Obstacle Course

Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro calls the Parkers, shown here holding photos of their adopted children, “heroes.”
Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro calls the Parkers, shown here holding photos of their adopted children, “heroes.”

When Erica Finkelstein-Parker shares the news that she and her husband, Brian, will be adopting two children from the Democratic Rep-ublic of the Congo, the reactions she receives from other Jews are sometimes disheartening.

“That’s really cool, but couldn’t you adopt a Jewish child?” some say.

The Parkers are used to this reaction; they already have been parents of an adopted daughter, Emmalee Madeline Sneahal, from Pune, India. When she came home at the age of 21/2, she weighed only 17 pounds and had parasites; tragically, Emmalee passed away from a fatal form of encephalitis in January 2011. She was only 5. The illness that killed her could have been prevented had she received a timely vaccination in the Indian orphanage where she lived prior to adoption.

Even those who don’t focus on the adoptive children’s religion wonder why the Parkers haven’t chosen domestic adoption.

“Kids in these countries have no safety net,” Finkelstein-Parker exp-lained. “When they age out of the orphanage system between 13 and 15, they’re on the streets. When I saw the videos of orphanages in the Congo, they looked as if they should have a ‘condemned’ sign on them. It’s a truth many don’t know: Kids die in these orphanages. Malaria is rampant; there is malnutrition. For those who want to adopt internationally, there should be a functional system.”

At present, the international adoption system is far from functional, she said, and the situation has worsened over the past nine years. Due to resistance on the part of some organizations that oppose international adoption, as well as unnecessary bureaucracy and inefficiency, the number of completed international adoptions has decreased by 60 percent since 2004.

Currently, the average international adoption takes three to five years to complete and costs approximately $28,000. Meanwhile, estimates show that at least 10 million parentless and abandoned children are languishing and sometimes dying in foreign orphanages while American families wait to bring them home.

There are several reasons why int-ernational adoptions have slowed, become impossibly expensive or even stopped in the past decade. In some countries, there are concerns that children raised in a foreign country will be robbed of their native heritage. Yet, when one views the scenes of deprivation, it is difficult to understand how heritage trumps illness, starvation and neglect.

For some governments, the admission that they are unable to care for their own children is a source of shame. It is preferable to these governments to deny the reality of suffering children than to admit they are unable to provide for them. Therefore, some countries have fabricated a series of arbitrary guidelines designed to create obstacles to the completion of international adoptions.

In a case of “one bad apple spoiling the whole bunch,” some international adoptions that were found to involve baby selling or sex trafficking caused legitimately concerned bureaucrats to insist upon tighter restrictions. The result has been the creation of a treaty under the Hague Convention, which strives to protect children. Yet its most common ramification is preventing children from being adopted by loving families in the U.S.

The devastating state of affairs is dramatically illustrated in a new documentary, “Stuck,” produced by Both Sides Burning. The film was screened at AMC Loews White Marsh earlier this month. Baltimore was the 59th city on an 8,000-mile, 60-city tour. The Parkers acted as volunteer hosts for the Baltimore-area screening. While in Baltimore, representatives of Both Sides Burning met with community leaders, students and educators to raise awareness about this issue.

Both Ends Burning was founded by American businessman Craig Juntunen, a father of three adopted children from Haiti, who is committed to making international adoption a viable option that effectively serves orphans and the prospective parents who seek to provide loving families for them. Juntunen introduced “Stuck” at the White Marsh screening and also facilitated a question-and-answer session following the film.

“Stuck” tells the personal stories of several American families determined to adopt children from abroad. It describes the long, complicated and frustrating process they must endure in order to bring their children home.

To make the film, Juntunen and his film crew visited four countries — Russia, Vietnam, Ethiopia and Haiti — and 25 orphanages. The conditions of the orphanages and the children who lived in them shocked and horrified the filmmakers.

“Every time we entered an orphanage, we would try to come in quietly, to get acquainted, but when we greeted them, all of the kids would hold up their arms in what I call the universal orphans’ sign: ‘Pick me up, hold me,’” Juntunen told the packed movie theater. “They have such a compromised lifestyle with no affection. The most difficult part of making the film was walking into the orphanages and then walking out.”

Film footage shows cramped, filthy living quarters, where infants and children are warehoused — malnourished, sick, without the attention of adults. The lack of human contact and the total absence of any intellectual stimulation leaves some children lying alone in their cribs (without mattresses or blankets) to pass the time, wandering around the squalid environments aimlessly or staring
vacantly into space.

The film also includes a brief interview and footage from children in Romanian orphanages studied by Dr. Charles Nelson, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard University. The orphans are shown sleeping several to a bed, rocking and flapping their hands in order to create a semblance of sensory stimulation.

Dr. Nelson emphasizes the terrible toll institutionalization takes on children over time. The longer a child remains in an orphanage, the more damaging its effects.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro, the Parkers’ rabbi at Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah, is passionate about the issue of international adoption and has tremendous admiration for the Parkers and their mission.

“I’ve known them for three years, and I knew their daughter, Emmalee. They are heroes in that they took tragedy and became activists,” said Rabbi Shapiro.

Rabbi Shapiro believes the greater Jewish community is slowly gaining awareness of the difficulties experienced by adoptive families and of adoption as a relevant Jewish issue. “Adoption fulfills so many mitzvot — saving a life, being kind to orphans, being responsible for others,” he said. “If you’re a family who is able to have biological children you may say, ‘What does this have to do with me?’ That doesn’t sit well with Torah. If I’m struggling, you should be struggling, too. I can’t emphasize enough. This is not just an issue that affects adoptive parents, it really is a moral issue for all of us.”

For more information about international adoption, Both Ends Burning and “Stuck,” visit bothendsburning.org.

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