Three Actors that Vulnerable Children Depend On

This is the final article in a series that has examined the issues surrounding the rights of vulnerable children.

Who is responsible for vulnerable children? 

Children are a special category of citizens.  They have rights that are protected by both domestic and international law, but children, because they are still developing cognitively, emotionally, and socially, have varying abilities to recognize and claim those rights.  In an ideal world, parents are responsible for protecting their children and providing for their welfare until they are old enough to advocate for their own rights.  But we do not live in an ideal world, and children around the world are rendered vulnerable because of factors beyond their control like the loss of a parent, domestic and international conflict, economic hardship, and natural disasters.  Who then is responsible for caring for vulnerable children?  And how does the way we understand vulnerable children’s rights impact our answer to that crucial question?

Types of Vulnerable Children

There are two important dimensions to consider when thinking about vulnerable children: 1) their location, and 2) the circumstances that render them vulnerable.  First, vulnerable children have a political location and an immediate location, and both are important to keep in mind when considering responsibility for their care.  On one hand, the political location signals the long-term potential of providing for the care of children who lack parental advocacy and legally protecting their rights.  On the other hand, vulnerable children’s immediate location has important implications for whether their immediate needs are being met, as well as their eligibility for adoption and other types of long-term solutions.     

For political location, vulnerable children can be located within developed countries that have a social welfare system designed to care for vulnerable children.  Though these systems have varying levels of competency, there are processes in place to care for children who lack parental care, and the domestic legal system is designed to protect their rights.  On the other hand, vulnerable children can be located within developing countries that often lack the capacity to care for vulnerable children.  In fact, these systems tend to have more vulnerable children because the conditions that undermine effective social welfare provision are typically the same types of conditions that render children vulnerable.  For example, extremely poor countries often have disproportionately more families without the resources to care for children; this lack of resources also makes it difficult to build institutions at the state level that can care for vulnerable children.

Vulnerable children also have an immediate location.  In the worst cases, vulnerable children not only lack parental advocacy, they also lack food, shelter and basic life provisions.  In other cases, vulnerable children have lost parental advocacy, but they are provided for through some type of kin care, or care from others in their community.  For instance, vulnerable children can be housed in orphanages, group foster care homes, or families in their community.  In other cases, vulnerable children are still located with their families, but those families lack the resources and/or capacity to provide for their care.  These children not only lack basic provisions, but they are also at risk of losing their parental advocacy due to extenuating circumstances like extreme poverty or natural disasters. 

The second dimension that is vital to consider is the circumstances that render the child vulnerable.  Children who are vulnerable because one or both parents have died or turned over the child to the state are typically legally available for adoption, depending on their location.  We tend to assume that all vulnerable children are eligible for adoption, but in reality that is true for only a small proportion..  This is especially the case for intercountry adoption, because the origin state of the child must provide clear evidence that the child’s parents have died or relinquished parental rights in order for the child to qualify for an entry visa into an adopting country.  Because many origin countries do not consider parenting to be a role that can be legally assigned or terminated, it can be difficult to provide such documentation.  This problem is magnified in developing countries with overwhelming numbers of vulnerable children, because the system is incapable of tracking and documenting the status of all vulnerable children.  

But there are other causes that render children vulnerable without making them eligible for adoption.  For example, think back to the chaos following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Many children were separated from their families because of the earthquake, and several adoption agencies started processing adoptions to the United States in the aftermath.  The difficulty with this situation was that many of the children still had living parents who very much wanted to be reunited with their children.  In situations where children are vulnerable within their family unit, or temporarily separated from their parents, a different set of solutions is appropriate within the child’s birth country.  When children have been separated from their parents permanently, a combination of domestic solutions and intercountry adoption can be more helpful. 

Three Key Actors

The three main sets of actors with mandates for caring for vulnerable children have distinct yet overlapping spheres of responsibilities to that end.  The first actor, the state, is responsible for providing and enforcing a framework to protect rights of vulnerable children.  Vulnerable children have lost their parental advocacy, and the primary responsibility for their care rests in the hands of the state.  In the best of circumstances, the state has a child welfare system in place to provide for vulnerable children.  But we know that even the most developed countries, with the most advanced institutional capacity, still have deficits in their child welfare systems.  Additionally, often the conditions that render children vulnerable are the same conditions that undermine the state’s ability to provide for vulnerable children.

The second actor, the community, can take different forms.  For example, the community could be a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on caring for vulnerable children, like adoption agencies or child welfare organizations.  On the other hand, the community could take the form of a church caring for vulnerable children within a community.  Either way, the community can step in to serve the role of the family when vulnerable children have lost their parental advocacy, or reinforce families who are in need to prevent children from becoming more vulnerable.  For example, when children are vulnerable because their families lack the resources to care for them, strengthening the family and providing resources can prevent those children from being more vulnerable because they permanently lose parental advocacy.  Although no one organization in the community can address all the causes of child vulnerability, organizations in the community must network and partner with others organizations globally to care for vulnerable children.

The third actor, the individual, is the hands and the feet of the other two sets of actors.  Because ultimately, regardless of authority, mandate, or responsibility, the state and the community are made up of individuals.  We all have a responsibility, regardless of our position, access, or influence, to protect vulnerable children as God places them in our lives.  Sometimes this requires that we take a vulnerable child into our care through foster care or adoption.  Other times in means that we invest in the community organizations caring for children locally and globally.  Our mandate as Christians to care for vulnerable children also calls us to use our vocations and skills to spread justice for vulnerable children.  Because in the end, regardless of how we see the rights of vulnerable children, or how we mediate between conflicting rights, or how we rely on international legal frameworks for protecting vulnerable children, their future rests in the hands of individuals who are willing to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. 

 -Becca McBride is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Her research focuses on investigating how politics influence states’ efforts to control intercountry adoption, and how advocacy organizations influence state policy on adoption.  She has a PhD in Political Science from Vanderbilt University and an MA in Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies from Georgetown University.