Forum: members-l] Synopsis of Symposium on Children Without Parental Care

15 December 2005

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Date: Thu, 15 Dec 2005 22:57:08 EST 2nd World Conference on Children without Parents November 9-11, 2005 Boston (Worcester), Massachusetts, USA Conference Synopsis The conference launched on Wednesday, November 9. 2005, at 9:00 a.m., in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. The conference marked the second gathering of international child welfare policy and decision-making professionals aimed at exchanging information about the realities of children without parents on a global scale. The functional goal of the conference was not only the exchange of critical information but to outline and begin to establish globally accepted best practices for more efficient programs and policies that serve the "best interest of a child" in need. The organizations supporting the conference through sponsorship and participation were International Advocates for Children (IAC), Focus on Adoption (FOA), and Center for Adoption Research (CAR). 

The Harvard University Law School Child Advocacy Program sponsored one of the key workshops and debates on the school campus. The attendees of the conference included child welfare policymakers, government officials in charge of child welfare infrastructures, researchers and experts from the fields of law, medicine, psychology, economics, and decision science, and non-governmental organizations. These stakeholders represented 31 countries including Azerbaijan, Netherlands, Vietnam, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Republic of Georgia, New Zealand, Italy, Germany, Argentina, Lesotho, Sweden, Armenia, Moldova, Ukraine, Romania, Pakistan, Mongolia, The Philippines, Russia, Kazakhstan, Bahamas, USA, Nicaragua, Latvia, Hungary, Poland, Belgium and Thailand. The meeting commenced with Lynda Lee Smith, Executive Director of IAC, welcoming the 115 delegates with sentiments of thanks to all of the countries and hope for the positive influence that this group can have in the future of children without parents. Hannah Wallace, President of Focus on Adoption, followed with her expressions of support for IAC's efforts and hope for real outcomes from the conference. Debra Chaison-Demers, Executive Director of Center for Adoption Research at the University of Massachusetts, wrapped up the welcome with her support based on the success of the 2004 conference in Atlanta and her hope that this conference would result in even further steps being made in the efforts for children without parents. 

The first two speakers were Justin Webb, age 14, adopted from Romania at one month old, and Larry Adams, age 56, who grew up in the "temporary" foster care system in the US from birth to adulthood without the benefits of a permanent family in his life. These two gentlemen were present during the conference to represent the "voice of the child" throughout the conference and to make certain that all discussions were focused on "best interest of child" from the child's perspective and NOT the adult perspective. Mr. Jacob Doek, Chairman of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), a lawyer, and a judge, followed as keynote speaker. Mr. Doek focused his talk on The Need for Clarification of Conventions, Data Collection, and Reporting of Factual Information. He defined children without parental care to include orphans, social orphans, abandoned children, street children, AIDS orphans, and generally children without parental care. He noted the difficulty in collecting accurate data on a global scale and the reporting of factual information in regards to the reality of children without parental care. He specifically pointed out that all options for children must be considered and that the options for children vary based on the country. He placed emphasis on the option of intercountry adoption stating that while intercountry adoption benefits a small percentage of the total global group of children without parental care other options must be available for the majority of children in which intercountry adoption is not an option for many reasons. Making reference to children in Africa being left as head of households for entire sibling groups due to the AIDS epidemic, he challenged the group to develop and support best practices that offer solutions for all children in need of parental care. Dr. Mary Hansen, Professor of Economics at American University, and a research fellow at Center for Adoption Research, discussed the Economics of Policy-Making. Dr. Hansen presented an interesting perspective on making decisions and choosing options for children without parental care. She presented charts to show the cost to governments for making certain options and a need for achieving a balance in options for children based on the financial resources available from the government. Based on available financial resources, she demonstrated how some options become more viable than others to achieve. These factors must be considered when building child welfare models for specific countries. Dr. Sara Dillon, Professor of Law at Stanford University, addressed the Misperceptions of Intercountry Adoption. She gave specific examples of misleading information that has been fed to the media and government officials concerning intercountry adoptions. This information has lead to mistrust and ultimately a negative image of intercountry adoption. The majority of accusations are absolutely false and a few are based on exceptions to the rule. She stressed that the majority of intercountry adoptions are a great success and a wonderful option for children in need of parents. She holds a few of the key global children's organizations responsible for supporting and feeding the misinformation and not taking action to collect the facts. 

Lynda Smith, IAC Executive Director, and Maarten Brekelmans, General Manager of the Dutch IAC office, gave a brief introduction to the creation of a world council to be discussed in more detail the final day of the conference. The overview served to allow the delegates to consider the proposal prior to the final discussion. Rodolfo Rivera, international lawyer, spoke on the Practical Aspects of Implementing the Hague Convention. He pointed out the key areas that are vague and have lead to misinterpretation by many ratifying countries. There are those who believe that the Hague Treaty is the answer to eliminating the "sale of children," while others believe it is an unnecessary and ineffectual "cure." Has it hurt more than helped? The pro and anti Hague factions all agree on one thing--the best interest of the child is paramount. The differences arise in defining just what "best interest" means and the manner in which it will be implemented. Dr. Tom Whalen, Professor of Fuzzy Logic (decision science) at Georgia State University, presented How to Know What to Do showing the history of man's evolution of decision-making tools going back to the development of the lead pencil. The walk through the development and advancement of decision making tools allowed delegates to realize the limitations of the human brain in making complex decisions such as a placement decision for a child. Over the past century, the advancement of tools has expanded the abilities of the human mind to "juggle" multiple considerations. Today, with technology combined with decision science principles, critical decisions such as weighting options for a child placement can be accurately suggested based on an unlimited number of criteria. A series of workshops were then held: 1) Professor Rene Hoksbergen, Professor of Psychology at Utrecht University; Netherlands, conducted a workshop on the Effects of Neglect. 2) Dr. Tom Whalen, Professor of Fuzzy Logic at Georgia State University, USA, conducted a workshop on Screening Families, Placing Children: an Exercise with Tools of Thought. 3) Dr. Sara Dillon, Professor of Law at Suffolk University, USA, conducted a workshop on In-depth into the Misperceptions of Intercountry Adoptions. 4) Dr. Mary Hansen, Professor of Economics at the American University, USA, conducted a workshop on Country Specific Issues. 5) Dr. Monica Bouman, Psychologist in the Netherlands, and Maarten Brekelmans, General Manager of the IAC Dutch office, conducted a workshop on Lasting Solutions and Serving Leadership. The delegates then attended Harvard University Law School for an open debate with Mr. Jacob Doek, Chairman of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and Dr. Jane Aronson, Adoption Medicine Specialist, facilitated by Dr. Elizabeth Bartholet, Harvard Professor of Law. The debate clearly showed two different perspectives on solutions for children without parents. Mr. Doek's perspective naturally indicated a strong need for policy implementation and working through the existing government structure while Dr. Aronson emphasized a need for an "on the ground" approach with little dependence on government assistance. Law students from Harvard Law School joined the delegates in a series of questions for the two experts after the debate. On the final day of the conference, country delegates were offered an opportunity to share reports from their respective countries. Over ten countries shared a brief overview of the current situation on children without parents during this time. Susanna Luarca, attorney in Guatemala, presented Efficiency in Placement highlighting many of the challenges specifically in Guatemala. The core of the presentation focused on the ability of the child welfare system to place infants and young children in permanent families in a timely manner. The emphasis on time to placement results in less psychological trauma to the child and promotes the best interest of the child. 

Lynda Smith, IAC Executive Director, and Maarten Brekelmans, IAC General Manager in The Netherlands, then presented more specific details concerning the proposal to establish a World Council on Children without Parents. It was clearly stated that this effort would be tremendous and would require endorsement by the country representatives as well as the non-governmental organizations (NGO's). A simple organization chart was shown to give an idea of the work groups that would be associated with the entity. It was noted that many of the goals of the World Council would be in line with the update on the millennium development goals recently announced at the United Nations. By serving as a resource and establishing best practices globally, self-sustainable child welfare programs will be created and modeled to serve the best interest of the child. Model programs will serve to offer the children all options that exist outside of the institutions including reunification, foster care (temporary) or guardianship (permanent), domestic and intercountry adoption. An official vote was then requested from the delegates present at the conference to show support and a need for the world council or to show opposition to the proposal and a lack of need for the world council. The vote was unanimous (by all 30 countries and NGO's) in support of the proposal. Mr. Jacob Doek, Chairman of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, spoke after the vote and endorsed the effort stating the need for accurate data collection and expertise to serve as a resource for governments. He suggested that the World Council serve as a global clearinghouse for best practices and data collection. Mr. Doek commented, "I like beginnings and this is a real beginning." Mr. Brekelmans and Mrs. Smith stated that they would begin immediately to work on the organizational structure and mission. Once the documents are prepared then they will be sent to all of the delegates for review and input. The purpose of the World Council will be action-focused with real timelines and achievable goals. Dr. Elizabeth Bartholet, Harvard University Law Professor, presented the topic of Translating Best Interest of Child into ACTION. Dr. Bartholet sited all of the existing conventions and documents that exist to state in words what the best interest of child should be. 

The challenge is actual implementation of those words into real action that actually serves the best interest of the child. She encouraged governments and policy-makers to analyze their child welfare systems and determine the areas within the system that do not serve the child based on scientific-evidence and move towards reform. Donna Claus, NGO representative, then allowed the delegates to share comments and feedback concerning the past three days of the conference. The delegates (both NGO's and countries) expressed positive comments concerning the three days of meetings and the opportunity to learn from other governments and NGO's. Lynda Smith, IAC Executive Director, closed the conference with a brief overview of the IAC efforts of the past 3 years specifically meetings with the Permanent Bureau and the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. The results of those meetings lead to the establishment of the World Conferences on Children without Parents. She expressed her sincere thanks to all that supported the effort including Focus on Adoption, Center for Adoption Research and the staff/volunteers. By joining our efforts, both countries and NGO's, we strengthen our voices and make a greater impact on behalf of the children. Next year's conference is scheduled to be held in Holland. More information will follow as the logistics are determined. FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Lynda Smith, or call 678.893.7470 in the USA or Maarten Brekelmans, 31 65312 1121 in The Netherlands.