International Adoption & Reclaiming the Word “Orphans”

Dawn Davenport

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international adoption ethics and the word orphan

This in the fellow I wrote about in “The Apple of Someone’s Eye” –5 years later. He is the face of “orphan” whether we like it or not.

When did it happen my friends that “orphans” became a dirty word. Or if not dirty, then carrying an air of naïveté and certainly not PC. And when did it become associated, almost exclusively, with terms like “savior complex” and “rescue” and “do-gooders” with all their inherent ethical issues? And when did those of us who adopted internationally become almost apologetic of our choice?

I’m not sure when it happened, but without even being aware of it, I’ve slowly excised the term from my vocabulary–or at least my online vocabulary where it seems people are more hyper-focused on words. And when I speak of international adoption, I surround the discussions with a recognition of ethical complexities and cautiously avoid any motivation other than wanting to parent.

Truthfully, I wasn’t even aware that I had done this until I was reading Susan Silverman’s book Casting Lots. (See my review.)  Throughout the book, she brazenly spoke of orphans and proudly defended international adoption. At first I was uncomfortable with her word choice and single minded support, and then slowly my discomfort turned inward. How had I become the person who avoided “orphan” and stopped defending international adoption. Me!?! A mom through international adoption. A person who leads groups to work at orphanages. Heck, I even wrote a book on the subject.

True Orphan

One of the problems is that “orphan” is an inexact word, with no clear definition. In its strictest sense it is used to refer to children who have no living parent (double orphans), but strangely it is also used to encompass children with only one living parent  (single orphans), and may or may not include children with living parents who are not active in raising them, including street children (social orphans).  

Adding to the problem of inexact meaning is inexact use and inexact numbers. We often hear some proponents of international adoption say there are 132 million* orphans in the world, implying that there are 132 million children just waiting for families if only we could get over there and bring them home.

The 132 million figure comes from UNICEF and includes both single and double orphans, with 13 million of that number being double orphans. The vast majority of these children are over the age of five and living with grandparents, aunts, uncles, or friends of their family, including most double orphans. Since these numbers were garnered from household surveys, it is not clear whether they include kids living in orphanages (estimated to be in the 7-8 million range, but no one is sure) or on the street (approximately 100 million).

Saving Orphans

Another problem with the word orphan is that it smacks of a rescuer mentality of those who seek to adopt. There are a lot of problems with the whole savior complex that is sometimes promoted as a reason for people to adopt, not the least is that it is a lousy and unsustainable approach to parenthood.

Going into a lifetime commitment to parent a child with the primary motivation to rescue leads many parents to underestimate the work and preparation required to parent kiddos that likely have experienced abuse and neglect. Underprepared parents should be all of our worst nightmare because they result in struggling parents, unsupported children, and sometimes in the tragedies the media so likes to focus on of re-homing, abuse or death.

But perhaps the real disservice of “rescuing”  a child through adoption is the burden of gratefulness it places on the child. No child deserves this. As parents, we hope that at some point our kids, regardless how they come into our families, will appreciate our efforts, but there are no guarantees, and there should be no expectation. And for the record, it sure as heck won’t happen until they are in their 20’s or beyond, and even then they will find fault with some of what we did, just as we did of our parents.

Becoming Jaded

With all the baggage with number and saviorism it’s no wonder that those of us who want to be sensitive to the bigger picture (and perhaps want to show off our sensitivity and knowledge) have stopped using the word orphan and stopped speaking up about solutions to the problems of parentless kids, including international adoption. But friends, I’m here to suggest that we have allowed ourselves to become jaded. We are focusing on the wrong thing.

Whether there are 132 million orphans or 7-8 million children living in institutional care or whatever number we ultimately agree on, we are still talking about a large number. And here’s the bottom line: to a child it really doesn’t matter whether their parents are dead or whether they simply have vanished from their life due to extreme poverty, disease, or indifference–they are still the most vulnerable of humans on this earth. And it is possible to want to help them and even adopt them without falling prey to a savior complex.

The Reality of Orphans

This passage from Casting Lots smacked me up side the head and knocked any jadedness or smugness right out of me.

It’s a practical thing, love. My family appeared shambolic, but love oozed through our many cracks, through our messy attempts to know, to understand, one another. But what happens to a little boy’s thoughts when he has no one who shares them? What happens to the little girl’s memories when they haunt her? Do these memories get caught in the throat? Burn behind the eyes?

The unknown-ness of each child in an orphanage – or on the streets or worse – the memories, passions, joys, fears, struggles, and what makes them laugh, all of it must increase a lonely sense of being indistinguishable from the child in the next bed as they are squeezed into shapes by necessity.

We are all broken, just we are. But if we are a little lucky, and very willing to learn how, our shards and pieces can form mosaics of love and relationship – unwieldy, vibrant, and cracked as they must be. If we are not so blessed, we need to fit to whatever form is known or available to us. Kids in institutions or making their way on the streets take on outer shells of conformity and necessity.

“A lonely sense of being indistinguishable from the child in the next bed…”

Oh my, YES.

My comment scribbled on a sticky pad as I was reading this book at night in bed was the genesis of this blog: This! I know the idea of “orphans” is not PC now, but the reality of the kids in orphanages is this. Just this. And it sucks. And we want to dismiss it because of the whole rescuing orphans thing—but it is so completely this.

Even the Best Orphanage

Even the best orphanage is a poor substitute for parents. As many of you know, my husband and I have been leading groups to work at orphanages in Mexico for over 10 years. We spend 6-8 weeks at the orphanage each year.

Now before you get your panties in a knot and assume we are taking people to search for kids to adopt, let me point out that international adoptions never happen at this orphanage (and are rare from Mexico in general) and domestic adoptions are few and far between due to the unwillingness of the Mexican judicial system to terminate parental rights. As far as I  know, none of the children in this orphanage are “true orphans” (aka double orphans with no living parent) but that distinction is wasted on them since most have not seen a parent or extended family member for years.

This orphanage is one of the best. It is founded, grounded, and supported by the local community. They have a decent adult to child ratio. The houseparents are some of the kindest and best people I know. But even the best is not optimal for kids. I have witnessed this fact up close and personal for the past 11 years and it never fails to trouble my soul.

These children are fed nutritious food, have adequate clothing, and receive a good education, and yet they are indistinguishable from the child in the next bed. They are the apple of  no one’s eye–and that should be every child’s birthright.

International adoption is not the end-all-be-all solution to the world’s orphans, nor is it without very real ethical problems that first world money in third world countries can lead to, but it sure as heck has a place. It can be one piece to the solution.

And as to word use–despite the problems with the word orphan, avoiding the word does not avoid the reality for parentless kids. In fact, I worry that avoiding the word hides this reality.

Other Creating a Family resources you will enjoy:

*The old figure that is often used was 153 million orphans has been updated to 132 million by UNICEF in 2015.

27/06/2016 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 3 Comments



3 Responses to International Adoption & Reclaiming the Word “Orphans”

  1. Full Spectrum Mama says:

    BEAUTIFUL.
    You articulated something that’s been bugging me for some time.
    Language is so powerful.
    Reclaiming a term such as orphan for our internationally adopted children (and wherever else it’s appropriate) lends weight to their lived reality, while also allowing for the very real basic family love that we now hopefully experience, even after the trauma our children may have (almost surely) experienced.
    Thanks and love,
    Full Spectrum Mama

  2. Amy says:

    Ah yes, I remember now why I love your weekly emails and blogs! How easy is it for someone who grew up the “apple of their family’s eye” to take for granted that there are children here & internationally that have either had & lost or worse never known that feeling? I believe the media attention of international orphans showed what that could look like and that is why people responded. However, the despair the book described is universal. I know when I began teaching I hoped to be that type of adult, but as a prospective adoptive parent how much more impact could I offer. Even if only for 1 child. As you pointed out I may not be a perfect parent but I am willing to educate myself and walk the memories with them in the hope that having a safe place to call their forever home means they will never again be invisible in this world. Love your reminder to be willing to grow and learn by reading & questioning our preconceived notions of what adoption truly means.

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