Many adopted children, Joyce reports, have one living parent, or other family who want to care for them; other birth families may have put them in orphanages not because they are orphans but because their families couldn’t afford to keep them at home.
When my husband and I began the process of adopting our first son in 2001, we did so idealistically, naïvely. Although we were almost certainly capable of conceiving children, we decided adoption might be a better option: my husband already had two older biological children; I had no great urge to birth my offspring; adopting would, if not alleviate, at least not exacerbate the world’s overpopulation problem by providing a home for already-born kids without a family.
Only when our adoption was nearly complete—when we were standing in the US State Department Offices in Vietnam, processing immigration papers for our son—did I start to recognize the potential for corruption in the adoption industry. As I listened to a state department official grill another adoptive couple about the child in their laps, I began to understand some of the problems plaguing adoptions from Vietnam: unscrupulous facilitators skirting the law; infants being adopted at too young an age, given Vietnam’s adoption policies at the time; agencies changing children’s identities to make them adoptable. Such problems, as detailed by E.J. Graff in Foreign Policy, would shut down the country to adoptions from the United States.
While it seems like our own adoption had the documentation proving our son was an orphan needing a family, we will never be 100 percent certain, given what was happening in Vietnam at the time.
We switched countries for our next adoption, certain the corruption in Vietnam was region-specific. Nearly two years into the process to adopt a 3-year-old boy with special needs, I had come to believe India’s adoption industry was not any more transparent, especially after our agency and the care center where my son lived were less than forthcoming about their own in-country licensure. And again, although we have ample evidence our second son was adopted ethically and has no living birthparents, we will never know for sure. He will never know for sure.
Because of my family’s history, I found journalist Kathryn Joyce’s new book, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, an important read for me as a Christian and an adoptive parent. Many secular adoption agencies have been implicated in corruption in the last decade and more. Joyce focuses on those evangelical adoption ministries that have used coercion, aggressive marketing, outright lies and other forms of malfeasance to promote what they believe to be a biblical agenda of caring for widows and orphans. Many adopted children, Joyce reports, have one living parent, or other family who want to care for them; other birth families may have put them in orphanages not because they are orphans but because their families couldn’t afford to keep them at home. Her book’s essential argument is troubling, as well it should be: because the evangelical mythology of adoption posits that the happiest possible outcome for parentless children, both physically and metaphysically, is placing them in loving Christian homes, the seedier sides of adoption remain neatly hidden. In other words, because the motives for adoption are apparently good, some evangelicals demand that we overlook the ways marginalized women in developing countries are deprived of their children, for Christ’s sake.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many evangelicals are not embracing Joyce’s message, nor her warnings about adoption corruption. In fairness, some evangelical writers have affirmed Joyce’s findings about adoption ministries, but many evangelicals have not, and some have deflected her argument entirely. Jonathan Merritt, writing for the Religion News Service, calls an excerpt of the book published in Mother Jones a “shameful attack” on Christians. Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, called the book a “hit-and-run journalistic hatchet job.” A number of Christian bloggers joined the fray. One of the most prominent publications for evangelicals, Christianity Today, published pieces that blame Joyce for not recognizing the “good heart” of adoption, and for peddling “partial truths” as a way of promoting her presumably feminist, pro-abortion message. In a book review, Timothy C. Morgan accuses Joyce of “add[ing] fuel to anti-adoption hysteria through its extremely one-sided perspective and guilt by association.” Meanwhile, adoptive parent Megan Hill recognizes the important warnings Joyce’s book offers regarding “fraud, coercion, and misinformation,” but still argues that Joyce is anti-adoption in all cases.
This is a matter of perspective. In the book’s last few chapters, Joyce talks about ways to make orphan care work, and argues convincingly that any international adoptions should be transparent and legal. Joyce also makes the case that international adoption should be the last available option for children who cannot be reunited with existing family or adopted domestically and kept in their birth culture. Her notion that international adoption should be used only after all avenues for care within the children’s own countries have been exhausted is an emphatically pro-orphan—even pro-life—notion, and one shared by many now-adult adoptees.
This is a point it seems some evangelicals, swept up in the adoption ministry movement, are less willing to hear: that living in a comfortable Christian home, with all the accoutrements of Western wealth and privilege, may not be the best outcome for vulnerable children. Quite honestly, it’s hard for me to hear. I’d like to believe my sons’ best life is in my home, and not with their first families, in their birth countries. But Christians committed to justice and equity need to remember we are not entitled to other people’s children, no matter how poor or powerless those people might be; and many times the best possible place for a child to grow up is with his birth family, in his birth culture, even if that family—and culture—is poorer and less developed than ours.
Reading Joyce’s book, it’s hard not to feel that sense of entitlement driving the adoptions of the families Joyce follows. Joyce provides compelling case studies of conservative Christians adopting three, four, five or more children without the appropriate tools to help the children—many who have faced early trauma and deprivation—thrive. Convinced that love is all these kids need, the families struggle, the adopted children are unhappy (and in some cases, abused because of their behavior), and the adoptions disrupt. Even more egregious are the examples Joyce provides of children procured by “finders” who promise still-extant birth families an overseas education for their children, not adoption. In Ethiopia, for example, adoption is commonly understood as temporary, not permanent. In these cases, some organizations are willfully lying to families, essentially stealing their children, all in the name of Christian adoption.
Implicit in many of these narratives is the belief that adoption into Christian homes saves children two ways: first, by giving them a better life, supportive parents, an education and all the goods American prosperity can provide; and second, more significantly, by saving them from their presumed spiritual darkness and giving them a life in Christ. Although a number of Christian-founded agencies have no evangelizing motives, many Christian adoption ministries—that is, those groups working essentially as para-church organizations—are premised on a desire to save souls. According to Dan Cruver, author of the 2010 book Reclaiming Adoption, “the ultimate purpose of human adoption by Christians, therefore, is not to give orphans parents, as important as that is. It is to place them in a Christian home that they might be positioned to receive the gospel…”
This evangelizing impulse of some Christians has always been problematic to me, and is even more so after reading Joyce’s book. The theological implications of the idea Cruver (and many other evangelical adoption advocates) espouse are astounding. If I follow this line of thinking to its conclusion, my own two sons would have burned in hell, save that they were adopted by Christians, who are de facto often white and wealthy, who could take them to church, have them baptized, raise them up as believers. I reject this idea wholeheartedly, and I hope other Christians do too. Otherwise, we are claiming that God can only work through those with privilege and power, rather than through the least of these, no matter if they were born into a Hindu or Buddhist or Christian family.
Some argue Joyce’s book is anti-child and anti-family, in addition to being anti-adoption; David French, writing for The Christian Post, suggests Joyce’s book is a leftist screed, unable to see the “good” and “virtuous” in what conservatives do. Such criticism discounts the very real problems Joyce uncovers in her investigation, although the anti-adoption label has often been used to silence those who seek to reform adoption by making the industry far more transparent, far less profit-driven, and thus far more family friendly than it currently is. Nothing in Joyce’s book suggests that she wants to reject caring for orphans altogether; instead, The Child Catchers calls on all those within the evangelical and adoption communities to work on behalf of orphans and widows to assure that their lives matter, and not merely as pawns for Christians intent on expanding God’s kingdom.
Far too many families live with uncertainty about whether their adoptions were founded on deception and fraud; and far too many families live with the grief of being cut off from the children they birthed. Such widespread corruption means that any family’s adoption is tainted by doubts about ethics and fraud. Because of this, every adoptive parent, Christian or otherwise, should be driven to reform the adoption industry, rather than hiding behind platitudes suggesting the ends justify the means, and that saving orphans, even through questionable practices, is good and virtuous.
If anything, The Child Catchers challenges evangelicals to interrogate their agencies, ministries and ideologies about adoption, leading the charge to reform an industry where corruption has been legion. That way, in the future, families will not live with the uncertainty many must face, or with the overwhelming grief and loss many birth families experience. Rather than condemning The Child Catchers, evangelicals should see Joyce’s book as a gift, motivating them to make sure not one more child—and his family—is treated unjustly.