We cannot fix a problem we do not understand

This is my adopted daughter Ella, now 2.5 years old.

This is my adopted daughter Ella, now 2.5 years old.

I want to start by saying I am thankful for Jen Hatmaker, a Christian adoptive mom and writer. She’s the author of one of the most thought-provoking books I have read this year, 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. She has a huge platform – and something about the way she writes invites women from wildly different perspectives to give her words a chance.

I was excited when Jen jumped into the conversation about adoption ethics two weeks ago with a  courageous post challenging Christians to stand up against unethical adoption. She put her finger right on some of the ugly issues in the Christian adoption movement. She wrote honestly about money and corruption and the harmful way some Christian’s claim God’s sovereignty to ignore injustice in adoption. In Jen’s words:

“We cannot be complicit in what amounts to trafficking.”

Amen and amen. Jen’s blog post sparked a helpful debate in the adoption world. Agree or disagree with the hundreds of people who commented on her blog, her words struck a nerve. Like many Christians in the adoption community, I was eagerly waiting Part Two of Jen’s series – hopeful that she would continue to speak truth to this important issue.

But I was disappointed with Part Two of Jen’s series – and here’s why.

I believe God calls Christians to care for orphans, widows and vulnerable families in response to and as a demonstration of the Gospel. If you spend a few hours studying what the Bible has to say about orphans and widows – and about poverty and injustice – it’s clear that God takes our response to his grace seriously. How we care for the least of these reveals how we truly feel about God. So if how we care for orphans is serious business, I think it’s time to be far more careful in how we define the orphan crisis.

And this is the issue with Jen’s post. She writes:

Here are the real numbers: Around the world, there are an estimated 153 million orphans who have only lost one parent (“single-orphaned”). Obviously, not all these children need adopted. Most single parents raise children valiantly in their own community and extended family. There are about 18 million orphans who have lost both parents (“double orphaned”) and are living in orphanages or on the streets.

These may be the real numbers, but these real numbers do not tell the whole story – and that’s the problem.

Often Christians talk about adoption and the orphan crisis as being a little like pulling a child out of a burning building. If the problem is 18 million children who have no one and no alternative to life in an orphanage or on the streets, then adoption is the answer. But what if the problem is not 18 million children who have no one? What if we’re pulling children out of buildings that aren’t fire simply because someone pulled the fire alarm? Or what in other cases adoption is a little like pulling a child out of a burning building while leaving her family there to die? If we do not know how many people are in the building – or indeed if it is even on fire at all – we cannot make wise decisions.

Most of the world’s orphans are not living in orphanages or on the streets. And at the same time, most of the children living in orphanages or on the streets are not orphans.

Jen is right that most of the world’s orphans are living with their single parents. But what she’s missing is that millions of double orphans are also living with their families, being raised by grandparents or aunts and uncles or siblings. Being a double orphan does not necessarily mean living in an orphanage or on the streets. Likewise, children who are living in orphanages or on the streets are not necessarily orphans who have experienced the death of a parent.

If you dig deeper into the statistics about children living in orphanages, you’ll discover that approximately 90% of the 8 million children living in institutional care worldwide have families. The primary reason children who have families end up living in orphanages is poverty. UNICEF estimates that there are tens of millions of street children worldwide, but these children are often living or working on the streets because of poverty, abuse or trafficking – not the death of a parent.

While’s Jen’s statistics are simple, they are also misleading. Most of the world’s double orphans do not need international adoption – and many of the most vulnerable children in the world are not orphans at all. If we want to be faithful in protecting and providing for the “fatherless”, we must do more to understand the complex issues at the root of the so-called orphan crisis.

We cannot fix a problem we do not understand.

Over the next few weeks, I plan to write more about this issue – to answer the questions “Does God call us to protect and provide for the fatherless?” and “Who are the fatherless in the world today?”



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.

1 Comment
  • Marci

    May 27, 2013 at 10:11 pm Reply

    I love this Sara! Really really well thought out. There is NO one answer for such a huge demographic… but a commitment to doing rightly for all… wether that is through adoption or family preservation!!!

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