The trouble with international adoptions

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

- James 1:27, NIV

9781586489427_custom-4b4ea08b5585d9930c0f16a15a111f2100f39585-s6-c30American evangelical Christians have used the bible as a rallying cry for boosting international adoptions. They trace back the long history of adoptions to Moses, adopted after his mother spared his life by setting him to float down the Nile River. It continues to Jesus the adopted son of Joseph all the way to the adoption by God when Christians are ‘born again.’ Adopting a child continues the virtuous cycle of scriptural adoptions, say advocates.

The argument has gained traction over the past few years in churches across America. 163 million children are orphans right now is the message millions of church-goers are told. If people open their hearts and their homes the orphan problem can be solved. Religious leaders like Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church have issued a plea to church members and all Christians at conferences and rallies to join the adoption movement.

People listened and adoptions increased in the mid-2000s. All the good intentions behind the swell of adoptions led to thousands of children finding new homes in the United States. It also created a lot of problems including child abuse and in some cases human trafficking. Misinformation allowed for grand claims about an orphan problem that does not near the inflated 163 million figure.

The Child Catchers, a new book by Kathryn Joyce, delves into the international adoption movement. The story begins after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The international adoption movement was in full swing and the catastrophe created thousands of new orphans and managed to gum up the system of adoptions already in progress. Families scrambled to first learn if their soon-to-be adopted child was still alive and then act to get him or her out of Haiti immediately.

With the Haitian government focused on the earthquake’s destruction, it took unusual efforts from families, religious leaders and politicians to get children into their new American homes. One group from Idaho, led by Laura Silsby, frustrated by the slow trickle of orphans leaving Haiti traveled down to round up orphans, drive to the Dominican Republic and fly the children back into the United States.

Silsby and her group ignored warnings that what they were doing was ethically wrong and illegal. She ignored such concerns knowing that her mission to help Haitian orphans was a just act. The group managed to round-up a few dozen orphans and make it to the border with the Dominican Republic. Without the appropriate documents and passports the group were arrested at the border crossing and sent back with the children to Port au Prince.

It was soon discovered that the majority of the children believed to be orphans still had living parents. In fact, some of the parents said they did not know that their kids were going to the United States to be adopted and never return. Silsby and company remained defiant claiming that groups like UNICEF were standing in the way of God’s work.

US journalist Anne-Chrstine d’Adesky spoke with Silsby after her arrest writing, “Throughout our conversation she repeatedly referred to God having called her to rescue the Haitian children. God had spoken to her. If God wanted them to succeed, they would.”

Joyce holds this up as an extreme example of the way US evangelical Christians have come to understand adoptions. Guided by a greater call, people are willing to go to various extremes and circumvent laws in order to facilitate adoptions. She includes examples such as a group in Alabama that hosts Ukrainian orphans for a camp and an opportunity for perspective adoptive parents to meet the children they may adopt. They tip-toe around what can and cannot be said since the group signed a contract of understanding with the Ukrainian government that the trip was not about adoption.

Some of the 250+ Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Kalimbira
Some of the 250+ Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Kalimbira

Adoptive parents scramble from perspective country to country in what can be described as a boom/bust cycle. Joyce shows how countries like Liberia and Ethiopia were overwhelmed by adoptions. Joyce travels to the countries to investigate individual adoption cases. She finds that the American definition of adoption and orphan does not mean the same thing in Ethiopia and Liberia.

In one instance, Joyce shows how a US family was deceived by an adoption agency. They were told that the children up for adoption lost their mother to HIV and their father was dying from HIV. The truth was their mother died in child birth and the father worked in the government. He thought he was sending some of his children, he had older kids that stayed, to the US for an education. The children would return home when they were done. Or so he thought.

Joyce does an excellent job navigating the personal stories of adoption advocates, adoptive parents and adopted children. She traces the history of adoptions to the United States in the mid-20th century at a time when millions of children were taken from their mothers due to social attitudes about unwed mothers. Her previously religious reporting makes for an insightful guide to understanding the current motivations for increased activism surrounding international adoptions.

The work makes a good case for having appropriate structures and regulations on adoptions. Rwanda is used as an example where international adoptions number in the dozens each year. The country has an exhaustive process to determine whether a child is eligible for adoption. Instead, Rwanda emphasizes the need for in-country adoptions and reducing the problems that cause orphans in the first place (such as maternal mortality).

The story touches on the growth of orphanages in developing countries. Time and again, people have proven that orphanages are one of the worst development investments. Joyce’s work shows how the proliferation of orphanages is connected to a supply and demand curve that bends as adoption advocates swoop down onto a new country. The book is an important read. So much of the energy behind the adoption movement could be better spent on sustainable development programs.

Disclosure: I was provided a free review copy from the book publisher. The opinions reflect my personal views.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a Maine-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]

  • Jonathan Scanlon

    Nice work Tom M. This is a tricky topic. I definitely agree with the last line: “So much of the energy behind the adoption movement could be better spent on sustainable development programs.”

    • Tom Murphy

      Thanks, Jonathan. The book is definitely a good read from a development and activism standpoint.

  • Charles Shirley

    No, Tom, it was not “nice work”. It is nice that you provided some information about Joyce’s work. That’s it. However, your conclusion at the end is a narrow, non-enlightened judgement that is not based upon anything but simple ideology. It does not matter if orphanages are one of the worst development investments. That is a mute point. Orphanages exist throughout the world. There are real children in those orphanages that need assistance right now. You are flat out wrong about how the energy of the adoption movement could be better spent on sustainable development programs (“SD programs”). First of the all, the orphanages are already there. These children need assistance now, not later. Second, many of the SD programs that you are flogging are complete and total wastes of money. Your over-generalization that you throw out at the end of your article is shameful. Both you and the author Joyce are critical of the Alabama group “tip toe”(ing) around the Ukrainians rules? So? What is your point? You don’t have one. You did not outline a harm, just a lame jab. Look, these groups are helping children to get a better life. And yes it is Christians that are doing the work. The time and energy is not going to SD programs that you and Jonathan Scanlon want the money and energy and time to go to, but good work is getting done. That comment is just a self-serving load of hooey. The folks like you that are critical of this type of work just want the money to be controlled by you and by groups that sympathetic to your point of view. I’m going to convince either you or Scanlon that the last line is just self-serving hogwash because both of you are deep into the system (SD programs) and you want to protect your little sphere. I get that, but to attack these folks that making the world better for these children in Ukraine in embarrassing for you. You really should stop. Yes, there are problems in the international adoption area and that woman that went to Haiti full of hogwash is the poster boy for the problems, but all institutions have problems. I would state that SD programs have larger and deeper problems than the international adoption institution. Throwing more money at the UN and World Bank bloated backward systems is not the answer either–do you just want tin foil hat 3rd world dictators to get all of the charitable money. Did someone from

    Viktor Yanukovych’s office pay you to throw in the dig at the Alabama group? I have not read the book yet, but does Joyce attack the Alabama group also? Did she get paid from Yanukovych’s office? Just asking.

    • Tom Murphy

      Charles, I’d like to make it clear that I was not paid off by anybody. The insinuation on your part is inflammatory and inappropriate. It seems that starting a dialog about this issue is not prudent. I will end by thanking you for reading and adding your comments to a very important discussion.

      • Charles Shirley

        Your insinuation that the group from Alabama is doing something wrong is also inflammatory and inappropriate. It doesn’t feel very good, does it? Your flippant, causal dismissal of the whole international adoption apparatus is also inflammatory and inappropriate. I would go so far to say that your condemnation of a whole charitable institution based upon the misguided, megalomaniac actions of one women (i.e., the woman who went to Haiti) is not only inflammatory and inappropriate, it is unprofessional. If you want to engage a discussion about the cost/benefit analysis of traditional orphanages (which are already in place) versus some undefined SD program then have a reasonable discussion on the matter. However if you are going to jump to broad over-generalizations as you did in that last line of your book review then you are going to need to gird yourself for the onslaught of justifiable criticism that is going to come your way in response to your inflammatory and inappropriate insinuation that U.S. adoption groups working in Ukraine are somehow doing something underhanded. If you can’t take the heat then. . . you know the rest.