There is no greater measure to the global success of our society than the health and happiness of our children. Every child around the world deserves the basic right to a family in a safe and loving home, but too often this is not the case. As we recognize National Adoption Month throughout November, we must pledge to eliminate all barriers that separate children from loving and supportive homes–in our nation and abroad.
The United States is home to nearly a half-million children in the foster care system. In sub-Saharan Africa, which is overburdened by epidemic diseases like HIV/AIDS, famine and a host of other factors, millions of children are forced to live in institutional or orphanage-based care. In fact, in six of the African nations with most need–Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Malawi, Ethiopia and Ghana–nearly 25 percent of the population under the age of 18 is forced to live in orphanage-based care. And unfortunately, this trend is on the rise although it is the antithesis of traditional African culture.
A common tradition across Africa’s diverse cultures is to have extended family members provide orphans with a nurturing home rather than force children to live in institutional care. It is estimated that well over 90 percent of orphaned children in Sub-Saharan Africa are cared for by extended family members or by other families in the community. The daily life and close relationships within these families lay the foundation for a child’s social and emotional development, self-image, and sense of belonging. As children interact with the members of their households and their wider community, they absorb patterns and values of their culture and develop the language, custom, and skills they will need in their adult lives.
Resources, meager to begin with, are being stretched to the limit and families living in poverty or who are victims of the HIV/AIDS pandemic are struggling to provide for their loved ones.
Programs that ease the burden on families caring for orphans and vulnerable children – such as home-based care for the sick, daycare services, and support groups – reduce the risk that children will be neglected, abused, or abandoned. These are the types of programs we must invest in order to keep youth in their communities.
This week, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and fellow colleagues from both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, I participated in “The Way Forward Project Summit,” hosted by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute (CCAI). This unique project draws special attention to the crisis facing orphans and vulnerable children in Africa, and helps develop a global strategy for child welfare that moves away from reliance on institutional care and instead prioritizes a family-based care approach.
There is overwhelming research that tells us what we already know: Children thrive in loving, nurturing and safe environments. Research by the World Bank in Tanzania found that orphanages separate children from family and community life and often fail to meet a child’s developmental needs as they reach adulthood. While institutions can serve as a temporary and last resort, it is important to create sustainable alternatives that focus longer-term solutions. Orphanages can provide access to food, shelter and education, but we must strive to make these necessities available within the community and work to strengthen families before moving children into institutions.
If progress is to be achieved, all sectors–public and private–must come together. We must consider best practices and pool vital resources to develop a collective global strategy to support countries around the world improve policies that ensure welfare systems put the child and their needs first.
In Congress, I have focused on creating a bipartisan solution for real, tangible changes for foster children throughout the nation. In February, Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) invited me to serve as the Co-Chair of the Congressional Adoption Caucus, which raises awareness about the needs of children without families in the U.S. and internationally, and works to remove policy barriers that hinder children from knowing the love and support a family provides. I am deeply committed to this work and will continue to collaborate with my colleagues to improve the quality of life for our nation’s most vulnerable and resilient youth.
When I think about orphaned and vulnerable children, I recall the moving words of former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Anan, “There is no trust more sacred than the one the world holds with children. There is no duty more important than ensuring that their rights are respected, that their welfare is protected, that their lives are free from fear and want, and that they can grow up in peace.”
National Adoption Month raises these critical issues for examination and reminds us of that duty. It is our responsibility and in our best interest to find solutions, both domestically and internationally, to take steps to protect our children which in turn nurtures our future.