Is International Adoption All It's Cracked Up To Be? A Series on Ethical Adoption and a Better Way to Help Needy Children Overseas

"Once our eyes are opened,
we can't pretend we don't know what to do. God,
who weighs our hearts and keeps our souls, knows what we know,
and holds us responsible to act."
Proverbs 24:12

Adoption is one of my favorite topics. I think one of the most beautiful things in this broken world is to see a hurting and needy child placed in a loving home. Adoption exemplifies the love God has for us as we reach out to children that are not biologically ours and make them family.

Adoption has touched my life in many ways. I worked in the adoption field for three years, I have a beautiful little brother who is adopted, and have many friends who have adopted. But I've learned that it's far more complicated than I once thought, international adoption especially.

After working with adoptions in Liberia for three years I saw another side of the adoption world. Despite the best of intentions in many cases, there is a lot of harm taking place in the international realm, especially when large numbers of adoptions are occurring. In addition to things I saw in Liberia, I have heard stories from Haiti, Uganda, Ethiopia, the DRC, and even China. Irresponsible agency practices, children being adopted who do not qualify for adoption, no efforts at birth family preservation, and significant cultural ramifications are just a few of these things. Not to mention outright illegal practices and actual child trafficking, which thankfully I did not hear or see much of in Liberia.

There is a time and a place for international adoption. After a country experiences a huge crisis, like a war or epidemic, there are usually many orphans left behind. But eventually these children are all adopted, placed with extended family, or age out of adoption. In most countries there really isn't an on going "orphan crisis." So it is typically at this point that a lot of harm begins to take place. Because systems are already in place for adoptions, it is very easy for children who aren't really orphans to be funneled through the adoption process. (Although, there are continuously many special needs children worldwide that do need to be adopted and other case-by-case situations that are appropriate for international adoption). 

The topic of ethical adoption is far broader than making sure children are adopted legally and agencies act responsibly. International adoption on a large scale can actually be damaging to a culture. It affects the way a culture views their vulnerable children and impoverished families, how they view orphanages, and can even affect how people view responsible birth control and abstinence.

On the side of the adopting culture it can influence how one views their responsibility to certain biblical mandates, a church's mission's theology, and our view of impoverished societies different than ours.

Ethical adoption has been a topic of discussion for years, from the adoptive parent level all the way to UNICEF. Recently a great stir has been caused due to journalist Kathryn Joyce's provocatively titled book "The Child Catchers; Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption."

Joyce spent a year actively researching the international adoption movement, specifically among evangelical Christians, and in her book reveals the negative side of adoption and supposed misguided motives of Christians in their mass efforts to help orphans overseas. She shares how international adoption is creating a supply and demand scenario as in places like Ethiopia children with parents are being trafficked so they can be adopted. All the while adoptive parents think they are saving desperate orphans from a miserable life in an orphanage.

Many Christians believe Joyce's work is a simple attack on conservatives for wanting to do something good. Joyce obviously has a bias against evangelicals, but that does not make much of the information she has uncovered inaccurate. I know this from experience.

Kathryn Joyce isn't the only one talking. I've since read many reports from adoptive parents sharing their experiences as well as former adoption coordinators. Some of the more well-known writers are missionary Tara Livesay in Haiti, and author and speaker Jen Hatmaker. I've also learned of several organizations overseas whose main focus is to ensure ethical adoptions and the reunification of children in orphanages with biological family.

I'll be honest and say I'm very nervous to start this series. I have a lot of wonderful friends who have adopted and I don't want people to feel I'm being critical of their adoptions. I wouldn't want anyone to think I'm anti-adoption, or against the movement of the evangelical church that was passionate about trying to help desperate children.

But life is a journey of learning. In the past I was involved in adoptions and I didn't see everything the way I see it now. Today, with my experiences I feel a responsibility to share my new perspective. My purpose is to encourage people towards ethical adoption as well as other ways to help needy children overseas, not to be critical of adoptions that have already taken place. I hope you will be patient with me as I try to explain my views, and give me the benefit of the doubt if I inadvertently sound overly negative.

In my series I'll be going over topics relating to ethical adoption, orphan care, and effective ministry overseas. Liberia will be my primary example because that is where I have experience. Some of my upcoming posts will be an overview of Liberia's adoption story, God's sovereignty in unethical adoption - something other authors seem to be overlooking, a realistic look at birth families and birth culture, how ongoing international adoption on a large scale can harm a culture, the problem with orphanages, and my most important post, how I believe the majority of needy children overseas should really be helped - it might not be what you think.

I know some will feel this series is going to discourage people from adopting overseas. I honestly do hope fewer people choose to adopt internationally and instead focus on the over a hundred thousand adoptable children in the United States foster system, become foster parents, or dedicate their time and energies to better ways of helping the millions of unadoptable needy children overseas without causing harm. Let us remember God is a God of truth and justice. He will not let desperate children fall through the cracks if we are honestly seeking to do what is right.

My posts in this series:

Open Letter to My Friends (and Other Adoptive Parents) on Ethical Adoption

The International Adoption Enigma: How something helpful can quickly become harmful. Alternate Title: Liberia's Adoption Story.

{Disclaimer: It is not my intention to incriminate any organization or individual for their involvement in  a potentially unethical adoption process. I will not share specifics of any cases or names of organizations. This series is more about presenting facts on orphans and a better way to help non-orphans and their families overseas. You may disagree with my conclusions and that's okay. Please be respectful in your comments.}


Ginger Clark said...

I'm looking forward to this!

Sherrie said...

I'm reading but I having adopted children that are stuck in institutions overseas vs the care here in the foster care system my opinion is the kids in the institutions need the most help. We've adopted thru the US foster care system also, so maybe it's not one or another but wherever God calls you. But having been in several Eastern European institutions I still think the need there is greater. It's wicked to cage a child like an animal.

Melodie said...

I agree, Sherrie, there is still a need to adopt special needs kids from overseas. I'll be addressing that more in a future post. But the percentage of people willing to adopt special needs kids is a fraction of those who want healthy, "normal" children. That really needs to change.

Juf said...

Hi Melodie,
I'm interested in what you have to say, and would like to follow your blog by e-mail so I don't miss the rest of the posts. Is that a possibility?

Melodie said...

Thanks for your interest in my work! I have added the "follow by email" feature on the right-hand side-bar for those who are interested.

Sherrie said...

To clarify I am speaking of special needs children that I have seen in horrible conditions in Eastern Europe. So many need families, there is no humane alternative for them. In EE a special need can be as minor as an unformed or missing limb or even dwarfism and of course any severe disabilities. Following your posts. You know much more about the other side of adoption then I do.

Blu and Darbi said...

Hey Melodie! I am excited to read your series! Our family was in the adoption process through AoH and when our referral fell through, we began seeking God's face more about our role to help His orphans. We moved to Zambia in 2010 and started New Day Orphanage. We live here full-time and currently have 16 orphans (all single orphans, most double-orphans). Our goal is not to adopt them out, but to raise them in their own culture so that one day they can reach their own countrymen for Jesus. Check us out at! Funny how we were so devastated when our referral fell through - we now have 16 precious children to love. His ways are not our ways!

Melodie said...

Thanks for your comment Darbi! What a great ministry you have. I took a look at the New Day website and it seems like a really good program. I'll be doing some more posts on orphan/needy children care in the future that I hope will be helpful.