How the Christian orphan care movement may be enabling child abandonment

Last week I got to speak at Idea Camp about orphan care. I shared my concerns about the trend of churches opening orphanages in third world countries instead of working at keeping children together with their parents. I suggested that the solution to poverty orphans (children who are placed as a result of poverty instead of the death of a parent) should be to provide resources to the family, instead of requiring the child to move into an orphanage for assistance. I shared my belief that the funds spent on feeding a child in an orphanage would be better spent funding that child’s birth family to keep them, and that perhaps we are even enabling families to abandon their kids when we show up in impoverished communities with a shiny new building with beds and three guaranteed meals a day. If the orphanage seems like the best option in town for giving your child an education and getting them fed, who wouldn’t drop their child off? I’ve seen far too many children living in orphanages who have loving, living parents. After my talk, a lot of people affirmed me for “speaking truth” and “going there” and “bringing it”, and you know what? It made me sad. I’m concerned that the notion of family care is a novel idea when we are talking about orphans. I’m worried at how myopic we’ve become when we prioritize orphanages over family care. It’s disconcerting that the orphan care movement is so willing to throw money at the institutional care of a child, but not at parents who are capable but poor. That’s not to say that some people aren’t helping keep families together. There are plenty of people sponsoring children in 3rd world countries, which is definitely a good model for preventing orphans. But in conversations with people who work in most of these large child sponsorship programs, I’m hearing that they get repeated requests from sponsors that they want their child to be “an orphan” . . . because for some reason that makes people more willing to help. I’ve heard the same thing from friends who run programs for young mothers. People are much less likely to support a young mom than they are to support an orphan. Don’t get me wrong – I think supporting orphans is important. Vitally important. But I want to make sure that we aren’t creating and sustaining a child’s orphan status because it’s the only way we are offering a family aid. An orphanage is not a good way for a child to grow up. We have tons of research supporting the idea that children raised in institutional settings will struggle relationally, cognitively, and emotionally. In the US, we see that non-family care leads to horrible statistical outcomes: less likely to go to college, more likely to be in prison, less likely to gain employment, more likely to be homeless. Therefore, when we talk about “orphan care”, our goal, when possible, should be family care. An orphanage should only be a triage situation, where we do crisis management and then assess our next steps. We shouldn’t, as Christians, be taking children from reluctant parents who only bring their children out of desperation. If we have the funds to feed a child, let them live with the family while we feed them. Why is this a novel idea?? How the Christian orphan care movement may be enabling child abandonmentChildren at Keep Hope Alive in China A few months ago, my friend Tara wrote a really compelling post about why Christians need to stop building orphanages in Haiti.  I linked to it before, and I will again.  I hope you will take the time to read the whole thing, but here is one quote that merits repeating:

We’ve all seen that adoption can be a beautiful and redemptive thing, the problem is, most kids will never be adopted. Most orphanages are not even licensed to offer adoption as an option. Because such a tiny percent of children are ever eligible for adoption, churches that start orphanages are signing up to raise kids in an institution for life. That’s not a small commitment.

What does life in an institution really mean? Among other disturbing things, this article stated:
"It may seem obvious that an isolated, parentless toddler — with or without social contact with peers — will suffer emotionally from lack of parental love. What’s not obvious is that without devoted, repeated acts of love, a child’s brain doesn’t make the growth hormone needed for proper mental and physical development and numerous other imbalances are also created."

How can we believe that investing the time, energy, and money into building an orphanage and institutionalizing children in a country and culture that we don’t understand is best practice?

I want to bring this up again because of some recent issues that have been brought to light about two “Christian” orphanages. Last year, an orphanage in Haiti was shut down after 60+ kids were found to be neglected and malnourished. The children were dispersed to live at other orphanages. A few children had to be immediately hospitalized due to rat bites. Some were near starvation and needed an IV. If you look at the photos it is clear that these children were living in circumstances that were completely unacceptable. It’s a cautionary tale to anyone thinking about starting an orphanage. In another more recent situation, it was discovered that a pilot, who used his position to fly to Nairobi and Uganda to volunteer at an orphanage several times a year, had sexually abused many of the orphans. Children living in orphanages are the most vulnerable children in the world. They are vulnerable to adult predators and to child trafficking, but they are further vulnerable because they’ve been placed into a situation where there are other children of multiple ages and very little supervision. Sexual acting out is quite common in orphanage settings. I think it is very easy to look at these situations and assume that these things are isolated events that occurred because the orphanage directors were corrupt.  I don’t really know the details in each case, but here is what I do know: most orphanages, at some point, are started by a well-meaning religious organization. The thing about starting an orphanage, though, is that it is a LIFETIME COMMITMENT.  When you take in a child, you need to have a game-plan for that child’s entire life.  Starting an orphanage essentially means that you are adopting all of the children in that orphanage’s care, until they are adults. And those kids do not stop being dependents just because your church cuts their budget, or finds a new pet project, or changes staff.  Starting an orphanage is a major, major endeavor, and to be honest I’m getting a little tired of how quickly and flippantly churches are getting involved in orphanage work, without a clue as to how they will care for these kids in the long-term. Many orphanages may manage to take care of a child’s basic human needs, but will still fail to offer a child the nurture, attention, and supervision that any of us would consider basic parenting standards in the US.  In fact, I would venture to say that most orphanages are failing to offer this . . . even the very best ones.  That is because an institution can never replace a family.  Parenting is hard.  It requires presence and focus and determination. It cannot be achievement in a large-group setting with a rotating door of staff..  It is unrealistic to think that any institution can properly “parent” a child. Third world children do not deserve to be raised in a setting that we would never approve of for our own kids. I recognize that orphanage life is the only option for some children.  However, I think that the overabundance of churches that are building orphanages are harmful in a number of ways: 1. They are taking in poverty orphans. I will say it again: a child should not have to be abandoned at an orphanage to receive aid. If we can feed and educate a child in an orphanage, we can feed and educate a child living at home. 2. They are focused on providing a destination to missions groups. It’s sad to say this, but I’ve heard it from numerous people: the church wants to build an orphanage so they can visit and “love on” orphans when they take short-term trips. NO, PEOPLE. No no no no. Orphans are not mission-trip props. 3. They are motivated by the romanticism of starting an orphanage and how heroic that will make them look. People want their name on the building. It motivates people to donate when they feel ownership. Opening an orphanage looks good on paper. I get it. Still not best practice. 4. They are failing to provide adequate supervision to at-risk children. Orphanages in third-world countries tend to be poorly staffed, with high child-to-caretaker ratios and a high staff turnover. It is rare than an orphanage in a third-world country would meet even the minimum standards to be a licensed childcare facility in the U.S., and yet we are somehow satisfied with sub-standard care because they are poor. 5. They are not focused on permanency planning or family reunification. I cannot tell you have many orphanages I’ve visited where the children have living parents who even visit on weekends and there is absolutely no plan in place to get the kids back home. 6. They are raising children to be ministry partners instead of psychologically healthy adults. I have often heard orphanage directors talk about how they are raising the “future generation of Christian leaders” by raising kids in an orphanage. Except that our goal for kids should be to raise them into adults with a healthy sense of self . . . and the best way to do that is in a family, not in a “future Christian leader warehouse.” Imagine if an organization decided to take in children in order to raise them to be future cotton farmers.  Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with cotton farming. It’s a noble, needed profession, and there is a scarcity of cotton farmers. Raising kids to be cotton farmers is convenient, because they can be trained from an early age, and because early indoctrination produces loyalty.  This organization gets to benefit from a generation of future cotton-farmers, and justifies not placing kids in permanent families (and in some cases, even justifies keeping kids away from able-bodied biological families) because the need for cotton farmers outweighs that child’s basic human right to a family.  This would be outrageous, right? We would consider this an abuse of human rights.  So why do we think that  it’s allowable for a child to be denied a permanent family in favor of being raised to be a “future leader” or future pastor?  EVERY CHILD DESERVES A FAMILY. This should be foundational.  And every child deserves to make their own way in live, discovering their own passions and calling. If I sound cynical, it’s because I am. I have researched the effects of children growing up in orphanages, and it isn’t pretty. But I’ve also watch my child live it, and overcome it. I don’t want kids in orphanages if there is an alternative. This should be Orphan Care 101. So . . . here are some questions that I think WE ALL need to start asking. If you go to a church, or support an orphanage, ask these questions. If you know someone involved in orphan care, asked these questions. We need to create a dialogue around orphan care that does not settle on orphanages as the first solution.

Questions every church should be asking about their involvement in orphanage support:

  1. Are the children’s basic needs being met?
  2. Are the children being treated with the same standard of care that we would expect to be given to our own children?  Are they receiving enough food, love, attention, education, supervision, and medical care?  Is someone checking in on a regular basis to make sure that this is true?
  3. Are there children living there who could live at home if the parents received financial support?  What efforts are happening to get this child back with their family?
  4. Are there children living there who are legally free for adoption?  What efforts are taking place to find that child a permanent family, through local or international adoption?
  5. Is this orphanage denying children the opportunity for a permanent family in favor of  raising future ministry partners?
  6. Is there a plan in place to assure continuity of care until each child reaches adulthood?  Is there a plan in place for when a child ages out?
  7. Is there a long-range plan for insuring the orphanage is well-staffed and meeting standards going forward, until the children are adults?

These are not easy questions to ask, but I think they are necessary. It has been my experience that some of the most well-intentioned missionaries are content to house children without much thought given to permanency or psychological development. It has surprised me, in my travels, to visit such orphanages. One we visited was in India, and run by an organization we had supported for years. The organization showed us the children’s home and seemed proud of how many children they packed into a small building. The children slept head-to-toe like sardines on the floor of a crowded room . . . both genders in the same spot. The missionary reasoned that it was better than going hungry. Most of the children had family that visited on weekends. When I asked if they were trying to seek adoption for any of the kids, I was told that they were training up India’s future leaders. How the Christian orphan care movement may be enabling child abandonment After seeing the conditions these children were kept in, and knowing that most of them had families that could provide them with the love and attachment they weren’t getting in the orphanage, we decided to stop supporting this ministry in favor of one that offered nutritional and educational support to children without removing them from a family environment. I really think that Christians need to be more vocal about the way we are approaching orphan care, so that we are not doing harm. We need to stop setting up ministries that encourage desperate parents to relinquish their children, and funnel our resources into programs that support families. If this is striking a chord with you, I encourage you to talk to the missions pastors at your church. Forward this to the people in your life who are change-agents. Dialogue with your family and friends about how we can do better. Here are some ideas for further action:

Do you have any thoughts on doing “orphan care” better? How can we better support vulnerable children? Do you know of any organizations that are helping to keep kids in families, or preventing children from being orphaned?

alerting teachers to adoption-related issues: how much do you divulge, and when?

I don’t talk very much about some of the attachment-related issues that our family deals with. I’m intentionally vague about it, but at the same time I’m not trying to sugar-coat anything. I don’t think it’s honoring to go into detail about all of the ways my child struggles with attachment, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s helpful to other adoptive families who read here to pretend like it isn’t a factor.  So I will preface this post by making a sweeping generalization: kids who have spent time in orphanages have attachment-related issues that manifest in problematic behaviors from time to time. Our family is affected by this reality. One of the things I’ve been perplexed about this year was how much to divulge to Kembe’s teacher about some of the behaviors that he might want to watch for.  On the one hand, I didn’t want to give Kembe a prophecy of bad behavior with the teacher. In certain settings and with certain adults he has absolutely no issues, and I didn’t want to have the teacher start looking for something if he was doing fine. Why poison the expectations? On the other hand, attachment-related issues are so freaking subtle to the uninitiated, and tend to get progressively worse. Things that are totally fine for a typical kid can backfire in big ways for kids like Kembe. Behaviors that seem relatively benign often have big meaning behind them, and big consequences if they aren’t kept in check, or if attention is given in the wrong way. Let me share a mild example of this, for point of reference.  All last year, Kembe would play a game I like to call “purposeful pokeyness” when I would pick him up from school.  At the Montessori preschool, they had a rule that parents had to wait outside the windowed door to the classroom to pick up the kids. He did a half-day there so when I picked him up, I would stand at the door to the class, where he could see me, and wave and wait for him to walk to the door. And 9 times out of 10, he would see me, and then PRETEND NOT TO SEE ME, and wait until all of the kids in the class saw me and started shouting for him to look. Because it meant everyone was paying attention to him. THEN, he would walk as. slowly. as. possible. to the shoe area, and then pretend that he couldn’t get his shoes on, and on and on and on with this ridiculously dramatic game of slow-motion (can’t find backpack! shoe fell off! have to go back to desk for forgotten item!) in which he gets to be in control of an adult who is helplessly standing by. Because if there is one thing he loves more than attention, it’s being in control of an adult’s emotions. Even if they are negative. Maybe especially if they are negative. I tried my best to stay emotionally neutral with this behavior, but on occasion I would lose my cool and chew him out as he walked out the door, which was fun because then all of the nearby parents would watch Kembe’s face as he played Confused, Helpless Boy and assume that I was just a raving lunatic who gets mad at kids who struggle with their shoes. (And this is a whole other post that I need to write some day – the joys of other people assuming you are the meanest parent ever because they don’t understand the dynamics of your kid’s behavior).  Anyways, having other parents look on as I lose my cool is yet another feather in Kembe’s hat, because he’s now achieved the trifecta of attachment-related drama: 1) attention, 2) emotional control, and 3) pity from strangers. Yes, it’s as fun to deal with as it sounds. Side note: This is the point at which adoptive parents start to nod in recognition, while parents of typical kids interject that this is normal kid behavior that all kids engage in. And this is the point where I tell you: NO. It’s not the same. It may happen on occasion, but it’s not as purposeful and constant and desperate. This is a really benign example of things that happen all day, every day. This is as specific as I care to be, but if you want to understand more, talk to a friend with a child who struggles and really listen to what life is like. That would be a gift to them, too, because many of us feel constantly misunderstood. Anyways, I was debating on whether or not to talk to the kindergarten teacher about Kembe’s behavior on the first day of school, and something happened at pickup that convinced me I should. On the first day, I arrived in the car pool line to pick up India and Kembe. Both of them clearly saw me pull up.  India ran to the car gleefully.  And Kembe pulled the same crap he pulled last year. He pretended he didn’t see me, and three teachers had to call out to get him to acknowledge my presence. Then, he walked the most purposeful slow march I have ever seen, and smirking the whole time. And you know what? I lost it. I lost it because I was stressed about picking up Jafta, whose school gets out at the exact same time, but also I lost it because it had just been so long since I saw that behavior, and DANG IT it is annoying.  So I called out the window in my I Mean Business voice: “Huh-uh, Kembe. No way. We are not playing that game this year. Pick up the pace.” And another teacher, who was obviously not paying attention to his slow-motion walk and just thought I was an impatient beyotch, looked at me with pursed lips and said, “Hang, on mom. He’s coming.” But what her tone really said was, “Take a chill pill, crazy lady.” I was FUMING. And Kembe was gloating, because HELLO. Trifecta of attachment drama: 1) attention, 2) emotional control, and 3) pity from strangers.  And he had another teacher basically buying into his game instead of holding him accountable. That day I went home and penned a note to the teacher, because I need the grown-ups in his life to help him make better decisions. And I need them to understand what that looks like for him.  Here’s a part of what I wrote:

At a young age, Kembe learned that there were two ways to get his needs met: to be the loudest/bossiest/controlling, or to be the most hurt/helpless/needy.  Even though he now has attentive parents, he still struggles with defaulting to these behaviors for attention.  The result is that he can be very dramatic at times, or he can use behaviors to try to control a situation (anything from pretending to be hurt to walking slowly on purpose).  He does best when adults are able to maintain their authority – oddly, while he craves special attention and seemingly wants to be in charge, when an adult relinquishes control to him, it makes him feel unsafe and then his behaviors will get worse and worse. While he spends a lot of energy trying to take the reigns back from adults, he is very anxious when he is able to. It’s a strange dynamic, but I wanted to point it out.  He did very well in school last year, because his teacher was firm and impervious to his attention-seeking behaviors so he quickly stopped trying. However, over the summer he was at a day camp with younger teachers who were more passive, and his behavior deteriorated pretty quickly. All that being said, he is always a very sweet and loving kid.  I haven’t observed him to be aggressive or mean-spirited, and does very well socially. His issues tend to be with authority figures more than his peers, and tend to revolve around testing limits and seeing how much he can get an adult to give him attention. He responds well to affirmation but also to natural consequences and positive reinforcement. He likes working on a goal. We do a star chart here at home for behavior and when we are consistent, his behavior is much better.  I am hopeful that he won’t have any behavioral challenges in the classroom this year, but I did want to give you a heads up just in case any of this cropped up.

I tried to stay broad and general, but at the same time clue the teacher in on things a bit.  It’s hard trying to explain the manipulation that can be inherent in attachment issues without making your kid sounds like a psychopath, so I did my best to try to frame it developmentally. I emailed this to his teacher, and I felt pretty good about it. His teacher wrote me back and thanked me, telling me that more information was always appreciated. I felt like I made the right decision. But then the teacher approached me after school, and pointed out something he noticed. It was something pretty insignificant. And hearing it, I felt really conflicted. I was appreciative that the teacher is on my team, watching out for these kinds of behaviors. But I also felt sad that the teacher was now keying in on his behaviors, and maybe even watching him from a more negative light. I’m still not sure how I feel about it.  So I thought I would throw it out there to other parents of kids struggling with attachment-related behaviors: Did you alert the teacher?  What did you say?  How did you explain it to the teacher, and did you find it beneficial, or did it backfire? And to any teachers who might be reading, I’d love your opinion, too!

parents, please educate your kids about adoption so mine don’t have to

I took the kids to the park the other day, and I was seated just close enough to the play structure that I could faintly overhear a conversation that occurred between Kembe and several older kids.  At first, I had a hard time understanding what was being said, but something about Kembe’s posture caught my attention.  Typically, he’s a relatively cocky over-confident kid with a lot of swagger., even around older kids.  But in this setting he looked . . . almost cornered.  He seemed intimidated and a bit helpless.  As I strained to hear, I though I heard one of the kids saying, “That is NOT your real mom.”  I had an immediate pit in my stomach, and tried to check myself.  Surely they are not ganging up on him about adoption, I thought.  I stood up and started walking casually towards them, so that I could hear the conversation and intervene if needed.  Sure enough, this is what I heard the four other children saying to Kembe: “That is not your real mom” “Yeah, where is your REAL mom?” “So you are adopted”?” “You HAVE to be adopted” “No way that is your mom” “What happened to your real parents?” I don’t think these kids were trying to be cruel.  But the way that they were surrounding him, asking questions and refusing to accept his answer as he repeatedly pointed to me as his mom, made the situation feel confrontational. Kembe looked embarrassed and I decided to intervene.  I approached them and tried, in my most friendly and casual voice, to introduce myself and then asked if they had some questions I could help with. “We were just wondering what happened to his real parents, “ one of the kids asked.  I told them that this was a personal question – that it was up to him if he wanted to share but that it might not be polite to ask.  They seemed to get that.  We talked a bit more, and the kids were all very nice, suddenly seeming to take quite a friendly interest in our family.  The only girl in the group, who I’d guess was about eleven, starting gushing about how great it was that I adopted him. “It’s SO NICE you took him in. Because orphanages are a really bad place.  They just make you clean all day long, and then people come in but they might just be pretending to be your real parents for money.” It was clear her only education on orphan life and adoption was the movie Annie.  Then, the clincher.  Another kid – a boy of about 10 – seemed relieved that I came over to explain this whole mix-up of our family.  His actual words: “I mean, I could tell that something was wrong.  Something was not right about that” I corrected him then, my patience running a bit more thin.  “There is nothing wrong.  It’s different, huh? Most families match and we don’t.  But it’s different.  It’s not wrong.” This isn’t the first time my kids have been questioned on the “realness” of their family by their peers.  I suspect it won’t be the last.  I know I can’t expect every single kid to have been educated on adoption, and inevitably my kids will be the ones educating their peers.  But is it too much to ask that other parents, whose families don’t have exposure to transracial families, take a couple minutes and explain it to them so that my kids aren’t always the center of the After-School Special on Adoption in the school playyard?  Because it’s already getting old, and we’ve got a long ways to go. In fact, I will make it really, really simple right now. Here’s a script.  You can ad-lib.  Frestyle it.  Or just say this:

1. Sometimes kids have different skin colors from their parents. It could be because they are adopted, or because their parents are different races, or because they have a step mom or step dad.  It’s no big deal.  They are still real families.  There is nothing wrong or weird about families with different skin colors. (Insert examples from your own life here. Or have a come-to-Jesus meeting about diversifying your friendship circle). 2. When someone is adopted, their mom is just a mom.  The person who gave birth to them is called a “birth mom”.  Both of them are real moms. 3. It can be nosey or embarrassing to ask a kid if they are adopted or ask what happened to their birth mom, especially if you don’t know them.  That could make them feel bad, so don’t do it.  If you are curious, ask me about it and if I know the answer we can talk about it.

See? NOT HARD. And while you are at it, you can throw in a bit about how some kids have parents that don’t live together, or have two mommies or daddies, etc. Because no child from unique family circumstances deserves to be singled out on the playground because we’ve failed to explain the world to our kids. Another really easy way to explain adoption to kid: books.  Here are a few good ones: Or, you could watch the Disney Channel show Jessie, which features a transracial family.  Could be a good conversation starter, as well as a way to normalize racially mixed families. There are also several movies that explore adoption that could further the discussion: On the flip side, if they’ve seen Tangled or Annie or any other number of Disney movies, you may have some deconstruction to do about what adoption is really like and what language is appropriate. I know we’re all doing the best we can, and that there are a million things we are trying to impart to our kids.  But taking a minute to talk normalize adoptive families with your kids would be doing my kids a major solid.  In the meantime, we’ll be continuing our role-plays at home, in which I play the nosey kid on the school ground and I help my kids come up with comebacks that they are comfortable with. Jafta’s favorites: You don’t have a very mature understanding of adoption. and Does she look like a fake mom to you?  Heh.

transracial adoption isn’t a big deal. until it is.

One of the questions I’m often asked by prospective adoptive parents is . . . how hard is it to raise a child of another race?  This is such a tricky question, because it many ways, it really isn’t hard at all.  Race isn’t something I think about in our day-to-day routine. By and large, parenting my boys is no different than parenting my girls.  I still have the same hopes, dreams, fears, and insecurities as a mom . . . I’m still largely concerned with the day-to-day minutiae that every mom of every race is concerned with.  How are they doing in school?  How are they doing socially?  Are they kind and compassionate?  Should they be in more activities? Are we overscheduled?  How long can I really go without bathing them?  You know . . . typical parenting questions.  Race is rarely a factor in my daily decision making, but at the same time it’s always something I’m considering.  It’s an undercurrent – an extra layer in the juggling act that is parenting my four kids.  As I’m deciding what sports the boys will play, I’m thinking about timing and schedule and prices, but I’m also considering which neighborhood facility is more likely to have a diverse team so that they aren’t the only children of color.  As I’m signing Jafta up for cub scouts, I’m weighing out if it’s worth the drive and evening out to put him in the troop at the local AME church, or if I should just sign him up for the after-school troop that’s more convenient.  When it’s time for a haircut, I weight out if I can just buzz his hair at home in a few seconds, or if I should take him to the barbershop because the experience of being the majority for an hour is worth the time it takes.  I think about their race in making decisions, but it’s really no different than I think about other considerations for each of my kids.  I’m also always weighing out our gluten-free diet, the fact that India is introverted, the fact that Karis sunburns after two seconds of outdoor play, the fact that Kembe needs structure, the fact that Jafta has sensory processing disorder. . . I’m not saying this to suggest that race is comparable to a special need.  I’m just pointing out that every parent learns to negotiate their own child’s needs in a way that becomes second nature, and race is a part of our family’s daily negotiation.  This isn’t an experience exclusive to transracial adoption, but it is something that most white people have the privilege of skimming over. It’s not a burden or a “challenge” – it’s something I rarely think about and yet something that is always at the back of my mind.  Sure, at the beginning there was a learning curve.  White people adopting children with kinky, African hair will need to do some research and some serious trial-and-error, but it’s not as if our lack of melanin prohibits us from learning the hair-care skills that we didn’t learn growing up in a black family.  It was a challenge at first but I ended up taking a lot of pride at being good at doing my boy’s hair.  It’s not hard, it’s just different.  Figuring out what lotions work best to prevent ashy skin, and stashing little tubes of Eucerin in the car and the diaper bag quickly became a part of the routine.  Certainly no insurmountable problems there. There is one aspect of parenting black children that is outside of something I can just learn though trial and error, though – and that’s how to teach my kids how to interact with the world as black men.  The question of how white parents can teach black children “how to be black” is one that is often thrown out by opponents of transracial adoption.  I don’t love this question because it implies that there is one monolithic experience of being black, or one right set of behaviors, attitudes, and experiences that somehow denote a person’s acceptance as a black person. I reject the idea that “being black” is something that my boys need to learn, because they ARE black.  The idea that some would view them as having “lost their black card” by way of having white parents is frustrating to me.  At the same time, I do think that a part of securing their identity as proud black men involves having them be a part of the black community.  The tragedy of Trayvon Martin illustrates the importance of teaching my young men that the will have to navigate the world differently as black men.  One of the concepts often taught to parents who are adopting transracially is the idea of the Transracial Adoption Paradox.  This refers to the fact that a child will grow up in a family that enjoys the privileges of being a part of the majority race, but then the child will grow up and live without those privileges.  (If you are unclear of what I mean by “privilege”, take a look at this list by Peggy McIntosh on white privilege.  Or go read this post at Jezebel in which people react to the casting of black people in the Hunger Games movie.  Sure, it’s just a reaction to pop culture, but this kind of stereotyping is the perfect illustration of systemic racism.) This is what I know to be true about raising black boys: it will be imperative for me to teach them that some will look at them with suspicion or stereotype based on their skin color.  I HATE THIS.  I hate that it’s true and I hate that I have to burst their innocence and I hate that it may shift their view of the world.  But it’s a part of our role as their parents, and we can’t do it alone. I don’t share that experience, and so I have to enlist other people to help guide them in this.  It’s why it’s so important to us that our boys have strong black role models.  It’s why it’s important for me to open my eyes to racism, instead of burying my head in the convenient sand of a mythical post-racial world.  It’s why I subscribe to blogs like The Root and My Brown Baby and continually attempt to learn.  I read a recent article referring to the Trayvon Martin situation, in which Jesse Washington articulates the Black Code that parents of color must teach their children.  He describes it as such:

Always pay close attention to your surroundings, son, especially if you are in an affluent neighborhood where black folks are few. Understand that even though you are not a criminal, some people might assume you are, especially if you are wearing certain clothes. Never argue with police, but protect your dignity and take pride in humility. When confronted by someone with a badge or a gun, do not flee, fight, or put your hands anywhere other than up. Please don’t assume, son, that all white people view you as a threat. America is better than that. Suspicion and bitterness can imprison you. But as a black male, you must go above and beyond to show strangers what type of person you really are.

I love that I have resources to learn about these concepts.  But I’m also humble enough to admit that while I get it cognitively, I don’t know what it’s like to live this, and I need to provide my boys with relationships with people who do. I know that some adoptive parents bristle at the idea that they need to outsource a part of their child-rearing.  I understand that.  As adoptive parents, we want to feel like we can give our own kids everything they need.  It can feel like a hit to the pride to realize that in this area, we can’t provide for our kids sufficiently. But this, in my opinion, is the most important consideration in transracial adoption.  This is where transracial adoption is a big deal.  A REALLY BIG DEAL.  Insurmountable?  No, I don’t believe so. But it’s something that every prospective adoptive parent should consider.

why does adoption cost so much? (and why we didn’t just send that money to Haiti)

I hear a lot of questions about why adoption is so expensive, and honestly, I don’t always have a good answer.

This month, we added up all of our adoption expenses and I was a little shocked at how much we spent on our adoption from Haiti. Because I had to type up an itemized list for our taxes last week, and because I’m a believer in transparency in adoption, I thought I would just share what we spent, so people can have an idea of where the money goes.

Our adoption expenses are a bit atypical because we didn’t use an agency.  There are some pros and cons to this – the pro being that had we used an agency, it would have added about $8,000 to our total cost.  I really didn’t love the idea of handing over a lot of money to an agency, and I was comfortable doing a lot of research and legwork myself.  In theory, an adoption agency cam help to assure than an adoption is ethical.  In reality, every adoptive parent needs to research and dig to make sure their own adoption is handled in an ethical manner.  We had a lot of trust in the missionaries who ran the orphanage and who would be handling the paperwork process.  I didn’t have a lot of trust in the Haitian officials, but being with an agency would not have shielded us from getting stuck in the their social services quagmire.

Anyways, here is a breakdown of our adoption expenses:

Before compiling this list, if someone had asked me how much our adoption cost, I would have said around $10,000.  I knew that the big expense was the $8000 we paid to Heartline, but I don’t think I really realized how much the rest of it added up over the course of those three years. 
The fees we paid to Heartline to process the adoption are often referred to as the “in-country fee”.  This money went towards the orphanage taking care of him, but also went towards an attorney processing our paperwork, and any fees on the Haiti side.  Because it took three years for Kembe’s adoption to finalize, I can tell you that $8000 was insufficient to even cover the orphanage’s cost of caring for him, especially because he had a private hospital stay during that time.

The next largest expense was travel – which again was affected by the three year span it took to finalize the adoption.  During those three years our family took a total of eight trips, and we often took our kids.  In total, we spent $6,156.  That number only involves airfare.  That expense is a lot more than we expected, but for people adopting from African countries that require two trips, travel expenses can be even higher.

The next expense is the $2600 we paid to US social workers to approve us to adopt.  Honestly, I don’t think these fees are all that exorbitant.  Home studies by professionals are a good thing. 
I think one other surprise is that we spent nearly $1.500 on filing forms with the US government.  This one seems high to me.

So . . . even looking at our own expenses, I can’t really directly answer the question of why adoption is so expensive.  There are a lot of steps and a lot of people involved in making sure a couple is eligible, and then making sure a child is truly in need of a family.  I think those steps are good.  I understand the concern that people are “making money off of adoption”, but at the same time, these people (the translators, the government officials, the lawyers, the social workers, the notaries) certainly shouldn’t be expected to work for free.   I think it’s a fine line.  I do think that adoption fees are too high, but when I look at our expenses, I don’t see a clear area where it could have been trimmed (beyond USCIS).  Now, had we paid an additional 8 or 10k to use an agency . . . that might be a question mark for me.  If we paid this much to adopt an infant in the US, I would definitely have some questions about where the money went.

I do think that there are some professional who make a lot of money from adoption, and I don’t like it.  But I didn’t really like seeing my OB driving a Porsche, either.

Speaking of my OB, this was an interesting revelation.  I actually paid more money to deliver Karis than I did to adopt Kembe.   Our adoption cost just under $19,000.  Karis’s delivery cost nearly $26,000 out-of-pocket.

Okay, so now to answer the two inevitable questions that arise from a discussion of adoption expenses: how did we afford it, and why didn’t we just send that money to Haiti?


We definitely didn’t have $19,000 just laying around.  Our first step was to take out a home equity loan in 2006 when we started the process.  (I haven’t even calculated how the interest rates of a three year adoption have affected our expenses.  I think maybe I don’t want to know that.)  In addition to the loan, our church gave us a gift of $2000 from their adoption fund to pay for our homestudy.  After Kembe came home, we did a t-shirt fundraiser and, along with a grant from Lifesong for Orphans, we raised $4000.  We also expect a tax refund of $13,000 thanks to the adoption credit.  So, that is how we could afford to adopt.

Now to the other question we get in relation to adoption expenses: why didn’t you just take that money and give it to a Haitian family/give it to a mission in Haiti/buy a well?  First of all, because we wanted to build our family through adoption.  I don’t think it’s either/or scenario (we DO give money directly to Haiti) but I don’t think you can put a price tag on a forever family.  Also – I don’t think that adoptive families should be held to a standard of charitable accountability that is beyond what we would hold the general public to.  I mean, why isn’t everyone sending $20 grand to Haiti?  Yes, adoption is stupid expensive, but so is a boob job.  So is a new car.  So is having a new baby.  (For the record, I’ve never had a new car or a boob job.  I’m just sayin’, adoption is not the only expense that could be foregone in favor of third-world financial assistance). Ironically, I have never had someone leave a comment on my blog asking why I chose to have another biological child instead of sending that money directly to Haiti.  In fact, the next time I’m asked that question, I might ask that person to go around and quiz pregnant women on why they are being so selfish.  Or I might just punch them in the face.  I’m going to wait until the moment and see how I feel.

I mean, why are we questioning adoptive parents about money when there are people buying these things?

I feel really passionate about helping families in Haiti, and I would venture to say that most adoptive families tend to be pretty involved in assistance after they’ve spent any time in the sending country.  But I don’t like the way the decision to adopt somehow raises the question of how money might be better spent because there are a million examples in this world of how money could be better spent, and providing a family for a child is a really, really worthy use of money, in my book.

If you have adopted and feel like sharing, I would love to hear your perspective on the expenses of adoption.  Where did you spend the most money?  Were there fees  you were uncomfortable with?  Why is it so expensive, and is there something to be done about it?