Today is #worldadoptionday – a movement that was started just a few years ago, to encourage and inspire people to share about their experiences with adoption, to promote the creation of new families, and to educate the masses about what is possible when we forget about borders, skin colour, bloodlines, and genetics when defining what family can be.
Here in Kampala, we celebrated by gathering families together – Ugandan, American, Canadian, English, South African, Italian — all with a common denominator — we have all either adopted, or were interested in adopting, Ugandan children into our families.
Nadine and I are members of the Adoptive Families Association of Uganda – taking on a collective mission to advocate, encourage, and inspire families along their adoptive journey, while promoting best practices that protect vulnerable children in a broken system.
Adoption is always a result of grief, tragedy, and injustice. In a just world, our sons would be cared for and loved by the mothers and fathers that created them. In a perfect world, I would not be sterile. Our world is not just, nor is it perfect.
Yet, in spite of this, adoption has the capacity to yield a goodness that is beyond measure. The gifting of new family — something beautiful made from something broken. Much like how a skilled smith can take broken pieces of earth and rock, and forge an artful blade made of hardened steel. Anyone who knows us, or has read our posts, knows that we understand more than most the blessing and gift that adoption can be.
It was a blessing to be able to celebrate today, among our extended family here in Kampala. Even more so, as recently, Nadine and I have not felt like celebrating much at all. While we continue to press forward in our efforts to prepare every document we need for the boys’ adoptions to be final, we have been stonewalled by 5 months of red tape, uncooperative police, and institutions that have failed our children for years.
We had an encounter in a rural area, while we were on a hike with the boys, by a man who demanded proof from us that we had not stolen our children from his village. Nadine was accosted by two women, with their cellphones out, accusing her of kidnapping our children, and threatening to call the police. Just a couple of weeks ago, a teller at a grocery store attempted to lure Oliver away with chocolate, insinuating that the only reason he was with us was because we were bribing him with treats. She picked our son up, told him he would stay with her instead, and refused to give him back to us.
While Finn is not yet old enough to fully understand what is happening, Oliver is. He was so frightened by what had happened at the store, that later he shrieked at his hairdresser when she went to pick him up to wash his hair.
We have felt persecuted and we have been afraid — afraid to take our boys out in public, afraid to be seen for what we are — an adoptive family.
So — to have a safe space today, to celebrate among so many of our friends, from many backgrounds and countries, was something I am deeply thankful for.
These encounters have been recent, but they date back to the first days we had as a family after we brought Oliver home. The comments have been constant:
“Who is this? Where is his mother?”
“You have taken this child – give him to me.”
“Where are your own children?”
“You cannot be his father. He is black, you are white.”
It’s been 16 months, and our skin has gotten a bit thicker, but I’m not sure it is any easier.
We’ve notably experienced an increase in the frequency and intensity of these experiences since Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines programme won an Emmy in September for it’s powerful short film, Adoption Inc, which highlights the powerful links between child trafficking and international adoption here in Uganda.
I’d like to discuss this in more detail. Wherever I can, I’ll include links for further reading or viewing, and I would encourage each of you to find the time to read and watch as much as you can.
Uganda is not a Hague Convention Country. This essentially means that Uganda does not have the institutions and governance in place to ensure that children in inter-country adoptions are not abducted, sold, trafficked or otherwise.
This was a fact that Nadine and I had to consider, when determining how and where to proceed with building our family through adoption.
Al Jazeera’s reporting is powerful and accurate, but it is not the first time that corruption and child trafficking have been linked to adoption in Uganda.
Vice News produced a powerful segment on how foreign support and donations are enabling corruption linked to Uganda’s orphanage industry.
CNN reporting uncovered a trafficking scheme in Uganda back in 2017.
Reuters filed an “exclusive” report back in 2015 on the fraud that is prevalent in Uganda’s childcare system.
It is estimated that in the 90’s, there were approximately 30 orphanages in Uganda, caring for around 3,000 children. Today, there could be more than 400. The vast majority of them are unregistered, operating without any government oversight. If they are not working with the government, other NGOs or community-based organizations, the target audience for these orphanages is clear; foreign support and donations.
It is well documented that “voluntourism” has fed this horrifying expansion. Access to international donations and support is a key motivator for keeping children in institutional care. More than 50,000 children are in orphanages right now in Uganda. It is known that approximately 80% of these children have at least one traceable parent. That is 4 out of 5 children, and in truth it may even be more.
Orphanages in Uganda bring in nearly $250,000,000 USD a year from international donors. That’s $5,000 per child, per year. Nadine and I have witnessed this firsthand — when a child is monetized — in any way — their welfare and wellbeing always become secondary to the wealth they can generate, regardless of good or bad intentions. For many orphanages, the more children you have, the more revenue you generate. It is that simple – and devastating.
Rather than promoting family reunification, or addressing the root causes of family separation and poverty, focusing on childcare in orphanages is not the solution. Institutional care is known to cause significant and severe longterm effects. For every three months a child lives in an orphanage, the child loses one month of development. Orphanage care can result in lower IQs and stunted physical growth, a higher prevalence of attachment disorders, and a significant risk of abuse and neglect.
Al Jazeera’s reporting highlights some of the worst that can happen when ignorant intentions reign over facts and real people. It is so difficult to watch and read these reports that endlessly highlight the corruption and ill-intentions that surround adoption and childcare here in Uganda.
All of this has not gone unnoticed on the ground. In 2016, a new law was introduced that provided tougher rules for child adoption. It’s one of the reasons why we have to foster our children for 12 months in Uganda before they are eligible to be adopted.
Organizations like Samaritans Purse and Child’s i Foundation promote family reunification, voluntary closures of orphanages, and many others work to address the core challenges that lead to family separation in the first place.
That is where we chose to start. As we prayed, meditated, and did everything we could to learn, Nadine and I came to realize that our 4+ years of experience in East Africa had prepared us to navigate government systems, recognize the gaps, and identify partners that could guide us towards safe, ethical practice.
Learning about the adoption system, with all of its flaws and faults, from experts that had spent years working to make adoption an option of last resort, allowed us to take careful steps forward in the process of identifying who we wanted to work with, and how we could proceed.
That brought us to Child’s i Foundation, which brought us to the Alternative Care Unit, operated by the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development. While navigating these systems, we continued to learn as much as we could about the flaws and gaps that existed, and to ensure that we could address every blindspot we could find as we moved forward.
We understand that this is in effect a luxury, provided to us by our proximity and time that we have spent in the field. It is one reason why the Adoptive Families Association is such a critical component of our story — without taking the time to share what we have learned, we would be abandoning future families and children to a system that continues to fail them.
While it is worth noting that volunteer trips to orphanages will have negative, detrimental effects on the children housed there, I value and cherish the notion of short-term missions. When done properly, short-term missions work can ignite a passion and zeal in people that – even when it doesn’t lead to international work – can leave a lasting impact and a global mindset for people of all ages (Big thanks here to Syd and Jeff – two leaders in my life that set me on a path that I don’t think any of us could have guessed!).
Some of the reporting that I’ve linked to above tells the stories of people who actively choose ignorance as a defence for the indefensible. Whether it is knowingly taking a child away from a mother, or viewing bribery and corruption as acceptable prices to pay, all of these actions have brought us to where we are: A system that is built on the back of child exploitation.
We have done everything in our power, and chased down every lead, to ensure that our boys are in the 10-20% of institutionalized children where adoption is the only option. That’s no one’s business but ours, but as I stress values like accountability and problems like ignorance, I think it’s important to lead by example.
This is tough stuff. It is so hard to meditate on all of this. I look at my boys every day, and sometimes I am overwhelmed thinking about the institutions, systems, laws, and regulations that failed them at every single stage. We were finally able to get a birth notification for Oliver registered just last week. It was almost 39 months to the day that he was born that there was a single piece of paper that officially acknowledged his existence.
Is the system broken? Yes. Can we fix it? No. Certainly not on our own.
Yet I have constantly been motivated by the notion that one day, my boys will be men, and they will turn around and ask me if I did everything I could to do right by them.
God help me, I need that answer to be “Yes.”
So we press on. We surround ourselves with community. We ally ourselves with champions who are working to make this country safer for children like our own boys.
We share our story. On #worldadoptionday, that’s what I wanted to do for all of you.
So today is a special day, and it is now a day we will celebrate for the rest of our lives. It’s a day where we advocate, where we encourage, and where we take time to inspire others to do the same.
What can you do?
Do you support an orphanage? Does your church? Ask them if they prioritize reunifying children with their families. Ask them if they prioritize local foster or adoptive families before international options. Ask them if they have a license to legally operate. Demand financial transparency.
Are you passionate about volunteering oversees, or supporting initiatives that care for vulnerable children? Find ways to support, visit, and advocate for organizations that preserve families, alleviate poverty, and support young girls as they reach childbearing age.
Are you interested in adoption? Let us know. We happen to be really passionate about it. We don’t know everything, but we are trying.
Big love to you all on a special day.