Waiting for my child
The number of Flemish signing up to become adoptive parents has dropped dramatically in the past few years, and the release of figures regarding waiting periods are largely to blame. Although it’s difficult to decrease the waiting time, the Flemish government has recently passed new legislation that makes the process easier for both parents and adoptees
New legislation will bring more transparency to parents wanting to adopt in Flanders
Eight to 10 years. That’s how long prospective adoptive parents in Flanders have to wait for a child to arrive in their family.
When the adoption agencies made these numbers public last year, it sent a shockwave through the adoption landscape. The number of candidates fell drastically, put off by the waiting time. Kind & Gezin, the government agency responsible for family issues, including adoption, recently came up with new numbers. The average waiting period is four years, the agency said. Ten years is really a worst-case scenario. But four years is still quite a while to wait. Why does it take so long?
“There are a number of steps candidates have to go through,” explains Else De Wachter, a Flemish MP for the socialist party and one of the driving forces behind the new legislation. “They have to be investigated by an agency, and a judge has to declare the parents suitable, which also takes some time.” Where the child is coming from can also make a difference. “The countries of origin often need plenty of time to declare children eligible for adoption and appropriate them,” says De Wachter.
And most adoptions in Brussels and Flanders are indeed international. Cases of Flemish children being adopted are usually familial – a stepparent or grandparents adopting a child. Few Flemish children are put up for adoption to outside families, and the conditions to adopt a Flemish child are even more difficult to meet.
Interests of the child above all
International adoptions often deliver children with special needs, but De Wachter says this is generally not a problem for local parents. “On the contrary,” she says. “What those needs are depends on the country of origin – they all use different definitions. The child may have a small disability or bigger problems. Either way, the parents have to make a conscious decision. We have to be careful that people do not apply for children with needs they cannot cope with simply because they believe they are easier to adopt.”
Rather, what causes the shortage of children is a greater awareness in many countries that children are best raised within their own communities. For this reason, the number of adoptees dropped by 16% in 2010, with sharp decreases from Ethiopia, Russia and Kazakhstan (which stopped its co-operation altogether).
At the same time, it is hard to find new countries of origin – or “channels”, as they are known – because of the high ethical demands by the Flemish authorities. De Wachter: “Above all, we respect the Hague Treaty, which states that the child’s interests prevail. This means that children are best looked after by their own families, in their countries of origin. In case of orphaned or abandoned children, an investigation has to be launched to find relatives.”
With over 600 candidates deemed suitable as adoptive parents and only 120 adoptions in 2011, long waiting periods are unavoidable. The new legislation, which was voted in the Flemish Parliament last month and will come into effect as of 2013, aims to offer more transparency to prospective adoptive parents. “If they know from the start a procedure might take up to 10 years, they can make a more informed decision,” says De Wachter.
The waiting game
De Wachter is in fact a prospective parent herself. “I was told that the procedure takes an average of one-and-a-half to two years, but I’ve been waiting now for six. The adoption should be in its final stages right now, but, with so many obstacles, you can only be sure once the child has arrived in the family.”
You have to be realistic, she continues. “When you start a procedure, you should know that the international context changes all the time. Not everything can be predicted, but some things can be taken into account. Therefore, the new legislation introduces an intake control: Everyone can still apply for adoption, but the procedure starts only when there is a prospect [of getting a child] in, say, three years.”
Flanders will also become more pro-active in opening more channels through which children arrive. “Flanders does not co-operate with some countries that Wallonia does. Surely there must be some possibilities there,” says De Wachter. “The procedure to recognise new channels was previously not very clear. Adoption agencies would spend a lot of time and effort to find new channels, only to see them rejected. The new legislation will provide a set time period for this investigation, with motivations to come to a conclusion.”
Whether this will result in more adoptions in a few years’ time is hard to predict. Clearly, adoption is not the answer for all families hoping for children, so the only message to prospective parents is that they should think an application through. De Wachter: “An adoption is not something you decide on at the age of 20. Most adoptive parents are 30 or more before they apply. This means the parents might be 40 by the time the child arrives. Will their families still be capable of raising a child at this stage? Personally, I believe they are, but that is a decision everyone has to make for themselves.”
Finally, the legislation offers more rights to the adoptees themselves: They are more closely followed up and have easier access to their files should they want to trace back where they came from. “We wanted to offer more legal security to prospective parents, but also to the adoptees,” says De Wachter.
Reunited in Zedelgem
Teena and Wine were best friends in an orphanage in Calcutta before they were both adopted and lost touch. In an unlikely stroke of luck, both girls ended up with parents in Zedelgem, West Flanders. The parents had no idea of the girls’ special bond, until they fell into each others’ arms four years ago on Wine’s first day at the school Teena had attended for some months. The girls, then five and six, picked up their friendship, even though Teena had learned Dutch by then and mostly forgotten Bengali, the language Wine still spoke. Now they are inseparable, and are much like sisters.
Lieve Van Bastelaere, adoptive parent
Journalist Lieve Van Bastelaere writes a weekly column for Het Laatste Nieuws on life with her newly adopted son, Tamru. She had to wait five years for her son to arrive, but her experience with adoption was mostly positive.
“My husband and I already had a son when we decided to adopt. In the application, we put no preference as to the sex of the child. That means you will probably get a boy, we were told, because most candidates prefer girls; apparently they suffer less racism here. We preferred a child younger than five-and-a-half years old, so that he could attend preschool for at least one year before going to first grade. Children who are older often have to remain in the orphanages because adoptive parents prefer babies. We wanted to give one of those children a chance, too. We also said that the child could have a minor disability – which in the end he did not.
Our son’s country of origin is Ethiopia. We did not have much of a choice, for multiple reasons. Some countries ask for a medical certificate proving the parents’ infertility – hardly a possibility in our situation. Others require that the adoptive parents be religious, which we are not. Ethiopia has some advantages, though. At the time, for instance, you only needed to travel over once for an adoption.
I have mixed feelings about the suitability of the screening we underwent. I firmly believe that screenings are necessary. An adoptive child is difficult to cope with, and parents need to be strong, especially when the child is older or has special needs. Still, I wonder how any screening can be adequate. How can you possibly find out if someone is fit to raise a child?
I especially disliked the questions they asked my other son, who was five at the time. ‘What do you not like about your mother and father? Can you show us the house?’ What questions to ask a five-year-old!
We got a positive result straightaway, though. Once you have a positive court ruling, there is not much you can do but wait. Our name was put on a list – on the bottom of page three.
Our son has been here for one year now. When
he first arrived, he was very anxious, which we
had expected. For months, he did nothing but
scream and hardly slept at night. He was very
aggressive towards his brother and towards me,
all of which stems from fear of abandonment.
Now Tamru is a normal five-year-old and
doing well at school. Gradually, the screaming
stopped. Now we get plenty of hugs and kisses.
Really, it’s wonderful.”