The Orphan Crisis
No one knows how many orphaned children are in the world or the circumstances of their care. In 2005, UNICEF estimated that there were 13 million children who had lost both parents in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Due to the AIDS pandemic and other factors, that number has surely grown.
As we would expect, many orphaned children are being raised by extended family. But the circumstances facing children living outside of family care are horrific. Some are in orphanages, some exist on the streets, and others live in child-headed households dependent on whatever kindness they can find. Still others are trafficked into servitude and exploitation.
One study determined that at least 2 million children are in institutional care – an estimate that UNICEF itself believes is severely underestimated. We have no estimate as to how many children are living on the streets or in child-headed households. Clearly, millions upon millions of children are in desperate need of families.
Children living outside of family care are far less likely to have access to adequate shelter, nutrition, healthcare and education. They are far more likely to be subjected to disease, child trafficking, hazardous labor, physical abuse and sexual exploitation. They are also more likely to die from preventable and treatable diseases stemming from malnutrition, AIDS, inadequate sanitation, poor water, malaria and diarrhea.
Recent medical research and cross-cultural studies confirm that institutionalized children are susceptible to a wide array of psychological and developmental challenges. Early childhood development is the foundation for every child’s future social behavior and ability to learn. Those deprived of individual nurturing and stimulation during early childhood suffer in cognitive development and are at significantly higher risk for learning, behavioral and emotional problems.
Survivors often face bleak futures when they age out of institutions. Many end up involved in crime, prostitution or become victims of human trafficking. While hard data is lacking, the chances for these adolescents and young adults are often dismal.
Both Ends Burning believes no child should grow up without the protection and the care that a permanent loving family provides. We do not understand how humanity has failed to make the care of these children one of our highest priorities.
Every child’s most basic human right is the right to be raised as part of a family and every child’s development depends upon growing up in a healthy, stimulating and loving environment.
We believe relegating innocent children to languish in institutions is a direct violation of human rights and a great social injustice. It is literally a form of child abuse. Without the self-esteem, guidance and protection that a family can provide, what chance do these children have in life?
Both Ends Burning was founded to protect and advocate for the rights of these children and we seek to bring every orphaned, abandoned and relinquished child into a permanent loving family.
Both Ends Burning believes the best interests of children are often served when we are able to prevent children from becoming separated from their families. For children already living outside of family care, the best alternative is often reuniting these children with their families. When that is not possible, adoption within the child’s birth country is often the most appropriate answer. Unfortunately, the number of children living outside of family care testifies to the fact that these solutions are not possible for millions of children. We believe international adoption is a sound and appropriate solution for many children who would otherwise never experience a loving family.
The Challenges to International Adoption
International adoptions to the US have declined 60% since 2004. Similar declines have been seen in other adopting nations globally. The average wait time for adoptive families has increased to between 3 and 5 years and the costs of adopting a child have risen to more than $28,000. Adoptive families are frustrated and many have given up.
Why has this occurred? There are a variety of factors, among them:
- Governments using orphaned children as political pawns. The most blatant example has been Vladimir Putin’s closure of Russian adoptions to the US in retaliation for a US law prohibiting Russian citizens accused of human rights violations from traveling to the US. His decision made 120,000 institutionalized children ineligible for adoption by American families.
- Foreign leaders allowing nationalism to trump a child’s well being. Sending countries are often accused of “selling their future” by allowing children to be adopted internationally. They also face criticism that they are denying orphans the right to their national heritage. This type of political pressure can destroy a leader’s “political will” in placing the welfare of the children above such arguments.
- US implementation of the Hague Treaty, which established the State Department as our central authority for international adoption. Unfortunately, the State Department has no expertise in child welfare nor do they demonstrate any interest in promoting international adoption as a positive solution. They act as if international adoption is strictly an immigration issue, rather than a child welfare solution.
- The attitude of the State Department, which often places adopting families in an adversarial role forcing them to substantiate the circumstances that caused a child to become eligible for adoption. The assurance of a foreign government, the approval of an adoption in their court system, and the history of a child having been in an orphanage for years are often not enough to compel the State Department to approve an international adoption. Adoption cases are scrutinized to a level that many 3rd world countries cannot support. Many countries do not have effective birth and death registries to provide the paper trail our State Department requires. The “best interests of the child” does not enter into the thinking of our State Department.
- Publicity from failed adoptions, unfit adoptive parents and unethical practices, including bribery and child abduction. Failures occur in every child welfare system and Both Ends Burning fully supports prosecution of those who commit illegal acts. But there have been very few of these cases. With over 110,000 children adopted into the US since 1958, the success rate for international adoption is overwhelmingly positive, perhaps more so than for any other permanency solution. While bad cases will always occur, and they must be exposed, the publicity and the reaction they generate both in the United States and in sending countries has been disproportionate and very damaging to international adoption.
UNICEF carries with it the image of being the world’s largest and most authoritative child welfare organization. While UNICEF does do many wonderful things, especially in its crisis response efforts, its actions with regard to helping bring children into permanent families is not nearly as strong as it should be, yet few people realize that.
UNICEF is highly decentralized with operations in over 190 countries. Amazingly, there is no central group responsible for establishing best practices for international adoption. Instead, UNICEF’s Child Protection unit handles international adoption matters. Clearly, UNICEF treats International adoption is an activity from which children need to be protected. As a consequence, we are not aware of any country where UNICEF has actively promoted international adoption as a solution for orphaned children.
The difficulty in discerning UNICEF’s true position is reflected in the difference between the following statements, both taken from UNICEF publications:
- For individual children who cannot be cared for in a family setting in their country of origin, inter-country adoption may be the best permanent solution. 
- Inter-country adoption, which is often a politically sensitive issue and receives much media attention, is seen by UNICEF to be one of a range of care options only for children who cannot be placed in a stable family setting in their country of origin. 
The first statement, we agree with. By making statements such as these, UNICEF creates an image of support for international adoption.
However, the second statement, when read closely, demonstrates UNICEF’s true apathy towards international adoption. By stating that international adoption is “one of a range of care options only for children who cannot be placed in a stable family setting” UNICEF is essentially saying that other options, including residential (or orphanage) care, may be given equal or preferential status to finding permanent loving families for children. We believe all children need permanent loving families, not just a “stable family setting” as UNICEF does.
Typical of UNICEF’s actions are its Plan of Action for Orphaned and Vulnerable Children that was agreed to by the government of Mozambique. This plan “sets out a set of six basic services for orphaned and vulnerable children: education, health care, material/financial support (including access to poverty certificates), nutritional support, psycho-social support and legal support (including access to birth certificates).”  Without doubt, all of this is important work, but glaringly absent from a plan for “orphaned and vulnerable children” is any mention of finding permanent homes for orphans.
 UNICEF, At Home or In a Home? Formal Care and Adoption of Children in Europe and Central Asia, September 2010, p. 38
 UNICEF Website, Mozambique Child protection, November 2013