Monday, June 27, 2016

dear orphans, we're sorry

We announced some time back that we were in the process of adopting. Sweetest little Zam-fetus you’ve ever seen, isn’t it?

Adoption is a curious thing.

Because our child is “out there” and not kicking me in the ribs, I find myself constantly wondering where he is, what he’s doing and whom he is with. Who’s feeding him? Who’s playing with him? IS HE BEING LOVED??? These questions can be all consuming at times and when I think about the range of possibilities (realistically, he certainly could be hungry, alone, or hurting), I find myself blinking back tears out of nowhere. Our child could be almost any orphan in this place and the vagaries of that are worse than all the morning sickness in the world.

The only thing that has helped me cope with the uncertainty and feel like I’m actively caring for my child is to go to bat for all orphans everywhere. Last week we had the opportunity to attend a workshop with 20 or so other adoptive families in Zambia. As the only non-Zambians in the room, we did more listening than speaking and generally reveled in the atmosphere of other child-loving, justice minded souls. Many times during those few days, I had to hold myself back from standing and delivering a slow clap for the good words that were spoken regarding orphan care, first families and the healing in adoption. 

There was one point, however, when I had no choice but to hang my head in shame. “You see friends,” he began, “the white people came to us many years ago and brought us this idea of orphanages. We thought it was brilliant and we accepted it though it was against our cultural norm. We allowed our children to be swept into institutions and now we know what a horrible idea that was. It is our charge to undo the wrong, and start caring for our children.”

If you can’t say amen, you’ve got to say ouch. Our facilitator was gracious in not lumping Jeremy and I into the white box, even though guilt by association would have been valid. White people are obviously not the only players in the game here, but they stand out as the largest. The ramifications of that involvement offer up a hard pill to swallow.

Once upon a time, when there were no orphanages in Zambia at all, there were basically no orphans. Children in need were absorbed into extended family. The presence of orphanages introduced not only a new option, but also a new ethic.  It became socially acceptable to drop children off at a gate and let someone else raise them, all in the name of providing for the child a better life.

While Zambia’s track record with orphanages is better than many other African countries, it still has 190 orphan institutions containing more than 8,000 children. Those are not small numbers – Zambia is not that big. The vast majority are classified as poverty orphans, meaning their families simply didn’t have the resources to care for them. The acceptance of poverty orphans is so pervasive in Zambia that it is estimated that only 5% of orphans in Zambia are truly abandoned. The rest have families out there, mourning their loss, but comforted in knowing that their child is at least being fed. Numerically, roughly 7,600 children in orphanages across Zambia really probably shouldn’t be there. Shameful doesn’t even cut it. Furthermore, a group of pastors and social workers are finally starting to realize what the global orphan-care community has known for a while: that not only are these institutions not ideal, they are actually incredibly destructive.

After decades of social science research with an African cultural background, it has been determined that in this context, growing up poor but with one’s family is less emotionally destructive than growing up well fed in an institution – even those done relatively well.

The orphan ‘continuum of care’ is able to represent the spectrum of care options. Ideally, an orphaned child is able to remain with biological family. In the face of parental loss, this familial arrangement is shown to produce the best outcomes in terms of mental and emotional health. Next in line is an adoptive family of the same race/culture, followed by an adoptive family of a different race/culture. Significantly less ideal is long term foster care with any number of families, and finally, in DEAD LAST PLACE, (just short of the child fending for himself,) are orphanages.

In other words, institutional care is the worst possible choice for orphan care in this region… and yet… Americans LOVE THEM. Motivations for starting and partnering with orphanages obviously vary, but it would at least appear that “benefit to the donor/partner” (makes us feel good, it’s a great summer missions trip…) ranks near the top. One of the pastors attending the workshop with us referenced a conversation he had had with an American church regarding their involvement with the church’s local orphanage. The Lusaka pastor was asking for a reallocation of financial resources to re-integrate children into families to which the Americans replied, “Ummm, No. We enjoy packing the container and sending our teams to work with the orphanage. We are going to keep doing that.”

The cynic running the control panel in my brain couldn’t help but interpret that story through any lens other than white savior complex. But then I think, where did we get off thinking we were doing any kind of saving? Studies report that children who grow up in orphanages, even those with family-like structure, are significantly more likely to have attachment disorders, developmental delays and lower IQ’s contributing to a host of undesirable behaviors ranging from stealing to obsession with fire to sexual deviance.

The irony is steep. America got rid of institutional care long ago, (except for medically complex or otherwise special cases,) having discovered the detrimental effects… And yet?  We’re delighted to launch hobby orphanages left and right across the ocean.

I’ve ridden on the airplanes, the ones with the spunky youth groups and the homely mamas who are just so excited to “go love on little black babies.”  Their hearts are sincere, no doubt. But these short-term “missionaries” seem to have forgotten one important thing: babies grow up. It seems rather noble to travel half way around the world to play with and love all the sweet little orphans without considering the emotional disorders brewing underneath the skin… until those cute little babies we cuddled on our summer vacation grow up to be highly dysfunctional 18 year olds in need of trauma therapy (which doesn’t exist here) to help them navigate a challenging life in the “real world.”

Years ago, we helped some Peace Corps Volunteers help an orphanage work towards self-sustainability by setting up a chicken project. This little girl is probably 13 years old now, and I've often wondered how she's doing...

Humanitarian workers consent that in times of crisis, it’s acceptable to shelve the higher level needs of mental and emotional health for the sake of base needs of food and shelter. And maybe that’s where we went wrong. We labeled these real live humans generically as “the orphan crisis” and we swooped in to provide crisis level needs … and just kept doing that… for two decades straight.

I’ve heard the argument of “a kid’s gotta eat,” and such, and I’ve long grown weary of the lazy problem solving. If you are able to mobilize the financial resources to feed and clothe and educate that child inside of your institution then you are able to mobilize the resources to feed and clothe and educate that child in the context of his own family. Period.

Even now, I hear the words of Sebastian, who often forgets I’m technically still white and speaks truth even when I’m culpable: “The white people messed up. These orphanages are shameful to our society.”

Messed up, past tense; but messing up still as I’d wager that at least three quarters of orphanages across Zambia are sustained by foreign (American) involvement – not because it’s the best option, but because it’s the most convenient. We air-mail our good intentions to a land far away because our bleeding hearts and bulging wallets just MUST DO SOMETHING… and then we get in so deep that we are incapable of un-biased evaluation… even when all the smart people in that field are crying out “this is not gooooood!”  

Practically, the orphan care community across this region agrees that setting it right would mean stopping at nothing to reintegrate and support every poverty orphan at community level, and to find adoptive families, locally first, and abroad second, for every other child.

Realistically, it would also mean that the holders of the purse strings set it right in our own hearts too, by doing the hard work of considering, “what if those were my kids?” It’s easy for adoptive parents to go down that path since the kiddos sitting in orphanages are our kids. But for everyone else, we must appeal to an extreme empathy, asking, if you were the deceased, what would you want for your children who remain behind…  And if “institutional care, of course!” isn’t the first thing that comes to mind? Well…

We have a moral – and biblical – obligation to do unto other kids what we would have done unto ours. When it comes to children, “better than nothing” is not an acceptable answer. The orphan-care community in Zambia has started to see the light, believing that they can do better. The question is, will we?