This week in Nashville, the Christian Alliance for Orphans will hold Summit 9, an annual planning conference, including strategizing for Orphan Sunday on Nov. 3. But in reality, the bloom is off the rose of American Christians adopting orphaned and vulnerable children from faraway lands.
The U.S. State Department keeps track of how many children are adopted by Americans each year. After a peak in 2004, there has been a 62 percent decline in such adoptions. Last year, there were 8,668 adoptions, a sharp drop from nine years ago when 22,991 adoptions occurred.
Professionals involved in adoptions services say there are many factors at work in this decline. Many are geopolitical. Russia, in a political snit, has shut the door on all adoptions by Americans. China and Ethiopia, both major sources for adoptable children, have significantly slowed down the adoption process.
The weak economy is another disincentive. Inter-country adoption remains extremely expensive. The average cost is $28,425, but an adoption may cost as much as $64,000.
Another factor is stigma. Adoption horror stories, especially when the children have significant special needs, are gaining enormous currency through social media as well as traditional news media. A new book, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, And the New Gospel of Adoption by journalist Kathryn Joyce, adds fuel to anti-adoption hysteria through its extremely one-sided perspective and guilt by association. The author, who describes herself as a secular feminist, fills her book with one adoption tragedy after another.
Her major criticisms are that faith-based adoptions are:
• tainted by "child laundering," a form of trafficking vulnerable children through deception and "dirty money."
• driven by the politics of abortion or patriarchy in which unmarried pregnant women are coerced to give up their newborn children.
• motivated by misplaced understanding of Christian theology, adoption, and care for children.
• deeply harmful to children, birth parents, and adoptive parents.
In recent years, supporters of overseas adoption have been whipsawed by events—praised one moment as sacrificial humanitarians and then accused of child trafficking or incompetence the next.
In January 2010, the devastating earthquake in Haiti killed tens of thousands of people. Estimates say 92,000 to 316,000 people died. In the immediate aftermath, there was a chaotic surge in global relief work. One of the most controversial initiatives was the Obama administration's decision to grant Special Humanitarian Parole, allowing 1,090 vulnerable children to be taken immediately to America, for treatment, possible adoption, or long-term care.
But other agencies, including UNICEF, quickly called for a total ban on post-disaster adoption. Then, the Laura Silsby child trafficking story exploded in headlines across the world. Allegations were lodged against Silsby and other American Christians for allegedly trafficking Haitian children out of the country for care in the Dominican Republic or possible U.S. adoption.
A few months later in April, more bad news erupted. A Shelbyville, Tennessee, mother, Torrey Hansen, who had adopted a Russian child, put him on a flight back to Moscow, saying that the boy was "mentally unstable." She said family members feared for their lives because he was so violent. This episode produced a negative backlash coming from the news media and further shifted public sentiment against overseas adoption.
A Narrative of Partial Truths
The cumulative effects of all the negative media coverage, new restrictions on adoption, and the weak economy have likely caused many would-be adoptive parents to snuff out dreams they may have once harbored for creating a family or adding to their family through inter-country adoption.
That is tragic, and The Child Catchers does nothing to keep hope alive that the world's so-called OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children) will receive the care they deserve.
The Child Catchers is a narrative of partial truths. It's true that deception may occur in the process of adoption and that the adoptions are vulnerable to financial manipulation. Some unmarried expectant mothers have experienced coercion to give up their child. On occasion, passionate Christians misread mandates in Scripture about adoption. Children, birth parents, and adoptive parents have experienced emotional and physical trauma before, during, and after adoption. None of these are acceptable.
Our State Department says there were 233,934 inter-country adoptions from 1999 to 2011. We should not tolerate a single episode of criminal deception, child abuse, or injustice. But The Child Catchers uses a relative handful of tragic case studies to indict an entire faith-based humanitarian enterprise. Columnist Jonathan Merritt is right in writing that accusing Christians of having "orphan fever" is akin to "accusing the volunteers of a local soup kitchen of a 'poverty obsession' or 'homeless fever.' Shouldn't liberals who claim to be protectors of children and the poor be cheering on Christians for their efforts?"
In her preface, Kathryn Joyce sets out the book's goal as "understanding what has gone wrong" in inter-country adoption. It's true she has reported on things that have gone wrong. But any level of understanding is distorted by the author's lefty ideology.
A more balanced view would fairly set forth the reality that orphans and vulnerable children exist in every country, always have, and always will. They need reunion with existing family when possible or inclusion into another healthy family to thrive.
This dynamic is an intimate part of the human condition and certainly a big reason why novelists, dramatists, and screen writers so often employ the narrative of an orphan to tell a larger story. Charles Dickens did this in Oliver Twist. J.K Rowling used the murder of Harry Potter's parents to drive forward his coming-of-age story through seven novels. Our imaginations are captured by what happens in the life of the "fatherless child," and we are motivated to respond compassionately.