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.


  1. Glad to stumble upon this blog...I had a personal brush with unethical adoption practices (and while they were no way as horrific as what your family has been through), I believe that the entire adoption industry is a misleading practice. In just a few short months, I've been moved from hoping to adopt (thinking it was simply a great thing to do) to learning so much (esp. through the blogosphere) as to the truth behind many adoption stories. I would like to add your blog to my blog roll.
    All the best,

  2. I can tell you from first hand experience that the Christian adoption movement is a marketing tool for agencies that make up to $30,000 per child. They create literal industries in poor countries and shove pro family based ministries supporting keeping the children in their families to the side of the road. I refuse to participate in these conferences. I also participated in Saddleback children's ministries and know that they are only promoting Rick Warren and their church, not the needs of the children. Thank you for this post. It does my heart good. I would sign my name, but still work in orphan care and am tired of being ostracized for my desire to advocate for the orphans needs and do not need obstacles from those who would prefer I stay silent. Money is the root of all the distortion in this situation.

  3. David- Thank you for writing on this. It is important that as the church we take off our rose colored glasses and see the very ugly things happening through inter-country adoption.