We've found the next enemy: adoptive families

When my husband and I began the adoption process, we had no idea how controversial it would become. There are many stories being written these days harshly critiquing Christians who adopt children. Before we look at one of those stories, a quick aside. When we went through adoption training a few weeks ago, one of our instructors suggested that we not watch any Lifetime moves during the process. Why? Well, here's a synopsis of a Lifetime channel offering from last year, titled Adopting Terror (subtle!):

Tim and Cheryl Broadbent are excited to finally adopt Mona, a beautiful baby girl. But when the baby’s biological father starts stalking them, their world turns upside down: through intimidation, manipulation, and violence, he is determined to take his daughter back.

I think our adoption trainers should also suggest not reading the comments on New York Times articles about adoption. Seriously, they're awful!

What set off the recent adoption-critical trend was Kathryn Joyce's book "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption" and concurrent Mother Jones article headlined (also subtly) "Orphan Fever: The Evangelical Movement's Adoption Obsession."

Like Lifetime screenwriters, Joyce focuses on the negatives about adoption. Which, of course, has a place.

Now that we've been navigating this process for a few years, we are much more aware of just how incredibly difficult adoption is. (We're in the domestic program, but we've gotten to know people who adopt internationally as well.) Sometimes the stories about all the things that can go wrong (from all directions) consume me. When trying to help take care of children whose birth families are unable to do so, lots of problems can arise. The very existence of adoptive families also creates incentives for corruption. And the desire of adoptive families for children can lead to pressures and shortcuts. But in the same way that Lifetime movies aren't a reflection of the vast majority of adoption stories, Joyce has been criticized (see below) for focusing on a few dramatic examples of problems at the expense of the larger story.

Anyway, it's in this context that this New York Times article "Eager to Adopt, Evangelicals Find Perils Abroad" was published. In a tweet just after his story ran, the author of the Times piece wrote of Joyce's writing on the matter "Good summary of the issues from @kathrynajoyce: The Problem With the Christian Adoption Movement http://huff.to/1aR3aZn."

I actually was notified of the story because another reporter didn't like the tweet announcing this particular story. Note the scare quotes:

My take on Christian "orphan" movement: Eager to Adopt, Evangelicals Find Perils Abroad http://nyti.ms/19tIhFUa

I tried to put the best construction on the scare quotes, noting that a minor part of the story is how sometimes the corruption of international adoptions includes questions as to whether the children being adopted are actually orphans (You might remember some discussion about whether the infant Madonna adopted from a Malawi orphanage was actually an orphan, etc., etc.). But I agree that the scare quotes are unnecessary and unhelpful.

The article begins with the story of a Montana family with eight children, four adopted. We learn a little bit about their Christian motivation (e.g. "inspired by compassion and a biblical mandate to aid “widows and orphans”) and we're told:

She and her husband, and the Journey Church where he is lead pastor, are part of a fast-growing evangelical Christian movement that promotes adoption as a religious and moral calling. Its supporters say a surge in adoptions by Christians has offered hope and middle-class lives to thousands of parentless or abandoned children from abroad and, increasingly, to foster children in the United States as well. Hundreds of churches have established “orphan ministries” that send aid abroad and help prospective parents raise the tens of thousands of dollars needed to adopt.

In order to describe the movement as "fast-growing" and "evangelical," we need some numbers and religion data, right? Well, later we learn:

The presence of evangelical Christians is especially evident in international adoptions, which have declined over all as more countries restrict or ban them because of scandals or politics. In 2012, some 8,668 adoptees entered the United States, down from a peak of 22,991 in 2004.

Though no one collects data on the religions of adopting parents, couples encouraged by the new Christian movement account for “a significant and growing minority of international adoptions,” in the words of Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research group.

So by "fast-growing" we mean that the number of adoptees entering the U.S. have plummeted in the last eight years? How is that "growing" much less "fast-growing"? And we have no data on the religions of adopting parents, period. OK, then! How, exactly, is the "presence of evangelical Christians ... especially evident"? I am asking as I have no idea what the answer is.

And I'm not entirely sure we've got a good handle on Christians adopting domestically vs. internationally. Many agencies offer both programs -- and they are dramatically different programs -- and many churches offer support for both international and domestic adoption ... and other care programs such as foster or interim care. How do we know precisely how many evangelicals (as opposed to Catholics or Lutherans or what not) are involved in which programs?

But let's get back to the Lifetime movie script story:

But the movement has also revived debate about ethical practices in international adoptions, with fears that some parents and churches, in their zeal, have naïvely entered terrain long filled with pitfalls, especially in countries susceptible to corruption. These include the risk of falsified documents for children who have relatives able to care for them, middlemen out to profit and perhaps bribe officials, and even the willingness of poor parents to send a child to a promised land without understanding the permanence of adoption.

In March, sending shudders through adoption agencies and would-be parents, the State Department issued an alert about Congo. It warned that several children whose adoptions had already been approved by the Congolese government had been “taken from orphanages by a birth parent or relative,” indicating that those children were not orphans eligible for American adoption in the first place.

Drama! It goes on in that vein. And I have no doubt that the horrors of the Lifetime movies and the Joyce book are true. I really don't. I have enough friends who have gone through absolute heartbreak as they navigated this process and discovered corruption (or just really sticky and difficult situations that we humans find ourselves in) to know that this is true. But I'd like to know a lot more about what percentage of these 8,668 adoptions last year were at risk of corruption (much less proven to be). I might also wonder why a group that only constitutes, according to this story, a "minority" of families involved in international adoption is bearing the brunt of the blame for any and all problems encountered.

The story does a fine job of noting recent Christian efforts to help children who have lost family via disease, starvation or warfare. But it might also be nice to have a bit more historical perspective. Adoption is not held as an ideal by all religions and some have a much longer history with it than others.

The story ends on a somewhat bright note about one boy's adoption but the scare stories dominate, of course. I'm not entirely sure that's the healthiest or most balanced approach to take and when dealing with the unlikeliest culture war story of the year, and more data and substantiation might be helpful.

I didn't quite have the heart to critique earlier fawning coverage of Joyce's book but you might appreciate this earlier NPR interview of Joyce by Terry Gross and various critiques of Joyce's work from evangelicals (here, here, here and here).

And if you'd like a break from all the negativity and scare stories, here's a nice adoption-related photo shoot of a family's first day together.

Suspicious-looking family image via Shutterstock.

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