How did we end up here?

I have never met an adoptive parent who began the time-consuming, heart-wrenching, wallet-emptying process of international adoption with a desire to traffic a child.

Our family adopted for a few simple reasons. We wanted one more child and could not get pregnant again. We believed we had been adopted by God and that adoption was a demonstration of the gospel. We thought there was an orphan crisis that was particularly acute in Africa – our hearts were broken for the millions of orphans in Uganda.

Nearly every adoptive family I know had similar motivations. We love children, we want to help a child in need.

But something ugly often happens in the adoption process. The sincere desire to adopt in order to help an orphan morphs into a consuming need to adopt – to bring a child home at almost any cost.

There is a growing movement among Evangelicals in America challenging every Christian family and church to do something about the orphan crisis. Thousands of churches are launching orphan care ministries. Millions of Christians are going on short-term mission trips. And a growing number of families are considering adoption.

Sadly year after year the number of international adoptions is decreasing. More countries are closing their borders to international adoption in response to corruption or political pressure.  Fewer countries are open to international adoption just as more families are beginning the adoption process.

As a result, there is intense, growing pressure on countries such as Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Adoption agencies scramble to start new programs. On the ground they fight to partner with orphanages – and to find adoptable children. In many African countries, corruption is the status quo. It is difficult to get anything done without paying a bribe here or there. Money talks. Soon lawyers, orphanages and government officials involved in adoption realize that it is a lucrative business.

They see no harm in talking a desperately poor family out of a child. They give in to corruption, rationalizing that the child would have died in Africa, that their life will be so much better in America.

Imagine a naive family walking into this mess, completely unaware of the ends to which many adoption agencies will go to place a child for adoption. Somewhere in the adoption process, they begin to notice a few inconsistencies.

They realize the lawyer working on their case has a reputation for being corrupt.

They hear that the orphanage where their child is living has been neglecting the children while the orphanage director is living comfortably.

The day before they go to court, they discover the child who they believe is an orphan has a mother and father, siblings and grandparents.

In court, they hear the only reason the family cannot care for the child is poverty.

They begin to wonder if the family even understands what adoption means.

But at this point, they are too deep in. For months, they have been falling in love with a child they believed was an orphan. And now he or she is with them, in their arms. They cannot imagine letting the child go.

And on top of this, everyone at home is behind their adoption. Friends and family have prayed and given generously. There have been baby showers and there will be a big welcome at the airport. Their church supports the orphanage where the little girl was living. The family cannot imagine disappointing everyone at home.

And so they ignore their consciences. They rationalize the corruption. They come up with Christian-sounding excuses for trafficking a child. When United States officials investigate and discover the child was never an orphan, the family fights back. They hire lawyers and vow fight to the bitter end.

They rally the support of their friends and family, church and community. People write their senators and tell the media. Soon their story is everywhere. They call the Embassy evil, argue the United States government hates orphans. They call the laws designed to protect children from trafficking “red tape”.

And now they are in too deep. They have walked down a path of escalating commitment. They began the process to adopt full of love, faith and a sincere desire to welcome an orphan into their family. But somewhere along the road, they lost sight of what is truly important.

Sadly, this is not just an imaginary story. This is a true story – a story that is repeated with slightly different details over and over again. Many families who adopt from Uganda, Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of Congo have walked down a similar path. Somewhere in the adoption process they noticed corruption – and they closed their eyes.

Out of fear or pride they looked the other way. Out of cowardice or arrogance they trafficked a child and destroyed a vulnerable family.

It takes courage to ask the hard questions – and to walk away if you discover that the child you love does not need a new family. It is brave to tell the truth, especially when adoption agencies who profit from corruption will go to great lengths to silence families.

Friends, I will keep beating this drum as long as it takes. It is time for the Christian adoption and orphan care movement to wake up to the reality of corruption – and the truth of Scripture. The Bible is crystal clear that exploiting the poor, destroying families, paying bribes and denying justice are sin. The Bible is also clear that we are called to protect and provide for orphans and widows – and the reality in the world today as in the world when the Bible was penned is that most orphans are living with widows and that these families are vulnerable to exploitation. Protecting and providing for these families – preventing children from being abandoned – must become a priority. It is time for change.





Sara Brinton

SARA BRINTON is a writer and entrepreneur with a passion for reforming international adoption and orphan care. She leads marketing for Noonday Collection, a business that uses fashion to create opportunity in developing countries. Sara and her husband, Mark, live in Austin, Texas with their four children, including daughter Gabrielle who was adopted from Uganda.

  • Keren Riley

    January 12, 2013 at 11:10 pm Reply

    Thanks for writing this excellent article Sara. From what I am witnessing on the ground here in Uganda, I would say that this narrative you talk about in this blog post plays out more often than not in Uganda. I truly believe that God is calling for Christians to become like the little boy in the “Emperors new clothes”story and instead of going along with the status quo even though all those people knew he was naked, instead shouting out “the emperors got no clothes on”. God will judge us very harshly if we exploit the poor and take advantage of the vulnerable. Justice is the foundation of Gods throne and he is calling out for justice for all the children who are now in America but should be at home in Uganda with their families. The truth is the truth is the truth, no matter how many dollars have been paid, or how many spiritual brownie points we get with our churches – God will not be mocked. Thanks Sara for speaking up.

    • Sara

      January 13, 2013 at 8:53 am Reply

      I totally agree Keren. Though I had spent time in the past studying what the Bible says about poverty and injustice, over the last year as I’ve studied these topics again – from the beginning to the end of the Bible – I have come to a place where I believe more strongly than ever that one of our highest priorities as Christians must be protecting and providing for the “least of these”. I think most Christians are familiar with passages like Isaiah 58 or Matthew 25 that make it clear that mercy and justice flow out of true faith in God. But I don’t think enough Christians have spent enough time reading Leviticus, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekial through the lens of “what happens if we exploit the poor?” So many of the practices common in International Adoption – bribery, denying justice to the poor, destroying lives for selfish gain – are listed in these passages. I still think adoption is beautiful when it is really in the best interest of a child, but as a movement we need to regain balance, seeing that it is not the only or best option for most of the world’s poor and powerless children.

  • Carrie

    January 13, 2013 at 4:04 am Reply

    Thanks for taking time to share your heart. This is hard because it really does involve a paradigm shift in thinking – but I am convinced it must be done for the benefit of everyone, especially the children.

  • Katie

    January 13, 2013 at 9:07 am Reply

    This was great! Thank you!

  • Keren Riley

    January 13, 2013 at 9:47 am Reply

    I love the old school prophets – they challenged the practices done at the time in the name of God – and they were often hated. Jesus challenged the religious movement at the time too. I think we are supposed to be hated actually by this movement – we are not supposed to be building careers for ourselves based on the misery and exploitation of the weak and vulnerable

  • Scooping it up

    January 13, 2013 at 4:38 pm Reply

    Thank you so much for this. The biggest and worst violations in adoption ethics I’ve ever seen have come from Christian families with “orphan ministries” and money pouring in from their congregations as if adoption is some kind of humanitarian rescue mission (which it is NOT, in my opinion.) I have seen Christian families with blogs with followings admit to terrible coersion of birth families. This “call” to “save” “orphans” with families who want them is a heartbreaking twisting of scripture and it is indeed, evil. I am glad I am not alone in talking about it. Though I’ve often gotten flak for it. Fabulous post.

    • Sara

      January 13, 2013 at 7:18 pm Reply

      Scooping it up, thanks for your comment. Although I don’t think Christians are only responsible for adoption ethics, you are right that many Christians get to a place where they feel entitled to take another family’s child. I also agree this is especially true when a family is involved in leading an orphan care ministry – especially if that ministry operates with little accountability. I’ve heard many absurd but Christian-sounding excuses. Never step fighting to bring “home” your adopted child? Look at the lengths that God went to to adopt us into his family…Paying bribes? Well Jesus was the ransom for our sin. It’s a distortion of the true care for orphans and widows required by the Bible.

    • Mark Riley

      January 19, 2013 at 7:38 am Reply

      Scooping it up – you are so right and thanks for sharing, that has been my experience also… Evangelicals who believe that they are called by God to adopt will do almost anything to ensure that they get a child. Sad.

  • WICK

    January 14, 2013 at 4:32 pm Reply

    I’m thankful for the continued speaking out of voices like yours. We’re still in the early stages (no referral yet), but are praying for the people of the DRC, and all that God is doing there. We are continually submitting each step of the process to God. We’re working through a humanitarian organization that is very transparent in every step along the way. Are there “best practices” you would recommend to take a greater caution against being involved in child trafficking over adopting a child who truly needs a home/family?

    • Holly

      January 16, 2013 at 12:04 pm Reply

      Wick–if you are going to adopt from DRC (I also wouldn’t recommend it), I would make sure you hire a 3rd party (independent of the organization you are with) to investigate the story of your referral. There are no investigations of referrals being done in DRC (beyond orphanage and social services reports) and you really might be adopting a child that has a family that wants him or her (or doesn’t even know the child is being adopted) if you aren’t very diligent. If you look at my blog and especially the guest posts you will find stories where this is true from adoptive parents from DRC. You should also make sure that you give NO money to the orphanage your child is being adopted from, but instead give to other work that supports keeping families together in DRC. HOlly

  • Erika

    January 14, 2013 at 7:46 pm Reply

    I think there is a lot of truth in what you are saying. I totally agree that prevention is the best answer, not adoption. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this: in America, domestic adoptions are not usually because the birth mother died, but because she is choosing a different life for her child. Maybe this is different because the choice is hers? Obviously I DO NOT support trafficking in any way, I just wonder if you think it is possible for a third world mother to legitimately choose adoption for her child? I have two daughters that were adopted internationally. I struggle with these questions frequently.

    • Sara

      January 18, 2013 at 10:52 am Reply

      Hi Erika.

      I think about the same question frequently. Our daughter’s biological mother made the decision to place her for adoption, so it’s close to my heart and our story.

      I do think it is possible and I would even argue it’s the right of a mother to make a decision to place a child for adoption. But when we think about adoptions from a developing country, there are two issues. The first is US law, which only allows adoption internationally if a child meets the definition of “orphan” under immigration law (either the I-600 process or I-800 process depending on the country). For a child to be under US law an orphan, they must have experienced the death of both parents, the death of one parent with the other relinquishing rights, or have been abandoned (this includes the biological parents rights being termianted). So it is against the law to immigrate a child who has two living birth parents who are poor and struggling to care for the child. In other words, two parents cannot pick adoption.

      The second issue with adoption from a developing country is whether the mother has a real choice. This is where it gets complicated and messy. Imagine a young couple struggling to care for their children because of poverty. If someone were to go to them, to encourage them to place their children for adoption, promising they would have a better life in America, and at the same time to offer nothing to support the family if they wanted to stay together – is that even a choice? I think many mothers or families find themselves feeling like placingn a child in an orphanage or for adoption is a choice between life and death. THIS SHOULD NOT BE. We as Christians should be quick to support ministries and programs that keep children with their families, in their communities, whenever possible. In Uganda as in many developing countries, people who are involved in adoption can make a lot of money – and then greed fuels corruption. As a result, families or mothers in vulnerable positions may be lied to, coerced, bribed or even threatened – all of these making the “choice” less of a choice.

      As I look at our own adoption, I feel peace because I know the birth mother was respected and listened to. I know she was told the truth, there were no bribes, there was no coercion. She made the decision she could in a difficult situation. I would want nothing less if it were me. If something happened to my husband, I would want support to keep raising my children. If for some reason I couldn’t, I would want to be able to make the decision to place them with another loving family. But I would NEVER want to be in a position where I had to decide between letting my child die because no one would help me have the resources to keep parenting and placing a child for adoption.

      That’s my heart anyway.

  • suzy gillies

    January 14, 2013 at 8:21 pm Reply

    This is so needed. Everyone starts out the way you described, when we fail to step back when things are not right, that is when disaster truly happens. When will the madness stop. Poverty does not equate this type of sensless entitlement over a poor mother or father.

  • Christy

    January 14, 2013 at 9:10 pm Reply

    Thank you for your post. Just last month, we walked away from 2 girls we love beyond words because of similar circumstances in Ghana. The heartache is indescribable, but the conviction in our ethical standard could not be ignored. Thank you for your well-written post. I hope you don’t mind that I’ll be sharing it with friends, because you write so eloquently what I have not yet been able to put to words. God bless!

  • […] you see a family that may be heading down the path of escalating commitment I wrote about this weekend, find a way to speak the truth in love. How should you respond if you […]

  • Keren Riley

    January 15, 2013 at 11:42 pm Reply

    Wick, you mention adopting from the DRC, living in East Africa within this field, to be honest, I wouldn’t touch DRC with a barge pole, There are NO safety guard there at all, and because it is SO unstable you really can not guarantee whether your adoption will be ethical. You are taking HUGE risks and for what reason. As a thought, you could pour the money you would pay for your adoption, into helping a project on the ground there strengthen families, capacity build and get children home to their families. Most of these children are there to supply a demand for international adoption or to make money for the owners of orphanages – sad, but true.

    • WICK

      January 16, 2013 at 3:20 am Reply

      Definitely have, and will continue to have the larger picture of the DRC and their families/children in mind….as we adopt not only a child who needs a family – but a burden for God’s Kingdom to come…

  • Ali

    January 18, 2013 at 7:35 pm Reply

    We are in the process of moving to Zambia to help support families there (there is actually no US adoption agencies working with international adoptions there – IF you adopt from Zambia you need to live in country and foster to adopt). We know that our goal in going needs to be support and help of vulnerable families and not getting a child for us to adopt. That said – we know several missionaries who have ended up adopting while there because of situations they were personally made aware of. One thing that I have been made aware of in this very important dialogue is to be careful not to say black and while no child should be adopted if they have living relatives. (you didn’t say this but I have heard it said – or heard people read blogs like yours thinking that was the point) I think the focus should always be on what is best for the child and family – odviously a child being abused or abandoned to die needs a loving family – even if they do have living parents. But, I wholly agree that families shouldn’t be given the choice: having a child starve to death or give them up for adoption. That ISN’T a choice for any parent who loves their child. I also think we have to be careful not to assume that the orphan crisis is not really a crisis and that adoptive parents should stop trying to adopt. But that adoptive parents should be willing to adopt a child who really needs adoption. In many cases that child won’t look like what many adoptive parents want: a healthy baby. If our real motivation in adopting is to redeem lives that have NO OTHER hope – we have to be open to adopting a child with disabilities or an older child. The whole process needs to be covered with humility on the part of adoptive families. Just as there has had to be a shift in missions, there needs to be a shift in adoptions where the western church doesn’t see itself as the Savior swooping in to take over and fix all the issues. But the Western church being extremely wise in using our resourses to help in countries where they don’t have what they need to provide for needy children. Adoption can be a beautiful picture of God’s redemptive love when done in humility and with a true heart to do what is best for that child – not just what we want.

  • Mark Riley

    January 19, 2013 at 7:48 am Reply

    In a Ugandan context I would argue that it is not ONLY a mothers choice to place her child for adoption but a choice a whole family should make. In fact there is a saying in Uganda that it takes a whole village to raise a child… I have had many members of an extended family, many jajas (grandmothers) approach me in the Ministry and tell me that they had no idea that their grandchild has been placed in an orphanage or adopted to the US, and that if they had known they would have looked after the child themselves. As far as I am concerned a mother relinquishing a child DOES not constitute that the child is available for adoption IF the extended family have not been engaged with by independent social workers who are not facilitated for that engagement

    • Sara

      January 19, 2013 at 2:12 pm Reply

      Great point Mark. In general extended families in Uganda and across Africa are doing a tremendous job caring for children who have been orphaned or separated from their parents. There are situations where the extended family is not the best choice – for example if abuse or exploitation is highly likely. The possibility of a child being placed with someone from their family or community should always be considered before international adoption.

  • Sara T

    March 13, 2013 at 9:30 pm Reply

    Unfortunately this is all too common in Haiti as well. And most of the orphanages in Haiti are run by believers who simply refuse to believe they are trafficking children, refuse to empower Haitian women to keep their children, and break up family and family in the process. It is heartbreaking. I spoke up and I was silenced.


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  • Laura

    June 10, 2013 at 9:23 pm Reply

    Great post. Thank you!

  • Danyne Bharj

    June 26, 2013 at 10:56 am Reply

    I just ran across your blog and realize you posted this a while ago but wanted to share with you perspective from the other angle. Yes once emotions are entangled it is hard to step out of an adoption when you find it filled with corruption but people do. I haven’t met many Christians that ate ok with corruption and when eyes are open to it I have found most try to search the truth and make the right decision. I have seen first hand the stages the adoption process has taken over the last nine years, maybe you have been involved here through it also and know what I am talking about. God fearing, living Christians want to not only help but also do what is right. I have met the families who have made this decision, who have found out after court the truth and gave the child back. We can’t forget here that in order for this to happen lost of the time a member of the birth family is willing to lie to a judge about the situation. Blame lies in many places, we live and work in a fallen world. Never should we step back and allow children to be pawns of corruption but I can tell you firsthand there are more right choices being made than wrong. Anyway just wanted to let you know that there are many who are trying up please God and working to follow the laws of the land and striving for excellence.

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