Great Question! I adopted 2 children from foster care, and 1 child from Kyrgyzstan, so I can answer that question as an experienced adoptive parent from both perspectives. By the way, my name is Daniel, and I’m the president of Nightlight, which has both foster and international adoption programs.
Karin asked me, “Why do people spend $30,000 to adopt a child from another country, when they could adopt a child from foster care for free?” The funny thing about this question (criticism, really), is that it is so extremely obvious to adoptive parents. I mean, there must be a rational answer to that question. People do spend the $30,000, so they must have a reason. The fact that Karin is asking the question means that these adoptive parents know something she doesn’t know. There are eight ways to answer Karin’s question.
First, some do. Jean and Kevin have 8 children. One is biological. Six are adopted internationally. Two are adopted from the United States. I can name a handful of families I know who did both, and in the grand scheme of things, I only know a handful of families. The Christian adoption movement is strong and powerful, and it has overwhelmed countless families who have made dramatic sacrifices and taken enormous risks. These families are so committed to adoption that they adopt in every means possible. They adopt internationally, domestically, from foster care, and embryos. I’m sure some have even adopted highways and pets. I take that back, they take the theology of adoption so seriously, that they reserve the use of the word only for children adopted into a home.
Second, maybe that’s your calling. Many people speak of adoption as a calling. We might expect, then, that some families feel uniquely called to adopt from foster care. Others feel uniquely called to adopt from another country. I take that back too. These families feel so uniquely called, that they can tell you exactly which country. “I have a burden from God for Ghana. Not Uganda.” Others feel vaguely called to adoption, but they aren’t sure which program at all. Probably the vast majority of adoptive parents don’t even feel called, they just want a child and explore their options in some mixture of practical logic and emotion. Who are we to judge? And there’s certainly less grounds for judgment if we haven’t adopted ourselves, which I have found to be the case with most people making this criticism.
Third (and this is where it gets extremely obvious to the adoptive parents), couples adopt internationally to obtain security of custody. Adopting from foster care involves an inherent risk of losing custody. In fact, it is the state’s mandate to pursue reunification services (placing the child back with the biological parents). Most US states have a decided, written, publicized preference for parent’s rights over children’s rights. The default position is that parents deserve custody of their children, and the state must ask “what can we do to reunify.” Some argue that instead, states should be asking a more general question that prefers children’s rights: “what is in the best interest of the child.” Adoptive parents are aware of the risk of losing custody if they pursue foster care. For many, this is unbearable. “I cannot handle the thought of loving a child and losing them a year later. Or a week later.” Now, having been a foster and adoptive parent myself, I think people do not give themselves credit for what they can handle. And I think the nature of adoption is other-centered, so what you can handle should be irrelevant anyway. But that is beside the point. The question is, why not adopt from foster care? Certainty of custody is the “no duh” answer.
Fourth, adoption form foster care involves ongoing visitation with the biological parents until these visitation rights are terminated by the court. Some of these visits are unsupervised. Others involve visits with a therapist who will help the child bond with her biological parents. Then the foster parents must return home with children who just bonded with someone else! My wife and I took our foster children to these visits and clearly remember the confusion and chaos that ensued. In my conversation with other foster parents, one week seems to be the accepted amount of time for how long it takes for the child to “come back” from the visit. That makes it difficult if the visits are weekly! Again, this is not meant to scare anyone away from foster care, nor to advocate for a policy change. It’s just a calling some parents are up to, and others aren’t. My wife and I firmly believe in foster care, and found it very rewarding and successful.
Fifth, people adopt from other countries because there is wider list of reasons that children enter institutional care. In the US, most children are in foster care because they are victims of abuse and neglect. In other countries, children also enter care for these reasons. That is probably the norm. But there are also children in care because:
- their parents wanted a boy
- their parents didn’t want a child with a red birth mark
- their parents died of AIDS, natural disaster, or war
- their parents are incarcerated, or went missing
- their parents are children themselves, or mentally disabled
- their community things the child is taboo
Some of the above reasons also lead to parents in the US losing custody, but often there is someone in the extended family network who can care for the child, preventing him from entering foster care. But in the case of abuse and neglect, the child will (hopefully) enter the foster care system. That means fost-adopt parents must be willing and able to care for children with such a history, and the issues that go along with abuse and neglect. International adoptive parents should be prepared for the same issues. But in general, intercountry adoptions have a stronger chance of leading to a referral of a child who was not abused or neglected. This is obviously a criterion of which adoptive parents are conscious.
Sixth, there is a case that children in other countries are in greater need. All orphaned children need parents, and this is their paramount need. But adoptive parents drawn to intercountry adoption reason that children in developing nations face threats that US children do not face. This is undeniable. Orphaned children in other countries are:
- at risk of death due to unclean water or malnutrition
- at risk of death due to insufficient or no shelter
- at risk of having no education or economic opportunity
- at risk of disease, even death by preventable disease
- at greater risk of sex trafficking
- at risk of being conscripted as child soldiers
- at risk of being conscripted for child labor
Simply put, children in the US foster care system do not face these risks. They do face other risks, such as mental health problems, lack of success in their future career, and the life-long feeling of displacement that goes along with having no family! But when families consider how they can make a difference, they weigh the risks these children are facing, and some see greater urgency in developing countries.
The next two reasons parents choose intercountry adoption are juxtaposed to the possibility of adopting children from the US in a private (domestic) adoption. In other words, what follows is not in apposition to the choice of foster care, but the choice of adopting a US child who is voluntarily relinquished.
Seventh, parents choose intercountry adoption because they do not the risk of waiting for years to be “picked” by a birth mother. In domestic, private adoption, the birthmother voluntarily relinquishes her child. She chooses the family with whom she wants to place her child. She may have any number of criteria. Some couples fear that factors out of their control will cause them to wait an indefinite period of time to be picked by a birth mother. With intercountry adoption, the agency puts the couple on a “first come, first served” list. The next referral of a child (who fits the general criteria of the adoptive couple, such as age or medical needs) is given to the family who has been waiting the longest. This is a more “fair” process and removes a wildcard.
Lastly, parents choose intercountry adoption because it is almost always a closed adoption. Generally, birth mothers choose to place their children with a family who is “open.” Open means willing to have ongoing visits, send cards and pictures, have each other’s cell phone number, and stay somewhat involved in each other’s lives. Agencies recommend open adoption as healthy for all parties involved. But not all adoptive parents are comfortable with openness. Since most international adoptions are closed, this is a more attractive option for couples who are not comfortable with openness.
Daniel Nehrbass, Ph.D.
President, Nightlight Christian Adoptions