our beautiful son and also by the need that has made it necessary. We will work to do them both justice.