The ‘orphan’ I adopted from Uganda already had a family

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Editor’s Note: Jessica Davis is a photographer who lives in Ohio with her husband (and best friend) of 16 years and her four children. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

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Jessica Davis: After the adoption, we realized her mother was tricked into giving her up

The corrupt practices of international adoption agencies that allowed this must end, she writes

CNN  — 

I’ve always hoped to make a difference in this world. To bring goodness, peace or healing to a world that often seems inundated with loss, hardship and a vast array of obstacles that make life difficult for so many. When it came to the decision to adopt, it seemed like a no-brainer.

I thought this was one way to make a difference, at least for one child. My husband, Adam, and I would open our home and our hearts to a child in need.

Jessica Davis with her husband and Mata

What I didn’t realize when I began this journey was that adoption was so much more than just these things. I didn’t expect it to be all sunshine and rainbows, but neither did I realize the depth of heartache and loss adoption can entail, not only for adoptive parents, but even more so for the adopted children, like the one we were about to meet and welcome into our lives.

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Adam and I thoroughly researched at each step of the process in the hopes of ensuring a proper and ethical adoption. You see, we were already parents to four biological children, so this was not about “having another child” or simply “growing our family.” For us, adopting was about sharing our abundance – our family, love and home with a child who lacked these basic necessities.

Not one part of this process was easy – even the decision to adopt internationally. We knew that there were American children, as well as children all over the world, in need of what we could offer. We eventually concluded (based on what we now see as a form of propaganda) that the greatest need was in many of the poorest countries.

I remember reading that there are almost 3 million orphans in Uganda, and with that statistic in mind (and a bit more research), in October of 2013 we began the journey to adopt from there. We did piles of paperwork, got countless sets of fingerprints and spent tens of thousands of dollars. It took a little over a year to get through all the formalities, but I was driven to get to the best part of this process, meeting the needs of a child.

Eventually we got to that point. In 2015, we welcomed a beautiful, strong and brave 6-year-old girl named Namata into our home. There is no one blueprint when it comes to adoption, but I attempted to do my homework as thoroughly as any adoptive parent could – still, nothing could’ve prepared me for what happened next.

It took a little over a year and a half to realize the things “our” child was telling us were not adding up to the stories told within the paperwork and provided to us by our adoption agency, European Adoption Consultants, Inc.

(In December, the US State Department debarred the agency for three years, meaning it could no longer place children in homes. The State Department said it found “evidence of a pattern of serious, willful or grossly negligent failure to comply with the standards and of aggravating circumstances indicating that continued accreditation of EAC would not be in the best interests of the children and families concerned.”)

At first I wondered if the conflicting information Namata was sharing with us reflected her efforts to cope with the trauma of being relinquished and abused. But I came to realize that she was telling me something vastly different – and vastly more important.

At many points during that year and half, I had to suppress the compulsion to view the things she was telling me through my own lens, as all too often that lens is clouded by one’s own privilege and experiences. It was when I began to listen with this openness that I realized what she was so desperately trying to get me to understand.

The child we had struggled for years to adopt was not an orphan at all, and almost everything that was written in her paperwork and told to us about her background was not an accurate description of her life in Uganda.

More than that, we eventually uncovered that she had a very loving family from which she had been unlawfully taken, in order (we believe and are convinced) to provide an “orphan” to fulfill our application to adopt.

Devastated doesn’t even begin to explain what we felt once we realized what had transpired to bring Namata into our family. Namata’s mother was told only that Adam and I were going to care for her child while we provided her with an education, which is a central pathway to empowerment and opportunity in Uganda.

So when this supposed chance to be sponsored by a “wealthy” American couple was presented to her, she felt as if she and her daughter had been blessed. She never knowingly relinquished her rights as Namata’s mother, but once there was a verbal confirmation that we would adopt Namata, those on the ground in Uganda forged paperwork and placed Mata in an orphanage.

By the time Mata’s mother realized what was happening, that she was never going to see her child again, she was powerless to stop the wheels that were turning. After many months of uncovering the details in our case, I have also come to realize Mata’s mother’s experience is not uncommon within international adoption.

There are villages in Uganda and across the world where mothers, fathers, siblings and grandparents are desperate to be reunited with the children who were unlawfully separated from them through international adoption. It has been heartbreaking for me to realize that so beautiful and pure an act can be tainted with such evil. But as with so many beautiful things in this world, corruption and greed are a reality – one we can’t simply ignore.

International adoption must be reformed. Adopting parents and the governments involved in this process cannot plead ignorance anymore.

Throughout the journey to reunite Namata with her family, I have been met with so much resistance, saturated in entitlement and privilege. More than once I have been asked, why don’t you just “keep her”? These are words I use when describing something I purchased at the grocery store! I never owned Namata; she is a human being who deserves better than that type of narrow-minded and selfish thinking.

Once, someone suggested that I just not tell anyone what she had told us. Other times, I was told that it was my Christian duty to keep her and “raise her in the proper faith.”

Even in the end, with all the information establishing that Namata’s mother had never relinquished her child, I was told by US government officials that I got to decide whether or not to reunite her. Her mother, whose rights were unlawfully stripped from her, appeared not to be a factor in the least.

The travesty in this injustice is beyond words. I must be clear in the following statement: My race, country of origin, wealth (though small, it’s greater than that of the vast majority of people in the world), my access to “things,” my religion – none of these privileges entitles me to the children of the poor, voiceless and underprivileged.

If anything, I believe these privileges should come with a responsibility to do more, to stand up against such injustices. We can’t let other families be ripped apart to grow our own families!

I’m sure that most families seeking international adoption have the best of intentions, but good intentions are not an excuse for ignorance. After unveiling Namata’s true story and doing extensive research, I feel I have gained an awareness of the realities of corruption occurring across the board within international adoption. This complicated yet beautiful act of opening up a home and a heart to a child in need has become heavily corrupted by greed and saviorism.

My family’s journey to adopt has become a journey to fight for families. Families that are being torn apart because of ignorance and a lack of empathy for those who have no voice to speak out against the injustices they face every day. I cannot look the other way. I must continue this fight until I see a change in the system.

I can also say that I have seen the beauty of a family restored and there is nothing quite like it. Adam and Namata took the long journey to her remote village in Uganda together, while I remained at our home with the biological children. We could not afford for both of us to go, and my husband was concerned for my safety after the corruption I had exposed. He was also just as concerned for Namata’s safety and wanted to be at her side until the moment she was home in the protection of her mother’s arms. So I reluctantly said my goodbyes to her here in America.

Though we were overwhelmed with heartache that morning, Adam, the kids and I all tried to smile through it, because for Namata it was a happy day. She could not wait to be reunited with her family and we were very careful not to steal her joy. I witnessed this part of the journey through video calls and pictures and it was beautiful. Painfully beautiful.

In September of 2016, Namata’s mother embraced her child with joy and laughter abounding and they have not spent a day apart since. Namata has flourished since being home and I am thankful for that.

During this journey, I have also come to a revelation of what it means to truly aid and love the orphan (a phrase often used when discussing adoption). That love goes far beyond anything I could’ve fathomed before. Now it seems so clear. Now those hundreds of adult adoptee’s voices I have encountered since I began this journey ring clearly in my ears.

The vast majority of children in orphanages, and countless children adopted internationally, are not orphans at all (according to Catholic Relief Services). Most have a parent, or parents. Additionally, many have siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, who care about them.

My good intentions all along were misguided. If I truly wanted to help or aid an orphan, that act required that I make certain that every effort has been made to keep that child within her biological family! Had that been my focus from the start, I may not have missed so many red flags.

Too many of us see international adoption as way to “save” children. But what if we looked at it another way? What if we decided to do everything in our power to make sure those children could live their lives with the families God intended for them in the first place?

I’m not talking about children taken by necessity from abusive or neglectful homes, but those whose loving families were wrongly persuaded to give them up. Families who thought the decision was out of their control because of illness, poverty, lack of access to education, intimidation, coercion or a false idea about what the “American dream” means for their child.

So am I saying don’t adopt? No!

I’ve heard plenty of adult adoptees say they are completely against adoption, and I will not demean their voices or take away their right to feel this way because it’s a lifetime of experience that informs their opinions.

But because of their strong voices, I have also seen a new wave of opened eyes among parents who adopt children – parents who understand the losses their adopted children have suffered, who listen to them, who rise to the huge obligations and high standards that adoption requires.

Only through listening and acknowledging hard truths can adoption lead to an ethical and positive outcome. This will mean something different with each family. For us, it meant reuniting a family torn apart by a corrupt process and exposing criminal activities within international adoption. For others, it may mean a lifetime of making sure a child holds on to his or her cultural or racial identity, or keeping alive his or her ties to their birth family, no matter how hard that may be. Adoption can be beautiful, but it is never easy.

So I say yes to adoption, as long as families have a clear understanding of the weight they will bear. The weight of doing right by this child in ways you maybe never realized before: fighting for his or her best interests, without ill intentions, selfishness or greed. And realizing that sometimes that best interest might mean he or she does not become your adopted child at all.

I get updates on our once-adopted child, Namata, often with pictures and sometimes video. When I first see them, I tend to get teary-eyed because of how much I miss her. I would love to wrap my arms around her, but then I remind myself of all that she almost lost by being adopted.

Sometimes there are pictures of her at her grandmother’s home, skipping about, smiling from ear to ear. Other times she’s holding her baby sister, or walking home from school with her other sister.

One of my favorite pictures thus far is this one of Namata sitting on the ground, facing her mother. And her mother – the woman who gave birth to her, looks like her, smiles like her and loves her more deeply than anyone else on the face of the earth – is looking back at the daughter she nearly lost.

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