Like many American Christians, Morgan and Grace Dillow of Lexington, Kentucky, believed God was calling them to adopt. That was four years ago. Today, after a journey that has often been devastating, they don’t doubt His calling; they just see far more clearly a world that’s under the influence of rulers, authorities, powers of this dark world, and spiritual forces of evil (Ephesians 6:12) that stand firmly opposed to God’s command to “look after orphans.”
The Dillows are left with questions and anger — and the promise that God uses even senseless events for a good they cannot see.
Chaos in the Congo
Since 1996, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been ravaged by civil wars, conflict over valuable minerals, rebel outbreaks, rape, disease, poor infrastructure, and corruption. All these have led to the deaths of some 5.4 million Congolese over the past 20 years. More than 90 percent have died from disease and malnutrition caused by displacement. But no group has suffered more than children, with 1 in 7 dying before age five. Moreover, groups such as UNICEF estimate that there are currently more than 4 million orphans in the DRC.
Compelled by the brutal reality, a trickle of outsiders began adopting Congolese children starting around 2001. By 2011, 244 American families — many of them evangelical Christians — had adopted children from the DRC; by 2013 that number had reached 795. Until recently, it was relatively easy to adopt Congolese children. A typical adoptive family could expect to bring a child home after six to nine months of Congolese court proceedings and U.S. State Department requirements.
The Dillows were one of these families.
After months of paperwork, in June 2012 the family received a referral for a 3-year-old boy. They named him Benjamin Chase. After a few months of court proceedings, Ben was legally declared the Dillows’ son. They expected to get his visa within weeks and travel to the Congo to bring him home. But nothing went as planned — or as promised.
“Literally, at every milestone, we had an issue,” says Grace.
Just before they were expecting to get Ben’s visa, in February 2013, the U.S. State Department issued an alert stating that all cases for families adopting from DRC would be subjected to a three to six month (minimum) investigation prior to being issued a U.S. visa for their adopted child. The single reason stated for the new policy was simply “the increase in the volume of intercountry adoptions.”
So Ben’s case was placed in line for investigation. And that’s where things started to drag out. Nobody — not the orphanage director, not the lawyer, not the U.S. embassy — could agree on the story behind Ben’s orphan status.
“The upsetting thing is that nobody was saying he wasn’t an orphan,” Grace says.
What should have taken no more than six months turned into a 10-month ordeal. Ben was finally issued a visa in January 2014 but not before the DRC’s General Directorate of Migration (DGM) decided to issue a temporary moratorium on exit letters for all adopted children leaving the Congo. The DGM’s office had “concerns over reports that children adopted from the Democratic Republic of the Congo may be either abused by adoptive families or adopted by a second set of parents once in their receiving countries.” The DGM also stated that the suspension would last up to 12 months.
By spring of 2014, more than 350 children from the DRC, including Ben Dillow, had been legally adopted by American families but were unable to come home because of the suspension of exit letters and other related delays. And in total, almost 800 Congolese children and their American families had been delayed at some point in the process.
It’s an ever-evolving story, says Kelly Dempsey, general counsel and director of Both Ends Burning, an advocacy group that fights to put orphans in families and helps families who face significant roadblocks while adopting internationally. “At the start, the [Congolese government cited] concern that children were being abused by adoptive families. Now, it’s transitioned to concern about fraud in [the government’s] own system. What we don’t know is the real reason behind it. If they were really worried about how children have been treated in adoptive homes, they’ve had the opportunity to come to the U.S. to see what’s happening, and they’ve declined. If they were really concerned about fraud, they would be policing it, but they’ve done nothing. What it tells me is that it’s not really about the children.”
Meanwhile, children have been waiting in orphanages and foster homes, while adoptive families scramble to put together the funds to pay for their children’s living expenses, usually between $300 and $500 a month. At least 50 children in limbo have been deemed “medically fragile” and in life-threatening situations. At least 11 have died since the suspension began.
In April 2014, while the Dillows were waiting for their son’s paperwork, Ben was at the orphanage getting sick — sicker than he had been before.
“He’s always been sick,” Grace says. “He had malaria, typhoid, a constant cough. He was the kid who just couldn’t get over it.”
Not long afterward, Ben tested positive for HIV. He was taken to a clinic where he seemed to be responding to treatment, but in early July he took a turn for the worse. On Monday, Aug. 4, the Dillows learned that Ben had died. Not long afterward, Grace wrote in a public letter that was published in The Huffington Post:
“Benjamin was critically ill, but his doctors in the DRC knew and had stated that his health could be greatly improved with more advanced care offered in the U.S. His story could have been about the life of a young child that was given a chance, a hope of growing up with his brother and sister, a life of birthday parties, and first loves, graduations, memories with his loving family. But instead Ben’s life ended because the DGM failed to see my son as a life. This orphaned boy was not worth the consideration to give him a chance at life. Benjamin’s death should be a warning to the reality of this suspension.”
Bigger Every Day
In the 1990s and early 2000s, international adoption was booming. According to Peter Selman, an international adoption expert from Newcastle University in England, between 2000 and 2010, 410,000 children were adopted by citizens of 27 countries.
But according to Dempsey, in the past nine years there has been a 69 percent decline in adoption into the U.S. Some countries — Russia in particular — have been closed to foreign adoptions. Others, including China and Ethiopia, have implemented stricter regulations.
Meanwhile, the number of orphans continues to grow.
“It’s a drastic and astonishing failure,” says Dempsey. “I would suggest that the source of the problem in the U.S. is a lack of foreign policy and leadership dedicated to child welfare. We have had no part of our country that is dedicated to a child’s right to a family. What we have focused on are [areas like] child survival and anti-trafficking. Those are important, but a child’s first concern is to be in a family.”
Since March of 2014, Both Ends Burning has been working with hundreds of families affected by the DRC shutdown to encourage members of Congress to pressure the State Department to resolve the issue. On April 15, 2014, 171 members of Congress sent a joint letter to both DRC President Joseph Kabila and Prime Minister Augustin Ponyo urging them to lift the suspension. Since the end of May, several American families have received exit letters, but the selection appears to be arbitrary, and many of the medically fragile children like Ben remained trapped. On June 11, the DRC issued a statement saying that it would not lift the suspension in September 2014 as originally intended but would wait until its Parliament could draft new adoption laws to manage any more cases, even for all the families who have completed the adoption process.
“What’s particularly confounding about this situation is that it’s a crisis that grows bigger every day, because the courts continue to process adoptions every day,” says Dempsey. “From a practical perspective, families can’t be united because they can’t get immigration paperwork.”
And that’s the best-case scenario.
“The outcome for kids who don’t get to live in families isn’t good,” Dempsey emphasizes. “They’re going to end up dead or in the sex trade. Or they’re going to end up on the streets not being able to provide for themselves. And their children are going to be born into the same situation.”
Costly Christian Love
The call to care for the orphan runs through Christian history, from God’s command to the Israelites to “bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isaiah 1:17) to James’ exhortation to “visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27). God’s people have consistently done just that. In the early church, Christians were known for rescuing abandoned infants who were victims of the common practice of abandonment and exposure. In the Middle Ages, Christians established hospitals to care for widows, orphans, the sick, and the poor. Some of these hospitals were turned into orphanages. During the Reformation, both Martin Luther and John Calvin set an example by adopting children. And the stories continue until the present.
While Christians today have remained obedient to the call, they have also faced unprecedented obstacles.
Jedd Medefind, president of Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO), confronted a situation that was similar to the Dillows’. When he and his wife, Rachel, were trying to adopt from Ethiopia several years ago, they received a referral for a young girl who eventually died of pneumonia while waiting in an orphanage to come to the U.S. After that, the Medefinds successfully completed the adoption for a girl, who is now a treasured daughter.
“Whenever we come close to the world at its most broken, we will taste some of the pain as well,” Medefind explains. “That is the heart of the Gospel itself. God pursued us at immeasurable cost to himself. Caring for orphans reflects the Gospel story in both its beauty and costliness. Some of its cost is dealing with very broken systems, broken bureaucracy, as well as, later in the journey, loving children that may have deep wounds and need great patience as they heal. All of that is a humble reflection of how we have first been loved.”
While there are those who would say that international adoption should simply be abandoned because of the risks and potential ethical hazards, Medefind asserts that believers should be simultaneously at the front lines of fighting for more transparent systems while advocating for a child’s need for a family.
“Christians should be the first to root out the risks of corruption, but Christians should also be the first to recognize that unparented children desperately need families. Any effort to address deep human need will carry the risk of mistakes and unintended consequences. That is a call to caution and humility, but it also reminds us that we need to love despite those risks. Those seem like opposite realities, but they are things that thoughtful Christians must continually wrestle at the same time.”
For the Dillows, this meant fighting for a little boy they would never meet in person. For hundreds of others, it means paying high foster-care fees and waiting and praying that the light grows brighter at the end of the tunnel. And for all Christians, at the very least, it should mean becoming educated about the realities of vulnerable children around the globe and finding ways to help, either through political advocacy, child adoption and sponsorship, or empowering local communities to care for their own orphaned children.
Meanwhile, the Dillows cling to hope that Ben’s story won’t be lost on the world, and the church.
“As devastated as we are to have lost a son, we know that God has a plan,” says Grace. “Although it’s a tragedy and no child should go through what Ben went through in his short five years, it can’t be senseless.”
To learn more about how you can advocate for families stuck in the process of adopting from the DRC, visit www.bothendsburning.org, or to learn more about orphan care more broadly visit www.christianalliancefororphans.org.
Zoe Erler and her husband, Michael, have been trying to bring their son, 3-year-old Gabriel, home from the DRC since March 2013. They continue to wait.