Deconstructing UNICEF

The great work on the true nature of UNICEF is yet to be written. Feeding and providing medicines for children is the traditional and positive side of that work–the “child welfare policy” side is murky at best. Why exactly does UNICEF spend so much time and money trying to convince countries to pursue foster care? I cannot understand this and no one has ever explained it to me. UNICEF is clearly trying to get the UN generally to sign on to its efforts in this regard.

See this really troublesome speech delivered in Vietnam recently:

See these comments by a UNICEF representative:

In Viet Nam, the number of children in need of special protection has been on the increase. Recent data from MOLISA indicate that the total number of orphans, abandoned children without families is around 168,000, of which about 15,000 are children living in institutions.  
Ladies and gentlemen,

Children placed in formal residential care systems for longer periods than needed are at a greater risk of being exposed to abuse and neglect and will face greater problems after leaving the institution including stigma, isolation, lower education achievement, delinquency and homelessness.

It is universally recognized that keeping vulnerable children in supportive and well regulated family and community-based settings is the most conducive for holistic child development. It is with consideration for the best interest and rights of the child that the international community has called for a swift move away from institutionalization towards prioritizing the development of alternative family and community-based care options.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes both the child’s right to be cared for by his or her parents, while also setting out States Parties’ obligations to provide suitable alternative care where this is not possible, or not in the best interest of the child, including foster placement. 

Against this background the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children has been prepared and submitted to the General Assembly for adoption by the end of 2009. The guidelines set out desirable orientations for policy and practice with the intention of enhancing the protection and well-being of children deprived of parental care or who are at risk of being so. A copy of the guidelines is being distributed to all participants at this symposium and I would like to take this opportunity to strongly advocate for the endorsement and application of these guidelines in Viet Nam.


With the Government’s Decision #65 on Community-based Care for Children in Especially Difficult Circumstances, we have already witnessed an important shift in Viet Nam from institutional care to alternative solutions. This commitment to promote the development of family and community-based alternatives and protective strategies is a key step forward in building a more conducive system in the best interest of the child.
UNICEF is committed to work in partnership with the Government of Viet Nam, as well as national and international organizations to support the development and formalization of a foster care system in Viet Nam to better meet the holistic development needs of vulnerable children, and in doing so provide them with a better opportunity to reach their full potential and a successful transition into adulthood.

We also acknowledge Viet Nam’s proud history of strong and cohesive communities, as evidenced by the widespread practice of kinship and informal foster care, whereby a child is cared for by either extended family or unrelated community members.

However, formal foster care as recognized internationally does not exist yet in Viet Nam.

There is a strong need for the Government to formalize and regulate these types of alternative care arrangements in order for the Government to provide adequate support and monitoring of existing arrangements, increase access of vulnerable children to these arrangements, and ensure the well-being the child.

I would therefore like to emphasize the importance of this two-day symposium in generating greater awareness, a common understanding and a shared vision on the potential role and benefits of promoting foster care as one of the family-based alternative care option for orphans and other vulnerable children in Viet Nam. I do hope that through this symposium successful foster care and best practices from other countries will be reviewed, as well as relevant policy and regulatory frameworks to support the introduction of foster care in Viet Nam.

It sounds as if UNICEF cannot wait until foster care–“formal” foster care–is set up in Vietnam and elsewhere. So, foster care is a good thing? Even though such care in the US and Britain has been shown to be a dismal failure?

I do not get it. Why do we contribute to UNICEF only to have them use funds in this way? What is UNICEF trying to achieve? Yes, foster care is somewhat better than group living facilities–but is foster care a good way to raise children? I think not!!!

You can call the paid, stranger foster care system “family based” if you wish–but that does not make it so. What country has a system of foster care to deal with the needs of social orphans that can demonstrate positive long term outcomes for the foster children? Better than the orphanage? Yes, in most cases, of course. Is that the end of the story?


The Haugen Factor

I’ve been bothered by another article from The Nation (see my recent post on “Shotgun Adoption”)–this one on the subject of Gary Haugen and the International Justice Mission’s efforts to bring attention to the plight of women and girls trafficked into sex slavery in Southeast Asia.

You may recall that Haugen’s “tactics”–which included raids on brothels with the assistance of local police–led to a 2003 Dateline NBC special. On that occasion, Haugen and his associates carried out a dramatic raid on a brothels where very young girls were being forced to provide sexual services to sex tourists. Colin Powell himself was interviewed at the end of the documentary, and expressed his outrage and disgust at the sight of American tourists visiting foreign countries to exploit underage girls.

The September 16 Nation piece, by Noy Thrupkaew, is highly critical of Haugen and his team–dismissive, even derisive, of their religious fervor and their belief that it is worthwhile to liberate even one person at a time.

See for example this kind of language:

As for IJM’s symbolic quest to provide individual rescue, finding “the one” for whom the group toiled and whom IJM had “saved” would prove nearly impossible. She is a cipher, a repository of innocence and redemptive hope that seemed to call more loudly to the IJM staff than the voices of trafficking victims and sex workers who decried the raids and their experiences of police brutality. “The one” was a symbol that IJM staff would always be driven to break free, even if she would wind up running away from her rescuers in the end. The shepherd claimed to have benevolent aims but did not always know the way to safety.

The article points out the fact that what comes after these raids is often not very positive–police corruption and brutality remain, the girls often have no place to go and no other work to do–as well as the fact that the Thai government in particular is likely to deport the  girls set free from the brothels to their country of origin–often Burma.

These criticisms are valid enough–but I can’t help but give Haugen a lot of credit for shining the spotlight on this hidden and forgotten population. Haugen called this kind of sexual slavery for what it was and is–he expressed a kind of impassioned commitment that is all too rare. Even if one accepts the idea that IJM should alter some of its methods, it seems absurd to essentially blame Haugen for the fact that the police and judicial systems in Southeast Asia are completely unresponsive to the needs of these enslaved women and girls.

The article focuses heavily on an issue that divides many when talking about sex trafficking–the dispute over whether prostitution can ever be voluntary. I find it hard to imagine that sex work is ever valid work–and am interested in the approach taken by Sweden on this–but I was very put off by the assumption in the article that the international community should accept the scope and scale of sexual exploitation in Southeast Asia (or indeed elsewhere),  ask young women and girls what they want–and then back off. (What does volition really mean in such a context?)

It is a bit too easy, too glib, to accuse the Bush administration of having wanted a “soft power strategy” to complement the war on terror. I had no love for the Bush administration, but on this issue I think they began (unusually) to put sex trafficking on the front burner in international relations–and that was surely a good thing. The issue got demoted over time–but it was my impression that Colin Powell actually cared about trafficked women and girls.

If religious faith took the form of anti-trafficking enthusiasm more often (as opposed to some of its other manifestations), we might all be better off. As often happens in the anti-adoption context, this article asks why activists like Haugen don’t “deal with the inequality that gives rise to the problem”. Of course, that should be happening at many levels in the international political system. But is it? And in the meantime, do we just accept that brothel sex is part of the landscape and work to provide better “regulation”?  Is better regulation genuinely possible or likely, given the sort of abuse, corruption and general horror described in the Thrupkaew article itself?

Elton John, celebrities and children’s “charities”

Well, every opportunity….

As I have previously said with regard to the “celebrity adoption” issue, it really does not reveal or affect the status of children one way or another. Any such adoption is just another adoption, or proposed adoption. I do not know whether Elton John would have provided a good home to the Ukrainian boy he had formed a bond with or not. Only a home study would provide such information. But my point here is something else. Why oh why do these children’s charities jump in each time there is a question of a celebrity adoption to make their point that adoption is not the answer, and to “instruct” us (often falsely) that the country in question is creating a model child welfare system, with the great and wonderful possibility of, yes, more foster care. (We know how well that works out in the US….)

See this cnn piece, in which the children’s charity EveryChild says that adoption “sends the wrong message,” and repeats the preposterous notion (a tried and true, and utterly unprovable idea) that celebrity adoption encourages young women to abandon their children…..What does it mean that adoption “sends the wrong message”?

UNICEF worked hard to ensure that Ukraine limited the number of international adoptions that coud take place from that country. Has there been independent verification that this sent the right message,a nd improved the lives of children when seen across the board in that country?

The EveryChild spokesperson states that

“After a great deal of campaigning by charities such as ours, the Ukraine government introduced a new ‘gate-keeping’ system which means the authorities will have to consider all available options before a child is placed in an institution,” Georgalakis said.

“So when a child is taken into care or abandoned, they will have look at whether a child has other family or can be fostered by another family for example. This is a huge step forward and one that needs support.

Where are the reporters on the question of Ukraine’s child welfare system, its many many street children, and the long period of time during which children are institutionalized? How is the public supposed to evaluate statements like these, to the effect that adoption is part of the “wrong message”, whereas foster care is part of the “right message”?

Sarah Ferguson, criminal defendant?

It seems the Turkish authorities are busy investigating whether Sarah Ferguson has been involved in some criminal violation of the “privacy” rights of Turkish citizens by her participation in the filming of an undercover documentary of Turkish orpanages…..Turkey is asking the British authorities to cooperate with them in questioning Sarah F, and possibly submitting her to some criminal procedure in Turkey! While it is unlikely things will ever come to this, I cannot help but be struck at the absurdity, the perversity of this situation!

The article notes that

After the documentary was shown, Foreign Minister Ali Babacan told British Foreign Secretary David Miliband  in  London that Turkish authorities had launched a “widescale inquiry” about the allegations of mistreatment of disabled children made in the programme.

But he added: “Our children have the right to be protected… and it is not good to disclose the sickness… in a TV programme and it offends Turkish people.

“They are our children. They are Turkish children. They are our sons and daughters and we care about them,” he added.

The minister also questioned the undercover filming methods used in the programme, saying: “We actually regret the approach and the attitude displayed for the preparation of this documentary.”

It is often the case that all we know about the inside of an orphange comes from such under-cover work. There is an assumption under generally recognized humanitarian principles that prisoners and asylum seekers should have access to visitors from the outside world, and a right to a transparent assessment of their life circumstances. But not so children living in institutions. Nor do I hear anyone in international law demanding such access.

The Turkish authorities say what we would expect–that these are “our” children, that we “love” them, and that the fault here is on the side of those who tried to expose the terrible institutional conditions. They are mainly concerned that this film will harm their image within the EU–but can this latest response help their imagine in the EU?

On and on goes the official denial–on and on go the trite and repetitious exposes of adoption corruption and no exposes on the lives of social orphans….

Women’s rights, reproductive rights, and adoption

Wow–I am not sure why I am wading back in to this minefield, except that this issue, or more accurately set of issues, will continue to dominate (even if silently) the debate over non-biologically based families…..

I have run into a few blog posts that compare the horrific abduction of Jaycee Dugard to adoption in general…Yikes! It should be said that there are a number of very angry critics of adoption, domestic and international, and who take the view that all adoption (assuming the child has living biological parents) is a form of child stealing.  Much of this writing is hard to respond to, as it is so totalizing–adoption is conducted by a scheming “industry”, and adoptive families are not real families and so on. I understand that people who write in this way have probably experienced a great deal of pain. I don’t discount that.

But I also find a failure in such writing to make the link I tried to draw in my last post between abortion and adoption (see my comment on the piece entitled “Shotgun Adoption” in The Nation magazine) and also a failure to differentiate between women’s rights and children’s rights. Because, for better or worse, these sets of rights are sometimes not one and the same.

There is no question about the fact that women live their lives in the context of social relations that are seriously unequal–in almost every respect. If there were gender equality in family structures, for instance, many of the children (in a variety of countries) who end up in dire circumstances outside of family care, and those who are lost to gendercide, would have remained under the protection of their mothers. To say that there are problems that require a long term approach is not to reduce the sense of urgency all of us feel. It surely makes little sense to include children in this long-running set of problems, if there is an alternative,  permanent family available to them?

I tend to think that gender equality and a welcoming attitude towards all children would reduce abortions a great deal…And it may be that over-emphasis on biological fathers’ rights pushes women in the direction of abortion. One cannot make sweeping generalizations. But I cannot quite grasp the argument that adoption always and inherently violates mothers’ (and thereby women’s) rights–whereas abortion, by contrast,  is an aspect of reproductive freedom and choice.

In fact, abortion does not so much represent as mask or cancel out the women’s rights dimension of the problem. The life difficulties that lead women towards relinquishing children seem to me not dissimilar from those that lead in the direction of abortion….It is just that in the former case, the issue remains an ongoing issue, a reality of living separation. I find that many of the more lurid depictions of adoption–based on corruption and lies etc etc–become easier to understand–that is, the phenomenon of presenting adoption in that way–when seen in the light of this set of dramatic relationtionships.

It may also be convenient to pretend that the members of adoptive families do not have deep and abiding relationships–but of course, they do.

I have long maintained that bad or corrupt adoption procedures, or culturally based removals of children are completely, utterly wrong.

But my point in this blog has been that we can return the argument to its proper foundation if we turn our attention to the way social orphans–children without permanency and without sound family care–are actually living.  Of course they are there because of profound imperfections in the lives of adults. 

But these children do also have their own lives. That is the message of children’s rights, isn’t it? Empirically, actually, and in fact.

The cruel ironies of it….

In a country (and a world) where systems like “foster care” help to destroy the hopes of so many children, the state of California is now, in the face of a financial crisis, seeking to slash funding for those aging out of foster care…. See

We do hear from time to time about these “aging out” children–but often in legal conferences where only the tip of the iceberg is being considered. Why do we continue to subject children to prolonged foster care? Why is the United Nations, with our contributions, continuing to promote foster care (of all things) around the world–instead of systems capable of ensuring real permanency and close, enduring bonds for children?

The California article mentions what we already know well–that there is in unmistakable link between foster care and many poor, indeed terrible, life outcomes–such as incarceration….I believe (and hope) that the brilliant film maker Libby Spears wants to examine the link between foster care and prostitution….

Looking around at the evidence half buried in many articles and snippets from the world press, I can’t help but wonder at the end of this Labor Day weekend–how hard would it be to have a better system of providing real permanency for children?  Not to mention better and clearer information about these children….Small children actually require permanency and security–and the source of our “news” on child welfare remains completely piecemeal and haphazard.

On the one hand, UNICEF is telling us what a great job they are doing in preventing the situations that put children in danger–that is, preventing family breakup. (Is this true? Can UNICEF stop patting itself on the back long enough to give us “just the facts”??) Then there are the anti-adoption zealots–telling us all about the evil adoption “industry.” Then there are the seemingly unrelated stories about street children, disabled children lying in orphanages waiting to die, the institutions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere that do not in fact disappear.

And the US prisons, teeming with “graduates” of US foster care…

Happy Labor Day….

From Britain, another view on parents’ rights and permanency

A crisis of conscience is underway in Britain–where foster care is considered only reluctantly and where many placements for foster children is the norm. A series of recent disasters is leading some to articulate a belief in a completely new approach to young children in dysfunctional families….