A Note of Caution on Christian Adoptions
The laudable desire to rescue orphans should include concern about corruption.

The Bible is full of admonishments to take special care of “the fatherless,” and in recent years, evangelical Christians in particular have taken this commandment to heart. On Sunday, thousands of churches across the country will take part in the fifth annual “Orphan Sunday” to bring attention to the cause of adoption. It’s not just a matter of advocacy: Financial support for orphan-related matters has surged in recent years, becoming one of the top targets of evangelical giving, according to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

In 2012, the Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University reports, charitable giving by Americans rose about 3.5% from the previous year. Meanwhile, Christians donating to adoption causes rose by 9.5% and to groups focused on orphan care by 17%.

Megan Hill, who lives with her husband in Jackson, Miss., is one of many evangelicals who have been drawn to the cause. When Ms. Hill and her husband adopted their son, Caleb, five years ago, the only other evangelical families she knew that had considered adoption were those who struggled with infertility. The Hills already had a biological son. But without maternity insurance and after listening to an appeal from a Bethany Christian Services representative at their church, they adopted locally.

Within three years of their first adoption, the Hills decided to adopt another son—this time from Ethiopia. Ms. Hill says she knows about 50 evangelical families with biological children in the Jackson area who have started the adoption process in the past few years. “There was an attitude of ‘However many millions of orphans, we’re going to solve this crisis,’ ” Ms. Hill says.

Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, notes that caring for orphans has been a hallmark of the religion for centuries. But he acknowledges a recent wave of interest and says it accompanied Christians’ focus on the global AIDS crisis, encouraged by Rick Warren and other pastors.

Well-known members of the evangelical community have also played a role: Former Indianapolis Colts football coach Tony Dungy, retired megachurch Pastor John Piper and musician Steven Curtis Chapman are all adoptive parents. Then there’s the fact that adoption is a natural extension of the pro-life movement.

But in the midst of its rapid growth, the evangelical adoption movement has experienced some growing pains. “Early on, there was adoption cheerleading: ‘It’s beautiful, we need this,’ ” Mr. Medefind says. “Now Christians are talking about ethical questions, like guarding against corruption.”

International adoption is full of ethical and financial challenges, largely because adoptive children are coming from poor countries with opaque bureaucracies, and agencies stand to gain thousands of dollars per child. “The movement has ignored and minimized those challenges,” says David Smolin, director for the Center for Children, Law, and Ethics, at Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Ala.

Mr. Smolin, who describes himself as an evangelical, is the father of six biological children and two girls adopted from India. Fifteen years ago, he and his wife discovered that their adopted daughters had been stolen from their birth parents. “We went through a horrible learning experience,” Mr. Smolin says. “It’s very frustrating to me that the movement arose while these problems still existed.” He thinks evangelical groups need to “emphasize other kinds of interventions,” including finding extended family to care for the child in his or her home country.

Some evangelical groups, in their fervor for adoption, have inflated the numbers of orphans globally to create the idea that there is an “orphan crisis,” according to journalist Kathryn Joyce, author of the recent book, “The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption.”

To illustrate the complications of international adoption, Ms. Joyce points to the surge in American parents adopting children from Ethiopia. In 1997, 82 Ethiopian children were adopted. By 2010, there were 2,511. On the surface, this sounds like great news, but a Unicef study found that 75% of children in Ethiopian orphanages had parents or extended families. Some children in the orphanages had been stolen. In other cases, a parent couldn’t afford to care for the child anymore. “Adoption efforts seemed incredibly well intentioned but complicated and easy to do wrong,” Ms. Joyce told me.

In Megan Hill’s Mississippi community, she says, families who have traveled to the countries where their adoptive children were born begin thinking differently about adoption. Some families became more selective about the agencies they use, and others considered hiring private investigators to prevent possible trafficking.

“Now the things that are discussed are not as much about solving the orphan crisis as it is about how we can help these countries,” Ms. Hill says. “It becomes a little more holistic than just ‘Let’s adopt children.’ ”

Ms. Bailey is a national correspondent for Religion News Service.

  • Adoptive Families Magazine
  • Adoptive Parents Committee
  • American Academy of Adoption Attorneys (AAAA)
  • American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Child Welfare League of America
  • The Center for Adoption Support and Education
  • Dave Thomas Foundation
  • Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute
  • International Social Services
  • Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS)
  • National Adoption Center
  • National Council for Adoption (NCFA)
  • North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC)
  • Medical Issues In Adoption
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