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Groups Urge Caution As Americans Offer To Adopt Tsunami Orphans


The United Nations estimates that some 1.5 million children have been affected by the tsunami in South Asia. “Their lives have been devastated,” says Charles MacCormack, who heads the child assistance organization, Save the Children. “They've lost their homes. They've lost friends. They've lost their schools, relatives, and sometimes parents.”

Some Americans are responding with offers to adopt those orphaned by the disaster. Groups in the United States that are involved in international adoptions say they have received a wave of calls and e-mails in recent days. “There's really an outpouring of compassion,” says Thomas Atwood, president of the National Council for Adoption in Alexandria, Virginia. “People want to see these children have loving families and homes and are prepared to offer themselves to do that.”

Mr. Atwood’s organization is telling those who want to adopt that the scope of the orphan problem must first be assessed. “Many of the countries that are affected don't even have an international adoption program to speak of,” he explains. “India is the only one that has a significant number of adoptions, nearly 500 in 2003. Thailand had 70 in 2003, so they have some experience. But it's still a tiny number compared to the number of children in the world who need to be adopted.”

A series of legal steps must also be taken before a child can be put up for international adoption. “First of all, we have to determine that the children truly have been orphaned,” notes Thomas Atwood. “Second, we need to determine that there are no other family or community members who will care for the children. Furthermore, we need to make sure that they're legally free to be adopted. And finally we need to make sure that those involved in handling their cases have been handling them in an ethical fashion.”

The handling of those cases has become a sensitive question, with reports that children in some areas stricken by the tsunami have been abducted and even sold into illegal child labor or sexual slavery rings. “There is a legitimate concern that unscrupulous characters will prey upon these children,” says Mr. Atwood. “International adoption has legal procedures that prevent that kind of thing. If that happens, we're talking about trafficking, we're not talking about adoption.”

There is also disagreement over whether international adoption should even be part of the long-term rescue effort. Charles MacCormack of Save the Children says the first priority is to reunite stranded children with family members. “Most of them will find family members,” he explains, “so you wouldn't want them adopted while they still have their families. Second, it is a tradition for grandparents or relatives to take in orphaned children with their own language and their own culture and their own future. So we encourage that, because we know that's in the psychological best interest of these children.”

Thomas Atwood of the National Council for Adoption agrees that many families and communities in affected countries have a tradition of caring for children without parents. But he also believes that international adoption can provide a haven for those who do not find homes in their native countries. “Children are amazingly resilient,” says Mr. Atwood. “Love is very powerful. And in the end what we have is a loving parent with a child who needs a parent.”

Mr. Atwood notes that other disasters have led to a rise in interest in adoption. “I suppose the closest thing to it might be the situation in Romania some years back when the plight of the children became so publicized,” he says. “There was a tremendous surge in the number of adoptions from Romania for a few years. Certainly there was a similar response of concern following 9/11 for children who were orphaned by those terrorist events. As it turned out, very few children needed adoption as a result of 9/11. That's why it's important that we not jump to conclusions.”

Until more is known about the plight of children orphaned by the tsunami, Thomas Atwood urges Americans to focus on supporting more immediate forms of aid. “There will be group care situations for these children,” he observes. “Perhaps there will be a means to support those programs with funding. At this point, that's probably the main thing that we can do. We do need to be careful that we don't create a backlash of concern which is quite understandable on the part of countries that want to take care of their children themselves.”

Thomas Atwood says it is important for people in those countries to understand that, by offering to adopt a child, Americans are looking for another away to help those whose lives have been shattered by the tsunami.

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