When do regulations become red tape?

Over the last six months, I’ve been writing my book, In Defense of the Fatherless.

My book takes a hard look at corruption in international adoption – and how we as Christians should respond. The Bible is clear that we are called to protect and provide for orphans, widows and the least of these. I have been wrestling with the question: how do we defend orphans in a messy, broken world?

I believe children need families.

They need families more than they need anything else in the world. More than clothing, shoes, education, even food and water. This conviction is rooted in the Bible. God the Father, Son and Spirit are a family. We are created in the image of God. Family is part of God’s design. Mothers and fathers are called to protect and provide, to steward and nuture children. Our families are intended to be a reflection of the family of God. Families are to be communities of sacrificial love and overflowing grace.

If children need families, our primary mission in defending orphans is defending their right to grow up with a family.

There are 163 million orphans in the world today. This means 163 million children who have experienced the loss of one or both parents. But most of the world’s orphans live with their families: with their surviving mother or father, or with another caring relative. As Christians, we should defend the rights of children to grow up with their families, even if these families are vulnerable. These orphans do not need new families. This makes sense. If my husband died, I would be a widow and our children would counted among the world’s orphans. But they would not be alone, without the love and care of a family. If my husband died, life would be hard. Our family would be suddenly vulnerable. But the last thing I would want is to be separated from my children. So whenever possible, we need to defend the right of orphans to remain with their families.

At the same time, there are millions of orphans in the world who are truly in need of new families. Some of these children have experienced the death of both of their parents as a result of AIDS or war. Some of these children have been abandoned. Others have been separated from their families by abuse or neglect. Their families are broken and it would not be safe for these children to return home. These children do not need orphanages or institutions. They need families who will love, nuture, protect and provide.

But this is where it gets complicated. And where people take sides.

There is widespread corruption in international adoption. In many countries, a lack of regulation of the adoption process means that children are trafficked for the purpose of international adoption. Children are bought and sold. Poor families are bribed or coerced into plaicng their children for adoption. Sometimes adoptive parents turn a blind eye to the corruption. They don’t ask questions. They are unwilling to walk away even when they discover  corruption in their adoptions. They have been told there is an orphan crisis and they are willing to adopt at any cost.

Critics of adoption look at this mess and jump to conclusions. Some go so far as to say that all international adoptions are corrupt, that all adopted children are trafficked. They argue international adoption needs more regulation.

This is true. But it is not the whole truth.

Some regulations do serve to protect vulnerable families and children from trafficking. But many regulations make the adoption process more difficult and expensive. These regulations become red tape preventing orphans from being adopted.

Very few countries in the world are open to international adoption. Even fewer countries prioritize the needs of orphans and vulnerable children. Most international adoptions are from a small number of sending countries – not because there are more orphans in those countries but because most of the rest of the world is closed to international adoption. Likewise, many countries that are open to international adoption make it  impossible for many good families to adopt. There are restrictions based on age, religion, family size, income, health and weight. Furthermore, the adoption process in many countries is difficult and expensive, requiring adoptive families to travel for months at a time or costing more than $30,000. Altogether this means that thousands or perhaps millions of children who could benefit from international adoption wait – growing up in orphanages or on the streets or in poor quality foster care – because of red tape.

None of this makes sense.

If governments were prioritizing the needs of orphans and vulnerable children – and seeing that more than anything else in the world children need families – adoption would not be this hard.

There would be laws in place to protect vulnerable families and to prevent children from being trafficked for international adoption. Governments would take corruption in adoption seriously. These laws would consider fraud, coercion and the buying of children for the purpose of adoption trafficking – and would hold those responsible for trafficking legally accountable. These laws would make sure that adoptive parents are highly qualified. These regulations would carefully protect children.

But at the same time, these regulations would not prevent children who are truly in need of new families from being adopted. If governments prioritized the needs of the fatherless, adoption would be easier, faster and less expensive.

We know that governments seldom prioritize the needs of the least of these. But we – as the people of God – have no excuse. God calls himself the Father of the fatherless and the Defender of widows. We need to prioritize the needs of orphans and widows. We need to the defend the right of vulnerable families to remain together – and defend the right of children who are truly alone in the world to be adopted.

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.

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