Social Orphans: Where are they? Who are they?

In a recent article, I advocated the adoption of a protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child that would shift the emphasis from the pros and cons of international adoption to the obligation of national governments to engage in an honest accounting of children living without family care.  See http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1136879.  For all the debate that goes on around intercountry adoption, very little of it seems to be rigorously fact based.

It is not my objective to add one more blog about the rightness of international adoption–but rather to encourage a pooling of empirical information about what is actually happening to the world’s many children who live out of family care. There is good reason to think that governments are not truthful about the life circumstances of these children. What we know about them tends to be anecdotal.

I have long believed that what will drive good policy will be light shining into places where the world’s social orphans actually live–institutions of all kinds–including foster homes–and the streets.

A wealth of anecdotal evidence indicates that in this socially and politically contenious area, national governments are giving lip service to family reunification that is often not occurring on a broad enough scale, and avoiding the minefield of intercountry adoption by placing children in old style group facilities, or, to please the United Nations, in “family like” care–namely, foster care or smaller group homes. Inexplicably, and cruelly, truly permanent alternatives are being passed over.

It would be wonderful to encourage those with direct experience of children in institutions–orphanages and more “family like” care–to share this information.  The ideal would be to bring together various sources of information on the world’s many social orphans, and in a modest way fill in the terrible gap between our platitutes about children and their rights, and the scandalous lack of knowledge about where the social orphans are, how they came to be there, and how they actually live.

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Moving beyond the “intercountry adoption” debate

The bitter debate over international adoption continues to rage, repetitious and acrimonious.  Advocates make the case for international adoption as a central pillar of permanency for children; detractors insist that international adoption is both corrupt and detrimental to the rights of children. The substance of this debate has changed little, as far as I can see, over the past number of years.

It is my sense, having researched questions related to “children living without families” in enormous detail over a long period of time, that what is needed is to alter our sense of a state’s obligation to ensure the human rights of social orphans within that state’s jurisdiction. This is a process that requires expert international oversight. I can think of few areas where there is less honesty and transparency than this one.

In particular, nation states must account for and seek genuine permanency for these children. Not “community based solutions” alone, but true permanency. That is my main proposition. I have no wish to ignore or disparage the interests of original families or states of origin. Neither do I mystify these and privilege them over all other considerations.

Few states appear to have taken this requirement of accountability on board.  It seems that, at present, our commitment to real permanency for each child is not nearly radical enough. The population of social orphans continues to be hidden, and is likely to continue to fade from public view and consciousness.

 Some years ago, I wrote up my observations on the often twisted manner in which the human rights of children are described, and called for a recognition of the importance of real and verifiable information on the world’s orphans.  See my 2003 article at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1101663. I understand that there have been serious historical examples of children being unfairly removed from their communities of origin. I also see the damage done by seeing children primarily as the products of their communities of origin. Courageous hidden camera work has consistenly shown us children ignored and mistreated by official systems of child welfare. 

In the 2003 article, I called for the establishment of an expert (but non-UN) body to which we could turn in determining how social orphans are really living. I still believe that such a body is key to separating the true from the false arguments concerning the world’s social orphans and how best to recognize and protect their rights.