The Evangelical Orphan Boom

If you attend an evangelical church these days, there’s a good chance you’ll hear about the “orphan crisis” affecting millions of children around the world.

These Christian advocates of transnational adoption will often say that some 150 million children need homes — though that figure, derived from a Unicef report, includes not only parentless children, but also those who have lost only one parent, and orphans who live with relatives.

Evangelical adoptions picked up in earnest in the middle of the last decade, when a wave of prominent Christians, including the megachurch pastor Rick Warren and leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, began to promote adoption as a special imperative for believers. Adoption mirrored the Christian salvation experience, they argued, likening the adoption of orphans to Christ’s adoption of the faithful. Adoption also embodied a more holistic “pro-life” message — caring for children outside the womb as well as within — and an emphasis on good deeds, not just belief, that some evangelicals felt had been ceded to mainline Protestant denominations.

Believers rose to the challenge. The Christian Alliance for Orphans estimates that hundreds of thousands of people worldwide participate in its annual Orphan Sunday (this year’s is Nov. 3). Evangelicals from the Bible Belt to Southern California don wristbands or T-shirts reading “orphan addict” or “serial adopter.” Ministries have emerged to raise money and award grants to help Christians pay the fees (some $30,000 on average, plus travel) associated with transnational adoption.

However well intended, this enthusiasm has exacerbated what has become a boom-and-bust market for children that leaps from country to country. In many cases, the influx of money has created incentives to establish or expand orphanages — and identify children to fill them.

In some cases, agencies may hire “child finders” to recruit children of the age and gender that prospective adoptive parents prefer, sometimes from impoverished but intact families. Even nonprofit agencies with good reputations may turn to such local recruiters in countries where they don’t already have established partners — or where the demand for children exceeds the supply.

The potential for fraud and abuse is high. Orphanages tend to be filled by kids whose parents want better opportunities for them, while the root problem — extreme poverty — goes unaddressed, a Unicef worker in Ethiopia told me. Worse, some families in places with different cultural norms and legal systems relinquish their kids believing that it is a temporary guardianship arrangement, rather than an irrevocable severance of family ties.

In 2006, the family of three sisters adopted from Sodo, Ethiopia, said they were told that adoption would give the children a chance at an American education and that they would later return. The adoptive parents, then living in New Mexico, said they’d been falsely assured by an evangelical agency, Christian World Adoption, that they were saving destitute children orphaned by AIDS, who might otherwise have become sex workers.

When the children arrived and were told the adoption was permanent, they were distraught. And when the adoptive family complained, the agency maintained that the adoption was justified under Ethiopian law and counseled the parents to trust in God’s plan. When the adoptive family complained to the Better Business Bureau in North Carolina, where the agency was based, it threatened to report the family to child protective services in New Mexico. (The agency has since gone bankrupt.)

Though most are not as nightmarish, adoption complications are common. Some adoptive parents have even hired private investigators to try to verify the stories they were told about their kids.

When scandals emerge, governments lumber into action. But then the demand just shifts to another country, and the problems start all over again. In the early 1990s, Romania saw an adoption boom after shocking images of orphanages — housing young victims of Nicolae Ceausescu’s compulsory birth policies — became public. But over time, stories of other Romanian kids’ being coerced into adoption or bought from their families surfaced. Romania halted international adoptions in 2001.

Also in the 1990s, the number of adoptions from Vietnam soared, but the outrageous fees paid to child finders — sometimes more than $10,000 — caused the government in 2003 to press pause to reform the system. (But when the adoptions resumed in 2005, so did the problems.)

At the height of Guatemala’s adoption boom in the middle of the last decade, nearly 1 percent of babies were sent to the United States, before stories of child buying and even kidnapping prompted a shutdown in 2008. Then the boom shifted to Ethiopia and, now, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Of course, adoption problems aren’t limited to Christian agencies, and they don’t originate with them, but some movement insiders say that evangelicals — whether driven by zeal or naïveté — have had a disproportionate impact on the international adoption system. Groups like Unicef and Save the Children have made clear that millions of “orphans” are, in fact, not eligible for transnational adoption, but advocates often disregard these warnings as signs of ideological opposition to adoption — a charge Unicef has denied.

After some high-profile adoption horror stories, the number of transnational adoptions to the United States fell to fewer than 9,000 last year, from a high of nearly 23,000 in 2004. Last year, only China and Ethiopia sent more than 1,000 adoptees to America, and only South Korea and Russia topped 500. (Russia this year banned adoptions by American parents.)

This boom-and-bust, musical-chairs cycle does little to improve child-welfare systems in developing countries and has perpetuated a culture of aid-based orphanage construction — the reverse of the trend in wealthy countries, which have phased out institutions in favor of foster care.

The United States must improve regulation. There are no specific limits to what agencies can spend in other countries and little oversight in the system, which relies on peer reviews from other adoption agencies. And often there is little political will to investigate agency wrongdoing. While the United States abides by the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption — a set of standards promulgated in 1993 to prevent abuses — American agencies can often dodge responsibility for abuses by blaming local partners. Moreover, many foreign children brought into America come from countries that have not signed the convention.

Policy reforms, domestic and international, won’t be enough without a change in thinking, particularly among American evangelicals. Some Christian groups have begun to heed the call to do good works overseas, by focusing on aid that keeps families intact or improves local foster care and adoption. Some churches have backed programs overseas that provide emergency foster parents, or day care programs for widowed mothers. But many churches still preach the simplistic message that there are more Christians in the world than orphans, and that every adoption means a child saved.

For too long, well-meaning Americans have brought their advocacy and money to bear on an adoption industry that revolves around Western demand. Adoption can be wonderful when it’s about finding the right family for a child who is truly in need, but it can also be tragic and unjust if it involves deception, removes children from their home countries when other options are available, or is used as a substitute for addressing the underlying problems of poverty and inequality. We can no longer be blind to the collateral damage that good intentions bring.