Guest Post: Another side to orphan reunification

Orphan reunification, or the process by which orphaned and abandoned children are returned to their extended family for care, has long been a policy intervention favored by researchers opposed to the institutionalization of children. Though the reunification process often takes longer than adoption, many researchers and policy-makers favor the process because they believe it leads to better outcomes.

But a recent narrative of one family’s repeated attempts to adopt an Ethiopian infant in need, and the regional government’s attempts to force reunification on the unwilling—and incapable—father, sheds light on another side of orphan reunification programs. The article, published last month in the Huffington Post, follows the life of an Ethiopian infant whose birth resulted in the death of her mother, a father without the means to support the child on his own, an American family wishing to adopt the child and a regional government that favored reunification over relinquishment. Though the story is not over for anyone involved, it highlights a rarely-seen side of reunification programs.

Many research projects support the claim that reunification supports the overall well-being of the child. For instance, one study conducted in Eritrea, Ethiopia discovered a wide-scale reunification project in the area was “significantly more cost-effective, psychosocially acceptable and sustainable than the alternative strategy of keeping the children in orphanages.”

Other studies have highlighted the flaws of reunification programs. For instance, some orphans are more likely to be successfully reunified than others; infants and adolescents are less likely to successful complete the process than children of other ages, and African-American children are less likely to be reunified than are children of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. Moreover, the study discovered that many reunifications eventually fail—in 1990, almost 30 percent of children who were reunified reentered foster care within 10 years. Yet, according to this study, the reunification system can be salvaged—as long as states and countries institute a series of reforms, including increased monitoring and evaluation.

But the account described in the Huffington Post raises questions regarding the feasibility of working with state and country officials to improve global reunification programs. In this tragic case, regional government officials appeared to have forced the father to care for his biological daughter in exchange for meager financial support, despite his hesitations about safely raising his infant. Later, after trying to convince his deceased wife’s mother to care of the child, the regional Women Children and Youth Affairs Bureau allegedly forced the man to take back his daughter–or risk going to jail. As the article explains:

[box] “…With an obviously failing-to-thrive child, the father expressed a desire to return his daughter to an orphanage. However, he would only do so if he could be sure he would not be sent to jail; he would rather keep her and watch her die than be sent to jail. He felt he was given no other option but to raise his daughter, and could not understand how he had been given the right to relinquish her in the first place.

It appears that this father and daughter are victims of an ill-planned reunification program. No permanent or viable solution was given to the father that would empower him to raise her. In the end, he didn’t keep his daughter because he wanted to or was capable of doing so; he had been threatened.

….It is now mid-April 2012, and the father has given up. Because he has been so bullied by local government, he is no longer able to trust the helpers who assured him that his country’s constitution provides fathers in his situation with basic rights. Though Ethiopian family law clearly states that it is legal for him to relinquish his daughter, the father still does not believe this.”[/box]

The purpose of this post is not to look down on all reunification programs and favor reunification of children housed in orphanages; instead, it is meant to highlight the complexities of the situations many orphans, their families, and families wishing to adopt must confront. Moreover, it shows the potential dangers associated with adopting a one-sided policy program regarding orphans and adoption services. Reunification may be a good option for some orphaned and abandoned children, but, as this case shows, it is not necessarily appropriate for all. Thus, countries are placing themselves in potentially dangerous situations when adopting a clear-cut “yes-or-no” stance to certain programs.


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