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Beware of calls to ‘rescue’ India’s ‘Covid orphans’

News reports of children being orphaned by Covid-19 deaths in India raise the spectre of a generation of children without adequate parental care. But international responses that favour solutions like building orphanages and seeking adoption for these children are misguided and can lead to child exploitation. In this post, Kristen Cheney explains why, and how you can better support children orphaned during the pandemic.

Photo: Charu Chaturvedi (Unsplash)

A year ago, my colleagues and I were already forewarning of calls to ‘rescue’ ‘Covid orphans’. As care reform advocates, we are familiar with the pattern: after every disaster—natural or manmade, instant (‘Haitian earthquake orphans’) or slow-burn (‘AIDS orphans’)—media coverage laments the situation of children left without parental care. So when Covid-19 was declared a global pandemic last year, we worried—not so much about whether as about when we would start to see calls for assistance to these orphans. It has taken a while, but now, with the horrible escalation of Covid-19 in India, these stories are starting to emerge.

Children’s advocates worry because these calls tend to take the form of ‘orphan rescue’ narratives, which usually spur desires to go to the children and build massive orphanages, as well as demands for international adoption. And yet we have known for decades that these responses, though well-meaning, are at best deeply flawed and counter to children’s overall wellbeing. Over half a century of child development research has documented the deleterious effects of institutionalisation and risks in international adoption, prompting the United Nations to adopt the Alternative Care Guidelines, which call for institutionalisation and international adoption as last resorts, favouring instead family-based care solutions.

Orphans don’t need ‘rescuing’; they need protection

At worst, ‘orphan rescue’ narratives have spurred corruption and exploitation of children, prompting perverse incentives to traffic children into institutions and even international adoptions for profit. In fact, this has profit motive been so prevalent that I have been tracking its development in what I call the global Orphan Industrial Complex.

While children are indeed losing their parents at alarming rates to Covid-19 in India, that doesn’t mean that foreigners should rush in to build orphanages or seek to adopt orphans. Care reform advocates like myself have long argued that not only are these solutions bad for children; with these good intentions inevitably comes an element of criminality. Under such circumstances, the Orphan Industrial Complex has a way of swooping in and commodifying such children, leading to exploitation (of donors and ‘orphans’ alike as ‘fake’ orphanages pop up to raise funds that line the pockets of traffickers), increasing corruption as people seeking to adopt search for loopholes to legal and child safeguarding measures, and even child trafficking into orphanages and adoption.

A recent BBC article pointed to such early warning signs occurring in India: a grandmother caring for her grandchildren orphaned by Covid-19 is quoted as saying, “A lot of people are coming to ask for adoption [of her grandchildren],” suggesting that the vultures are already descending.

Support for families of orphans and doing away with orphanages

Yet, the Indian government and NGOs have been working for many years on strengthening their child protection and alternative care policies to prevent such exploitation of ‘orphans’. For example, for the past five years, India has been working on shutting down orphanages while also strengthening their child protection systems to better prevent children’s separation from their families in the first place. Continued external support to orphanages only undermines such efforts.

When Covid-19 cases in India started spiking in April, however, so did the number of children left without parental care. Reports started rolling off the press, sometimes detailing the danger of exploitation of those children by unscrupulous traffickers hoping to take advantage of their vulnerabilities. In response, Indian advocates started posting informational memes on social media that detail legal and social advice about ‘what to do with Covid orphans’ [Fig 1]. NGOs have helped set up community helpdesks and outreach programmes to identify and assist families’ access to government schemes, medical facilities, and PPE distribution. To prevent a massive institutionalisation of children left behind, the Prime Minister’s Office declared a support and empowerment program for children affected by the pandemic that includes free education, free health insurance, and a monthly stipend for youth from 18 to 23 years old [Fig 2]. This is a commendable effort that will provide support to extended families to care for children without drastically uprooting them from all that they know. After all, the loss of one or both parents is already hard enough to deal with.

Reinvesting in communities

Whenever I warn people of the Orphan Industrial Complex and its perpetuation of inappropriate charitable responses to orphanhood, they often ask where they should direct their assistance instead. One thing that advocates have lamented is that it is so much easier to raise money for harmful orphanages or adoptions than it is to raise money for child protection and family preservation efforts. Yet we know that these are in the best interests of children.

So, I encourage people to support care reforms that keep children in families or family-based care whenever possible. This ensures children’s rights to family, community life, name, nation, and identity (as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child); families are where children grow best. But we also need to build the capacities of these systems by, for example, training social workers and supporting communities with services like education, health, and parenting support to help them to take care of their own children.

Finally, we can urge our friends, families, and governments to divest from orphanages (after all, there is a reason why we no longer have orphanages in Europe and North America; why do we consider warehousing children in institutions an appropriate response to crises abroad??) and support moratoria on international adoption such as that recently issued by the Dutch government.

Instead, now is the time to reinvest in communities, such as those in India that bear the burden of the Covid pandemic and lockdowns. We can strengthen them to enact proven care reforms that allow children—even those who find themselves in adverse circumstances like India’s new ‘Covid orphans’—to flourish.

Opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the ISS or members of the Bliss team.

About the author:

Kristen Cheney is Associate Professor of Children and Youth Studies at ISS. She is author of Crying for Our Elders: African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV and AIDS (2017) and co-editor of the volume, Disadvantaged Childhoods and Humanitarian Intervention: Processes of Affective Commodification and Objectification (2019).

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The Orphan Industrial Complex comes home to roost in America by Kristen Cheney and Karen Smith Rotabi

The recent removal of migrant children from their parents at the southern US border has caused great public outcry, but Kristen Cheney and Karen Smith Rotabi argue that it could become another incarnation of the Orphan Industrial Complex that glorifies ‘child rescue’ and the charitable commodification of children without parental care—one that actually produces orphans for a hungry adoption market through dubious legal means.

What is happening to migrant children is egregious and yet predictable: children separated from their families and moved hundreds of miles away to foster homes—by an adoption agency with ties to US Secretary of Education Betsy de Vos.

To those who are appalled by this move by the Trump administration, the situation is unconscionable and ‘not who we are’ as Americans (though there are numerous historical cases of intentional family separation by the state).

To those of us in children’s studies, however—and particularly those of us who study orphanhood and adoption—it was only a matter of time before the Trump family separation policy crossed paths with the Orphan Industrial Complex.

The Orphan Industrial Complex

The Orphan Industrial Complex (OIC) is the charitable commodification of children without parental care. It is driven by persistent narratives of “orphan rescue” that not only commodify orphans and orphanhood itself but that frequently spurs the “production” of “orphans”, resulting in child exploitation and trafficking (Cheney and Ucembe forthcoming). The OIC includes such activities as fundraising for orphanages, orphanage volunteering, and international adoption.

The OIC has largely been operating internationally, driven by North American and European desires for children and/or experiences with orphans abroad (Cheney and Rotabi 2017). Now that we are seeing young children at the doorstep of the US, the next chapter in a long story of child abduction into adoption is currently being written—this time domestically.

Adoption scholars and children’s advocates have been speculating on social media that the plan is (and has likely been all along) that they move the young children far from their parents at the border, charge an absurd amount for fostering and/or reunification that the parents can’t pay—either because they just don’t have the money and/or are still in detention—then when they can’t pay, the authorities declare the children abandoned and available for adoption. This has happened before, and make no mistake, it is happening as we type. And it is perfectly “legal”, in that the courts are sanctioning these actions; indeed, they are enabling the stealing of children against the will of their parents.

Bethany Christian Services of Michigan, an adoption agency with ties to billionaire Education Secretary Betsy de Vos and a history of coercive adoptions, has placed approximately 80 children in foster care thousands of miles from the southern US border, where some of the parents are detained while other parents have already been deported to Central America. Bethany and other agencies have government contracts to provide so-called “foster care” while reunification strategies are sorted. We submit, why would a large-scale adoption agency be trusted with such a critical and essential task all those miles removed from the location where the child was separated from their parent(s)?

Tackle the enabling environment first

Because the courts are so often complicit in child stealing, it is difficult to actually talk of “illegal adoptions”. That is why Cheney told the UN HRC Council last year that using the law to battle “illegal adoptions” is not enough; we need to address the enabling environment that is undergirded by “child rescue” and “better life” narratives that justify helping ourselves to the children of the poor and desperate. These discourses are also what undergird the OIC, thus perpetuating such violence against children and families. As we know from previous experience, there are people out there who have no scruples about adopting the children separated from their detained and deported migrant parents—many of whom came to the US with their children to protect them from violence and instability at home—and in fact there are whole social movements dedicated to adoption.

Yet, a number of the families crossing the U.S. border are actually eligible to apply for asylum based on societal violence: asylum seekers from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are over-represented in the recent influx. All three countries suffer notorious gang violence and other problems that rise to the definition of persecution when an individual or family is targeted. Ironically, US government policies have fueled poverty and violence underlying the requests for asylum from the region (Costantino, Rotabi and Rodman 2012). Gang violence is just one symptom that has, in turn, pushed some of the region’s most vulnerable people to immigrate northward for safety (Carlson and Gallagher 2015).

Rather than being welcomed at the border as asylum seekers, they are charged with a misdemeanor for illegal entry to the US. To make matters worse, there are credible stories of immigration agents coercing parents with threats of child adoption if they should file for their rights to seek refuge. As the U.S responds to asylum seekers and others with such a heavy and uncaring hand, Federal Judges are now weighing in: a recent court order requires the children affected and in foster care to be quickly reunited with their families. However, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions fought the court order—and lost. Nonetheless, this mean-spirited delay of the court judgment being realized inevitably will prolong the waiting game which is a potential means of child abduction into adoption through the courts. All too often, when a challenge to separation finally comes to court, judges have ruled that a child has lived with a foster family for long enough that they have emotionally attached to the new family. On the basis of the best interests of the child, legal judgments favoring adoption rather than returning a child to their parents have prevailed. This has already happened in notorious cases of child abduction into US adoption from Guatemala (Rotabi and Bromfield 2017).

In the case of an organization like Bethany, they typically serve the very hungry adoption marketplace rather than facilitate parent-child. While Bethany can and should mobilize to change its case management model from adoption to reunification, the clock ticks on the family lives of vulnerable children.

The dark side of adoption

It may look like some of the children adjust well to their new homes and families, but let us tell you what is going to happen if we do not stop it: the older children will likely not adjust well to being ripped from their parents and told they have new families, so those adoptions are bound to “fail”, with kids running away, ending up cycling through multiple foster homes, or worse. For younger kids, the memories of their families and the harrowing journey they have made with them will likely fade over time as the children get adjusted to their new homes. But imagine how they will feel as they come of age and learn the true circumstances of their adoptions; that they were essentially stolen at the border from a parent(s) who carried them for thousands of treacherous miles seeking safety from the very violence instigated by the US. Older adoptees have been devasted to learn of such questionable reasons for their international adoptions, and it can lead to a dissolution of their relationships with their adoptive parents as well as incredible emotional difficulties that come with such a revelation: adoptees, for example, have high rates of depression and suicide.

Many adoptee advocates note that adult adoptees are often driven to learn more about their origins, as an integral part of their identities. In fact, origin tourism has become another facet of the OIC, marketizing adoptees’ need to search for their birth families (Dorow 2010, 78). Nonetheless, one of the strongest recommendations to come out of the International Forum on Intercountry Adoption and Global Surrogacy held at the ISS in 2014 was for preservation of records in adoption so that when the time comes for individual adoptees to search for their original families, they will have access to the vital information necessary.

If we cannot stop this from happening now, we need to make sure this injustice is well documented so that sooner or later, it can be righted, and these children can finally be reunited with their families.

Carlson, Elizabeth, and Anna Marie Gallagher. 2015. “Humanitarian Protection for Children Fleeing Gang-Based Violence in the Americas.” Journal on Immigration and Human Security 3(2), 129-158.
Cheney, Kristen E., and Karen Smith Rotabi. 2017. “Addicted to Orphans: How the Global Orphan Industrial Complex Jeopardizes Local Child Protection Systems.” In Conflict, Violence and Peace, edited by Christopher Harker and Kathrin Hörschelmann, 89-107. Singapore: Springer Singapore.
Cheney, Kristen, and Stephen Ucembe. forthcoming. “The Orphan Industrial Complex: the charitable commodification of children and its consequences for child protection.” In Disadvantaged Childhoods and Humanitarian Intervention: Processes of Affective Commodification, edited by Kristen Cheney and Aviva Sinervo. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
Costantino, Rosalin, Karen Smith Rotabi and Debra Rodman. 2012. Violence against women and asylum seeking: Global problems and local practices applied to Guatemalan women immigrating for safety. Advances in Social Work 13(2), 431-50. Available at http://journals.iupui.edu/index.php/advancesinsocialwork/article/viewFile/1974/2465.
Dorow, Sara. 2010. “Producing Kinship through the Marketplace of Transnational Adoption.” In Baby Markets: Money and the New Politics of Creating Families, edited by Michele B. Goodwin, 69-83. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rotabi, Karen Smith, and Nicole F. Bromfield. 2017. From Intercountry Adoption to Global Surrogacy:  A Human Rights History and New Fertility Frontiers. Abingdon: Routledge.

About the authors: 

Headshot 02 17.pngKristen Cheney is Associate Professor of Children and Youth Studies at ISS. She is author of Crying for Our Elders: African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV and AIDS and co-editor of the forthcoming volume, Disadvantaged Childhoods and Humanitarian Intervention: Processes of Affective Commodification.

Headshot_Rotabi_CSUMB_Fall2017.jpgKaren Smith Rotabi is Professor and Chair of the Department of Social Work at California State University Monterey Bay. She is co-author of From Intercountry Adoption to Global Surrogacy: A Human Rights History and New Fertility Frontiers and co-editor of Intercountry Adoption: Policies, Practices and Outcomes.

Cheney and Rotabi co-organized the 2014 International Forum on Intercountry Adoption and Global Surrogacy at ISS.