Adoption Anecdotes

The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption

  • Kathryn Joyce
  • Public Affairs, 2013; 352 pages, $26.99

Four years ago, Kathryn Joyce published Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement, a critical treatment of an evangelical Christian group wherein women married and obeyed their husbands, had lots of babies, and stayed home to take care of them. Joyce, a left-leaning religion reporter, was horrified by the movement, and that horror is evident even in a brief statement on the book’s jacket bemoaning the rise of “modest, feminine dress” and avoidance of sex before marriage in “the corners of fundamentalist Christendom across the country.”

In 2013, Joyce turned her attention to the evangelical adoption movement. The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption is a largely anecdotal coverage of the Christian adoption movement—or, more specifically, international Christian adoption. In a gracious response to the book, Jedd Medefind, president of Christian Alliance for Orphans, writes that in several interviews with Joyce, he had expounded in detail on domestic Christian efforts to help children, “[y]et virtually none of this—the mentoring, family preservation, foster care, and adoption of American children that most everyone else has largely abandoned—made it into the book.”

This absence should be noted. In its Adoption Factbook V, the National Council for Adoption (NCFA), one of the largest adoption advocacy groups, points out that in 2007, 133,737 domestic adoptions took place, and of these, 57,248 were “related”—the child was adopted by a relative. Comparatively, there were only 19,471 international adoptions in the same year, some 20% of all non-related adoptions. The numbers of international adoptions have fallen drastically since that time. According to the Department of State, in FY2012, there were only 8,668 international adoptions to the U.S. Of these, how many are the type of evangelical Christians that Joyce objects to? There is no way to tell for certain, but Joyce’s characterization of international adoption as an overwhelmingly Christian movement is misleading, and her arguments deal with a very small percentage of overall adoptions in the U.S.

In spite of the omission, Joyce is a good investigator and makes some points worthy of attention. Perhaps one of the most significant mistakes of the Christian adoption movement is the appeal based on misinformation. There is not, Joyce argues, an international “orphan crisis,” at least not on the levels that some Christian groups claim. Joyce focuses most on the number 143 million—an official UN estimate of “orphaned and vulnerable children” around the world. Christians, she says, have picked up on this number as a rallying cry in megachurches across the land. What Joyce points out is that this tally includes children who have lost one parent and may still live with a surviving parent or even with other family or community members. Determining the numbers of “double orphans”—children who have lost both parents—is challenging, and perhaps even more challenging is determining how many of these children have family or a supportive community that would be willing to care for them if finances allowed. Nonetheless, though some Christian groups may be guilty of using this number incorrectly, the number itself came from the UN, with little clarification as to what precisely “vulnerable” means.

Joyce also points to the over-enthusiasm, naiveté, and under-preparedness of some Christian families when dealing with the adoption process. Some countries are guiltier than others of adoption fraud, bending rules, or using unscrupulous adoption “middle men” who literally go into the countryside to find children for white Americans. And some agencies, Joyce reports, are so caught up in the notion of doing good that they occasionally turn a blind eye to where precisely these children came from, or whether their birth parents fully understand the Western notion of “adoption.”  Would-be adoptive Christian parents, new to the process and eager to find a child, ignore warning signs that all is not as it should be. Worse yet, some of the parents Joyce interviewed found themselves woefully underprepared to handle children who had lived in countries torn by civil war, many of whom had lost loved ones, seen a dead body, or faced sexual abuse in native orphanages.

Joyce also points to Christian adoption advocates who see international adoption as a means to save “lost souls.” Some agencies, she writes, “simply proclaim adoption as a great way to make converts.”  Where this is true—and undoubtedly, some agencies and churches have focused on this message—it should certainly be discouraged. But the task of separating the desires to win one’s child for Christ and to raise a well-adjusted, functioning adult is perhaps more difficult for a Christian than Joyce can understand. What Joyce is perhaps criticizing, rightly, is the push to adopt solely to save lost souls, a motive perhaps informed too much by would-be adoptive parents’ desire to be seen doing good and not enough by love for a potential daughter or son. Adoption should be, and most often is, motivated by “the best interest of the child”—language that informs the Hague Adoption Convention’s regulations for intercountry adoption, which the U.S. and some 90 other countries have ratified.

Perhaps the most significant point that Joyce makes throughout The Child Catchers is that adoption is not an ideal situation for anyone involved. The adopted children have lost one or both parents, either through death or hardship, and, in the case of international adoption, are transplanted far away from extended family, community networks, and native culture. The adoptive parents are bringing into their home children who are in many cases badly scarred physically and emotionally, children who will require much more time, patience, understanding, parental education, and grace than would most biological children. And at least in some cases, adoption also means that a couple is infertile—a grievous hardship on its own. Joyce believes that in feel-good efforts at evangelism, Christians have forgotten these realities. Certainly in some cases, this is probably true. The system as a whole certainly suffers its share of corruption, as the Western “demand” for non-Western babies forces adoption to strongly resemble any other money-based industry. The fertility business has not helped this industry mindset. The medical establishment has made bearing a biological child something akin to a basic human right, with grieving infertile couples doling out thousands upon thousands of dollars for various procedures in the desperate attempt for a baby. It should surprise no one if some infertile couples seeking to adopt approach the adoption process with the same transactional attitude.

It is unclear, however, that Christians are the only ones who have succumbed to such attitudes, as Joyce seems to imply. Countless celebrities in recent years—interestingly, often those who have pushed off fertility until late ages, those who are cohabiting, or those who are divorced—have made adopting a child from a third-world nation into something of a status symbol, thereby setting the example for America’s elite to do the same. Adoption, in America at least, is seen as an undeniable good, a way for wealthy Americans to share some of their bounty with the world’s suffering children. Although the act itself is most of the time probably a good thing, Joyce is correct to note that the media-informed American view of adoption is a bit rosy.

Although several of Joyce’s criticisms, though exaggerated, should nonetheless be taken to heart, her overall tone and methodology in The Child Catchers leaves much to be desired. Joyce’s disdain for Christians is apparent throughout the book. For example, in one anecdote, she refers to a Christian in a time of trial who “opened his Bible at random and let his finger point the way to whatever message God had for him.”  She calls this practice—which Martin Luther himself writes of having used—an “exercise in bibliomaniacy.”  In another spot, she writes, “Like anyone else, church people are susceptible to trends and causes that pass in and out of fashion. These days, perhaps even more so than their secular counterparts”[emphasis added]. Throughout the book, she refers to the dress of the adoptive parents she meets—long hair, long skirts, head coverings, high-waisted pants, polo shirts—as if these descriptors alone were enough to sound the warning bells. Perhaps most offensive is a statement made in a description of several instances of alleged child abuse. “The line between families that are simply large and religious,” she writes, “and those that tip into abuse is not always clear, even to those on the inside.”  Joyce, like any writer, has a viewpoint, and she is certainly entitled to express it, but such dripping disdain seems unprofessional, uncharitable, and makes her credibility questionable.

Indeed, she is most suspect in her choice of evidence. Joyce gives some treatment to the history of international adoption in various countries, policy changes, and legal cases, but the overwhelming majority of the book is anecdotal. Pages upon pages are dedicated to careful description of backwater Christian homes, cases of alleged abuse by adoptive Christian parents, and overzealous Christians who try to bend adoption rules. While the method may be effective in tugging at the heartstrings, Joyce’s tone makes one wonder if she does not lose sight of the forest through the trees. Do such tales really represent the majority of Christian adoptions, as Joyce seems to imply?  Or are they highly cherry-picked accounts?  As an example of her beliefs perhaps swaying her journalistic judgment too far, Joyce relates one account of an adopted daughter and her siblings who, Joyce thinks, were abused by their adoptive parents. The daughter later married, had a child, reconciled with the family, and stopped returning Joyce’s calls. Joyce includes a paragraph here on the power that an adoptive parent has over a child, even implying that the adoptive family might exert some kind of brainwashing capability. Might the daughter not, in fact, have simply reconciled? Must the story be so grim?

Another example of Joyce’s exaggeration is her treatment of several cases of “failed” adoptions—adopted children sent back to their native countries or informally passed on to other family or friends through “rehoming” networks when their parents find themselves unprepared to care for them. Such cases do exist, but again, they represent a tiny percentage of adoptions. In a 2013 five-part investigative report on the subject, Reuters discovered that 261 children, most of them foreign-born, were offered for rehoming via a Yahoo webboard over a five-year period. Again, although tragic, these numbers amount to some 50 children a year, or less than 0.5% of all 2012 international adoptions, and an even smaller percentage of the years before that. Other such Internet boards exist, so perhaps something closer to one percent of children experience such “rehomings,” a number consistent with other published studies on official rates of adoption dissolution. In the NCFA Factbook V, Kim Newman highlights that “[a]lthough there exists no single or central source for tracking adoption dissolutions in America, the data that are available suggest that dissolutions of final adoptions rarely occur.” A 2003 study by the Government Accountability Office finds that dissolution rates for infant adoptions are less than one percent. (The dissolution rate for much older children is, admittedly, higher—closer to ten percent.)  In a brief survey of some of the largest adoption agencies, Newman finds consistently low rates of dissolution. Bethany Christian Services, for example, which Joyce roundly criticizes, reports dissolution rates in 2009 of 0.3 percent for international adoptions. And according to the 2007 National Survey of Adoptive Parents, with a sample size of some 2,089 parents of adopted children, “less than three percent of all adoptive parents say they ‘probably would not’ or ‘definitely would not’ adopt if they were given the choice to adopt their child again, while 87 percent stated that they ‘would definitely adopt’ their child” again. Newman calls these percentages evidence that “adoption in the United States is a whopping success, notwithstanding media stories to the contrary.”

Overall, although Joyce raises some points worthy of consideration, her narrative is often deeply unprofessional and suspiciously selective. She pours her efforts into something of a witch hunt for adoptive parents and agencies who miss the mark, and chooses to ignore thousands of parents and organizations who nobly pour their life’s work into raising children in desperate need of a family. Her focus is harmful. Although members of the media are right to point out instances of fraud, abuse, or corruption in international adoption, when they neglect the far greater number of adoptions that bring children into stable, sometimes literally life-saving homes, they create public panic and unwarranted suspicion. Such suspicion causes other nations to close their doors to adoption to the U.S. and discourages would-be adoptive parents from an already emotionally and financially draining process. In the end, the ones who suffer most are the children in need of homes and parents.

Nicole M. King is the managing editor of The Family in America.