Adoption trafficking

A woman walks with orphans at the AGOHELD orphanage, hospital, training center and school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia ...

A woman walks with orphans at the AGOHELD orphanage, hospital, training center and school in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia earlier this year. Photo: Sean Gallup

In May, the Australian government issued an apology. Between the 1940s and the early 1970s, thousands of unwed women were forced, per government policy, to surrender their babies for adoption.

"We acknowledge the profound effects of these policies and practices on fathers and we recognise the hurt these actions caused to brothers and sisters, grandparents, partners and extended family members," the PM said before a large and emotional audience.

"We deplore the shameful practices that denied you, the mothers, your fundamental rights and responsibilities to love and care for your children."

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Decades after what in the USA is referred to as the "baby scoop era", we recognise that what the Australian government did to unwed mothers and their children was reprehensible. But today, in other countries – Vietnam, for example – the practice of wresting wanted babies from mothers persists, fuelled in part by the evangelical Christian adoption movement.

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That movement is the subject of a new book by Kathryn Joyce, an American journalist who has written extensively about evangelical Christians and reproductive politics. (Her previous book, Quiverfull, took a deep look inside the Christian patriarchy movement.)

In the past decade the adoption of orphans, most of them from outside of the US, has become immensely popular among American evangelicals. For many in that community, "saving" orphans kills multiple birds with one stone – Joyce calls it a "perfect storm of a cause". "It is a way for churches to get involved in poverty and social justice issues that they had ceded years before to liberal denominations, an extension of pro-life politics, and a decisive rebuttal to the taunt that Christians should adopt all those extra children they want women to have. More quietly, it's also a window for evangelising, as Christians get to "bring the mission field home" and pass on the gospel to a new population of children, effectively "saving them" twice."

Joyce acknowledges that many of the adoptive parents have good intentions, but good intentions don't always lead to good outcomes. Some adoptees have been subjected to things that are truly hellish. Adoptive parents, determined to build their own small brigades of Christian soldiers, bring home more children than they can possibly hope to properly care for, especially when one considers the trauma that some of those children have experienced.

Joyce tells the story of one Tennessee couple, the Allisons, who augmented their large biological family by adopting six Liberian orphans, whom they essentially treated like slaves, denying them schooling, forcing them to do hard labour, and doling out violent physical punishment for even mild disobedience.

That case, Joyce notes, is extreme but not isolated: other evangelical adoptive parents have been charged with manslaughter, child abuse and rape. Because of a concerning lack of regulation of adoption agencies and by adoption agencies, children who have already suffered more than anyone should in a lifetime are placed in homes where they'll suffer even more.

I say "children" because in some cases "orphans" isn't the right term. The parents of many children being brought to the United States from impoverished or war-torn countries are alive.

Joyce tells the story of one American family who were told that the two Ethiopian sisters they were adopting were orphans who were living in destitution after their parents died from HIV. As it turned out, the girls' father was alive, was not HIV positive, and believed that he was sending his daughters to America to get an education. The Bradshaws had been told they were getting two new daughters; their father had been told he was sending his children on a foreign exchange.

As Joyce explains, the American demand for orphans must be met by supply, and as in any supply-demand relationship, there is room for unscrupulous behaviour and corruption. "A lot of times adoption demand creates an adoption underworld, where children are procured from parents, sometimes with small payments and sometimes through coercion and deception," she writes.

In Vietnam, "adoption facilitators reportedly used poor families' hospital bills as leverage to get new parents, many of them illiterate, to sign over their babies; often these parents did not understand that they wouldn't see their child again". But among evangelicals, who are desperate to adopt and steeped in rhetoric about the global "orphan crisis" that often wildly exaggerates the number of orphans in the world, the provenance of these "orphans" is rarely questioned.

Sometimes mothers are stripped of their children by less overt but nonetheless coercive means. South Korea has the world's oldest international adoption program, and for good reason: the stigma against unwed mothers is so great that one 2009 survey found that only gays and lesbians are more reviled.

With that kind of stigma, it is easy for adoption agencies to convince them to give up their children "willingly". When they remind those women of the life that awaits an unwed mother and her child, it's no wonder that mothers who want the best for their children would choose (and I use that term loosely) to give the baby away.

"The mothers would be discriminated against by family, neighbours, customers and even strangers; their children might be segregated from the rest of their class at school, with some teachers not giving them snacks and even putting them in a separate room. Other parents likely wouldn't allow their kids to play with "illegitimate" children. Further, when the children reached adulthood, employers would be less likely to hire candidates whose mothers hadn't been married, and the parents of anyone the children might seek to marry would likely forbid the match."

In short, the argument that adoptive parents in America can provide a better life for a South Korean child born out of wedlock than her mother can is hard to dispute. Is it any wonder that in the maternity homes where many unmarried South Korean women go to give birth in secret – some mothers call them "baby farms" – adoption agencies are able to find a wealthy supply of "orphans" to send to the US?

The book tracks the development of adoption as a pet issue for evangelical Christians, and recounts how it became desirable to adopt from one country, then another, and then another. Haiti, Ukraine, Liberia, Sierre Lione.

As adoption policies in each place changed and evolved, and as the tastemakers within the religious community spotlighted each country, prospective parents changed their country of choice.

Evangelical Christianity is clearly not exempt from trends, and neither is adoption itself. In fact, Joyce notes that despite the deeply human elements of international adoption, adoptive parents too often treat their new children like commodities, collecting as many as they can and viewing them as more or less interchangeable.

Joyce is a tenacious reporter and a gifted storyteller, and resists the temptation of neat and simple narratives about good and bad people. She makes it clear that, except in a few cases, the fault lies not with individuals but with systems and cultures: the poverty that makes "orphan finding" an attractive if unethical way of making money and turns babies and children into a booming national export product; the racism that pervades American culture and leads adoptive parents to treat the children they adopt from the global south as inferior to their biological children; the "saviour complex" that pervades evangelical culture and leads families to adopt far more children than they can handle; and the lack of oversight and regulation at all stages of the adoption process.

Despite the lack of outright villains in this story, though, there's little doubt that there are victims. Perhaps the most poignant parts of the book come when Joyce tracks down the adoptees, now grown men and women working to carve out a life for themselves in America, their citizenship status uncertain and insecure thanks to shady adoption agencies which, in their rush to supply clamouring families with broods of orphans to "save", didn't secure the children citizenship.

Those interviews are disturbing, and shed light on the high human cost of this global faith phenomenon. In the words of CeCe, one of the six Liberian orphans adopted by the Allisons, "I don't feel like we were adopted. We were sold."

The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption by Kathryn Joyce, PublicAffairs 2012 is out now.