Over 150 million children in the world are orphans. Many of them spend their childhoods in institutions. Drawing on a mix of traditional community practices and some creative problem-solving, Luciana Brindusa explores two solutions to provide at least some of these children with the love and emotional support of a real family.
A village for every child
“It takes a village to raise a child”. This old African proverb was literally true in ancient times. In these societies, children were informally or temporary given in adoption to relatives or other members of the same clan. The reasons behind these transfers were not necessary poverty-related, but had to do with complex spiritual beliefs, social structures and personal affinities. Fast forward to present. In today’s “hypercivilised” world, there are at least 153 million orphan children. Furthermore, in every world country, thousands of children age out living in institutions devoid of love and care. And yet, baby factories, the gender exploitative practice of surrogacy, are booming. Fortunately, mentalities are slowly starting to evolve. A few brave women are already beginning to talk about “adoption as a first option”.
In traditional communities, at least some children were gifted to close relatives. But this was a safe practice where everybody knew everybody. Modern society is far from being child friendly. The reality of adoption, international adoption in particular, is rather grim, as childless couples show distinct preferences for new born or very young children, shunning those already a few years old. Acquiring a healthy baby child is more often than not a matter of economic and racial privilege. There are also free roaming perpetrators and far too many irresponsible well-meant-adults-turned-to-abusers. Deciding who may adopt an unrelated minor is rightly a difficult question and a subject of fierce debate.
Living as we are in the “global village”, we’d be excused to for believing that we’ve already become one big family. Obviously, this can’t be true in a world where economic inequality, gender violence, famine, disease and war still prevail. Thus, exploring new avenues in family building may be dangerous. It could give rise to further child welfare issues and even more ethical dilemmas. But asking questions isn’t harmful in itself. The following ideas have been inspired by the ongoing talks about rainbow families, the rise of single parent adoptions and…the apparently un-related scientific quest for exotic particles. The similarity with the latter is only metaphoric: just like in Particle Physics, Family Building is a matter of hit and miss, social combinatory and unexpected discoveries. What can be done to improve the likely outcomes for orphaned children?
To answer that question, we pose two more concepts, and explore some intriguing possible answers to them, without necessarily favouring any, as each of them has clear advantages and disadvantages for different individual circumstances:
Are there any undiscovered forms of safe parenting for abandoned children in foster care? Could growing up in a non-traditional family improve an orphans’ life and improve their future prospects? What if groups of kindred people became eligible for adoption?
Here we are talking exclusively about orphaned children, that is, children without any known family ties, abandoned, living on the street and/or disabled. Children who have been separated from their families by economic or social reasons should always get support in order to be reunited with their parents or relatives. I’m going to explore two possible “Exotic Structures” of kindred adoption of which I call the Parenting Triad and Sibling Parenting.
The parenting triad
“Parenting triad” equals three first or second degree adult relatives who decide to adopt together an unrelated child. In theory, there could be as many triad configurations as there are family ties: grandmother, mother and son or identical twins and paternal aunt or son, female cousin and maternal uncle. In practice, the most stable combinations are yet to be found and studied. There should be different options for various degrees of involvement, depending on the adoptive family’s availability and suitability for parenting. Thus, a parenting triad should be able to apply for guardianship, foster care, joint custody or even adoption. Knowing each other well, a triad’s members could support and complete one another in guiding a child through life. Needless to say, only the families who get along should be offered the chance to embark on this journey.
So what are the presumed benefits? To start off, we have zero divorce risk because family is forever; stable, caring and reliable. Even if not entirely true, at least in some cases blood ties manage to succeed where romantic relationships fail.
We also get diverse role models and while two parents is great, three could work even better. In traditionally large families, children learn not just from mother and father, but also from uncles, aunties, grandfathers and cousins. This diversity and richness have been lost in modern nuclear families. And yet, in order to develop harmoniously, children need to spend time with adults with different personalities and diverse world views.
Now we have team work and flexibility and this is all about sharing chores, planning weekends and days off, taking turns in doing cleaning, shopping or helping with homework. Today’s nine to five jobs are sometimes too demanding for working class parents. But add one more person in the mix and suddenly there might be enough time for games, trips and family dinners.
There needs to be accountability though because couples sometimes sweep child abusive behaviour under the carpet of their tumultuous “romantic” chemistry. But with three kindred adults of different ages, genders and mindsets it’s harder for dark secrets to linger on. Unless of course, the whole family is psycho, but this is where screening should come in.
We end up with inclusiveness and while older or disabled adults can be great parents, they are usually denied the chance. Group power could work in their favour: with three legally responsible guardians, it would be much easier to compensate for the vulnerabilities and medical conditions of one. Furthermore, gender identity, sexual orientation and relationship status of either family member would not hinder at all the group’s chances to adopt.
Like with every theory we do have possible disadvantages so let’s see how they can play out.
There is residence issues such as moving between two or three homes or frequent traveling to another county or state. It could be very stressful for the child. On the other hand, demanding that all three adults live under the same roof or within a range of miles, would put a great strain on the prospective parents’ personal and professional lives.
We may have burdens of past traumas because many families are plagued by invisible intergenerational trauma and dysfunctional positive-on-the-surface relationships. A child who enters such a family would risk being imprisoned in these self perpetuating stories. The dark heritage is usually diluted (or merely recycled) in a romantic relationship, but it would retain its full power inside the “four walls” of a family home.
Another disadvantage is Sectarianism. Strange religious views, fanaticism, radicalism, delinquency? It runs in families. Screening must double check for these sectarian tendencies and refuse to greenlight candidates with unhealthy antisocial tendencies. In fact, a milder form of “sectarianism” is the classic “us versus. them” attitude which tends to afflict all closely knit families.
“Sibling parenting” is where a brother and sister dyad decide to form a parental unit as a two person, opposite gender family group. The two siblings should have similar lifestyles and a reasonable age gap. Both should to be financially stable and emotionally balanced. Sibling parenting is definitely not about incest and certainly not a substitute of marriage or romantic relationships. It could be instead one of the most potentially stable forms of “kindred parenting”.
As with the previous structure, there are pros and cons.
Again we have zero divorce risk because unlike married couples, a pair of siblings won’t separate through a midlife crisis or because of failed romantic expectations. Well rounded siblings are usually able to maintain a healthy relationship in adulthood and could provide a safe and nurturing environment for a child.
We get a coherent educational vision so mother figure? Checked. Father figure? Checked. Congruent views on upbringing, discipline and life values? Checked. Siblings share many life experiences and may agree on the same worldview to be passed on.
Inclusiveness is here again as sibling parenting adoption could help all those who find it difficult to engender a child due to diverse factors such as age, health, physical appearance, minority status or career choice.
The disadvantages are real though and include intergenerational trauma because the same burden of past family trauma that can afflict any kind of kindred parenting would affect siblings too. Siblings could share painful memories and manifest the same unadaptable behaviours as a result of childhood trauma.
Similarly, sectarian beliefs that can run in families are to be guarded against – as they are for any kind of adoption.
With addition to parental duties, there may be relationship drama because the two siblings would still have to deal with all the stress of their personal and professional lives. Conflict around shared responsibilities may arise.
The parents’ marital partners may be a big issue as adoptive parents’ romantic or marital partners may endanger the child’s health and wellbeing, thus increasing the risks of anxiety, abuse and separation trauma.
Exotic, yet familiar
Kindred parenting may be labelled as “exotic” from a bureaucratic point of view. But while it does carry some risks, this model of parenting doesn’t exactly fall in the “experimental” category as proven by our millenary traditions of raising a child “within the extended family”.
Of course, a new legal framework should be created in order to deal with all the peculiarities of this type of families, stating the necessary rules and restrictions in order to safeguard the adopted child’s best interest.
Following screening, the authorities could grant the kindred parenting groups full legal rights, including benefits and financial support for moving and living together.
Children face many challenges growing up. Married couples deal with a lot of conflict and bitterness; homes are rarely perfectly safe and happy places. No family is trauma free, in fact.
Thus, it would be unreasonable to demand that “exotic families” do better than coupled or single parent families. So, the real question is: could kindred adoption ever do worse? We can’t know for sure, since we’ve never tried it.
But here is one argument in favour of kindred parenting: a significant number of successful single parents acknowledged that they have received a great deal of support from their own parents. Is blood thicker than water? Perhaps.
Featured image by Askar Abayev on Pexels.