Re/Defining Orphans

Two very important statements about the definition of orphans. One of the main points – that within the the US and other economically developed nations, "orphan" is a term to describe a child who has lost both parents to death (as in, children in these nations are considered orphans if they’ve lost both parents to death*). However, as UNICEF and other NGOs define the term, in the 1990s, "Orphan" was used to describe a child who had lost one or more parents. This is no small consideration as it changes the scope of justification in terms of how children in need are deemed appropriate for different kinds of services both in country and abroad.

[* Edited to add: As Rich brought to my attention, the U.S. State Department’s definition of who counts as an orphan is here. This definition defined by the INA is not what I was referring to above; as I should have worded better. I meant that when people in the U.S. consider children living in this country "orphans" they mean those with two parents deceased.For the purposes of international adoption, orphan is defined by the State Department similarly as UNICEF and the Hague Convention.]

Unicef’s definition of orphans
Ethica: Majority of Global "Orphans" have families

This paragraph from Ethica sums up how I feel about the over-justification of saving "orphans" from foreign countries.

13 million orphans is still a vast sea of needy children, and a number
which far exceeds the number of children adopted each year. But of
special note is UNICEF’s comment that 95% of all orphans are age 5 and
This contrasts sharply with the demographics of adoptions to the
U.S. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services 2006
statistic on orphan visas granted to American families adopting
children from abroad, only 3,337 of the total 20,705 children adopted
that year were age 5 and older.
Ethica recognizes that the majority of
younger children who have been internationally adopted legally
qualified as orphans under U.S. immigration law, and were recognized as
orphans by their birth countries. However, these statistics indicate
that babies orphaned through parental relinquishment do not constitute
the majority of the orphan population.
While it is true that many
children who have a surviving parent may still require placement in
adoptive families, these statistics also challenge the adoption
community to look carefully at assumptions that current practices are
based upon.

UNICEF has been demonized among some groups of adoption agencies and adoptive parents for what they believe is an anti-adoption philosophy; however I fully support UNICEF’s hierarchy of placement decisions which follow the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-Operation in Respect to International Adoption:

  • Recognizing that the child, for the full and harmonious development
    of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in
    an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding,

  • Recalling that each State should take, as a matter of priority,
    appropriate measures to enable the child to remain in the care of his
    or her family of origin,

  • Recognizing that intercountry adoption may offer the advantage of a
    permanent family to a child for whom a suitable family cannot be found
    in his or her State of origin,

  • Convinced of the necessity to take measures to ensure that
    intercountry adoptions are made in the best interests of the child and
    with respect for his or her fundamental rights, and to prevent the
    abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children

It is NOT that UNICEF is completely anti-adoption; what they ARE is an organization justly concerned with ETHICAL practices.

For children who cannot be raised by their own families, an appropriate
alternative family environment should be sought in preference to
institutional care, which should be used only as a last resort and as a
temporary measure. Inter-country adoption is one of a range of care
options which may be open to children, and for individual children who
cannot be placed in a permanent family setting in their countries of
origin, it may indeed be the best solution. 

…At the same time, lack of regulation and oversight, particularly in the
countries of origin, coupled with the potential for financial gain, has
spurred the growth of an industry around adoption, where profit, rather
than the best interests of children, takes centre stage.  Abuses
include the sale and abduction of children, coercion of parents, and
bribery, as well as trafficking to individuals whose intentions are to
exploit rather than care for children.

How one can be opposed to that, I don’t comprehend.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

8 thoughts

  1. Thank you so much for writing this — I actually wanted to write a big post in support of UNICEF last fall but was too chicken to do so. This was when there was anti-UNICEF vitriol being vomited onto AP/prospective AP blogs everywhere, and people were proudly wearing T-shirts that said “Save the children; stop UNICEF”. Someone even went to the trouble of making a little “Why I am not donating to UNICEF this Halloween” pamphlet to stick in the orange cardboard boxes that her neighborhood kids would inevitably bring to her house. (People often like to label transracial adoptees as being “over the top,” but if anything is “over the top” it was that.)
    I just think it’s interesting how most of the people who cry about “saving the orphans” from big mean UNICEF are the same people who want to adopt those very ‘orphans’… smells like entitlement to me.

  2. In my travels through the online adoption world I haven’t come across anyone that really disagrees with the words you quoted. As with most complex issues like this the difficulty begins with how individuals, both within UNICEF and amongst its critics, choose to interpret and/or implement these words.
    A case could be made that because of the money involved, just about every IA program can be reasonably argued to be contributing in some way to the reality or at least the potential for trafficking of children. The question that is difficult to answer with any certainty is what the ultimate net benefit is to the children of these programs and in these countries. This is the source of the conflict as I see it and I can see reasonable positions being taken on both sides.

  3. Oh, thank you for writing this! To be honest, I don’t know much about UNICEF in this regard, but I am so happy to read your clarification on “orphanhood”. It bothers me greatly that ethical hurtles can be lept over with such vigor in the name of adopting an “orphan”. I am particularly dismayed with the savior mentality I often see, with a complete disregard that social justice and access to services may be the long-term solutions to many “orphan’s” situations. If we ignore the causes that result in children becoming “orphans”, but naively imagine them to actually be alone in the world, without family, it is so much easier to disconnect from their families and broader social structures as being in need of help. As an adoptive parent, I feel disloyal for saying so, but it is much easier to adopt a wonderful child (which is no easy task in itself), believing him or her to be alone in the world, than to become entangled/commited/involved in social-political-economical-historical situations that are so out of our cultural understanding and ability to address. Not that we’re powerless, but to choose naivete is one step in surrendering our power to affect change.

  4. UNICEF: Recalling that each State should take, as a matter of priority, appropriate measures to enable the child to remain in the care of his or her family of origin.
    I think this is the clause that many people don’t like. In 2001 I worked in an orphanage in Romania, most if the children there were not orphans. The caregivers (staff) at the orphanange said that parents would sometimes drop in to see their kids. But because the children were wards of the state, it would be very difficult for parents to reclaim their children. A parent can’t just walk in and say, I’m ready to take my child home now. And some of these parents would place their kids at the orphanage so they could find work. The idea was that the parents would come back for their kids, and many did. But often their children (mostly the babies or very young children) had been adopted.
    Some PAPS who visited the orphanage would ask the caregivers to not mention in the pre-adoption report that the children’s parents were visiting.
    I can not fathom taking a child out of a country without first turning that country upside down to find the child’s parents and/or extended family to check if there is any way for that child to return to her or his family. This should be the legal repsonsibility of the state, and the ethical responsibility of the individuals considering adoption.
    The words “abandoned” or “orhphaned” are used loosely, and it’s not limited to just overseas children. I was adopted in Canada because my mother apparently abandoned me. That of course was not true.

  5. I don’t see how anyone can disagree with those statements, either.
    My concern with Unicef is that they encourage countries to adopt these policies (some people feel that they push and bribe countries to do so) though there may not be the infrastructure in place to carry out the policies.
    I know that a lot of people felt that was happening in Guatemala last year. There is no government social services program to care for all of the orphans in Guatemala. Private adoption fees were paying for the care of the children being adopted out of country. Unicef was encouraging then-president Berger to limit IA for all of the reasons mentioned in this article. Unfortunately, with the money they were offering him there did not seem to be any caveats regarding how the money was spent. A lot of people saw it as a bribe, fearing that Berger would pocket the money. Meanwhile, the orphans in Guatemala would still have poor (or no) care as the government had inefficient programs available for these children.
    I know that in a lot of ways UNICEF does good work. But in that situation, where I felt the lives of the children were seriously endangered, it seemed like UNICEF was there with the big idea but no carry through to make it successful.

  6. I also agree that reasonable people would agree with Unicef’s words. However, it appears that Unicef prioritizes the children remaining in their birth country over finding a permanent family. How long is it okay for a child to linger in foster care, an institution, or on the streets while their government investigates their family situation? 6 months, 1 year, 2 years, 5 years, 18 years? At what point does the child’s right to a family supercede the right of the state to run an investigation?

  7. I thought about this a bit before commenting.
    And honestly, I can’t see why anyone would take issue with UNICEF’s policy.
    I love my children more than anything, but what I prefer that they could have stayed with their birth family?
    Hell yes.
    And if there is one thing I do regret, it is the severed limb that will never heal until they close that connection again.
    This might be why adoptive parents I’ve tried to get to know just don’t seem to like me after a while (or while my perspective seems odd in general). I am a fully committed and enthusiastic parent, but I also sympathize with my own children’s tragedy. And I think they just can’t accept that for their own.

  8. Ed makes a valid point that I think doesn’t come out often enough. Something has to go wrong for an adoption to take place. A child is removed from a home, loses parents, or is abandoned. This does not minimize the joy and beauty of gaining a family, but it’s part of their context and history.
    So there really isn’t much inherently wrong with the words UNICEF uses. Clearly adoption systems in many countries need reform. It’s kindof a straw man to accuse APs of being opposed to the most supportable portion of their guidelines. UNECEF has an more literature and lobbying going on in the adoption world. As Jenny and Jennifer have pointed out, the problem is in the interpretation and actual practice of their policy. I think many AP’s go overboard with vitriol and anger at UNICEF, but we can’t let them off the hook just because they write nice position papers either.

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