- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2005

For weeks, government officials and adoption agencies have been quietly telling kind-hearted Americans the same thing: The thousands of children orphaned by the December tsunami are not available for adoption — and most never will be. The same is true of children in Africa, even though 80 percent of the world’s AIDS orphans live there, and war, poverty and famine have ravaged many of its 54 countries.

International or foreign adoption just isn’t done in many countries, adoption experts say. The main reasons are religious restrictions and cultural norms that don’t allow adoption by non-relatives, and a lack of government rules on foreign adoption.

Still, this doesn’t prevent Americans from calling U.S. adoption agencies when tragedy strikes in distant lands.

They want “to reach out and do something, and adoption is a tangible thing,” said Susan Soon-keum Cox, an official with Holt International Children’s Services in Eugene, Oregon, which assists with adoptions in a dozen countries, including Thailand and India. For a week after the tsunami, she said, her agency received “about 100 inquiries a day” about adopting the orphans.

Media reports, including ones in The Washington Times, quickly revealed that while Americans often adopt children from Thailand and India, it is almost unheard of in Sri Lanka or Indonesia.

Many countries in Africa also don’t allow foreign adoptions.

“I think families need to understand why,” said Cheryl Carter-Shotts, who runs Indianapolis-based Americans for African Adoption Inc., and has adopted two children from Africa. “People are just hearing ‘no.’ And they’re not hearing why not.”

The first hurdle is typically a legal one. “Many countries don’t have a process in place to allow for foreign adoptions,” said State Department spokesman Bill Strassberger, who lived in Africa for several years and specializes in adoption issues.

More than 20,000 foreign-born children are adopted each year by Americans, he said, adding that the State Department tracks the “top 20” countries for which it issues immigrant visas for orphans. But foreign adoption is rare if there isn’t a stable government with adoption laws and sufficient oversight to prevent baby-trafficking, he said.

Cultural and religious norms also play major roles in whether foreign adoption is allowed, adoption experts said.

Islam, for instance, does not allow non-Muslims to adopt Muslim children. This means that for Christians, “the chances of adopting a Muslim child is nil,” said Roni Anderson, a former Southern Baptist missionary who worked for 12 years in Iraq.

Instead, in many countries, family members and communities are expected to care for orphaned children. “Hillary Clinton borrowed the old phrase, but it’s really an African tradition — it takes a village to raise a child,” said Mr. Strassberger.

“It’s rare that you have a child that nobody wants or nobody is willing to take care of,” he said, recalling his days in Cameroon. When a baby lost its mother, he said, it would be cared for in a local orphanage. “Once the child reached one or two years of age, the family would take the child back,” Mr. Strassberger said, adding that there wasn’t even a word for cousin in the local dialect because all the children in a family were considered brothers and sisters.

There is an important caveat to this experience, said Mrs. Carter-Shotts, whose adoption agency has worked exclusively in Africa since 1986.

“Many of these children become servants” in the homes of their aunts, uncles and relatives, she said. For instance, she knows of one Muslim African country that routinely sends all its orphaned boys to orphanages in another Muslim country, where they grow up to do menial labor. The orphaned girls are taken into relatives’ homes as servants. “When the girls become teenagers, they are sold for dowries into marriage,” said Mrs. Carter-Shotts.

“To me, that’s not truly adopting,” she said. “That’s finding some more hands to help out, whether you put them out to work or put them on the streets to beg.”

There’s evidence that the number of foreign adoptions from Africa could grow.

Ethiopia, with about 130 adoptions per year, regularly makes the State Department’s “top 20” list for adoption-related visas. Mrs. Carter-Shotts said her agency assists in 40 to 50 adoptions per year, primarily from Ethiopia, Liberia and Mali.

But for most of Africa’s 54 countries, the State Department issues very few or no U.S. adoption-related visas.

Sometimes, this is because the African government just decides to forbid adoptions, said Mrs. Carter-Shotts, who tried in vain to start assisting with adoptions of Rwandan orphans after the 1994 genocide killed 800,000 people. The new Rwandan government at first considered allowing foreign adoptions, but then said, “We will raise them in orphanages,” she said.

A few African countries allow foreign adoption, but essentially discourage it by requiring adoptive parents to live in the country with the child for months or years. Few adoptive parents can do that, said Mrs. Carter-Shotts.

In the end, though, the laws of the foreign country prevail, she said. “These are their children, not our children.”

Communities that have been hit by tragedy are usually not eager to lose their remaining children—their next generation, said Mrs. Cox, whose agency has started a foster-care program in Uganda that ultimately might lead to international adoption.

In tsunami-hit Thailand, she said, Holt International is currently assisting government authorities to identify children, find their extended families, or place them in foster families — but foreign adoption isn’t being considered at the moment, she said. “The village leaders are very determined to keep these children in their villages.”

Julia Duin contributed to this report.

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