“Kinship care,” i.e. foster care by relatives, is all the rage in international child welfare circles. Kinship care, a temporary arrangement in which extended family cares for an unparented child that it will not adopt, is prioritized by certain NGOs over permanent adoption. What the United Nations and their supporting NGOs gloss over is the high level of abuse in kinship care, as well as the instability and vulnerability that is inherent in any temporary care situation.
Imara is an orphaned toddler who was living with extended relatives, and a success story by UNICEF standards, which discourage extended family from taking children to orphanages. But Imara, like many unparented children placed in kinship care, underwent horrific abuse and her life now hangs in the balance. This 3 year-old girl was beaten, burned, starved, poisoned, tied up and whipped for many days until she admitted to being a witch. She was then taken to an orphanage, where she would have been safer in the first place. (Note: if you know any hospitals willing to sponsor Imara for humanitarian parole, please contact ABI here.)
In what is a common story in India, Nagma Ali’s mom sent her children to stay with their aunt temporarily during a time of family hardship. After a few months, the aunt got tired of feeding them and she sold Nagma to an abusive household where she worked as a slave. According to the International Labour Organization, 5.5 million children were forced labor victims (slaves) in 2012. Many of these children, if not the majority, are sold into slavery by relatives who were supposed to care for them.
Keep in mind, these are children whose parents entrusted them to the care of extended relatives. So what does it say when birth parents CHOOSE an orphanage OVER their own kin? UNICEF knows the dangers of kinship care well: it has even produced a report, “Children Accused Of Witchcraft,” admitting that accusations of child witchcraft are not only common, but that young orphans are at especially high risk of being accused.
UNICEF, Save The Children, SOS Children’s Villages, International Social Service, the Oak Foundation and USAID admit that kinship care is often abusive, in the very same handbook that promotes kinship care over adoption:
There is evidence from many countries of children who are placed with relatives (especially uncles and aunts) only to be exploited or discriminated against. Not surprisingly, this is a genuine fear of many children who choose to set up and remain in child-headed households instead.
There is even greater concern at practices that involve sending a child to distant locations, often from rural to urban areas, to live with family members, acquaintances or even strangers, and where instead of receiving an education in return for light work in the home, they are ruthlessly exploited.
In the academic study, “Who Wants to Adopt and Who Wants to Be Adopted: A Sample of American Families and Sub-Saharan African Orphans,” Christopher Balding and Feng Yan, both Ph.D.s., studied orphans in sub-Saharan Africa. In addition to finding that the number of orphan deaths in sub-Saharan Africa could quite plausibly be 350,000 annually, they estimate that if inter-country adoption were not so restrictive, approximately 100,000 Americans would adopt internationally every year. Their research and others indicates that, “internationally adopting parents have been found to be excellent parents with a significant impact in improving the emotional attachments of their adopted children, but are also acutely aware of their challenges with regards to the non-traditional problems they will face.” And, in contradiction to the re-homing controversy, measured studies show ”much lower levels of abuse, mistreatment, or fatalities among internationally adopted children than their non-adopted cohort implying high quality, stable adopting families.”
Conversely, researchers found that Sub-Saharan orphans who live with extended family members receive less education than biological siblings and less developmental assistance even when caregivers were provided with additional public assistance. The study’s authors concluded: “Given the large number of stable families and the high number of orphan deaths, it seems counterproductive to restrict international adoptions given the significant benefit to both children and families that could be realized.”
Another study by Princeton researchers, titled, “Orphans in Africa: Parental Death, Poverty and School Enrollment,” reached the same conclusion about foster/kinship care in Africa: “Although poorer children in Africa are less likely to attend school, the lower enrollment of orphans is not accounted for solely by their poverty. We find orphans are less likely to be enrolled than are non-orphans with whom they live…The lower enrollment of orphans is largely explained by the greater tendency of orphans to live with distant relatives or unrelated caregivers.”
All the research points to deeply disturbing, widespread patterns of abuse and neglect in kinship care. Certainly, kinship care may be preferable to orphanages for many children. But the United Nations must heed evidence-based research and stop preferring kinship care over inter-country adoption.
Photo credit: All Blessings International