Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Why I Do What I Do

Disclaimer: The purpose of this post is not to defame any specific orphanage or specific workers in an orphanage. It is to give a general idea of what happens to children in orphanages and mental institutions.

Have you seen this photo? Probably not. It is an image taken from the documentary film Bulgaria's Abandoned Children, produced by Kate Blewett, a filmmaker from the UK. Over the course of several months in 2006/2007, Kate and her team visited the Mogilino Social Care Home in Bulgaria and documented the horrendous abuses of the children there. Many of the children had only minor disabilities but, due to malnutrition, lack of medical care, and lack of stimulation, had become bedridden, emaciated, and severely developmentally delayed. Many could not speak because they were never spoken to. Most spent their days in a single room, rocking unceasingly in an attempt to self-stimulate.

The conditions at Mogilino were so shocking that an international outcry caused investigation and led, ultimately, to the closing of the orphanage in 2009.

Sadly, Mogilino is not an isolated case. The orphanage in Pleven, also in Bulgaria, is currently being investigated for the sames types of horrific abuses and neglect. Luckily for the children there, the attention on the orphanage has resulted in improved care and the creation of a Baba (foster grandmother) program.

In many Eastern European countries, children who are deemed unadoptable (and this is for a variety of reasons, often for minor and correctable medical issues, often because a child is blind, deaf, or has Down syndrome) are removed from children's orphanages between the ages of 4 and 6 and sent to adult mental institutions.

Yes, you read that right. Adult mental institutions. This means that children barely out of toddlerhood are now sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in institutions that warehouse adults with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities. (These are not hospitals or treatment centers. They are warehouses where society's most vulnerable individuals are kept out of sight.) Many of these children are then confined to their beds ... for life. Children with treatable cerebral palsy wither away because they get no therapy or even a chance to move. Children with blindness, deafness, or Down syndrome never again feel the sunlight on their faces. Children with minor and correctable special needs die from neglect and malnutrition. They are touched sometimes only once a day, when their diapers are changed. No one talks to them. No one rocks them. No one sings to them. No one loves them.

Can you imagine your child in this situation?

This is 2012. It is unacceptable that children's lives are being destroyed by neglect. It is unacceptable that children who could be living in families, laughing, smiling, loving, and enjoying life, are consigned to this incessant hell from which there is usually no escape.

Can you imagine your child sitting in a crib for the rest of his or her life?

I am talking about 10 year olds the size of infants. Eighteen year olds the size of toddlers. These children are real, and this is what happens to them.

And what about the children who are "lucky" enough never to be transferred to a mental institution? Usually, at age 16 they are given a small bag containing their few worldly possessions, about $30, and sent away from the orphanage to make their own way in the world.

Can you imagine your 16 year old alone on the world?

In some places orphans are considered "defective" and their identity papers are marked to reflect their orphan status. They are then discriminated against and can be refused jobs and housing. Children with any sort of special need are often unable to access medical care. Many of these children end up in criminal gangs, prostitution, and sex trafficking situations. According to the UK's International Adoption Guide, "Twenty-one percent of Russian children who age out of orphanages are dead before they are 21."

The other day, after I watched Bulgaria's Abandoned Children, I was doing more reading about the orphan situation around the world. My oldest child, adopted from an Ethiopian orphanage, saw the picture of the emaciated children sitting on the potties. She was truly horrified, but my child could easily have been one of those children. She was in several different orphanage environments in Ethiopia before she was adopted, and she has, over the years, told us tales of abuse and neglect that she experienced as she grew up. She remembers not being fed regularly. She remembers once going for three days with no food aside from a single raw potato. She remembers that the good clothes and toys were kept in locked rooms and only brought out when important visitors came. She remembers not going to school. She remembers children dying and not being removed from the orphanage for several days. Luckily for my child, the orphanage she resided in was taken over by a group of people truly concerned for the plight of the children there, and for the last several years before we adopted her she was well cared for and given medical attention. She was just accepted into a medical school's summer internship for those interested in pursuing a career in a medical field and was awarded a full scholarship for her freshman year of college.

But that does not erase the years of neglect, hunger, and fear. And even the best orphanage is still ... an orphanage. It is still a place where children live without benefit of parents to love them, siblings to love them, and hope for a bright future.

The situation is dire.

A favorite story among the adoption community is the story of the starfish on the beach:

One day a man was walking along the beach when he noticed
a boy picking something up and gently throwing it into the ocean. 
Approaching the boy, he asked, "What are you doing?"
The youth replied, "Throwing starfish back into the ocean.
The surf is up and the tide is going out.  If I don't throw them back, they'll die."
"Son," the man said, "don't you realize there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish?
You can't make a difference!"
After listening politely, the boy bent down, picked up another starfish,
and threw it back into the surf.  Then, smiling at the man, he said
"I made a difference for that one."

I know that there are those who don't agree with international adoption. I know there are those who believe it to be a form of imperialism or wealthy people taking advantage of those in desperate situations. I know there are people who believe that international adoption is a form of cultural genocide.

I am not one of them.

I understand that international adoption is not the total solution. I know that it is not the answer to all the problems of orphaned children and poverty-stricken countries. I feel it would be naive to think that international adoption is more than a drop in the bucket in the approach toward improving the lives of orphaned and impoverished children.

But for the children whose lives are daily slipping away from them as they sit (literally -- watch the videos!) waiting in institutions, international adoption can be the answer. It was the answer for my son, who, before he was taken to the group home run by our adoption agency, lived in a large room lined with cribs and was cared for by not enough staff. My son still shows the effects of early malnutrition and lack of stimulation. It can be the difference between these children thriving in families, surrounded by love and happiness and stimulation, well-nourished and receiving proper medical care, growing into adults who can hold jobs and live productive lives, and these children remaining, for the rest of their lives, confined to single rooms or single beds, their voices forever silent and their potential forever blighted.

You can make a difference in the life of an orphaned child! You are not powerless. You can help in many ways. You can donate to increase a child's adoption grant fund. You can share the photos and stories of orphaned children. You can speak out against the abuses perpetrated on the most vulnerable children. You can volunteer for any of the many orphan advocacy organizations. You can adopt! You know what your skills are. You can find a way to make a difference! Our greatest enemy in this fight is ignorance ... people are ignorant of the situation of many orphans. You can help dispel that ignorance. You can make a difference!

This is why I do what I do.


  1. Daneille, you are such a powerful writer and a powerful person.

  2. I heard that in the beginning of Mother Teresa's ministry in India she was overwhelmed by all the suffering and neglected children she encountered. She wondered what she could possibly do? There were so many! She thought something like, "Well, I could pick up this one child, and tell him that God loves him!" And so she just started picking up children, one child at a time... And look what she did!