Month: August 2016

A White Life Doesn’t Mean a Better Life for Orphans

I am sharing this story simply as my own personal experience. I cannot speak for all trans-racial foster parents or adoptive parents, all of whom are caring for and loving children who all come from their own unique places and situations.

I recently tried out the whole fatherhood thing.

Back in January, I became a father very suddenly, unexpectedly, and still quite whole-heartedly. It was very strange for me because I’m not someone who has ever wanted to be a dad. It’s never been on my bucket list. The truth is, I don’t really like kids. Many people, when they learn that about me, don’t understand how it can be true because I’ve built a school and started multiple programs here in Haiti to help children in a variety of ways, so I must like kids. But I don’t. I believe in every kid’s right to a quality education and a happy and healthy life and the opportunity to express themselves and I will do whatever I can to make those things possible. But I, personally, don’t like directly interacting with kids much or even spending time with them. I find trying to communicate with them daunting and trying to have fun with them entirely bothersome. More than anything, having a child of my own has never particularly interested me because they come with poop and pee and vomit and snot and crying and so, so many questions and I have been quite content living my life without having to deal with all of those things. And I always assumed that life would continue as such. But I always admitted that I left the door open a tiny crack to the possibility that under very special circumstances I might one day think about considering fostering or adopting a child, as long as it was one that had already gone through the messiest and loudest stages of childhood already.

Lo and behold, I encountered those very special circumstances early this year, and took in a 10-year-old boy named Mendosa. The story behind those circumstances is a long one, one that I won’t share here. I won’t share it here because it is Mendosa’s story and I became very protective of who I share that story with. The only part of that story that’s relevant to this post is the fact that, as anyone who knows me well could tell you, the situation had to be an absolutely extraordinary one in order for me to agree that it was a good idea for me to welcome him as my foster son for the time being. Beyond the fact that I don’t generally like kids, the whole idea of being that white guy in Haiti who takes in a cute Haitian orphan, let alone a Haitian earthquake orphan (which Mendosa is, at least in part), is a cliché that would have been entirely too great for me to survive, if it wasn’t for this one specific kid in this one very particular situation, that came into my life at this one very special moment (he showed up on my doorstep on January 12th, because of course, God is a poet and would want to inflate that moment with as much symbolism as possible).

As soon as Mendosa had been in my care and others started to learn about him, I would have a lot of people make comments to me along the lines of, “Well at least you can give him a chance at a better life now.” Because essentially, that is the point of any foster or adoptive family, to give the child a better life than they would have otherwise had a chance at. Yet, whenever people would say that to me, I was uncomfortable with it. Without knowing anything about Mendosa or where he came from, they assumed that living with me would be better than the alternative. And that assumption to me always seemed to me to come with the very unfortunate implicit racial bias that clearly a life with me, a “rich, white, Christian man from a developed, modern, civilized country” would be better for this “poor, black, Haitian orphan” who was presumably coming from a place of absolute misery and depravity. The assumption to me seemed to be that a white life was always the better life. So I hated hearing these things because of the underlying prejudices that came with them and I would never ever want Mendosa to believe that those assumptions were true for himself. And the truth was, I really was never convinced myself that living with me really was going to be a better life for him, I just was convinced that at the time, it was the only real option.

IMG_2242-001Hearing what a better life I would be giving him and how much of a blessing I would be to him and how inspiring it was that I was helping him, all painted me as the white savior and turned Mendosa into little more than a trophy orphan. And there’s nothing that irritates me more. So I became very protective of both his story and his image in an effort to avoid such perceptions. I never shared stories or images of him on social media because I didn’t want him to become the easiest way to get likes on my page. I didn’t want him to become the anchor that gave extra weight and value to the work that I do in Haiti. I didn’t want him to become leverage for fundraising or a guaranteed heart string pulled whenever the occasion might suit me. I didn’t want him to become the unavoidable evidence that would finally make people care about my cause. I didn’t want him to become the most noticeable proof of the good that I do. I’ve seen too many other Haitian children be used like that and I didn’t want my child to become another one of them. That’s not why I took him in and that’s not why he was sent to me. Unfortunately, the majority of Haitian children that get used as Facebook trophies, get used as such by people who never intend to sustain any sort of relationship or even get to know their names. They become easy likes without ever having any story beyond just another cute, poor, Haitian kid. And although I knew that that wasn’t the case with Mendosa, it would have been easy for him to have been perceived that way.

So, for the time, I just did the best that I could to be the best possible father to Mendosa, but the truth is, after a few months, it became clear that living with me really was not what was best for him. Although I loved him, and still do, and he reciprocated that love, there were a number of issues that seemed to suggest that living with a wealthy, white guy might not be the better life for this one kid after all. So I decided that I had a responsibility to dig deeper into his family situation and try to see if there wasn’t a better option for him. His maternal grandmother was the one who had sent him to me, which she did because her physical health made it difficult for her to care for him any longer, and there was no one else on her side that could take him. But eventually I was able to get in contact with an aunt of his, on his father’s side, who was living in Port-au-Prince, who ran a small business, and was willing and able to take care of Mendosa. The two sides of the family were not on good terms, which is why I’d never known about this aunt before, but after talking with her we decided that it really would be better for Mendosa to stay with her. He would still be able to see his grandmother who he missed dearly, whenever he wanted, and he would be cared for by a family that would love him and provide him with everything he needs. Sure, he wouldn’t be able to watch Disney movies on Netflix in the evenings like he did with me, or have the chance to go to the beach as often, or be able to daydream about the possibility of one day becoming an American, but he would be happy and healthy, and that’s really all that matters. So we made the arrangements and sent him back to the capitol to live with his aunt. I’m still able to maintain a relationship with him and support him financially, but he’s with his biological family and on a more assured path to thriving. He’s where he needs to be, even if he’s not with me.

A lot of those same people who originally praised me for offering him a better life, now were sad for me upon learning that he wasn’t living with me anymore, as if I had lost a child. But the problem with that again is that it put the spotlight on me and my feelings and not what was actually in Mendosa’s best interest. I enjoyed having Mendosa around, but I was much, much happier to know that he was with a Haitian family where he would be safe, happy, and raised in a cultural and physical environment that would more certainly set him up for success as a contributing member of Haitian society as an adult in the future.

It is my belief that taking a Haitian child and adopting them into a non-Haitian family should always be an absolute last resort. There are so many other options for the average Haitian “orphan” that are never explored because we are too stubborn in our belief that all poor brown orphan kids need a rich white family to save them. We are too proud to admit that maybe a white life isn’t necessarily a better life for most. In my case, I was able to find other family for Mendosa to be with and make arrangements that would still keep everyone involved in assuring the well being of the child, but I know that that’s not always possible. But it should also always be attempted before assuming that adoption is the best option, especially adoptions that traverses racial and cultural lines, setting up an entire host of new obstacles for the child to deal with. Again, I am certainly no expert on adoption or child care, nor am I even someone who likes kids, but I am someone who believes that kids deserve the best life possible and this is simply my experience in trying to discover what that looks like for this one. If you or someone you know has had different experiences, I would love to hear about them in the comments and continue a conversation on these issues. There is, certainly, a much larger conversation that begs to be held on international adoption and orphan care issues in general to find better methods and solutions and theories to it all, but I think that it starts with us all sharing our own stories and perspectives.