Ethics of International Adoption & the Orphan Care Movement

Dawn Davenport


Last month I blogged on the greatest challenges facing the evangelical orphans care movement. I applauded the orphan’s care movement for heeding criticism, including mine, that they needed to do a better job of preparing parents for adoption, especially when adopting older kids who likely have experienced trauma. I further applauded them for moving past the encouragement of international adoption to a more inclusive movement that focused as much, if not more, on fostering and adopting from US foster care.  I ended by saying that I’d love to see the orphan care movement grow in the direction of encouraging family preservation first, and only looking to adoption when all else has failed to keep the biological family intact.8190735544_96d47af492_n-300x199

Don’t Forget the Widows

We Christians are told that God wants us to care for the widows and orphans. We have come to act on that mandate by encouraging adoption of orphans. In many ways, adoption is more rewarding, a more visible reminder to the world that we care and we took action. In the best of all worlds though, we should do our dead level best to first and foremost take care of the widows, so they can care for their own children. And by “widows” I mean struggling mothers. Orphan prevention is far far better than orphan adoption. Let’s keep the widows and orphans together whenever possible.

Family Preservation is in the Air

Ever since I wrote that blog on the challenges of the orphan care movement last month, everywhere I look I see others with a similar sentiment. Sure, there are those outside of the movement with this criticism, including the new book that is getting a lot of press, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption by Kathryn Joyce, and a big article last week in The New York Times, “Eager to Adopt, Evangelicals Find Perils Abroad“.  (I will interview Kathryn Joyce on the Creating a Family Radio Show on July 3. Please sign up for our weekly e-newsletter at the bottom of this blog for more info on this interview, including how to submit questions.) But getting far less attention, but equally deserving, are the voices calling for reform within the movement.

I started reading Jen Hatmaker, a mom of 3 kids by birth and 2 adopted from Ethiopia, a couple of years ago when I was researching for a blog I wrote on The New Normal–Life Once The Adoption Excitement Fades. I fell in love with her voice and her honesty. Jen and her husband founded a church serving the poor in Austin, Texas, and she write and speaks nationally as a Christian leader. In short, she’s an ultimate insider in the orphan’s care movement.

She has written a three part series on Examining Adoption Ethics, and it is well worth the read. She speaks from the inside with a voice that must be heard. I’ll excerpt a few salient point here, but you really should drop in over at her blog and read the whole thing.

International Adoption Ethics Part One

In Part One, Jen tackles the heart of the problem without any dancing around or sugar coating. While I devoured all three parts at once, it was Part One that had me on my feet applauding and saying “You Go Girl!”

Sometimes when you wave a $100 in front of someone, he or she will do anything to get it, even something knowingly harmful. Let’s stipulate that rich Americans flooding impoverished countries with millions of dollars to adopt its children will absolutely garner attention. Money has always been a magnet for corruption. While there are obviously lots of true orphans, without question, that much cash flow will generate some “created orphans” to satisfy demand, especially for babies. …

I’m connected to people living in all sorts of impoverished countries, and the word on the street is not good. There is the Christian adoption narrative we use over here, including inflated statistics, words like rescue and saving, and plenty of emotional ammunition (me = guilty), then there is the in-country story, which is something altogether different.

The missionaries and locals are saying something very disturbing: so often vulnerable birth moms are coerced and misled, families are manipulated and deceived, children are flat out bought. International adoption is Big Business. I’ve read emails describing orphanage directors who paid $20 for birth certificates and $75 to take a baby right out of his mother’s hands. Paperwork is falsified and birth families are told their children are going to school, to triage while they stabilize, to receive health care then return home.

There are very real orphans all over the earth, but most of us don’t pursue the kids there are; we pursue the kids we want, and these countries know the score. Older kids stay on waiting children lists, while the baby line is hundreds deep. It doesn’t take long for opportunists to figure this out. …

There is this silent belief that kids are better off with us, period. We say, “God chose this child for me. She is mine. She was always meant to be mine.” No. Our children were meant for their birth families, the way every child ever born is. God did not intend these children for my wealthy home and accidentally put them in Ethiopian wombs. Does God not weep for birth moms who were tricked? Who were coerced? Who were so vulnerable? Were their children gifts for us and not them?

Could not be said better. And all God’s children said AMEN!

International Adoption Ethics Part Two

In the second post of her series, Jen addresses some of the concerns raised in the comments to Part One, and then gives practical suggestions for prospective adopters on how to choose an ethical adoption agency. In addition to her excellent suggestions, I recommend the Creating a Family Three Step Process for Selecting an Adoption Agency. We cover much of the same territory, but we include lots of links to online resources for checking and comparing adoption agencies.

International Adoption Ethics Part Three

In her final post, this blogger extraordinaire answers the question of what we should be doing instead of (or in addition to) adopting, if our passion is caring for vulnerable children.

 [I]f we are truly concerned about orphan care, international adoption simply cannot be where we concentrate all our efforts. It leaves too many children behind. It isn’t even remotely comprehensive, nor does it affect the millions of families on the brink of poverty-induced relinquishment. It is very good news for a very small percentage of genuinely orphaned children, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of the crisis, will never address the root issues of disparity and oppression, and exists as a possible answer on the back end of a tragedy, not the front. …

If you must relinquish your child because you cannot feed, educate, or care for him, the international community should rise up and wage war against that inequity. Every family deserves basic human rights, and I should not get to raise your child simply because I can feed him and you can’t.

Jen then lists many specific, non-glamorous endeavors we can support that will reduce the number of orphans by keeping families intact. She says “the single most effective ways to affect the orphan crisis” is to throw “our weight behind initiatives that empower women and educate children …as it lifts entire communities out of poverty, alters the ethos of regional patriarchy, and serves as orphan prevention.” She got another standing ovation from me, with several “amens” thrown in for good measure.

Future of the Orphan Care Movement

Truthfully, I have no idea where this “movement” is going, but I feel encouraged that Jen Hatfield plays an intregal part. I am also encouraged by people like Jedd Medefind, Exec. Director of The Christian Alliance for Orphans, and arguably the biggest mover and shaker in this movement. In his response to my blog on The Biggest Challenges Facing the Orphan’s Care Movement he wrote:

I appreciate your response to the questions/criticism of the Christian orphan care movement, too. Of course, there is always great need in any movement for self-critique and maturation…and I hope that even those criticizing the movement can see that happening.

I think you are 100% correct in that the movement is truly and robustly about a broad diversity of expressions of caring for orphans–including adoption, but also fully encompassing foster care, global orphan care, mentoring, and much more. I trust anyone at Summit saw that reflected in every aspect of the conference.

I do agree with you desire, too, to see “family preservation” continue to grow as a strong expression of that as well. (This is why “Family Preservation” is stated as one of the “Core Principles” of the Christian Alliance for Orphans.)

It would be accurate to say that the large majority of the work done by U.S.-based Christian organizations overseas (from micro-finance and community development to health and education programs) is much less about “orphan care” than about “family preservation”–even thought they don’t label themselves as “family preservation” or “orphan-and-widow care.”

For example, I serve on the board of one micro-finance organization working in Africa, and although we never describe ourselves as being an expression of orphan and/or widow-care or “family preservation”, we often see widows, single mothers and other struggling families thriving as a result of participation in the programs. That said, I think we can do more to ensure that we all understand “family preservation” to be unequivocally part of the continuum of responses to the needs of orphans worldwide.


Image credit: UNAMID Photo

05/06/2013 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 12 Comments

12 Responses to Ethics of International Adoption & the Orphan Care Movement

  1. Avatar Jennifer Diede Smith says:

    Unfortunately with all the negative articles being written out there on international adoption, I feel a lot of people are beginning to feel like Jennifer. I’m very saddened about that. Having been through the adoption of our son, we didn’t go into it blind sided. I feel as though a lot of the articles I’m seeing are wording that we don’t know the ethical issues surrounding adoption or that we don’t believe in family preservation. We’re very aware and I’ve even been surrounded by families who have hired their own staffing to do investigations. I also find in some cases, some organizations that step in to keep a family together can only be a short term solution. Where does that leave these children?

  2. Avatar Sarah says:

    I am truly sorry to hear of couples who experience the heartache of infertility. From my experience as a an adoptive mother with bio children as well, determining what family a child goes to is all about the needs of the child. Adopting through the ministry it is all about finding the best possible fit for the child.

  3. Avatar Carolyn says:

    Birth defects are up 70% in China in the last 10 years due to pollution I would guess (mostly cleft lip/palate and heart problems), so the babies who are being abandoned have ever increasing complex medical needs with inadequate/untrained staff attempting to care for them. I would love to see a support system in country (We did meet a couple from NZ who worked in rural Guangdong province to keep or even reunite babies with their birth families if paying for tx was the issue)…. I would love to see children not abandoned with fresh IV marks in their arms because the $$ ran out before the tx was completed….

    So, what can we do? “Bloom where you are planted” with whatever form of family building you’ve chosen and educate people. Our son was abandoned at birth (cleft affected) and adopted at age 13.999 (age out is 14). We attend a Mandarin speaking church. Most of te members are college students who had NO idea of the realities of orphans. Michael has shared a bit with them… about being in a foster home to learn to speak after his cleft repair, only to be returned to the orphanage for supposedly stealing some yuan…. the realities of learning NOTHING in school as I am having various people tutor him in 4th grade math (he started at 1st grade 7 months ago. He’ll be a freshman in August.) Someone said to me yesterday, “He must’ve just forgotten this.” No, many of these concepts are new, starting with 1st grade math.

  4. Avatar Tammy R. says:

    I always feel a little uncomfortable with these discussions, not because I disagree with ethical adoptions but because I think international adoption is changing so much that I question if this still an accurate portrayal. Most if us who adopt internationally now are adopting older and/or special needs kids. Sometimes it is about poverty and being unable to provide medical care but sometimes it is just as much about cultural beliefs. How many countries still discriminate against single mothers or kids with SN? And…the need for IA wouldn’t be quite as dire if orphans had equal access to education, medical care and jobs upon aging out. These are deeply rooted beliefs that no amount if money will fix, and, quite frankly, is something we outsiders can fix either. I don’t know what the ultimate solution is but I do know that the dynamics of IA have changed dramatically.

  5. Tammy, Carolyn, & others, please please submit these points as questions for Kathryn Joyce when I interview her in July. Sign up for our newsletter (just send me your email address & I’ll get you added) to get advanced notice of when to submit the questions. Great great points.

  6. Avatar Pat Johnston says:

    I, too, have been impressed by Jen Hatmaker’s offerings, Dawn. Read these three a couple of days ago and “pumped my fist in the air” as I read.
    Looking forward to your interview with Kathryn Joyce. I had mixed feelings about this book, but in general found it enlightening.

  7. Avatar susan says:

    “There are many many adoption agencies that do”

    There are some good agencies out there.

    However, there is no real need for stand alone adoption agencies. Adoption is much better done when an auxillary service to human service type agencies. That is how it works in many other western countries. I believe that the US and Canada are the only western countries that have stand alone agenciies and even Canada doesn’t have them in all states. I’m not necessarily talking government agencies, eg I think the churches should disband their stand alone adoption agencies and instead only do adoptions as an auxillary service to their general women services.

    You would find that costs would plummet and adoptions overall would be more ethical. It is how it works in many other countries of the world.

  8. Avatar Jennifer says:

    I think there are also ethical issues with domestic adoption. I’m starting to think the only ethical thing to do is foster and perhaps adopt that way.

    • Jennifer, you’re exactly right that there are ethical issues with all types of adoption, including foster care adoption. I don’t take this to mean, however, that we shouldn’t adopt. Rather that we should look at the big picture and make sure that we support ways to preserve families, support poor families, and hire professionals who feel the same way. There are many many adoption agencies that do. There will always be children and even babies who will not be able to be raised by their birth parents and for them, adoption is a life saver.

  9. Avatar Maire says:

    I have to applaud Holt International for operating the kind of services which you and Jen are advocating. They provide support for family preservation as well as orphanages in countries where they don’t even operate adoption programs. In India, where we adopted our SN daughter who was abandoned at birth, they provide education for girls in an effort to break the cycle of poverty/abandoned children. They closed their programs in countries where corruption and unethical referrals became the norm, long before international adoption in those countries was shut down. I hesitate to refer to them as an “adoption agency” anymore. Even their name reflects their orientation: “Holt International Children’s Services”. It would be heartening if more agencies followed their example.

  10. Avatar Pam says:

    I agree completely with this article and I attend a church that has an orphan care ministry, but I have no intentions of participating in their activities in the future because my husband and I recently adopted a Polynesian baby domestically and we just don’t think of her as an orphan because at the last minute our baby’s birth mother almost changed her mind and wanted to keep her. So she would have had a home either way, it’s just that her birth mom had 3 other children to support and a low paying job.

    My husband and I visited an orphan care event at our church before we adopted our baby and the majority of people already had biological children, but decided to adopt a child from another country after going on a mission trip or just as someone said “as an enhancement to their family”. As an infertile couple, we felt completely discouraged that people that already had biological children were able to adopt children before we could. We didn’t get the impression that infertility had anything to do with the people in the group’s decision to adopt. I think we just left the meeting and I cried because I felt no one understood or cared about our situation.

    • Pam, I’m sorry you felt so alone within your church. Perhaps time will heal some of your feelings. You’re right, that many who are adopting via encouragement of the orphan care movement are not infertile, and many do have biological children.

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