The International Adoption Enigma: How Something Helpful Can Quickly Become Harmful

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Please see my introductory post on adoption ethics here: Is International Adoption All It's Cracked Up To Be? A series on ethical adoption and a better way to help needy children overseas, as well as the other posts in this series.

Alternate Title: Liberia's Adoption Story

When I was growing up in the Ivory Coast, West Africa, my siblings and I had many wild animals for pets. Hunters in the forest looking for wild game to feed their families would occasionally stumble across a nest with babies, or slow moving but small animals like chameleons, and to supplement their income would sell these animals as pets. We enjoyed rescuing these animals and, if they survived, would release them back into the wild when they were grown.

When I was 12-years-old the locals from our village realized we would give money for small animals. The easiest to find and catch were chameleons. Before we knew it our chameleon collection was more than we could properly care for. We ended up releasing most of them back into the wild and told the villagers that we did not want them to catch animals to bring to us, but just to let us know if there was an orphaned or starving animal in need. It never occurred to us that the very act of rescuing the animals could inadvertently create a demand for them, one that the village children were happy to fulfill, especially since it meant walking away with enough money for a meal or two.

Despite growing up surrounded by poverty in the West African countries of Liberia and the Ivory Coast, adoption was not something I was regularly exposed to. I only remember two stories of adoptions growing up, and both were local. One being when I was 11 years old and my missionary parents took in a starving Ivorian orphaned baby for foster care. They connected this child with a loving Ivorian family for an informal, though typical to Africa, adoption. While it was not unusual for children to be orphaned, there were cultural systems in place that provided for Ivorian orphans through extended family care, foster care, or unofficial adoption.

In the summer of 2005 during my college internship in Liberia, West Africa, I became involved with international adoption for the first time. Liberia was just coming out of a brutal 14-year civil war and the number of orphaned children far surpassed the cultural provisions typically in place for their care. I was volunteering at an orphanage when I had the opportunity to connect a very sick special needs orphan with a foster family and eventually an adoption agency, where she was adopted to a loving home in Canada. Post college 2006 brought me back to Liberia where I worked for an adoption agency for three years (not consecutive) at varying capacities, from Orphanage Supervisor to Interim Country Director, until the summer of 2010.

Though I began my work in adoption with a significant amount of cultural information, I was completely inexperienced in the field of adoptions. I was learning everything for the first time and was not always aware of causes for concern. Because I had seen the desperate need in many orphanages during my earlier days in Liberia, I assumed all the children in the adoption process were only there because it was their last hope for a normal life.

In the beginning of the Liberian international adoption movement most of the adoptions were of war orphans and starving children from abject poverty. But eventually all of these children who were eligible were adopted and gradually the face of adoption changed. With a structure and system already in place for international adoption, the void was easily filled with children who did have living parents or relatives, many of whom probably could have been helped by other forms of assistance, if it had been available.

Don't misunderstand me, there were definitely children still being adopted who truly needed it. And I don't believe just because a child has a living birth parent means they don't qualify for adoption. But as Liberia recovered from the war the number of orphans decreased significantly, while the number of adoptions increased. Adoption became the answer for many struggling families as it was what was available in their time of need. Some organizations were not sensitive to the various dynamics in these situations and encouraged adoption when they probably shouldn't have. And as can happen in any large business or ministry, malpractice was not foreign to the adoption scene, even by well-meaning individuals. I don't know that any baby buying ever took place, it certainly wasn't happening in my agency, but I do know some organizations did not always do things above board. Liberia was not ignorant of this and the legality of the adoption scene was often in question, as well as the legitimacy of adoption as a way of helping children in need who did have living biological family.

The concept of international adoption is foreign to the Liberian culture, as is true in other African countries, as well as Haiti. Some birth parents understood what adoption meant and never doubted their decision. They rejoiced that their child's every need would be provided for, knowing they were unprepared to raise the child themselves. But many thought international adoption was a sophisticated sponsorship or exchange student type program in which the families would have regular contact and eventually the child would return to Liberia. Some deeply regretted their decision for adoption and told me, "If I had understood adoption the way you are explaining it to me now, I never would have given the kids up." The staff I worked with always tried to explain adoption accurately to those potentially interested, but unfortunately not all of them understood.

A moratorium was eventually placed on international adoption in Liberia when the government felt there were too many unethical and illegal practices taking place. After birth parents realized adoption probably wasn't going to happen, about half of the children in our orphanage were removed and brought home. Later I reunited another quarter with biological family. A handful of the remaining children were adopted internationally when the government made exception for those who had completed adoption decrees. My greatest joy during this time was placing one of our (very few) actual orphans in a Liberian home when I was Interim Country Director and could make this decision. During this process I had multiple Liberians express interest in adopting as well. As I looked around I realized if Americans weren't adopting all the infants and small children, the Liberians not only were willing, but they wanted to.

I once thought international adoption played a very important role in helping Liberia's needy children. But by the time I left Liberia in 2010 I realized Liberia had recovered enough from the war to take care of the majority of their orphans themselves. Additionally, if it were to reopen I think a lot of harm could be caused. Orphanages that have been shut down, or whose numbers have greatly diminished, would instantly be filled with children. What children? Not orphans - children with parents! Children who'd been living with parents or biological family up until that point. The simple act of having an orphanage can inadvertently create "orphans", and it would be so sad if this were to happen in Liberia. Like I saw in the Ivory Coast when I was a child, stable countries have ways of providing for their own orphans and children in need, without turning to orphanages and international adoption as their first resort.

I do believe there's a way for international adoption to work for a small portion of Liberia's true orphans, primarily the special needs children. But the adoption agencies, and even prospective adoptive parents, would really have to change their way of thinking.

But just because the true orphans in Liberia might be taken care of does not mean other children and their parents in great need no longer need assistance. I'll be addressing this in a later post, where I'll go over how I think needy children should really be helped in Liberia and any part of the world. Surprisingly, it's not something I've seen many others involved in the discussion on unethical adoption address.

Other Posts on the Topic:

My Take on Ugandan Adoptions (The Ugandan version of my story.) 

The Dark Side of China's "Aging Out Orphan" Program (Unethical Adoptions in China) 

What is an Orphan? Is there an "Orphan Crisis"? (A look at the real needs of orphans and needy children and an Ethiopian version of my story.) 

Don't miss my post on God's sovereignty in unethical adoption. Do you wonder if your adoption may have been unethical? How is one supposed to handle this knowledge or uncertainty when what's done is done and your child is home? If you're involved in the discussion on unethical adoptions, you won't want to miss it. 


Ginger Clark said...

Excellent and informative post.
Thank you!!

Emily said...

This is so eye-opening to me! Thanks for sharing!!

homeskoolmom5883 said...

17 years as an adoptive mom and a social work degree has convinced me that this is not just international adoption problem. I have been a little trepidatious to write on the stateside foster/adoption system since my husband's family is so deeply involved with it. But I have been working on a blog post; trying to be sensitive but truthful. I see the same thing happening stateside. Many of these "orphans" are not true orphans,in fact, none are true orphans, and while there are some true abuse cases, many of these mothers (and fathers) need to be taught parenting skills. Work? Yes, but not impossible. I'll leave the rest for my blog. You're doing a great job covering this Melodie

Christina said...

Really enjoying the "series"! Couldn't be better timing right with some things happening around us (in Liberia now)! Good food for thought!

Janelle Oppel said...

Fantastic post Melodie!

Jocelyn Frey said...

Great post, I've been struggling with this as we are missionaries in DRC and have been seeing and involved with many families coming to adopt but feeling many of the thing you have written without knowing truly how to go about dealing with it. You do not have to publish this comment but if you have any reading suggestions for me or encouragement in this area if you could email me at