Children's Voice September/October 2008

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Putting Children First

Changing cultural attitudes toward adoption in Kenya through best practice care for infants

By Emily Shenk

The day I arrived in Kisumu, a city on the Western edge of Kenya, Wilson pulled me across the living room and sat next to me on the couch, excited to read the children's Bible he'd been carrying around all afternoon. This boy--now a thriving 6-year-old at New Life Homes--was found on the 9 o'clock news. The broadcast showed then 3-year-old Wilson laying in his aunt's arms as she begged for help.

Wilson is just one of 1,000 children who would likely not be here today without the help of New Life Homes. Clive and Mary Beckenham, a British couple who came to Kenya as missionaries, founded the first New Life Home in Nairobi in 1994. They gave priority to infants orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS, and at the time, the home was only one of two in the country equipped to care for these children. The Beckenhams' goal was to find permanent families through adoption. They have run the home in Nairobi since its inception, with their own home built on the same property. Over the past decade, the Beckenhams have built six more New Life Homes throughout Kenya, each run by an all-Kenyan staff led by a husband-and-wife team from the community.

When the first New Life Home opened, 95% of the adoptions were international, and only 5% of the adoptions were within Kenya. Just 14 years later, that trend has almost completely reversed, with 90% of the adopted children being placed with Kenyan families. "That's really best practice," Ada White, a child welfare consultant, says of adopting within a child's community. "It's really best for the child, and that's what adoption needs to be about." By using best practices in infant and child care, New Life Homes all over Kenya have changed attitudes toward adoption, encouraging hundreds of Kenyan families to create permanent homes for children within their own communities.

To understand the concept of adoption in Kenya, one has to look at its traditional structures. "Today we are still demystifying adoption," says Grace, a social worker at New Life Nairobi. "There are some people for who adoption is a vague concept because they've never heard of it." Although the idea of adoption was practiced in the past, it wasn't done so formally until recently. According to Grace, in the traditional African family system, an orphaned child would be taken care of by relatives. The key here being that the extended family took care of a child they already knew, so it was easily accepted.

In Kenya, adopting outside the family has negative connotations. "It's like taking strange blood into your family," says Prisca Ondeche, who directs the second New Life Home with her husband, John, in Kisumu. "Because you don't know where this child comes from, what kind of family it comes from, you know, behavior, beliefs, and all that." In following these beliefs, polygamy was traditionally used as a solution to build a family. For instance, if a couple wanted a child but was unable to conceive, the man might take another wife in order to have children.

This structure of taking in orphans from the extended family and practicing polygamy in order to bear children is becoming less practical, as the orphan crisis in Africa becomes dire. With the onset of HIV/AIDS during the past several decades, Kenya is facing daunting statistics. According to UNAIDS, Kenya has 2.4 million orphans, half of whom have been orphaned as a direct result of the AIDS epidemic.

Caring for infants born to HIV-infected mothers is particularly important, because their chances of developing the disease can be greatly improved if given appropriate care. At New Life Nairobi, Dr. Paul Wangai serves as one of several staff doctors and oversees the medical care of the infants and children living at New Life. With new antiretroviral drugs, up to 90% of the babies who test HIV-positive upon admission become HIV-negative after a few months of care.

When the Nairobi home was not enough to care for children all over the country, New Life Kisumu was started as an eight-bed rescue center in 2000. It was the first branch of New Life Homes outside of Nairobi, and the initial goal was to transfer babies to the Nairobi home once they were medically stable. "Starting up this rescue center within Kisumu was very important, because it brought in children from the whole of western Kenya," says John. Located in the Nyanza province, this area is the hardest hit by HIV/AIDS in Kenya, with an infection rate three times higher than the national average, so it was extremely important to establish a home that gave priority to children infected with or affected by the disease. In Wilson's case, his mother had died, and his aunt couldn't afford to take care of him. He was HIV-positive and also a child of incest, bringing shame to the family. At the time, he was so weak he couldn't even sit up. John and Prisca contacted Wilson's aunt and told her they could care for him.

Looking at the Kisumu home now, eight years later, it's hard to believe its modest beginning. During my visit last March, there were 44 children living in the home and 50 staff, about half of whom were working at any given time. Built in 2004, the home has expanded to four units: a wing for babies and another for toddlers, in addition to two permanent units that serve as family homes. The Simon Newberry Home cares for 10 children who need long-term medical care, often related to HIV/AIDS, and the Amani Cottage cares for 6 children with physical or mental disabilities, often cerebral palsy.

When Prisca and John got involved with the rescue center through friends of the Beckenhams, Prisca was working as a senior nurse and John as a banker. They eventually decided to give up their careers--and take a 75% pay cut--to run the Kisumu home full time. For John, who grew up as one of 21 children, having such a full house isn't new. But sacrificing financial stability--while caring for his own family of seven--was a heavy decision. He says that the day he resigned at his bank, the path he was supposed to take became clear: "I thought, if one of my children was in a desperate need in a situation like many disadvantaged children are, what would I have wanted somebody to do for that child?" he says. "And the answer was in my heart: I would've wanted somebody to sacrifice for that son of mine. To get him from the streets, give him a home, give him all that he needed, and I would be happy. And that was what I ought to do."

As the Kisumu home became known in its community, the Ondeches faced difficulty breaking down stereotypes about adoption. Early on, they were accused of trafficking children and taken to court. Officials who brought in abandoned babies would expect to see the same number of children at the home when they returned. But because some of them had been legally adopted, there were fewer children there. "So these are some things we had to deal with and try to sensitize the community so that they were able to see beyond the limitations of the culture and tradition," says John.

With the frequency of adoptions to Kenyan families shifting from 5% to 90%, a greater understanding and acceptance of adoption among those in contact with New Life is obvious. "[People] are realizing there is no need to live a lonely life if you've never had children, when there are actually children here who need homes, who need families," Prisca says. Adoption has also been made easier by recent changes in policy. Until a few years ago, there wasn't a set protocol for legal adoptions. Many families were intimidated by the court system and discouraged by the length of time it took for adoptions to be finalized. Things improved substantially with the 2001 Children Act (which also defined standards for children's homes), the 2005 adoption regulations, and the Hague Convention, which went into effect this April. With all of these changes, the adoption process has been streamlined so that it's done most efficiently and effectively and more adoption societies have been formed so that children can be placed in permanent homes quickly.

Along with clearer adoption procedures, John attributes much of the change in Kenyan adoptions to the best practices all New Life Homes follow in caring for babies and toddlers. "I think with the values New Life Homes stands for, we believe in being very good stewards, so whatever we get we invest it fully in the child. And as such, it has helped many parents when they come because they find healthy children, the kids are smiling, they are very active, they eat well," says John. "In fact, generally the state of the children is better than children in most families. And that has been one catalyst in trying to speed up people accepting the change. So they've drifted away from the portion of our culture that is not good, and that has brought about more adoptions."

New Life operates by giving the attentive and specialized care required for infants that traditional group care settings in Kenya cannot. Abandoned or orphaned infants brought to most Kenyan homes or orphanages are sheltered with children of all ages, often with an inadequate number of staff. Jane Stephens, founder of the Amani Foundation, an American-based organization that supports administrative costs for New Life, has seen the difference between state-run homes and New Life over and over again. "The difference with New Life Homes is kind of the difference that a lot of our own federal programs have noticed--that if you get good nutrition and care for children in the first couple months, it changes their lives forever," says Jane.

New Life requires all prospective employees to work as a volunteer in the homes for at least a year prior to applying for a position. In addition, they welcome other volunteers to help at any time. Having so many volunteers has helped the concept of adoption become less taboo in Kenyan communities where there is a New Life Home. "When a volunteer comes and they learn that these children can be placed through adoption, they go out and talk to their parents… which means their extended families have had to open their eyes to adoption," says Grace.

Maintaining proper records and having social workers onsite has also contributed to New Life's success in finding permanent families for these children. "You'll find that quite a number of homes, they just get involved in bringing in these kids and feeding them… and much of the legal part was not being well-handled, which becomes a big obstacle when a parent would like to adopt," says John. Having the child's history and legal documents required for adoption has instilled more confidence in Kenyan families that adoption can be a successful option for them. "When a child gets [brought in,] the social workers go back to the hospital and the police and they get the documentation done," says Jane. "So they are really what's making it possible to have family formation."

Grace says New Life is happy with the progress they've made in encouraging Kenyan families to adopt. "You certainly cannot compare the year 2008, or even 2007, to 1994 or 1995 when New Life Homes first started," she says. "Mary and Clive's vision, even as they founded the home, I believe is what has really helped New Life Homes place so many of its children through adoptions."

Peter Wasamba, a literature professor at the University of Nairobi, adopted his son, Timothy, five years ago. When he and his wife had trouble conceiving, it was his grandfather--now more than 90 years old--who suggested adoption. This was remarkable, considering the stigma adoption in Kenya faces, particularly among men from his generation. "So he was supposed to oppose it if we proposed it, but in fact he proposed it and even insisted on it," says Peter, who now encourages other couples considering adoption to visit New Life. "The problem is getting people to know that you don't need to be rich to adopt. What you need is just a heart to accommodate and wholly accept the child you bring home."

Though the majority of New Life babies get adopted, some do stay behind due to medical reasons. In order to create a sense of permanency for these children, family homes--small groups of children, along with a 'mother' and two 'aunties'--are established. "New Life Homes is always working to get [the babies] in a family," says Jane, who adopted two children from New Life in 1999. "That's always their goal. Even if it means they have to make up a family." The children grow up together in these family homes, attending the best schools in their communities and receiving the medical care they require.

At the heart of the New Life's mission is putting the child first by giving them a nurturing environment with loving caregivers. This is perhaps most evident at the Kisumu home while watching Angela, the head caregiver in the babies' wing. At times when a few of the babies start crying, Angela starts singing, calmly, "Jesus Loves Me" or "If You're Happy and You Know It." Within moments, she has the full attention of all 15 pairs of eyes; some of the babies are even clapping and moving to her voice. For the past five years, she's led her team, and cared for these babies, with the consistent, motherly strength that these children so desperately need.

After a day and a half working at the Kisumu home--with an embarrassingly frequent number of breaks--I was sitting on a clinic bench waiting for Sarah and John's HIV tests to be completed. Sarah and John were both about to be adopted, and a final HIV test was the last step in the adoption process. I was nodding off, exhausted. I told Angela I couldn't believe she works so hard every day. "At the end of the day, it's fulfilling," she says. "I look back and think of a smile John gave me, for example, and it's worth it."

During the post-election violence in Kenya last winter, Angela was one of several staff forced to stay at work overnight. "Employees were like refugees, being hosted by the babies," John Ondeche jokes, though it's all too true. At the height of the violence, it was too dangerous for many staff members to make their commute home. Several stayed at New Life for days, sleeping on mattresses on the floors of the playrooms. During this time, they didn't take the children outside for their typical afternoon playtime. There were sounds of bullets around the clock, and food and milk were in short supply. "We told the children, 'People of the devil are fighting and people of God are not--that's why we're here,'" says Prisca.

But John is quick to point out that even during this time of crisis, the good in the Kenyan spirit shone through. When a grocery store finally reopened in Kisumu, the owner let John skip the lines and instead come around the back of the store to receive food for the children. "Even during a time of great confusion and personal crisis, this man thought of the children," John says. "They were not part of this, and they should not suffer because of it." Peter Chege, who runs New Life Home Academy, a school and feeding center in the Nairobi suburb of Ruiru, echoes these sentiments: "The community was so involved. This is what the news does not report," he says. "We asked for donations and people brought in clothes and food--even old utensils."

And during that time, even bigger miracles occurred. Despite the violence and chaos many Kenyan families were dealing with, three babies were adopted from the Kisumu home during January and February. These numbers were down from their average of four adoptions per month, but quite remarkable considering the circumstances. In Nairobi, the news was even better. According to Grace, they had already placed 16 children from the Nairobi home during the first 10 weeks of 2008.

When parents are interested in adopting from New Life, they must go to an adoption society (New Life works with several agencies but is not an adoption agency itself) and go through a formal approval process. Once a couple has been approved as adoptive parents, they spend time getting to know their child during several visiting sessions. Caregivers explain this process every step of the way; the children know they're meeting their new parents and they are told when they'll get to go to their new home. All of the other toddlers know, too, and participate in the adoption ceremony.

In Kisumu, things were getting back to normal in mid-March, just a week after Kenyan leaders signed a peace agreement. On our last day in Kisumu, I witnessed the third adoption ceremony held that month. Brian, a toddler, was going home with his parents that day, and everyone knew it. I expected this to be a hardship--seeing Brian leave all of the children he knew as brothers and sisters--but he was calm, clinging to the parents with whom he'd already bonded.

With the toddlers sitting at a round table with snacks, employees and volunteers gathered into the room. Brian and his parents stood at the front, beaming. John led everyone in a prayer and then congratulated the new family. All of the children clapped, excited for Brian, and said their goodbyes. There was one goodbye, though, that was particularly hard. As the ceremony ended, Prisca rushed out of the room into a nearby office, tears welling up in her eyes. Just as Brian was about to leave the room, she put a big smile on her face and ran out of the office in time to give him a final hug. After they have raised many of these children since infancy, often nursing them back to health, each adoption is bittersweet for the Ondeches.

Because of people like Prisca and John--along with the Beckenhams' guidance, as well as financial support from thousands worldwide--New Life continues to grow and care for more children. They accepted their 1,000th baby at the Nyeri home this July, and have placed more than 70% of these children with adoptive families, the majority of whom come from the same community. Most of the remaining children have either returned to their biological families (who later came forward) or stayed in one of New Life's long-term homes due to medical reasons. New Life Home Trust has also expanded to include two schools and feeding centers, through which they educate and care for orphaned children living with relatives in their own communities. Though still a small operation in comparison with the thousands of orphans needing care in Kenya, New Life is using best practices to change the way the country looks at caring for infants and seeking permanency for them--a life-changing trend for children like Wilson.

Emily Shenk is Editor-in-Chief of Children's Voice.

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