The following article can also be found in the 2012 April edition of Adoption Today magazine.
Almost ten years ago, I had the privilege of hearing a young woman by the name of Mary recount her adoption story. A young leader and honor student, Mary, then 16, remembered being at the court hearing that was to put her on the path toward so called “independent living” when her judge stopped and asked her what it is she wanted from life. Without hesitation, Mary replied, “I want what all kids want, I want a family.” Luckily for Mary, the judge was so moved by her certainty that he simply ordered the system to, “make it happen.” Even better, Mary soon learned that her long time caseworker was more than happy to make her a permanent part of his family. And when asked to describe her first weekend with her new family she said, “it was just perfect, as if I was always meant to be there.”
Since then, I have met hundreds of young people with the same dream. I have visited orphanages all over the world filled with children who dare not even dream of a family of their own, resigned to instead live out their life sentence to an orphanage. The fact that children by design are best raised by at least one loving parent is not something we need scientific evidence to prove; we know it at our core. That being said, there is, in fact, a great deal of scientific proof that a secure and loving relationship with a parent is one of the most critical elements of a child’s early development. Without the stimulus that comes from such a relationship, a child’s brain will, over time, be damaged. Such damage can lead to life long physical, intellectual and emotional consequences for these children.
In FY 2009, US government assistance for vulnerable children in developing countries amounted to $2.6 billion through almost 2,000 projects in more than 100 countries. More than 20 offices in seven USG agencies operating under their respective mandates administer this assistance. For the most part, this funding is used to support critical needs such as nutrition, health care, education and protection. Little, if any, goes to helping children living outside of the care of a family find their way to a home. What is more, the US government has no policy, strategy, guidance, plan or program that focuses explicitly on children outside of family care.
In an effort to change this reality, USAID recently hosted the first ever Evidence Summit on Protecting Children Outside of Family Care. The Summit brought together leading researchers and technical experts to assess the evidence to inform policies, strategies, and programs relevant to protecting children outside of family care in low-income and middle-income countries and to identify evidence gaps to shape the future research agenda. USAID has also committed to establish guiding principles for US government assistance and to develop a strategy by July 2012, to promote evidence-based responses to protect these vulnerable children.
This Summit and USAID’s clear commitment to focus on the needs of children outside of family care is a critical first step towards ensuring that fewer children are languishing in orphanages, living alone on the streets, having to raise their younger siblings or being exploited by traffickers.
To fully realize the goal of reducing the number of children living outside of family care, two major changes in existing U.S. policies and programs are required. First, we must take the initiative to collect data on these children. Because these children are omitted from what surveys and studies do exist (most of which are household based), they have fallen off the statistical map. Getting a sense of how many children are indeed living outside of family care will not only help us to assess the need for services, it will also allow us to better measure our collective progress in meeting such needs.
Secondly, we will need to acknowledge that the best intervention for a child OUTSIDE of family care is to in fact make them a child INSIDE a family’s care. To do this we need to embrace strategies to prevent child abandonment; strengthen and reunify families; and promote kinship care, domestic and international adoption for whom reunification is not possible.
To learn more about the USG Evidence Summit visit: www.hvcassistance.org/summit.cfm.