How the Christian right perverts adoption

The evangelical adoption boom is driven by creepy links between the Christian right and a billion-dollar industry

Published May 4, 2013 9:00PM (EDT)

Kathryn Joyce
Kathryn Joyce

When you think of adoption, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? Maybe it’s the vague, rosy notion of a happy ending -- of rescue, salvation or (more likely) some do-gooding Hollywood mouthpiece like Angelina Jolie adding kids of various ethnicities to her big, colorful brood.

What probably doesn’t automatically come to mind is coercion, racism and a conservative Christian agenda that extends beyond mere abortion prevention. Award-winning journalist Kathryn Joyce describes all these issues -- and, sadly, many more -- as being shockingly rampant in the multi-billion-dollar adoption industry. And she delves into them, in somewhat jarring investigative detail, in her new book, “The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption.”

Joyce details how the adoption industry has become overly enmeshed with the Christian right -- how evangelical, pro-adoption church leaders have, in recent years, been creepily urging followers to adopt en masse, often internationally and from war-ravaged countries. Christian adoption booms are common in countries like Haiti and Indonesia after natural disasters and other crises -- remember Laura Silsby, the Baptist church leader from Idaho who was charged with child trafficking after illegally attempting to smuggle 33 unauthorized Haitian children across the Haiti-Dominican Republic border in 2010?

The Silsby case threw a cold light on the evangelical adoption boom, but as it has faded from public memory, our cultural focus has reverted to its usual state of viewing adoption as a unilaterally positive thing fostered by honest people with good intentions. As Joyce makes clear in both her book and the following interview, most of the Christian folks involved in adoption -- at least from an adoptive-parent perspective -- do have good intentions, and they see adoption as a living demonstration of their commitment to the Bible (a popular verse among Christian adopters urges followers to help orphans and widows). They want to save needy kids’ lives and give them the “gift” of evangelism at the same time.

But as adoption has become bigger business, it’s inherently grown less ethical and more intent on increasing the "supply" of adoptable children, both here and overseas. What many of these potential adopters don’t realize is that the adoption industry is already, arguably, corrupt -- and not all of the kids who get “rescued” actually need it.

Joyce spoke with us via telephone about what she learned while researching and writing her controversial new book (which is, unsurprisingly, rankling Christian leaders, who consider “The Child Catchers” a hatchet job).

What are some of our biggest cultural misconceptions about adoption, both domestic and international?

The biggest thing I came away with after working on this is that adoption is thought of so commonly as a win-win situation, as such a wonderful thing for both the adoptive family and the child. Obviously, that is often the case -- that it is a beautiful thing. But a lot of times it can also be a tragic or unjust thing. The biggest misconception is that it’s unilaterally good rather than something more complicated, or something borne frequently out of the tragedy of another family.

In the course of researching and writing this book, was there any piece of information you learned about adoption that shocked you most? 

There are so many, from the way orphans are defined both in the U.S. and overseas; [“orphan” is] a term that’s now been expanded to include children of single parents, whether it’s single mothers in the U.S. or parents who are widowed in international countries.

Also, the realization that adoption means different things in different cultures, so it’s impossible to have a conversation about that and have that be an ethical conversation unless everybody is aware of the various definitions of these terms, and the different traditions you’re coming from.

Another thing I was a little shocked by is that agencies are not always required to stand by the information they’re providing to families. Agencies can pass along bad information, incorrect ideas about where a child is coming from or what their back-story [or] their family situation [is]. They have no responsibility for making sure that [information] is accurate. It puts a lot of people in kind of an impossible situation -- not having the tools to understand whether they’re engaged in an ethical process.

In the book, you mention a verse of scripture that’s considered incredibly important in evangelical circles: James 1:27 [which says it is pure religion “to look after orphans and widows in their distress”].  Can you explain the significance of this verse?

That verse is cited very commonly among lots of Christian advocates involved in the orphan care and adoption movement. So tons of people who have come to [see] adoption as this perfect way they can live out their faith and mirror their own salvation experience in the adoption of a child -- that is one of the bits of scripture they turn to.

But [something] that came up in my reporting is [questioning] that verse in terms of how well widows are being incorporated into this movement. One of my sources, an evangelical law professor named David M. Smolin, who has been a longstanding adoption reform advocate, spoke to this very eloquently, saying, “This movement has divorced the orphans and the widows from each other.” A lot of Christians who are involved in advocating for [adoption] reform say, “If you want to follow the Bible’s call, then you need to be caring for poor children and their families together.” What David Smolin was saying was that too often, many parts of this movement find it easier to help children by themselves -- to just approach orphans as if they were standing all alone in the world and not look at the broader circumstances of the families they’re coming from, whether that’s a poor mother in Ethiopia who, after her husband died, is now in this position of having to find a job or keep her child, but has no good option to do both ... A lot of times, people could do more help by addressing the holistic picture -- helping a family stay together, rather than relinquishing a child for adoption in these cultures where adoption is becoming a go-to solution for poverty or family instability.

You wrote about how the Christian pro-adoption movement had a larger vision than simply promoting adoption as an abortion alternative; it wanted to address a supposed “orphan crisis.” Is there an orphan crisis?

There are crises that involve children. But as some development workers put it to me, this is not so much an orphan crisis as a poverty crisis, a conflict crisis, a crisis of stability. The “orphan crisis” draws its numbers from a UNICEF tally of orphans and vulnerable children, and their definition was deliberately very broad; they were casting a very wide net because they wanted to talk about all children in vulnerable circumstances, [like those who] had lost one or both parents, or might be in need of additional assistance and support measures.

So when people talk about the numbers for the orphan crisis, the numbers are a huge span; some say [more than 100] million and some say 10 million orphans in the world. Whatever number you choose, the majority of those children are ... single orphans, meaning they still have one living parent. They may or may not live with that parent, but that number also doesn’t take into account other populations of children who might have parents but aren’t counted because they’re street children, they live on their own.

The [UNICEF] estimate, which was [created] for purposes of estimating amounts of aid, has been picked up by adoption advocates as something that relates to the number of children who might need [to be adopted]. And that is just a serious misapplication of that number. I’m by far not the first person to make that argument; lots of people have pointed this out. These numbers have taken on a life of their own and they get repeated and amplified; people [hear that] there are hundreds of millions of orphans in the world, so how could there be a shortage of children available for adoption? It’s beyond apples and oranges; it’s a completely misapplied statistic. Of course, there are children in need of adoption, but they usually don’t happen to be young, healthy children. They’re often children over 5, children with more time-intensive medical, mental or psychological needs. That doesn’t quite match up with the demand from the U.S.

You write in the beginning of “The Child Catchers” about your correspondence with a Christian woman named Sharon. She already had a bunch of biological kids, but was desperate to take on more adopted kids as sort of  “adoption projects.” This seems like an apt description for the way many of the Christian adopters saw these kids -- as projects, not people. Any thoughts on this?

It’s important to say that overwhelmingly, most prospective adoptive parents enter this process with seriously good intentions. They want to help, whether this is something they came to on their own or something they felt called to do because their church started talking about the orphan crisis. However, I think there is danger in a movement like this -- even folks within the movement describe it as a “contagious adoption culture” or a “viral adoption culture.” Those are the words for something becoming trendy. I think there’s a danger, when something becomes trendy, for people to kind of throw themselves into it with an enthusiasm that is not matched by their preparation. Not speaking about anyone in particular, but [in my research] I’ve come across stories of families who seemed really excited to embark on this because of the enthusiasm in the movement around [them], but it’s not necessarily something they spent a huge amount of time preparing for. Sometimes it can work out really well, but ... there can be problems.

Can you talk a bit about the Laura Silsby debacle that happened after the Haiti earthquake in January 2010 -- how that case impacted the movement and broader cultural perceptions of adoption in general?

When the case broke in 2010, it was this unique moment. All of a sudden, people were looking at the issues [involved in] adoption-related scandals that had happened in other countries. Because of the publicity and the immense scale of the earthquake, it was a bit of a “click” moment for people realizing that this is the reason people talk about adoption corruption. It crystallized a few different things: [Silsby’s] good intentions leading to a sort of presumptiveness and audacity -- going into a different country, deciding [she] was going to embark on a vigilante rescue mission, and how badly that could turn out. People were also hearing the response from people on the ground in Haiti, saying, “This is not helping. This is creating a bigger mess. This is disrespectful to this government as it’s facing tremendous challenges -- [Americans] coming in and making this story completely about [themselves] vs. the millions of people affected by the earthquake.”

The response among the Christians was interesting as well. I [attended] a couple of conferences about evangelical adoption in the spring of 2010, and there was an awful lot of discussion and concern about those issues. At one of those conferences, talking about hot-button adoption issues, people [were finally asking questions] like, “How do we make sure we’re not participating in an unethical adoption? What can we do?” There were pro-adoption, pro-Christian people who were very concerned. But when those scandals aren’t directly in the media spotlight, the dominant narrative of adoption as “rescue,” not as a more complicated thing, can come back and take more of the focus.

A lot of prospective adoptive parents do not feel they have the tools to figure out whether an agency is doing the right thing. I saw that time and again [during my research]; a lot of people who want to [adopt] but also want to make sure they’re not participating in something unethical, are completely baffled because it’s such a confusing, complex system.

You’ve written that certain countries like Liberia or Guatemala at one point became an adoption “cause célèbre" -- how do particular locales become trendy among evangelical adopters?

After big natural disasters, you definitely see an urge to address it by adopting. After the Indonesia tsunami in 2005, there was a scandal when [WorldHelp], a Christian organization based in Virginia, wanted to take a couple hundred children from a Muslim community back to Virginia. They put a stop to that; it was extremely controversial, especially because of the place of adoption in Muslim culture [Indonesia had regulations in place before the tsunami requiring orphans be raised by people of their own religion]. But we also saw it after the tsunami in Japan, which is a very wealthy country; what orphan children were left after the tsnumai, it’s very unlikely they would have been in need of international adoption. It happened after the genocide in Rwanda; it happened after the very long brutal civil war in Liberia, Sierra Leone.

But there’s also this sense that countries can pop up as a hot-spot adoption country -- it can seem kind of random at first. Like Guatemala -- everyone was very concerned about the children there, and then it was Ethiopia, and everyone was wearing T-shirts about Ethiopia and selling Ethiopian coffee at their fellowship hour at church. That can appear random, but I think it has a lot to do with where adoption agencies are finding it easiest to set up and start performing adoptions.

Adoption internationally often functions as a boom and bust system; you’ll see a big boom in one country and oftentimes, after a boom, you start hearing about unethical things taking place; families that were coerced, families that were misled, money changing hands where it shouldn’t have been. And there starts to be a slowdown -- sometimes the adoption program is suspended, sometimes it’s shut down. And then adoption agencies, even though most are non-profits, make more money and stay in business by performing adoptions, which are very expensive. They need to go to another country and find a new source for adoptable children. I know it sounds crass to speak in market terms, but really, this does become a boom and bust industry in a lot of these countries. If Ethiopia is a hot spot, a lot of people start hearing about it and signing up, then it starts to slow down and people start turning their attention to Uganda. The attention seems to follow the money, which follows where the agencies can afford to do business.

Can you talk a bit about the pop-culture representation of adoption in movies like “The Blind Side,” and what messages you think those films are promoting?

“The Blind Side” is a movie that has a role in this movement. It might not be explicitly acknowledged, but [there’s a] sense that [this] is a role that Christians, particularly white Christians, should step into: Rescuing children in vulnerable situations. Particularly, as we see in this movie, children of color -- black children. It’s hard not to notice that this movement, like many movements right now, is [made up of] a lot of white, often Southern evangelical Christians adopting many children from countries in Africa. It can create this system, as one of my sources told me, where the diversity in the church becomes a sort of imported diversity. So these churches that were traditionally white seem to be becoming more multiracial, but they are becoming multiracial not by attracting adults of color or families of color, but by their white members adopting many children of other ethnicities.

Church leaders [talk] about adoption as one avenue for evangelicals to embark on a sort of racial reconciliation -- making up for past sins of the evangelical church many generations [ago], not being involved on the right side of the civil rights movement. When you have [adoption] being framed explicitly by [church leaders] ... as a form of anti-racist work, we need to look closely at what that dynamic is actually reflecting, and whether it’s promoting just one side of the adoption narrative -- adoption as rescue, adoption as salvation. We need to look at the other side, pay attention to the experiences and diverse voices of adoptees out there.

Why do you think our culture is so obsessed with promoting only that one limited feel-good narrative about adoption?

Part of that [concerns] the people involved on different sides. First families or birth families (“birth families” being a very controversial term) are often, in the U.S., younger mothers. Sometimes they are from lower-income [households]. Single motherhood is still stigmatized, though a lot less than it used to be. Overseas, the families of the children being adopted are often impoverished, or otherwise not as empowered as adoptive parents.

Adoption is an imbalanced power relationship where, for the most part, prospective adoptive families are much more privileged than the families where the children came from. So it’s not surprising that [domestic adoptees’] voices are heard more. People from the media who write these news stories are more likely to know people who have adopted than to know women who had to relinquish [a child] to adoption [after feeling] they were coerced into it. We tell the story we know, and more people know the story of [positive domestic adoption experiences]. I think that’s starting to change, the Internet has helped a lot. Adoptees are sharing diverse experiences and opinions; some have had very positive experiences, and a lot have had more complicated experiences. Some have had negative experiences. And birth mothers have, since the Internet, been much more able to share their stories, communicate with each other and organize on their own.

By Laura Barcella

Laura Barcella is a freelance writer and the editor of Madonna & Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop (March 2012, Soft Skull Press).

MORE FROM Laura Barcella

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