Punching Holes in the Darkness: U.S. Foreign Assistance for Children in Adversity

Come Share Your Dreams
Photo Credit: Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit 9
May 3, 2013 Nashville, TN

As a boy, renowned author Robert Louis Stevenson lived on a hillside in Scotland, his family’s home overlooking a small town below. Robert was intrigued by the work of the old lamplighters who went about with a ladder and a torch lighting the street lights for the night. One evening, as Robert stood watching with fascination, his parents asked him “Robert, what in the world are you looking at out there?” With great excitement he exclaimed, “Look at that man! He’s punching holes in the darkness!”

Three years ago, CCAI set out to punch holes in the darkness. Frustrated by the fact that the United States Government, a leader in so many other areas of global concern, lacked a clear and effective strategy for reducing the number of children living without the support of a family; we started by asking why? Why was it that a value so clearly a part of the U.S. Government’s efforts to protect children had not made it into our foreign policy?  Why was such a fundamental American value, the value of family, not better represented in our programming abroad?

The more we learned, the more our concern grew. We learned that while an estimated $2 billion dollars a year was reportedly being invested in international programs focused on the care and support of orphans, little to none of this funding was being spent on preventing orphanhood. We learned that despite overwhelming scientific evidence that institutions seriously damage children, our lack of advocacy for family based care was resulting in an increasing number of children being confined to a life in them.  And perhaps one of the hardest lessons we learned: despite national experience with international adoption as a worthy and effective way of securing a safe and stable family, we watched as global leaders suggested otherwise.

And so we had a choice to make. We could stand idly by and allow the futures of millions of children be cut short by this darkness or we could punch holes in the darkness in the hopes that bringing light to these issues would inspire change. We chose the latter.  We began by educating federal policymakers on what emerging brain science tells us about how urgent the need is for global policies to better reflect the right to a family as a basic human right.  We also outlined how U.S. policies, programs and priorities might be improved to better protect this fundamental right. Finally, we hosted two national and one regional convening to engage foreign leaders in a concrete conversation on moving their child welfare systems away from orphanages and toward families.

Our Haiti Convening illustrated that it is not only possible but preferable for the Government of Haiti to focus on rebuilding its families instead of rebuilding its orphanages. Our Way Forward Project sought to stimulate dialogue among the world’s experts on both the need for family-based care but also the ways in which laws, policies and programs might be developed or expanded to support the use of family-based care for children in need of it.  And most recently, our Pathways to Permanency Project provided permanency training for 15 key leaders from Guatemala.

Today, the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs held a hearing on the newly launched USG Action Plan for Children in Adversity (APCA).  In providing testimony to the committee, Deputy Administrator Donald Steinberg acknowledged that APCA is the first ever high-level USG policy that acknowledges that children need families to thrive.  He also acknowledged that the Action Plan is a critical realigning of U.S. investments in children abroad around three key objectives, the second of which is to reduce the number of children without families.

Today, Mr. Stevenson, I felt like that lamplighter.

CCAI Welcomes Delegation of Guatemalan Officials

CCAI Executive Director, Kathleen Strottman, on a delegation to Guatemala.

Three months after I became CCAI’s Executive Director I received a call from a frantic mother whose son’s orphanage, Casa Quivera, had been raided by the Guatemalan authorities the night before.   The raid, she was told, was a part of the Guatemalan government’s effort to investigate the orphanage director whom they believed engaged in corrupt practices. Over the next year, I met hundreds of other parents whose adoptions had become immersed in a sea of similar investigations while their children languished in orphanages.

It was under this lens that our focus on the child welfare system in Guatemala began. We would soon learn that the passage of the 2007 Adoption law, although a necessary step, has presented two very real challenges for the Guatemalan government.  First, it left hundreds of children whose international adoptions were not complete in legal limbo.  Without a clear path forward, these cases underwent investigation after investigation. Six years later, approximately one hundred of these adoptions remain incomplete today.  Secondly, it required that the Guatemalan government invest time, money and resources in developing domestic alternatives for children in need of family care.


Our first step was to raise awareness among Members of Congress about these challenges and to enlist their support in advocating for change. We are proud to have partnered with the Joint Council for International Children’s Services (JCICS), the National Council for Adoption (NCFA) and Guatemala 900 to host several briefings on the status of pending cases.  Once we had the support we needed from the US Department of State, US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and nearly 100 Members of Congress, we began to bring this support to bear in Guatemala.

Over the past two years, CCAI has been part of five high-level delegations to Guatemala.  Through these visits we have not only had the chance to advocate for the rights of the children unnecessarily trapped in orphanages, but we have also had the chance to learn more about the Guatemalan government’s efforts to build a Hague-compliant system of child welfare. There is undoubtedly a lot that still needs to be done in this regard.  Yet at the same time, the Guatemalans have been aggressive in their efforts to put in place a new system, one that is less reliant on institutional care.

Late last night, CCAI welcomed 14 delegates from Guatemala’s courts, governmental agencies and universities to Washington, DC. We have 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.  The week ahead will be filled with presentations by US experts in child welfare; conversations among judicial colleagues; meetings with Members of Congress and the Administration and lessons in best practice from other regional models.

I have many hopes for the week ahead, but chief among them is this: that everyone who participates in this week comes away with a deep desire to see every child in Guatemala have a safe, loving and permanent family to call their own.  I hope that they will see that achieving this goal requires the use of all options for permanency.  And most importantly, I hope that like those of us at CCAI, they will be willing to work to remove every barrier that stands in the way of this hope becoming reality.


How the Adoption Incentives Program can Incentivize Adoptions

Today, the Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Ways and Means held a hearing to review the success of several privately run programs to increase the number of children adopted out of foster care. This marks the beginning of the committee’s efforts to review—and hopefully reauthorize—a federal program entitled the Adoption Incentives Program.  Originally created in 1997 as part of the Adoption and Safe Families Act, the Adoption Incentives Program has delivered a total of $375 million in bonuses to states that were successful in increasing the number of children adopted out of foster care.

Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Ways and Means Adoption Incentives Hearing.
Subcommittee on Human Resources of the Committee on Ways and Means Adoption Incentives Hearing.

Since the inception of the Adoption Incentives Program, more than half a million children found their forever homes. Despite this success, however, over 100,000 foster children are still waiting to be adopted.  If trends continue, approximately 50% of these children will succeed in finding homes through adoption and 50% will continue to wait.  Statistics reveal that those who remain waiting are most often older children, members of larger sibling groups or those children who have special physical or mental health needs.  In fact, according to a the most recent AFCARS report, the average age of a child adopted out of foster care is 6, while the average age of a child waiting to be adopted out of care is 8.

So the question before Congress is this: how can the federal government incentivize states to find a home for every child? The programs highlighted in today’s committee hearing prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no such thing as an unadoptable child, just an unfound family.   There are at least three lessons to learn from these programs’ experiences.

  • States cannot employ “a one-size-fit-all” strategy for finding a permanent home for a child.  Efforts to recruit an adoptive family for a child must be as diverse as the children themselves.
  • States that have succeeded in finding homes for older and special needs children have done so in close partnership with community and faith-based partners.  Such partnerships allow state child welfare agencies to be more innovative in their approach; address critical workforce gaps; increase their reach into communities where perspective adoptive parents are likely to be found; and provide post- adoption support.
  • Finally, success in finding an adoptive family for every child who needs one is premised on the belief that all children need and deserve a family

If Congress hopes to replicate the successes of the types of programs highlighted today it must learn from these lessons and better incorporate them into the current Adoption Incentives Program.  Congress might also want to consider whether the current model of providing an individual bonus per adoption is the best way to incentivize adoption for older and special needs children. Perhaps this group would be better served by a model similar to the Department of Education’s “Race to the Top,” a federally-funded contest which provides funds to states that successfully put forward groundbreaking, thoughtful plans to address four key educational reform areas.  While the full effects of “Race to the Top” remain to be seen, preliminary findings indicate that it has been successful in spurring innovation and improving in educational outcomes. A similar approach might better incentivize states to be more innovative by providing more concentrated support for their efforts to find homes for harder to place children.

Another idea might be to use the adoption bonuses as a way to incentivize certain policies and practices that have been proven effective in finding homes for children. For instance, provide rewards to states that use adoption recruiters as opposed to making finding an adoptive family one of the many tasks assigned to an overloaded caseworker.  Or grant bonuses to states that severely limit the use of an alternative planned permanent living arrangement (APPLA) for older youth.  Under this approach, the federal government might use the “carrot approach” to reward states that provide robust post adoption services, reduce the amount of time between termination of parental rights and the completion of adoption and engage in interstate adoptions.

We would like to thank Chairman Reichert for his leadership in dedicating the first subcommittee hearing of the 113 congress to such an important and impactful topic. We look forward to working with Members of Congress to explore these and other ways this important program might better serve its stated goal: to find families for waiting children.

CCAI Releases Results of Survey on Intercountry Adoption

CCAI, working in collaboration with the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, the Center for Adoption Policy, Christian Alliance for Orphans, Equality for Adopted Children, Joint Council and the National Council for Adoption, just released the results of an online survey that asked U.S. Adoptive parents about their experiences working with the United States government during an intercountry adoption process. Results were received from 2,938 U.S. parents who adopted from 17 different countries.

Created in partnership with the above named organizations and circulated via email and listserv, CCAI administered and collected the results of the online sample survey that asked participants 37 multiple choice and five open-ended questions about their intercountry adoption experience, including the amount of time it took to complete their adoption process,  why individuals did not adopt from the country they originally intended to adopt from, how participants received updates from government and adoption agencies and the quality of communication with the U.S. Embassy.

Respondents provided specific recommendations to improve the experience working with the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in the participant’s adopted child’s home country and the intercountry adoption experience in general. Among the main recommendations:

  • Strengthen the communication of updates to adoptive parents concerning their specific cases—increase the frequency, specificity, and honesty of communication.
  • Increase the efficiency of the adoption process, particularly for children with special needs.  Participants expressed concern over the extra time that their child spent in an institutionalized home due to the delays in finalizing the adoption.
  • Reshape the regulations regarding the issuance of children’s visas to ensure greater certainty and efficiency of receiving them prior to departure.
  • Treat birthmothers with the dignity and respect that they deserve.  Participants expressed concern over the interrogation practices used in birthmother interviews.
  • Consulate and Embassy staff should employ more courteous and sympathetic behavior in their interactions with adoptive parents.  They should also be informed of international adoption laws and updated on any changes that could impact the adoption process.

The full Survey Report is available at http://ccainstitute.org/images/stories/foster/fyi/adoptive_parents_survey_results_3-1-12_for_release_6-28_1.pdf. A summary of main themes that emerged in the open comments are included in Appendix A of the report.

The Way Forward Project report now available

The findings and recommendations from CCAI’s The Way Forward Project are now available in the report.

This year-long project brought together leaders from the legal, medical, social work and development communities.  These experts were asked to consider ways in which six African nations might build upon their current efforts to preserve and reunify families and, when family preservation proves impossible, to connect children with families through adoption and guardianship.

This report was released during the project’s Summit earlier this week.  Here are some picture highlights from the event.

Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton. Photo credit: Matt Lehner
From left: Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Mary Landrieu, Rep. Karen Bass. Photo credit: Matt Lehner
Pastor Rick Warren. Photo credit: Matt Lehner
The Senators with The Way Forward Project Working Group Chairs. Photo Credit: Matt Lehner





CCAI releases ‘What Barriers Remain for the 112th Congress’

Kathleen Strottman, CCAI’s Executive Director, authored a report highlighting what areas of reform the 112th Congress may consider addressing this legislative session.  The report discusses several issues advocates, families, and professionals alike have raised.  Visit our website or click here to read the full report.

In keeping with CCAI’s mission to not only identify instances where policies are standing in the way of children finding their forever families, but more importantly to highlight ways that policymakers might act to eliminate them, CCAI raises areas where reform is needed.  A few of the topics covered in the report include:

  • Another Planned Permanent Living Arrangement (APPLA):  With 30,000 youth aging out of foster care each year having never been adopted, advocates have suggested that federal policymakers begin to study the frequency and reasons for recommending APPLA as a permanency plan for a foster youth.
  • Adoption Affordability:  We also know from the National Survey of Adoptive Parents that 57% percent of adoptive parents surveyed reported being at or below 300% the federal poverty line ($67,050 for a family of four).
  • Universal Accreditation:  Where the Intercounry Adoption Act falls short is that it only applies to adoptions between countries that are both parties to the Hague Convention, meaning that if an adoption is between the U.S. and a non-Hague country such as Russia or Ethiopia, the agency performing the adoption does not have to be accredited and the family involved is left without the corresponding services and protections.