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The Families for Orphans Act 2009 and the inter-country adoption agenda


In June 2009, Sen. Mary Landrieu and Rep. Diane E. Watson, introduced two identical bills (S. 1458 and H.R. 3070 respectively) before Congress, known as the Families for Orphans Act 2009.

The introduction of the bills created immediate controversy; both Ethica and Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform raised objections to the proposed legislation, after which the Joint Council on International Children's Services felt it necessary to respond with a rebuttal of the objections raised.

The Families for Orphans Act is a grand and sweeping piece of legislation proclaiming to be a solution for "orphans" world wide. It's not only broad in its aim, it's also broad in its definition of the word "orphan". This is a tendency we have seen before with the work of the Christian Alliance for Orphans and it's relatives, Hope for orphans and Cry of the Orphan.

Before looking into the specifics of the bill, let's look at the authors, often a good indication of the intent behind a piece of legislation.

As with most legislation introduced before congress, the Families for Orphans Act is not written by elected law makers, but by special interest groups. The organization behind the Families for Orphans Act is the Families for Orphans Coalition, which is not as the name suggests a coalition of families, but a coalition of organizations primarily working in the field of inter-country adoption.

The Joint Council on International Children's Services is of course a member of that coalition, and so is the National Council for Adoption, Buckner International, Institute for Orphan Advocacy (an advocacy group related to America World Adoption Association), Equality for Adopted Children (EACH), Kidsave International and Worldwide Orphan Foundation. All these organizations are directly or indirectly involved in the practice of inter-country adoption, so it's fair to read the bill with that in mind.

Not only the organizations involved in writing the bill have huge stakes in inter-country adoption, so are some of the people involved in introducing the bills. Mary Landrieu is chair woman of the advisory board of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI), an organization consisting of members of congress, proclaiming to promote adoption from foster care, but which in practice is very much involved in advocacy for inter-country adoption.

There are further links between the CCAI and one of the members of the Families for Orphans Coalition, the organization going by the name Equality for Adopted Children (EACH). EACH was founded in 2008 by  J. McLane Layton, a former staffer of Sen. Don Nickles, a prominent member of the CCAI himself and currently board member of EACH. Ms. Layton is not only founder and president of EACH, she is also a member of the  Special Advisory Board for CCAI. There are more connections between EACH and CCAI, which makes it fair to say that EACH is in fact the non-congressional leg of CCAI: Kerry Hasenbalg, former executive director of CCAI is a board member of EACH and current executive director Kathleen Strottman is a board member of EACH too. Note: Ms. Strottman is one of Senator Landrieu's former staffers.

Not only with regards to board members and staff EACH and CCAI are closely related, also geographically; both have their offices on Massachusetts Ave NE, Washington DC, with not much more than the White Tiger Restaurant and Cap Hill Supermarket separating them.

As mentioned earlier, much of the language of the Families for Orphans Coalition and its name sake bill, resemble the language used by the Christian Alliance for Orphans, a memberships organization of adoption agencies, adoption advocates, foster care organizations, orphan care organizations and churches. This resemblance is not coincidental either. Brian Andrew Luwis, board member of the Christian Alliance, is CEO of America World Adoption Association and president of Institute for Orphan Advocacy (Families for Orphans Coalition member). The three organizations even share the same physical address in McLean, Virginia.

This is not the only relation between the Christian Alliance and the Families for Orphans Coalition. Coalition member Buckner International is member of the Christian Alliance and so are many of the agencies that make up the National Council for Adoption.

Finally Christian Alliance treasurer Scott Hasenbalg, executive director of Shaohannah's Hope, is married to Kerry Hasenbalg former executive director of CCAI and current board member of EACH.

With all these relations between the stake holders in the  Families for Orphan Act and organizations working in the field of inter-country adoption, it's fair to say that the bills proposed are in fact inter-country adoption promotion bills, cloaked as orphan care bills. That is not only apparent from the inter-relations between the stake holders, but also in the language of the bill itself, even though the word inter-country adoption is only mentioned a few times.

The bill itself is subdivided into eight sections, which we will briefly discuss.

Section 1: Short title

Only gives a name to the bill which otherwise goes by a the code S.1458 (for the senate bill) and H.R. 3070 (for the house bill)

Section 2: Findings and Purposes

This section presents the oft misrepresented 132 million orphans as counted by UNICEF, mentions the developmental delays of children that do not grow up in family based environments, introduces the American concept of "permanency" and states the US does not have a single agency devoted especially to the orphan issue (read inter-country adoption).

The purposes of the bill are central and I'd like to quote them verbatim:

  1. provide the infrastructure and resources necessary for the United States to develop and implement a comprehensive, global strategy for the preservation and reunification of families and the provision of permanent parental care for orphans;
  2. streamline and coordinate United States policies and programs related to the preservation and reunification of families and the provision of permanent parental care for orphans;
  3. encourage and assist foreign governments in the development and implementation of effective child welfare policies, systems, and programs that preserve and reunify families and provide permanent parental care for orphans;
  4. ensure that all aid efforts receiving funding from the United States recognize and support the need for the preservation and reunification of families and the provision of permanent parental care for orphans; and
  5. build global awareness of the need for the preservation and reunification of families and the provision of permanent parental care for orphans.

Section 3: Definitions

Here is where it really gets interesting:

PERMANENT PARENTAL CARE- The term `permanent parental care'--

(A) means a legally recognized relationship between an adult and a child who is younger than 21 years of age, which is life-long and provides a caring, safe, stable physical environment;
(B) includes--
  1. domestic and international adoption;
  2. legal guardianship; and
  3. legal kinship; and
(C) does not include temporary or long-term foster care, institutionalization, or mentoring.

The notion of "permanency" was introduced in the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 and at the time had a bidirectional meaning. Permanency either related to family preservation/reunification efforts, after which the child was able to "permanently" stay in its original family or was placed "permanently" back in its original family after a stay in foster care. The other direction permanency could take was away from the original family, in practice meaning adoption.

In the Families for Orphans Act, permanency has taken on the second aspect of its original meaning only and is strictly distinguished from family preservation/reunification efforts.

The lessons learned from the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 is that the direction towards family preservation/reunion is under constant attack and suffers greatly from underfunding, while the direction towards adoption is hugely promoted and receives ever growing financial incentives.

As stated earlier, "permanency" is an American invention and a term neither used in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, nor in the legislation of European countries.

Ironically the United States does not achieve permanency itself for many of its children and the use of institutional solutions, such as provided by Residential Treatment Centers, is even on the rise. Furthermore this definition of permanency negates the practices of most European countries that have no adoption from foster care, but instead provide long term foster care. It also negates informal placement within families without court intervention, a practice more common than adoption and foster care combined, both in the United States and in all other countries in this world.

The discussion about permanency is important, because of the link between permanency and the definition of what constitutes an orphan.

ORPHAN- The term `orphan' means any child--
(A) who lacks permanent parental care because of the death, the disappearance of, or the legal, permanent relinquishment of such child by both parents;
(B) who is living in the care and custody of an institution;
(C) whose biological parents' rights have been legally terminated; or
(D) whose country of origin has determined that the child lacks permanent parental care.

So unless a child is either living with parents (both original and adopted) that are deemed fit, or is living under legal guardian ship or legal kinship care, it is an orphan and a result can be labeled adoptable for domestic families and American families.

By this definition all children in foster care anywhere in this world, whose parents have lost their parental rights are orphans and the same is true for all children living with family members other than their original parents, where that arrangement has not been sanctioned by a court order. Using that definition, the estimated 132 million orphans as counted by UNICEF is probably conservative, not having taken into account all children in rich countries to whom this orphan definition applies.

The bills even even give a broader definition when it comes to institutionalization:

INSTITUTION- The term `institution' means--
(A) an orphanage;
(B) a children's home;
(C) a boarding school for orphans;
(D) a shelter;
(E) a residential facility;
(F) a hospital;
(G) a dormitory;
(H) long-term foster care; and
(I) any other setting in which permanent parental care is not being provided to the child.

By definition children living in an institution are deemed orphans, so according to the definition of institutions, children are orphans when: they live with their parents in a homeless shelter, when they are hospitalized and when being under the age of 21 and in college. All children placed in residential care, even when that is the only suitable setting for a child, are also orphans by this definition.

Section 4 - Office for orphan policy diplomacy and development.

This section discusses the establishment of an office within the State Department dedicated to inter-country adoption orphan issues.

Section 5 - Policy coordinating committee in support of orphan policy, diplomacy and development.

This section discusses the establishment of a committe monitoring inter-country adoption orphan issues.

Section 6 - Minimum standards for the provision of permanent parental care

This section defines the standards a country has to meet in order to receive assistance from the United States as described in section 7.

Central element of the minimum standards is that the government of the country has laws, practices, and judicial standards that--

(A) protect children from abuse and neglect;
(B) are aimed at reducing the number of abandoned children;
(C) are aimed at preserving families at risk of dissolution;
(D) are aimed at safely and appropriately reunifying orphans and institutionalized children with their families;
(E) promote legal guardianship and kinship care;
(F) promote domestic adoption;
(G) allow for international adoption; and
(H) promote the physical and emotional well-being and protection of children while they are waiting for reunification or placement with a permanent family;

Section 7 - Assistance to foreign governments

The section describes the assistance governments can receive to either achieve the minimum standards described in section 6 or the assistance they can receive when they meet a majority of those standards. Assistance can be directly in the form of trade and debt relief, or through nongovernmental and multilateral organizations, for programs, projects, and activities.

So given the focus on inter-country adoption as demonstrated in the introduction of this article, the Families for Orphans Act de facto means the United States is going to pay foreign countries to provide orphans for the American adoption market if these bills are signed into law.

Section 8 - Authorization and appropriations

This section finally names money available and the parties that are eligible for funding.

It goes without saying that many of the members behind the Families for Orphans Coalition are of course in principle eligible for funding as defined in these bills.

by Kerry and Niels on Wednesday, 07 October 2009