Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A little about orphanages

In talking with a friend recently, he asked me, “So how many orphanages are there in the United States?”  Well…none. Nor have there been since the early 1960’s, when the last few were closed down by the Illinois Department of Children and Family. Orphanages began falling out of favor during World War 2 and were almost completely closed by 1960. The closure of orphanages in the United States came after years of scrutiny about the facilities themselves and research that large institutions were no the best place to be raising children. Out of favor also fell the word “orphan” to describe children in state custody, as quite frankly, most of these children do have parents.

So we entered into the country of foster care. Over the years, there remains some need for residential treatment for those youth who are unable to succeed in traditional foster families, as well as those youth who struggle with mental illness, but these facilities are few and far between and actually house a small fraction of the nations youth in state custody. By and large, we’re doing pretty well with these foster families and statistics are showing that children are succeeding. As time passes we’ve learned that kiddos over the age of 18 need some continued help and we are starting to implement some post-foster care programs to help these young adults transition into independent living and being a grown-up. I think we’ve got a long way to go still but it’s working.   

We’ve recently started to take it one step further with a program called Safe Families for Children.  Safe Families is a faith-based program whose aim is to get families the help they need, before the State steps in and tells them that they are going to need it. The results of the Safe Families programs cropping up around the country have been amazingly positive. A buzz is starting to form in the church community and people are talking about this unique and successful program. To combat some of the slow down in international adoption, some agencies are jumping onto this train to use their qualified staff and passionate clientele to provide training and care to these families most in need during a vulnerable time.

So here in the United States we’ve clearly decided that group care isn’t optimal and that foster families provide a better care alternative to children in need. Thankfully this is a good idea that happens to be spreading. We’re finding that more and more countries are going to this model as well. Most of my clients are surprised when I tell them that about half of my China adoptions are children in foster care. They assume because they always get information about the child being care for by such and such orphanage that they live there. This is not necessarily true. Because of the strict government regulations, all children in China are under the care of a government orphanage, but they don’t necessarily live there. They might live in a private foster family or a large, privately funded foster home, such as New Day, but they all have to check in regularly with the orphanage for medical care and routine examinations. We are so blessed that our little girl resides in a private foster home.  
The older children available for adoption in Colombia are in foster care. These children have social workers and therapists to help them work through their grief and past trauma as they are being prepared for adoption. Living in private foster homes allow the children to remain in a traditional family setting to ease their transition from their family of origin to the adoptive family.

And those countries that are left with no other options (largely based on financial abilities and lack of participation from the greater community to foster) except to have orphanages often find some of these orphanages run by churches or private funds. Many of these children’s homes, as they are often called, try to emulate family life as much as possible. Many keep children in small groups where they sit together at a round table and pass the food around, much like most families do at the dinner table every night. Spending a month in Brazil, I was able to visit some orphanages that did just that. Although living institutional care, the children had large bedrooms shared by four children and stuck together with that group of four for three meals per day. Seeing the children help fill each other’s juice cups and pass the rice around the table was an amazing sight to see. The cooperative spirit of preparing a table for a meal can only build self-esteem and prepare those who will be adopted for their future families.

It seems as though the remaining countries that do have government run orphanages appear to be glad to see the private orphanages cropping up to help ease some of the financial burden incurred to them just to keep the lights on. One such example is Brit’s Orphanage in Haiti. This orphanage is the dream of one young girl, Brit Gengel, who met Jesus in 2010 following the Haiti earthquake. It was through her last text message to her parents that she shared with them her wish to open an orphanage. They honored her last written wish and Brit’s Orphanage opened in October 2012. There are now 66 children there, most of whom will never be adopted. The Be Like Brit Foundation is now an organized not-for-profit who is funneling money into their new orphanage to continue to make a difference in their community.

Another amazing story is that of Maggie Doyne, who at age 18, on a vacation before heading to college, decided to just stay in Nepal and open an orphanage and subsequently a primary school. The Kopila Valley Children’s Home opened in spring 2008 and the primary school opened in spring 2010. This young girl, just now 24 years old, finds herself caring for 40 children and in charge of ensuring education for another 300. She’s set up her home to model as close to a little family as possible in hopes that these children will be prepared for life after Kopila Valley.     
It just cannot be denied that a “family” setting is optimal and sets these children up for success in the future. Whether or not these children end up getting adopted into families, or go out into the world and start their own families, learning how to positively co-exist with others can best be achieved in a healthy setting. I hope the future will yield even more of these special options which will result in long-term success for these little ones in need.      

Dear Eastern Europe,

Read this, please.  

Yours truly,


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Birthday drama

Yesterday was our daughters 10th birthday. A day that for most children is happy and joy-filled. All birthdays should be inherently awesome and the beginning of the double digits is among the best. Brian and I started out singing her “Happy Birthday” before we went to bed on Monday night (as it would have been 10 a.m. Tuesday in China) and woke up yesterday morning wishing each other a happy birthday, on her behalf, of course. We enjoyed a birthday breakfast with my mom and are celebrating her birthday at the local Chinese restaurant with a friend tonight. I believe birthday cupcakes are in the making. All in all, we have had an absolutely lovely start to her 10th year of life, filled with fun stuff and dining out, and celebrating a birthday in the way we know how to celebrate. Apparently the fact that the actual child isn’t here to celebrate is ancillary.

And through all this celebration and fun yesterday, I really started to wonder if she even knew it was her birthday at all. Was anyone celebrating with her? Did anyone even make mention of it? And even if they did, did she even care? Or did she recall the tragedy that befell her years ago this day? Did her birth parents recall that day as anything different? Did her birth parents wake up with a heavy heart? Or did they not even remember at all?

You see, accustomed as I am to explaining this to other people, when I’m the recipient of this information, it’s a bit different. The truth is, the August 20 birthday for our Yiyi is completely made up. Nothing about her story or her life indicated that her birthday was even really in August, or even the year 2003 for that matter. Like many internationally adopted children, the orphanage director took one quick look at her the day she came into care, decided that she looked X years old and gave her a birthday of that date (August 20), X years before. This is a typical story of most children adopted internationally. I’ve been counseling families about this for years. Old hat.

Rewind to last Friday, when I got a call from the school principal of the school Yiyi is going to go to. Lovely man, patient, kind, would have let me stay on the phone with him as long as I needed to get all my questions answered. Which, one of those questions was, “So her birthday is August 20, 2003. What grade does that put her in?” (Thinking, of course, the cut-off for birthdays was August 1 and that he would say 4th grade). His reply, “5th. She will just be the youngest 5th grader.” Silence. I replied, “I thought the cut-off was August 1st.” He stated, “not in Shawnee Mission, it’s August 31st.” Oh my lands. My Missouri upbringing failed me for this Johnson County life I am living! With a shaking voice I stumbled, “so that’s it, not like consideration of her learning abilities or past education, just 5th grade no matter what?” Yes, my dear Nikki, that’s how public school works. (Note: Please, homeschooling parents, no negative comments about how if we homeschooled we wouldn’t have to deal with this. I am aware of that. I respect you and admire you so much for what you do, please afford us the same respect. Let’s keep this a friendly place. This is the decision we have made for our family at the present time. We did not make this decision lightly, and we are not closed to considering other ideas in the future, but for the time being, we are deferring to those who are trained to educate our special needs, ELL child, in the second best school district in the state. Thank you.)

So I got off the phone, stunned, which then turned into panic that middle school might start in 6th grade (Praise the Lord, it’s 7th grade!) And then I just made the decision that she would just repeat 5th grade regardless to get her another year of the basics. Yes, that’s the answer. Then I remembered that I’m married and have a partner to discuss such an idea with. Son of a public school teacher reminded me that she may make friends in that class and then to have them move on and have to put her with a new group of younger kids might not be appealing to her. Yes, true, wise husband of mine.  

And then I started to reflect on how her birthdate is a completely arbitrary date anyhow and just because China decided it was August 20, she’s going to be stuck a year ahead in school (thanks Kansas and China). And by the end of yesterday I had come to the conclusion that August 20 is a completely inappropriate birthdate for her for so many reasons and we should just change it. Yes, let’s change it to a “happy” day. We’ll change it to the day we became a family and make the year 2004. That will get her back a grade in school and it’s going to be such a happy day that will be good around. That’s the logical choice, isn’t it?

Well, you see friends, that’s the comfortable and logical choice for me. But it’s not my life now, is it? I’ve never been a supporter of changing these adopted kids birth dates. I’ve always told people to leave well enough alone, arbitrary or not. But now the shoe is on my foot and there seems to be so many reasons to try to change it. But what if she knows when her “birthday” is? What if she knows that she’s 10 and then we change it to make her 9? Is she going to understand that in the end, it’s because we want to be setting her up for better success and this will only help her? Thought you had a summer birthday? J/k, you’re a January baby now.

Are we just playing with fire, ripping her out of everything she knows and is comfortable to her, to give her a new life (that, by the way, will be a super happy day for us but might not be a happy day at all for her at all), in a new place, in a language she doesn’t speak, with people who love her, but she doesn’t know, oh, and now BTW you’re 9, not 10, and please eat this pizza because all kids must certainly like pizza. This birth date changing seems less and less like a good idea today than I originally thought.

And then it struck me; parents have to make decisions every day that they risk their children being upset with them about for a long time.

Welcome to parenthood, me.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Planning and preparing

Last Friday was a great day for the Pauls family. It was the day that John Kerry (with his infinite support for international adoption) welcomed Brian and Nikki to enter into the U.S. with a young immigrant child for the purpose of adoption. It was a great day and certainly encouraging for the process. We got that approval notarized on Monday and I headed to Topeka Tuesday for some state certification fun. It was actually quite a pleasant process (though I’m sure I’m the only one who really enjoys doing adoption paperwork), quite easy, and quite quick. Thankfully our state capitol is just 1½ hours away and an easy drive.  

As I was preparing the documents late into the wee hours of the night on Monday, I realized that I had, in fact, forgotten to obtain an updated marriage license. I half-panicked for about a minute and then realized that I probably could get a new one in Topeka while I was there. So I calmly did some research, found out it takes 15 minutes and the vital records building is right next door to the Secretary of State. Aside from using an additional quarter in the parking meter, it was a pretty smooth process to get the marriage license and then walk next door state certify the rest of the documents. All in all, less than an hour process for both things and I left with a perfect state certified (in-process) dossier.

Now we’re getting in touch with the courier for our authentication process with the Chinese Consulate in Chicago. We’ll send that off, and then our dossier will be on its way to China. And then all we have to do is sit, and wait. Sit and wait and paint the bedroom and apply for another grant and fight the health insurance company and meet with the school district and have another fundraiser and meet with the attachment therapist and get some of my own work under control and apply for another grant and get our dog to like new people and read more books and shop and clean and do another fundraiser and nest and prepare for our lives to never be the same again.

And as our process continues, I realize that there’s really only so much I can do to control it. And (I will let myself in on this trade secret) what I have control over is a little, tiny, nothing. From this point on, there is absolutely nothing I can do to control this adoption process. So when people ask me when we’re expecting to travel or when this or that acronym (you know, adoption process, all acronyms) is going to occur, I really just say I don’t know. Because I really don’t know. Oh sure, I could count the number of days between this step and that step. And then I could get on Facebook or yahoo groups for people adopting from China and see that the Smiths received their PQR approval in 84 days, while it took the Jonses 92 days and then the XYZ approval came for the Johnsons in a surprising 67 days while it took the poor Williams 102 days. And then I could panic that we had surpassed the 84 day mark and were still waiting. And then that panic could turn into worry and then sickness and just as soon as that all would start to happen, we probably would get the dang approval.

Or, I could just start my list of items two paragraphs above and stop wishing the time away and realize that I still will probably still be folding Yiyi’s last load of laundry at 3 a.m. on the day we board the plane to China. I’m going in completely unaware of the process and I really like it. I honestly have no idea how long it takes until our paperwork hits the next step in the process and when it does, I have no idea what that even means. They say doctors are their own worst patients. Well apparently adoption social workers are their own worst, well, adoption social workers! We’re going in like those people who don’t find out what gender baby they are having when they are pregnant. We’re going to be just as surprised as we can be when our caseworker calls and tells us to buy plane tickets. And you know what? It’s kind of nice. I have a ton of stress in my life and I am absolutely one of those people who can jump on a panic bandwagon faster than any one of you can (known all too well by my husband who witnessed one such incident over me forgetting to thaw butter to make cake frosting. It was cake frosting, and tears were involved.) But this isn’t one thing that I’m going to let stress me out. I’m truly going to enjoy the journey. We’re only going to be childless couple once and I want to enjoy this time that we have. By doing an adoption and choosing an older child, we missed out on a lot of those surprises that new parents often get. So I’ll take them where I can get them.

My message today is for those of you who find yourselves controlled by your adoption process…take control back. The paperwork doesn’t own you, the process doesn’t own you, China doesn’t own you, and little speed bumps in the journey are not roadblocks. Own your process, own your journey, take some time to breathe and realize that sadly, there’s not a whole lot you can do about things to make them move any quicker. And panicking about how so and so got ahead of you, or cursing the notary for getting divorced and not changing the name on her notary stamp yet, or realizing the night before that you forgot to get an updated copy of your marriage license, surely isn’t going to help you to get your kiddo faster.

So take the time for fun things, like picking out paint color for the new ones bedroom, or take the time to do something you’ve been long wanting to do for yourself (ahem, [insert myself looking in the mirror here] like get your Kansas social work license), and enjoy this time with your spouse or your other kids because it’s never going to be the same again.

Now, if only I can figure out how remain this calm in other aspects of my life, I will be super set for motherhood!