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Jini Roby

PROVO — The rising number of African orphans is creating a crisis that makes international adoptions imperative despite concerns about transracial adoptions, says a Brigham Young University professor who herself was adopted from Korea by white parents.

Jini Roby's argument that African nations and American parents should consider a radical increase in adoptions of black African orphans was published in latest issue of the journal Social Work.

Roby said 12.3 million children in sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents, overwhelming the ability of extended families to care for them.

That number is projected to balloon to 18.4 million by 2010.

"That's just in sub-Saharan Africa," Roby said. "There's a huge crisis out there, bigger than we've ever known, and we're not talking about it very much."

Transracial adoption is a controversial subject in the United States. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers compared the adoption of African-American children by white families to genocide.

Today, the NABSW and other adoption groups emphasize kinship care — recruiting relatives to adopt African-American orphans. The same philosophy is the cultural norm in Africa, but Roby said the same factors creating so many orphans are also devastating kinship networks — the AIDS epidemic, famines and civil wars.

"The kin system is becoming overwhelmed," Roby said. "There's all kinds of evidence that the extended family has evaporated in many cases, especially at the bottom rung of the economic ladder."

The NABSW recently accepted transracial adoption as an alternative for American children of African descent, though it maintains the stance that same-race adoptions are preferable.

Roby said the priority for African-American adoptees should be placement with African-American families but found on her first visit to Africa in 2003 that in many cases, African children no longer can be raised by African families.

"I'm not proposing adoption as the first and best solution," she said. "First of all, we need to keep the families intact. In Uganda this summer, I saw mothers infected with HIV who were staying healthy and alive for 15 years or more. First, we need to keep parents alive. Then we need to support the extended families willing to care for these children. A lot of my work is focused on those two areas. This paper is about the small role adoption can play to make a huge difference in the lives of individual children."

Roby worked with the government in Mozambique this summer to create laws for international adoption. In Uganda, she studied the availability of extended-family placement and how mothers with AIDS plan for their children.

American parents have adopted a growing number of international children over the past decade. The United States issued 7,093 immigrant visas to orphans in 1990. The number rose to 22,728 last year.

Few come from African nations, which are reluctant to allow more.

"They're nervous because of the history of outmigration of their people into Europe and America, because of the former slave trade," Roby said. "They're nervous their children are being sold into domestic servitude or sex trafficking. I understand that. We all need to have empathy for that. But when they learn about the legal safeguards in place for international adoption, they want to consider it."

Roby was in an orphanage for three years before she was adopted at 14 and raised in southeastern Utah. Her husband is adopted, too, and the couple has adopted two children, one from Roby's native Korea.

"My husband says adoption runs in our family," she said.

The North American Council on Adoptable Children believes each child should be placed with a family that recognizes preservation of the child's ethnic and cultural heritage as an inherent right, executive director Joe Kroll said.

International adoptions can build on that, Roby said.

"I sort of adopted a global identity for myself. I think my children are going that way, too. It's not so important that we be able to identify ourselves purely as this culture or that, because we really live in a global society. I can go anywhere and feel at home. I don't know if that has to do with my transcultural adoption or if it's my personality."

Roby expects some people to be uncomfortable with her paper but said the African orphan crisis will only worsen. It isn't expected to peak until 2020.

"Children need loving, stable families," she said. "The color match is important but secondary in a crisis like this."

Kroll hasn't seen Roby's paper and expressed some discomfort because of his own experience raising a Korean adoptee.

"The federal government has gone overboard to try and make adoptions appear color blind," he said. "Color blind doesn't work when you're a person of color."

Kroll also worries that international adoptions have become trendy at the expense of older American foster children because of celebrities like Angelina Jolie, who has adopted two children, the most recent from the African nation of Ethiopia — a girl whose mother died of AIDS.

"My concern," Kroll said, "is that the publicity surrounding celebrities like Angelina Jolie is making people move away from the very real needs of the children in the American foster system. There are so many kids who need help."

For Roby, there are too many now in Africa to ignore.

"I feel I have to do this work for the rest of my life," she said.

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