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Why adoption agencies are urging people to 'slow down' when adopting from Syria

It's hard not to be moved by the plight of refugee children, but international adoption agencies say that adoption is not the best way to help.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

Their faces are heartbreaking; their small bodies forced to endure hunger, violence and unimaginable fear. Many are coping with the horrors of war alone as families get separated or killed in the chaos.

It’s hard not to be moved by the plight of Syrian children, with many people feeling a desperate urge to help in some way, perhaps even to adopt.

A Syrian refugee child looks out from a shelter in Hatay, Turkey, on January 20, 2014.AFP - Getty Images

But people who work for international adoption agencies say that while they understand the very human instinct to rescue children from troubled places like Syria, adoption is not the best way to help.

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“When there’s so much upheaval in a country, the kids may be separated from parents, but that doesn’t mean that these are kids who are available for adoption,” said Kris Faasse, vice president of clinical operations for Bethany Christian Services, a large adoption agency based in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“We have to slow down… we can’t just swoop in and say, ‘We will adopt them,’ because they may have living parents, they may have living relatives.”

Even without the chaos of civil war, Syria does not allow international adoption. As a Shari'ah law country, Syria does not recognize or provide for adoptions of Muslim children, according to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus.

“Several attempts by U.S. prospective adoptive parents have failed,” the embassy writes on its website, adding that “it is not possible to adopt in Syria” until the country changes its current laws.

More than 5 million children have been affected by the conflict in Syria, including 2 million kids who are no longer in school, and another million who have been forced to flee to other countries, according to UNICEF. More than 10,000 children have died as a direct result of Syria’s 3-year civil war.

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Syrian kids are needlessly suffering and dying from preventable and treatable diseases, according to a report by Save the Children.

Whenever a huge crisis hits— like the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004— many people believe adoption should be the first response, when in fact the first priority is reconnecting children with their families and their community, said Susan Cox, vice president of policy and external affairs at Holt International, an adoption agency based in Eugene, Ore.

“It’s gratifying that people are interested in helping and reaching out,” Cox said. “[But] we’re alarmed sometimes when you see those stories and realize that it’s prompting a response that’s not really appropriate.”

Save the Children called it “misguided attention” and noted that international adoption should never be considered in the first phase of an emergency. Children separated from their families in a crisis are extremely vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation, said spokeswoman Francine Uenuma.

Neither Bethany Christian Services nor Holt International has ever placed a Syrian child for adoption. Their spokespeople said they have had very few inquiries about adopting from Syria in recent months.

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Both agencies said the best way to help right now is to donate money to organizations that can provide immediate help in the region.

If you’re still thinking about adoption, consider the many children around the U.S. and the world who are already waiting for families, Faasse said. Be aware that adoption is a complex process that can take years to be completed, she added.

“It’s a decision that can’t be made lightly. You can’t just see the pictures on TV and think, ‘Oh, we’d like to do this,’” Cox said.

“Parenting is complicated, but when it’s adopting a child from another culture, in another country, there are the added issues and challenges.”