Is There Really An Orphan Crisis?

American Christian families are adopting children from other countries with the hopes of giving them a better life — but is it actually better? An interview with Kathryn Joyce, author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption.

In her new book,The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, journalist Kathryn Joyce explores how adoption has become the latest Evangelical social justice cause, with churches claiming there’s an international orphan crisis and hundreds of millions of children in need of homes. Christian families across the United States have begun adopting in large numbers as both a way to save children and spread the faith. Politicians from across political divides support adoption as a pro-life / pro-choice compromise, and the accepted adoption narrative is that kids need homes and adoptive parents are doing a kind, selfless thing.

Unfortunately, Joyce reports, the “orphan crisis” is enormously overblown, and the Western demand for adoptable children has created a multi-billion-dollar adoption industry and led to a series of abuses. The needs of children and their birth families are routinely ignored in favor of meeting market demands for babies. Imperialist and religiously dogmatic views also seep into the adoption market: American Christian families believe that they’re called by God to adopt, and that by virtue of their religion and nationality they are equipped to give children from “Third World” nations a better life.

I sat down with Kathryn to talk about her years-long investigation into the adoption industry, the book that came out of that investigation and the surprising truth about adoption. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The general consensus in the U.S. is that adoption is a good thing for all parties involved. What led you to investigate adoptions critically and eventually write this book?

As I was looking at the Quiverfull movement [for her book Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement], which is a movement of mostly Evangelical women leaving their fertility in God’s hands, I started noticing that those same families were getting involved in adoption. It was confusing to me at first, because I hadn’t then heard about people adopting for religious reasons. I had thought of adoption as something that infertile families turn to, so seeing families that were very fertile and had numerous biological children getting into adoption made me question why. And as I looked closer, I saw that many people were adopting from the same small number of countries. So I started to look at that: First at how adoption was part of the anti-abortion message, and then at how that was having a broad international impact.

One of the most striking things about your book is how many people use adoption to add to already large families, and adopt multiple children — perhaps more than they can handle.

A big reason Christians are adopting is because in a lot of Evangelical churches the idea of the “orphan crisis” is compelling a huge amount of advocacy. That’s the idea, commonly held in these churches, that there is a global crisis composed of hundreds of millions of orphans. There are a lot of reasons why that number is really misleading and has confused people about the actual status of orphans around the world — to start, many of those children are not orphans as we think of the term, but live with a parent or extended family. But in a lot of these churches that idea, of many millions of orphans in need, has led to the assumption that it’s the Christian mission to take these children in, that this best reflects the Gospel. Families hearing this message start to have the idea that children are in incredibly desperate circumstances and adoption into any family in America — but especially to a Christian family — is going to be a vast improvement over their current situation. So families with the best of intentions start having this approach to adoption that amounts to, “We have room for one more.” And they have room for one more whether they have three biological children or whether they have ten biological children. If you are casting the orphan crisis in these very stark terms that there are hundreds of millions of children who are bereft of family and hope, it does become this argument that anything you can give them is better than what they have. A shared bedroom with four other children is going to be an improvement.

However, one of the criticisms from adoption reformers is that these families become so large that they are sometimes replicating an orphanage setting. It’s been proven many times over that children growing up in institutions suffer serious developmental delays because they are not getting enough attention and stimulation. But when some families grow to fifteen or twenty kids, arguably they start to resemble orphanages themselves. There have been some ridiculously oversized families, like one with 76 children in the Pacific Northwest, and there has been some commentary that these families are turning into de facto institutionalized settings. These adoptions may be undertaken with good intentions, but sometimes they’re based in a misguided savior mentality. They’re not based on the needs of an individual child, but driven by a sense of mission. People can end up adopting way more children than they are perhaps capable of properly caring for.

Some of these multiple adopters who spend enormous sums of money and energy on adoption, even depleting their savings and retirement funds to grow their families into the dozens, frankly strike me as child hoarders. When people adopt large numbers of animals they can’t properly care for, authorities and public health officials step in (or at least are supposed to). What’s the role of adoption agencies in all of this? Do they have an obligation to cut people off when they’re adopting children in double-digit-sized families?

Adoption services and providers do home studies of families that are trying to adopt children either domestically or overseas. There has been a lot of criticism that the agencies and service providers that are doing these home studies are not always thorough enough in looking at whether these families are qualified to adopt children, especially if the children are coming with serious health issues or traumas. Sometimes in these extremely big families, children can enter outside of formal channels. Children can be adopted from failed adoptions from other families that didn’t work out. There have even been stories of families that failed their home studies, which is pretty rare to begin with, adopting by taking children from other families whose adoptions were disrupted or dissolved. Both of those things show some serious loopholes in the protections that are currently in the law.

Some families with double-digit numbers of children have been cut off by the state. It has happened. I don’t think we want to get into the business of saying that families can’t have the number of children they want to have, either biologically or by adoption. But home study agencies should be more attuned to the ways that adoptions have failed before in some of the same communities, and be more alert to the risks.

What’s needed even more than that, though, is a little more reflection from the people who are doing the adopting themselves. There are some serious and real stories of children who have been abused by adoptive parents, but a lot of the time even in the worst cases, parents entered into this with good intentions. But good intentions are not equivalent to being adequately prepared to adopted traumatized children or take huge numbers of children into their families. The thing that needs to change at the root is the mission-driven mentality that is driving lots of these adoptive parents to think that they are automatically qualified, without training, to take on adoptions that would be challenging to any parent.

There has been a lot of emphasis on the orphan crisis, and Christians have been called so forcefully to get involved that there hasn’t been enough attention given to whether people are actually prepared to do this. And overwhelmingly, these are children who could have been helped in ways other than adoption. Many of them are coming from poor families or families not given adequate support or families that are being misled about what Western adoptions actually are. These are families that need help, but it’s not always the help of taking poor children away from their communities. What’s needed is helping children have stable and more successful communities.

If adoption often does more harm than good, what are other, better ways for Christians to direct their passions and efforts to help vulnerable children?

What’s really needed in a lot of cases where adoption is becoming a boom/bust industry is not whisking the children away to America, but supporting communities and families to help them stay together and be able to afford to raise their children. There are a lot of different ways in which that’s happening. One place where a lot of Christian groups are working and doing innovative things to help families is Ethiopia, which was one of the latest examples of a boom/bust adoption nation. Much of what’s being done sounds basic, but in the context of what’s been happening there, it’s radical. For example, building daycare centers so that Ethiopian women can earn an income but don’t have to make a choice between having a child and a job. Saying, we need to help facilitate a way for a family to make a living. Making it a priority to work on projects that benefit the entire community but are not tied to the number of children leaving for adoption.

Does that kind of quid pro quo happen, where aid is tied to sending children for adoption?

One of the things that’s happened too many times is that people have adopted from a developing country and want to do something to give back and help that country. Often what they’re thinking is, we don’t want other families to relinquish children they can keep. However, if that happens in a community where lots of children have already been adopted out and where an adoption agency is very active, it becomes a very clear part of a relationship between the community and the agency. People there can see that the reason people are donating money for a new water well is because ten children went for adoption. The message becomes clear that benefits will come to the community if children go for adoption.

Before adopting from a developing nation or a poor community, people should be assessing the more holistic needs of that community. Beyond the law and beyond big international initiatives, the people involved in adoptions in the U.S. need to take greater responsibility for their role in the supply and demand chain of adoption. If would-be adoptive parents in America are asked by an agency what kind of child they’re willing to accept and they ask for very specific things, on the other side of the world that can end up being read as a checklist and almost an order for a certain kind of child. If that certain kind of child is not already available to be adopted, far too often people involved with the adoption agency will go and find that child. If you want a five-year-old girl and there’s not a five-year-old girl in the orphanage you want to adopt from, child recruiters go and find such a girl, often from an intact but poor family or an otherwise vulnerable family. A huge part in changing this lies with adoptive U.S. parents taking responsibility for the demand they’re creating in other countries.

To play Devil’s Advocate: Many people believe that American parents can in fact provide more opportunities and economic and familial stability that children need. What is wrong with bringing a child to the United States if the adoptive American parents can better provide for that child?

Parents need to be honest about their reasons for adoption. Adoption is for many people a way to fill that very human desire or need to be a parent. But that is being overlaid with this idea that what they’re doing is pure out-and-out rescue. Those two things are extremely enmeshed and it’s hard to disentangle them. You have a demand from one of the richest countries in the world that is being justified by the idea that what you’re doing is not just fulfilling your own personal needs but also rescuing a child in need. When assessing that, people need to come to terms with the reality that the orphan crisis is not what they have been told. There are not hundreds of millions of children who are available for adoption. The orphan crisis has become this extremely amorphous term, but one of those commonly-cited figures is 163 million children needing adoption. But of that number, it’s estimated that only 17 million children have lost both parents — meaning that almost 150 million children defined as “orphans” have one living parent. In the U.S. we would not consider children of single parents “orphans” available for adoption. People need to come to terms with the fact that these numbers are being used in a dramatic way that changes the meaning of things. A lot of the 17 million children who have lost both parents are also living with extended family, so the numbers are almost meaningless.

There is no real, strong number of children in the world who are in need of adoption. That misunderstanding is driving a lot of the arguments that children would have a better life here. It makes people overlook some of the serious issues in how children end up entering the pipeline for adoption — that parents are lied to, that children are being relinquished because of poverty alone or because some parents think this will give them a toehold in the West or that their children will return to care for them later. A lot of the reality of adoption doesn’t match up with the conception of all these children as orphans.

When you think of all of that, it becomes hard to ask, Why keep children in their home countries to suffer under the pretext of just keeping them in their culture? That’s the argument that lots of adoption lobbyists make. They claim that the motivation of adoption reformers is to keep children in their own countries at whatever cost. But the fact is that a lot of the time, children in these countries are entering the system through completely inappropriate ways, and it’s not a question of adopting them out to America where they’re going to be safe and where they’re going to have a wonderful life. It should be a question of looking at the child and their family and asking whether they are actually available for adoption. Too often the rush for adoption and the profit motives play a real role in a lot of the countries where adoptions are common.

It seems like part of the problem is the messaging: Adoption advocates have a real advantage in their simple statement that there are millions of orphans who need rescue. The response from adoption reformers is much more complicated and nuanced. So how do people who want to push back on these abuses counter the message that adoption is simply about saving kids?

The simple answer is that orphans aren’t always orphans. Children labeled orphans are sometimes wrongly, sometimes fraudulently and sometimes criminally placed in an orphanage — and from there into the adoption pipeline — from a family that might be struggling but is often still a family. Once the children are in an institution, adoption agencies and U.S. adoption proponents point to that and say, we need to get these kids out and into families. But they aren’t going back to their families.

Adoption has become an industry, one where people stand to make a lot of money. Recruiters working with agencies stand to make a lot more money than they could working on their own. Sometimes the stories of child recruitment are found out when children come to America and join families. If the children are babies they might not remember whether they had living family members, but if they’re older, it’s become an incredibly common story for the children to learn English and then tell their adoptive parents, “Actually, I have another family back in Ethiopia.” It is incumbent on adoptive parents to do the research on what this industry actually looks like on the other end, and how disruptive American money flowing into these countries can be when it’s done under humanitarian pretexts but ends up becoming the reason why children are being separated from their families. At the end of the day, “orphans” is a very complicated category and people need to look in depth and they need to use their heads, and not just be taken in by the very emotional message that you’re helping a child in need. In many cases, people get the message that they’re helping a needy kid, but people on all three sides of that adoption end up getting hurt.

Your book makes clear that birth mothers are often coerced, disrespected or simply treated as birthing machines. Do you see adoption as a women’s rights issue?

I started looking at this in part because of the Quiverfull movement and also in part because I was seeing adoption come up as part of other conservative movements’ approach to the abortion issue. That’s nothing new — for a long time we’ve seen adoption used rhetorically as this perfect solution to abortion, and it’s certainly what the anti-abortion movement says to women who find themselves with unexpected pregnancies and don’t want to parent. I first made the connection with this broader adoption movement when one of my Quiverfull sources was asking me if I think it’s wrong that she ask a woman who wanted to have an abortion to carry to term and relinquish to her instead. I realized that yeah, I think that is quite wrong. I realized how that could actually be a very hurtful thing.

To a lot of women who relinquished for adoption, it became the defining loss in their life. There’s a complicated history in the U.S. of adoption, starting in the “Baby Scoop” era in the 1950s, where women who were pregnant out of wedlock went to homes and then their children were adopted out. Many of these women were forced into relinquishing. Some “voluntarily” gave up their rights to their child while they were drugged after childbirth, but even if they weren’t drugged when signing the papers, they were acting under very coercive circumstances. The very experience of being in those homes was coercive. They weren’t allowed to use their own names because it was so shameful. They were told that if they came to the homes, they would return to society as born-again virgins, like nothing had happened. But I spoke to women who decades later are still mourning that loss and coming to terms with what they felt they were forced to do.

Adoption agencies call those the bad old days. But in a lot of ways, things are still that bad today. There are still pregnancy homes that create this very coercive environment that pressures vulnerable women to relinquish, putting a lot of implied financial pressure on them if they don’t, and mixing that with a very religious setting and moral pressure. Women are being told they’ve sinned but God will forgive them if they make this unselfish and loving choice. Some peoples’ grief responses to adoption has been shown to be worse than the response to a close loved one who has died, because it’s a sort of unresolved grief. We’re offering this thing that has been incredibly destructive to a huge number of women as an alternative to abortion because that’s a way to avoid a controversial subject. That makes this a hugely important women’s issues. Many women who have been coerced into adoption feel that they have been left behind and ignored by the women’s movement, that their issues have not been recognized or addressed. And that’s something that we as feminists could do to be more aware of the other side of this issue of what it’s like to be involved in adoption and what adoption sometimes is. It’s seen as this great way to make a family, but we need to also recognize that it’s sometimes also destroying another family that came before. Just as the Christian movement has a lot of work to do to figure out how they can be of help to needy children in the world without doing more harm, the women’s rights movement can do more to recognize and help the women who have been hurt by this.

Are there legal or policy changes that the U.S. or other countries could implement to help make adoption more ethical?

With international adoption there is the Hague Convention, which the U.S. ratified some years back. It was intended to be a way to protect against the kinds of abuses that have been common in international adoption for years — the wrong kids being sent for adoption, stories of coercion or even kidnapping or payments. The Hague Convention did pass and is in effect in a number of countries. But a lot of people recognize there are really significant loopholes in how the convention was made law in the U.S., one the biggest being that a huge number of adoptions to the U.S. still come from countries that are not signatories to the Hague. So the fact that we have this one set of best practices that ideally we wish everyone was adhering to is completely undercut by the fact that many international adoptions are coming from countries that have not agreed to abide by any of these rules. That really takes the teeth out of any reforms.

If people wanted to make the sort of protections that were intended to be in Hague stronger and more applicable across the board, that might be one way to start. But I really think a lot of the change needs to come closer to home in the way that civilians and potential adopters conceive of the issue. We are the demand that is making this industry do harm around the world. The simple fact is that adoption has been taken away from what it should be, which is a way to find homes for children in need, and turned into a way to find children for parents who are hoping to adopt. That simple equation has made everyone’s good intentions a moot point.

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