For several months, I’ve been thinking about a blog series on unrealistic adoption expectations. Off & on, I’d draft rough notes on the topic. But in the last week or so, I’ve really gotten motivated to move forward with the series. One of those motivators was seeing the new movie “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”. I knew that one of the couples in the movie adopted a child and I was eager to see how that was portrayed in the movie.
Wow. What a disappointing, unrealistic portrayal of international adoption. I know it’s Hollywood, and we shouldn’t expect much, but still, this kind of thing only serves to increase the unrealistic expectations of first -timers thinking about adopting internationally.
(Slight spoiler here for anyone concerned.) The desperate-for-a-baby mother and the freaked-out father choose Ethiopia. Just a few days or weeks (!) later they get a referral for and a picture of an adorable, six week old, perfectly healthy baby boy. There’s an “awwww,” from the audience, of course. Months later they travel to Africa and arrive at the care center with a large group of other adoptive families (each and every family carrying an infant baby carrier!). There is a short ceremony where they all stand in a line and repeat an oath about caring for the child and keeping them in touch with their Ethiopian heritage. They then exchange a lit candle for their baby and are pronounced to be a family. More awww’s from the audience.
Easy enough right? Apparently many people assume so.
Here’s a (paraphrased) conversation I had with a prospective adoptive family not too long ago. This is a conversation I seem to have over and over again:
Excited Family: We are really interested in providing a family for a baby girl from Uganda!
Me: Well, baby girls aren’t usually available for international adoption in Uganda unless you are open to fairly significant special needs. Are you open to adopting a child with special needs?
Somewhat Less Excited Family: Ummm…no….I don’t think we’re equipped to care for a special needs child. We’re really hoping to adopt a healthy baby.
Me: OK, well, that isn’t possible from the Uganda program. Most orphaned baby girls in Uganda are now able to be adopted in-country.
Deflated but Insistent Family: Umm, ok. But you know, we really feel called to provide a family to a child in need, and we feel like we are supposed to adopt a baby who is sitting in an orphanage waiting for a family. Cause, you know, there are 147 million orphans in the world. We want to make a difference. What country should we be looking at…?
You see where this is going?
I have absolutely nothing against this family or other families who start out their adoption journey the same way. We shouldn’t be mad at them. Most of the time, they are sweet, concerned families who truly don’t understand that these aren’t the children that are waiting to be adopted.
Many of these well-intentioned families have seen their friends bring home healthy infants for the past 10 years from China, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Vietnam, etc. They’ve heard the statistics that there are 147 million orphans in the world. Perhaps they went to a Christian conference where leaders were shouting from the rooftop that it’s a Christian’s duty to rescue one of the millions of children waiting in orphanages. Certainly they’ve watched the popular “gotcha day” videos where teary-eyed moms hold their babies for the first time and read the popular blogs. Understandably, they dream of similar videos and blogs of their own. It’s no wonder these families are fired up and ready to rescue a baby. Except that in reality, these waiting, adoptable “healthy” babies just don’t exist.
Friends, it is time to paint a more realistic picture of what international adoption looks like today.
I am not aware of any adoption program, anywhere in the world where healthy, adoptable infants are sitting in orphanages waiting for families.
The fact is that there are far more families wanting to adopt healthy babies than there are adoptable healthy infants. In the U.S. I have heard that right now, for every healthy, adoptable infant, there are 20 – 40 families waiting. That’s right, families waiting for babies, not the other way around. I’m assuming this statistic is for white infants. I have recently heard that the wait is less for African American infants. I don’t have numbers on internationally adopting families, but I know typically they are waiting several years for the “popular” countries.
I suppose there are always going to be families lining up for years to adopt babies, and I’m not going to tell someone that it’s necessarily wrong to do so. I tell the families who contact me that if they are completely set on wanting to adopt a healthy baby, and only a healthy baby, they need to get on a waiting list with a reputable, ethical agency and be prepared to wait a long time.
Or, they can shift their mental expectations from a “perfect” baby to one who might not make Hollywood’s casting call.
I don’t feel that it’s ever right to try and guilt-trip someone into adopting, but it is good to offer people different perspectives and to challenge preconceived ideas. Not every family can or should adopt a special needs or an older child, but I would ask those families who say they “really want to make a difference” to think about ways in which they can make the biggest impact on one of the thousands of desperate, adoptable children who are waiting, waiting, waiting, right now.
Some of the conditions in which these sweet children wait are unimaginable, and it’s not difficult to find their heartbreaking stories online if we really want to know what life is like for the less than perfect. These are the children with the lists of diagnoses you didn’t check off on your home study checklists. They’re the kids with the not-so-cute referral photos, but who are often old enough and bright enough to understand that they aren’t wanted because of their age or special needs.
Many of them live a tortured existence in adult mental institutions. Some of them are diapered and tied to their beds for the rest of their shortened lives. Can you imagine any child tied to a bed for years? No love or caresses, no kind words, no intellectual stimulation of any kind. And all because they are considered “retarded,” untreatable or sometimes even cursed in those countries.
These children are waiting right now. While people are lining up to adopt babies who won’t even be born for three more years, these children are growing up without a family and some of them are dying because no one will consider them.
Why? Why aren’t more families saying yes to these children? Without passing judgment, without blaming anyone, I’m just really feeling that it’s time we in the international adoption community begin to bring this issue to the forefront of our discussions.
I’m interested in what kind of ideas and discussions a series on special needs adoption will stimulate. I’m thinking that a follow-up post might be on the most common reasons people give for not being willing or able to adopt older/special needs children and how regular families, just like yours (and mine), have gotten past these obstacles and are providing families for waiting children. I’m really interested in hearing from all of you.
Thanks so much for reading –and considering.
(Please take a look at this beautiful video recently released by Rainbow Kids! )