We’ve found the next enemy: adoptive families

When my husband and I began the adoption process, we had no idea how controversial it would become. There are many stories being written these days harshly critiquing Christians who adopt children.

Before we look at one of those stories, a quick aside. When we went through adoption training a few weeks ago, one of our instructors suggested that we not watch any Lifetime moves during the process. Why? Well, here’s a synopsis of a Lifetime channel offering from last year, titled Adopting Terror (subtle!):

Tim and Cheryl Broadbent are excited to finally adopt Mona, a beautiful baby girl. But when the baby’s biological father starts stalking them, their world turns upside down: through intimidation, manipulation, and violence, he is determined to take his daughter back.

I think our adoption trainers should also suggest not reading the comments on New York Times articles about adoption. Seriously, they’re awful!

What set off the recent adoption-critical trend was Kathryn Joyce’s book “The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption” and concurrent Mother Jones article headlined (also subtly) “Orphan Fever: The Evangelical Movement’s Adoption Obsession.”

Like Lifetime screenwriters, Joyce focuses on the negatives about adoption. Which, of course, has a place.

Now that we’ve been navigating this process for a few years, we are much more aware of just how incredibly difficult adoption is. (We’re in the domestic program, but we’ve gotten to know people who adopt internationally as well.) Sometimes the stories about all the things that can go wrong (from all directions) consume me. When trying to help take care of children whose birth families are unable to do so, lots of problems can arise. The very existence of adoptive families also creates incentives for corruption. And the desire of adoptive families for children can lead to pressures and shortcuts. But in the same way that Lifetime movies aren’t a reflection of the vast majority of adoption stories, Joyce has been criticized (see below) for focusing on a few dramatic examples of problems at the expense of the larger story.

Anyway, it’s in this context that this New York Times article “Eager to Adopt, Evangelicals Find Perils Abroad” was published. In a tweet just after his story ran, the author of the Times piece wrote of Joyce’s writing on the matter “Good summary of the issues from @kathrynajoyce: The Problem With the Christian Adoption Movement http://huff.to/1aR3aZn.”

I actually was notified of the story because another reporter didn’t like the tweet announcing this particular story. Note the scare quotes:

My take on Christian “orphan” movement: Eager to Adopt, Evangelicals Find Perils Abroad http://nyti.ms/19tIhFUa

I tried to put the best construction on the scare quotes, noting that a minor part of the story is how sometimes the corruption of international adoptions includes questions as to whether the children being adopted are actually orphans (You might remember some discussion about whether the infant Madonna adopted from a Malawi orphanage was actually an orphan, etc., etc.). But I agree that the scare quotes are unnecessary and unhelpful.

The article begins with the story of a Montana family with eight children, four adopted. We learn a little bit about their Christian motivation (e.g. “inspired by compassion and a biblical mandate to aid “widows and orphans”) and we’re told:

She and her husband, and the Journey Church where he is lead pastor, are part of a fast-growing evangelical Christian movement that promotes adoption as a religious and moral calling. Its supporters say a surge in adoptions by Christians has offered hope and middle-class lives to thousands of parentless or abandoned children from abroad and, increasingly, to foster children in the United States as well. Hundreds of churches have established “orphan ministries” that send aid abroad and help prospective parents raise the tens of thousands of dollars needed to adopt.

In order to describe the movement as “fast-growing” and “evangelical,” we need some numbers and religion data, right? Well, later we learn:

The presence of evangelical Christians is especially evident in international adoptions, which have declined over all as more countries restrict or ban them because of scandals or politics. In 2012, some 8,668 adoptees entered the United States, down from a peak of 22,991 in 2004.

Though no one collects data on the religions of adopting parents, couples encouraged by the new Christian movement account for “a significant and growing minority of international adoptions,” in the words of Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research group.

So by “fast-growing” we mean that the number of adoptees entering the U.S. have plummeted in the last eight years? How is that “growing” much less “fast-growing”? And we have no data on the religions of adopting parents, period. OK, then! How, exactly, is the “presence of evangelical Christians … especially evident”? I am asking as I have no idea what the answer is.

And I’m not entirely sure we’ve got a good handle on Christians adopting domestically vs. internationally. Many agencies offer both programs — and they are dramatically different programs — and many churches offer support for both international and domestic adoption … and other care programs such as foster or interim care. How do we know precisely how many evangelicals (as opposed to Catholics or Lutherans or what not) are involved in which programs?

But let’s get back to the Lifetime movie script story:

But the movement has also revived debate about ethical practices in international adoptions, with fears that some parents and churches, in their zeal, have naïvely entered terrain long filled with pitfalls, especially in countries susceptible to corruption. These include the risk of falsified documents for children who have relatives able to care for them, middlemen out to profit and perhaps bribe officials, and even the willingness of poor parents to send a child to a promised land without understanding the permanence of adoption.

In March, sending shudders through adoption agencies and would-be parents, the State Department issued an alert about Congo. It warned that several children whose adoptions had already been approved by the Congolese government had been “taken from orphanages by a birth parent or relative,” indicating that those children were not orphans eligible for American adoption in the first place.

Drama! It goes on in that vein. And I have no doubt that the horrors of the Lifetime movies and the Joyce book are true. I really don’t. I have enough friends who have gone through absolute heartbreak as they navigated this process and discovered corruption (or just really sticky and difficult situations that we humans find ourselves in) to know that this is true. But I’d like to know a lot more about what percentage of these 8,668 adoptions last year were at risk of corruption (much less proven to be). I might also wonder why a group that only constitutes, according to this story, a “minority” of families involved in international adoption is bearing the brunt of the blame for any and all problems encountered.

The story does a fine job of noting recent Christian efforts to help children who have lost family via disease, starvation or warfare. But it might also be nice to have a bit more historical perspective. Adoption is not held as an ideal by all religions and some have a much longer history with it than others.

The story ends on a somewhat bright note about one boy’s adoption but the scare stories dominate, of course. I’m not entirely sure that’s the healthiest or most balanced approach to take and when dealing with the unlikeliest culture war story of the year, and more data and substantiation might be helpful.

I didn’t quite have the heart to critique earlier fawning coverage of Joyce’s book but you might appreciate this earlier NPR interview of Joyce by Terry Gross and various critiques of Joyce’s work from evangelicals (here, here, here and here).

And if you’d like a break from all the negativity and scare stories, here’s a nice adoption-related photo shoot of a family’s first day together.

Suspicious-looking family image via Shutterstock.

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  • cvg

    Funny timing… I was just looking for stats which correlated people with pro-choice leanings with adoption rates. The context was whether those who oppose abortion choice leave unwanted babies out-to-dry. I’ve been finding this is a rhetorical talking point for some vocal, un-nuanced, pro-choicers.

    I always find it hard to believe the degree to which laypeople reject the idea that highly religious people are rather more likely that non-religious people to commit and do acts of service (adoption included).

  • Jack Picknell

    1) Anti-lifers level the charge that pro-lifers are hypocrites for their singular focus on saving in-utero humans and not providing support after the birth.
    2) Pro-lifers properly chastened, start focusing on adopting.
    3) Anti-lifers infiltrate adoption structures and erect barriers to pro-lifer adoptions and anti-life media trumpet the perils.
    4) Pro-lifers persevere, endure bigotry and hatred, overcome unjust obstacles, and undaunted by the salvo of life-haters attempts to prevent them, lives are saved.

  • Darren Blair

    I recall hearing that those going through LDS Social Services face a rather lengthy wait time to adopt, as the number of couples wishing to adopt far outstrips the number of children in the system at any given time.

    I wonder what the mainstream media would think about that.

  • Christopher Bugbee

    Two of my daughters were born in North Carolina. One was born in Guatemala. The many stops our family took on our eight-year journey between Durham and Guatemala City included two painfully failed efforts to adopt mixed race children domestically in Oklahoma and in Illinois.

    Provided you are not Madonna, Angelina or someone else with unlimited $$ to spend in the luxury goods market that ultra private adoption has largely become in this country, the adoptive process both domestically and internationally is an unavoidably dramatic exposure for all concerned. Placing the fate of your entire family in the hands of complete strangers for a year or more is a sure-fire way to experience a unique combination of financial, psychological and emotional powerlessness quite unlike any other.

    Your journalistic critique, to the extent that there is one evident here, suggests that drama is a recent media invention, evoked for the purposes of culture war.

    The precipitous drop in international adoptions coming to the US, down to 8,688 in 2012, from 22,900 in 2004 (and entirely unrelated to the culture war you are so eager to evoke), reflects the growing disease of the international community with the unregulated and often corrupted nature of the international adoption process country by country.

    Concerns about the integrity of either international or domestic adoption processes is not the media invention you suggest. Hyping that “media invention” with your headline gleefully proclaiming that the media has identified adoptive families as the new enemy doesn’t make it so.

    I wish you and your family a successful adoption. May it bring all of you every joy and blessing.

  • boinkie

    The decrease in overseas adoptions is party because places like Korea now have abortion for all those unwanted girls. Other countries like India restricted overseas adoptions because of claims babies were “bought”, or in Russia after a child was killed and the bad publicity suggested poor screening of parents.
    The dirty little secret is that it is hard to adopt in country: cross racial adoptions are rare, and often social workers keep sending abused kids back to the parents, so by the time you adopt them they have been through a lot of emotional trauma. Then there is the problem that some social workers reject Christian applicants for local adoption for being too “rigid”. I know of two such cases.

    Our families do a lot of adoptions

    My boys were born in Colombia; my cousin’s child was born in Guatamala. My aunt’s kids were US born but taken from an abused mother.
    The back story in this is because if adoption is seen as good, then it makes women who aborted their kids feel guilty.

  • Christopher Bugbee

    The ‘back story’ alleged by boinkie is more culture war hype in a post that made not a single point about journalism.

  • Jen G.

    The article is a bit of a mess overall. It conflates two different stories (promotion of adoption among Evangelical Christian churches and the problems inherent in international adoption) with some vague idea that former is somehow causing the latter. Both stories well researched could stand on their own but tying them together results in mush.

    There are a number of things not mentioned that could have added to either story such as: the monetizing of both international and private US adoptions which turn a charitable act into an economic transaction which is the real cause of corruption, the exclusion of faith-based adoption agencies from the foster-to-adopt state systems due to their religious beliefs about SSM and placement of children with Same sex couples, and the lack of clarity about balancing potential foster and/or adoptive families’ religious practices with a child’s religious rights.

  • Suzanne Harper Titkemeyer

    …and I would bet good money that the adoption trainers haven’t told the author the truth about the child/children she and her family will be adopting. They’ll gloss over the problems, the pitfalls, things like Reactive Attachment DIsorder, how many foster homes the child was in, what abuse occurred in the parental home that lead to parental rights being terminated in the first place. The people at the agency will do and say anything to smooth the path for the adoption, including withholding vital information that could make the difference between a successful adoption and a family coming apart at the seams. Love is great but it’s not a fix-all for broken people.

  • Rev_Aggie_98

    Blessings on your adoption process, Mollie. A pastor friend has a now adult son he and his wife adopted from India. They jokingly refer to the process as their three year pregnancy.

    I am rather concerned because these stories have conflated a super small niche community with Christians at large. Being in the homeschooling world these folks, named in the Mother Jones, are well known and are rather controversial.

    It bothers me that these reports are so free and loose with their labels because they really do create a false picture. Very few people are part of the group that adopts to evangelize. Most adopt because they can’t have kids of their own. Or they adopted the kids they were fostering.

  • Nora Greer

    I do think you need to read the book. I just finished and thought it was thoughtful and fair to the parties involved. Joyce does say that the adoption process as often practiced here in the US can involve great loss to people that needs to be discussed. My children have godparents who adopted internationally from Ethiopia. I found this book difficult to read and think they would also find it difficult. But the book talks about the issue and presents the viewpoints of a lot of thoughtful people. Some people come off badly but for good reasons. The book is worth a read, it’s not a bad tv script.


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