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Examining Adoption Ethics

The Adoption Crisis, Part 2

Adoption as an answer to a tragedy, not an impetus for one

[A Note from Jen] Welcome. With much love, care, research, and prayer, I move onto Part 2 in a three-part series on adoption ethics. If you haven’t read Part 1, go do that. In this installment, we’re discussing ethical orphan care within adoption, and Part 3 involves orphan care outside of adoption.

Q: Should we shut down adoption and invest our energies elsewhere?

A: Emphatically, no. I am not anti-adoption; I am anti-unethical-adoption. So many children are true orphans, have no chance at reunification, or would be in danger with their first family—and adoption is their last chance. Similarly, many first parents relinquish their kids as an act of courage and selflessness, having soberly weighed their options, landing on adoption in their child’s best interest. We applaud these moms; they are to be commended. There will always be children who genuinely need a family, and adoption is a beautiful story of redemption in those cases.

I am pro-family: first families when possible, and second families when they are not.

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 to be 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. So again, I am pro-family: first families when possible, and second families when they are not.

Let’s separate the wheat from the chaff: as my friend Ryan at America World Adoption Agency (AWAA) so perfectly put it:

If there are bad actors coercing people, paying bribes, etc., then we should not call this “adoption” but “trafficking.” When thieves run into a bank, point a gun and steal money, we don’t call that a bank withdrawal; it’s a robbery. Our response shouldn’t be to close banks or criticize all bankers but to step up bank security. In the same way, criminal activity should be described as such and not as adoption.

This goes to my point in Part 1 that trafficking is not a God-endorsed franchise and shouldn’t receive the same assessment as adoption. Let us step up bank security because we should clamp down on less-frequent robberies instead of imagining that banks never attract thieves.

Q: Should we stop adopting babies?

A: No! Again, there are certainly babies who are either abandoned or willfully relinquished, and the less time they languish in an institution, the better. You are no villain, Baby Adopter, and many adoptive parents choose to adopt a baby rather than an older child needing adoption in order to keep their family’s birth order intact or in order to remove her from an institution early to diminish long-term effects.

It is simply this: the line for adoptable healthy babies is very long, and every last one of them will be chosen, even those not born yet. In the meantime, tens of thousands of older kids are waiting right this second. UNICEF reports that approximately 95 percent of orphans are over the age of 5. So if our motivation includes mitigating the orphan crisis, then we need more parents willing to adopt older kids, sick kids, and sibling groups, including here in the U.S. and abroad.

Adoption is an answer to a tragedy that has already happened, but may it never be the impetus for one that hasn’t.

Adoption is as complicated as the number of people, countries, stories, and processes involved. There is no one story. What is true for China is different in Guatemala. What is happening in Ethiopia has no relevance for domestic foster care. The best we can do in a public forum like this is take a high view of adoption and insist on ethical practices, transparency, and a commitment to help and not hurt. As a Christian community, we must guard against systemic weak links and refuse to discredit obvious failure within the movement.

Q: Are all agencies corrupted?

A: They most certainly are not. Plenty of agencies have impeccable reputations and unimpeachable staffs. They don’t deserve to all be painted with the same brush. While there are deplorable brokers supplying the pipeline illegally, unethically, or even naively, it would be terribly unfair and unwise to lump them all together.

For you in serious research mode, I point you to a series at My Fascinating Life describing best practices between the people who make decisions about the adoptability of a child, those who benefit from adoption, and those who oversee the entire process. It is a lengthy two-part series but well worth the energy as it is a fantastic exegesis on structural ethics. (Note: in this series, “adoption beneficiaries” includes agencies, but to be clear, I am not implying sinister motives—no social workers or agency employees I know are rolling up in their Bentleys. We all love these kids and families. It’s simply a designation for which side of the wall we are on.)

Q: What should you do if you’re considering adoption?

A: Let’s discuss due diligence. Internationally, perhaps the primary consideration is which country. Why? Certain countries lend themselves to a more transparent process with less room for corruption. Others facilitate adoptions with virtually no oversight by a child welfare authority, and the U.S. government has a limited role, so there is almost no process for verifying practices as ethical, which isn’t to say that they are corrupt—it’s to say that nobody has a clue if they’re corrupt.

Trafficking is not a God-endorsed franchise and shouldn’t receive the same assessment as adoption.

Prospective adoptive parents must research the adoption process in a country, specifically how a child is determined to be available for international adoption. Call multiple agencies, read the Department of State’s international adoption website, talk to adoptive families that have gone through the process. In general, Hague Convention Countries have more safeguards in place than non-Convention countries (exceptions apply). In general, the more the foreign country’s government controls the process (especially the matching process) instead of an agency, attorney, or orphanage, there is less room for corruption. Although frustrating, the slower and more thorough a country is, the better. If they place a premium on reunification and in-country placements and insist on exhaustive investigations to approve an international placement, we say amen and commit to wait.

Second, with such enormous trust placed in agencies as mediators, this is no place for naivety. Once you’ve chosen a country, next find an agency with best practices in that country because an agency has different levels of experience, staffing, knowledge, and resources in every country they work, even if they run multiple programs.

Although this varies from country to country, some general questions to ask of agencies:
  • Are you licensed and accredited both here and in the other country? (You might think this was obvious, but you would be wrong.)
  • Has your license ever been suspended in country X? In any other country?
  • Can you recommend other agencies that work in the same country? (This speaks volumes, including their reputation with other sound agencies.)
  • Can you provide references of families who have adopted from your agency from the same country? (Not foolproof because anyone can assemble a band of cheerleaders, but it’s a start. This list should be lengthy.)
  • How long have you been working in country X? (Pilot programs give me serious pause; it is simply not proven, and this is no place for naive optimism.)
  • How many adoptions do you facilitate each year? (Beware of astronomical numbers.)
  • How many of the kids you place from county X are infants? How many have special needs? How many are older?
  • Can we see a copy of a recent audited financial statement? Annual report?
  • How does the referral process work?
  • Do any of your staff get paid on a per adoption basis? If no, then how are they paid?
  • What are the common reasons children are available for adoption in country X?
  • Will the children likely have living birth parents? If so, are we allowed to interact with them? What will we learn from them?
  • Can we use an independent or second translator when talking to birth parents? (This diminishes the possibility of selective mistranslation by an orphanage employee and allows you to ask difficult and pressing questions about what they actually understand about international adoption. What have they been promised? Are they under the impression that this is temporary? Were they approached about adoption or did they relinquish voluntarily?)
  • Who in country X determines that the children are appropriate for adoption?
  • Does your agency interact with the birth parents?
  • Do you have initiatives in place for reunification or first family development, not associated with adoption revenue?
  • For domestic adoption: What does the birth parent get from your agency? Who is providing counseling? What options are presented by your agency?
The more people, systems, and organization in place, the higher the accountability, and I cannot stress this enough: we want the highest possible accountability here.
Red Flags for Prospective Adoptive Parents
  • When you ask questions, do you feel shut down, disrespected, bullied, or discouraged? I asked my agency hard questions and got pages and pages of immediate, thorough responses. If you are discouraged from talking to other families, researching, asking difficult questions, or investigating, run.
  • Are other adoptive families with concerns painted as lunatics or troublemakers?
  • Does correspondence lean too heavily on emotional propaganda and “rescue” rhetoric as opposed to professionalism and an obvious commitment to best practices?
  • An agency that offers something different from other agencies.
  • An agency that only does infant adoptions or promises lots of babies.
  • An agency that offers the same thing for much less money.
  • An agency that offers the same thing as other agencies in much less time.
  • An agency that claims to have special connections or processes in country.
  • If you hear the word “expedited,” run for the hills. That is not a thing. That is corruption.
  • Payments without receipts (common in Eastern European adoptions).
  • “In general, if it smells fishy, don’t eat it.” We cannot allow Baby or Child Fever to overtake our instincts. If your gut senses a red flag, you are probably right.
Red Flags for Agencies in Terms of In-Country Partners:
  • Seeing the same situation in lots of kids’ paperwork (for example, all the kids are abandoned or all the kids have parents’ deceased; or the same police officer signed off on the abandonment recognition, or the same hospital worker or social worker is involved in all the cases.)
  • An orphanage partner who wants money off the books.
  • An orphanage partner who can provide much more than anyone else.
  • In-country staff or partners who prevent international staff from accessing or communicating with any relevant parties.
  • Not experiencing the same challenges as other agencies (unless the reasons are obvious).

I would heavily discourage independent adoptions. I know they are faster and smoother and maybe the only possibility in certain countries, but we want more oversight, not less in international adoption. The more people, systems, and organization in place, the higher the accountability, and I cannot stress this enough: we want the highest possible accountability here. If adoptions are not possible through formal channels, there is probably a reason. This ball is in our court. Of the few things we can control, this is one.

You cannot take one article as your guide. You must do your own research, suss out the truth, ask, study, investigate, google answers, dig, push, and insist on clarity. Agencies operating above board will welcome your questions because we all want the same thing: first family preservation if possible and families for truly orphaned children when it isn’t. Adoption is an answer to a tragedy that has already happened, but may it never be the impetus for one that hasn’t.

In Part 3, we'll discuss orphan care outside of adoption.

Jen Hatmaker is the author of ten books and Bible studies, including Interrupted and 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. She speaks all over the United States. She and her husband, Brandon, lead Austin New Church in Texas where they are raising their five kids—three the old-fashioned way and two adopted from Ethiopia. Follow her ministry and blog at JenHatmaker.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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