The XX Factor

The Dilemma of the UNICEF Box

Every Halloween, my kids bring UNICEF collection boxes home from school. Yours probably do, too; Trick or Treat for UNICEF is a huge program nationwide, raising $18 million in 2005 to, as the UNICEF Web site says, help UNICEF provide nutrition, medicine, education, and the things kids need to thrive. But the one thing UNICEF generally does not support providing for kids in other countries who need help to thrive is an international adoptive family. UNICEF’s stated position on international adoption is one of conditional support; effectively, international adoption as a last resort. In theory, this sounds good: Who wouldn’t want a child to be brought up by family or a family member, or in a home within his or her community? Susan Bissell, the director of Child Protection at UNICEF, says, “We are not against international adoption. We are against exploitation, against the sale of babies, and against forced relinquishment.” She added, “We need to step up programs in these countries, so that families can bring up their own children, which everyone agrees is the best option.”

In practice, the results of this policy (as with so much in international adoption) are less clear, and less appealing. Few would argue with the fight against exploitation or the sale of babies, but some adoption advocates see the policies UNICEF promotes as impediments that effectively end the process in countries like Guatemala . Some children and families who might otherwise have been exploited are protected; other children in real need now go without a family at all.  When UNICEF says “We need to step up programs in these countries,” it’s advocating changes that can take decades. In a decade, children relinquished or abandoned by their birth parents become adults. When UNICEF says it is against “forced relinquishment,” in practice, that includes relinquishing children due to circumstances within a poor country: lack of food, lack of clean water, the lack of a job to pay for an education. UNICEF wants to change those things, and adoption advocates do too.

The largest difference between UNICEF and the best adoption advocacy groups is one of immediacy: Most adoption groups want to act immediately to provide the best outcome for the actual, tangible children they see growing up before their eyes, while UNICEF prefers to act more gradually in an attempt to reduce the numbers of those children in the future. In Haiti, after the earthquake, a number of orphanages offered to take in children that were at least temporarily without family; they say UNICEF blocked their offer of aide out of an unfounded fear that the children would be placed for adoption when homes might be found for them within Haiti. Adoption proponents and UNICEF don’t disagree on goals, but on method. Does that mean adoptive parents, like me, should shun those adorable goblins shaking the tiny cardboard collection boxes this Sunday night?

Some parents do; there is even a hand-out you can give to the wee ones instead of filling their boxes with change, presumably so that their parents don’t mentally accuse you of being a cheapskate when you’re standing on principle. But I’ll put money in the boxes, although I’m not putting one in the hands of my daughter or her adoptive siblings. It’s true that I’d prefer my dollars to go to organizations that I know help on both ends; working to find homes for children in immediate need of families and working to prevent the circumstances that lead to birth families relinquishing their children or, in a situation like Haiti, working to find both the best immediate and the best long term help for a child. But I’m happy to lend my pennies to what I see as a different cause, that of getting kids even a little involved in the lives of kids who won’t be getting a bucket of candy to take home.

Photography by Slaven Vlasic for Getty Images.