Italian NGO Reunites Abandoned Mongolian Children With Families

15 January 2009

Italian NGO Reunites Abandoned Mongolian Children With Families

Written by Bijani Mizell

Thursday, January 15, 2009.

ABANDONED children have been a huge issue for Mongolia, as its crowded shelters can attest. But several NGOs, including Italy-based Amici dei Bambini, strive to combat this pervasive problem. With 29 centers worldwide, Amici dei Bambini is an international intermediary center that facilitates family placement, and its unique focus is re-integrating abandoned children with their biological families.

In March 2008, Amici dei Bambini started a program at the Infant Clinic Sanatorium, a hospital in Ulaanbaatar, called "The Right to Live in a Family".

"During the winter, poor or vulnerable families bring their children [to the Sanatorium] because of health issues or whatnot, but sometimes the families never come back to collect their children." Stefania Morra, Amici dei Bambini’s Country Coordinator for Mongolia, explains. "Our [Mongolian] social workers, in collaboration with the Sanatorium, try to collect as much information as they can to analyze the family’s situation and problems, and try to encourage biological family re-integration as the first solution [for abandoned children]. "

Social workers work closely with the families for a period of six months to a year, improving living conditions and training the parents to provide for their children. Of the 83 children abandoned at the Sanatorium since the beginning of "The Right to Live in a Family," 65 have been reunited with their biological parents, while several others have been adopted both domestically and internationally.

Amici’s social workers also provide post-adoption counseling and parental training to ensure that parents won’t abandon their children for a second time, even offering free monthly classes on proper nutrition, exercise, cognitive learning and Mongolian techniques, like water therapy and massage. Morra also stresses the importance of post-adoption monitoring. Regular reports from a licensed third party, like an adoption agency or a governmental department, are often required with international adoption both in Mongolia and worldwide. However, Mongolia has yet to implement post-adoption monitoring after domestic adoptions or biological re-integration.

"It’s important to support the family once the child gets back, to re-establish the parental functions towards the child," Morra said. "This is crucial to avoid a second abandonment."

Despite the success of Amici dei Bambini’s recent initiative, it faces several obstacles in its efforts to increase domestic or international adoption. Amici dei Bambini works closely with Mongolia’s Central Authority, comprised of the Ministry of Social Welfare and Labor and the Ministry of Justice, on international adoption. Morra laments the lack of public awareness that adoption, especially international adoption, isn’t tied to illegal trafficking.

"International adoption procedures are very transparent, but people sometimes believe that we sell children," Morra said. "The public sometimes can be scared, thinking ‘We don’t know where our Mongolian children go’. But the international family signs an agreement for post-adoption monitoring with Mongolia’s Central Authority, and employees sometimes even travel around the world to visit Mongolian children.

"But news of these great tasks just stays in the office. They don’t talk about it to the public."

Amici dei Bambini is among several NGOs currently lobbying the government to increase the legal limit of internationally adopted children. Right now, only 30 Mongolian children nationwide are adopted internationally per year, despite demand being much higher.

" International adoption is the last possibility to guarantee family life for a child who cannot return to a family life and cannot be placed in a national family," Morra said. "But compared to the actual number of abandoned children here in the shelters, [30] is quite low."

To that end, Amici dei Bambini’s social workers try to define the legal status of each child, and prepare a dossier so that the child will receive legal benefits from the government. These papers allow the government to determine which children should be adopted, either through domestic or international adoption. Morra recently submitted a draft of a project to create a national database for all children under state protection. Shelters could update the database so every abandoned child would be accounted for, thus preventing illegal child trafficking.

However, Amici dei Bambini believes that domestic, not international, adoption is the key to eradicating child abandonment.

"Adoption is a path," Morra said. "One adoptive family becomes a resource for another potential adoptive family, and eventually a network of families is created, and information and support will hopefully lead to more and more adoptions within Mongolia."

Once a child becomes eligible for domestic adoption, the Governor of the district from which the child comes decides which family can adopt him or her.

"Personally, I think domestic adoption procedures can really be improved," Morra said. "There are no selective criteria for choosing an appropriate adoptive family. Any family can come to the Sanatorium or shelter and say, ‘We want a female child of five years old.’ In our mission, adoption should be unconditional. A child is taken in for himself, not for the qualities that he has or that correspond to what the parents desire."

All in all, Amici dei Bambini emphasizes familial connections as integral to a child’s growth.

"Institutionalization should never be the final solution." Morra said. "Of course, we respect and appreciate the shelter’s hard work, and shelters are crucial. But it’s no substitute for a real family. We believe that adoption transforms an abandoned and forgotten child into a son. In other words, feeling accepted as a part of a family allows to child to finally acquire an identity."