Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Corrupting Influence of the United States on a Vulnerable Intercountry Adoption System: A Guide for Stakeholders, Hague and Non-Hague Nations, NGOs, and Concerned Parties

The above-titled draft article by one of our bloggers, David Smolin, is posted and available for free download on his bepress site linked below.  

The article analyzes the corrupting influence of the United States on the development and present workings of the intercountry adoption system.  A context for this corrupting influence is provided through a careful analysis of the theoretical and practical vulnerabilities of the intercountry adoption system.  The distinctive approaches of the United States to social work, adoption, human rights, children's rights, constitutional law and humanitarian intervention also provides further context.

The article is designed to be practical in providing proposals for those interested in reforming the United States' approach to intercountry adoption and related matters.   The article also seeks to provide relevant information for governments, NGOs, and others in nations who interact with or consider interacting with the United States on these issues.While the article provides a clearly defended point of view, it seeks to also take account of diverse viewpoints, both within and outside of the United States.

The article goes beyond the author's prior analyses of the distinctive problems of child laundering/child trafficking in intercountry adoption, to provide a rigorous analysis of both the global effort to construct a viable, safe, reliable and ethical intercountry adoption system, and the roles of the United States in relationship to that effort.

This is a draft version in advance of forthcoming publication in the Journal of Law and Families Studies and the Utah Law Review, so there will be some errors.   The article is also very long!   Comments are welcome below in this blog's comments section.

Friday, September 06, 2013

The Liberal Roots of the Modern Adoption Movement

Two of our Fleasbiting bloggers--David and Desiree Smolin--were asked to write one of the three "cover stories" for the second issue of a new online magazine, "Gazillion Voices."  (We'll soon be posting more about Gazillion Voices--an effort we enthusiastically support--in another blog post)

Our finished liberalism and adoption piece is titled, "The Liberal Roots of the Modern Adoption Movement."

Here are the first few paragraphs.  (To read the rest of the essay, please click on the link at the end.  It will take you to Gazillion Voices.)

Please leave any comments you might have either here or at the end of the article in Gazillion Voices.


by David Smolin and Desiree Smolin


            Gazillion Voices provided us with the assignment of writing something about liberalism and adoption. We accepted the assignment largely because we agree with the purposes of Gazillion Voices to provide a platform for “adoptees and their allies” and to provide topics and content that will “reframe and reshape the conversation about adoption.” We like to think that we are among the allies! Nonetheless, the topic is awkward for us for several reasons. First, as long-term critics of adoption systems, we have tried to appeal to legal rules or broadly shared values, rather than to a narrow set of values that appeal primarily only to a specific group. The primary exception, our work on the evangelical Christian adoption movement, involves us as evangelicals critiquing evangelicals, using the religious beliefs we share with that group as a common basis for communication. Second, while we would characterize ourselves as political moderates, it would be more accurate to say that most of our adult lives have been spent in difficult spaces between political and other contesting groups. Unfortunately, in addressing the subject of liberalism and adoption we are stepping into new territory likely to make even more people unhappy with us. 

            Adoptees, of course, like all people,  run the spectrum of political, cultural, and religious perspectives. Nonetheless, much activist adoptee discourse critiquing various aspects of adoption has employed popular or scholarly language that is progressive, liberal, or “left” in rhetoric, reference, and tone. Added to this tendency has been the new wave of largely progressive critique of the recent evangelical Christian adoption movement. Further, activists addressing the long history and current circumstance of Korean adoptions are often reacting against elements of American and Korean culture and practice that are variously religious, conservative, and traditionalist. All of this can give  the impression that disputes over adoption, or specific aspects like transracial or intercountry adoption, are primarily left-right disputes.

            We argue, to the contrary, that the modern adoption movement has become embedded in all major streams of American culture. (In referring to the “modern adoption movement,” we are focusing on the popularization and expansion of adoption in the post-World War II era, including both intercountry adoption and domestic adoption.) Indeed, liberal and progressive thought is at the center of the modern adoption movement. Thus, any attempt to “reframe and reshape the conversation about adoption,” as Gazillion Voices and many others seek to do, must address the liberal roots of the modern adoption movement. We further challenge activist “adoptees and allies” who identify themselves as progressive, liberal, or left politically, to take the lead in critiquing the role of their own self-identified cultural/political/religious paradigms in the modern adoption movement. Adoption discourse that merely reinforces religious, political, or cultural identities and prejudices will become swallowed up in the broader fragmentation of cultural and religious values, and will do little to actually reform adoption.  


Politics, religion, and culture have become embedded in intertwined identifies defined in opposition to stereotyped images of enemy others. One such polarization is between secular liberals and evangelical Christians, who  so often  vilify one another. Yet, as to adoption, secular liberals and evangelical Christians fundamentally agree and, indeed, have agreed for years. This agreement is sometimes hidden by differences in vocabulary and justifications, with each side using rhetoric that the other may sometimes find repugnant. The agreement across this polarized divide is a part of a broader American consensus on adoption, from which each group draws. Americans share a common understanding of what adoption is, a common belief in the “facts” of adoption, a common view of themselves and the “other” in relation to adoption, and a common undifferentiated belief in adoption as the best solution to many child welfare problems. This American understanding reflects a naive blindness to the roles of self-interest in adoption, a disinterest in the power/privilege/gender inequality/class/wealth-differentials that drive and have always driven adoption, as we understand it, and a common ignorance of the history of the institution of adoption.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The "Baby Veronica" Case and the Abuse of Adoption

Amidst the conflicting claims regarding the actions and character of the parties contending for custody of almost-four year old Veronica, it is the undisputed facts that seem most significant.  Dusten Brown is Veronica’s father.  Dusten Brown has fought for Veronica from the time, when she was four months old, that he became aware that Veronica’s mother wanted to place her for adoption.  (There is much dispute about what happened during the pregnancy and in those first four months, but no substantive dispute about what happened since then.)   The adoptive parents had the opportunity to let go then, at four months, with comparatively little trauma to Veronica, but instead fought in court against Dusten, delaying  the handover of Vernonica to her father until she was 27 months old.   It is further undisputed that Dusten, along with his parents and wife, form a loving and successful family environment for Veronica, and that she has thrived with them for the last 19 months.

Whatever the law may say, ethically the result is clear:  Veronica should remain with her family.   This is true not only because it would be traumatic for her to be moved, again, although that is certainly relevant.  More fundamentally, Veronica should remain with her father and family because adoption should never be used to take children away from a loving family.

Remember when adoption was supposed to about providing families for “orphan” children, or for children from abuse or neglect so severe that, after reasonable efforts to rehabilitate and preserve the family, there was no way to make the family a reasonably safe place?     Unfortunately, adoption all too often has become about the desire of adoptive parents to parent, rather than the needs of a child for a home.   There is nothing wrong with wanting to parent a child, but everything wrong with taking someone else’s child to do so.  

The Veronica case is distinctive because of the issues surrounding tribal citizenship and the Indian Child Welfare Act, but the basic scenario of adoptive families fighting to wrest or retain children from original family members is all too commonplace.   It is very unfortunate that the law too often is structured to side with adoptive parents in these settings.   However, it is even more unfortunate that adoptive parents who have a child for a few days, weeks, or months before becoming aware that the original mother or father want the child, feel justified in fighting to keep what they deem as “their” child. 

In this case, it is particularly unjust that the adoptive couple have sought, and the South Carolina courts granted, an order taking Veronica from her father and family, without even a best interests hearing.   It is ironic that the adoptive parents make the argument that the transfer should be done quickly for Veronica’s sake, when in terms of Veronica’s best interests there is no indication that the transfer should take place at all.   Indeed, if the adoptive couple had wanted to minimize Veronica’s trauma they would have returned the child to her father as soon as he sought it, when she was four months old.   This case has become a revealing illustration of the determination of adoptive parents to obtain, take, and keep children, regardless of whether those children indeed have a parent and family who love and want them. 

Others have noted a certain religious backdrop to this case, related primarily to organizations supporting the adoptive parents or involved in the adoption who claim a religious purpose or affiliation---specifically Christian.    Without claiming to evaluate those ties, my belief as a Christian is that, regardless of what the courts decide as a matter of legal right, the adoptive parents should allow Veronica to remain with her father and family.   Perhaps they can work out some access to Veronica, perhaps not:  but they should honor Veronica’s family relationships.  Indeed, one wonders whether the determination to wrest Veronica from her father could be viewed as a kind of coveting of another’s child, and if successful as a kind of child stealing:   violations of the 8th and 10th commandments. 

The Christian community—and especially the Christian adoption movement-- should see the Veronica case as an opportunity to establish several fundamental principles, without which adoption becomes exploitation and sin.   Adoption should not be used as a means to take children from their original family when that family loves and wants them, and is able to provide a positive and safe environment for them.   In regard to the tribal aspects of the case, it needs to be made clear that the Christian community has no desire to use the power of the state or law to wrest children away from their original communities for the sake of “Christianizing” them or separating them from their birth cultures, as was done so often in the past.   This case is an opportunity for the Christian adoption movement to clearly repudiate the shameful history of the use of adoption and other means to accomplish a kind of cultural genocide.   This case is also an opportunity to make clear that there is a strong priority for children to be raised, whenever possible, by their biological parents, and that therefore biological parents have priority over prospective adoptive parents.   Once these priorities are established, then adoption can be reserved for those instances when it is truly needed for the benefit of children.

In regard to the fate of Veronica herself, of course, I lack access to all of the facts.  I know nothing except what is in the public record.    I can only hope and pray that the courts and all of the parties will ultimately be guided to a just result that will truly be in Veronica’s best interests.   It has been immensely saddening, however, to see how willing so much of the media has been to ratify as normal the sense of entitlement to Veronica that the adoptive parents are expressing, and so unwilling to consider the claims of a father who has for so long sought nothing more than to raise his own daughter.   There is something amiss in our cultural concept of adoption that is begging to be corrected.

David Smolin

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Journal of Christian Legal Thought Issue on Adoption: Hopes for a Mature Dialogue

The Journal of Christian Legal Thought, a publication of the national Christian Legal Society and Regent University School of Law, allowed me to help put together an issue on adoption.  Thanks to Mike Schutt, the editor, for his courage in publishing what may be seen as a controversial issue, and for his trust in giving me flexibility in recruiting a diverse group of authors. 

The adoption issue of the Journal of Christian Legal Thought is available online in e-mag format; click on the following link:   Journal of Christian Legal Thought, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 2012.    

(The link above first takes you to the abstracts of the articles as viewed in the print version; to read the full article click the link at the end of the abstract---for those with a longer version.)

The issue contains three articles on the theological controversy (myself, with responses by Jedd Medefind, head of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, and Dan Cruver, editor/author of Reclaiming Adoption); two adult adoptee voices (Mark Diebel and JaeRan Kim), a personal story by a first mother who lost her child recently and writes here under the pseudonym of Clara Daniels; and an historical article by E. Wayne Carp, a leading historian of adoption, on Jean Patton, a Christian, adoptee, and early critic of the closed records system. 

One message I would hope this issue sends to the Christian world is that adoption is controversial, and for good reasons.  The Christian adoption movement has naively recapitulated the rhetoric of orphan babies and children being rescued by unrelated Christian adoptive parents, putting a false veneer of Biblical rhetoric over it.  (I say false veneer because the Bible itself does not tell any such story.)   Instead, any fair narrative about adoption must begin with the conception and birth of a child to a particular mother, father, family, and community; once this true beginning is acknowledged, it becomes clear enough why adoption is controversial.   Immediately the questions emerge:  was a separation between the child and her family really necessary?   What is the relationship of the adoptee to their original family (not just parents, but also siblings, extended family, grandparents, etc.) ?  What is the relationship of the original family to the adoptive family?  

Once a legitimate controversy is acknowledged, what is the way forward?

The answer is:  Dialogue, dialogue, and more dialogue.  

From that perspective, I hope this issue of the Journal of Christian Legal Thought furthers this necessary process of dialogue. But it is only a beginning.   I hope that we can encounter one another with respect as fellow human beings made in the image of God---and for those of you who share my Christian faith, as brothers and sisters in Christ.

I know some of you may find my rhetoric strong at times.   But please consider:  every day of my life I live, within my own family, the long term impact of deeply exploitative and sinful practices conducted in the name of adoption.   Nearly every day of my life I encounter those same impacts in the lives of many others, through personal communications, reviewing new reports of abusive practices, and continued research.   Then, when I enter the rhetorical world of the Christian adoption movement I encounter what appear to me to be a fantasy-land of lies and misleading inducements which continue to harm many.   I recognize that most involved are well-intentioned and worthy of respect---but the actions and rhetoric remain deeply hurtful.  So it my role to seek to burst the bubble of the adoption fantasy. 

So do not confuse strong words with disrespect.

I am quite good at listening---indeed, I’ve been listening to pro-adoption rhetoric for longer than the current Christian adoption movement has existed.  Indeed, I fell for that rhetoric at one time in my life, and so I understand it deeply.   And if you have something to say as well which I have not heard before, I am eager to hear that as well. 

Do not confuse apparent “negativity” with a lack of positive prescriptions.  I have plenty to say about what should and could be done to fix the problems.  And indeed in my articles I’ve made very specific proposals.  But I know that my solutions will not be palatable until and unless the scope of the problem is acknowledged.   

So happy reading, and let’s keep the dialogue going!

David Smolin

Journal of Christian Legal Thought, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 2012

Monday, May 07, 2012

Saddleback Church Orphan Summit: Five Reasons Why Rick Warren and Kay Warren Got it Wrong on Adoption and Orphan Care

Rick Warren and Kay Warren both spoke on the second day of the Eighth Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit (May 4, 2012), held at Saddleback Church.  
They got so much wrong---left out so much that is critically important---that a response is necessary. 
I intend this response to be respectful---from one Christian to another.  The response is public because their stance, statements, and activism, both on May 4th and previously, are public, and go out to extremely large numbers of people.   I invite a response and discussion, whether from them, anyone else at Saddleback Church, or indeed anyone at all!
Before I get to the five reasons they got it wrong, two observations based on listening to the conference via the official web stream:

1. For Saddleback Church, Orphan Care Means Adoption:   Kay Warren made this very clear:   their goal is for every one of the purported 163 millions orphans in the world to be placed in a permanent family through adoption.   Rick Warren, in response to Kay Warren’s passionately pro-adoption speech, summarized it something like this:  “When we say orphan care, It’s adoption first, second, and last.”

2. The Summit’s Focus on the U.S. Foster Care System is Positive; the Summit’s Treatment of a Global Orphan Crisis and International Adoption is so Distorted as to be Harmful
The Orphan Summit gave significant attention to the 400,000 plus children in the United States foster care system, and especially focused on the 100,000 plus such children eligible for adoption.  The Summit promoted the need for foster and adoptive families for these children.   The Summit also promoted Safe Families for Children, a church based approach that attempts to provide temporary families for children in the hopes that the original family ultimately can be preserved.    Safe Families for Children thus includes an aim of ministering to the entire family and seeking to restore and preserve the original family.    (The only reference to family preservation efforts I heard at the Summit was the discussion of the Safe Families for Children program.)    In addition, the Orphan Summit provided useful information on the special needs of traumatized children and how to parent and assist them, which would provide critically important context for those who parent children in/from the foster care system.   Finally, the Summit emphasized the need of the entire church to minister to families who take on the care of traumatized children.   

From my perspective, these emphases on the United States foster care system are positive.  If the current Christian adoption movement was restricted to reaching out to children and families in the U.S. foster care system, or creating alternative interventions to that system, I would most likely be a fan rather than a critic,  I can embrace the practical goal of providing excellent  and safe family-based care for children removed from their families due to neglect or abuse of the movement, even if I still have reservation about the movement sometimes downplaying certain difficult issues.    In addition, my impression is that the theological innovations to which I object come primarily from those in the movement who have been focused on international adoption.   

Unfortunately, Rick and Kay Warren, and indeed the entire Summit, were very much focused on international adoption.  The constant refrain of the Warrens, and many other speakers, were the purported 163 million orphans in the world.   It was in the context of this “global orphan crisis” that Rick and Kay Warren set forth the goal of placing all of these 163 million orphans into families through adoption.   Indeed, it was stated that the math was “easy,” given an estimated 2.4 billion Christians in the world:  more than enough Christians to adopt all 163 million orphans.  Rick Warren stated that Saddleback Church had set and surpassed a goal of 1000 adoptions by Saddleback Church members, and the goal specified that half would be international adoptions.  The pre-Summit “intensive” on the “Global Orphan Care Revival and the Korean Church” was focused on using the missionary reach of the Korean Church to promote adoption both in Korea and globally.    It is in the context of the movement’s focus on international adoption, as reflected by the Summit and by Saddleback Church, that the movement is doing more harm than good, and leading the church in the wrong direction.   And it has generally been those emphasizing an global orphan care crisis and international adoption, and/or whose experiences come from international adoption, who have been most active in creating innovative  Biblical interpretation and theology I view as erroneous and unbalanced. 


1. The figure of 163 million orphans in the world is entirely misleading in relationship to adoption, as 90% live with a parent, and many of the rest live with extended family.
The international adoption movement in the United States, secular and religious, has repeatedly used statistics claiming well over 100 million orphans globally.  For example, at the Joint Council on International Children Services (JCICS) annual Symposium in April, an adoption agency ad in the program referred to reaching “the 132.2 million orphans worldwide who are in need of permanent homes.”    Similarly, the Saddleback Church orphan has publicized varying numbers of orphans, in the range of 143 million to 168 million, with a range of 163 million to 168 million repeatedly provided at the Saddleback Orphan Summit.

The international adoption movement, secular and religious, has repeatedly indicated that the estimated 132 million to 168 million “orphans” are children lacking a family and hence in need of adoption.   This was done at JCICS in April and at the Saddleback Orphan Summit in May.  

This is total bunk.   These global orphan estimates comes from UNICEF, which is using a broad concept of “orphans and vulnerable children” which includes children who have lost one parent but are living with their other parent.   90% of these “orphans” are living with a parent, and thus certainly are not in need of a family through adoption, for they already have a family.    Of course some of these 90% of orphans and vulnerable children may be in families that could use assistance of one kind or another to alleviate poverty or other vulnerabilities; taking away the children of the poor however, is neither a Christian nor a humane intervention. 

2. The Movement Ignores and is Naïve Concerning Abusive Adoption Practices in Intercountry Adoption, and Thus Promotes the Involvement of Christians in Child Trafficking and Other Abusive Practices

Incredibly, at the Saddleback Orphan Summit, and in the broader movement, there is virtually no discussion of the child trafficking that has permeated international adoptions from many nations, including Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Nepal, Samoa, and Vietnam.   There is virtually no discussion of the fact that intercountry adoptions to the United States are in severe decline, from a high of almost 23,000 in 2004 to 9300 in 2011---in large part due to child trafficking and other abusive adoption practices.  There is little or no discussion of the pattern by which new nations are opened up to international adoption, the numbers rise, and then corruption and abusive practices overwhelm the system, leading to moratoria, slowdowns, and closures.   In the rare instances where abusive practices are discussed, it is to provide false assurances that such could be avoided by following governmental rules or using good/Christian agencies.

The end result of this kind of extreme naivety about the current state of intercountry adoption is to send Christians into adopting internationally like lambs to the slaughter, unaware of the dangers they face.    Christians are adopting children with falsified paperwork who are not true orphans, in Ethiopia and elsewhere, and therefore unwittingly participating in child trafficking.  

For documentation of these difficulties, see my various articles on Child Laundering, Child Trafficking, and Abusive Adoption Practices, which themselves provide many other sources:

Or view the following documentaries on Christians adopting from Ethiopia using a Christian agency:

3. The Movement Relies on the Wrong Experts on Intercountry Adoption, and Therefore Promotes False Assurances and False Information

Ambassador Susan Jacobs, Special Advisor for Children’s Issues, United States Department of State, was the primary expert on international adoption presented at a Plenary Session of the Saddleback Orphan Summit.   Incredibly, Ambassador Jacobs claimed that in a Hague country we have never had a problem with fraud or misrepresentation.    I will give two counter-examples for this patently false statement, although many more could be provided:

a.  India ratified the Hague Convention in 2003, but the notorious scandals associated with Preet Mandir, one of the most popular orphanages in all of India for international adoption, dragged on for many years thereafter.     See, e.g., Arun Dohle, Inside Story of an Adoption Scandal, Cumberland Law Review, available at: .

b. China ratified the Hague Convention in 2005, but significant reports of abusive practices continue.  See, for example:    

Of course, even if adoptions from Hague nations were all free of abusive practices, it would not solve the problem of abusive practices, since the majority of the adoptions to the United States are not from Hague countries, and some of the most popular countries from which to adopt (such as Ethiopia) are not Hague countries.  And of course Christians influenced by the movement have been particularly active in adopting from non-Hague countries, such as Ethiopia.    

Susan Jacobs is typical of proponents of international adoption who repeatedly minimize the extent and significance of abuse practices, and thereby keep the system from correcting itself.   The result is the decline in intercountry adoption, and a constantly expanding pool of victims from a system shot-through with abusive practices.  While relying on this kind of expertise may make the movement feel well connected, it is deceptive.  These kinds of experts will flatter and reassure the Christian adoption movement, and in turn the Christian adoption movement will flatter them with attention and praise.  I would suggest the movement expand and diversify their pool of experts to those who will challenge them with difficult truths; write to me and I can give you quite a list!

4. The Biblical Interpretation and Theology of Adoption Put Forward by Rick Warren and the Broader Movement are completely erroneous

If you actually read the Bible for what it says, rather than the meanings we put into it, it is apparent that the Bible neither portrays  the people of God adopting unrelated orphan children, nor recommends that the people of God do so.   It just isn’t there, in either the Old or New Testaments!   Nor are the kinds of adoption practiced in the United States (closed-record “as if” adoption that pretends that the child was born to the adoptive parents and that the child never had and never will have a relationship to their original family), compatible with the Bible.  The Bible, instead, assumes that the original identity and biological lineage of the individual remain as important and true facts.  

Of course the Bible teaches that we are to provide for all kinds of vulnerable persons, including widows and the fatherless (orphans), the poor, the stranger, etc.   And yes, there are five mentions of a word that can be translated “adoption” in the Pauline corpus----although there are no uses of the word adoption in the rest of the New Testament.   But none of this adds up to anything like what the movement claims.  In fact, the only way to have a Biblical “orphan care” movement would be have a “widow and orphan” movement---in the context of a poverty alleviation movement---because in the Bible and in the contemporary world, the vast majority of so-called “orphans” are living with a parent or extended family, and the Biblical call is to assist the "orphan" and other family members in staying together.    Thus, the interventions for the “widow and orphan” which are portrayed in the Bible are those which help the widow and the orphan to remain together.   Yet, you almost never hear about family preservation programs or widow alleviation programs at the movement’s events or in their literature.    The net result is that the movement exploits the very people it claims to assist.  Taking the children of the poor and the vulnerable for adoption is neither a Biblical nor a humane practice.    And even in the circumstances where some kind of adoption would be appropriate, the movement fails to apply Biblical understandings of what adoption is and should look like. 

For a fuller explication of the Biblical issues, you can read my article, found here:

An abstracted and full version of the article, plus rebuttals by two Christian adoption movement leaders (Jedd Medefind and Dan Cruver) will be out within a month; see the web site of the Journal of Christian Legal Thought or this blog for updates!

5. In the Longer Term, it is a Reality-Check That Will Demonstrate that Rick and Kay Warren, and the Christian Adoption Movement, Are Wrong about Adoption.

Rick Warren is a marketing genius who has reached tens of millions of people with his best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life.     The adoption and orphan care movement has within a few years succeeded in permeating the American church with their message.   If you compare their combined reach with that of the Christian critics of the movement, it would seem that we are hopelessly outmatched.    But none of that will matter in the longer term:  it is reality that will continue to bite back at the Christian adoption movement, and it is reality that will continue to prove the critics right and the Christian adoption movement wrong.   In this way, it will happen for the Christian adoption movement just as it has been happening for the broader international adoption movement.  For years the international adoption movement ignored their hopelessly outmatched critics, only to be constantly brought down by reality:  scandal after scandal, closed countries, steeply declining numbers.    At some point, rhetoric gives way to reality.

Already the gap between the grandiose rhetoric of the Christian adoption movement, and the realities surrounding international adoption, invite a reality-check.   It is almost comic to listen to this grandiose talk of adopting 163 million children, in a time when international adoptions to the United States have declined to 9300 in 2011---and international adoptions globally to perhaps 25,000.  It is a kind of absurd theatre to listen to the movement’s rhetoric of adopting 163 million “orphans,” when over 90% of those purported orphans are children living with their biological family.  This is a movement that can’t even bring home 9300 children for international adoption, without wrongfully participating in child trafficking, visa fraud, and production of falsified documents---and they are going to save 163 million?

I agree with Rick Warren that the church has a mission in regard to church planting, poverty alleviation, education, and medical care/healing.   I agree that the church’s mission includes special actions on behalf of the widow and the orphan, the poor, and the stranger.  I just pray that this tragic/comic international adoption detour will not undermine these fundamental tasks of the church. 

The reality-check will come sooner or later---I pray it will be sooner, before there are too many more victims of this zealous but misdirected movement. 


Thursday, May 03, 2012

Saddleback Orphan Summit: Heritage, Race, Identity, and the Costs of Adoption Naivety in a Young Movement

While the Saddleback Orphan Summit formally represents the 8th Summit of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, the evangelical adoption and orphan movement care movement has really only come into prominence in the last four years or so.    One of the problematic aspects of this young movement is the way it rushes forward in relative ignorance of many of the hard-won truths about adoption.  

Among these hard-won truths is the significance to adoptees of their origins:  everything from their original family, to the nation, culture, race, and group from which they come.  We know that while many adoptees may express little interest in these subjects at some stages of their life, at other stages they become, probably for most adoptees, subjects of great interest.     Related to this truth is that certain issues, such as loss, grief, anger, and identity, come with the territory of adoption, and are likely to emerge at various points in time in the life of adoptees. 

Incredibly, one of the major leaders of the movement and one of the major speakers at the Saddleback Orphan Summit, Dr. Russell Moore, in his influential book, Adopted for Life, was completely dismissive of the significance of origins for his own adopted children.  The passage has become either famous or infamous, depending on your point of view: 

               “As Maria and I went through the adoption process, we were encouraged by everyone from social workers to family friends to ‘teach the children about their cultural heritage.’  We have done so."
               " Now, what most people probably meant by this counsel is for us to teach our boys Russian folk tales and Russian songs, observing Russian holidays, and so forth.  But as we see it, that’s not their heritage anymore, and we hardly want to signal to them that they are strangers and aliens, even welcome ones, in our home.  We teach them about their heritage, yes, but their heritage as Mississippians…..” [Moore is referring here to people from Mississippi or more broadly the American South.]   (pg. 36)

Moore’s defiance of the received adoption wisdom about the significance of heritage is clear enough here.   Tragically, he is setting up an impossible dilemma for adoptees, who are required to permanently repudiate their original heritage in order to be considered fully a part of their adoptive family.   The heart of the movement as reflected by Moore is not big-hearted enough to truly love Russian, Korean, or Chinese children----those heritages and aspects of their being must be airbrushed out of them, so they can be washed clean in the waters of the Mississippi---baptized into Americanism----before they can be completely accepted or loved by their adoptive families.    Of course for those whose origins include a racial identity differ from their adoptive parents, it will prove impossible to remove the bodily reminders of their heritage, no matter how hard they and their adoptive families try to ignore it.    For how can an Asian or black body become that of a European-descent white person?  (Tragically, some may attempt the impossible, as illustrated by Deann Borshay Liem’s famous adoptee film, First Person Plural, in which she, as a Korean adoptee, underwent cosmetic surgery on her ears to look more like her white adoptive sister.)    Would Moore have his followers say that a Chinese child’s heritage is not Chinese, but Mississippian---and what would that even look like when the child goes into the broader world and inevitably continues to look Asian to the wider world?    

This kind of error comes from anointing as an expert on adoption an adoptive parent of still young children, who is arrogant enough to ignore the received wisdom when the mood suits him.  It is also characteristic of a movement whose leaders are often adoptive parents---and especially fathers---of still young adopted children.   Such parents have not yet lived enough of the adoption life-cycle to understand what characteristically happens as adoptees become teenagers and adults.   And with a mindset that is often dismissive of any wisdom from outside of the church and prior to their movement, they may be unwilling to make up for their gaps in lived experience through reading and listening to others.   In short, the Christian adoption movement too often reflects a kind of willful ignorance of what has come before them in the wider history and world of adoption.  

The theological justification Moore provides for his dismissive approach to the original heritage of adoptees is incoherent.  The passages are too long to quote, but in short, Moore goes from waxing poetical about his own heritage as a Southerner, and how this Southern heritage is now the heritage of his adopted children, to talking about how the Christian’s heritage is found in Christ and not in their natural family heritage.   Somehow, Moore never seems to realize that if this principle is indeed applicable and accurately stated, then it would demand that he be as equally dismissive of his own Southern heritage as he expects his adopted children to be of their Russian heritage. 

Beyond the incoherence are numerous theological problems.    In brief:  the Bible certainly does NOT teach a doctrine of adoption whereby orphan children, or indeed ANY of us, are required to be dismissive of our original family, nationality, culture, or race.   Quite the opposite----in the very rare cases where something like an actual adoption of a child occurs in the Bible, the adoptee’s original family identity and heritage are preserved, and the loyalty of the adoptee to that original identity is positive and decisive to the story.  (Think Moses and Esther.)    In addition, to the degree that the New Testament even mentions adoption---the five Pauline references----the only plausible reference is to the Roman practice of adopting young adult males---and in that practice the original family name of the adopted person was usually incorporated into their new adoptive name, and the adoptee was expected to maintain a relationship with their original family.  Of course these young men anyway usually weren’t orphans---adoption was a social promotion and an honor for a strong, talented, and promising young man, not the provision of a family to a helpless orphan child.   Of course one of the difficulties the Christian adoption movement has is that the practice of adopting unrelated orphan children is not something done by the people of God at all in the Bible, since there is no such law of adoption in the Old Testament, and the New Testament never mentions anyone in the New Testament Church ever adopting an unrelated orphan child.   For a fuller explanation, see my paper:

For all Christians, there is a call to choose God over our family ties, where there is a conflict between the two.    But that is no excuse for uniquely de-valuing the original family ties of adoptees, and there is absolutely no Biblical indication that such is expected or required. 

In private conversation, participants and leaders of the movement often will disagree with Moore’s assessment of adoptee heritage.    I would guess that Moore himself most likely will come to a different assessment as his children grow up, if he has not already done so, for I assume that he and his wife truly love their adoptive children, and will reevaluate their stances as they learn from the changing needs of their children.   But a lot of damage has already been done, as reports indicate that some adoptive parents influenced by the movement are largely ignoring issues of racial identity and cultural heritage.   Since it takes a lot of effort and thought for typical white adoptive parents to successfully navigate the issues involved in transracial adoption, and since addressing the issue adequately may require adoptive parents to change things in their own lives, providing excuses for not doing so is, practically speaking, very harmful. 

On May 3rd, in the first morning session of the Summit, when adoptee Ryan Bomberger was interviewed, the questions and answers reflected the truth that race and origins normally do matter to adoptees.   Just having an adult adoptee present and speaking improved the approach considerably over that found in Moore’s book.  Unfortunately, there still was a certain defensiveness in how the subject was addressed, as the conversation was primarily about whether or not to ever permit transracial adoption, with no discussion of how to do transracial adoption.   Perhaps that will be addressed in the relevant breakout sessions.    Ryan Bomberger made clear that he had been in some very difficult places emotionally at certain times of his life, but the relationship of those difficulties to issues of race, origins, and adoption was left unclear.   Thus, the only named adult adoptee speaker at the event seemed to be there to affirm transracial adoption, and to give an anti-abortion message, rather than to explain how to navigate these adoptee and parenting issues.    The discussion is ending where it should be beginning, which is largely a consequence of failing to include critical adoptee voices who, outside the confines of the movement, have for many years been usefully addressing these issues.  

I am hopeful that the movement is in the process of circling back to the hard-won truths of the wider adoption world regarding the centrality of issues of origins, search, loss, and race, and of how important it is to parent transracial adoptees with an eye toward the inescapability---and goodness--- of the racial identity and cultural and family heritage provided by their original family.  

In the meantime, the movement too often celebrates the racial diversity being produced in mostly white churches by transracial adoption, as though that represented a positive achievement for the church.   To the contrary: a strategy of achieving racial diversity in churches through adoption is an admission that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous observation that  Sunday morning is the “most segregated hour in Christian America,” remains true.  It is still true that most adults choose to attend churches characterized by the overwhelming predominance of people of their own race:  white churches, black churches, Korean churches, etc.  To the degree that representing racial diversity within the local congregation is a goal, this represents a significant failure; to the degree that one believes there are good reasons for having congregations such as “Korean churches,” this should be acknowledged, and its cost to the ideal of a multi-racial local church accepted.      In neither instance, however, is there any reason to celebrate racial diversity in white churches produced by transracial adoption, for this unfairly puts the costs of achieving diversity upon vulnerable children, while failing to provide the true benefits of diversity, in which people of different races are required to treat one another as equals.   A church in which most or almost all of the non-whites are children is hardly a place where those lessons can be learned:  at least by the adults!   It is well known in the wider adoption community that black, Asian, and Latino transracial adoptees adopted into white families and growing up in churches, neighborhoods, and schools that are overwhelmingly white have their already-difficult struggles with identity, loss, and discrimination exacerbated by the stress of being the diversity in the environments in which they grow up.  It is hardly a brave thing for white adoptive parents to bring their transracial adoptees into white churches.  As at least one transracial adoptee, JaeRan Kim, has challenged, why instead don’t white adoptive parents of transracially-adopted children attend churches where the race of the child predominates?   (If you adopt an Ethiopian or African-American child, attend a black church; if you adopt a Korean child, attend a Korean church.)   Even if such is not always the best or most practical course, it illustrates the point well---if the parents would find this difficult, why do we expect the black or Asian child brought into a white church to find it easy?    Why are we so willing to achieve diversity by putting transracial adoptees into difficult situations?   Again, the costs of adoption naivety are borne by the adoptees upon whom this movement experiments, in willful ignorance of the hard-won truths of adoption.

One can expect the Christian adoption and orphan care movement to mature over time; for the sake of those whom it is impacting, one can pray it happens sooner rather than later.   Such wished-for maturity will happen sooner if the movement is less defensive and more willing to learn from those, Christian and non-Christian, who have gone before in living and engaging the inevitable and recurrent issues intrinsic to adoption.


See JaeRan Kim, Some Children See Him:  A Transracial Adoptee's View of Color-blind Christianity (forthcoming Journal of Christian Legal Thought 2012).   This issue of the Journal of Christian Legal Thought will be available in about a month on the Christian Legal Society web site, and will be announced also on this blog.  

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Saddleback Orphan Summit: Can't the Church Do Better Than This?

What could be better than this?  Stephen Curtis Chapman.   Francis Chan.   Rick and Kay Warren.   Another all-star cast of evangelicals supporting adoption and orphan care at this year’s Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit VIII. (Saddleback Orphan Summit)

Indeed, what could be better than this?

As a Christian critic of the adoption and orphan care movement, I’d say that getting it right about the Bible and adoption would be better.   Warning Christians about the prevalence of abusive adoption practices would be better.  

There are two basic truths that the movement has yet to engage in a meaningful way:

The first is that the Bible does not support the movement’s claims.  The movement claims that American-style adoption of orphan children is a central and Biblical representation of the gospel, and the primary Biblical metaphor for understanding our relationship, as redeemed sinners, to God.   The movement claims that the Bible teaches a mandate to either adopt orphans, or assist persons or organizations in doing so.     If you want to understand why I claim that the Bible teaches no such things, you can read my article, "A Scriptural and Theological Critique of the Evangelical Christian Adoption and Orphan Care Movement" and judge for yourself: 

The second truth is that abusive adoption practices have haunted adoption for a very long time, and continue to haunt it today.    Child laundering scandals over the last ten to fifteen years permeating adoptions from Cambodia, China, Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Nepal, Samoa, and Vietnam, remain unaddressed, with new abuses emerging in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda.   Adult adoptees from South Korea researching their roots commonly find that the information in their paperwork is false.  Recent revelations of babies falsely declared dead and then sold in Spain are just now coming into public view.  The baby-scoop era of coerced adoptions from unwed mothers, with echoes surviving to this day, is an international phenomenon, impacting Australia, Canada, Ireland, the U.K., and the United States.   The infamous Georgia Tann baby-selling scandal in Tennessee, which focused attention in the mid-twentieth century on the problem of baby-selling, led to new legislation but failed to clarify the line between legitimate and illegitimate uses of money in adoption.    The butter-box baby adoption scandal, operating between Canada and the United States, focused attention on profiteering at the expense of the lives of infants, a theme repeated in the Cambodian and other more recent adoption scandals.  Abusive adoption practices have impacted hundreds of thousands of people, at a minimum, over the last seventy years, and yet the Christian adoption movement seems to have collective amnesia on this topic, usually only providing vague admonitions to guard against corruption and pick a good agency---vain precepts when abusive adoption practices have been endemic in adoptions from licensed and legitimate agencies, including those that are explicitly Christian.

Another hard truth neglected by the movement:  the entire way our law and culture conceptualizes adoption in the United States---the “as if” sealed records system that pretends that adopted children were born to their adoptive parents and never had or will have any other family---is NOT Biblical and is contrary to the way that many cultures understand adoptive relationships.    Yet, the movement does not seem to have even begun to address the differences between Biblical models of adoption, and the forms of adoption in which the movement uncritically participates.

I’m putting this out there as a challenge, ahead of Saddleback.  Prove me wrong.   At least teach (rather than ignore) the controversy on adoption and the Bible.   Include detailed and honest briefings on how Ethiopian children with intact families are being adopted as purported “orphans” into the United States.   Explain how adoption agencies have frightened and shamed families into silence about malnutrition and maltreatment in the orphanages in which they work.   Talk about the cases of children kidnapped from their families in Guatemala and then adopted into the United States, and the wider context which have put ethical and legal question marks around over twenty thousand Guatemalan adoptions.   Help participants understand the complexities of adoption from China, and the increasing evidence that orphanages have been buying babies since at least 2000.   Describe how American dollars have corrupted adoptions in country after country, and then explain why the adoption movement continues to resist enforceable limitations on the financial aspects of adoption.   Talk about the role of churches in manipulating, pressuring, coercing and forcing unwed mothers to give up their children during the baby scoop era and sometimes beyond:  and include some such mothers as speakers.   Include as speakers adoptees who are critical of adoption practices, and who explain from personal experience the identity, loss, and anger issues many of their fellow adoptees face. 

From reviewing the conference topics, one can see that there are some suitable warnings at Saddleback.   Based on the workshops offered on attachment, mental health and medical issues, I presume that many will hear about the severe difficulties often involved in adopting post-institutionalized children and other special needs children.   I presume that many will learn that adoptive families who adopt from the foster care system, or adopt older children from anywhere, are likely to need special help and support.  Hopefully the movement has learned not to expect adopted children to be happy little angels grateful for being “saved” by their adoptive parents.  Yet, the movement’s theology that positions adoptive families in the place of God  within the vertical/horizontal adoption redemption analogy, while by contrast positioning the pre-American lives and connections of adoptees as analogous to slavery or the old sin nature, may make it difficult for adoptive families to understand why adoptees express loss and fail to be suitably “grateful.”

I am grateful for the effective “orphan care” ministries that really have nothing to do with adoption; I am grateful that the movement is getting much broader than its roots in adoption.   I appreciate that some adoptions really do take some children from desperately bad situations and place them into loving families.   But the fact that adoption and orphan care can sometimes be done well is not an excuse to gather together and collectively ignore so many of the hard issues and hard questions. 

Finally, I am grateful that a Christian dialogue about the Christian adoption and orphan care movement is beginning, as will be reflected in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Christian Legal Thought (links will be posted on this blog when it is published).   I just wish that this dialogue was already something occurring within the movement itself as represented by its keynote events.  Promoting adoption naivety at major Christian adoption conferences suggests either that the leaders themselves remain naïve about some critically important issues, or else that they think it is best to keep their followers such.   Instead, my suggestion is to trust the movement and the members with the controversy and with the true difficulties involved in doing orphan care and adoption well and Biblically.


Christian Alliance for Orphans Summit VIII, Saddleback Church, May 3-4, 2012

Of Orphans and Adoption, Parents and the Poor, Exploitation and Rescue:  A Scriptural and Theological Critique of the Evangelical Christian Adoption and Orphan Care Movement, David Smolin, bepress, publication forthcoming in Regent Journal of International Law, Vol 8, No 2, Spring 2012.