Launching of the Handbook to implement the Guidelines for Alternative Care for Children

It is a dangerous thing having friends who actually want better for you.  I get regular emails from a dear friend who is always letting me know of the greater world of international child welfare enticing me to fantasize of the possibility of doing social work in the way I dream.  Even living so close to New York City, it is rare to get the chunk of time needed to engage.  Lucky for me, I married the right man who endorses just about every chance I get to play with my fantasy.

Sent email reading…“Please make it home in time to pick up the kids from school, skip taekwondo, stay home to work on the cars for the pinewood derby so no one needs to be shuttled about and I will be home by 5:30 to put dinner on the table.”  Thus, by 3PM, I am sitting in UNICEF house to witness the Launch Event of Moving Forward: Implementing the Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children.

Facilitating the presentation was Susan Bissell, Associate Director of Child Protection at UNICEF.  In my mind, Ms. Bissell has the most amazing job.  More pointedly, she has the most amazing memory.  I met her once and she has been gracious to remember me every time I make contact with her.

Jennifer Davidson, Director for the Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland shared the process in developing the Handbook.  She offered that in launching this Handbook offers a new paradigm.  To me, she offered hope that there were real tools to use from the simple front line practitioner to the government of a country to change the way we see the care of a child who needs intervention and others to take the charge in giving them care.  The writers chose to highlight programs from countries – none represented twice – implementing various recommendations.  From the US was the adoption agency, You Gotta Believe!, an agency that specializes in finding homes for adolescents and kids who age out of foster care.  Anyone who has ever heard Pat O’Brien, Executive Director of this organization, would walk away believing in him and his mission.  I still remember a marvelous story Mr. O’Brien shared years ago of a creative mother, a curse word and a birthday cake.

Third to speak was Cecilia Anicama, Programme Specialist to the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Violence against Children.  What stood out of Ms. Anicama’s presentation was the affirmation that we need to prevent institutionalization.  That statement wasn’t made to pander to the audience as she knows all too well, there will always be children who need to be cared for outside of their family of origin.  But institutionalizing a child exposes a child to violence six times higher than a child who is placed in foster care.  Ms. Anicama specified this violence in terms of bullying, abuse and violence by other children.  An affirmation again of what I learned living with the children of the orphanage I came from.  It felt like “Lord of Flies”, I don’t think I was far off in that analogy.

Minister of Social Welfare of Indonesia
Inspiring that a country that actually commits to implementing the guidelines and use the Handbook as a tool to inform government.  A country that espoused a “system of child welfare as institutional care” in 2005 with 8000 child care institutions where 90% of the children are not orphaned or abandoned has a right to be optimistic about their changes as by 2011, Indonesia set a national standard of care that targets education, health, parental support and social welfare for children.  I think the standout statement was when Minister Sunusi admitted to a governmental re-evaluation of the funding of institutions and suggested that funds were changed to family support with a comprehensive assessment of a child’s needs.

Listening to Minister Sunusi, I had the fantasy that someday, the Minister of Health and Welfare of South Korea would say something along the same lines.  While talking to one of my orphanage brothers recently, I am reminded our orphanage is still a home to children, not one legally free for adoption.  My old Home exists for the parents to temporarily place their children while they get their act together, get a job, get remarried, etc.  But I know, rare is the kid who escapes the stigma of being an “orphanage kid” as rare is the kid who gets to leave the Home before the age of 16, forever a second class citizen.

The room was nearly 60 plus full of people and I felt so small and inconsequential knowing that many were doing the work that this Handbook was recommending.  Hard questions were asked about how to promote this new paradigm of child centered thinking where there is so little in the way of funding and resources.

Language was the most profound concept for me while listening.  Global initiatives and working with people who use words differently, speak differently, will push one to be polite, respectful, circumspect, careful and very specific.  With dissonance there comes even more care in the choice of words without losing the passion for the work that needs to be addressed.  There was the call to make a distinction between “residential care” vs. “institutional care”.  Too, culture was all enmeshed in the rhetoric.  It was brought up that there is an Eastern European country that has physicians encouraging parents to place their special needs newborns into an institution, eschewing these babies away.  I know they are not the only one choosing to hide away their less than typical babies to be raised in aggregate care rather than in the arms of humans, especially their parents, who will touch them, reach out to them, be touched by them, see them with potential.  An education not just for a society to change the way they see their children, but the education may even begin with the most educated of society.

Adoption was everywhere in the discussion.  My ears perked every time I heard the word being used.  It was refreshing to hear it in the context of a list of alternatives for children, in neutral but necessary terms. I believe that is where the word adoption is suited best, within a context of options.

The paradigm I was hearing and envisioning was a space in which the child was the source and center of intervention options.  I hope I was getting that right.

Please read the complete Handbook with me.  I am halfway through.  http://www.alternativeguidelines.org

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UNICEF

I can remember clearly the yellow walls and Holly Hobby bedspreads in my room the night I arrived in America.  On the wall were a few pictures, one was a poster of UNICEF – three color blocked children sitting on top of a white dove.  That poster was on the wall for the duration we lived in that home.  I loved that poster.  I took it to mean that there was a group of people who looked out for all children, no matter their color.  It embodied a sense of hope for me. I remember wanting to work for UNICEF.  It is on my bucket list to someday be a part of UNICEF in a project in some way.

One of my first writing projects when I worked at the EBD Adoption Institute was to write a paper comparing the UN Rights of the Child and the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption.  I was struck by how much these two documents had in common and remain curious as to how the United States felt it was ok to ratify the Hague but not the UNRC?  If I stick to typical social situations and pop culture as my source, I find adoption is still second-best, for some completely abhorant to the possibility of having a “child of my own.” I know, I am oversimplifying it, but for those conspiracy theorists among us, I am certain the thought of market forces impacting adoption plays a huge factor in the Hague being ratified and the other stuck having only been signed.

Now, I literally living my dream chance.  It isn’t UNICEF, but so close, an international NGO that is one answer to the plight of children who are without parents.  Between assisting them craft their position statements on adoption and spending half of September with the APRC group to draft a position paper on the North Korean Refugee Adoption Act of 2012, I realize my stand on adoption is gaining clarity.  It isn’t so much whether adoption should or shouldn’t happen.  That ship has sailed centuries ago.  It is about when and how it should happen if we believe the child is the central focus, the client.  Our definition of “child” and all he/she is entitled to keeps evolving, but I am glad that UNICEF hasn’t changed their perspective, or has it?  This sentence caught my eye in particular – For individual children who cannot be cared for in a family setting in their country of origin, inter-country adoption may be the best permanent solution. I appreciate the choice of words here and can well imagine how many hours it took to craft such a sentence.  What I am struck by is the contrast in perception that UNICEF is a major roadblock to international adoption.  With a sentence like that, how can anyone believe all this venom is warranted?  Furthermore, what is so wrong about a leading international organization, created to support families and protect children from exploitation, making a stand that adoption not be the main priority?  Color me naive, but I am totally OK with UNICEF being there to be the stalwart bar set on how we prioritize adoption.  As long as there are articles that read like this – The Evangelical Adoption Crusade , we need them to stay that way.

I thought I would post what UNICEF has on their site about their thoughts on inter-country adoption.

UNICEF’s position on Inter-country adoption

Since the 1960s, there has been an increase in the number of inter-country adoptions.  Concurrent with this trend, there have been growing international efforts to ensure that adoptions are carried out in a transparent, non-exploitative, legal manner to the benefit of the children and families concerned. In some cases, however, adoptions have not been carried out in ways that served the best interest of the children — when the requirements and procedures in place were insufficient to prevent unethical practices.  Systemic weaknesses persist and enable the sale and abduction of children, coercion or manipulation of birth parents, falsification of documents and bribery.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which guides UNICEF’s work, clearly states that every child has the right to grow up in a family environment, to know and be cared for by her or his own family, whenever possible.  Recognising this, and the value and importance of families in children’s lives, families needing assistance to care for their children have a right to receive it. When, despite this assistance, a child’s family is unavailable, unable or unwilling to care for her/him, then appropriate and stable family-based solutions should be sought to enable the child to grow up in a loving, caring and supportive environment.
Inter-country adoption is among the range of stable care options.  For individual children who cannot be cared for in a family setting in their country of origin, inter-country adoption may be the best permanent solution.

UNICEF supports inter-country adoption, when pursued in conformity with the standards and principles of the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-country Adoptions – already ratified by more than 80 countries. This Convention is an important development for children, birth families and prospective foreign adopters. It sets out obligations for the authorities of countries from which children leave for adoption, and those that are receiving these children. The Convention is designed to ensure ethical and transparent processes. This international legislation gives paramount consideration to the best interests of the child and provides the framework for the practical application of the principles regarding inter-country adoption contained in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.  These include ensuring that adoptions are authorised only by competent authorities, guided by informed consent of all concerned, that inter-country adoption enjoys the same safeguards and standards which apply in national adoptions, and that inter-country adoption does not result in improper financial gain for those involved in it.  These provisions are meant first and foremost to protect children, but also have the positive effect of safeguarding the rights of their birth parents and providing assurance to prospective adoptive parents that their child has not been the subject of illegal practices.

The case of children separated from their families and communities during war or natural disasters merits special mention.  Family tracing should be the first priority and inter-country adoption should only be envisaged for a child once these tracing efforts have proved fruitless, and stable in-country solutions are not available. This position is shared by UNICEF, UNHCR, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Hague Conference on Private International Law, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and international NGOs such as the Save the Children Alliance and International Social Service.
UNICEF offices around the world support the strengthening of child protection systems. We work with governments, UN partners and civil society to protect vulnerable families, to ensure that robust legal and policy frameworks are in place and to build capacity of the social welfare, justice and law enforcement sectors.

Most importantly, UNICEF focuses on preventing the underlying causes of child abuse, exploitation and violence.

New York 22 July 2010