Questions of Poverty and International Adoption

In my work consulting with families, I often meet adoptive parents who discover that they child they are adopting has a living birth parent (or parents) who might be more interested in parenting than the adoptive parents were originally led to believe. In response, many of us who have been in that position have to weigh the benefit of the adoption with the cost to the living relatives and children. I hear a few common phrases that I believe are worth addressing. This is not meant to be critical of adoptive parents by any means! I’ve said these very same things and only through other people educating me can I speak with the smallest bit of authority. I have the most respect for people who are willing to sacrifice their lives, families, finances, and world views to adopt children. Some of my closest friends are adoptive families with amazing families that I want to model. Adoptive parents are heroes in my eyes.

But I get contacted from prospective adoptive parents every single week asking me my opinions and counsel about situations where they’ve ended up (by mistake, fraud or misinformation) in a situation where a birthfamily has come forward expressing an interest or ability in raising the children placed for adoption. These are not rare stories. And what I hear are some common phrases that I think are important discuss. This is open for dialogue! I want you to disagree with me and challenge me.

It’s not in the best interest of the child to stay in [DRC, Uganda, Ethiopia, etc.] with their poor families.” or “Their mother is too poor to care for him.”

Let’s question the standard that we use to determine best interest of a child and what it means to be “too poor.”

While an orphanage may provide shelter, food and education, experts have taught us that psychosocial and emotional needs of children are just as important as the physical and are not met in institutional living. Moreover, adoption itself causes trauma to children. In some cases, it’s absolutely necessary and the benefits outweigh the costs – for sure. But it’s not a neutral act to place a child in a new home, in a new family, especially across race and culture.

Poverty. Here’s where we wealthy Americans miss the mark so badly, so often. We see poverty when children don’t get an education, live in homes with dirt floors, and eat only rice and beans. But we don’t often see the poverty in a child who grows up lacking the connection to her biological family.

In a perfect world, all children would live with the parents God gave them through birth, live in a house in a gated suburb on a quiet street, go to school, and eat ice cream sandwiches every day [ok that’s my perfect world]. But alas, we don’t. Living in America ain’t perfect, and we shouldn’t pretend that it is. Many people in the developing world believe that it is, that there are no problems in America. But they are dead wrong, and we shouldn’t lie to them and say that it will be perfect for their kids in America. We have all heard stories of children being “re-homed,” abused, given up to foster care. While those stories are likely rare, they are real. Birth-families deserve the truth.

We need to stop measuring the best interests of children by the standard of wealth. We need to value families, attachment, and culture as much as (if not more than!) we value wealth. Just because we can provide wealthier, more economically advantageous lives than others does not mean it’s in the best interests of a child to be removed from the most important and influential relationships that they will ever ever have. If we adopt out of poverty, our children will ask us why we didn’t help their families keep them. It won’t be out of a lack of love for their adoptive parents, but they will ask the question.

Finally, we need to ask what it means to be “too poor.” I’ve heard stories of kids being placed in an orphanage for as little as a lack of formula. While the family was too poor to provide a year’s worth of formula before the child would no longer need it, that’s an extremely simple problem to solve. I’m not saying poverty is easily solved, but occasionally there are solutions that would prevent the trauma of a child being institutionalized and/or placed for adoption. We should ask those questions. There are ministries that have proven that with small amount of economic support (much, much less than the cost of adoption), many mothers are able to keep their children in their homes. As Christians caring for vulnerable children, it’s our duty to determine that before proceeding with an adoption.

The bottom line is that sometimes adoption is romanticized, and parents who have children through adoption will be the first to tell you that there’s very little romantic about it. While they absolutely love their children and don’t regret adoption at all, it can be extremely difficult work raising children from hard places – worthy work to be sure. And that’s ok that it’s hard. Let’s be a safe place where people can be honest. But we need to enter adoption with eyes wide open (as much as possible) and think about this child as needing so much more than food, shelter and education.

The birthmom came back, and now she just wants money.”

This one is so very hard for me. I will try and be gentle, but we need to be serious. How come it’s ok for every single person in the adoption chain to profit off of adoption except for the one person that is actually sacrificing? [I am not in any way suggesting that a birthmother should be paid for her child. Just trying to illustrate what I see as absurdity.] Seriously though. People are making obscene profits off of adoption, and we don’t bat an eye. $600/month for childcare in a country where people live on $2/day? Sure. $1000 for someone to go to the village and “find” an orphan. Why not? $10,000 for an unspecified “referral fee.” Where do I send the check? $500 for a fake post-placement report that is neither required or ever looked at. Absolutely. But that mother, living on the brink of death, dares to ask for $100 after relinquishing her child. The horror!

I’m being satirical, of course, but we have to remember that we are dealing with a serious amount of money when we engage in international adoption. More money than many people in the developing world will see in their lifetime. It clouds people’s judgment, and it absolutely influences the outcomes.

And for those of us who believe that non-profits aren’t making money. Here’s a small PSA. The legal and tax status of a non-profit does not mean that people do not get paid. When I pull the public tax records of an adoption agency, and it reports that the executive director makes a salary of $99,000 in a year, I would say that she is profiting off of adoption in the same way that I profited off of being a corporate lawyer. I worked, they paid me, I used the money to buy a lot stuff and coffee. Very few (pretty much no one) people in the adoption chain are doing it for free. [Also, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t get paid for services rendered. But let’s not kid ourselves that non-profit = free labor.]

I would also caution people about the cultural differences between Americans (and others in the West) and those in many developing countries (I’m thinking specifically of Uganda, DRC, Rwanda). In many cultures, asking for money is normal. It is expected that those with money will take care of those without. When a family places their child for adoption in many of these places, they see the adoptive family as an extension of their family through that interchange. Just as they wouldn’t hesitate to ask a sister with a job to help pay a child’s school fees, they might easily ask the adoptive parents to help with medical bills. It may not be the best decision to provide money in all circumstances just because you have it – these decisions are personal. But we shouldn’t be quite as appalled as we often are or take the mere ask as a sign that the family doesn’t care about their child.

One last point on this. Remember who you are getting your information from. Adoption agencies and their lawyers (theirs, not yours!) have a lot to lose when birthmothers come back. They lose money if the adoption fails. They lose reputation if you walk away. I’m not saying they are evil or ill-intentioned, but everyone always looks out for themselves first. It can be a much more favorable story if they tell you that the birthmom just wants to sell her child (as opposed to that she just wants her child back).

This blog was originally published by Amanda Bennett on April 16, 2014.


What are some other questions we should be asking? How can we better support adoptive parents through this process?

Amanda Bennett

AMANDA BENNETT is a lawyer wife, mother, and advocate for vulnerable families and children. She serves on the board of directors for Reeds of Hope, a non-profit serving vulnerable families and children in DRC. Amanda lives in Kigali, Rwanda with her husband, Bill, and son.

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