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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Kathryn Joyce's "The Child Catchers": International Adoption Revisited

I am writing this on an appropriate day in the church calendar, Pentecost--  a day that has connections to the topic of international adoption. What are the connections? I think I’ll save that explanation until after I review Kathryn Joyce’s new book.

The Child Catchers is a serious piece of investigative journalism, and as such follows a number of threads in its analysis of the American enthusiasm for adoption in general and adoption from abroad in particular. In the course of this analysis, Joyce reveals not only the excellent intentions of adoptive families, but the corruption that easily followed when the demand for adoptees grew and the supply of orphans did not.

Adoption, both domestic and international, has a long history. For centuries, families have cared for children who were distantly or not at all  biologically related to them, sometimes out of genuine love, sometimes with the intention of using the child’s services, sometimes in order to insure an heir to family property or position. In Western countries, adoption was formalized legally in the 19th century and involved laws based on those governing property transfer. Those laws guaranteed that a child could have parents but not two families, just as a house cannot have two owners who are not joint owners.

This was the legal situation in the U.S. when in 1954 Harry and Bess Holt, evangelicals from Oregon, became aware of children in Korea abandoned because they were biracial offspring of non-Korean soldiers. The Holts, who adopted eight of those children themselves, encouraged and facilitated large numbers of adoptions, stating their hope that all the children would become born-again Christians and giving preference to fundamentalist parent candidates. The Holts' efforts eventually gave rise to Holt International Children’s Services, now a major adoption agency and one respected for its ethical practices. As Joyce points out, however, the Holts cut some corners and seemed unconcerned about some bad outcomes for children, as well as accusing critics of being “anti-adoption”. The Holts’ attitudes, Joyce says, began “a long-standing narrative of adoption as a battle between saviors and obstructionists who think they know better”.

This battle intensified after the turn of the 21st century as evangelical groups in the U.S. began to foster an “adoption theology”. This approach stated an analogy between adoption of children and God’s acceptance (“adoption”) of sinners as part of a divine family. Imitation of God’s acceptance was seen as a Christ-like action and a critical part of a Christian life. The adoption theme derived in part from two important tenets of American religious fundamentalism. The first, the “Great Commission”, referred to the obligation of Christians to spread their beliefs and seek converts, not just to Christianity in general, but to Christianity as they themselves defined it. This obligation for evangelism could be partly satisfied by adopting of children whose birth families were not Christian fundamentalists, and bringing up those children in the belief system of the adoptive family. A second tenet came from the New Testament injunction to care for widows and orphans --  an injunction that was easily adapted to stress caring for orphans by adopting them, rather than providing other kinds of help to poor families. (Incidentally, such children could be counted as orphans if they were without fathers, however many other relatives were caring for them.) Some adoption proponents stated that the connection between a child and an adoptive family had been created by God before the world began, and that seeking the intended child was following divine law.       

Evangelical groups declared that there were more than 100 million orphans world-wide, and that their mission must be to bring these children “home”. The picture painted by this statement was that there were children simply waiting to be taken by adoptive families who would do the work and spend the money to get them. This, of course, turned out not to be the case. Many of the children being counted were in fact living with family members who cared for them. In particular, there were few infants or toddlers, the age group that many parent candidates would prefer to take. Some of the children being counted were street children, some already involved in crime and prostitution. Others were victims of disabilities that could not receive effective treatment in their own countries, but who often had concerned families. When children really had been abandoned, their health was sometimes so poor as to make them unlikely choices for adoption, especially for U.S parents without access to public health care programs.

As the demand for children encouraged by “adoption theology” mounted, and the supply did not, the motivation for corruption increased, and the Hague Convention  and UNICEF attempted to fight this tendency. Joyce describes in detail the problems seen in Haiti following the earthquake, as American evangelical individuals or groups tried to circumvent laws about taking children out of the country.  In Ethiopia, a later popular adoption source, difficulties and abuses arose because of communication problems. Like parents in many other cultures, too, Ethiopians had a very different view of adoption than that established in U.S. law, and neither the parents nor the children necessarily expected the visit to the U.S. to be more than a few years in length. Conflict and resistance to adoption to the U.S. soon developed. As Joyce points out, cultural differences (and perhaps observation) insured that Rwanda did not become “the next big thing” for adoption after Ethiopia.

The Child Catchers focuses on evangelical influences in international adoption because “adoption theology” codified and publicized an act that had been a private family matter in the past. But Joyce does not ignore other factors in the rise in international adoption. One of these was an alteration in attitudes toward single mothers such that few who now give birth in the U.S. relinquish their children for adoption. Changes in laws and attitudes about abortion have also had complex effects on adoption; women who do not terminate an unplanned pregnancy have usually chosen not only to have but to keep the baby, and in addition anti-abortion religious groups have been pressured to offer help to women who might otherwise abort. It may also be the case that relaxation of standards about discussing sexuality has freed infertile couples to adopt children who do not look like them, whereas in the past most sought babies who could “pass’ as biologically related and allow them to keep fertility problems private.

Joyce does not emphasize, but does refer to, abusive treatment of some internationally-adopted children. (She is planning to attend the trial of the parents whose treatment killed Hana Williams, an Ethiopian adoptee, so there may be a book on this topic in the future). Although she mentions some extremely large adoptive families, she says little about the possibilities for neglect and exploitation of children in such large family groups, or about the romanticization of large families by the press, where it’s often suggested that huge families represent some sort of Golden Age of family life and happiness. Another topic that I did not see mentioned was the outcome of the practice of keeping together sibling groups of quite young children, with whom it may be impossible for parents to have enough individual interaction for good development.

Joyce has written about evangelicals and family life in a past book, and I thought that in The Child Catchers she might discuss how adoption may provide a socially-acceptable outlet for the talents and energies of women who are not expected to work outside the home. I did not see any comment on this point and was left wondering what the author thought about it. I would have preferred that discussion to the chapter on attitudes in Korea, which was of interest in itself but did not tie in perfectly with the rest of the book.

So, what about Pentecost? The New Testament describes the first celebration of this traditional festival as including the descent of the Holy Spirit on the small number of early Christians and the giving to them of spiritual gifts shown in their “speaking in tongues”. Most mainstream Christians, and some evangelicals, consider this event to have occurred at the time, but not to be a possibility today. (Secular humanists, of course, consider it not to have happened at all, or at most to be a description of events that had natural causes.) But some evangelicals, as well as a few members of the liturgical churches, believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, discernment of  evil spirits, and deliverance (casting out of evil spirits) are possible today, and as a result they refer to themselves as Pentecostals. Like other evangelicals, Pentecostals have been involved in international adoption, and Joyce references a few of them. She does not point out, however, that Pentecostals may believe that adoption “attracts demons” and makes it likely that an adopted child will need to be “delivered” (exorcised) in order to be mentally and physically healthy. Demons are thought to be attracted to the adopted child, not because of the adoption itself, but because of offenses committed by the child’s biological parents and even grandparents, or because of grief and distress felt by them or by the child. Deliverance of the adopted child from indwelling demons may be a relatively gentle process, but it may also be physically abusive. I look forward to Kathryn Joyce’s report about the death of Hana Williams and hope it will show whether these Pentecostal beliefs about adoption were a factor.     


  1. Here's a blog post about a catastrophe that's waiting to happen, I believe: a woman who does not want to be a mother agreeing to be a foster parent as a sacrifice to her husband in an act of "surrender." Sounds like Christian theology at work in this decision, eh? Only a very few of the comments on this post mention the uniquely Christian pressure placed on this woman. Personally, I can't think of anything worse happening to a child who has already been neglected/abused---to be placed in the home of a mother who will be the primary caretaker who does not want to parent and whose escape route is knowing that she can call DCF at any moment and say, "I'm done---come collect this child." Can you imagine the attachment therapists at work here? Breaks my heart ... Hope she reconsiders ... Or hope that someone reconsiders for her ...

    1. Well-- what I don't see is why she isn't allowing her husband the spiritual benefits of surrendering to HER. Isn't this rather selfish, to grab all the surrendering and obedience when it brings such happiness?

      Oh, I forgot. Surrendering is only good for women, because men are more like God than women are.

      And of course the child will be least God-like of all, so he or she will have to surrender to everybody, or else-- or else they will call in therapists who specialize in getting compliance.