Monday, December 17, 2007

We'd Appreciate Your Prayers

Bathroom Update: all the drywall is up and tomorrow we'll be taping and mudding.

Another couple who recently returned home from Liberia with their son two weeks ago, posted the following letter on their blog that they sent to Acres of Hope whom we are adopting through. I post it here (with permission) to help you understand some of the difficulties Kim and I are experiencing over the past couple weeks (even months). It's been a difficult period of waiting for us, and if you feel compelled to pray, we'd appreciate it. After the letter I'll share some info about what Kim and I plan to do about it...

We have thought and prayed long and hard about how to approach this, so here goes… We have decided to make public our letter detailing our experience (positives and negatives) with Acres of Hope-Liberia (AOHL). Although some might view our letter as non-supportive or non-uplifting, we rest in the knowledge that God uses accountability for His best purposes. Accountability IS a gift, when brought with a heart for restoration. We know that we have a responsibility to the truth, and we take that seriously. We have been very uncomfortable being silent for so long, but we selfishly worried about our adoption being negatively affected by voicing our concerns, and we also wanted to suspend comment until we had traveled to Liberia. Our decision to write this letter, and in this public manner, was informed by the Biblical principal of bringing things to light for the purpose of restoration. It is very tempting for us to re-create our memory of events, and simply cling to an idealistic picture of the agency that helped unite us with our son, now that he is home… but we feel compelled to bring to light some issues that the enemy has clearly been having his way with in the silent shadows. It is our prayer that God will use our testimony to better serve the children in AOHL's care. We have been home two weeks, and have very carefully deliberated and sought counsel as to how to conduct ourselves in this. We hope it will be received in the Spirit with which it has been written.

Prayerfully,Corey and Jamie

To Whom It May Concern:

The purpose of this letter is to share about our experience adopting through Acres of Hope-Liberia (AOHL), with the goal of bettering the process in general, and ultimately playing a small role in inspiring positive changes that will benefit the children involved. We regret that we are unable to be concise or conclusive, because we’re certain there are many pieces to the puzzle that we do not have. Clearly, there are significant problems within the organization when so many key leaders and potential fund-raisers are discontinuing their relationship with AOHL. Nonetheless, we feel a responsibility to the truth, and we are committed to relay our first-hand experiences in an effort to provide those who can affect changes with information they need. (This letter will be made as public as possible; to AOHL staff both in the U.S. and in Liberia—so they can consider our feedback as they seek to implement changes, to Adoptive Parents—so they can consider which agency they want to support, and to Government Officials—so they might assist AOHL in bettering their practices as they are able, etc.) The information we’re providing is in no way exhaustive; we’ve tried to strike a balance between seasoning our words with grace, yet providing enough detail to be useful. We have supporting evidence (e-mails, voice mails, etc.) for many of the events listed here, and will provide them if necessary. For now, we have chosen to keep individual staff members’ names and written words private, as it is not our intent to single out any one person—in fact, we’re confident that would be counter-productive, as the problems are clearly systemic. Actually, we have voiced our concerns at different points to several of the key staff members at AOHL, to no avail, which is in part why we have had to resort to writing this public letter. We have organized it in outline form, so readers can focus on portions that are pertinent to them.

About us:
We are Corey and Jamie Z. We live in Oregon, where Corey Pastors a church of about 200 and Jamie works for a non-profit pregnancy center. While we are not world travelers, nor international adoption experts, we have adopted previously, and we have education (Bachelors Degrees in Business and Communication with an emphasis in Public Relations, etc.), and experience (10+ years in non-profit ministry work) that enable us to assess this process with some degree of understanding. We started our journey with AOHL in May 2006, received a referral in January 2007, and brought home our son in November 2007.

Communications With the U.S. Office in Wisconsin:
Aspects we liked:
1) We were thrilled with the amount of pictures we received as we waited to travel to bring home our son. We will always be thankful for his full Memory Book!
2) We appreciated the formation of the Yahoo Group for AOHL families, as it proved to be an invaluable resource.

Concerns we had:
1) We were frequently given mis-information. Following are three examples:a. We received our referral in January 2007, but the Affidavit of Consent/Relinquishment was signed May 1, 2007.b. We received an e-mail the second to last week of June 2007 stating that our son’s adoption had been finalized, and that AOHL was submitting for his passport the following week. Our son’s adoption was not finalized until August 17, 2007. As far as we understand, a passport can not be submitted for without finalization having occurred, yet we were expressly assured that the passport had been submitted for, and was expected at any moment, in early August—before the finalization actually took place.c. We received a phone call a few days before our flight was scheduled to leave for Liberia, on approximately November 14, 2007, saying there was a problem with our son’s Birth Certificate, and that it would have to be re-done. We later learned that his Birth Certificate had been issued on November 8, 2007, without error.
2) We were frequently given conflicting information. Following is one example:a. An apology was issued to us in September 2007 for the extended wait we had had in bringing our son home. We were told that he had been forgotten in the chaos of crisis after crisis, but that we were now the top priority along with one or two other families. Following that conversation, our son’s case was “bumped” three times due to other more urgent cases, and in November we were encouraged to make our own appointment with the Embassy to procure our son’s visa. We expressed that we did not want to “go it alone”; hence our decision to adopt through an agency instead of independently. We said since we were the top priority, we would just wait a week or two and do things the standard way. At that point we were told that not only were we not scheduled for the next week or two, but that no estimated travel date would be provided whatsoever. We were strongly encouraged to re-consider making our own Embassy appointment. Feeling we had little alternative, we proceeded as we had been urged. We received several encouraging, supportive e-mails from AOHL as we prepared to leave, including one the morning of November 15, 2007 which admonished us to work with the AOHL Staff in Liberia when we got there. Those positive e-mails were sent only to us. Later that day, we received an e-mail from the same AOHL Staff Member, insinuating that we were traveling without AOHL’s approval, which basically said, “Don’t think you will get special treatment from the staff in Liberia just because you’re deciding to show up.” That e-mail was also sent to a staff member in Liberia.
3) A lack of professionalism was sometimes demonstrated.
a. On the Yahoo Group, Adoptive Parents were sometimes chastised for “breaking” unwritten rules they couldn’t possibly have known.
b. In multiple phone conversations, different staff members slandered other Adoptive Families by name, and other AOHL staff as well.
c. Posts that call for any degree of accountability, or even just transparency, from AOHL are routinely removed from the Yahoo Group, often along with their authors. Any basic Public Relations course will tell you that it is imperative to be open and prompt in addressing concerns. The “stuff and cover” technique is not taught! Or rather, it is highlighted as what not to do. There is a wave of discontent regarding AOHL, and we’re certain it could have been avoided (and can be in the future) by readily taking responsibility for problems, and outlining a proposed remedy. We do not expect any person or agency to be perfect. Organizations are not static; they are always getting better or getting worse. We do not expect perfection, but rather clear movement toward getting better. But unfortunately, we have been seeing a downward trend, and we believe it is largely due to this apparent disdain for accountability and transparency.
d. Via Yahoo Group posts, and also in phone calls, the current Consular was denigrated. AOHL asked us to write letters to the Consular, for which they provided content guidelines. We now believe, especially after our personal experience with the Consular, that our concern was mis-placed. It seems clear now that AOHL’s descriptions of the Consular, the Consular’s agenda, and the Consular’s relationship with AOHL, were false.
4) A lack of integrity was sometimes demonstrated. We have heard AOHL talk of their desire to set a standard for Liberian people by their conduct, but we have also seen them conform to questionable “cultural norms” to get things done. No doubt it is a very difficult balancing act, walking that line; it seems to us AOHL has crossed over from influencing to being influenced, which may seem advantageous in the short term but will surely be detrimental in the long term. Following are two examples:
a. In an effort to transport some medical supplies from the U.S. to Liberia, a key staff person “brainstormed” ways to get it past airport security in conversation with us. We said, “We don’t want you to have to lie!” and the AOHL staff person said, “I do what I have to do. I do anything for these children.”
b. We observed a Monrovia Airport Staff Person being “paid” by an AOHL staff person for special treatment.

The Care of Children in Acres’ Custody:
Aspects we liked:
1) Several staff members, both in the U.S. and Liberia, went the extra mile to coordinate health care for Micah that was outside the scope of AOHL’s standard procedures. Even if our adoption had fallen through, we would still be thankful for the extraordinary effort that was made in this regard. Those efforts quite possibly saved Micah’s life.
2) Some of the Nannies were obviously motivated by their true love for the children, and it was wonderful to see their interactions with the kids.
3) The orphanages seemed safe, and the children seemed to be in a much better situation than many we saw on the streets of Liberia. The new Special Needs Orphanage in particular was very nice.

Concerns we had:
1) In our opinion, AOHL paints too rosy of a picture for Adoptive Parents. We were told many stories of the Nannies singing Christian Songs to the children as they tucked them into bed, etc. While some of those things are no doubt happening, we also witnessed the Nannies blaring rap music when they didn’t realize they had an audience. And they had to be persuaded by AOHL Staff to turn on praise music. The rap music wasn’t so much an issue for us, as was the false image we had been given.
2) The Infant/Toddler Orphanage, where our son was, was much worse than we expected. Again, we felt like a false image had been presented: We received many pictures of our son sitting on a play mat, and with his photo book that we had sent over next to him. After visiting the Infant/Toddler Orphanage, we had to wonder if he spent most of his 8 months in a crib, and rarely saw his photo book. We wanted to take pictures of the pages in the photo book to be able to re-create it when we got home, and the Nannies fumbled through every book in his room, obviously having no clue which one was his. They eventually found it in another room. When we got him, he did not cry whatsoever. If a peep started to escape his mouth, he would quickly insert his fingers and start sucking to comfort himself. When we visited the orphanage, all of the babies were awake, sitting in their cribs, most with their faces pressed against the bars. And it was completely silent. When we put our hands under his arms to give him a chance to bear weight on his legs, they just crumpled underneath him. We also noticed that he was gulping his bottles (often two 8 ounce bottles in a sitting) so quickly that he was frequently throwing up. We wondered if he was worried about when the next bottle would come, and our fears were confirmed when he had his first exam with his Pediatrician here. She said she could tell by examining his tummy that there had been times when he had not had enough to eat. AOHL can not argue that our son’s malnourishment was due to his circumstances prior to coming into AOHL custody, because he had been with AOHL since birth. We understand that we chose to adopt from a 3rd world country, and while we do not expect perfection whatsoever, in our opinion things are not good enough. Hence, our letter. We were told by AOHL staff that adoption funds are the primary source of income for the organization, and yet we got the overall sense that the children being adopted may not be the ultimate priority right now. We were given a tour of the complex that is to be the Executive Director’s personal residence/Missionary Housing/Guest Accommodations, and there were many workers actively building the structure, with a substantial quantity of supplies on hand. Immediately following this tour, we were taken to the abandoned, crumbling Orphanage foundation. It would take very little money, relatively, to greatly improve the current orphanages. The contrast of the luxurious structure being worked on with the sad state of the orphanages, particularly the Infant/Toddler Orphanage, said to us that adoption money is being used to fund other projects, rather than prioritizing the children as we’d like to see.As we said in the beginning, we have kept this somewhat general—particularly in not naming names or printing excerpts from e-mails, etc.
We welcome any follow-up questions to our letter, and ask that you e-mail them to us so we can add that correspondence to our records. Thank you for taking the time to read about our experience, and thank you in advance to those of you who are willing and able to use this information to better serve the children at the heart of this.

So what does all this mean for Kim and I? The most important thing we needed was credible information about our adoption and what the status of our children really is. So Kim called the AoH office in Wisconsin. She spoke with Aaron. Aaron Wilson and his wife Rachel have been placed in an extremely difficult position taking over all these adoptions with all of us wanting/needing info all at the same time. Plus we are dealing with a 3rd world country who is trying to recover from a 20 yr Civil War and a US Embassy in transition. So please remember them in your prayers. They are our brother and sister in Christ who are serving God from a sincere heart.

But our plan of attack with the approval of AoH is to go ahead and schedule the bio family pre-Visa interview on our own as soon as possible after January 15. If everything goes ok with that, (i.e. no complications, no DNA ordered or questions about the relationship of family and child) then Kim and I can schedule our travel 2 weeks after that. So that still means 2/1 at the earliest, but without any complication, we will have our children home in Febraury. I probably will be in Norway on business late January/early Februrary, so probably 2/8 is when we will travel. But we will continue to keep you posted.


Missy said...

Guys, you're at the top of my prayer list right now. Love, Missy

Becky said...

I'm praying for you too!


Kamina said...

Praying that your children are home soon! Feb 1st will be the date in my mind as I pray.

Brandi said...

Praying for you guys! Those kids have the sweetest faces and I long for the day when I can read your "they're in my arms" post!