The Evangelical Christian adoption movement: The orphan crisis that wasn’t

Evangelical Christians are adopting children in large numbers – but are they doing more harm than good?

A Haitian child who will be placed for adoption is held by a caretaker at an orphanage outside of Port-au-Prince
"The rights and needs of mothers do not register particularly highly with adoption agencies or pro-life groups who claim adoption is a simple alternative to abortion," writes Filipovic [Reuters]

What if everything you thought about adoption was wrong? What if there is no international orphan crisis of millions of children needing homes? What if adoptions are not always about finding a child a forever home, but too often involve coercion, misrepresentation or the removal of a child from a family that loves and wants to keep her?  

That is the take-away from The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption, a new book by journalist Kathryn Joyce, which examines the Evangelical Christian adoption movement. Christian churches around the US are promoting international adoption as a means of both rescuing needy children and spreading the faith. 

Adoption is crucial, they say, to end an orphan crisis that impacts 153 million children. These are children from the Third World who have nothing; anything American parents can give them is better than their dire circumstances. They are living in orphanages just waiting for someone to come rescue them.  

The adoption industry 

Unfortunately, none of that is true, at least not in the large numbers that Christian adoption advocates claim. Some organisations admit that 90 percent of those 153 million “orphans” have at least one living parent – meaning they are not really orphans at all. 

In many poor countries, identified by large numbers of prospective adopters as relatively open to adopting out, adoption becomes a lucrative industry, and Joyce details a familiar pattern: Word spreads through US churches that X nation, often stricken by war, poverty or natural disaster, has a surplus of adoptable children; American adopters, spurred to action by the orphan crisis, seek to adopt in large numbers; cash flows into the country, compensating agencies, child-finders and the hospitality industry; there are not actually as many available legitimate orphans as prospective adoptive parents; the adoption industry continues to respond to market demands, sometimes by coercing families into placing their children for adoption or adopting out children under false pretences; enough families complain that it becomes a scandal; local government gets involved and the country’s adoption industry sees a virtual shut-down. 

It has happened in Haiti, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Guatemala and many others. The cycle is somewhere in the middle in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.  

Despite the fact that similar scandals happen in country after country, the adoption industry does not change much, and the “orphan crisis” narrative stays the same.

Fewer US families adopting from foreign countries


Joyce details a series of problematic behaviours in the adoption industry, from the ethically questionable to full-out abusive. And fault falls on many different actors, including agencies, religious organisations and even some adoptive parents themselves. The root cause of the problems seems to lie in the savour mentality held by many religious adoption agencies, church organisations and adopters. 

Instead of matching a child in need with parents who very much want children, the adoption-saviour model focuses on the egos of parents seeking to adopt. Taking on additional children earns them credibility and accolades in their churches and communities. The general consensus is that the adopted children escaped a life of trauma and poverty, and should be grateful. 

Churches situate the orphan crisis in such stark terms that families believe anything they can offer an orphan is better than what that child has. As a result, families that already have large numbers of biological children go to financial and emotional extremes to adopt more children into their families, wiping out their savings and growing the number of children in their homes into the double digits.  

Children do not tend to fare well in institution-like settings where there are dozens of kids and only a small number of adult caregivers, but that is the exact situation some of these extra-large families create. To complicate matters, many adopted children are coming from traumatised backgrounds, or have living family members from whom they have been taken. 

Willful blindness 

Joyce’s book tells many stories of families taking in children they are simply not equipped to help; the end result can be all-out abuse, neglect or a failed adoption, where the child is uprooted yet again. Failed adoptions are so common that they are now a regular topic at Christian adoption conferences.  

Children are not the only ones who can be severely traumatised by adoption. Many women who place their children for adoption report being coerced into relinquishing and living with the grief of having lost a child. The rights and needs of mothers do not register particularly highly with adoption agencies or pro-life groups who claim adoption is a simple alternative to abortion. Many women, whose children were adopted, report that the emotional aftermath is life-long and, because of the lack of closure, worse than a loved one dying.  

Joyce is incredibly even-handed and fair in her book, emphasising the good intentions of most people involved. And most people surely do not want to take children from living family members; they certainly do not want to further traumatise children and their biological mothers. But good intentions do not forgive willful blindness, and that is at the root of many of the problems with the adoption industry. 

There are of course a great many legitimate adoptions, where the child was genuinely bereft and without living family members willing or able to take him in, or where a mother relinquished a child for adoption fully consensually and without coercion. But there are too many of the other kind, where mothers faced enormous pressure to place their child for adoption, or where the Western demand for adoptable babies led to the creation of an adoption economy in developing nations. 

Where children are a good in demand, and where there is a lot of money coming in to pay for that good, bad actors will of course get involved to keep the supply coming. Such an exploitative situation is made even worse when the people on the supply side believe they have god and a religious duty behind them, and where there is a pervasive belief that a Christian home in the US is the best possible home for a child – better, universally, than living in a poor nation, even with a loving but struggling family. 

There are solutions, but they require taking on the adoption industry, which is quick to position any critics as opposed to helping children in need. What politician wants to be branded anti-adoption or anti-child? The US does comply with the Hague Convention on adoption, but we allow American citizens to adopt children from non-compliant countries, rendering the Convention entirely toothless. 

We could change that, and only allow adoptions from countries that also use the Hague best practices. But then adoption would be more difficult, as other nations would have to ensure that children were not being wrongly adopted out. And the narrative of the adoption industry is that adoption is already hard enough.  

Ethical issues 

Adoption can be a wonderful thing. Like most Americans, I know families who have adopted children, and I know children who are adoptees. The desire for a child is a natural one, and for families who cannot have biological children, adoption can be a great way to bring a child home. And there are those of us, like myself, who would absolutely adopt a child in need if doing so were the best, most ethical way to help that child and grow our families.  

Where children are a good in demand, and where there is a lot of money coming in to pay for that good, bad actors will of course get involved to keep the supply coming.

by Jill Filipovic

But the very nature of adoption makes it complex and rife with ethical issues. Adoption, even in the most ethical of cases, begins with a tragedy: A child whose parents die or could not care for her. Stepping in to bring that child into your family can be a good thing for all involved, but it must be done with much care. 

While some children will always have parents who die, it is possible to create a world in which far fewer children have parents who are unable to care for them. Adding to the complexity is the reality of the adoption industry – that “orphan” does not necessarily mean a child without anyone willing and able to care for her, and that the power differential between relatively wealthy families in the US who want a child and poor families in developing countries means the potential for exploitation is high. 

It is on the more powerful party – the adopting families – to make a thorough, good-faith effort to ensure that they are actually adopting a child who needs a home, and not a child whose family has been misled or coerced.  

Joyce’s book is a powerful call to action, even for those of us who thought we knew something about the ethical issues posed by the adoption industry. But she is pushing back against an evangelical mega-church culture where leaders have convinced their followers that there is no greater crisis today than the plight of orphans, and that it is a Christian duty to rescue these poor children. 

There are many ways to help children and family in need, and the fact that the Evangelical churches want to be involved in social justice causes is laudable. But to actually help, they need to listen to the voices of adopted children and the families who have placed them for adoption. 

The narrative there is very different than what you hear at a church’s Orphan Sunday event. And the solutions are more difficult: They require long-term investment in developing nations so that families there can afford to raise their own children. The religious solution to the “orphan crisis” has largely been to make it easier for American Christians to swoop in and “save” a child. 

While some churches are doing great work to support comprehensive development practices, those who want to solve the orphan crisis must put the needs of children first by working with their communities, not simply removing those children.  

It is not nearly as satisfying to deal with complex realities of colonialism, exploitative evangelism, poverty and misogyny as it is to talk about the plight of orphans, donate money for a friend to adopt or perhaps adopt a cute kid yourself. But while addressing the issues that create both orphans and unethical adoption practices takes work and the willingness to humble oneself, doing so is necessary and moral. And it saves children and families. 

Jill Filipovic is a consultant, writer, speaker and recovering attorney. She assists fashion and lifestyle brands, legal organisations and law firms, international NGOs, non-profits and corporations in using new media to reach their business and strategic objectives. She holds a JD from NYU School of Law. 

Follow her on Twitter: @JillFilipovic