On international adoption and the need for reform

“Everyone has their own personal reasons why they need an infant girl under two,” one adoptive mother reflected in Kathryn Joyce’s book The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption. To put in more sobering terms, however unintentional their effects may be, hopeful families have created a demand in a market that pressures countries to provide a supply that might otherwise not exist— in this case, children.

Adoption advocates cite statistics of the number of orphans around the world in need of families. The number itself isn’t so important— considering it has only increased over the years, it is inaccurate, and not nearly as many are adoptable as that number suggests— so much as the rhetoric itself that is used to support it. Firstly, these ‘orphans’ are seen as parentless, homeless children facing a host of sordid circumstances if a loving family— preferably a well-off, Christian family from a developed nation— doesn’t save them. In reality, the term ‘orphan’ means different things around the world, and rarely does it mean a family-less child. More often, orphan statistics include children who have lost one parent and ‘vulnerable’ children who live in poverty; even when a child has lost both parents, they usually have extended family that cares for them. Conversely, orphan statistics do not include street children who are outside of census data and who might legitimately benefit from family care. As Kathryn Joyce so eloquently put it,

This narrative of adoption as child rescue usually drowns out the more critical interpretation— that adoption is an industry driven largely by money and Western demand, justified by a misguided savior complex that blinds Americans to orphans’ existing family ties and assumes that tickets to America for a handful of children are an appropriate fix for an entire culture living in poverty.

Secondly, the rhetoric of adoption advocates is largely the Christian, biblical rhetoric of being adopted into God’s family and of caring for orphans and widows (James 1:27). While there’s nothing wrong with believing that God’s family is an adoptive one and that believers are only a part of it because God’s love accepted them as his adopted sons and daughters, this is not an imperative that God’s believers then go overseas and take children out of their homes/families/cultures to bring them into their own. The James 1:27 verse calls for caring for orphans and widows— the ‘and’ here is important because orphans don’t have to be (and indeed, perhaps shouldn’t be) separated from their mothers or taken from their birth places to be cared for. It is a general call for caring for vulnerable children and their vulnerable families (widowed mothers, unwed mothers, impoverished families, etc.), something that can be done outside of adoption. David Smolin— a constitutional law professor at Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Alabama—astutely describes it as Kathryn Joyce summarizes and quotes below:

Not only has the Christian adoption movement displayed willful ignorance of the long-standing problems in domestic and international adoption, Smolin said, but its ideology— fixated on the symbolism of adopting children into new families and how that mirrors the Christian conversion experience— explicitly exacerbates the problems. ‘It is not merely a matter of doing the right thing for the wrong reason, but quite often that of doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason,’ he wrote. Seeing adoption as a divine mission leads people to embrace an industry in which they routinely spend $20,000 to $40,000 to adopt a child without being willing to spend several hundred dollars to preserve the original family. Taking children from the poor becomes a normalized standard practice, justified by the sense that adopters are emulating god. A truly just orphan-care movement, he said, would be a poverty alleviation movement.

That’s not just a humane principle, Smolin said, but for Christians, a biblical one as well. The Bible’s James 1:27 call, Smolin repeats, urges Christians to help widows and orphans together, as a unit. But many people find it both more appealing and easier to assist children alone. Smolin calls that ‘the biggest mistake that runs through the whole movement: a discarding of the adults and a willingness to sever any connection the child has to adults other than to the adoptive parent.’

Because international adoption has been allowed to flourish in several countries (before it so often causes the crash that follows corruption), families will often offer their child up for adoption in times of crisis— such as having inadequate means to provide for them— as a first resort. The problems with this are multi-fold, not least of which is the fact that these families rarely understand what adoption is: that it means they will not see their child again and that they most likely won’t be supported financially by their child going overseas. It is also problematic because nothing is solved— the ‘orphan crisis’ only expands as supply strives to meet demand (there are far more families waiting to adopt children than there are adoptable children in the world). As UNICEF’s Susan Bissell put it, “a complex and persistent development and poverty crisis has been transformed into a crisis solely about the poor’s vulnerable or orphaned children.”

The focus on the adoptive parents’ rights eclipses any rights (or even recognition) of birth mothers and sometimes even of nations themselves. With the sense of entitlement and ownership adoptive families often feel towards the child they want to adopt, they don’t understand why they can’t just have him/her (especially with the misinformation of an ‘orphan crisis’ infiltrating adoption talk) or why certain rules might be in place. Again, Susan Bissell of UNICEF responds, “If you really want to help children and you really respect the sovereignty and democracy and good governance and the rule of law that we enjoy in our home countries [in the West], why wouldn’t you want the same for other countries?” And as Korean-American adoptee and advocate Jennifer Kwon Dobbs says, “Speaking in the child’s ‘best interests’ has too often become a segue to speaking about the children as if they belong with foreigners.”

It is important that prospective adoptive families look critically at their role in the ‘orphan crisis.’ The corruption and human trafficking that results from the adoption demand is not easy to take in, but it has to be done. “For too many parents seeking to adopt, the stories of coercion or unnecessary or failed adoptions— stories that reflect the unintended harmful consequences of Americans’ good intentions— amount to information they don’t want to know,” Kathryn Joyce writes. The ends do not justify the means.***

But what is the alternative? The answers are many. Kathryn Joyce ends her books with some suggestions (and warnings):

Would-be adoptive parents must reassess the conception of adoption that has for decades been informed by the myth of heroic Western parents saving ‘orphans.’ For adoption to become a more ethical system, everyone engaged in that system must understand that for most children growing up in poor communities, the answer is not adoption but rather sustainable development, that the best interests of the child don’t always mean a family with more money, that Western parents are not so uniquely qualified for parenthood that any untrained couple can take on three or six or ten new adoptees and make the children’s lives better than they had been before, and that approaching the difficult task of raising children from another culture who may be traumatized from whatever causes brought them into adoption will require more than food, shelter, and love.

Adoption may be a wonderful outcome for many families and many children, but much more often than we acknowledge, this win-win scenario is not the case. Well-meaning people can enable tragedy with their good intentions or lack of understanding of what an adopted child needs. For adoptions undertaken without preparation, for serial adopters who may be attending to their own emotional needs rather than those of the children they adopt, or for those driven by a sense that adoption is a good deed— or a biblical calling— for which they will be rewarded, the outcomes are often painful. And as those secondary adoptive parents who have picked up the pieces of failed adoptions can attest, for the child a bad or an unnecessary adoption can be worse than none at all.

The Child Catchers is an elucidating and thorough look into the world of adoption, one that I would highly recommend for anyone interested in educating themselves in this field of study. So much of the book covers in-depth stories and statistics of the harms and blind-spots of the adoption movement, but the last two chapters provide a hopeful glimpse of what could be: one chapter on Rwanda and how tightly and ethically they are managing their adoptions, with a focus on building a domestic child care system of fostering and adopting, and one chapter on South Korean adoptees, birth mothers, and unwed mothers becoming advocates for adoption reform and cultural acceptance of family diversity in South Korea.

For anyone interested in what adoption reform looks like, below are some links to just a few of the several organizations mentioned in Joyce’s book.

Ethica — “An independent voice for ethical adoption”

Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform (PEAR)– “To provide a voice for prospective and adoptive parents”

Pound Pup Legacy — Working to promote “the safety and well being of children in care. To this end we document cases of malpractice and corruption and offer support to the victims of the ‘dark side of child placement'”

Better Care Network— Works by “fostering collaboration, research and information sharing on family strengthening and alternative care, and advocating for changes to national and global policies to improve children’s care situations”

Korean Unwed Mother’s Families Association (KUMFA)– “Advocates for the rights of unwed pregnant women, unwed mothers and their children in Korea. KUMFA’s goal is to enable Korean women to have sufficient resources and support to keep their babies if they choose, and thrive in Korean society.”


***As an added caution, it’s important to be wary of voluntourism, especially when considering taking short-term mission trips to orphanages. The harm it causes to the children in these institutions to experience abandonment repeatedly by visiting Westerners far outweighs the emotional satisfaction the visitors feel by having gone. Moreover, be careful when doing labor projects not to do things that locals could do for a wage and usurp their opportunity to earn a living. If you feel the need to do projects, be sure to work alongside a local organization (like a church) that has a grasp of the community’s needs and work towards meeting those so that when you leave, the local church or other organization receives the credit and the community is left with something they needed and couldn’t provide solely on their own.


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