A little over a year ago we took our first trip to Bulgaria. Upon returning home, I wrote the following post. I didn’t end up publishing it at the time because I didn’t feel like I had found the right words. Those “right words” never came. I’m sharing anyway.
“People who say that international adoption is an unwise use of God’s money just don’t know.”
I listened to my friend, the mother of two internationally adopted children, and I nodded my head in agreement. I thought I knew what she meant. I have been so frustrated throughout our adoption process to hear people say that international adoption is poor stewardship of God’s money. That we really should be adopting through foster care because it’s free. Or that we should be using our money to support Gospel preachers instead. Leave it to the orphanages to care for the kids.
I know these comments are made with the best of intentions, but most of these comments are also made in ignorance. People tell us, “Your money is better spent supporting orphan homes where they can care for many children.” These good-hearted people have no idea of the damage caused by growing up in an institution – even a “Good” one. They can’t possibly know. Surely they don’t understand. If they did, they would never say such a thing. Never.
I thought I understood.
When my adoptive friends relayed to me the things they saw in orphanages overseas, I cried with them. When they told me of little babies who lie in cribs staring up at the ceiling for hours without making a sound, I got chills. When they described how the children are lined up and force-fed a liquid diet no matter their age, and the bruises they acquire simply due to malnutrition, I was angry. How could anyone hear of children living in these conditions and not know that it is worth every penny it takes to get them into a safe, loving home?
But I didn’t understand the half of it. And in truth, I still don’t.
I thought I was prepared to walk into the orphanage where our daughter has lived since she was born. They tried to warn us. They told us that our daughter’s Center is one of the better ones, but that it would still not be “Good.” I had read and researched and talked to other adoptive parents. I thought I was ready. It wasn’t as if I have never been outside the U.S. I’ve been to third world countries, and I didn’t think this could be much worse than what I had previously seen. But I underestimated what it would be like to walk into that building for the first time, knowing this is where my little girl has been raised.
When we first arrived, a nurse unlocked the front door and led us into a dark, musty corridor. There were no lights. Concrete walls and floors surrounded us like a prison cell. We could hear the screams of a baby coming from somewhere on the second floor. The unheeded cries echoed throughout the building; the only sound to break the eerie silence.
We waited with our translator while the nurse went to get the Doctor who was on call in the Director’s absence. Down the hall, a baby was swinging – the only other person in sight. It was as if the orphanage was nearly abandoned. Yet, we later learned that there were children in every room lining those halls. Children who never made a sound.
The Doctor greeted us warmly and led us into her office where we met with her and the Psychologist. They told us as much as they could about our little girl’s history and personality. They were helpful, caring, and as open as they were permitted to be. Little Miss was obviously a favorite, and they were more than happy to answer most of our questions.
During this conversation we met Little Miss for the first time. She was wheeled into the room, and the next few moments were a mix of joyful tears and nervous giggles. To read more about our first visits with her, click here.
Over the course of the week, we got to see a good bit of our daughter’s environment. She lives on the second floor with the young babies because of her limited mobility. There are eight children in her ward, and she is the oldest by far. This has pros and cons. She rarely interacts with any children, and she doesn’t know what to make of creatures her own size. She also doesn’t know how to play with age appropriate toys, or how to get attention without babbling like a nine month old (though she is perfectly capable of communicating on an older level).
The pros are that, because she does have more communication skills than the babies, the nurses talk to her more frequently and give her more individual attention than she would probably receive in the ward with children her own age. The nurses love the fact that she can sing along with them, and they all get a kick out of her dance moves. As a result, she interacts with adults really well and makes great eye contact. She is particularly attached to one nurse who even our translator commented was one of the best orphanage caregivers she’s ever seen. That is huge!
Children raised in orphanages are often neglected not necessarily from a lack of concern but more often due to a lack of resources and a lack of education on developmental needs. These things were obviously lacking in our daughter’s orphanage, but the staff was doing the best they knew how. The meals at this orphanage are varied in texture and content, the children are fed slowly with bottles or spoons (depending on the age of the child), and the Doctor and nurses pay decently close attention to the nutritional value of the food they provide. Our daughter is definitely in one of the better orphanages. I am extremely grateful that she has been given such advantages and that she ended up in an orphanage with a very special caregiver. The Lord has been mindful of our little girl.
It’s hard to describe the haunting realities of what we saw. The orphanage is dark, sterile, and bare. Broken glass covers the playground. But that doesn’t matter because the children rarely go outside. Bedrooms about the size of a small walk-in closet line the halls, two cribs to a room. The babies sit or lie in these cribs until they are taken out, on schedule, to be fed or changed. There is silence in the ward, except for the rare cry of a baby who has not yet learned that his cries gain him nothing. Most of the babies do not respond if you try to engage them. They only stare at you with hollow, expressionless eyes.
One constant thought swirled in my head.
We must get her out of here!
But who will come for the others?
No one who sees a place like that can possibly believe that any amount of money used to get even one child out is a waste. Surely, they cannot.
And what I saw is not the half. I don’t know the half. I only know stories.
The stories of the family who traveled to meet their daughter, held her in their arms, and committed to bringing her home, but never got that chance. Just months before they were due to pick her up, their daughter starved to death under the care of “doctors” who were feeding her a very “special” diet. Their daughter was seven years old. She weighed nine pounds.
The stories of the family who adopted a little boy with almost exactly the same condition as our daughter. Except he was in a much worse orphanage. His body was covered in scars and sores. He was the same age as Little Miss, but he had no language and very little communication skills. He was caged in his crib for days. He was the subject of medical experimentation and abuse.
The stories of the little boy who kicked and screamed in fear when his new parents took him outside because he had never felt the sun on his face.
The stories of malnutrition, sexual abuse, and emotional trauma.
Stories that are more the reality than the rarity.
I’m not sure exactly what this post is about. Mostly, I think I’m still processing. It’s hard to put into words what it was like to visit Little Miss. Some of it doesn’t sound so bad as I go back and read what I’ve written. That’s only because I’m incapable of finding words to accurately describe the living conditions of these kids. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Sure, I’ve been to third world countries. I’ve seen devastating poverty. But in all those places I’ve been before, I also saw the love of family. Walking into an orphanage where these children have no one to count on but themselves… It was a different level of heartbreak.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m a huge supporter of adoption, whether domestic or international. This is not a post about how everyone ought to adopt internationally. Children in foster care face some of the same harsh realities as do children in orphanages. This has nothing to do with “adopt this way, not that.” This is a plea from my heart to yours. Don’t tell me that international adoption is a waste of God’s money. When you say that, I hear a forgotten baby’s cries echoing down the hall. I see the prison cells that serve as bedrooms. I see the face of a mama whose daughter starved to death.
And I have to believe.
You just don’t know.