Ebola Orphans: Should We Try to Adopt?
Our hearts break for the children who lost parents to Ebola, but can we and should we try to adopt them?

We don’t hear as much about the Ebola crisis in the news now partly because the spread of the disease has slowed, partly because no more cases have been reported in the US, and partly because the media has shifted to some other more attention-grabbing crisis. Just because we aren’t hearing about it, however, doesn’t mean the crisis is over or that the devastation left in its wake is past. Over 8,000 people have died from this outbreak, and as of September 2014, at least 3,700 children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have lost one or both parents to Ebola. The number of Ebola orphans is surely much higher now, with the best estimates in excess of 10,000.

Most often throughout the world, in times of crisis, families take care of their own. When a child’s parents die, someone in the extended family usually steps forward to raise these children. If a family member is not able or willing, the community usually steps in. The nature of Ebola, cultural traditions, poverty, and human nature has thrown a kink in this usual course of events.

It’s no accident that the hardest hit countries—Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone—are some of the poorest in the world with limited medical facilities. Extended family was often the only care available for someone with Ebola, and sadly, it is hard to care for a patient outside of a well-equipped treatment facility without becoming exposed to the virus. Burial customs further exposed family members, particularly at the beginning of the crisis when they spread of the disease was little understood. The result is that entire families are often wiped out leaving few able to care for the children that survived.

Human nature hasn’t helped. Understandably, aunts, grandparents, and neighbors are afraid to bring a child into their home who might infect their family. A common belief is that young children are more contagious. Regardless whether that is actually true, as the New York Times noted:

People in hard-hit Ebola areas see children as mini time bombs. They do not wash their hands very often, they constantly touch people, they break all the Ebola rules. Something as simple as changing a diaper becomes a serious risk because the virus is spread through bodily fluids.

According to  Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF’s Regional Director for West & Central Africa, “These children urgently need special attention and support; yet many of them feel unwanted and even abandoned. Orphans are usually taken in by a member of the extended family, but in some communities, the fear surrounding Ebola is becoming stronger than family ties.” Even the children who contracted Ebola and survived are often not welcome. These young survivors are “vulnerable to stigmatization, hunger, malnutrition, and in some cases violence.”

Can We Adopt the Ebola Orphans?

I so appreciate the sentiment that brings people to ask about adopting these most vulnerable kids. If ever there was a picture of a child that needs a loving home and parents, it is these youngest victims of Ebola. My heart breaks too.

Unfortunately, adoption is not the best option for these children—at least not now. Adoption is simply not appropriate for many reasons in the midst of or in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, whether it be a tsunami, earthquake or virus.

While extended family may be frightened to bring the Ebola orphans into their homes right now, chances are very good that this fear will abate as the Ebola outbreak is controlled. I suspect and hope that many families will step forward soon to care for their own. We must give them some time to let information about this awful disease and the children it has orphaned percolate through the communities.

Ethical international adoptions don’t happen in a vacuum. As mundane and boring as it sounds, adoptions need a functioning government and bureaucracy. To put it mildly, these three governments have their hands full dealing with the Ebola crisis. After that is under control, the next step will be to look for extended family to raise these children. Only after no family is found should international adoption be considered. That time is not now.

Hard as it is to hear, even if no family steps forward, international adoption may not be best for all the Ebola orphans. For some, especially the older children, the loss of their country and culture might be one loss too many for their young psyches to handle.

What’s Being Done for the Ebola Orphans

Governmental social workers and NGOs, such as UNICEF and SOS Children’s Villages, are beginning the process of finding extended family for the children orphaned by Ebola. They are having some success as the crisis slows down. SOS Villages is making space for the kids once they are past the 21 day quarantined period. I know that many in the international adoption world are suspicious of UNICEF, but they are well equipped to handle this stage of the Ebola orphan crisis. Consider bypassing your lattes or Frappuccinos this month and donating your money to one of these organizations.





Image credit: New York Times: An Ebola Orphan’s Plea in Africa: ‘Do You Want Me?’