The children of adoption
by Doug Chalke
The past month was Adoption Awareness Month. It is aptly named and provides a focus for everyone involved in adoption to reflect on how they are affected by it and the role they play. This includes the government, adopted children, families who have been created by adoption over the years, birth parents, licensed adoption agencies, prospective adopting parents, associations of adopting parents, and social workers.
When Light Magazine asked me if I would write about my reflections on Adoption Awareness Month, I decided to focus on the children being adopted. My thoughts have been impacted by my direct experience in this field of work and travelling to orphanages across the world. This is a very different article than one I would have written 20 years ago.
While most countries in the world have orphanages, most people in the West have never set foot in an orphanage. There are some common themes: poverty conditions and a lack of resources is at the top of the list; insufficient support from the government in developing countries (where difficult decisions are made to allocate scarce resources). Institutionalized children are simply not a high priority. One notable exception to this is in Thailand where there is widespread public support for orphanages. Another exception is when a specific group supports its own orphanage.
Life in an orphanage cannot be compared to life in a loving family. Children need the love of parents to attach, and thereby achieve their full potential in life. Children, in most of the orphanages I visited, are living in poverty with few resources available to provide them with care, education and safety. Most face an uncertain future when they age out of orphanages. One possibility for a few of these children has been adoption. Over the past decade however, intercountry adoption has fallen out of favour with western governments. There is a growing belief that institutionalized children should remain in their country of birth. This is based on a hope that developing countries can acquire the resources to provide these children with a real future in life. Sadly, that is not realistic, it is merely a hope.
There are an estimated eight million children living in orphanages around the world. Most of these children may not be adopted for various legal and cultural reasons. One percent of that number is 80,000 children. That is more than five times the annual number of inter-country adoptions worldwide! So we’re talking about less than 0.2 percent of children in orphanages who may be adopted each year.
Let’s think about that for a moment. Significant effort is being made across western nations to keep institutionalized children in their country of birth. I would support that if there were families in their birth countries for eight million children who would adopt them. Unfortunately, those families are a wish and not a reality. If every intercountry adoption in the world was prohibited tomorrow, it would affect less than one fifth of one percent of children in orphanages each year. There is no one to speak for these children. There is no voice saying that it is in a child’s best interest to grow up in a loving family that they can attach to. Most of these children will face a bleak future. That is particularly true if a child has special needs or is HIV+. Europeans and North Americans will adopt children with special needs.
The main thing that is being missed is that it is the love of a family that leads to attachment. And attachment allows us all to develop to our full potential as humans.
Adoption can be a truly remarkable experience for a child. Over the past 20 years, I have seen so many wonderful outcomes in adoptions. Children from many countries have grown up in British Columbia and Alberta to become athletes, students, dancers, hockey players, musicians – and grown to whatever their potential can be.
Adopted children frequently grow up as part of a larger extended family with all the love and support which that brings with it. My hope is that some of those children who become educated and successful in Canada will be able to contribute back to their birth country. Let’s make it our hope that at least the current level of adoptions will continue in the future.
If you are wondering about the other 99.8 percent of children in orphanages who will never be adopted, there are many registered Canadian charities which help children around the world. I urge you to search them on-line and see the great work they do. What better way to celebrate the joys of adoption than by supporting institutionalized children who will never be adopted.
Doug Chalke is a Vancouver lawyer who has worked in adoption for 30 years.