On Feb. 24, Russia launched an unprovoked attack against Ukraine. Overnight, millions of Ukrainian families were forced to flee, many of them children. Adding to the complexity of a large-scale forced migration, many were separated from husbands and fathers who were required to stay to fight off Russian forces.
It immediately became apparent to the Ukrainian government and child protection experts that this scenario presented unprecedented risks for child abduction, exploitation and trafficking.
As soon as Russia attacked, Ukrainian officials sought to protect children and families at risk of separation and abuse. Though they permitted the completion of a few pending intercountry adoptions, the government issued strong statements barring any new adoptions until the conflict was over. Respected child protection organizations including the National Council for Adoption, UNICEF, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Save the Children, and International Social Service issued statements agreeing that intercountry adoptions should not proceed now, except in unique cases.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials and international relief organizations evacuated orphanages to move children to facilities and homes in other European countries. Countries including Poland, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Italy, Ireland and others have stepped up to provide safety and shelter as the war has raged on. In a few extreme cases, children with life-threatening medical conditions have been sent to hospitals around the world, including St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
For the most part, the Ukrainian government has insisted that the nation’s children remain in Europe to ensure expeditious family reunification when the war is over. Importantly, not all children residing in Ukrainian orphanages were orphans, and many were not eligible for intercountry adoption — the majority have parents and families who placed them in orphanages for economic and medical reasons.
Almost immediately, however, American adoption service providers, their prospective adoptive parent clients and hosting programs which are not licensed or accredited, began an aggressive campaign to pressure the Congress and the U.S. Department of State to permit Ukrainian children to come to the United States and be adopted. Dozens of members of Congress responded by sending a sternly worded letter to the State Department, issuing demands that fly in the face of the Ukrainian government’s official position.
Such congressional demands ignore the fact that Ukrainian officials have the authority and responsibility for their children, even those who have sought refuge in other countries. And Ukrainian officials have serious concerns — concerns that are shared by their U.S. counterparts — about freelance “facilitators” who have attempted to remove children from Ukraine and Poland without any documentation. It is not hard to imagine that the governors in the states whose Congress members appealed to the State Department to rush through wartime adoptions would take a dim view of releasing their state’s foster children to unlicensed, unaccredited “hosting” programs.
For many public officials, a worst-case scenario would be a repeat of the severe abuses that occurred in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake in 2010. Children were removed without any authority or licensing. Some “orphanages” were emptied even though they had not been damaged by the quake. Some Haitian children who were removed were too old to be legally adopted in the U.S. Others arrived without proof of identity. Some children were surrendered by people who were not related to them. Children were given invalid or forged documents.
But perhaps of greatest concern, some children were released to families that lacked home studies — and later “rehomed” them. Many of these children remain in legal and emotional limbo more than a decade later.
The demands for action by adoption providers and those who support them without thinking through the consequences also raise concerns about proportionality when it comes to outrage about children in need of families. On any given day, there are nearly 500,000 children in foster care in the United States, many of them already eligible for adoption. Some are subjected to abuse and neglect in the child welfare system. Twenty-five thousand young people “age out” of foster care every year without families, most to grim realities and with little support. One would hope we could achieve some balance when it comes to these concerns wherever the children are, not just based on a high-profile news cycle in a distant foreign country, whatever the geopolitical circumstances.
Ukraine is a sovereign government with a well-developed child welfare system. It has been a reliable partner to the U.S. for intercountry adoption at a time when other countries have shut their programs down due to a range of concerns. It is ill-advised to ignore the clearly stated rules of a trusted partner, especially one during a war that has veered into genocide. A crisis does not negate the importance of meeting established criteria that exist to protect children and families; to the contrary, it means the criteria are more important than ever. By forcing Ukraine to focus on 300 children who may be adoption candidates — .015% of 2 million Ukrainian children at risk — Congress creates a major distraction for a country not just at war but literally being subjected to mass executions.
Pressuring Ukraine right now to approve adoption or home visits diverts efforts from the most important consideration: to protect all children in Ukraine.
During the Orphan Trains of the 1850s, immigrant and poor children, most of whom had parents, were randomly plucked off the streets of New York City and sent by trains to states as far flung as Minnesota, Missouri and Oregon, in a scenario that would never be permitted by today’s child welfare officials in those states. We should give the Ukrainian officials at least as much respect as we accord to our own governments. And we should ensure that Ukrainian children have the same protections that we, at least nominally, ascribe to our own.