The beginning of this book
When my husband and I began our adoption journey two years ago, we knew little about ethical adoption.
We wanted another child. We felt God had put adoption on our hearts. We knew there were millions of orphans around the world in need of families. As we read blogs written by adoptive families, we were captivated by the stories of transformation. We wanted to offer family, hope and love to a child who would otherwise be an orphan.
As we began our journey researching adoption, we learned about Ethiopia. After meeting with a few agencies, we felt nervous. The agencies were not transparent, particularly about how many of the children they were placing for adoption came into care. We also realized that many orphanages in poor communities were benefiting financially from international adoption. The money flowing into Ethiopia as a result of international adoption created an incentive for government and orphanage officials to ignore irregularities in a child’s file.
We felt God lead us away from Ethiopia and to Rwanda. At the time, Rwanda had a small adoption program that was carefully regulated by the Rwandan government. The Rwandan government, however, only had the capacity to handle a small number of adoptions. The system was overwhelmed by the influx of adoption agencies and adoptive families and closed to new applications.
We then began the process of adopting from Uganda. I have written about this story in detail before, but here’s the very short version: we were matched with our daughter, Gabrielle Sarah, last January. We were granted legal guardianship in April and finalized her adoption in the United States in October.
Gabrielle has been an amazing gift to our family. I love her and enjoy being her mother immensely. But not a day passes that I do not think about her first mother, the beautiful woman who made a heartbreaking choice to leave her tiny daughter at an orphanage.
Over the last year, we also experienced two other failed adoption attempts in Uganda. In one case, the little girl died as a result of neglect, malnutrition and AIDS. In the other, the missionaries at the orphanage decided an institution was better than a family. Not a day passes that I do not think about the one out of five children in Uganda who die before their fifth birthday. Or the children who remain in orphanages when there are families – both in Uganda and around the world – who would love to welcome them home.
All together, these experiences have opened my eyes. And broken my heart. And made me feel sick. I often want to run away and hide, but I cannot ignore what I have seen.
In Defense of the Fatherless
Over the last two months, I have been studying what the Bible has to say about orphans. Christians love to quote James 1:27: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction.” This verse is used to explain why Christians should be involved in orphan care – everything from sponsoring children in orphanages to short-term mission trips visiting orphans to adoption.
I believe adoption is God’s idea. I agree that Christians are adopted into the family of God. We adopted in part because we are adopted.
But this is not all the Bible has to say about orphans. God is passionately concerned about the fatherless. He calls himself “Father,” “Redeemer” and “helper of the fatherless,” (Psalm 65:8, Proverbs 23:10 and Psalm 10:14). He promises to execute justice and provide for the fatherless.
He likewise calls his people to be distinct from the world in this: while the world takes advantage of the most vulnerable, God’s people are to fight for justice for the widow and the fatherless. The words are clear. Read Deuteronomy, Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah.
God’s people are to defend the fatherless.
Christians should be the most passionate advocates of justice for the fatherless.
Christians need to care about ethics in adoption. But somehow, Christians often end up on the wrong side of this debate. Many agencies who have been involved in child trafficking in countries like Guatemala and Ethiopia claim to be Christian. Many Christian adoptive families stick their heads in their sand when they hear about corruption in adoption. They fight against reforms in international adoption that would protect vulnerable children and families. They believe so wholeheartedly that adoption is a good thing that they are willing to let children be bought. Or even stolen.
This should not be.
Likewise, Christian organizations often keep children in institutional care. Many orphanages run by Christians keep children in institutional care because they depend on the donations brought in by child sponsorship.
This should not be.
Many of these same organizations invite teams of short-term missionaries to visit orphans. This “orphan tourism” often exploits vulnerable children. It likewise brings financial support to the institutions that are keeping children from being placed with biological or adoptive families.
This should not be.
If we are to faithfully defend the fatherless, we need to do things differently. As Christians, we need to support ethical adoption reform, to fight for the right of every child to grow up with a family not in an institution. We need to stop “visiting orphans” for our own selfish reasons.
Where the battle must be fought
I believe Christians have something essential to contribute to the global conversation about how to care for orphans and vulnerable children.
We believe that children are created in the image of God. God describes himself as a Father and a Son: as a family. Christians at the most basic level believe that people are designed to live in families. We are defined by our relationships. God intends for children to grow up with a daddy. The “fatherless” are the most vulnerable people in the world because they lack the very person God intended to protect and provide. This understanding of what it means to be a person shapes our worldview.
The worldview that underlies the policies of many intergovernmental institutions like the UN is completely different. These organizations believe that most essentially children are bearers of culture. In their view, taking a child out of their culture is a violation of their human rights.
If we as Christians do not recognize that the battle needs to be fought at the level of worldview, we may never be able to meaningfully influence adoption and orphan care policy.
We need to defend the right of the fatherless to have a father
I believe this is a human rights issue because I believe humans are designed to live in families. No child should be forced to grow up in an institution when there are families willing and able to welcome them home.
In my opinion, there are a few practical implications to this. First, we need to make sure that no child who is offered for international adoption has a biological family willing and able to parent. We need to take responsibility to make sure this is true for our own adoptions. We likewise need to support policies that protect families and prevent trafficking.
Second, we need to support biological families in the developing world so that poverty does not create orphans. We need to support the work of organizations like Compassion that sponsor children in their families and communities, rather than in institutions. We need to also support the work of organizations that seek to reunify biological families.
Third, we need to encourage domestic adoption in developing countries like Uganda. Many African countries have a beautiful culture of extended families taking care of orphans. We need to support this and encourage the development of a type of adoption that provides all the benefits of a permanent family to a child. In order to support domestic adoption, we need to make sure we are not creating financial incentives for orphanages to prefer international adoption.
Fourth, we need to advocate for the right of every child to have a family. I believe this is where much of the debate is right now. Many of the organizations that believe culture is more important than family would rather have children remain in their countries in foster care or other types of alternative care.
I do believe foster care is an improvement from orphanages, but is is not the same as having a permanent family. Consider a few of the statistics about what happens to young adults in the US who age out of foster care without being adopted within 18 months: 30% end up homeless, 50% do not graduate high school, 60% do not have access to medical care, 40% are arrested, 25% end up in jail and more than half of the young women get pregnant.
Friends, open your eyes.
God’s heart for the fatherless is about more than international adoption or visiting orphans. We need to join him in defending the fatherless and advocating for policies that protect children and support families. We need to fight for an end to institutional care and for the right of every child to grow up in a family.
I wrote this in December 2011 on the blog Family Hope Love. Four years later, this blog post has grown into a book about reforming international adoption and orphan care. Buy in Defense of the Fatherless now on Amazon.