International adoption is under assault. In 2013 a rash of negative stories with sensational titles, such as “Evangelicals and the Fake Orphan Racket” and “Orphan Fever: The Evangelical Movement’s Adoption Obsession,” have made their way into print, and Kathryn Joyce’s The Child Catchers has spawned articles about child trafficking and corruption. The attacks are propelling questions: What’s in the best interest of children? How important is cultural continuity? Should children have a right to a stable family, even if the family is in a different country? Do children belong to the state?
Although intercountry adoption has many prominent supporters, the hostile-to-adoption side is winning: In 2012, only 8,668 children found families in the United States through intercountry adoption. Eight years earlier, 22,884 orphans did. Even at its peak, intercountry adoption provided families for a mere trickle of the 17.9 million double orphans—those without mother or father—in the world.
The war on international adoption is succeeding because Joyce and others emphasize adoptions gone awry. Stories about adopted parents indicted for abuse, children who say they were stolen from their homes, and a desperate mom sending her Russian son back to Moscow have all received massive play. But what about the 300,000 orphans under age 5 who die each year in sub-Saharan Africa? We rarely hear moving stories about them because for the most part they are invisible to Americans.
I did hear the story of one orphan with nut brown skin and eyes, and soft dark hair with a suggestion of curls. Tymm and Laura Hoffman were in the process of adopting the baby they named Brighton Asher, but they never had the opportunity to cuddle him, change his diaper, or learn his various cries. He died in Ethiopia on Jan. 9, 2008, in a hospital thousands of miles from the Hoffman’s home in Atlanta. He had spent most of the 76 days he lived in an Ethiopian orphanage, where he eventually became sick with pneumonia and diarrhea.
I also spoke with the would-be adoptive parents of a 2-year-old they named Cruz Chernat Besk. He was suffering from malaria, TB, and kwashiorkor, a severe form of malnutrition, when his father brought him to the orphanage. The staff sent him to Addis Ababa, where he spent 25 days in the hospital, received nutrients through a feeding tube, and had two blood transfusions. Then Cruz went from the hospital to a transition home to await adoption.
Catherine and Kenny Besk of Santa Cruz, Calif., learned on Aug. 15 that they had been matched with Cruz. They talked to specialists at Stanford so they could hit the ground running when he arrived in America. A friend in Ethiopia visited Cruz at the transition home and taped a short video, which shows him sitting up and flipping through a book of family photographs sent by the Besks. He looks at the camera and chants, “AYAY! AYAY” (“you see, you see”), just as the video clicks off. The next day, Cruz—nicknamed “old man” because he knew everyone’s name—went to the hospital. On Sept. 12, 2013, he died—25 months to the day after his birth.
Cruz’s death wasn’t directly caused by adoption delays. He was sick, and couldn’t overcome his poor beginnings. We know his story only because he was in the adoption pipeline, but hundreds of thousands of similar children die under the radar. Tymm Hoffman says in the past seven years he’s talked to more than 50 families with the same experience. Adoption proponent Elizabeth Bartholet of Harvard Law School says tragedies like those of Brighton and Cruz are frequent: “For most unparented children the real alternative to international adoption is life, or death, in institutions or on the street.”
Research backs that up. In “Who Wants to Adopt and Who Wants to Be Adopted,” Christopher Balding and Feng Yan, both Ph.D.s., studied orphans in sub-Saharan Africa and found that orphans who live with extended family members receive “less education than biological siblings.” When resources are scarce, orphans “were given less developmental assistance … even when provided with additional public assistance.”
Similarly, Princeton researchers found “orphans are significantly disadvantaged” when it comes to school enrollment. Ann Case and her co-authors found a bias against orphans, which was worse when children lived with distant relatives and nonrelatives: “The degree of relatedness between orphans and their adult caregivers is highly predictive of children’s outcomes.”
David Smolin of Samford Law School agrees that some institutional care is harmful, but dwells on positive in-country solutions for orphans: family preservation, domestic adoption or foster care, and “family-like” institutional care—“in effect, boarding schools for the poor, providing children with opportunities for education and adequate nutrition.”
That kind of care does exist. Benedict Schwartz moved his family to Zambia in 2006 to begin the kind of orphan home that Smolin recommends. Villages of Hope (VoH) in the Chibomba District offers family care with children living in small houses with Zambian “mothers.” Social services officials vet incoming children, including those with mothers in prison, to make sure they are truly in need, The school prepares children to live in Zambia, and no child will age out and face homelessness: They’ll be able to build houses on the land and stay, raising their own families in the village in which they grew up.
But Villages of Hope is home to only 55 orphans. Many more live with extended families, as Smolin recommends, but Schwartz notes that “many extended families are not safe places for kids.”
Places like Villages of Hope make up one strand of the Christian orphan care movement. Relief and development make up another, and so does international adoption. Chuck Johnson, president of the National Council for Adoption, says, “Intercountry adoption is not the solution for the world’s orphan population. It’s a solution.” It may not be right for every orphan, but for those for whom it is a good fit, it makes a world of difference.
What about the accusations of adoption fraud, which send tremors throughout the adoption world and lead policymakers to halt or significantly slow adoptions from targeted countries? The accusations don’t have to be proven—even the suggestion is enough to cause delays. On its website, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Service (USCIS) notes about Ethiopia: “Certain fraud indicators and patterns that suggest possible malfeasance or unethical behavior in some cases.”
But experts don’t agree what those indicators and patterns signify. Elizabeth Bartholet writes, “There is no persuasive evidence that such abuses are widespread; instead, they seem a very small part of the total international adoption picture, with the overwhelming majority of adoptions taking place in compliance with the law.
David Smolin disagrees: “Significant segments of the adoption community are in deep denial about the prevalence and seriousness of abusive practices in intercountry adoption.” He suggests “the subsequent failure to adequately respond to these abuses, constitutes the greatest threat to the future of intercountry adoption.”
How can ordinary folks sort this out? The USCIS website seems to side with Bartholet: “No cases from Ethiopia have been denied based on findings of fraud.” Nonetheless, in 2011 the Ethiopian government slowed referrals from 50 to five a month, leaving adoptive families like the Besks waiting 2½ years after their dossier was complete before receiving the referral for Cruz.
Chuck Johnson says if people are committed to intercountry adoption, it’s possible to figure out systems to weed out fraud. But many critics have philosophical problems with it, which make them less interested in reforming systems than in making intercountry adoption rare. The ambivalence leads to shutdowns and delays, which means—as Johnson says—“Children die because they’re already vulnerable to begin with.”
Catherine Besk says about possible corruption: “We don’t stop doing what is right, because there are evil people doing evil things. If anything, we fight harder to do it the right way.” She says they want the world to know that Cruz did not die an orphan: “We went to Ethiopia to claim him as our son and lay him to rest. Even though we never got to see his precious face, he was ours and he was LOVED.”
They plan to move forward with another adoption because “we think there is no better way to honor Cruz. We don’t want this journey to end in death, but to continue with the hope of new life.”
Reuters recently ran a series of sensational stories about desperate adoptive parents who turned to internet message boards to find new parents for children they had promised to love forever. Although no one knows how many parents disrupt adoptions, “re-homing” is more common when people adopt older children from other countries.
Ramona Edwards, 52, criticizes “the Wal-Mart syndrome” on such message boards. She says she’s the queen of returns, yet she’d never reject a child—but some prospective adoptive parents get caught up in an emotional frenzy about adoption and are unprepared for the difficulties. Edwards says, “They have to be committed to loving whoever God is putting into their lives and not put their own expectations on this child. … God calls people to do different things. Not everybody is supposed to bring an older child home.”
Her advice: Parents need to be better prepared for problems such as fetal alcohol syndrome among Russian adoptees and exposure to violence among those from Africa. Adoptive parents should admit that it’s hard: “God forbid that I would interfere with one orphan finding a loving family, but I’ve seen homes destroyed because parents were not prepared—absolutely torn apart.”
Edwards understands the confusion and desperation parents can feel. She and her husband Bob, 53, adopted two older sibling groups from a Russian orphanage, so they know firsthand the problems. Parents in such situations rarely know the extent of the trauma their children have experienced and the coping mechanisms they’ve developed: Bullying, abuse of drugs and alcohol, manipulation and lying by some adoptees can be shocking. And they receive little support from adoption agencies or social services.
Edwards used to spend time on Christian message boards, counseling parents to seek help and not give up. She recalls parents pleading for someone to take their children. Some turned to the internet to receive sympathy rather than biblical challenge. Others were desperate and fearful with nowhere else to turn. She heard heartbreaking stories of children who put their families in danger and found herself trying to answer the question, “What do you do when you bring a child into your home who is a danger to your other children? You’re responsible to protect other family members.”
But more often, families just didn’t bond with their adopted children and wanted to be rid of them. A decade ago Naomi, then 12, and Anna, then 11, joined the Edwards family three months apart after they could not meet the expectations of their adoptive mothers. Their stories show how deep problems can be, and how the grace of God can help families persevere.
Naomi, as an 8-year-old in a jungle village in Vietnam, carried the burden of her alcoholic mother’s dying command: Take care of your little sisters! Naomi remembers having to protect a 3-year-old and a 6-month-old, and the relief she felt going to an orphanage where they had a nice bed and good food.
They lived in the orphanage for three years before being adopted to America, into a family with a Vietnamese mother and an American father. At first things were good: “I felt I was in heaven. We each got our own room.” The orphanage hadn’t done potty training, so when her littlest sister had an accident the adoptive mother responded harshly, sometimes locking her in the garage. Naomi tried to protect her little sister, but that made things worse.
She remembers the mom yelling in Vietnamese and the American dad yelling in English, both saying the same thing: “We’re going to give you to another family.” Naomi’s mom wanted her to act and look like an American—but she wasn’t. They threatened to keep her sisters and get rid of Naomi. They asked her if that’s what she wanted, and Naomi agreed: “I was scared. I just wanted to please her.”
Ramona and Bob Edwards heard about the situation from an urgent bulletin on an adoption email list. They offered to adopt all three girls, but the mom had already found a home in Canada for the two younger ones. Naomi moved into the Edwards home in Alabama and shut down emotionally. In less than a year, she had left Vietnam with two sisters, joined a new family, been rejected by that family, and lost the two sisters she had pledged to care for. She spoke little English and was thrust into a home with eight siblings, five of them from Russia.
Naomi was angry and depressed, convinced she was a horrible person. It took time for her to adjust and begin to understand she wasn’t at fault, that she was only a child. She struggled to understand why she had to go through all that. Eventually she accepted her new family and for the first time had a relationship with a dad.
Months later, the Edwardses received word of a girl from Kazakhstan whose adoptive mother complained that after three years they hadn’t bonded. Once again the Edwardses stepped in. Anna Edwards recalls that her first year in America was good because everything was new. But gradually her mother became harsher, and Anna sensed she couldn’t please her. Her adoptive parents called her stupid and tried to erase her Kazakh identity: “I didn’t want to learn English. I was stubborn. She took away all my Russian CDs and Kazakh books to force me to learn English. ... I had to be an American girl.”
Anna became more resistant. She remembers sneaking food and having to ask permission to use the bathroom. But she didn’t suspect what her parents were planning until they withdrew her from soccer and Tae Kwon Do classes, while letting her younger brothers, adopted from Korea, continue. Searching through her parents’ papers, she found something saying they were going to find her a new family.
Anna says at first she was glad to be gone, but she was also angry and felt her life was meaningless. Worried that her new adoptive parents would also abandon her, she held things in and then would blow. It took her three years to call the Edwardses Mom and Dad. As the Edwardses’ 11 children (nine years apart in age) went through their teenage years, many of them acted out. Ramona Edwards told me, “We were naïve like everyone else. It’s only by the grace of God that we aren’t on Reuters [message board exposé].” Anna, now 21, recalls, “We always had Bible study.” Reading the Gospel of John helped her gain perspective: “I started realizing I’m okay. I’m saved by God.”
Despite the struggles, Ramona Edwards says, “We love our adopted children.” Bob Edwards says, “I feel like I found a diamond in someone else’s trash heap.” Anna Edwards says, “My first family made me stronger. The reason I went through that is so I could ... meet God.” Naomi Edwards Loyd, now married and expecting her second child, says she was only able to put away her anger after she became a believer in Christ: “It was a long time ago. I’m good now. It doesn’t hurt me anymore.”
• “A Frank Analysis of the Child Catchers” by Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans. christianalliancefororphans.org/wp-content/uploads/A-Frank-Analysis-of-THE-CHILD-CATCHERS.pdf. This paper offers a thoughtful response to Kathryn Joyce’s book.
• A debate between law professors David Smolin and Elizabeth Bartholet at works.bepress.com/david_smolin/11. This chapter is from Intercountry Adoption: Policies, Practices, and Outcomes, edited by Judith L. Gibbons and Karen Smith Rotabi (2012).
• To get a sense of the hostility to adoption, visit the running “archive of heinous actions by those involved in child welfare, foster care and adoption” called “How Could You?” at reformtalk.net/2012/08/29/how-could-you-hall-of-shame-reeces-rainbow-ukrainian-adoptee. Commenters speculate wildly about any publicized death or accident involving an adopted child.
• Poundpuplegacy.org gives an annual Demons of Adoption Award “to raise a voice against adoption propaganda.” Recipients include the makers of the movie Juno, Bethany Christian Services, and the National Council for Adoption.