Adoptions in Sierra Leone: yes to expectations, no to the market

Marco Rossin, head of international adoptions at AVSI, comments on the report of the Italian International Adoptions Commission on the 2023 adoption procedures

Countries Sierra Leone
Date 12.02.2024
Author by Marco Rossin, Head of AVSI International Adoption

The Italian Commission for Intercountry Adoption report cites Sierra Leone as the only sign of hope in a less than encouraging landscape. AVSI has been doing adoptions in the country since 2019 and warns against thinking of it as a place to find "small and healthy" children. "To put children at the centre, adoption cannot be the activity that allows the organisation to survive."

Towards the end of January, as usual, the Intercountry Adoption Commission published data and statistics on the previous year's adoption procedures. The number of adoptions completed and the number of families awaiting adoption are called up for review.

The data speak for themselves: we have reached an all-time low in terms of children entering Italy through international adoption. This is not surprising. There are many factors but certainly the ineffectiveness of interventions and the impact of non-interventions is glaring.

Reading these numbers always gives us the same feeling: a mixture of discouragement and habit, as if we were the orchestra of the Titanic, seeing the notes of the same score slowly flowing and preparing to disappear, swallowed by the water.

Marco Rossin, AVSI's head international adoption

In this desolation we find, in the Commission's words of comment, a glimmer of hope from one of Africa's most battered countries, Sierra Leone. This country, in addition to its curious accolade as the world's roundest country, carries with it a history of scourges and devastation that can be felt in its many facets today.

It was August 2019 when for the first time AVSI landed in Freetown to also deal with adoptions: AVSI's presence and work in the country began years before, with a stable commitment in terms of designing interventions for education and child protection. In retrospect, we can say that we had no idea what awaited us, how deep the country's wounds were and how far the idea of adoption there was from our own. Sierra Leone at the time was carrying out adoptions exclusively with Anglo-Saxon countries and with the belief that adoption was a personal matter between a family and a local lawyer, without being able to understand what should be the place of an authorised body or, even worse, of an organisation that was supposed to be in charge of child protection and not child scouting.

For our part, identifying reliable interlocutors, whose ethics were oriented towards the best interests of minors and who could guarantee compliance with both legal and moral standards, was a process that lasted years and has not yet been fully concluded. It was a path that brought hardship and suffering not only to those who, in the first person, found themselves working in the best interests of minors, but also to the families who had decided to embark on this experience.

Yet, from the outside, things might look simple, after all, you know: 'in Africa there are plenty of street children'. In the local conception, the way forward would have been to set up an orphanage, run by us as an authorised body, which could be a reservoir for abandoned children. On the other hand, the meshes of local procedure are so wide that there is still no real path of rapprochement and support between children and parents, which takes into account the emotional and relational needs of both, and there is no control over a conflict of interest caused by this type of management.

Choosing to follow a different path has meant visiting and getting to know dozens of local facilities, from the most shaky to those that could boast a water supply system as a service of excellence. It has meant being offered shortcuts and always rejecting them, even at the risk of "shooting ourselves in the foot", but in the knowledge that we maintain due integrity. That is why, in these four years, we have succeeded not so much in 'making numbers' as in sowing the idea, in our local counterparts, that adoption should be a child protection tool and that the needs of the child should be given priority over any other objective or revenue.

Adoption cannot and must never be a tool for finding "small and healthy" children, but rather be a device integrated with other activities that does not take advantage of the shortcomings of an extremely weak protection system

Making such choices, aimed not at merely increasing the number of international adoptions, was not only guided by an ethical principle, but also by the concrete possibility of being able to do so. Our presence in Sierra Leone is a conscious choice, apart from adoptions, which are much older and more extensive. In this scenario, where adoption appears as the appendix of a more articulated and colourful body, we have the possibility to choose, to present ourselves as an all-round child protection entity, and not bind our presence on the ground to our ability to intercept children in a state of abandonment.

Probably different choices, of even simpler realisation, would have saved fatigue and suffering for everyone: operators and adoptive families. We would have had the illusion of a reality distorted by an ad hoc created market, which has to feed itself in order to survive.

Obviously, we do not intend to present ourselves as a faultless model, our commitment in this country is also aimed at the continuous improvement of what we are building step by step: rather, we would like to raise a reflection on how we deal with another country, to bring the discussion back not only in terms of quantity but also in terms of the quality of the interventions, a quality that is often not mentioned in official communication channels.

If we really want to think about what adoption should look like and not let it die, we need to rethink where the constraint of having to do adoptions to survive leads.

It almost goes without saying that one works for the sole interest of the children, but every now and then it is good to remember this. Now that Sierra Leone seems to have become a model, choices will have to be made that will define the country's destiny for Italy. If we really want to think about how adoption should be - in Italy as in Sierra Leone - and not let it die, we have to rethink where the constraint of having to do adoptions to survive leads.

As authorised bodies, only if we do not exclusively have adoption as a mode of intervention for child welfare and livelihood will we be able to arrive at a new way of conceiving and realising this instrument of child protection. So it will be the coming years that will tell us whether the choices made today for Sierra Leone will lead to the flourishing of a child protection system of excellence or orphanages that are slaves to international adoption.