When it comes to adoption, the struggles of those on both sides of the equation are too often shrouded in secrecy.
And so, with the hope of pulling back the curtain, The Daily Beast brought together more than a hundred world-class experts—professionals and parents alike—November 16 for our second Women in the World salon series event, Forgotten Children: International Adoption and the Global Orphan Crisis.
Giving voice to outspoken parent advocates such as actor Hugh Jackman and dignitaries including Ambassador Susan Jacobs, Secretary Clinton’s special adviser on children’s issues, the event aimed to jump-start an international effort to help the world’s most vulnerable victims.
The crisis is a staggering one: Thanks to the combined impact of war, poverty, and AIDS, the world is now home to 163 million orphans—children who’ve lost at least one parent. Add to that an additional 20 million “displaced children,” and the number in need is larger than the population of Russia. Some live in institutions, some on the streets—in manholes or garbage dumpsters, as The Daily Beast’s editor in chief, Tina Brown, noted in her opening remarks. The question posed to each attendee was: How can we help?
In honor of National Adoption Awareness Month, and gathered at Urban Zen in Manhattan’s West Village—a loft-like event space and foundation founded by Donna Karan, geared toward empowering children—the eclectic group of attendees attempted to tackle this complex issue.
For many Americans, our first impulse in confronting what Brown described as a “heartbreaking challenge” is to bring these children into our own homes, as glamorously advertised by the likes of Angelina Jolie and Madonna. And in a one-on-one interview, renowned adoption specialist Dr. Jane Aronson—a pediatrician who’s been nicknamed “the orphan doctor,” and CEO and founder of the Worldwide Orphans Foundation—spoke frankly about the realities of this choice.
Given the lack of prenatal care in many developing countries, many orphans start life “blighted,” Aronson told Brown, malnourished before they’re even born. They’re then exposed to trauma after birth, leading to physical and developmental delays. The key for prospective parents is to approach adoption with eyes wide open. “Children have these problems, and we have to be honest about those problems,” Aronson said. “People need to know what they’re getting into. And they need to then either step up to it, or not sign on for it.”
“There are many families who’ve stepped up and adopted special-needs kids, and done an amazingly brilliant job,” she continued. But “if this is not for you, be honest with yourself. Don’t do something that’s beyond what you can do, and don’t feel badly about it, don’t feel guilty.”
Yet even when parents step up, the challenges can seem overwhelming—as in the controversial case of Torry Ann Hansen, the Tennessee woman who sent her 7-year-old adopted son back to Russia last spring. To help parents cope, Aronson encourages reaching out to “post-adoptive resources,” from social workers to neuropsychologists. “We are so lucky in the U.S.,” she said. “We have the resources here to help families. Not all countries do.”
And indeed, other speakers echoed Aronson throughout the morning, calling for better post-adoptive services worldwide. (For additional information on these resources, visit: Worldwide Orphans Foundation; Better Care Network; Adoption Institute.)
But many agree that adoption is just one of many options. In a panel led by Nightline’s Cynthia McFadden (who herself was adopted), several speakers suggested that a more sustainable—and compassionate—solution is to invest in struggling communities around the world, as opposed to airlifting children away from the problem.
“Adoption should probably be the third-best option,” said Deborra-Lee Furness. A co-host of the event, Furness, who is married to Jackman, is an actress, adoptive mother, and adoption advocate. First, children should be placed with other biological family members, she said, then with a family in their community. “And then, when you have exhausted all those options, then international adoption should be the best option.”
While a child’s health and safety are most important, esteemed filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem—who was adopted from South Korea when she was 8 years old—underscored a child’s connection to his or her birth home. “I gained tremendously by coming to this country,” she said. “But on the other hand, I lost everything I loved by coming to this country”—her family, identity, language, and even memories. “One does not replace the other.”
Bridging the two so-called camps on the issue, Dr. Sophie Mengitsu, who runs the Worldwide Orphans Foundation in Ethiopia, proposed that the agencies that help with international adoption also vow to help the struggling communities from which these orphans come.
While working to combat the root causes of the orphan crisis may be noble, many point out that—in the meantime—parents who hope to adopt internationally often face frustrating delays. In part due to the regulations of the Hague Adoption Convention, which aims to protect against an often-corrupt global system, rife with trafficking and abuse, the process can be grueling—while children fall further behind. In one of the event’s more alarming moments, Mengitsu spoke passionately about the damage that living in an orphanage can have: For every three months in an institution, a child's development is delayed by approximately one month. Kids are "better off in the streets" than in an institution, she said.
While UNICEF often takes the blame for slowing the process down, panelist Susan Bissell, the organization’s chief of child protection, explained: They’re just one of many agencies working to tackle the issue.
“People have the impression that UNICEF is way more powerful than we are,” she said. “Child protection is only one small piece of what we do.” To solve the crisis requires a global effort.
In the final portion of the breakfast, each of the 13 tables—led by co-hosts including fashion designer Vera Wang, actress and model Isabella Rossellini, and actress Alfre Woodard—discussed concrete steps. Solutions included training siblings to care for one another and building orphanages in close proximity to communities and neighbors; pressuring government leaders to get involved, and approaching the orphan crisis as a future security risk. (See our full list of solutions.)
And indeed, looking to the future may help to explain the sense of urgency permeating the discussion. Borshay Liem perhaps put it best, when reflecting on her own journey: “Children who are adopted also grow up.”
Danielle Friedman is a homepage editor and reporter for The Daily Beast. Previously, she spent five years working as a nonfiction book editor for Hudson Street Press and Plume, two imprints of Penguin Group. She's a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.