On January 13, 2014, Congressional Quarterly (CQ) highlighted the “Children in Families First” bill in an article entitled A Treaty’s Orphans. CQ Weekly interviewed CCAI Executive Director, Kathleen Strottman, regarding the bill. Click here to read the article.
In April of this year, at little girl named Daria, who would have turned 3 in May, died from an undiagnosed heart ailment in her orphanage in Nizhny Novgorod, a city about 250 miles east of Moscow. While the death of any child is a tragic event, what makes Daria’s passing all the more heartbreaking is that she died alone, instead of in the loving arms of her American family that had hoped to adopt her but couldn’t because of the Russian adoption ban. When I heard the news that a waiting child had died, I could not help but cry. My tears were for the life she would never live, but they were also for the thousands of other children who, like Daria, have had their lives ended by the stroke of a government’s pen. Over the last ten years, children in Russia, Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, Haiti, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Ghana and Rwanda have lost the right to find a family through international adoption.
As if this is not enough to invoke tears, countries that close their doors to international adoption too often struggle to provide family based alternatives for their children. They soon realize that it takes time and resources to build a child welfare system in which families are able to stay together and provide alternative loving homes for children whose families’ were not. Some never get to the point of realizing that truly protecting a child’s right to a family requires both legal and cultural change. And so it is that millions of children are condemned to life in prison for the simple crime of being born.
For fifteen years, I have had the honor of fighting for these children in Congress. I have begged people to consider the fate of the hundreds of Cambodian children whose families were ready to care for them, I have cried with the families whose children were trapped in Guatemala and have flown half way around the world to implore the Government of Vietnam to provide their children with all options for finding a home. But we cannot keep fighting this battle a country at a time.
I have also read everything I can find on how human relationships affect human development, especially in early years. It is amazing how much scientific evidence there is to support the notion that children not only deserve a family, but they NEED one. Children who have a secure, stable relationship with a parent thrive, and those that are deprived of this type of relationship deteriorate. It is really that simple.
For these reasons, I am convinced the time has come for all those who believe in their core that children have a basic human right to a family to stand up and be heard. If we don’t, there is no doubt in my mind those who have obscured the world’s view on international adoption will succeed in eliminating it as an option and most governments will just continue to rely on orphanages to raise their children. Scarier still, we will continue down a path which ends with tens of millions of children whose development has been hindered: making them more likely to engage in crime than finish school, more likely to be a government dependent, than a productive member of society.
This week Senator Mary Landrieu and Senator Roy Blunt called on Congress to change the way the United States Government views the welfare of children abroad. Their vision is to move the United States away from a system that views children as an immigration enforcement issue to a system that embraces the opportunity to protect their right to be safe from abuse and to be loved by a family. Their bill, Children in Families First, would align the United States Government’s efforts around what most Americans agree is a core value of our society: family.
For those of you who have not spent the last fifteen years working on adoption issues, let me try and summarize what this bill does. Right now, neither the State Department and the USAID, which are the two agencies responsible for advancing child welfare issues abroad, have a high level office that focuses on the welfare of children. At State, if a child is a refugee, they would be covered under the Bureau that addresses refugee issues; if they are a victim of trafficking, they may benefit from the work done by the Office to Combat Human Trafficking and so on. The same is true at USAID, if they are in need of immediate health care, they will likely get this assistance from the Maternal and Child Health Integrated Program, if they are a victim of AIDS, and their assistance will be spearheaded by the Office of the Global AIDS coordinator. And if you are a child who is outside of family care, you better hope you fall into another covered category because otherwise no one in our government is responsible for developing policies and programs on your behalf.
You do not need to be a policy expert to appreciate the flaws in such a system. Practically speaking, what this means is that a United States Ambassador working in a country like Vietnam might know very well what the USG could do to help reduce the number of children living outside of family care in Vietnam, but he has no counterpart in his own Department to turn to for assistance and no resources at USAID dedicated to such work. As we well know, a common reason given for suspensions and closures of international adoption is the need to create better systems for safely and ethically processing adoptions, a need that cannot be met on a wide scale basis without US leadership and support.
Let me be clear, while the bill is calling for a new approach and clear leadership on behalf of parentless children, it is not suggesting we increase the role or size of the federal government. Since it is Fall, let me use a football analogy to explain this further. CHIFF is not saying we need another tight end or a receiver. It is saying that if you think you can win a football game without a quarterback, you are sorely mistaken. Under the current structure, we are without the leadership needed to help protect children who need our protection. As a result, we are throwing incomplete passes instead of making touchdowns.
And finally, why should you care? If you are reading this and you care about the welfare of children who have no families, for whatever reason, we need you. Battles in Washington are won when a group of convicted people use a unified voice to call for change. If we do not speak out now, I am not sure we will have the opportunity to do so again, the battle will be lost, and the children like Daria will continue to die alone instead of in the loving arms of a mother.
I remember well how I learned that when it comes to the welfare of a child, a single committed person can make a difference. I was in my first year at law school, having just left my Jesuit Volunteer work in some of the roughest parts of Chicago, and I had the chance to sit in the courtroom of Judge Roosevelt Dorn. Judge Dorn was feared by just about every young teenager in Inglewood because he was known for being a no-nonsense judge who would go as far as putting a status offender in prison if it meant saving them from a life of crime. That day, I saw a grandmother weep while thanking him for saving her grandson, because his unusual judicial orders to stay in school, respect his elders and take the trash out nightly had in fact worked to keep him out of trouble. He smiled and said to her “There’s no need to thank me ma’am, I will go as far as I can to save a child. It’s why I am a judge.”
It was this lesson above all that I hoped we might impart to the 14 child welfare leaders we invited to take part in our Pathways to Permanency project. I hoped that each of them would leave the experience knowing that they were empowered to help kids, even if doing so required that they push the limits. Over the now 15 years I have now spent as a child advocate, I know it is those who “think outside of the box” who make the greatest change.
And I am thrilled to tell you that we succeeded. In our last two hours together we asked our new friends to share some of the lessons they learned from this experience. As we began this conversation I expected their replies to be things like “I learned that the United States spends $25 billion on child welfare” or “I learned that the federal agency in the U.S. that handles child welfare is called the Administration of Children and Families.” But what emerged was much more powerful than I had imagined. Below are just some of the lessons our delegates reported learning:
Institutions Harm Children: Anyone who has ever seen Dr. Charles Zeanah, one of three lead researchers on the groundbreaking Bucharest Early Intervention Project, speak will not be surprised to learn that he had the audience in tears by the end of his presentation. One judge said “ having seen this scientific evidence, I am clear we are hurting our children not helping them. More people in my country need to know this truth.” CCAI has already been invited by officials in Guatemala to do a follow up training for key leaders on the harmful effects of institutions.
There is great value to partnership: During the panel presentation by key leaders in Texas’ Child Welfare System, one of the delegates asked what percentage of the funds the state had was used to support partnerships with community-based partners. The entire group was clearly struck by the answer that 90 percent of the state’s funds are used in this way. The group was equally impressed by Colorado’s success in partnering with the faith-based community to reduce the number of children in need of family. As one government official said, “When I get back to Guatemala, I will start to look for the people who can help me, because I now know I cannot do it on my own.”
Children have a basic human right to a family: After watching a hearing in the DC Superior Court and spending the day with judges from all over Louisiana, delegates noted that a major strength of the U.S. system is its adherence to the believe that children have a basic human right to a family and at some point that right supersedes a parent’s right to parent. They were also struck by the lengths to which our legal system goes to protect that right.
Real reform requires the law and leadership: In welcoming our group to the Superior Court of D.C., Judge Zoe Bush credited the federal government’s passage of the “Family Court Act” as the catalyst that started the important work seen throughout the courthouse today. Bryan Samuels, Commissioner of the Administration of Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, pointed out to the delegation that the federal government’s focus on safety, permanence and well-being as well as the Adoption and Safe Families Act’s clear timelines are constant guides to the work that state child welfare agencies do on behalf of children. And without exception panelists throughout the visit said that the biggest differences come from a leader who has a vision and the passion needed to make others follow.
Delegates said these lessons are ones that will stay with them forever.
“I strongly believe that the 14 people that had the opportunity to spend this week in United States, had an experience that changed their minds, beliefs and hearts for the good of the children. I know many of them are already applying the information and are working hard to begin with the changes that need to be done. We know is not overnight, but we already began. “ -Delegate Karla Moldanado de Molina
CCAI was honored to host a delegation of Guatemalan judges, child welfare administrators and social work professionals for a judicial and administrative child welfare training tour in the United States in April 2013. We invited these individuals to participate in our Pathways to Permanency project because of their direct involvement in the welfare of children in Guatemala. Our hope is that this exchange will inspire these individuals to become agents of change in their own communities.
Washington, D.C. • New Orleans• Dallas
In Washington, D.C., the delegates visited the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and received overviews on the U.S. dependency system from Presiding Judge of the D.C. Family Court Zoe Bush and the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency. Judge Bush gave the delegates an insider’s view of how moving to a “One Family, One Judge” court model has transformed the way they serve children and families. The group then observed a kinship guardianship hearing in which a grandmother sought guardianship of her three granddaughters under the protest of one of the children’s biological fathers. Through this hearing, the delegates were able to get a better sense of how important it is to have all parties interest, but most especially the child’s, represented in court.
While at the court they also met with D.C. judicial child welfare resource organizations including the Children’s Law Center of D.C., the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, and the Child Protection Division of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice. Discussions centered on the role of the attorney in child welfare, and the importance of giving voice to children, youth and parents in legal proceedings. A presentation on social workforce capacity strengthening followed, with International Social Services – United States of America, the Global Social Service Workforce Alliance and CapacityPlus. The delegation discussed the vital role of the social workforce, and how judges and lawyers can play an important role in elevating and valuing this profession in Guatemala.
On day two in Washington, he delegates met with Assistant Secretary George Sheldon and Commissioner Bryan Samuels at the Administration for Children, Youth and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services and were briefed on the role of the U.S. federal government in child welfare, as well as some of the major shifts in U.S. child welfare law and policy and lessons the U.S. has learned over the past several years. This meeting was followed by a briefing by officials at the Office of Children’s Issues in the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the Center for Excellence on Children in Adversity at USAID onthe role each of these U.S. agencies in intercountry adoptions and international child welfare.
While in Washington, the delegates also met with United States Congressional leaders including Senators Landrieu, Klobuchar, Menendez and Sessions, and then attended a welcome reception at the U.S. Capitol Building with local child welfare and business leaders and comments from Ambassador Francisco Villagran of the Embassy of Guatemala and Carlos Duran, Founder of Hombres de Palabra (Men of Their Word).
New Orleans, Louisiana
Judicial and Systems Training
Graciously hosted by the Supreme Court of Louisiana in New Orleans, the delegation met with world renowned Doctor Dr. Charles Zeanah of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Tulane University School of Medicine. Dr. Zeanah presented the latest brain science related to the development of children in institutional care with a focus on how interventions of family care (parenting skills training, foster care and adoption) have the ability to transform a child’s development in the window before they are 24 months old. He drew upon examples from his research from the Bucharest Early Intervention Study as well as his work in the United States.
The delegation also participated in discussions with state child welfare administrators from Louisiana and Colorado, child welfare policy and subject matter experts focusing on the importance of data, technology and public-private partnerships. Speakers included: Brent Villemarette, Deputy Secretary of Programs, Louisiana Department of Children & Family Services, Sharen Ford, Ph.D., Manager, Permanency Unit, Division of Child Welfare Services, Colorado Department of Human Services, Sue Badeau, Child Welfare Policy Expert, Dr. Mark Testa, Ph.D., Spears-Turner Distinguished Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Dr. Jean Geran, Ph.D., EACH, Inc.
Several judges also lent their expertise to the trainings: Judges Guy Bradberry, Thomas Duplantier, Ernestine Gray, Patricia Koch, Madeleine Landrieu, Sharon Marchman all left their dockets to spend time sharing and learning with their Guatemalan counterparts. The group discussed the similarities and differences between U.S. and Guatemalan laws, the importance of making timely decisions in court, systems improvement and national and local judicial leadership.
Engaging in Regional Best-Practices and Implementation
In Dallas, the Guatemalan delegation first met with Texas State child welfare leaders Audrey Deckinga, Assistant Commissioner for Child Protective Services at the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services; Tina Amberboy, Executive Director at the Texas Supreme Court Permanent Judicial Commission for Children, Youth and Families; and Pamela K. Parker, Special Projects Attorney at the Texas Department of Family & Protective Services. They shared with the group about Texas’ past five years of reform efforts and how they as a state have made significant progress through collaborations, partnerships and policy changes.
A highlight of the visit to Dallas for the delegates was the opportunity to hear about models of best practices in care from their colleagues in other countries in Latin America. Esli Moreno, Coordinator of the Honduran Family Strengthening Project at the Orphan Institute Permanency Center in Honduras, Claudia Leon, Executive Director of Buckner Peru, and Dr. Cecilia Casanueva, Ph.D., Research Psychologist at Research Triangle International with a project in Chile each shared the challenges their programs operate within in each nation and the importance of best practice models and data tracking to make the case for family care of children in these nations.
Finally, the group had the unique opportunity to learn from Buckner International’s country and program directors about lessons Buckner has learned in its over 100 years of caring for children and families. Dr. Albert Reyes, President and CEO stressed how important it was for Buckner to move from its original orphanage based model to its current community based approach which is now caring for children in 14 countries. They highlighted their Community Transformation Center and Family Pathways models, as well as shared from the non-governmental organization’s perspective on public-private partnerships. Discussions focused on how to adapt and apply best-practice models the delegation had learned about to succeed in Guatemala’s judicial and child welfare systems.
CCAI would like to acknowledge the generous support of the GHR Foundation for the Pathways to Permanency Project.
Carlos Duran is the founder of Hombres de Palabra (Men of their Word), an organization that works to help men reach their maximum potential through education, training and initiatives. Carlos is also the recipient of the White House’s 2012 Champion of Change award. On Monday evening, Carlos delivered a keynote address to the delegation of Guatemalan officials. Excerpts of his speech are included below as are pictures from this week’s meetings with the delegation. For a copy of the full speech, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
We are meeting today for a common cause. This common cause is the future of the children in our communities, and therefore the future of our nations. Because when it comes to children we are talking about the largest and most important natural resource and wealth in a nation; a richness that has to be cultivated, cared for, protected and educated so that it can reach its potential and write history.
…Our children, and the goal of providing them the environment that helps them reach their potential, should be the motivation that calls us to do the work that we have been assigned to. This week, as we look to develop programs or safety nets to protect our nation’s unprotected children, we must try to develop programs that deal with the roots of these problems. We must have a holistic approach to these problems, one that addresses the roots and the symptoms of it.
…Programs such as adoption and foster homes are safety net programs. What exactly is a safety net? It is a net that catches a person walking on a tight-rope, or on a trapeze, and grabs them when they fall. But a safety net has special features: first of all it is full of holes; second it is very difficult to walk or stand on; third it is very easy to get caught in, or tangled in, and is often it seem to be a trap; and fourth, it doesn’t help you achieve your goal, it only catches you when you fall.
…If you want to succeed, you have to get back on the trapeze and learn to swing, and this is only achieved through training and practice. Every child who falls into those programs is already in a disadvantaged position and has to overcome many challenges in order to reach their potential.
I want to emphasize three things that are important as we do our work:
First, to understand that we have been given the moral responsibility of caring for future generations, that being here today is not an accident but a call to transform the lives of thousands of children and hence generations. We have been given the public trust that we will not look out for our own interests but the interests of the children and our nation. That perhaps we will never see the fruit of our work completely because this is a work that transcends generations.
Second, we must be clear that seeing a hungry child, helpless, without education, in poverty, ill, should not be norm, it is not right and for that reason we need to create solutions that work. Do not let your heart be hardened. Let us not, the ones called to fix the problem, be insensitive to the suffering of our children.
Third, be creative and be innovative. Do not settle to repeat what others do. Guatemala, Washington D.C. requires specific solutions for each city. Find allies where you have not looked before. I believe that faith-based organizations are a tool that we have not fully utilized. The basis of organizations of faith, you can call it a church, mosque or synagogue, is to serve and love your neighbor.
…Why not put some effort to equip them, train them and give them the necessary funds so they can serve the community?
…A. Dickerson said “Home is where the story begins”. I charge you to lead by example, to go home and love your family, strive for being the role model that they are waiting for and will be eager to follow. I encourage you to fill your heart with compassion and love for your community, to be innovative, not to conform to the past. I encourage you to take upon your shoulders the trust and responsibility that has been given to you by your government, by your community and by destiny, the trust and responsibility to write history one child, one man, and one family at a time.
We are proud to announce that STUCK—an award winning documentary about international adoption—features CCAI’s Executive Director, Kathleen Strottman. As Kathleen explains in the documentary, which uncovers the personal, real life stories of adopted children and their parents, “the right to a family is a basic human right and our policies have to start recognizing that.” The film also features CCA Co-Chair Senator Mary Landrieu, Senator Richard Lugar and Charles Nelson, Co-Principal Investigator of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project.
On March 1st, Both Ends Burning Founder Craig Juntenen will be launching a 60 city bus tour to promote the film and issue a call to action for the United States Government to promote international adoption as a worthy and effective way to find homes for children without families.