In a recent Weekend Australian Magazine, Deborra-Lee Furness breathlessly told her interviewer that there were "103 million orphaned children in the world". "How can we have two-year-olds walking the streets," she asked, "fending for themselves, looking through rubbish for food?"
Indeed, how can such a distressing situation be permitted to exist?
Well, you’ll be glad to know it doesn’t. Furness is just manipulating the numbers to persuade you to support her campaign to import more third-world children to Australia for childless couples here. By preying on public sympathy for these "103 million" poor alleged orphans she is trying to garner support for her pro-child-procurement lobby, charmingly entitled "Orphan Angels", in their attempts to convince the authorities to make inter-country adoptions much easier and supply the local demand.
The truth is quite different and there is no need to panic.
What Furness didn’t mention in her PR spiel is that while it is true that UNICEF does cite a large total of "orphans" in the world, the UNICEF definition, for complex historical reasons, includes children who have lost just one of their parents as well as those who have lost both, thus most of them are not orphans by our Australian definition. The UNICEF estimate for true "orphans", those who have lost both parents, is closer to 13 million.
This is still a lot of kids, but the image of this many toddlers scratching around alone for mouldy crusts in the rubbish dumps of the world is also totally misleading. According to UNICEF, "Evidence clearly shows that the vast majority of orphans are living with a surviving parent, grandparent, or other family member". Nor are they typically helpless two-year-olds: "95 per cent of all orphans are over the age of 5" says UNICEF — still pretty young, but already at the point where they’re not really attractive on the Western adoption market.
In fact, UNICEF itself is rightly concerned about people misusing the orphan figures in this way because it "may then lead to responses that focus on providing care for individual children rather than supporting the families and communities that care for orphans and are in need of support."
For anyone genuinely concerned about the plight of children in developing countries there is an enormous variety of programs available that do help the families and communities to support and nurture their children in need and keep them with their own relatives in their own culture. Invitations to contribute to such programs appear in your letterbox often.
Although Furness concedes that "Adoption will only ever be a partial solution for the homeless and abandoned children of the world", and her group mentions some of these other initiatives on their website, it is clear that their main focus is not helping children where they are, but bringing them here to live with relatively well-to-do Australians.
The danger is, as UNICEF warns, that the focus on bringing an infinitesimal proportion of needy children to Australia (one thousandth of one per cent), tends to take attention away from the needs of the majority. The cost to an Australian parent of one inter-country adoption would ensure literally hundreds of children thrived in their own countries.
Moreover, there are significant problems with inter-country adoption that Furness and her group have not addressed in their publicity. The first is that it encourages child kidnapping. This practice is rife anyway in many of the countries the children come from and the presence of rich foreigners looking for "orphans" is an open invitation to unscrupulous criminals to supply their needs. The governments of the countries involved are too poor and often too corrupt to set up adequate protective mechanisms to guard against this.
For example, US professor and inter-country adoption expert David Smolin was horrified to eventually discover, after having taken all possible precautions and working through a seemingly authorised agency, that both the children he and his wife had adopted from India had been stolen from their parents.
He subsequently studied the inter-country adoption system in depth, and concluded "there are systemic vulnerabilities in the current inter-country adoption system that make [such]adoption scandals … predictable. Further … there are no actors in the inter-country adoption system with the requisite information, authority, and motivation to prevent abusive or corrupt adoption practices. Under these circumstances, ‘reform’ of the inter-country adoption system remains elusive and illusory."
It would appear that what is needed is more regulation and monitoring rather than less, but what Furness and her group are lobbying for is easier access and less "red tape", which can only exacerbate these problems.
The second thing Deborra-Lee Furness and her "angels" neglect to mention is that frequently adoption — in particular inter-country adoption — does not have a fairytale ending, but on the contrary can be quite problematic.
The most extensive research has been carried out in Sweden, where the practice has been going on longer, and where it was found that inter-country adoptees had significantly higher rates of suicide than national adoptees and both were higher than their non-adopted peers. Additionally, inter-country adoptees had higher levels of drug and alcohol problems; males had significant rates of ADD, while females had significant rates of depression, anxiety, and schizoid and delinquent behaviour.
The same negative outcomes are also becoming evident in other countries, such as the United States, but not as much hard research has yet been carried out there. One of the few Australian studies, on a group of 102 Vietnamese children adopted in NSW during the 1970s, reported that the majority of children placed between the ages of 4 and 6 had difficulties bonding or establishing family relationships, as did 40 per cent of the children placed at 18 months and above.
The truth is that no adoption, inter-country or local, can ever be an ideal or even an admirable solution to any problem. It is always a last resort and is always the unfortunate consequence and cause of more than one person’s loss and pain.
All of this has been known for many years and has been studied in detail by plenty of people who have the best interests of the child at heart. But don’t advance "pro-child" views in front of Furness or she’ll label you part of the evil "anti-adoption culture" which is trying to prevent her group, and the well-to-do Australians they are lobbying for, from getting their hands on more lovely, cute third-world children.
Furness’s heart may be in the right place but her polarising attitude and her refusal to come to grips with the limitations of inter-country adoption and its misuse by wealthy westerners has led her not just to see the world through rose-coloured glasses but even to be selective with her facts in order to convince us her campaign is a good thing.
There is a myth in wealthy countries that just as everyone is entitled to vote, have health care and so on, everyone is entitled to a child. The truth is that no-one has the right to a child and in particular no-one has the right to someone else’s child. Children are not commodities to be bartered nor possessions with which to complete the perfect home. Other people’s children are real people, not just "cures" for infertility.
The author would like to thank Christine Cole for helping with the research for this article.
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