“My father was the breadwinner of our family, so with my mother left, she agreed that adoption was the best for my future,” said Pinter, thinking back to a time of her life’s greatest uncertainty.
Melinda (the aunt of Elizette’s biological father) and her husband Lawrence Pinter of Aiea decided to adopt the young Elizette. “My adopted mom (Melinda) came to the Philippines for the funeral of my biological father. Because of our family’s situation, it was then that my adopted mom offered to adopt me, and bring me back to Hawaii,” recalls Elizette.
After the funeral, Melinda immediately initiated the adoption process before the legal age limit (16 years old) for adoption in the Philippines passed.
On April 2012, at age 15, Elizette just made the cut-off age and she was legally adopted after two years.
In her new life in Hawaii, she says that it took some time to make adjustments with language, school, the people and culture. “There was a language barrier and I got really self-conscious about my accent. I didn’t know anyone, especially in school, so I had to come out of my comfort zone. The adoption exposed me to a new environment with new people. It definitely helped me grow as a person,” said Elizette.
Elizette says her childhood was simple and happy. She fondly recalls growing up with a lot of people around her to help take care of her -- parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.
Now age 21 and living in Aiea, Elizette is studying Business Administration with a major in Accounting at the University of Hawaii - West Oahu.
The Philippines’ Orphan Problem
While Elizette’s youth transitioned from a tragic loss to fortunate adoption, there are countless Filipino children who are not so lucky. According to the United Nations’ Children’s Rights & Emergency Relief Organization, there are about 1.8 million children in the Philippines “abandoned or neglected” -- accounting for more than 1% of the country’s 100+ million population. Some of these children have no parents or have distant relatives too poor to adopt them. They are orphans from extreme poverty, accidents, natural disasters or violence.
Some of them are completely on their own, living on the streets in clusters among other street children. Some of them live in make-shift homes and are not even part of the social welfare system. Then there are others living in the few orphanages scattered around the country, waiting anxiously and hoping for word from the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) that a family is ready to adopt them.
American families adopting children in the Philippines is not very common. Between 2009 and 2015, the U.S. State Department reports only 1,350 Filipino children were adopted by American families.
Locally, at the moment there is only one Philippines-accredited adoption agency in the state of Hawaii, the Hawaii International Child (HIC), according to Mary Jane Abe, Philippines Program Director of HIC.
Kristine Altwies, MA, is the Executive Director and CEO of HIC. “Hawaii International Child has been providing compassionate, ethical adoption services to children in need, since 1975. In that time, HIC has placed nearly 4,000 children into loving families. In 2010 HIC merged with Child & Family Service, Inc., Hawaii’s oldest and largest social services agency. Child & Family Service (CFS) has been working in the Philippines since the 1950s, supporting orphanages and social services in connection with the Consuela Foundation and under the CFS Philippines umbrella,” said Altwies
The Philippines DSWD recognizes three major types of domestic adoptions: agency adoption, relative adoption, and independent adoption. Then there is inter-country adoption. There are two types of children available via the Inter-Country Adoption Board (ICAB): children from Child Caring Agencies (more commonly known as orphanages) and qualified relative children. The ICAB is the central authority in inter-country adoption in the Philippines. They are responsible for licensing local and foreign child placement agencies, collecting fees and matching parents with children. The ICAB works with the DSWD and the Philippines’ court system.
While the traditional, very young orphan, non-blood relative adoption is what most people think of when they hear about overseas adoptions, there is a greater need for adoptions of older, waiting-list children.
“Over the years, HIC has shifted its Philippine adoption work from a ‘standard’ younger orphan program, to a waiting child and relative adoption program. Currently HIC focuses on waiting children and relative adoptions exclusively. Waiting children are those who may need a little more care and attention to place and raise. Many are older or have medically correctable conditions. The relative program is especially important to Hawaii’s large Philippine population,” said Altwies.
HIC’s Abe said “Being of Filipino ethnicity myself, I feel a sense of relief every time a Filipino child arrives to a (new) home to be with his ‘forever’ family.”
Abe shared one of her most memorable relative adoption cases that she had worked on involving a Hawaii couple adopting their grandchildren. The couple adopted their three grandchildren ranging in age from 9 to 15. The parents of the children were separated and left their children without a permanent caregiver to look after them. The children were left on their own at night. Relatives and neighbors would check on the children periodically, but it wasn’t enough. DSWD moved quickly on the case and the grandparents were able to adopt the children and bring them to Hawaii.
“This case really touched my heart as I feared for the children’s safety since they are minors living on their own. I could imagine the agony of the grandparents as they went through the adoption process. The wait must have seemed like an eternity even though it was one of the fastest cases I have completed. They were able to bring the children a little over a year after they started the case. The entire family here in Hawaii and their relatives and friends in the Philippines all worked together to facilitate the process. My heart leaped with joy when the children came home. It was truly a rewarding experience!” said Abe.