The Lie We Love and the Current Face of the Orphan Crisis

A recent article published on has been circulating more widely and bringing up major questions for the adoption community. How should we respond to it? Here are my initial thoughts. I would love to hear your comments as well.

In the article titled, The Lie We Love, E.J. Graff writes that:

“Westerners have been sold the myth of a world orphan crisis. We are told that millions of children are waiting for their “forever families” to rescue them from lives of abandonment and abuse. But many of the infants and toddlers being adopted by Western parents today are not orphans at all. Yes, hundreds of thousands of children around the world do need loving homes. But more often than not, the neediest children are sick, disabled, traumatized, or older than 5. They are not the healthy babies that, quite understandably, most Westerners hope to adopt. There are simply not enough healthy, adoptable infants to meet Western demand—and there’s too much Western money in search of children. As a result, many international adoption agencies work not to find homes for needy children but to find children for Western homes.”

Graff goes on to reason with statistics and historical data that there has been widespread corruption when it comes to international adoption. In particular, she argues that international adoption is an industry largely driven by money and states that if the finances were to be removed from the process “the number of healthy babies needing Western homes would all but disappear.” Another major factor is that international adoption is less regulated, opening it up to corruption and human trafficking.

Graff also looks at the false claim that there are “millions of orphaned babies around the world desperately” needing homes. She says, “UNICEF itself is partly responsible for this erroneous assumption” as their statistics are largley quoted as the authority and justification for international adoption.

I wrote awhile back on this very thing and appreciate Graff’s point here. The total number of orphans that UNICEF reports is 132 million (2008), but the definition of orphan they use includes children that have lost just one parent. Those who have lost both parents are just 10 percent of that total – 13 million. It is also crucial for us to note that most of these 13 million are living with extended family and 95 percent are older than 5 years old. That makes roughly 650,000 orphans under the age of 5. A much different picture than “143 million orphans.” I don’t think everyone who has used the 143 million number really believes that they are all adoptable and that we can adopt them all but it is important for us to get our statistics as correct as possible as this has massive implications on our approach to live out James 1:27 and care for the “orphans”  of the world. For one, it sheds light on the sheer fact that over 95 percent of these children probably need to be provided in-country care and support for their extended family and community that is caring for them more than adoption. And, when it comes to adoption, these figures shed light on the great need to adopt older orphans.

Graff goes on to highlight cases of corruption in international adoption from Guatamala and admits that the example of Guatamala is extreme. But she notes, “the same troubling trends have emerged, on smaller scales, in more than a dozen other countries,” where the “supply of adoptable babies rises to meet foreign demand – and disappears when Western cash is no longer available.”

In describing the corruption, she writes, “To smooth the adoption process, officials in the children’s home countries may be bribed to create false identity documents. Consular officials for the adopting countries generally accept whatever documents they receive. But if a local U.S. Embassy has seen a series of worrisome referrals—say, a sudden spike in healthy infants coming from the same few orphanages, or a single province sending an unusually high number of babies with suspiciously similar paperwork—officials may investigate. But generally, they do not want to obstruct adoptions of genuinely needy children or get in the way of people longing for a child.”

In the end, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, I think this is an important article that sheds light on a great evil that we cannot ignore. But I believe we must have discernment. I fear that many who read this article will dismiss it as more “anti-adoption” literature. Others will take it to heart and dismiss international adoption altogether. Either response, is going to too far, and throws the baby out with the bathwater.

What I think this article should do is lead us to even greater action when it comes to caring for the orphans of the world. No one would deny that there is corruption in the adoption world, the challenge is when it is subtle and hidden as I believe so much of this is. Is it really a bad thing for a father of a child in Ethiopia to relinquish his rights to his baby so that she can have a better life? Is it a bad thing even if he were to receive financial assistance so that he can take care of his other children that remain? Those are hard questions. We want to trust the agencies that are working on the behalf of adoptive families and the children. We want to believe that they would not coerce anyone and that adoption really is the best solution for this child. It is more complex than I would like it to be but again this should not discourage us but lead us to more vigorous work towards pursuing the best solution possible for the orphans of the world.

Where there is blatant corruption, those who are passionate for adoption ought to be just as passionate for the abolishment of modern-day slavery. The Hague Adoption Convention is also designed to protect against this very thing; and yet, as the article points out correctly, no international treaty is perfect and the Hague is not going eliminate every shady practice when it comes to adoption. Therefore, I agree with Graff that what is needed is increased accountability/partnership and improved regulations that limit the amount of money that changes hands in adoption.

This is where we can step up and be wise stewards of our resources, our time, and talents for the sake of the children. For one, we can hold the adoption agencies to account and partner with them in their mission to care for the children.

A few suggestions for doing this are:

1)  Find a reputable, Hague-accredited agency that is not only placing children for adoption but also working to care for the older orphans in country. One place to start is to makes sure the agency is a good standing member of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services. Read through the Hague site, especially: Information for Parents; U.S. Accredited Adoption Service Providers; Adoption Service Providers Denied Hague Convention Accreditation/Approval

2.) Ask questions. Ask the hard questions. Ask for information on the background of the children. Ask why their one living parent cannot care for them and why they are relinquishing their rights. Ask to see the financial statements and 990’s of the adoption agency and breakdown of where fees are going in country. We can and must report shady practices to the authorities.  We can do our homework on the agencies and share information with one another. We can warn one another when flags are raised. All that said, I understand that is difficult to do when you are in the process of adopting and you have fallen in love with a particular child that has been referred to you. Emotions are deep and strong. We want so badly to meet their needs. Maybe, the onus is on those of us who have already adopted and are not as emotionally invested in particular situations to do the needed research.

3.) Educated yourselves on the adoption law of the country from which you are adopting.  Ethica, a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of ethical adoption, encourages adoptive parents to make a commitment to educate themselves on the adoption law of the state or country from which they are adopting.

4.) Partner with your agency (and other organizations) to help them care for the needs in country that lead to abandonment and the existence of orphans (HIV Aids, poverty, disease, lack of food and clean water, malaria). We must also work towards ways to encourage and equip the local church in these nations to care for the children of their nation.

My hope is that this article and others like it that shed light on the evil that exists in the adoption world would serve to lead us to greater awareness of areas in need of justice; and that it would lead us to greater and wiser compassion for the orphans (both old and young) that need our care, our adoption, our financial support, and our prayers. There is great opportunity for the church to respond here with great acts of justice and great acts of mercy.