She might not remember it, but I met Tara Livesay a few years ago at an adoption conference. She’s even more beautiful in real life than she is in her pictures, but what struck me the most about her was that she was so real. My co-founder of Hill Tribers, Caren, told me about the Livesays first and soon we were both addicted to reading blogs about the women who were giving birth at Heartline. Caren especially has prayed through a number of the women’s pregnancy; we were able to visit with Tara together at that conference and it was an important conversation for both of us. Since then, Tara has become one of my real life heroes. Adoption is a complicated, complex topic and Tara has seen it from every angle. Her ability to write so compellingly about the narrative of her own life and her journey to where she is now, actively serving to fight against the injustice that often keeps birth mothers from being able to raise their children in her adopted home of Haiti, is inspirational. It’s not easy–she’s the first to admit it–but her fight gives me strength and drives me on. This piece especially seems as authentic and as vulnerable a piece of writing as I’ve ever read–the questions about international adoption she voices are ones she is navigating with her own adopted children. I respect her enormously for living in the tension she does.
“Real, true religion from God the Father’s perspective is about caring for the orphans and widows who suffer needlessly and resisting the evil influence of the world.” (James 1:27)
We entered into the adoption arena in late 2001 as naive prospective adoptive parents. The lens with which we viewed the world was quite different back then. We had spent most of our lives in Minnesota and had not considered life outside of our experiences very often. We did not frequent the space outside of our box. Since then, eleven years at the school of hard-knocks has bruised us up a bit and taught us a lot. We have learned about our own tendency to fear what we don’t understand and have seen how our fear-based responses are not as loving or kind as we want to be.
Our son Isaac was born in a rented room in a small cement house in the slums, an area that sits along the water with houses stacked on top of each other.
|Noun: A child whose parents are dead.
We live in a day and age where the word orphan means new things. This is the definition provided by U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services:
The Immigration and Nationality Act provides a definition of an orphan for the purposes of immigration to the United States. A child may be considered an orphan because of the death or disappearance of, abandonment or desertion by, or separation or loss from, both parents. The child of an unwed mother or surviving parent may be considered an orphan if that parent is unable to care for the child properly and has, in writing, irrevocably released the child for emigration and adoption. The child of an unwed mother may be considered an orphan, as long as the mother does not marry (which would result in the child’s having a stepfather) and as long as the child’s biological father has not legitimated the child. If the father legitimates the child or the mother marries, the mother is no longer considered a sole parent. The child of a surviving parent may also be an orphan if the surviving parent has not married since the death of the other parent (which would result in the child’s having a stepfather or stepmother).
(That definition was found here)
Jesus followers are frequently reminded that they are to defend the orphan and widow and bring justice to the fatherless. (Psalm 82:3 – Isaiah 1:17)
We all come to our own conclusions about what it means to defend or bring justice. In recent years many evangelical Christians have joined an adoption movement that has sought to bring justice through international and domestic adoption.
The commandment to bring justice is clear. The path to do so is much less clear.
Barnes’ commentary on Isaiah says,
“…Pronounce just judgment; see that right is done to them. This is required everywhere in the Scriptures. The meaning is not that judgment is to be pronounced in their favor because they are poor, or because they are orphans, for this would be to do what they had just been charged with as in itself wrong, accepting of persons; that is, showing favor on account of condition or rank, rather than on account of a just claim. The idea is, that the poor and the fatherless, having no natural protectors, were likely to be wronged or oppressed; that they had none to defend their claims; and that magistrates, therefore, as if they were their natural protectors, should see that their rights were maintained. Do justice to the afflicted and needy – See that justice is done them; that they are not wronged by persons of wealth, of power, and of rank. Such care does religion take of those who have no natural guardians. The poor and the needy – the widow and the fatherless – owe to the religion of the Bible a debt which no language can express.”
As I read that, the words that speak most to me are: See that right is done to them, See that their rights were maintained, and That they are not wronged by persons of wealth, of power, and of rank. Most of us that have the financial ability to adopt are in fact the ones with the power and therefore we are the ones charged with seeing that right is done. I recognize myself as a person of wealth, of power, and of rank. With that recognition, I will now share part of the story of our own adoption in the hope that future adoptive parents and all of us in the adoption arena will all be more aware and educated. I hope that we will push for transparency in the process and for ‘orphan’ intake procedures that are above reproach.
Isaac’s first father is two decades older than his first mother. Before Isaac was born they had five children together, none of whom they placed for adoption. They scrape by like many Haitian families, sometimes not knowing where or when the next meal might come. They live day to day and hour to hour. When health needs arise they don’t have the ability to seek care with their own limited resources.
Around the time Isaac’s first mother learned she was pregnant again, his father took off to look for work in the Dominican Republic. It is unclear how much work or money actually came of that time. His intention was to send money home to Haiti as he made it and return with some funds. When he did not return in time for Isaac’s birth, as you can imagine, Isaac’s mom felt overwhelmed at the idea of taking care of a newborn in addition to the other five children without their father. To be classified as an “orphan” (a misnomer really) a child must NOT have two living parents. In plain language, Isaac was never an orphan because his father and mother were both living and they were, in fact, together.
Isaac’s mother heard about an orphanage where people living near her had placed their children for care. In Haiti if you heard it by word of mouth or through the rumor mill it is called “Radyo Tran-n de”. Radyo 32 is in reference to the 32 teeth in your mouth and is a way of saying that you heard it from someone else. With that information, she went to ask the folks running the orphanage about leaving him there to be cared for.
Raised without the benefit of proper nutrition or a formal education, she does not read or write. This leaves her at a disadvantage and she must place trust in those around her that do. She was told that she would need to fill out paperwork without listing the father if she wanted to leave Isaac there. She was told that when you place your child for adoption, he will grow up and be able to send you money and care for you. Desperate for a lighter load and hoping for a brighter future, she did as they suggested.
Not too long after she made that difficult decision, we arrived in Haiti for the first time. Our intention was not to “save” a child. Our intentions were to adopt a son because we had lost a son and we wanted to add to our family. We had no education on orphanages or corruption in adoption. We knew very little about Haiti.
I remember being somewhat fearful during our early trips to Haiti. I was uncomfortable and unable to communicate and that manifested itself in ways that I regret. We tend to fear things we don’t understand.
When I first met Isaac’s mother it was shortly before he was set to leave the country with me. I did not meet her with a heart of total love and empathy, but with one of trepidation. I remember feeling relieved when the lunch with her was over. I was so focused on my hope of making him my son that I couldn’t and didn’t see her as a woman losing her child due to poverty and I couldn’t see that I was a person of wealth, power, and rank. My fear and selfishness were more than ridiculous, it would have made so much more sense for her to fear me.
Fast forward four years, we moved to Haiti to work and live full-time. Our intention was not necessarily to reconnect with Isaac’s first family, although we realized we probably would reconnect at some point. We focused on learning what we needed to know to do our job in our new surroundings. Six month into our time in Haiti, Radyo 32 informed Isaac’s family we were in country. We carefully made plans to meet and talk.
That first meeting was awkward as we took photos and watched each other closely.
Since that time we’ve progressed to a point of sharing phone numbers and seeing one another at least once or twice monthly. Whatever fear or lack of understanding existed in the beginning is now gone. We love this family and hope to honor them in every way moving forward. Isaac chooses when he wishes to see them, while my husband and I see them often and we have built relationships of mutual trust. Honestly, our vastly different economic situations keep our friendship off-balance, but we work to respect one another and carefully engage in this uncharted territory of a totally open international adoption.
In hindsight, any weirdness or fear in the beginning was on us. The orphanage misled Isaac’s family, but today they are not interested in anything other than knowing he is well and being able to see that with their own eyes. In many ways they still carry hope that Isaac might be rich and famous and take care of them someday. It isn’t so much an expectation as it is a dream. They marvel at his height. They stand back and admire how handsome he is. They are genuinely pleased to see how kind and intelligent he is.
As Isaac processes all of this, we process too. Recently I stood with Isaac’s first father for a few moments and watched in fascination at the way his eyes smile and speak on their own while he talks, just like Isaac’s do. His father is almost 60 now and struggling with high blood pressure. When I chat with him and his joy radiates in ways that remind me so much of Isaac, I feel the deep sadness of seeing the consequences of poverty and broken systems playing out in front of me.
We want to repair the places we messed up with them and we want them to feel honored and respected in tangible ways. As I look back on my early attitude toward this first family and the ways in which they were misled and manipulated it grieves me that I cannot say that their rights were maintained, or that they were not wronged by persons of wealth, of power, and of rank.
Please don’t hear me regretting that Isaac is my son. He is one of the greatest joys of our life. While that is true, we cannot deny that our great joy meant a great loss for his first family. I regret that my gain meant their loss. It doesn’t sit well with me. We cannot deny that there are systems in place that seek to serve the powerful at the expense of the marginalized. I regret that I did not ask more questions, do more research, or demand more information. While I believe that adoption is often beautiful and redemptive, there are a few things surrounding international adoption that I cannot reconcile in my heart or mind. More devastating yet, we know of many families that understood even less about what they were agreeing to or what adoption meant. We know families were bribed to place their children, they don’t receive updates, and they grieve the loss of their children without any ability to reach out to the adoptive American families.
As followers of Jesus, if we are to pronounce just judgment, we’re going to have to be willing to examine some uncomfortable things and be less fearful of things we don’t understand. As followers of Jesus if we are to be guardians of the poor and afflicted, we’re going to have to ask harder questions and do more research. As followers of Jesus we should all want to complete adoptions where at the end we can say that the rights of the poor were maintained.
Justice doesn’t come easily, but we should be willing to work for it.
Find out more about about Tara and Troy Livesay’s family, including their seven kids, and the work they do in Haiti on their blog and through the Heartline Haiti website.
(Because of the nature of this post, I’m going to be monitoring the comments a bit more closely and I’d like to ask that you keep the tone respectful or the comment won’t be approved. Sometimes discussions about adoption are about grand issues–this time, it’s about Tara and Troy’s son and I want to give them the space to share their story without facing harsh words or overly critical comments. Thanks for understanding.)
Read all of the posts in this series on the Questions of Travel Series page.