On Ugandan orphans and adoption

Most of my readers know we adopted our daughter, Gabrielle, from Uganda last year. Other than sharing a little of our experience adopting Gabrielle, I have been fairly quiet about Ugandan adoptions on this blog. I have wanted to be sensitive to other families in process. But at the same time, I have been learning everything I can about adoption and orphans – and I have been outspoken elsewhere in advocating for ethics in Ugandan adoptions. I think it is time to share what I’ve learned.

As I write about this difficult topic, please understand my heart. I love adoption. I love orphans. I want every child to have a family. I love Uganda. This country and its people have stolen my heart. But right now in Uganda – as in many other countries around the world – there is a high risk for corruption in adoption.

No family starts the process of adoption wanting to take a child from another family. We all want to give a family and a home to a child who would otherwise grow up in an orphanage or on the streets. But in Uganda, there are not adequate laws, systems and resources in place to protect vulnerable families and children from trafficking for international adoption.

At the same time, I am hopeful. There are a growing number of highly qualified lawyers, consultants and experts working together to reform orphan care and adoption in Uganda. As adoptive parents – and for those of us who consider ourselves Christians, as the people of God – we need to support this work. We need to open our eyes and take steps to “bring justice to the fatherless,” (Isaiah 1:17, ESV).

I am just a mom. I am not an expert in international adoption. But over the last year, I have learned a lot about the orphans and adoption, much of it the hard way. What have I learned?

There are 2.7 million orphans in Uganda. Approximately 1.3 million of these children have been orphaned by AIDS. Most of these children, however, live with their families. Most have one surviving parent and many of the rest live with their extended family.  Millions of people have been affected by HIV and AIDS in Uganda, however as we think about this issue, we need to see the strength and the resilience of the Ugandan family and community system in caring for vulnerable children.

Though statistics are hard to come by – there is little research done into this issue – approximately 80,000 children in Uganda live in orphanages or “children’s villages”. Most of these children have families and are living in the orphanages because of poverty. This is because orphanages create orphans. When well-meaning (often Christian) groups build and support nice orphanages, families struggling with the cost of food, education and health care abandon their children. But orphanages are not good for kids. God designed kids to grow up with families. African families and American families. I think we often look at African families and perceive poverty where it doesn’t exist. We cannot imagine living like most Africans, so we try to rescue kids from poverty by buildling orphanages where the kids will live more like Americans. We then call these kids – who have been separated from their families by poverty – orphans. Building orphanages is not a good response to poverty. Furthermore, orphanages have financial incentives to keep children separated from their families. Orphanges depend on income from sponsorship, donations, and sometimes international adoption.

This needs to change. We need to take steps to support vulnerable families so that children are not placed in orphanages – or for adoption – as a result of poverty. We also need to take steps to help get children out of institutional care by reuniting them with their families or giving them new families through adoption.

Children need families. There are thousands of children in Uganda who are truly orphans, who have been abandonded, abused, neglected or separated from their parents by death, conflict or desperation. These children need families too. For these children, adoption is better than growing up in an orphanage or on the streets. But there is good news: more and more Ugandan families are interested in adoption. One organization in Kampala has a wait-list of qualified Ugandan families hoping to adopt. We need to celebrate this, not to grumble that it might take longer to be matched with a child for international adoption. There is a need for international adoption, but this need is primarily for older and special needs children.

But right now, the Ugandan adoption system is vulnerable to abuse. Here are the big issues.

Demand. A growing number of American families want to adopt from Uganda. There are more than six hundred families hoping to adopt from Uganda in 2012. That is more than the total number of adoptions in the last twelve years. Many of these families are hoping to adopt babies and toddlers.

Money. Adoptive families are willing to pay upwards of $20,000 to adopt a child from Uganda. Lawyers, orphanages, probation officers and others involved in adoption have the potential to make a lot of money.

Poverty. Most children are placed in orphanages as a result of poverty. Poverty also contributes to many children being placed for adoption. There are very few social welfare services available to support vulnerable families and children. Desperately poor families are vulnerable to exploitation because they may feel they have no other option.

Corruption.  Corruption in Uganda is widespread, tolerated and systematic. Many officials will not do their jobs without something to grease the wheels. Adoptive parents often unknowingly pay bribes. Some bribes encourage officials to show up and do their jobs; other bribes pressure officials to break the law. As an adoptive parent, it is very hard to know the truth.

Legal Loopholes. The Ugandan law is unclear about the status of international adoptions. Most adoptions are actually legal guardianships for the purpose of adoption in the United States. The law does not set up requirements for adoptive parents or regulate agencies. There is a lot of ambiguity and a significant risk for people to take advantage of the system.

On the United States side, the law is also inadequate. The only way the US regulates adoptions in Uganda is through Immigration Law. After parents obtain guardianship of a child in Uganda, they must apply for a visa to bring the child home. In order to receive a visa, the child must meet the legal definition of “orphan” having lost at least one parent to death or having been abandoned. It is possible to obtain guardianship of a child in Uganda who does not meet the legal definition of orphan. In these cases – or in cases where there is fraud or corruption – the embassy cannot give the child a visa to return to the United States.

Many adoptive parents look at this as red tape keeping children from having a family. But that’s not entirely true. This process is the only way the United States can prevent children from being trafficked for the purpose of international adoption. This system is inherently flawed, lacking safeguards for adoptive families and children. Typically the adoptive parents are not involved in manipulating a child’s paperwork for the purpose of adoption. More often, it is adoption agencies or their overseas representatives – lawyers or orphanages – who falsify paperwork in the adoption and visa process. In the end, adoptive parents are punished while the people who are truly responsible for the fraud are not held accountable. It is difficult, however, for the USCIS to deny immigration visas – and as a result, children may be allowed to go “home” to their “families” even when there are significant “inconsistencies” in their file. This should not be.

If we love Uganda, if we love orphans, if we love adoption, we need to stand up and fight for things to change. We need to stop supporting harmful institutions. We need to support vulnerable families. We need to protect children from abuse and neglect. We need to encourage domestic adoption. We need to consider adopting the older, HIV positive and special needs kids who truly need adoption. We need to support churches in Uganda in stepping up to care for orphans and widows in their communities. We need to defend the rights of widows and children. We need to support sustainable development and fight poverty. And we need to support reform so that corruption doesn’t win – so that international adoption remains a possibility for children who cannot have a family any other way.

Will you stand with me to bring justice to the fatherless?





Sara Brinton


SARA BRINTON is a writer and entrepreneur with a passion for reforming international adoption and orphan care. She leads marketing for Noonday Collection, a business that uses fashion to create opportunity in developing countries. Sara and her husband, Mark, live in Austin, Texas with their four children, including daughter Gabrielle who was adopted from Uganda.

  • angie

    March 8, 2012 at 11:24 pm Reply

    love. love. LOVE. love. LOVE!!

  • CIndy

    March 9, 2012 at 12:00 am Reply

    Love it lots Sara. You are awesome!
    Now move over here and join me in this time zone!

    • Shanty

      May 21, 2012 at 12:13 pm Reply

      Read the book in two days it is aiznmag she is aiznmag GOD IS AMAZING. It is a beautiful picture of a life completely sold out for Him and His work, His plan,His glory continuously broken and poured out .

  • Holly

    March 9, 2012 at 12:21 am Reply

    Wonderful post Sara! Bravo!

  • Aly Paslay

    March 9, 2012 at 1:27 am Reply


    I just want to say, thank you for writing this. My husband and I have endless discussions about this very topic, and it is the very reason we have chose to NOT pursue another Ugandan adoption. I couldn’t agree more with all that you wrote, and I hope through the brave words of the adoption community, justice will be served. It’s amazing how fast orphanages fill to the brim when potential adoptive parents are sitting on waiting lists– especially where babies and toddlers exist. May we be ever more vigilant of the effect our first world money can have on third world economic systems. Thanks again, Sara.

  • Ashlee

    March 9, 2012 at 2:04 am Reply

    This is SO well-written. My thoughts exactly. I will definitely be sharing this!

  • Renee Meyer

    March 9, 2012 at 2:39 am Reply

    Perfect. Thank you for this. I hope it goes viral, at least in the UG IA community!

  • Liz

    March 9, 2012 at 2:55 pm Reply

    Wonderful post! Thank you for bringing so many issues to light. I learned so much through reading this.

  • Kate

    March 9, 2012 at 7:10 pm Reply

    Hi Sara,

    I came across your blog through a friend. I like and agree with everything you wrote. I think one thing to add to your post would be to point people to specific organizations who are helping the vulnerable families (to keep families intact and kids out of orphanages). You may be away that Bethany Christian Services (bethany.org) does an excellent job of helping vulnerable families stay together. One can support their work through sponsorship of these families.



    • Sara

      March 9, 2012 at 9:17 pm Reply

      Hi Kate,
      I wanted to reply to this. I think sponsorship can be a good option in some circumstances. I think it’s great when adoption agencies support vulnerable families, domestic adoption and reunification alongside international adoption.

      At the same time, sponsorship is not always the best answer. Sometimes sponsorship can lead to dependency. I’m still trying to wrap my head around this. Sponsorship might be the right approach to help a family survive a difficult season – but it’s even better if we can find ways to to help parents stand on their own feet. One ministry I know in Uganda approaches this by helping families with loans to start or grow businesses rather than just sponsorship. Especially in Uganda, dependency on foreign aid is a significant problem.

      I will add a follow up post with some suggestions of how to get involved! Thanks!!

  • Hillary Gardner

    March 9, 2012 at 7:53 pm Reply

    Wow Sara. So much food for thought. I am learning, taking everything in that I can on orphans and Uganda as well and I really appreciated this.

  • Olivia

    March 9, 2012 at 8:09 pm Reply

    Thank you for your informative post. My husband and I have just begun researching Ugandan adpotion. I think many families are fleeing to this program because of the extreme slow down in Ethiopia and the reduced wait times at some agencies. I can say that one agency I have spoken with has been very up front about the process and corruption in Uganda. Hopefully we all make the right choices for the children.

  • […] a follow up to my post about Orphans and Adoption in Uganda yesterday, I wanted to share a few ways to get […]

  • […] I don’t personally know the author of this article but I believe she is the friend of a friend.  Sara offers an honest and compassionate take on the dynamics surrounding adoption in Uganda today.  This is a must read.  Many thanks to Sara for sharing her thoughtful synthesis.  Click on the screen shot below to read her full article. […]

  • Kelsey Nielsen

    March 17, 2012 at 4:39 pm Reply

    Wonderfully written, Sara.

  • Bradley Raymond

    March 17, 2012 at 9:31 pm Reply

    I work in Uganda and see this stuff everyday. Thank you for taking the time to get informed. Thank you for sharing with others what you have learned. And most importantly thank you for your Christ Like Example!!!

  • Kate

    March 26, 2012 at 6:58 pm Reply

    Hi Sara,

    I just saw your reply to me. I appreciate what you said and I agree about the dependency issue. One thing that is great about Bethany is that they sponsor families/individuals for a certain time (working with local agencies and social workers) and once the need has been met, the sponsorship ends. I don’t work for Bethany or have any affiliation with them other than I admire their work… I’d love to hear about more organizations that help meet the needs that could be contributing to the orphan crisis. One of the Bethany coordinators wrote to me about an example of what they are doing:

    “In Albania, we have recently just deinstitutionalized all of the children who were living in the orphanage we had been supporting. Because we do not want to perpetuate any children living in institutional settings, this was a very important thing for us to do, not to just stop funding an orphanage, but to get those children into families. Many of these children are now in our foster care or family preservation programs in Albania (depending on if they were able to be reunified with birth families or other families had to be found). Here we also have a program called Shepherding Homes that are Christian families that take in young expectant mothers to help them learn life skills and be able to parent their children (or make an adoption plan). This program has multiple benefits in protecting life, preventing trafficking and preventing neglect or abandonment.

    In Romania and Ukraine we have programs to help family preservation, and support education and life skills. The programs all have Christian bases and also impart moral teaching as well. ”

    Sorry this is so long. I thought you might find it interesting. If you would like to continue the conversation more you can send me an email (I am not so good at checking blogs).


  • Doreen Amony

    May 1, 2012 at 10:25 am Reply

    Hello Sara,
    This is very brilliant to say and thank you for writing about it. Its indeed true what you have written about here. Being a Ugandan who has grown up here, am thrilled to see that someone out there is thinking about what is really going on here. Am also pleased to know that there are such many people who’re interested in adoption from Uganda; Hope…
    Anyhow am sure this is the right group of people to ask this, what does one do to just give up a child for adoption even if its not an orphan but the mother cannot afford to take care of it and the partner is not being supportive? In Uganda today, most girls opt for abortion because they get unplanned pregnancies and abortion looks the only way out. And as a christian, I feel this is really a bad habit that is cropping up. The law says it is illegal yet people do it all the time. Is there such an adoption for such cases?

    • Sara

      May 1, 2012 at 9:04 pm Reply

      Hi Doreen.
      That’s a difficult but important question.

      Within the United States, it is common for women who are pregnant but who feel they cannot parent a child to choose adoption. I think this is a very good thing and an excellent alternative to abotion. Like you, I am a Christian and opposed to abortion. In the United States, a woman who finds herself pregnant has many resources if she choses to mother the child even without a partner – and this is very different than in Uganda. Women in the US can access resources like prenatal care, food, education, social services and counseling. Birth mothers who want to create an “adoption plan” have significant legal protection. They have to be counseled about their decision and their rights. If they change their mind, there is no one who can force them to place the child for adoption after the baby is born, even if the potential adoptive parents have paid her medical expenses. In other words, she has protection to make sure her rights are respected and resources so she can make a real choice.

      My fear in allowing women in Uganda to “make an adoption plan” in the same way is that they do not have the same protection and resources available. In Uganda, I’ve heard of circumstances of vulnerable mothers being pressured to place their child for adoption. Sometimes they are offered money. Once the adoptive parents are in the picture, there’s often no one to protect the mother’s rights if she changes her mind – or if the truth that she was bribed or coerced comes out. Furthermore, there are few resources available to support vulnerable mothers. I worry that women who want to be a mum would place children for adoption out of fear or desperation.

      So in my opinion, there are a few bigger questions. First, what would it take to support mothers and families in Uganda in a way that women can make a real choice about parenting? Second, what can we do to protect these mother’s rights so they are not exploited by having their children placed for adoption? An even bigger question is how can we support young women to make better decisions about their bodies and their futures – and how can we encourage men to value women in and outside of marriage? As long as men are more or less taking advantage of women who have little ability to determine what happens with their bodies (rape, prostitution, etc), there will continue to be a high rate of unwanted pregnancy. The answer is not as simgple as letting women place children for adoption – or legalizing abortion or increasing access to birth control for that matter! The bigger issues is PROTECTING women from exploitation, holding men who use sexual violence accountable, giving women the ability to provide for their families so they do not have to remain in abusive relationships.

      I know all of this is very “big picture” and the question remains what about a woman who finds herself in that situation now. The first thing I would say is that I’d love to see Ugandans adopting Ugandan babies. I know of one home in Mengo in Kampala – Malaika – who is encouraging domestic adoption and I believe they have a wait list of Ugandan families who want to adopt. When international families get involved in birth mother adoptoin internationally, I think the potential for abuse is TOO high. There’s just too much money involved and there are too many people willing to exploit vulnerable women for their selfish gain. I sincerely think international adoption should ONLY be an option when domestic adoption is not a possibility – and domestic adoption should only be considered when the biological family is unable to care for the child.

      To sum it up, I’d say yes, women should have the right to choose adoption rather than abortion – but this is only truly a choice if the woman has legal protection and access to resources she would need if she wanted to parent. But no, I don’t think these babies should be adopted internationally. There are Ugandan families willing to adopt. And perhaps even more importantly, men who exploit women – rather through prositution, rape, abuse or just broken promises – need to be held accountable. Women need to have increased access to education and opportunity so they can make better decisions for their bodies and their families.

  • Emily Cairns

    July 5, 2012 at 4:31 pm Reply

    I would never want to promote corruption in anyway! Oh my, Jesus please protect these families and children. I have desperately waiting to get back to Uganda and provide a child with a forever home since my first visit in 2008. I would never pray that we would steal a child from a family. I have a call into my agency to ask some tough questions. Thank you so much for being brave enough to share your thoughts. I was trying to find your email to contact you. I have been in tears all morning over what you are writing. I desperately agree with you and would love to hear about your adoption process and advocating for orphans. I want “pure and undefiled religion”, I want with every bone that is in my body to love and care for a child that would not receive that love elsewhere. I was made by my nurturing God to nurture and I cannot imagine a better way for me to model Jesus on this Earth. Thank you!

  • Amy

    July 31, 2012 at 12:54 pm Reply

    Sara – Do you have any more concrete statistics? You said that there are 2.7 million orphans and 1.3 of them lost their parent(s) to AIDS. Those are great. But, then you go on to say that “most” have one parent and “many” live with extended family… do you have a source for how many is “most” and “many?” Also, you say that 80,000 children live in orphanages or children’s villages, but that “most” have family and are there because of poverty. Do you have a source that clarifies “most?” I would love to have access to that source! Thanks much!

  • Lyn

    August 20, 2012 at 6:28 pm Reply

    Excellent article. We are thinking of adopting an older child from Uganda (10+ maybe?), is the issue as strong in this population? We feel called to adoption in Uganda and want to help a child who will not have a positive life without this chance. However, I don’t want to contribute to the corruption or trafficking of children. Do you have any insight into this?

    • Sara

      September 2, 2012 at 10:27 pm Reply

      Hey Lyn, I just wrote a new post on this topic today. Feel free to email me if you have any more questions. I will add a contact form on this page!

  • Anna

    September 29, 2012 at 6:55 am Reply

    I appreciate your insight into these issues. There is so much truth in what you have said. I have lived in Uganda for 3 1/2 years, and have unfortunately seen much of what you have talked about. I was wondering if you have more information about local adoptions (adoption of Ugandan children by Ugandan adults). I have tried researching it and haven’t been able to find much information about it. Any information you have would be great. Thank you,


  • Worthwhile Links | A Child's Voice

    October 8, 2012 at 3:48 am Reply

    […] On Ugandan Orphans and Adoption – Family Hope Love […]

  • Kelly

    January 31, 2013 at 3:21 am Reply

    Have you heard of the Rileys and their work in Uganda? We love what they are doing to reunite Uganda families and battle corruption here on the ground! http://rileysinuganda.blogspot.com/p/why.html

    • Sara

      January 31, 2013 at 6:33 pm Reply

      I have Kelly. Thanks for the suggestion. I met Keren last time I was in Uganda and talk with them frequently about Uganda, orphans, orphanages and adoption. I too am inspired by their work in the face of a challenging situation. Great hearts and hard workers.

  • […] Orphans […]

  • Angualia Daniel

    March 19, 2013 at 8:09 am Reply

    Dear Sara,

    Thank you for taking time to write this. I am an adoption attorney in Uganda and I have seen and experienced what you have pointed out. I once worked with this “orphanage” that had been contacted by a family in the US to adopt one of the children under its care. The story about the child was long and not good. Ironically, this “orphanage” had many US families and adoption agencies contacting them for possible adoption. I subsequently declined to represent families that had decided to go through them. I am ashamed that some unethical aspects of adoption involve us the lawyers. I hope that some day the situation will be different. dangualia@yahoo.com

  • Ngolobe paul

    April 15, 2013 at 2:38 pm Reply

    Greetings in Jesus name thank you for the work your doing in the kingdom of God we have the orphanage home in Busia so I Requesting the partisanship.
    In his love
    pastor paul

  • Pastor. Geoffrey.

    May 6, 2013 at 6:43 pm Reply

    Sara,thank you for minding about our people.I know you meet a lot of challenges in fulfilling your call but try to teach these orphans and their families on how to catch a fish by themselves but not always depend on the support you give them.However,be blessed for blessing others and those you bless also bless others the cycle continues.
    Respond to me on my email-christcentred05@gmail.com.and we share more about our call.
    Pastor Geoffrey.

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