Why not apologize for “Rescue”

Some anti-adoption voices today, such as Kathryn Joyce in The Child Catchers, are critical of Christians who adopt with a sense of “rescue.”  But I am standing firm on the use of the term.

When my wife and I began the adoption process, we learned from social workers about the dangers of “rescue” language in connection with adoption. Our social worker wanted to ensure that we were not setting out merely to do a child a favor, but that we had a deep need in our heart for a child. This need, we understood, would ultimately provide a healthier basis for bonding than would be afforded by rescue. While I wholeheartedly agree with that rationale, I think we should not apologize for using the word “rescue.” Let me offer a few reasons why rescue is appropriate.

First, to rescue the vulnerable is a biblical concept. In fact, it is a mandate: “Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it?” (Proverbs 24:11-12). Many of us are familiar with the fact that the Bible speaks of the fatherless forty-four times, nearly always in conjunction with a command to rescue or provide. These commands to rescue are even accompanied with a warning if we fail to do so. For example, “Do not move an ancient boundary stone or encroach on the fields of the fatherless, for their Defender is strong; he will take up their case against you” (Proverbs 23:10). If God is unequivocal in His command to rescue the fatherless, we should be unashamed to name this as our mandate.

Second, the needs of orphans deserve and demand rescue. The need for rescue is evident in the reasons that children become orphans in the first place. Children become orphans because of abandonment due to poverty, disease, gender inequality, or stigma of disability. They are orphaned by death due to war, natural disaster, or disease. Children become orphans due to legal action from abuse, neglect, or incarceration. They become orphans when their parents are unable to care as a result of drug or alcohol abuse, or mental deficiency. The need for rescue is also evident when we consider the dangers orphans face, such as unclean water, malnutrition, lack of shelter, and lack of education or opportunity. Orphaned children face a much higher prospect of disease, becoming victims of sex trafficking, or being conscripted as child soldiers or slaves. As orphans age, they have increased mental health problems and self-destructive behaviors such as drug use, crime, and turning to prostitution. This litany of dangers and tragic circumstances warrant a strong determination to “rescue.”

Third, rescue language can counteract the risk of adoption exploiting children in the effort to “find kids for families.” Adoption organizations and agencies are clear that their role is not to find kids for couples, but to find parents for children. The hesitation to find kids for parents is well-founded, and based on a concern that over-zealous parents, attorneys, and agencies will do “whatever it takes” to find a child. If finding a child were the only motivation for adoption, then there may very well be an increased risk of inadvertent or malicious exploitation. On the other hand, when couples are more occupied with rescue, they will look for children who are truly in need, not who fit their needs. In this sense, rescue language may provide the extra patience, time, and investigation to determine that the child adopted was truly in need of parents (and of rescue).

Fourth, “rescue” is how adopted children speak of their experience. Our agency asked adoptive children, once they became adults, to write and tell us about their experience. I have a stack of these letters in my office. In nearly every one of these letters the adult adoptee speaks appreciatively of the fact that he or she was rescued. They recount the immediate problems from which they were rescued, and they speak of the gloomy future from which they were rescued. Based on these letters, I am beginning to wonder of the people who eschew rescue language have lived too long on university campuses.

Fifth, rescue language is appropriate because it is true. Most children who are adopted were in the midst of dire circumstances at the point of their adoption, and also were facing a bleak future. I have a friend who unashamedly admits that he adopted purely for selfish motives. He adopted a young boy with disabilities from Russia. People often tell him he “did a good thing” but he flatly rejects that compliment, because he only wanted to have this boy as his son. The truth is, however, it is irrelevant whether this benevolently selfish father recognizes or accepts credit, because either way, his son was rescued from a future as an orphan. Rescue is what he did, regardless of whether this was his motive or whether he was conscious of the fact.

Daniel Nehrbass, Ph.D.

President, Nightlight Christian Adoptions

How the Christian Orphan Care Movement will have Staying Power

Christian leaders who note that we are in the midst of a growing Orphan Care Movement are praying that this will be more than a trend, but rather that it will become an integral part of our culture. I believe the movement does have such staying power, but I think the momentum is not rooted in an ethical mandate about what we must do. Instead, the real long-term drive for this movement is rooted in our view of God. As a former pastor and theology professor, and the father of two adopted children, I believe that the Christian theology of adoption transcends ethics, and is inherent to the very character of God. As Christians come to recognize the inherent link between God’s character and adoption, our efforts toward orphan care will remain inherent to actions as well.

Let me illustrate the link between adoption and God’s character with an analogy from the field of economics. When I was a child, I was drawn to the idea of communism, because in the way that I understood it: “everyone gets an equal amount of stuff.” I suppose most kids are preoccupied with equality and fairness. I also believed in God, and my thoughts about communism got me thinking: “If God is all powerful, and he wanted everyone to have an equal amount of stuff, he could have distributed it that way from the beginning, and could have saved us a great deal of trouble.” In short, I saw a paradox between God’s power and the lack of equality in the world. Years later, I had an epiphany that helped me make sense of this paradox. Perhaps God is not only concerned about the end product, but also the process. God takes pleasure in watching the redistribution take place. God could have made every person equally wealthy, but this would have robbed Him of the pleasure of watching people give generously (and would have robbed us of the pleasure of doing it). Sometimes through adversity beautiful traits emerge. If the world were perfect, we would understand some of God’s attributes: perfection, goodness, love, etc. But without some measure of pain, sin, or difficulty, we would have no knowledge or experience of other attributes, such as God’s mercy, grace, forgiveness, patience, etc. The display of beautiful character is occasioned in many ways, but specifically through human interaction during difficult times. Admittedly, the display of ugly character is also occasioned through our interactions. In regard to money, we are often concerned with the end result: that each person gets what he needs or wants. But God seems to have a different economic principle. God’s economy does not measure an increase in Gross Domestic Product, but an increase in God’s Display of Character.

Now that I am the father of two adopted children, and the director of an adoption agency, I have pondered a question similar to the distribution of goods: “Why didn’t God just put all the kids in the homes where they would end up, and save us a great deal of trouble.”   This seemed strangely familiar to my childhood musings, and I now realize that God also has a peculiar “economy of adoption.” God is certainly powerful enough that He could have ordained the universe in such a way that adoption would never be necessary. Every child could have just been born in the home he or she were meant to end up. But God didn’t design such a universe. Therefore, I reasoned He must have a purpose in the process of adoption.

Christian philosophers are committed to the idea that the way things work out in the world must be the result of God’s wisdom and goodness: a part of a great plan. The seventeenth century philosopher Lebinitz pondered whether this world is the best of all conceivable worlds that God could have created. Later, Voltaire scoffed at the idea, noting that the presence of suffering and evil seem evidential that God could have done better. There is ample reason to doubt that this is the best of all possible worlds. But Lebnitz rightly pointed out that if God could have done better, and chose not to, then God’s goodness is at stake. So the philosopher concluded that this is the world that best served God’s purposes. Because I am thoroughly convinced of the goodness of God, I agree.

And the reality is, that this is a world with adoption. Families, among other things, are in disarray, and need our intervention to bring about justice, health, or peace. Perhaps that means that a world with adoption is a world God intended; a world that best serves His purposes. Using Lebnitz’ terminology, a world with adoption is the best of all conceivable worlds. Why is this world better off with adoption? Because it is through adoption that many of God’s marvelous attributes emerge. By participating in adoption, we emulate these same beautiful character traits. The process of adoption occasions traits of unconditional love, rescue, provision, unmerited grace, long-suffering, and beautiful sacrifice.

Adoption makes great story—just look at the attention Hollywood has given to the theme. One might not have expected Disney’s nature film Chimpanzee to be a tear-jerker, but as an adoption story it feels very relevant to humans. And The Odd Life of Timothy Green is another powerful adoption story. These are only two examples among many recent films with a prominent adoption theme. What makes them great stories is that beautiful character traits emerge. In Chimpanzee, the audience is moved by the clan patriarch’s tenderness, humility, and sacrifice. In Timothy Green, we are touched by the couple’s ability to let their love transcend unmet expectations.   These stories illustrate that our lives are enriched by the challenges that adoption brings and the unique opportunities for love that it offers.

Adoption makes a great story in the Bible too. The Bible favors adoption as a forum for God’s character to dramatically unfold. Adoption serves as a central New Testament metaphor for our own salvation. Paul writes, “The Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father’” (Romans 8.15). We receive all the rights and privileges afforded to children in God’s family, even though we were not born as such, simply because God was delighted to adopt us. There are many places where we can dramatically watch God’s character traits acted out by his people, and adoption serves as an excellent stage.

Having established a theology of God that is inherent to the process of adoption, the Christian Orphan Care Movement can then develop an ethic. The ethical imperative is easily found in scripture. We read in Psalm 68.5, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling.” As God’s people, we are to, “Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed,” (Psalm 82.3). Scripture is replete with commands to care for the orphan. Most Christians are familiar with the Great Commission, where Jesus told his disciples to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth. This Great Commission is found only twice in the Bible, yet serves as a central mandate for Christian behavior. But the command to care for the fatherless appears more than 39 times in the Bible. I think it is no exaggeration to say the Bible has an “adoption/orphan care mandate.”

The question for the church is not whether to be involved in orphan care, but how? Not every Christian is called to adopt. But every Christian is called to orphan ministry. Sometimes when missionaries speak in churches, Christians protest that they do not feel called to “Go” to the uttermost parts of the earth. This does not indemnify them from some role in bringing the gospel to all nations. They must find what role in “going” they are called to; whether it is in supporting missionaries financially, or in going somewhere closer to home. Likewise with orphan care, Christians who do not feel called to adopt are not exempt from caring for the fatherless. They can financially assist someone else in their adoption. I have often observed that God gives one family the desire to adopt, and another family the financial means. This all fits within God’s economy. One adoptive parent expressed God’s peculiar economic principle well: “God lets it be so expensive so that no one can do it alone.” In addition, Christians can support an orphanage, or visit an orphanage on a mission trip and bring physical assistance. Those trained in counseling or education can give post adoption support to families who are struggling. And all Christians can promote the cause of the orphan by speaking about the great need.

If Christians merely see adoption as an afterthought in God’s design, or an inferior but necessary solution to a problem, the orphan care movement will not have staying power.   IF it is to be a sustained movement, it needs to be fueled by more than an ethical imperative. The continuing drive will be rooted in a conviction that adoption is beautiful, and that it serves a grand purpose in God’s display of his glory. Adoption is not an afterthought; it is inherent to this world’s design. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “In love He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1.3-5).

Daniel  Nehrbass, Ph.D.

President, Nightlight Christian Adoptions


One of the criticisms of intercountry adoption, such as from Kathryn Joyce in The Child Catchers, involves a charge that these adopted children are not “real orphans.” The outrageous insensitivity and deceit of that statement is clearly seen by simply meeting these children and hearing their stories.

We could choose any orphanage in the world on any given day and look at the circumstances for who the children came into care, and see that the world is full of evil, malicious intent, tragic circumstances, and despair. In the summer of 2012 we have eight children in care at our orphanage in Uganda. The statements below are true, and rather than alter them in anyway by adding pseudonyms, I will simply give them a number. But beware; these stories are not for the faint of heart.

  • Child #1. Mother was from Kenya and came to Uganda to a Catholic charity as a teenager and as a refugee. She was living with nuns, but left a note saying she was going back to Kenya.
  • Child #2. Mother was arrested by police and put into jail, but she escaped. Not married to the father. Father left mother because she was always drinking. The mother’s whereabouts are unknown. Mother was arrested for leaving daughter at home for hours. Neighbors called the probation officer.
  • Child #3. Birthmother locked daughter into public toilet. Someone heard the cries and knew whose child she was. The person contacted RV [mission organization]. Missionary brought C to orphanage.
  • Children #4 and 5. Siblings boy and girl. Mother was reportedly raped by the father both times. The birth mother is mentally unstable and the birthfather is a drug addict. Grandmother is struggling to take care of child, has another baby as well. Mother tried to strangle children three times. She kicked and abandoned girl 6km from where she lived. An older woman picked up girl on the doorstep and thought she knew who abandoned her baby. Police tried to pick up the mother. The day the probation officer when to pick up girl, other was going to dump her in a trench. Grandmother is afraid that her daughter will kill the children and wants kids placed in a home.
  • Child #6. Mother who is HIV+ gave birth and abandoned him. She is an outpatient of a psychiatric hospital.
  • Child #7. found with dying grandmother in an abandoned building. She ask the probation officer to take him. Nothing is known about the birth mother or birth father.
  • Child #8. She was abandoned in front of church

These children are real orphans. Every one of them has been abandoned or removed from the custody of their parents. In each case, the court is pursuing the termination of parental rights. That’s correct; in Uganda the legal process is thorough. A social worker will begin the investigation for the termination of parental rights. In the cases of abandonment, she will place an ad in local newspapers where the biological family is thought to live. Then she will place notices in public spaces, asking if anyone has information about the children. She will take photos of these notices and newspaper ads, to prove in court that every attempt has been made to locate the parents.

Next a lawyer will present the case to a judge. The judge won’t take the lawyer’s word for it, but will ask the social worker to testify. Then the orphanage director will testify. But all that won’t be enough. The judge will require extended family members and people in the community who know about the child to testify. After all this, he will terminate parental rights.

Next the orphanage director and social worker will try to place the child with a Ugandan family. They will search and advocate for a whole year doing this. At the end of twelve months, the child will be available for intercountry adoption. These children are not being whisked away. They are being sentenced to years of institutionalization while authorities jump through every hoop UNICEF places in their way, in order to prevent a seven-year-old HIV+ child from being sold for the $50,000 he could surely fetch on the black market.

My twin brother, Ken, lived in a developing nation called Vanuatu in the South Pacific for twelve years. Kinship ties are strong in Vanuatu, very few children are in institutional care. But the nation is poor, hovering at 180th place among 192 countries. Occasionally, when my family or friends came to visit, someone in the remote villages would approach us with a baby and beg us to take their child to America. My mother visited the island several years ago and a boy called Billy Graham was placed in her arms. The mother asked her to adopt him and take him to America. I’m sure this is not a rare phenomenon. In fact, people have asked this of me or someone in our group in each continent I have visited. The prevalence of this disturbing request gives credence to the charge that adopted children are not real orphans. The problem with that assumption, however, is that these requests never result in legal adoption. Even if my mother were willing to adopt Billy Graham, she would not be able to pull it off. First, the government of Vanuatu has a three year residency requirement for adoption. And even if my mom were willing to jump through that hoop, the judge would require some rational for termination of parental rights. The desire to give Billy Graham a better life would not suffice. But even if it did suffice in a Vanuatu court, my mother would have to obtain a visa for Billy Graham through US Immigration and Customs (USCIS). USCIS would require proof that Billy Graham’s parents had died, or that he was living in an orphanage for a substantial period of time (such as three years). The termination of parental rights on the grounds of giving him a better life would not pass muster.

Children who are voluntarily relinquished by living birth parents into the hands of adoptive parents CANNOT be adopted by American parents. The children available for international adoption fit strict (most would say too strict) criteria.

  1. The parents must be dead, or
  2. the child must be living in a government-recognized orphanage, and
  3. the parental rights must be terminated through a court process and
  4. an effort at domestic adoption must be proved unsuccessful

The process that US Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) goes through in order to make an orphan determination is spelled out in detail here.  Immigration officers conduct an I-604 investigation (in non-Hague countries) in order to determine true orphan status…in other words they determine this child really needs to be adopted.

There are several ways USCIS prevents children from being adopted who aren’t truly orphaned.  For instance:

  1. They often perform a DNA test to ensure the child was truly related to any birthparent who relinquishes
  2. They call for testimony from relatives and community members who know the child’s history
  3. They require government issued documents establishing the identity of the child
  4. They require social workers to document efforts of re-unification or domestic adoption
  5. They require that when children are abandoned by birth family, the birth parents do not have a specific adoptive family in mind.
  6. They require no prior interaction between the adoptive family and the birth family.

Once these four criteria are met, can we all agree that this child is a Real Orphan? In Understanding the Global Orphan Crisis, Diane Elliot paints a vivid picture of real orphans. First, she explains why children become orphans:

  1. abandonment due to Poverty
  2. AIDS or disease
  3. natural disaster
  4. war
  5. death
  6. children of children
  7. gender inequality
  8. drug and alcohol abuse
  9. abuse and neglect
  10. mental deficiency
  11. rebellion or escape
  12. incarceration
  13. abandonment due to disability

Critics of intercountry adoption contend that the primary reason children become orphaned is poverty. There is a serious flaw in this thinking. The charge is incredibly insensitive and ignorant of the serious issues orphans face, and the intense evil that lies within human nature to harm children. We must be very naïve to think poverty is the primary reason children are orphaned. It is easier and nicer to think that. Then we don’t have to reflect on the truth that children are orphaned because their parents hate them because they are disabled. Because they locked them in a building and walked away, simply because they were a girl. Because the mother’s new husband threw him in a trash heap to be eaten by dogs because he is not the father. Or because they threw them in a latrine in order to hide a secret.

Throwing more money at those parents will not solve the orphan crisis. Money won’t turn a girl into a boy. It won’t cure Downs Syndrome and make a child more acceptable to her parents. Money won’t make an illegitimate child more acceptable to an angry father. Money won’t cure the parents of mental deficiency, it won’t bring them back from the dead, and it won’t cure their alcohol problem. Money won’t change their HIV status, nor will it (or should it) get them out of jail. We must face the fact that the world is an evil, evil place. People suck. They do terrible things to kids. And there are a lot of parents who don’t want their children. This is why children become orphans in the United States, and it’s why they become orphans elsewhere.

Once we accept the total depravity of humans (parents) in all countries, it’s actually easier to see why the narrative of “poverty abandonment” is so strong. Go back to the village where these orphans are from and interview them about the child who was adopted. What are the chances that if you ask the birthmother she will say,

  • I gave up my child because she was a girl
  • I threw my child in the ditch because I am selfish
  • Our community refused to care for this child because he was disabled
  • Our community refused to care for this child because the mother is demon-possessed

You will be hard pressed to hear anyone admit any of those things. The story you will hear is one of economic difficulty. That’s because it is the only narrative which is socially acceptable and causes the parents and community to lose the least face.

In the National Geographic film China’s Lost Girls, reporter Lisa Ling visited a village with a family who adopted a girl from that area. An elderly man spoke for the village, saying that he felt shame because the community could not care for the girl who came back to visit them. The shame leads many Chinese birthmothers, and their communities, to speak of the abandonment in terms of poverty, to mitigate their loss of face.

A missionary friend of mine who lives in China says that you will find the bodies of babies in bags of trash, or floating down the river. But you can never find a woman who volunteered to abandon her child. You can only find women who say their children were stolen, or forcibly removed. Tragically, we know these forcible murders do occur. But surely some of these women chose to abandon their children…they just cannot admit it because it is illegal, and shameful. So a public narrative emerges and circulates.

Adoptive parents are sometimes unwitting conspirators in the creation of the face-saving public narrative. I see my own role. My daughter asked me why her biological mother “gave her up.” Like most adoptive parents, I believe it is best for her to have a positive of her mother. It’s good for her self-esteem, and it’s good for her adjustment. So my wife and I told her, “Your mother could not care for your medial needs.” As she got older, she pressed the question further, and asked the inevitable, “then why didn’t someone help her care for my medical needs?” With that question I realized I had been a co-conspirator in crafting a self-defeating narrative. I had perpetuated the naïve picture of human nature that is now undermining adoption. The truth is, her mother wasn’t unable to care for her medical needs. She was unwilling. She was, in fact, repulsed by her daughter’s cleft palate, G-tube, and atrophy of her internal organs (she was born with her abdominal organs in a sack, outside of her body). Nobody wants to tell a child their mother was repulsed by them. But by shielding children from this reality, we beg for the inevitable contempt to be placed somewhere.   We are trying to keep the blame from being place anywhere. Maybe that’s not possible. So we try to disperse the blame evenly over society. Then the answer is to equip society with more resources: money and education.

Then the public narrative of poverty-orphans gets oft repeated, believed, circulated in the media. Naturally, some of the adopted children hear the narrative, believe it, and are understandably outraged. Then the rest of us, filled with compassion, are outraged as well. And we vow next time to give more money to the biological parents, rather than whisk their child away.

It is wrong to adopt children simply to give them a better life. If we accept the myth that children are abandoned primarily because of poverty, then we are likely also to believe this criticism has value. The statement is, of course, true. We should not whisk children away from developing nations simply to give them more opportunities in America. But poverty is not what orphans are spared. Again, in Understanding the Global Orphan Crisis, Diane Elliot explains the dangers orphans face:

  1. unclean water
  2. malnutrition
  3. no shelter
  4. lack of education or opportunity
  5. disease
  6. sex trafficking
  7. child soldiers
  8. child labor
  9. mental health problems
  10. self-destructive behavior (drugs, crime)

To criticize intercountry adoption by saying we are simply giving children better economic opportunity in the United States is exceedingly insensitive and ignorant. It negates the horrific future these children face, well beyond poverty. Orphaned children are conscripted into slavery. They are stolen and sold into the sex trade. They are destined for prostitution and crime. Again, the naiveté of those who dwell on poverty is shocking.

Orphanages are basically boarding homes. Visit on Christmas and all the kids will be at home with their parents. The difficulty with this criticism, like many nefarious arguments, is that there is some truth in it. Many orphanages in developing nations do double as boarding homes. That is because someone has to pay the bills to keep the orphaned children in care.  John, the director of an orphanage in Uganda, employs this model. He has a dozen orphaned children, who are completely abandoned and never receive visitors. No one pays for them to stay there, and he receives no income from the government. How is he to support these dozen kids? He already has the infrastructure of dormitory, school, bathroom, and clinic. Why not board some kids for income, in order to offset the costs of the orphanage? So John also has twenty five boarding school kids. Their parents do visit on holidays. And they pay a few dollars a month for school, room, and board. So it is entirely possible that the orphanage looks like a ghost town over Christmas, since 2/3 of the kids are gone. And it is even possible that some of the abandoned children have a brief visit with their parents. That doesn’t make them any less orphaned. In the United States, adopted children and children in foster care have visits with their biological parents. These visits do not make people any more suitable to parent their children. You can visit someone in the hospital, and that doesn’t mean the patient is going home. The visit does not mean a substantial change has occurred in the parents’ lives to make them more willing or able to care for their kids.

In the absence of any government funds for the orphanage, this indigenous two-track solution makes a lot of sense. But it creates a lot of confusion for outsiders. I was visiting a an orphanage in Haiti with a similar two-track model. Several of the dads come and hang out every day at the orphanage. Unemployment is high, and these men don’t have much else to do. I’m sure they enjoy being near their kids. They watch soccer on TV of the orphanage patio. I was there when an American named Doug came to visit the orphanage. He asked E, the orphanage director about the men.

Doug: “who are these guys?”

E:“Oh, these are the children’s fathers.”

Doug: “Fathers! Here, every day. And these kids are up for adoption?”

E: “No. Just some of the kids. Their parents don’t come.”

This two-track system also creates confusion for some of the parents. In fact, I was asked by one of these parents to adopt their child and take him back to America, to give him a better life. So the poverty narrative lives on: among the would-be birthparents, the community, the media, etc. But the poverty narrative does not have the same strength with the people actually involved in the process: agencies, USICS, foreign judges and social workers, and orphanage directors.

When people declare that “a child should never be adopted solely for reasons of poverty” they should be aware of the double-standard they are setting up between the United States and foreign countries. Of the roughly 50,000 adoptions that occur in the US every year, 42,000 of these are domestic, rather than international. And the majority of those adoptions are from voluntary relinquishment. Most Americans hold the right for a woman to choose adoption for her child as a basic right. If you ask these women why they choose an adoption plan, there will be a variety of reasons. Some are incarcerated, others have mental illness or disability. But a very large number will give financial reasons as their main concern. They do not feel prepared to raise a child at this time. They already have too many children to care for, or they are homeless, or jobless, or too young.

Why is it that in the US it is entirely acceptable for a woman to choose adoption, in the best interest of her child, even if solely for financial reasons…but in other countries it is taken for granted that this is wrong? Is it because we assume American women are more equipped to determine what is in the best interest of their children? But women in developing countries need an external voice to help guide them toward better choices?

Daniel Nehrbass, Ph.D.

President, Nightlight Christian Adoptions

Adoption PREVENTS Trafficking

Child trafficking is a tragic and serious problem that faces the world’s most vulnerable children. The United States is now a major stage where trafficking occurs, in that children are abducted within our own borders, and children from other countries cross our borders as well. There should be no tolerance for stealing children or bribing mothers to relinquish custody of their children, whether for adoption or other false promises. Yet there should be zero tolerance of children being left in orphanages or mothers trying to raise their children with no financial or social support.

Naturally, every adoptive parent wants to ensure that their child is a legal orphan in need of parents, and not unlawfully placed for adoption. Nightlight takes every possible precaution to ensure that the only time “trafficking” and “adoption” occur in the same sentence is to say “ADOPTION PREVENTS TRAFFICKING.”  Contrary to the message Kathryn Joyce sends in The Child Catchers, agencies like Nightlight are actually preventing child trafficking.

Adoption prevents trafficking. Every year hundreds of thousands of children disappear because they are trafficked, conscripted for military service, or enslaved. Many of these abductions could be prevented if these kids lived in families. UNICEF estimates that there are 140,000,000 orphans, and that as many as 90% of these are “street children” who neither live in institutions nor with parents. These street children are prime targets for trafficking. For them, even an orphanage would be better protection against abduction. But once children age-out of institutional care, the threat re-emerges. Many teens who are forced out of the orphanage find that they have no employable skills. The young men resort to crime, and the young women resort to prostitution. For these young street children, and for the institutionalized teens, the best way to prevent trafficking is to place them in a loving family. For this reason, adoption prevents trafficking.

Nightlight follows Hague procedures. The US Department of State must review every intercountry adoption case, and give the seal of approval that strict standards have been met to prevent trafficking. One important criterion is that children placed for adoption meet the narrow criteria as an orphan. In order for a child to qualify, a child must have no parents. This means that the parents are either deceased or have relinquished their parental rights or the court has terminated their rights. For parents to relinquish their rights specifically for adoption, it must be shown that the parent(s) were unable to care for the child according to the standards of their local community. Of particular concern is to make sure that the parent(s) were not given any “incentive” to relinquish their parental rights.

One significant effort to prevent trafficking provided by the Hague process is the establishment of a central authority. Parents receive the referral of their child from the central authority, rather than from a facilitator, orphanage, agency, or lawyer. Close in sync with this provision is a rule that parents cannot adopt a previously identified child. The reason for these two rules is to prevent an adoptive couple from meeting with a facilitator, choosing a child, buying that child, and then pursuing the adoption process. Instead, the central authority identifies children in need of adoption, and then gives these referrals to adoptive parents (through their approved agency).

Nightlight’s staff participates in ongoing education about the threat and identification of trafficking or other abuses related to adoption. If our staff have any suspicions about the in-country representatives we suspend these programs, investigate the concern, and if necessary replace these representatives. Nightlight’s staff also participates in regular training on Hague compliance. The safeguards against trafficking in the Hague process have implemented enough hurdles to intercountry adoption to ensure that criminals will find other means to traffic children.

The children available for adoption. When people speak of child-sale for the purpose of adoption, they conjure the image of a black market for kids. In this discussion, we must take a realistic look at the types of kids who would conceivably make up this black market, and the types of kids available for adoption. The black market for children (for the purpose of adoption) is healthy infants (under 1 year old). These children most likely match the ethnicity of their adoptive parents. I do not doubt that some Americans would be willing to pay thousands of dollars to purchase a healthy infant. For that reason, adoptions of healthy infants ought to be more carefully scrutinized because these infants are at greater risk of being bought and sold.

But what types of children are actually being adopted? The typical child available for intercountry adoption is somewhere between 3 and 15 years old, has special needs, and has been institutionalized for several years. The children at Nightlight’s Uganda orphanage, for instance, are all older than 2 years. Some are HIV positive, one is blind, and others have an older sibling who must also be adopted. Some are healthy and relatively young, but nevertheless have been abandoned and were brought to the orphanage by the police. Despite every effort to locate their parents or an in-country adoptive family, these children linger in institutional care. When I hear critics of intercountry adoption speak about the black market, I sense that we live in non-intersecting universes. How could someone possibly think there is a nefarious market for these children? Nightlight does not attract parents who want to buy these children; we have the privilege of attracting parents who have a special calling to make a difference in the lives of these kids who would otherwise remain institutionalized until they are forced out of care.

When I hear critics speak about the facilitator who went into a village to purchase an infant from a mother for $50, I wonder, “Where are these kids? Who is adopting them? And which agency is placing these kids?” The statistics tell a very different story. Adoption agencies are placing older children with special needs, from orphanages, in sibling groups.

That is not to say that the placement of healthy infants constitutes trafficking. Placement of abandoned and abused children as infants is more ethically responsible than institutionalizing them. The emotional and behavioral problems that children face escalate with each passing month in an orphanage, so failure to place young children in adoptive homes results in other ethical issues beyond trafficking.

The definition of Trafficking. The media and politicians have lost sight of an important difference between trafficking and corruption, which has unfortunately drawn attention to the wrong problem. According to the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, the definition of trafficking is, “The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or giving or receiving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim, or the purpose of exploitation.” Further, the definition of exploitation is, “The prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”   The US State Department has a simple chart that unites this definition with Process, Means, and Goal. In other words, trafficking must include a person who transfers a child by use of force with the intent to harm. Adoptive parents do not intend harm. Nor do the social workers, nor the judges, nor the adoption attorneys, nor the orphanage directors, nor the adoption agencies, nor the biological parents. So trafficking is an inappropriate term to use in relation to critique of intercountry adoption. A more pertinent phrase to describe the actual problem that parties involved in adoption want to prevent is “child sale.” There is a distinct difference, and focusing on the correct phrase will help solve the correct problem. It is not surprising that the terminology of trafficking in connection with adoption is pushed by those opposing intercountry adoption.

The “straw man” argument. In China it is estimated that 20,000 children are trafficked each year. Yet only about 3000 children are adopted internationally from China each year. Obviously, child traffickers are not bothering to go through the adoption process to get custody of these kids…they just take them. There are not more than a handful of substantiated cases where a child was legally adopted by adoptive parents who intended to traffic that child. The very notion is outlandish to think that a nefarious person would go through the expensive, time-consuming, and difficult legal process in order to commit a crime.

The world’s most vulnerable children have been in crisis for a long time, with the threat of unsafe water, insufficient nutrition, and the lack of parents due to disease and warfare. Now we are in the midst of an unprecedented additional crisis with trafficking. Instead of focusing media and political scrutiny on the adoption, efforts should center on the solution to trafficking that adoption provides. Nightlight cannot end the crisis of child trafficking for the world, but we can end the threat one child at a time by removing them from harm’s way, and placing them in a loving home.

Daniel Nehrbass, Ph.D.

President, Nightlight Christian Adoptions

Subsidiarity, and the notion that indigenous solutions should be preferred

It is difficult to believe that the adoption of orphan children anywhere in the world could be controversial. But there are some, including UNICEF, who believe that moving a child from one culture to another, even for the best of reasons, is to be avoided at all costs. In the last two decades this has led to the closing of intercountry adoptions from some of the most disadvantaged countries in the world. The cost of this policy position is born by the children without parents (orphans) who find themselves trapped without options and without hope.

We wholly endorse intercountry adoption as a beautiful act that glorifies God, unites families, and enhances cultures. This endorsement is unqualified, and unreservedly sees intercountry adoption as a wonderful act in itself, not as a second best option, and certainly not the lesser of two evils. WHY? Because we believe that the concept of second best is fatally flawed. The technical term for viewing adoption as a second-best option is known as subsidiarity. In other words, subsidiarity conveys the belief that indigenous solutions to childcare should be preferred over intercountry adoption. This concept does not withstand serious scrutiny for the following reasons:

First, subsidiarity is based on a naive understanding of human nature. Consistent with the very divergence of modern liberal/conservative thinking, this issue is no exception in its reflection of human nature. Advocates of indigenous solutions assume that humans are inherently good, and therefore what humans need is education and resources. This assertion is reflected in statements like, “Rather than take children away from these parents, we should give them the education and financial resources they need to care for their own children.” “Instead of spending $40,000 on adoption, we should give that money to the parents or the family in order to care for the child.” This statement assumes that the problem leading to loss of custody is primarily financial or educational. It assumes that most, if not all, parents are inherently good, but they are the victims of cultural influences that reduce their ability to care for their kids. Yet this view of human nature is unrealistic. When I visited the children of one orphanage we support, I asked the director to tell me how the children came into his care. One child was locked in an abandoned building. Another was found tied up in a garbage bag. Another was thrown in a latrine. Not a single child in that orphanage was relinquished or carefully abandoned. Every one of them was brought to the orphanage after the police found the child abused and profoundly neglected in some way. The vast majority of uneducated and poor parents do not lock their children in buildings or tie them up in plastic bags. But some do. Some of them are bad parents. It should not surprise us that other countries have parents who are so bad they deserve parental rights to be terminated, because the United States has hundreds of thousands of such parents. Almost no one working in the US foster care system believes that all parents are inherently good, and that instead of finding adoptive families we should be investing all that money and time in education and financial support of the biological parents. Sometimes these efforts of reunification work, but often they don’t. Some parents deserve to have their parental rights terminated. Foreign countries have these parents too. So should a child born to poor and abusive parents in Africa or Asia, South America, or Europe be any less entitled to a loving family than a child born to abusive parents here in the US? It would be good if children were born into two parent families who were committed to caring for them – but unfortunately this is not reality. The naivete of inherently good human nature is reinforced by comments like, “Birth mothers are heroes who make a sacrificial choice.” This is often true, but it is not always true. Some mothers are neither heroic nor sacrificial.

Second, subsidiarity mistakes the reasons children become orphans. Critics of intercountry adoption pretend that the primary reason children are available for adoption is poverty. They argue that poverty should never be the only reason a child is adopted, implying that often, or even sometimes, poverty is the sole reason. But in any adoption it is impossible to pinpoint the sole reason for relinquishment. A birthmother may be unwilling to admit the true reasons, or she may be unaware of subconscious reasons. Billions of parents are poor, yet they still do their best to care for their children. So it is too simplistic to assume that poverty is the only reason, even if it is the only stated reason, that a mother abandons her child. Some parents abandon their child because they wanted a boy instead of a girl. Others have such a strong stigma of disability that they cannot or will not care for a disabled child. Children are orphaned by death due to war, natural disaster, or disease or death, leaving no family members to care for them. Some children’s parents are incarcerated. Others have parents who are unable to care for them as a result of drug or alcohol abuse, or mental deficiency. And often parents lose their parental rights due to abuse or neglect. Education and financial resources will not solve these issues. For these children, adoption is the best choice. Not institutionalization, and not foster care, but adoption (whether inter-county or domestic).

Third, subsidiarity sets up an imperialistic double standard. In the US, most people view adoption as acceptable even if the reason is stated as primarily financial.   Yet critics of international adoption do not accept this motivation for poor moms in developing countries. It seems imperialistic for a developed nation to entrust its mothers with a certain freedom of choice, but then to say to poor mothers in developing nations that we know they are making the wrong choice. Along the lines of imperialism, this notion of deference for the native culture is a perpetuation of the “noble savage” myth. Why do we not let these birth mothers have a choice in the selection of adoptive parents, but only Central Authorities have the choice? We all know that the US is replete with unsuitable parents who ought to have their rights terminated, but when we imagine Africa, we can only conceive of parents who are doing their best, in the midst of difficult circumstances. To be fair and consistent, we ought to remain open to the idea that some of these parents are also unfit, even with sufficient education and resources. (The issue of an imperialistic attitude by the U.S. raises its head again when the subject of Hague implementation is examined.)

Imperialistic meddling comes in several forms, even with the advent of globalization. There are scholars who believe natives should not be taught to use currency, thus ruining their native culture. Some believe missionaries should not proselytize and ruin native cultures. The imperialism here is that these critics never seem to ask what the native people want. When asked, people from developing nations generally want currency. When asked, many people groups have requested Bible translators or missionaries. Pertaining to adoption, the childcare experts in these developing nations are asking for intercountry adoption. For instance when I have traveled to Haiti, I met indigenous social workers who advocate for adoption. The orphanage directors desire intercountry adoption. The biological parents and their extended families are begging for intercountry adoption. Most importantly, most of the kids (if they are old enough, or when they get old enough to reflect) want intercountry adoption. The primary voice against intercountry adoption is coming from the ivory tower of developed nations, and it speaks against the desires of the indigenous people. Giving voice and power to the indigenous people means expanding intercountry adoption. Just ask the kids who’ve been adopted, and they’ll tell you.

In a larger sense, the Hague adoption convention is inherently imperialistic because it imposes upon the developing world a Western standard of how things should run, especially how regulations should be implemented.  Specific to the concept of subsidiarity, the authors of Saving International Adoption state, “The subsidiarity principle was not formulated by poor mothers whose children faced this kind of vulnerability, it was promulgated by government officials” (Montgomery and Powell, p. 206).

Fourth, subsidiarity underestimates the degree to which these societies are already stretched. I asked the director of one Ugandan orphanage about the notion of the “wider African kinship group.” I’ve certainly observed evidence of this concept in Africa, and in other countries as well. He responded with profound simplicity: “the concept of the wider African family must be re-examined, in light of the number of orphans.” He was not denying the existence of a robust and beautiful, wide concept of family. He was merely observing that it is not enough…it is not working. He continued, “There is not a family in Africa who is not already caring for multiple family members, especially due to the AIDS crisis.” Even if we accept the power of the wider kinship group to care for children (the evidence is for this power is obvious), it is still not enough. Decades of genocide, war, AIDS, famine, and the persistent presence in every culture of a few bad parents, have overtaxed the kinship system beyond its ability. Intercountry adoption is a powerful, beautiful response. Some cultures do have impressive evidence for the success of their wider kinship groups, thus eliminating the need for formalized foster care or adoption. But several of these nations have not been tested in the ways that Africa and Asia have. For instance, in the South Pacific there is not an orphan crisis to the degree we see elsewhere in the developing world. But the South Pacific has not endured the same level of war, genocide, famine, or devastation by AIDS. We are not certain how strong these kinship ties would be if taxed in the same manner. There is certainly a breaking point. That breaking point occurred in many African, South American and Asian countries. Tying the kinship group back together is desirable, and resources should be allocated for that purpose. But that effort will demand more than foster or adoption resources; it will require amelioration of AIDS, malaria, famine, and warfare.

The notion of indigenous solutions is out of touch with the severity of the crisis, and the paucity of resources. Wishing for foster care in Cambodia is tantamount to wishing for world peace or an end to malaria. If the United States us unable to place one quarter of its foster children who are immediately available for adoption, surely we have no hope of solving these problems domestically in other countries. The mere thought that intercountry adoption is making a dent in the orphan crisis is absurd. Given the current rate of international adoptions in Ethiopia, it would take 500 years to empty the orphanages, and that’s assuming that no new children were orphaned from today forward. But they are. Every day hundreds of kids become orphans in Ethiopia. Intercountry adoption will not solve the orphan crisis. Neither will pie-in-the sky dreams like indigenous foster care or domestic adoption. We must come to grips with the fact that we are facing an orphan crisis that will not be solved by any of these interventions, not even if they were all fully funded and supported.

Fifth, subsidiarity is inconsistent with our own track record. Advocates of indigenous solutions often state that they are in favor of developing a foster care system. First, this is wildly naïve, since we are talking about some countries that have zero dollars allocated for child care. But one has to ask why, if given the wonderful opportunity to nation-build, we would wish on another country a system that has so miserably failed the developed world. As many as 25% of children in the US foster care system are never adopted. Children bounce among dozens of foster families, and ultimately age out with no permanent family. The developed world is trying to reduce the presence of institutional care and foster care in favor of permanency. Surely, since we have the opportunity to influence the developing world we can help them shortcut the learning process and bypass some of our failures. (We will avoid the fact that foster care allows government to maintain control over the lives of children and families for a longer period of time rather than encourage independence.) the most striking proof that indigenous solutions will not work in the developing world is the fact that the United States has also failed to provide a solution to orphaned children.

Sixth, this concept conflicts with The Hague’s own definition of subsidiarity. The treaty states, “For children who cannot be raised by their own families, an appropriate alternative family environment should be sought in preference to institutional care which should be used only as a last resort and as a temporary measure. Intercountry adoption is one of a range of care options which may be open to children, and for individual children who cannot be placed in a permanent family setting in their countries of origin, it may indeed be the best solution.”[1] But the Hague Guide to Good Practice says,

“States should also ensure that efforts to achieve this goal (temporary in-country institutionalization) do not unintentionally harm children by delaying unduly a permanent solution through intercountry adoption. States should guarantee permanency planning in the shortest possible time for each child deprived of his / her parents. Policies should work to promote family preservation and national solutions, rather than to hinder intercountry adoption. It is true that maintaining a child in his or her family of origin is important, but it is not more important than protecting a child from harm or abuse.

  • Permanent care by an extended family member may be preferable, but not if the carers are wrongly motivated, unsuitable, or unable to meet the needs (including the medical needs) of the particular child.
  • National adoption or other permanent family care is generally preferable, but if there is a lack of suitable national adoptive families or carers, it is, as a general rule, not preferable to keep children waiting in institutions when the possibility exists of a suitable permanent family placement abroad.
  • Finding a home for a child in the country of origin is a positive step, but a temporary home in the country of origin in most cases is not preferable to a permanent home elsewhere.
  • Institutionalization as an option for permanent care, while appropriate in special circumstances, is not as a general rule in the best interests of the child.

It is sometimes said that the correct interpretation of subsidiarity is that intercountry adoption should be seen as a last resort. This is not the aim of the Convention. National solutions for children such as remaining permanently in an institution, or having many temporary foster homes, cannot, in the majority of cases, be considered as preferred solutions ahead of intercountry adoption. In this context, Institutionalization is considered as a last resort.”[2]

In other words, the Guide to Good Practice of the Hague treaty foresees a wide variety of cases where intercountry adoption is the best option.

As a final note here, it must be pointed out that not every culture employs the criterion “what is in the best interest of children.” For some cultures and some nations, this question does not figure into adoption law or practice. Even some cultures with robust adoption practices do not place the best interest of children at the center, but instead place the interest of parents or communities as the focus. Several US states, in fact, do not employ “best interest of children” as the dominant criterion for “termination of parental rights.” These states have a preference for parental rights over children’s rights, and mandate judges to ask “have the parents been given every opportunity to preserve their rights?” rather than “in which family would the child be better served?”

Seventh, subsidiarity denies that intercountry adoption is beautiful. Adoption is beautiful because it is a way in which good comes from tragedy. It is a place of voluntary, conscious, sacrificial love bestowed on someone for whom it is not a “given.” Since the civil rights movement in the US, most of us have come to appreciate the beauty of interracial marriage. With intercountry adoption we blend these two beautiful acts and appreciate the presence of interracial families created through adoption. At first the notion of “keeping children in their native culture” sounds good, but naive. But on second thought, I’m not even sure it sounds good. What sounds better rings from Revelation 7:9, “A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.”

Eighth, subsidiarity denies that intercountry cooperation is beautiful. The full title of the Hague convention is, “Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption.” In other words, the purpose of the treaty is to increase cooperation among nations. Increased national cooperation is a desirable and beautiful thing. Nearly everyone agrees that immigration is desirable, that increased global awareness is good, and that the blending of cultures is an asset for all. When intercountry adoption goes well, we are closer to world peace! Goodwill among nations increases, as does global understanding.

Ninth, Subsidiarity is based on a mistaken understanding of culture. Proponents of indigenous solutions tout that “children should be raised in their culture of origin.” The problem with this statement is that culture is not a substance. Nor is it a place. It is primarily an idea. And even as an idea, it is not fixed. “Culture” is nebulous, fluid, and eludes strict boundaries or definition. Everyone belongs to multiple overlapping cultures that are in flux and in conflict with each other. In addition, no child’s culture of origin is an institution, for we are all originally born into families.

Tenth, subsidiarity mistakes a child’s hierarchy of needs. Critics say, “It is best for children to be raised in their native culture.” Which empirical studies conclude this? Experts agree that children benefit when their adoptive parents preserve elements of early childhood in the new home. For this reason, adoptive parents should maintain continuity with familiar foods, language, dress, and customs. Even for children who are too young to remember their country of origin, there will likely be a yearning to visit that country later in life. These cultural ties are healthy and highly recommended.

There is, however, no evidence that an inherent need of a child is to be raised in any specific culture, or a culture typically identified with his ethnic heritage. But even if this evidence existed, surely the supposed inherent need for a specific culture would be lesser than his need for a family. The inherent needs of children include love, attachment, and basic necessities. These needs are better met in families of all cultures than in institutions or temporary placements. Early childhood experts are familiar with the hierarchy of needs, such as food, shelter, and love. At which point did “preservation of native culture” enter that hierarchy of needs, and what was the justification for that decision? Was it based on research? Research proves that children suffer greatly for being institutionalized, even for brief periods of time, especially in their earliest years. The push for subsidiarity has caused children to be adopted later in life (if at all), and therefore this ideology has harmed children by keeping them institutionalized during the most formidable years. When children live in orphanages they incur lower intelligence, less emotional stability, and greater problems with attachment. The push for indigenous childcare has exacerbated these problems.

When the focus is on the welfare of the child, a permanent, loving and stable family should always trump a patronizing attitude that it is better for a child to be raised in an institution, temporary family or in an abusive home rather than be moved to a different culture. This patronizing attitude also presumes that one culture is superior to another when the facts favor the benefits of diversity.

[1] http://www.unicef.org/media/media_41118.html

[2] Guide to Good Practice, 29-30

Daniel Nehrbass, Ph.D.

President, Nightlight Christian Adoptions