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Jonathan Merritt

Exploring Adoption

Are evangelicals doing more harm than good?

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In 2007, the Christian Alliance for Orphans hosted a gathering at Focus on the Family's headquarters in Colorado Springs. Christian adoption advocates and notable leaders (including Rick Warren) attended. The purpose was to raise evangelical awareness of an "orphan crisis" affecting millions of children around the world and mobilize faith communities to prioritize adoption.

And it worked. Rick Warren started championing adoption through his popular P.E.A.C.E. Plan and a stack of books were penned on the subject by people like Russell Moore, Dan Cruver, Tony Merida, and Bishop W. C. Martin, drawing on the deep resources of the church for a theology of adoption. A slew of Christian organizations helped to raise awareness of the issue, thousands of congregations began participating in "Orphan Sunday," and the Southern Baptist Convention—America's largest Protestant denomination—passed a resolution calling on their churches to begin caring for orphans. Suddenly, both Christian and secular media outlets were saturated with stories about the emerging evangelical adoption movement.

The partnership seemed a perfect match. Evangelicals, who routinely affirm the authority of Scripture, were confronted with unambiguous biblical admonitions to care for "the least of these" and "to look after orphans and widows in their distress." Additionally, the new emphasis on adoption tapped into the group's opposition to abortion.

But according to Kathryn Joyce in The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, the effort was misguided and has since bred an abundance of injurious consequences. While often sincere, Joyce says, evangelicals have boosted a poorly regulated adoption market riddled with problems, including coercion, child abuse, and veiled attempts to evangelize unsuspecting kids. Worse yet, the increased demand for adoptable children has fueled human trafficking in developing nations, where "tens of thousands of loving but impoverished parents" have "become the supply side of a multi-billion dollar global industry driven not just by infertility but now also by pulpit commands."

Joyce is a seasoned journalist who hasn't come to the conversation unprepared. She tells story upon story of individuals who have experienced or contributed to the problems she seeks to expose. She demonstrates how fervent advocates have often misused or fabricated statistics about the number of orphans in existence and have often failed to explain what the term "orphan" actually means when they use it.

Perhaps her most stunning and convincing example is a case study of international adoptions in Ethiopia, where adoptions to the U.S. skyrocketed from 82 children in 1997 to 2,511 in 2010. "Adoption agencies entered en masse with a seemingly unlimited amount of money," Joyce writes, "and they started working with existing orphanages or new start-ups to identify children who could go overseas for adoption."

The adoption industry incentivized eligible children, which led to child trafficking and a widespread practice of orphanages convincing able parents to relinquish their children for financial gain. A UNICEF research study during this period concluded that 75 percent of children in Ethiopian orphanages could be reintegrated with their parents or extended families. A glut of abandonment cases forced Ethiopia to create a special court just for reviewing and approving international adoptions. The African nation's legal system wasn't able to process the influx of adoption cases, much less regulate the industry's corruption, and the government was forced to clamp down on the whole system. In 2011, Ethiopia's boom went bust.

Joyce uses this example and dozens of others to highlight some of the adoption movement's most serious problems. First, the influx of money has bred corruption. Imagine what happens in a country like Ethiopia, where an average worker earns $2.00 per day and organizations offer $5,000 or $6,000 for each child adopted. That kind of temptation is hard for many poor parents to resist.

Additionally, the corruption feeds the already widespread problem of human trafficking. As children are commodified, kidnapping increases and sometimes parents are offered incentives to giving up children they have the means to care for. In China alone, nearly 60,000 trafficked children have been rescued in the past three years.[1]

Though adoption is often undertaken with the best intentions, Joyce says, adoption advocates have actually undermined the protection and care they desire to provide for children. By raising awareness of the abuses and corruption that undeniably exist, she does her readers a favor. Unfortunately, that may be the extent of this book's helpfulness.

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