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We Need to Help Orphans Find Families

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Most Americans are likely to think about celebrities when confronted with the issue of international adoption. But the drama surrounding celebrity adoptions overshadows the darker facts about the issue: over the last decade, international adoptions have declined by 60 percent, and more and more children are being forced to spend their lives behind the crumbling walls of institutions.

After a decade of complacency, we are long overdue for a public debate about the worsening plight of orphans.

International adoption is an issue that I never thought I would care about. I retired young, after being fortunate enough to build a company that hit the tech boom on the nose in the 90s. At that point, I had decided that I was never going to have kids. But one day, a friend told me how his life had changed after members of his family adopted an orphan from Haiti. Within a couple of months, I was in Haiti touring orphanages. The shock I felt about what I saw is hard to articulate. Children in these institutions were climbing over each other just to try to get a hug from me.

That experience led my wife and I to adopt three Haitian children, who are now 11, 10 and 6 years old, in 2006. Looking into their eyes when they first came, we were filled with a happiness we had never felt before. We offered love, attention and nutrition that led our children to grow so fast, it was amazing. But, I was constantly reminded of how kids living in institutions, deprived of such simple things as human contact, are robbed of the opportunity to grow into happy, healthy people.

That realization had a profound effect on my wife and me. We couldn't stop thinking about how many other children out there were languishing. We started an advocacy organization, Both Ends Burning, to start raising awareness of the plight of these children. We also created a non-profit organization called Chances for Children to provide support for orphanages in Haiti.

My advocacy goal was to break through the status quo, because we've come to a point where the international adoption system, which was created with the right intentions of safeguarding orphans from trafficking and abuse, has had an unanticipated and chilling effect on the number of kids who are adopted by loving families.

Recently, Senegal joined a growing list of countries -- China, Vietnam, Ethiopia, Guatemala -- that have suspended or curtailed international adoptions because of systemic weaknesses, corruption or other reasons. As with the other countries, the Senegalese painted the move as an effort to implement standards of The Hague Adoption Convention, the global pact on safe adoption signed in 1993.

The numbers tell the story. Successful international adoptions fell from 22,991 to 9,319 between 2004 and 2011. Meanwhile, the number of orphans worldwide who have lost both parents is often estimated at 20 million. While complex issues of poverty, conflict, national sovereignty and ideology are involved, the debate over why this has occurred unfortunately tends to feature the opposing sides poking holes in each other's arguments without addressing the real issue: how can we create an adoption system that is safe, effective and inclusive, so that numbers of children who find safe, loving homes ticks up year-by-year?

Instead of letting this conversation get swept away in politics, let's start with the universally accepted fact that institutionalization is an emotional -- and sometimes a physical -- death sentence for a child. During my travels to Haiti, I met Roberson, a 13-year-old boy who maintains the social, emotional and physical well-being of a 6-year-old. Roberson is unfortunately only one of millions of orphans worldwide that fail to develop critical human functions due to institutionalization.

If we aim to save Roberson and other kids like him from a life behind the bars of institutions, we have to fix the international adoption system. Far too many eager families are simply deciding not to adopt because the system has become so burdensome. Today, the average wait for adoptive families to welcome their children home is 33 months, and costs average $25,000.

Leadership is the answer for these kids, but unfortunately, there is no sense of urgency among those who hold the power to make the necessary changes. For every Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) and Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN), who relentlessly pursue justice for these children, there are many others who are content to let The Hague be their excuse for doing nothing.

There must be a way for us to improve the adoption environment without sacrificing safeguards and child welfare. We need to focus on getting kids safely out of institutions, in part by streamlining the time and cost of international adoption. If we can all agree that these children's lives matter, then why aren't we doing something to give them a better chance of realizing the dream of joining a loving family?