Should Children Ever Be Removed from Their Culture through Adoption?

Is it ever in the best interest of a child to remove them from their culture through adoption? In the debate over international adoption, this is one of the most common questions and issues raised against international adoption. I have found Dr. Elizabeth Bartholet’s arguments to be very helpful:

International adoption critics treat children as necessarily ‘belonging’ to their countries of birth. They defer to national governments as having important rights at stake, and accord overwhelming significance to the often arbitrary lines separating countries. This translates into policy preferences for virtually all in-country options as compared to out-of-country adoption, and into mandatory holding periods which delay and often entirely deny such adoption.  But children’s fundamental human rights to grow up in a nurturing family should trump nation-state rights to hold on to children. Moreover, keeping unparented children in their countries of origin does nothing to actually strengthen the economic and political situation of those countries. It is simply a symbolic way for the powerless to stand up to the powerful, for countries formerly victimized by colonialism to make an anti-colonialist statement. And it exploits the least powerful of all, the children of the poorest groups in these countries. Ironically these are often the children of the indigenous groups that were the primary victims of colonialism, while the rulers who decide to hold on to these children are often the descendants of the colonial invaders.

International adoption critics say they promote in-country solutions because this serves children’s heritage rights.  But this is retrograde thinking which ill-serves children’s real needs. Children are not defined in some essentialist way by the particular spot where they were born. Science provides no basis for believing that children are better off if raised in their community of origin (Bartholet, 2007a, pp. 360–361). Nor does common sense. Had Barack Obama been born in Kenya instead of Kansas, would we view him as deprived of his Kenyan heritage by being raised in the US? Was he deprived of his Kansas heritage by being raised in Hawaii and Indonesia? Is he deprived or enriched by his complex national, racial and ethnic heritage?  His testimony, as revealed in books and speeches, indicates that he feels enriched and empowered to act more effectively.

We live in a world increasingly defined by globalization, with adults eager to cross national boundaries for economic and other opportunities. Some 1.6 million per year immigrate to the US alone, and immigrants constitute 12.5 per cent of the US population.

In this world it would be laughable to argue that adults should be prevented from leaving their country of birth so they could enjoy their heritage rights. It would be thought outrageous for nations to hold on to adults behind walled boundaries because they constitute ‘precious resources’.  Heritage and state sovereignty claims can only be made in the international adoption context because children are involved, and children are peculiarly incapable of protesting.  Truly honoring children’s rights would require abandoning such talk, treating children as full members of the global community and responding to their most fundamental needs.

[from ‘International Adoption: The Human Rights Position’ By Elizabeth Bartholet]

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.

Is it Ethical to Pay $40,000 for An Adoption: Answering Objections – Part 4

Here is the fourth (and last) objection and response:

But $40,000 could save an entire village! Wouldn’t that be what Jesus would do, rather than take one child out of his family and culture?

If a child is in an orphanage his family is not willing or capable of taking care of him. He could remain where he is at and stay within his culture but we need to look at what the implications of that would be. The first thing I think of is the personal story of Solomon that I posted here. Solomon is an orphan in the Kolfe Boys orphanage in Ethiopia. Within the next year he will turn 18 and will be let out of the orphanage with $400. He will be alone with no one to care for him and no one to help him. His culture will provide barely any benefit to him outside those orphanage walls. In many countries orphans are seen as members of the lowest social class (along with beggars, prostitutes, the homeless, crippled, etc) and therefore face many hostilities the rest of their lives. A friend of mine said, by adopting these orphans, “We are not just helping one child. We are breaking a cycle of GENERATIONS of poverty, girls have no choice but prostitution, boys having to live a life of crime on the streets, having no chance at education and therefore an “out” to poverty, more orphans resulting from that poverty, and on and on.”

So we believe this is exactly what Jesus would have us to do – help an orphan not be an orphan anymore! What better thing can you offer a child? Further, that is exactly what God did for us; we were once orphans but through Christ we are adopted as God’s very own. In fact, God took us out of our culture of sin and death and brought us into a new culture of His kingdom of life. That is not to say, there is no need for the many other ways to care for orphans. For many the most loving thing right now is to provide them with the very things that will enable them to physically live and survive so that they can eventually be adopted. It comes back to what God has called us too. For some caring for orphans will not mean adoption but relief work, or AIDS prevention, or clean water efforts; the efforts that will change villages. One by one, following God’s call, we can make a difference that will change individual lives, villages, countries and nations to the glory of God.

Is it Ethical to Pay $40,000 for An Adoption: Answering Objections – Part 3

Here is the third objection and response:

Every time a westerner pays a large fee it means one less child can be adopted by those in his own country because they cannot compete with US dollars?

This is simply not true. International adoption is often a child’s last chance of being adopted. Further, it is the government of the international country that overseas and regulates adoptions in their country. Most of these governments want to say that they are caring for their own so they do all they can to ensure that. This is why many countries close down and do not allow foreign adoption. But, some governments understand the reality of the orphan situation and while the last resort, for many orphans their only hope is international adoption.

The Ethiopian government, for example, has made the international adoption process simple, yet at the same time they keep a strict watch on orphanages that keep children for adoption. Hadush Halifom of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs; says they prohibit the orphanages from putting price tags on babies. “If they do this they are breaking the child rights convention. It is illegal to mention money where a baby is involved,” he says; The Ethiopian government has also put strict regulations on American agencies who are working in Ethiopia, requiring them to put a percentage of resources into caring for the older orphans that will never be adopted. Financially in many cases most of the cost of an adoption does not go to the birth country, but to the US agency for legal fees, and travel.

Is it Ethical to Pay $40,000 for An Adoption: Answering Objections – Part 2

Here is the second objection and response:

A majority of children in orphanages worldwide are not really orphans but have family who visit and hope to take them home.

That is true, and that is why many children are not available for adoption. The ones who are available (through reputable agencies) have been through a last chance process to be adopted by family or others within their country. The reality is there is still a massive number of children who have lost both parents and no extended family members are willing to take care of them, and no one else in the country is willing to adopt them. This is the same thing we see right here in the United States Foster Care system. The solution to the problem of corruption in international adoption is not to make blanket statements and shut down adoption altogether. The solution starts with doing our homework, being educated about the process, and not letting those who have evil intentions stop us from doing what we can to care for these orphans.