Saving Children from Africa: A Quiverfull Adoption Fad

Remember that little Lydia Schatz, disciplined to death by her parents, was adopted from Liberia? Well, this wasn’t an abnormality. It was actually kind of a thing in quiverfull homeschooling families. I knew this as a kid because I noticed the trend in quiverfull publication Above Rubies magazine, which my family began subscribing to sometime in the 1990s. Throughout the early and mid 2000s, this magazine was peppered with images of families like the one shown above, this one a photo of Above Rubies founder Nancy Campbell’s daughter Serene’s family. Serene and her husband adopted a total of six Liberian orphans, three of them in their teens at the time of adoption, and large numbers of quiverfull families followed suit on Nancy Campbell’s urging. Many of these families graced the cover of Above Rubies, and also, given the overlap in readership, the cover of the Pearls’ No Greater Joy magazine.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that we’re now hearing just what became of those children—and that it’s not pretty. Lydia Schatz’ death at the hands of her adoptive parents may have been extreme, but it appears that abuse and failed adoptions were common among the quiverfull families who snapped up literally hundreds of Liberian orphans at Nancy Campbell’s urging. This is the revelation of Kathryn Joyce, who published an article yesterday in Mother Jones, an excerpt of what is to come in her forthcoming book on the topic.

I might have been more surprised at what I read in Joyce’s article had I not already read the hundreds of stories posted on a site called Pound Pup Legacy. This Pound Pup Legacy link—which you shouldn’t read unless you have a firm stomach—details story after story of children abused in their adoptive homeschooling families. They were beaten with electrical wire, locked in cages, forced to sleep outside without blankets, and deprived of food—and much, much more. When I came upon this link a month ago, I had to take numerous breaks and in the end never finished reading through all of the stories. I just couldn’t. I had, before this, thought that the stories of Lydia Schatz and Hana Williams, who was adopted from Ethiopia before dying of exposure after being locked outside of her adoptive family’s house in November as punishment for disobedience, were anomalies. When I came upon that terrible, terrible link, I learned that this was not the case.

But when I read Joyce’s article, what really hit me was that these were the people whose sunny stories covered the pages of Above Rubies magazine, the stuff of my childhood. I poured over Above Rubies magazine as a teen, drinking it up. It was all there—large homeschooling families, happy homemakers, a back-to-basics homesteading lifestyle. It was so idyllic, when I read it, so picture perfect. And now, with this one article, that perfection is dashed. It turns out that when you combine the adoption of children from a war-torn foreign country in order to evangelize them, on the one hand, with extremely strict ideas about discipline and submission to parents, on the other, the potential for disaster is enormous. And now I feel like I have to go back and go over each of those memories again, taking this new knowledge into account.

Here is an excerpt from Joyce’s article, which you should read in full:

IN 2005, SAM ALLISON, a Tennessee housepainter in his 30s, arrived at Daniel Hoover Children’s Village, an orphanage outside Monrovia, Liberia. He’d come to adopt three children, but ended up with four: five-year-old Cherish; her nine-year-old brother, Isaiah; their 13-year-old sister, CeCe, who had taken care of them for years; and Engedi, a sickly infant whom Sam and an adoption broker had retrieved from “deep in the bush.” The older children’s father had sent them to Daniel Hoover during Liberia’s 14-year civil war, after their mother died in childbirth. The orphanage, run by a ministry called African Christians Fellowship International, often ran short of food, and schooling was sporadic. The children, who were forced to flee temporarily when rebels attacked the facility in 2003, referred to America—whose image looms large in a country colonized by freed slaves in the 19th century—as “heaven.”

In Tennessee, Sam and the four adoptees joined his wife, Serene—a willowy brunette who’d attempted a career in Christian music—and their four biological children. Together they moved into a log cabin in Primm Springs, a rural hamlet outside Nashville. Serene welcomed the children with familiar foods such as rice, stew, and sardines, and they were photographed smiling and laughing.

The cabin adjoined a family compound shared by Serene’s parents, Colin and Nancy Campbell, and the families of Serene’s two sisters. Colin is the pastor of a small church and Nancy a Christian leader with a large following among home-schoolers. Her 35-year-old magazine, Above Rubies, which focuses on Christian wifehood, has a circulation of 130,000 in more than 100 countries—mostly fundamentalist Christian women who eschew contraception and adhere to rigid gender roles. The aesthetic is somewhere between Plain People austerity and back-to-the-land granola, with articles like “Plastic or Natural?,” “Raising Missionaries,” and “Green to Go,” featuring recipes for concoctions like “green transfusion” and “My personal earth milk.” In a Facebook photo, Nancy twirls in a tie-dyed peasant skirt. Her daughters, striking women with waist-length hair, use Nancy’s magazine to peddle motherhood-themed CDs and health and lifestyle books with titles such as Trim Healthy Mama. It’s an extended family that thousands of home-schooling mothers know nearly as well as their own.

In 2005, Above Rubies began advocating adoptions from Liberia, arranged through private Christian ministries. Campbell—whose magazine likened adoption to “missions under our very own roof!”*—spent a week visiting Liberian orphanages and returned with “piles of letters addressed ‘To any Mom and Dad.’” She touted the country’s cost-effectiveness—”one of the cheapest international adoptions”—and claimed that 1 million infants were dying every year in this nation of fewer than 4 million people. “When we welcome a child into our heart and into our home,” she wrote, “we actually welcome Jesus Himself.”

Campbell urged readers to contact three Christian groups—Acres of Hope, Children Concerned, and West African Children Support Network (WACSN)—that could arrange adoptions from Liberian orphanages. At the time, none of these groups was accredited in the United States as an adoption agency, yet they all placed Liberian children with American families for a fraction of the $20,000 to $35,000 that international adoptions typically cost. Before long, members of a Yahoo forum frequented by Above Rubies readers were writing that God had laid the plight of Liberian orphans heavy on their heart. “Families lined up by the droves,” one mother recalled. They “were going to Liberia and literally saying, ‘This is how much I have, give me as many as you can.’”

The magazine’s Liberia campaign, it turned out, heralded an “orphan theology” movement that has taken hold among mainstream evangelical churches, whose flocks are urged to adopt as an extension of pro-life beliefs, a way to address global poverty, and a means of spreading the Gospel in their homes. The movement’s leaders, as I discovered while researching my upcoming book on the topic, portray adoption as physical and spiritual salvation for orphans and a way for Christians to emulate God, who, after all, “adopted” humankind. Churches reported that the spirit was proving contagious; families encouraged one another to adopt, and some congregations were taking in as many as 100 children. Dozens of conferences, ministries, and religious coalitions sprang up to further the cause, and large evangelical adoption agencies such as Bethany Christian Services reported a sharp increasein placements at a time when international adoptions were in decline.

Within months of launching her Liberia campaign, Campbell reported to her readers that 70 children were in the process of being adopted through African Christians Fellowship International, most to families that were already large, with some taking as many as five or six. She recalled helping one adoptive father navigate Washington, DC’s Dulles airport with his new Liberian triplets; she put one of them, a wide-eyed infant named Grace, with bow lips and a Peter Pan collar, on the cover of the magazine. Campbell adopted four children herself, and Serene took a total of six. “From my article in Above Rubies about the children in Liberia there must have been up to a thousand children adopted,” Campbell informed me in an email, “and most have been a blessing.”

FOR PATTY ANGLIN, the cofounder of Acres of Hope, one of the groups promoted by Above Rubies, the campaign’s impact and Campbell’s characterization of the adoptions as “cheap, easy and fast” proved jarring. “So many people responded, and they were responding at an alarming rate,” she recalled.

In part, Anglin was worried because she knew how complicated things could get in Liberia, a nation that had only recently emerged from its civil war and was still in a state of near lawlessness. Given the conditions there, the prospect of a $6,000 adoption fee was enough to attract some shady operators. Adoptions that took a year to process in other countries could happen in weeks or days in Liberia, and bribery was rampant. Liberian parents began complaining that adoption had been misrepresented to them as some sort of temporary education arrangement—one local orphanage staffer proclaimed that his own children had been adopted and were now “benefiting from the program,” according to WACSN, one of the agencies Campbell promoted, would eventually host a contingent of American preachers for a three-day revival in Monrovia. The organizers urged believers back home to get involved by adopting through WACSN, which had declared that it would only serve biblical literalists. The struggling Liberian government was able neither to keep tabs on children leaving the country nor to distinguish licensed adoption agencies from groups that merely had nonprofit status.

All was not harmonious in Primm Springs either, according to the four Allison adoptees I interviewed at length for this story. (Sam Allison has denied all of their allegations.) “Everything was good for a month,” CeCe, now 21, told me. “We got to the next month and things started to get a little weird.” Serene’s raw-food offerings were unfamiliar, but Sam would discipline them if they balked at eating her meals, the children said. Other cultural impasses included the children’s use of Liberian English and the Liberian prohibition on children looking adults in the eye. “They’d say, ‘You are so rude. I’m talking to you!’” CeCe recalled. “They expected us to adapt in a heartbeat.”

In October 2006, a year after their first Liberian adoptions, the Allisons adopted another pair of siblings: Kula, 13, and Alfred, 15. “In Africa we thought America was heaven,” recalled Kula, who is 19 now. “I thought there were money trees.” Primm Springs was a rude awakening: It was dirty, she recalled, and she had no toothbrush. The new house Sam was building—with the older kids working alongside him—often lacked electricity. There was only a woodstove for heat, and no air conditioning or running water yet. Toilets were flushed with buckets of water hauled from a creek behind the house. The children recalled being so hungry that they would, on occasion, cook a wild goose or turkey they caught on the land. “We went from Africa to Africa,” CeCe said.

They didn’t attend school, either; home schooling mostly consisted of Serene reading to the younger children. When the older kids watched a school bus drive past on a country road and asked why they couldn’t go, they were met with various excuses. So Isaiah and Alfred worked with Sam in his house-painting business or labored in Nancy Campbell’s immense vegetable garden while CeCe, Kula, and Cherish cleaned, cooked, and tended to a growing brood of young ones. It was also the job of the “African kids,” as they called themselves, to keep a reservoir filled with water from the creek. CeCe hadn’t yet learned to read when Serene gave her a book on midwifery so she could learn to deliver their future babies. “They treated us pretty much like slaves,” she said. It’s a provocative accusation, but one that Kula and Isaiah—as well as two neighbors and a children’s welfare worker—all repeated.

Discipline included being hit with rubber hosing or something resembling a riding crop if the children disrespected Serene, rejected her meals, or failed to fill the reservoir. For other infractions, they were made to sleep on the porch without blankets. Engedi, the toddler, was disciplined for her attachment to CeCe. To encourage her bond with Serene, the Allisons would place the child on the floor between them and CeCe and call her. If Engedi went to CeCe instead, the children recalled, the Allisons would spank her until she wet herself.

And that’s where I’m going to stop. Do go read the whole thing, if you can stomach it. I have to be honest, that last paragraph there had me in tears. I honestly can’t believe that this was allowed to happen. My heart aches for those children.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Saturn500

    Hey, wait a minute… Oh my God… They weren’t just “treated like slaves”. They WERE slaves! It all makes sense now! This whole fad was just a ploy to reintroduce slavery to America! That explains so much!

    • Eamon Knight

      Ironic ain’t it? — given that Liberia was started as a colony of freed American slaves. 150 years on, and they want ‘em back….

  • Tracy

    I’ll be honest, the more I read about the quiverfull advocates and lifestyle, the more repulsive I find it/them. But it’s like a car wreck that you have to look at…I feel unable to turn away. I guess it’s like the need to witness, so if I do happen to be in a place where I can help someone trying to deal with or escape this life style(and here in central Missouri, it is possible), i might be able to understand if only in some small, indirect fashion and give whatever support I am able.
    More to the point of this post, it sounds more like these people were hunting for child labor and less like they were motivated by a genuine desire to help these children to a better life.

    • Nea

      It is, as usual, nothing about the children’s needs at all and all about the parents scoring points with their church and, they imagine, with God. They went and bought very cheap labor AND a no-travel-necessary “missionary” experience, knowing full well that importing their converts meant that the kids would have no options to leave the lifestyle they were imposing on them — even if the kids escape the family. The article talks about how the Allisons didn’t legally complete their adoptions back here, meaning that when CeCe tried to break loose and get an education on her own, she couldn’t prove citizenship.

  • shortcake

    I have a lot of hesitation about co-signing white families adopting black American or African children. The biggest is, are you prepared to tell that baby how her or she will be maligned because of his or her skin? And none of that colorblind crap, either. That is just as bad.

    I always thought my hesitation because they would be mistreated was unfounded until i red this. I feel sick. What is wrong with people? They are vulnerable children looking for loving homes, not trophies to show how godly you are at the expense of their wellbeing.

    • AnonaMiss

      In their condemnation, they treat their own children almost as badly. The adoptees just had something to compare it against.

      • LeftWingFox

        The adoptees almost certainly get it worse. Many have years of living in another culture which the host parents aren’t willing to understand, let alone accept. That’s not even mentioning the potential for subconscious racism or “buyer’s remorse” reinforcing their desires to shape the children in their own ideological image.

  • Annie

    I was doing okay until that last paragraph…now all I want to go do is scoop up my 11 week old and snuggle until I can stop crying. How on earth can you do that to a baby? I’ve been reading for a while, and I’ve always been horrified at the things children are subjected to in this belief system, but now, having my own infant? Devastating. My sister was dating a guy who was into the CP thing a few years ago – he gave her a book on biblical womanhood for a Christmas present (!!!). Every day I’m grateful she dodged that bullet.

    • AnonaMiss

      “God created you only to serve me. Merry Christmas!”

  • L

    I recall reading about how the Allison’s adopted despite having a very small house, and the children had to sleep on the floor, there was no running water, electricity etc… And it was just presented as ‘see how much they trust god? You should too, surely your circumstances are betterment, you have no excuse!’
    In the qf movement, hardship you are unprepared for is to be welcomed because then god will act. Think you can’t afford children, won’t be able to care for them, might die in childbirth? All the more reason to have more to glorify god. And if you do die or have severe problems that must be gods will for you. Maybe Not qualified to adopt a kid – that will likely have ptsd, or other problems? Doesn’t matter, you just have to trust god. And of course work hard enough implementing the pearls child training method… It’s a dangerous philosophy.

    • ScottInOH

      This is the way I see such people–not so much that they consciously want slaves, but that they’ve convinced themselves that they are doing God’s will. They are rescuing orphaned children from a war-torn region. They are ensuring they go to heaven when they die. And because of that, as you say, God will provide.

      It can be very dangerous, indeed, even if they don’t parent according to the Pearls.

  • Imperious Dakar

    People involved in Christian Patriarchy and the Quiverful Movement deliberately reject modern secular values. Unfortunately, rejecting racism (which is traditional in virtually all societies) IS a modern secular value and thus they often see nothing wrong with racism.

  • Christine

    This puts me in mind of the group that got in trouble after the earthquake in Haiti, when they were trying to bring a batch of “orphans” out of the country. I had thought it was just the usual direct aid good/great White Saviour complex that was at risk. Reading this, it sounds a lot more sinister.

  • Rob F

    Don’t the Gothardites believe that sin somehow passes from (biological) parents to (biological) offspring, and therefore reject adoption?

    • L

      i’ve heard many people teach this, but rather than rejecting adoption, the teachers i’ve heard generally say that you need to be very firm (read: harsh and violent) with adopted children, and maybe beware if you have kids. now that is not what Nancy campbell would say, because of course you just have to trust god to protect your current young kids. this is nothing i remember her saying verbatim but it’s the sort of thing she taught, back when i listened to her.

  • Lucreza Borgia

    Oh hey it’s my pet-peeve topic! XOXOXO

    Here are some more links if anyone is interested. Joyce has done quite a few articles on this subject:

    David Smolin also has a good paper on the movement:

    Documentary of a Dutch family who adopted from Ethiopia:

    Adoption is not the perfect solution to world poverty. It’s probably one of the worst because the money spent on adoption fees and whatnot could probably enable the families to stay intact. Wanna really help? Consider sponsoring a child through World Vision. Yes, they are not a secular program, but they are very good at whole community solutions and work on enabling communities to help themselves. Taking the pick of the orphanage litter not only leaves hundreds of children behind in deplorable conditions, but serves fraud and enacts a massive resource and braindrain on sending countries.

    • Karen

      World Vision is a pretty good organization. As it happens, a friend of mine world for the US State Department in Liberia and said good things about World Vision’s Africa program.

      • Lucreza Borgia

        For a religious NGO, they are extremely good about not pushing Christianity and respecting local religions, customs, etc. When I start working full-time, I plan on sponsoring a child.

    • Christine

      I was under the impression that World Vision had a focus on direct aid. Have they been misrepresented, or did they change what they do? (I wouldn’t put it past them to misrepresent themselves, as a lot of their target demographic would consider direct aid to be the pinnacle of international aid, and if that’s the only way you can get development funds, that’s the only way you can do it.)

      • Noelle

        World Vision has many projects, in addition to their sponsor a kid program. Community development with the goal of independence is one of them. They will help anyone, regardless of religion, and don’t force Christianity on those they do help. It’s a good charity.

      • Eamon Knight

        We’ve had sponsorships with WV for many years. IIRC, your monthly donation (and this is in the literature, if you take the time to read it) isn’t all dedicated to that particular child, but much of it goes into a common fund for the development of their community. Yes, sponsorship is a bit of a gimmick that lets rich Westerners have warm fuzzies by putting a face on their giving, but WV isn’t the only one doing that. When our current children “graduate”, we’ve asked not to be renewed and will redirect our funds elsewhere (as much because I find sending back the little cards and trinkets every few months a meaningless nuisance, as for any principled reason).

      • Christine

        Eamon Knight – that was what I understood of what they did. I hadn’t known what Noelle was saying about them having plans in place for long-term development.

      • Lucreza Borgia

        I was given the impression that I could sponsor without actually dealing with all that stuff.

  • DoctorD

    Joyce was on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air radio program today. The Evangelicals were let off pretty easily, their motive for foreign adoption being described as a church-supported benevolent “good deed.” The “bad guys” are the foreign adoption network systems set up to meet this Evangelical need for children.

    Very interesting listen. The audio should be up shortly.

    • Emily

      I heard this piece too! And this popped up on my facebook newsfeed:

      I agree that there are many problems with international adoption on a social level. However, I believe many individuals and families to pursue international adoption with love and compassion as their primary motivations.

      • Rosa

        which, just as with homeschooling, doesn’t mean we should not have stricter regulations.

        Among other things, there needs to be some oversight to make sure adoptive parents pursue citizenship for their children.

  • Hilary

    This isn’t just horrible – this is illegal. Isn’t this the type of abuse that would normally be enough for parents to loose custody of their children? I think we are seeing the tip of a horrible iceburg of a public scandal. Because I can only imagine the reaction of those type of people when child protection service comes in and takes children away for abuse.


    • alfaretta

      You’ve probably read stories on these pages of parents warning their children to stifle their cries during a beating so CPS won’t come and take them away.

    • The_L

      Yes, but if the kids weren’t legally adopted (and I suspect none of them were) by their host parents, then CPS doesn’t know that those kids are there.

      After all, a lot of QF families live in rural areas where you don’t have many neighbors, and where if your next-door neighbor who homeschools mentions that she just adopted a child from Africa, you see no reason not to believe it–she’s your neighbor, after all, and you’ve known her since you were both in diapers.

  • M

    Children are not props. No one has the right to treat another person as a supporting actor in their own personal play, nor as a smiley prop for the cameras.

  • saraquill

    What exactly is the “anomaly” to successful adoption ratio, 10:1?

    • Lucreza Borgia

      It’s hard to say. There really aren’t good statistics as no government agency keeps track of these children once they are adopted and brought to the US. Disruptions (yes, they really call it that instead of abandonment!) are not always done legally. Many times the children are informally placed in another family or put in a home for troubled teens. I’ve said this in comments before, but there is an entire underground railroad in the adoption community for these children. Anyone can privately adopt a child from a parent who holds custodial rights. Some of these kids go through 3 or 4 adoptions. Heck, some agencies specialize in disruptions!

      • Lucreza Borgia

        they’re* Doh!

      • Alison Cummins

        From :

        “Prior to the 1970s, most adoptions were of infants, and very few disrupted. Even today, infant adoption disruptions are probably less than 1%. Disruptions of older children are estimated at about 9% by such experts are Richard Barth. (The disruption rates vary according to the child’s age and other factors.)

        “The highest disruption rate is for children who are adopted as teenagers. According to an article by Barth and Marianne Berry, the researchers found a disruption rate of 24% for children adopted as adolescents. (Conversely, the remaining 76% of these placements were successful.)”

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    I read this article yesterday and was so beyond disgusted. I wish there was a way to help these kids (some now adults) who are here without even the protections of citizenship due to Christian child-trafficking. That last paragraph in your excerpt got me too. Also this:

    ” Pearl worried on his website that some of his followers’ Liberian children were “well-versed in all the dark arts of eroticism and ghastly perversion.”

    Black kids as overly precocious, sinister sex-monsters, eh? Oh dear, Michael, you spilled racism all over your child abuse!

  • Abraham

    Read the story of Abraham Lincoln in Quran (words of the God) since more than 1400 years ago

    • Gordon

      I had always been under the impression that Allah sent spammers to Hell. I guess you learn something new everyday.

  • Sgaile-beairt

    call it what it is….when jailers beat prisoners to death w rubber hoses….’discipline” is a euphemism….

  • gimpi

    This is horrible and tragic. You would think some of these adoption “agencies” would have bothered to educate prospective parents about the suffering these children had endured and the cultural norms they were used to. I guess that takes too much time, when all you really care about is volume, Quiverfull in a nutshell.
    The other thing that struck me in the article on MJ is how little responsibility the adoptive “parents” took for the whole process. If it gets hard, just ship the kid back, drop them in a Liberian airport, whatever. I’m sorry, but I can’t see “failed” adoption as an option, any more than you get to send the kid back if you gave birth. How about a little more thought up-front?
    And this is the group who’s going to teach the rest of us about responsibility?

  • Brightie

    What action should we take?
    Earlier today, I was feeling like looking for millstones. But for one, we’re a little short on those locally, and for another, I don’t think homicide would really solve the problem.
    I want to know what laws are already in place. What sorts of regulations are normally on adoption agencies, and if they can be improved. Whether and how agencies or persons who severely abuse the trust placed in them can be shut down, and who to donate to or raise awareness for to help make it happen, or at least improve on existing conditions.

  • Judy L.

    I remember watching an episode of ‘An Adoption Story’ on TLC network in which a Canadian couple goes to Haiti to adopt a NOT ORPHAN baby boy, through a Christian agency. I didn’t get the sense that they were adopting him out of missionary zeal, but it still infuriated me that they thought it was okay to exploit a mother’s poverty in order to fulfill their dreams of parenthood.

    If people want to make a real difference in the lives of impoverished children, the best thing they can do is to sponsor or invest in those children’s parents. Where children have parents, the goal should be to make it possible for those parents to reclaim their children, or better yet, help those parents so that they don’t have to place them in orphanages to begin with. Where there are orphans, especially in the case of older children and siblings, local adoption should be the goal. But this Evangelically-driven adoption fervor isn’t about helping children and doing what’s best by them – it’s about Evangelicals racking up souls to satisfy their own sense of pride disguised as humility.