This is point of inquiry for Monday, December 20 3rd, 2013.
Hello and welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m your host Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is investigative journalist Kathryn Joyce. One of the foremost porters covering the religious right today. She made Quiverful a household name with her first book. Her new book is The Child Catchers Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption. She found that adoption has become a spiritual fad among U.S. evangelicals, often with devastating consequences for children and families at home and abroad. Over a quarter of a million children were adopted from overseas between 1971 and 2001. And international adoptions have doubled in the last decade. Evangelical adoption crusaders claim their tens of millions of orphans just waiting to be saved by devout American parents. But the true number of orphans is much smaller. And with pastors and mega churches exhorting their flocks to adopt, adopt, adopt, the demand for children now outstrips the supply. Orphanages in countries like Ethiopia and Guatemala have come under pressure to produce phony orphans for babies hungry American consumers. Birth mothers are tricked into signing over their children. Most American families prefer babies and healthy children. So adoptive parents are told their children are younger and healthier than they really are. International adoption can be a Wild West where almost anyone can adopt any number of children. Not all adoptive parents are up for the challenge. Many international adoptees have been abused and neglected in their new homes. In one case, an adoptive family starved their Ethiopian daughter and left Bea misguided teenager to freeze to death in their yard. What, if anything, can be done to stop these abuses and put adoption on ethical footing? Welcome to the program, Catherine. Thank you so much for having me, Lindsay. So why are evangelicals so crazy about adoption these days?
Well, I think it stems from a few different motivations.
I think first and foremost, I think most Christians in this movement, the Christian adoption movement, are really motivated by a desire to do something helpful. I think for a lot of Christians who heard about this in their churches, they heard about the idea of the orphan crisis, which is this this idea that there are hundreds of millions of children in need of adoption out in the world, mostly in developing countries. And that, you know, the implication being that these are children who are in need of adoption, as you just mentioned. A lot of times these are actually kids who have families who are able to support them if they had more financial health or more stability, if they just didn’t live in a country where the only child welfare infrastructure was an orphanage. So I think first and foremost, people are really motivated by a desire to help after that. I think, you know, there’s kind of a general across the board desire of adoptive families to build their family, to have children. And that motivates a lot of people, too. But after that, there are also some motivations that are a little more troubling. There is the throughout the literature of this movement, there’s been a kind of a small library of books that have been written about it. There is this idea that adoption is saving children not just on an earthly level, on a worldly level, but it’s also, you know, a form of spiritual salvation. So there is discussion of how, you know, adopting children is a way to introduce them to the gospel. I mean, I want to be clear that I don’t think that that’s what motivates most families on an individual level, but that is just unmistakably there in the writings of a lot of the leaders of this man.
When did this trend start?
Really, this started, you know, within the past decade. In 2004, I think one of the first organizations in this movement started in a very small, intensive, quiet way. The Christian Alliance for Orphans. But I think when they started, it was a couple of dozen leaders getting together and discussing this issue. It wasn’t for a few years, until a few years after that, that a number of these leaders met up in Colorado with some of the leading lights in evangelical. Rick Warren was there. They were there was Focus on the Family. And they discussed the idea that basically Christians have become known for what they’re opposed to, that evangelicals are so defined by, you know, railing against the sexual immorality or, you know, things like abortion rights. And they are not actually doing enough to help poor people. And the idea was proposed and very quickly adopted that Christians should really be living out there, their morals and their faith by doing something to help with this orphan crisis and that they should be considering.
Is there really an orphan crisis?
Well, that’s the catch you part is. You know, I think there are a lot of crises. There are a lot of children in vulnerable situations around the world. And that’s completely undeniable. But in terms of orphans, the way we think of that here in the U.S., we think of an orphan as being a child who has no mother and no father, has no family to take care of him or her. That’s simply not the way that word being used around the world. And I think we’re coming across a real clash of definitions of having serious consequences. What these numbers originally meant, they were picked up from a UNICEF tally of orphans and vulnerable children out in the world. And so they were initially saying that there were 143 million orphans and vulnerable children. When this kind of takes up and became a sort of viral message, people heard just 143 million orphans. And so they were thinking, these are these children who are in need of new mothers and fathers and we can help them. There are more Christians than there are. This number of orphans. And if we all decide to adopt, we can make short work of this crisis. But in reality, an overwhelming percentage of those orphans and vulnerable children still have one surviving parent. And even if they don’t. A number of them, a great number of them live with extended family. I think UNICEF figures are that, you know, something like more than 90 percent of the children who are termed orphans actually have other sorts of family support in their lives. These are not children who are necessarily in need of adoption, but these are children who are often in need of some sort of community support in order to help stabilize their families and their communities so that they can get the things that they need. As one UNICEF officer put it to me, it’s not so much an orphan crisis as it is a crisis of poverty, a crisis of stability, a crisis of humanity. These are much larger questions. And they can’t simply be addressed by adopting the poor children of the developing world into, you know, United States homes, Christian or otherwise.
International adoption is often couched in terms of philanthropy and piety, but there’s also real money involved. How does the industry work?
International adoptions and domestic adoptions also are really pretty extensive for any family that goes into this. I think the averages now range from 25 to 40 thousand dollars per adoption. And that’s not across the board if you adopt more than one child at a time. Sometimes there is a lower cost, but the money that goes into this is really significant. And so we’ve started to see a huge amount of fundraising online, of a touch of families, of prospective adoptive families having Kickstarter is or a go fund me pages or doing other sorts of localized fundraising, you know, making different things that they’re selling, getting other people to support their adoption. And they’re also started to be in Christian circles. A great number of, you know, national level adoption support ministries and also local church based adoption ministries to help raise those funds. And that’s because, you know, faced with a potential forty thousand dollars or more for an adoption, far fewer over the families that are currently adopting would be able to. And when we look at those numbers, it’s not as though that money is going to any one person. It’s not you know, that an agency is making a flat 40000 dollars off the adoption or that forty thousand dollars is being transferred neatly from here to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Instead, it’s broken up over, you know, a number of different fees and payments to different people. A lot of times the agency will take the largest chunk as far as its fee for its services. So that might range from, I don’t know, eight to fifteen thousand dollars are figures that I’ve seen a lot. And then there will often be, you know, extensive travel costs depending on whether or not families need to travel multiple times to other countries to fulfill the requirements or meet their children. But then there are also some sort of, you know, on their face. Understandable. But when you think about it, kind of troubling other payments. Sometimes countries require that adoptive parents make kind of large donations. In China, I think there was a three thousand dollar mandatory donation to orphanages for every child adopted. And that money in China is much more significant amount than it is here in the United States, in Ethiopia. Agencies that were licensed to do adoptions there were required to also perform some sort of non adoption related public project. So whether that meant that they were helping build basic infrastructure in the country like hospitals or roads or schools or, you know, you know, channeling this in some other way is there is there’s a way in which you can look at this, that adoption money is being used to shore up the economies of these countries. And so adoption then becomes a part of the economy and it becomes much more financially beneficial way for countries to deal with the existence of vulnerable children than finding local solutions. And sorry, that’s kind of a mouthful. But what I mean by it is if a country was to look for local adoptive parents in Ethiopia, and that’s going to actually require the government to give some sort of support to those families, or they’re going to allow international adoptions, which are bringing large amounts of money into the country, not just through these public projects from the agencies, but also just in terms of the great number of parents who are coming over and spending time and spending money in hotels in Addis Ababa. That really becomes a lopsided equation.
There’s a lot of concern that birth mothers and birth families are signing over their children without really giving informed consent and understanding what this entails. How does that happen?
It happens in two different ways here and abroad. Probably a more than two different ways. But to be kind of to generalize in in foreign countries, there is quite frequently a different understanding of adoption than we have here in the U.S.. And that was one of the things that really took me by surprise. I thought that there was more or less universal idea for adoption laws, but that’s simply not the case in Ethiopia. The tradition of adoption is much more like what we would consider in guardianship here in the U.S.. So, you know, for generations, if a child was in need of care, if a child’s parents died or when they were unable to care for it, that child would often go to a family member or a family friend. But that child would always be raised to know that its parents, its biological parents were its parents. They would always be raised with that sense of heritage, that sense of connection, you know, their identity. And they would never, you know, ultimately be divorced from their parents and from their their biological family. Here in the United States, we practice adoption with the concept of as it’s as if this was the biological child of the adoptive parents. And there’s a lot of, you know, beautiful reasons for that. But when these two definitions, these two very different ways of looking at adoption collide, we’ve come away with a lot of families in countries like Ethiopia or Uganda eagerly seeking out adoption opportunities for their children, not understanding what they are. And in some cases, this is more than just cultural misunderstanding. And this is actually kind of deliberately misleading these families. There have been agencies accused of using staff that will go and actively recruit families for adoption. There was one kind of notorious example in Ethiopia, where one adoption agency, Christian World Adoption, sent one of its staffers and a film came out to a rural village and kind of stood in the middle of the town square and said, if you want your children to go to the United States, stand over here. If you don’t, please go home. You know, this isn’t the meeting for you. And so all of these parents there are hearing, do you want your child go to the United States? And, you know, like many families in developing nations. That certainly seems like a good opportunity for their children.
So they are now this is more of a cultural exchange or a camp or something like that.
They are thinking that it’s an educational exchange. Sometimes some families have claimed that they were outright told that their children were going to the United States for schooling and that they would return either within a few years or after they turned 18. And so for a lot of these families, especially if they’re already struggling to make ends meet, this seems like a wonderful opportunity that they would be selfish to turn down. Sometimes there have even been allegations of payments offered or at least implied implied offers of payment, whether from the agency or kind of this more ambiguous idea that the adoptive family is going to be sending you support once they take your child. And that’s happened again and again.
One of the fascinating themes in your book is that the corruption has become so widespread that there’s a new subindustry of adoption private detectives. How does that work?
That became a really big thing in Ethiopia. I know it’s happened in other countries as well. But in Ethiopia, I was able to go along with one of these private investigators there called adoption searchers. And this was a young Ethiopian man who went and he he made DVD of Where Children came from. And sometimes this was just like a very innocuous way to help provide some cultural background for the adoptive families and their children as they grew older to show them. This is where you’re from. You know, this was the neighborhood. These where your neighbors and the people who knew your family, but also this searcher, I called him Samuel in the book because he he needed to use a pseudonym. Samuel also often would also turn up inaccuracy in the adoption paperwork that adoptive parents had been given about their children. Sometimes just things like they were given the wrong age, which is incredibly common in adoption because people are frequently trying to cast adoptable children as younger than they are to make them more appealing to Western parents. Sometimes he would find out that family members who were said to be unknown or dead were living other adoption. Searchers have found out things like, you know, that parents directly, parents who are said to be dead were actually alive. And this really resonated a lot of adoptive parents, I think, because they were starting to see the same things in their brother children. Home bring home a child who is old enough to have really strong memories of their family. And once they learn English, they might start to tell you, you know, I had another mother. My mother is not dead. And the adoptive parents are kind of looking at this saying, you know, no, you’re your paperwork said your mother is dead. And, you know, lo and behold, they find out that that’s not true.
How do kids tend to adjust when they when they come over here under circumstances like that?
I mean, I think that varies a huge amount depending on the child, I think, and probably also a lot based on the family that they come into and how well they’re able to work through it together. But I did cover the story of one young woman named to require who is she is now college freshmen, that she was adopted with her two sisters when she was 13 years old. And this was one of those cases where her family was told that the girls were coming over for education and that they would be here for a few years and then they would return home. So that’s what the family in Ethiopia and the girls thought. Meanwhile, the family in the United States who were an evangelical family were told that, you know, these were three AIDS orphans. Their mother had died of AIDS. Their father was about to die. And if they weren’t adopted, they would find themselves on the street working as prostitutes within a couple of years. So both sides being badly manipulated by this system. So when this young woman came over, it was extremely difficult for her.
You know, she thought she was coming for an educational exchange. And instead she’s being given a new name and being told to call her parents, mom and dad. And, you know, to add insult to injury, as a 13 year old, she’s being put in a fourth grade classroom because she does not yet have English language skills.
So for her, it was an extremely difficult adjustment and it ended up helping lead to the dissolution, not just of that first adoptive placement, but the second adoptive placement she found herself in with extended family of that first adoptive family.
So there can be an awful lot of damage caused by these these lies and these inaccuracies. It can really set a lot of already fragile family relationships up to fail.
Is anyone systematically keeping track of how these kids are doing?
Unfortunately, there is not a lot of oversight of how adopted children are doing. I guess we’ll get into this a little bit later when we speak about Hannah Williams, the Ethiopian adoptee who died with her family. But really, when when children are adopted through either international adoptions or private U.S. adoptions, they are treated as though legally they are treated as though they are the biological offspring of the family. So there is often outside of a handful of visits and post placement reports with their agency. And some agencies do a great job with post placement work and others do not outside that there is there is no can state oversight of this. And so if the families are doing great, you know, that’s wonderful. If families are struggling and they know how to reach out to people for help. You know, that’s that’s the second best kind of outcome. But a lot of families either do not know how to reach out for help or they are disillusioned, disillusioned, because this is not some of the beautiful adoption outcome that they had in mind. And things start to go wrong pretty quickly. I think we are seeing and will probably will continue to see a number of disrupted adoptions. That is adoptions that end almost like a divorce where a child needs the family and placed somewhere else.
When that happens, is the child sent back to their birth family?
Ideally, no, because that’s not legal. However, I also came across instances of that happening of children who were simply placed on planes and dropped back in their birth countries when the adoption did not work out here in the United States. And that’s that’s appalling, I think, because it’s so few people, you know, are familiar with these stories that you kind of have to point out that this is as illegal as it would be to place a biological child and send them back to Liberia and leave them there. It’s legally it’s kind of indistinguishable, but it has happened a number of times that I’ve met a number of the children who were sent that way. However, I think more commonly the adoptees are sent to other new adoptive homes here in the United States. And there was an excellent series on Reuters that touched on some of this earlier this year under the title Rehaul Ming, which is this kind of awful euphemism for children basically just being bounced around from one family to the next when things aren’t going on Internet message boards, right? Yes, a lot of times. They did. That was kind of the explicit focus of that Reutter series, and that was also something that I found in researching a particular kind of adoption push and adoption fad that happened among one specific fundamentalist home schooling Christian community that was adopting lots of children from Liberia. A lot of those children ended up being disrupted from those homes, being sent to other families and in some cases being sent back to Liberia. So there are a number of outcomes, you know, and some of them, as that would have serious pointed out, can land children with people who should never be allowed to adopt children.
Let’s talk about your Hannah Williams piece, which made a huge splash online after it ran in Slate. It was nominated. It is one of BuzzFeed 20 most impactful stories of the year. So who was. Was Hannah Williams?
Hannah Williams. Was a young girl who was adopted from Ethiopia in 2009. And she was adopted to a very isolated, very strictly fundamentalist Christian family in northern Washington state. The family home schooled, and they they also adopted one other Ethiopian child. So together, those two adoptees added to the seven biological children. This family already had became quite a large family. But now a family with a lot of contact to the outside. She was adopted when she was nine.
So she had to make sure to.
There’s been a lot of discussion about her age because of the issues we spoke about. And the first year seems like it went okay. And we can know that only because there were some very cursory sort of post adoption reports from the agency and from the parents themselves. But after that first year, things started to go really wrong. She stopped going to doctors visits. So we don’t really know exactly what happened during those two years, except that she went you know, she came about 76 pounds in her first year. She gained 30 pounds. Many malnourished children would. But by the time she died in 2011, she had dropped back down to virtually the same weight that she had come out. So she was three years older and she had lost as much weight as she had gained. She was in her autopsy photos, absolutely skeletal. And there were marks on her body that indicated frequent beatings. And in the parents home, they found this book that has become well known in child abuse cases called To Train Up a Child. And it’s by a couple name, Michael and Debi Pearl, who compare ideal child training methods to training a mule like training a donkey to obey. So they they advocate starting to switch your child when they’re just a few months old until they develop this kind of idea of first time obedience that they will never question what the parents says.
They advocate switching like actually hitting with some kind of weapon. Babies that are less than a year old.
They yeah, they I think they advocate starting at four years or four months old and switching with, you know, not a, you know, a belt, but switching with some sort of twig or a branch so that you are training your child to always obey on the first request. So they will train the infants to obey by putting something just out of the region if their infant reaches for it.
As babies are want to do, then they will give them a switch so they like their children to quote unquote misbehave and then they hit them.
Yes, that’s that’s what’s advocated in the book and in the book has been implicated in the deaths of two other adoptees as well.
So it’s it’s sort of a compound problem that’s not just these kind of incredibly unbelievable teachings on their face, but also the idea that they’re not just trying these on babies who under their ideas can be raised to have this sense of complete and total obedience.
But they are bringing in children who are eight, nine, ten, eleven years old into their families and expecting them to start responding to these training methods.
And the thanas adopted family had all kinds of punishment techniques for her beyond the physical punishments, right?
They did. It was really stomach turning to to read about it and to sit in court and listen to it. But Hanna Hanna was made to sleep in a barn, in a locked shower room on the floor with. And he betting’s. And then finally, for the last six months of her life, she’s spent a great deal of her time in a locked to buy forefoot closet. And, you know, just spending. The prosecutor said as much as 24 hours a day in there. The defense claimed that perhaps it was only 10 hours a day. Either way, obviously appalling. She was made to use a porta potty. That was around 90 feet away from the house, out back behind the bar. And she was made to shower outside under a garden hose, sometimes in view of the family. Her adopted brother, who was a deaf child, he was also made to shower outside or because she because probably at the stress of living in this house and started wetting himself. He was kind of made to sleep in the bathroom, thrown into the tub with cold water in the middle of the night if he had an accident or went to bed. They were fed different food from the rest of the children. Their food was usually leftovers. That was called and topped with a pile of frozen vegetables. So all of this you can start to see why Hannah lost so much weight by the time of her death, why she was so vulnerable that after being put outside for hours, which was another one of the frequent punishments just leaving the children outside for many hours, that she succumbed to hypothermia and ultimately died.
What legal consequences did her parents face?
Well, after a fair, long trial this summer and early fall, the parents were found guilty. They were charged with both child assault, manslaughter and also this additional crime, homicide by abuse, which was the most serious charge. The father was found guilty of the first two. And the mother was found guilty of all three. She was sentenced, I believe, to 37 years and the father to around 28 years in prison. I understand they’re heading into appeal now, but I think, you know, the case was pretty strong.
And they’re probably not the most popular people in northern Washington right now.
One local newscaster actually called the mother the most despised woman in Shashlik County, and that’s saying.
A lot of outrage.
Could they actually face consequences if you reported on other cases where parents have abused their children and not not been punished for it?
I have that. I think it was a very similar dynamic to this family in a number of the families that I reported on for a chapter of my book that looked at Liberian adoptees who are being adopted by homeschooling fundamentalists. In many ways, it is not representative of the broader evangelical Christian community. This is a really specific segment that has very specific ideas, not just about punishment and training children, but also about women’s roles and about isolation from society. But the problem was that a number of families who follow these very strict ideas were inspired to adopt. They were inspired, in fact, by one Christian woman’s leader who wrote a magazine and frequently talked about this exact issue. And so within a couple of years, just after Liberia’s civil war, about a thousand Liberian children were adopted and many of them went to homes just like this. And I ended up reporting on the families that actually wrote that magazine that inspired everyone to adopt all of these homeschooling fundamentalist communities.
Was then I got a call hold above rubies.
If you’re not in homeschooling circles, you probably won’t have heard of it. But within this community, it is actually quite prominent and well-known. And the leader had enough influence to convince left people to make this really dramatic kind of life changing decision. So families were adopting large numbers of children. So these are already families that had, you know, six, eight, 10 children. And they would go over and they would adopt three or four or six children from Liberia, many of whom were, you know, older children or even teenagers, and bring them and expect them to adapt to their family right away. You know, these were Liberian children who had just left an orphanage and who had lived through one of the most brutal civil wars that our world has ever seen. They were being taken to these extremely strict, very rural driven families and expected to blend in. And unsurprisingly, a lot of those adoptions failed, even in the two families that I covered, which were the leaders of this movement. Many of those adoptions failed, but including one of the young men, a young guy named Isaiah, was sent back and left in Liberia on his own in the middle of the streets of Monrovia as a 13 year old boy, which I just kind of can’t get over how appalling that is.
What happened to him?
Well, he he scrounged around in that city for a couple of weeks until extended family. A great aunt in Liberia who was living in a city many hours away, found out that he was there and sent for him to come live with her. And, you know, he went and lived with her in her small town, in her her community, in her house where he caught malaria, you know, where he was sleeping there and had to witness one of his young prisoners die from malaria at his side, and only to have kind of the very strenuous efforts of another adoptive family, a Christian family who had known his original adoptive parents but strongly disapproved of their practices and beliefs, went to great lengths to to get him and bring him back because they were pretty certain that if he was left there, he might die.
What do you think the way forward is with all this? Can international adoption be reformed into a state that we would considered ethically acceptable?
I think it can. I mean, I think that there have been moves in in the past decade, certainly to try to take a stronger look at some of these things. And the United States has signed on to one international treaty, The Hague Convention on International Adoption, that is meant to identify some problems that we’ve historically seen in this international adoption corruption and address them. But I think it’s kind of an incomplete set of guidelines. And the way it was implemented here in the United States still leaves far too much in the hands of adoption agencies, which are, after all, profit driven, even if they’re nonprofit. They need a profit in order to maintain their organization and their staff.
What kind of things are left in their hands?
Well, what’s left in their hands kind of is how it’s not a very clear outline on certain restrictions.
There is not a very clear restriction on what amounts of money can be sent from U.S. agencies to their affiliates overseas. There is not enough accountability for what their overseas staff does. So if the United States organization, an agency that is accused of wrongdoing frequently, they’ll just say, I’m sorry. You know, this was you know, this was the orphanage we were working with. This was our staff member there. And they are able to deflect a lot of responsibility for things that people that they are essentially hiring to do this work do. So if they have a staff member who goes and recruits children unethically from a family, they can effectively shrugged that off, saying that, you know, this is out of our hands. We weren’t in the country. That’s what our staff member was doing. So I think that we need to tighten those things. But I also think we kind of need a much broader sort of shift in how we think of adoption as as westerner’s as some extent consumers. I think that prospective adoptive parents and other people in the United States need to understand the greater kind of context in which a lot of these adoptions are happening. We tend too often to just look at adoption and see the beautiful side of it. And there is absolutely a beautiful side of it. And there is also absolutely necessary side of it. There will always be some adoptions that are necessary. But I think when we look at a child who’s been adopted from a developing nation, we do see the possibility that that child had family there who might have kept him or her if they were given a little bit of support. We don’t see that they are in a system where kind of the only option for a family that is temporarily overwhelmed is to put their child in an orphanage and then from there, the child to kind of get fast tracked to adoption. So I think we need to start looking at our own role in this. And at the way in which the money that Americans and Westerners pay for adoption has a very distorting influence on how child welfare is taking place in other countries. Because I think, you know, overwhelmingly it is done with good intentions. But the money that we are attaching to our good intentions is is really changing the way things are playing out in other countries.
Catherine, this is tremendously important work. Thank you so much for coming on the program to share it with us today.
Thank you so much for having me, Lindsay.
My guest has been Kathryn Joyce in her book The Child Catchers Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption is available at bookstores everywhere.