Monday, May 2, 2011

Christianity and the Spiritual Imperatives of Orphan Care through Adoption

Unless you've been living under a rock, you have probably noticed that within Christian circles, orphan care has become a hot button issue.   Many larger churches have entire ministries devoted to orphan care.  Christian recording artist Steven Curtis Chapman has spent much time advocating for orphans and is personally touched by international adoption as an adoptive father.  And maybe you've even seen amazing stories on shows like Oprah where a family adopted and this started a domino effect of adoption with their church body.

In some ways, adoption and orphan care have become trendy.  I think there kind of exists a perspective that there is a new generation of Christians who are poised to change the world by their work for the poor, especially children who live in 3rd world countries.  Between short term missions trips and international adoption, this generation has invested both financially and emotionally into the idea of true religion caring for orphans.  (And sometimes widows, but more often than not, just orphans.)

And I am probably a part of that group to some degree. In 1997, I came back from a trip to Romanian orphanages and was changed forever.  I have a tendancy to be intense and over the top about issues related to 3rd world poverty and children and families in general.  That said, I cannot help but wonder how the Christian push to do something is perceived by others, both inside the church and outside.

A recent article from The Nation has pointed out a variety of concerns associated with the church's desire to care for orphans, especially in regards to international adoption.  (If you haven't read the article, it is worth the read.)  In my mind, the article can best be summed up by saying that there are serious problems with the adoption movement within the church because 1. the church desires to use adoption as a means of prosetilizing and 2. Christians often support or at very least, do not call out unethical adoption situations.

There has been much said within adoption communities in terms of adoption mirroring the spiritual salvation that occurs when a person is adopted into the family of God.  There have also been some leaders within the Christian adoption ranks who have been quoted in less than flattering ways in terms of the spiritual implications of adoption for the adopted children.  Specifically, from the above article, one pastor is quoted as saying "These children don’t recognize the flags of their home countries, Moore proudly noted at a 2010 conference, but they can all sing “Jesus Loves Me.”" while another is reported to have said that adoption is "evangelistic to the core,”  and that Christian parents are “committing to years of gospel proclamation.”

I have no idea to know what the full context of these statements but just using those statements at face value, it saddens me to the core that there are church leaders who have somehow diminished the complexity of adoption into such a succint spiritual transaction.  While I do not doubt that these ministers believe adoption to first be about a child coming to a loving family, their statements reduce adoption to nothing more than an attempt to teach children about Jesus.  The reality is I cannot think of a single adoptive family who chose to adopt just so their child could hear about Jesus.  While many families have reasons that stem from a faith based worldview, these families love their children and desired to have a child not just a potential convert.  And almost every family I know of believes that faith is a personal choice, that God is not a giant puppet master pulling strings and twisting arms until someone believes in Him.  Instead, they believe that their children will have to make a decision about what they believe.  And many are well aware that this free will may mean their child may never embrace the faith of their parents.  I would hope that those who are in high profile positions would chose their words carefully especiallly when the words evangelism and adoption are used together.

The Nation article also cited many examples of Christians who were willing to either break the law or continually bend it, all in the name of caring for orphans.  The Laura Silsby story was mentioned several times which is actually a well known story that I have some ability to comment on. 

Laura Silsby was a woman from Idaho who ended up in Haiti in the days following the 2010 earthquake.  She and a group of volunteers were arrested at the Haitian/Dominican border when they tried to transport a large group of Haitian children to the Dominican.  Their goal was to take the children out of a quake ravaged county and then construct an orphanage in the Dominican. 

For anyone who is at all familar with adoption/orphan care, they know that this plan is completely outrageous.  You cannot take a child across state borders without parental permission.  Taking a child out of one country and into another without proper document is definitely a no go.  The woman was obviously completely inexperienced and had no idea what she was doing.  (If she really was someone trying to do something nefarious, her plan doesn't seem to to be any too bright.  She had no forged documents and didn't appear to be trying to bribe anyone which in my mind would indicate an experienced child trafficker.)  That leaves me believing that 1.  she just had no idea that you couldn't do what she was trying to do, 2.  a Haitian who looked and sounded important told her that it would be okay and quite possibly took a little bit of money from her to give her this faulty information or 3.  she knew what the rules were but believed that given the circumstances, it would be okay to break them.  This story received an intense amount of attention at the time because it was reported as a case of #3:  an American who believed the rules could be broken just because an American wanted them to not exist. 

What was never pointed out was that this case actually proved that the Haitian system for preventing child trafficking worked!  No children were taken outside of the country because the staff at the border stopped them.  The media also portrayed the woman as up to not good because the children all had living parents  Yes, there were many children who had parents and who were not true orphans but this is a very common thing in Haiti.  Culturally, it is common for children to be sent away to live with someone and it is unfortunately common for parents to "give their children up" because they have been promised that their children will have a chance at a better life. 

The reality is there are crazy people in all realms of life, people who are literally delusional.  The reality is there are well intentioned people who get duped.  The reality is there are people who mean well but who really have no business trying to do the things they are doing because they simply don't have the education (both book smarts and street smarts) to do so.  Laura Silsby fits into one of those catagories.  Which one, I'm not 100% for certain.

In general, I think it is very difficult for anyone (Christian or not) to put aside their beliefs that the ends justify the means.  When you are looking a child in the face and you know that they are not going to get tucked into bed by anyone, decrying that we must cross every t and dot every i becomes a lot harder.  When you have had a birth mom begging you to take her child to American because she believes her child has no chance in the country they live, it becomes a lot harder to believe that all the rules are really necessary.  If you have seeen a stick thin toddler whose arms are about the size of your thumb and held that little arm next to yours, it makes it much harder to not want to fudge some of the details.

I am in no way saying that I think it is okay to break the rules.  I'm just saying that life is not black and white especially when we are talking about real people.  To say something is always wrong or always right is a hard thing to do within adoption.  It doesn't mean we shouldn't strive to carve out a set of guidelines, just that it cn be hard to do so. 

Part of that confusion comes because the adoption community does not always agree on what it looks like to have an ethical adoption.  While there are certainly some situations that every person would agree are wrong, there are many situations that are not so clear. 

An example of this is the definition of an orphan.  Many people believe that an orphan is a child who has no living parents.  However, many children who are classified by the U.S. government as orphans for the purpose of adoption have one living birth parent and sometimes two.  (By law, a child with one living birth parent can be considered an orphan if that parent is unable to care for the child and consents to the adoption.  By law, a child with two living birth parents cannot be considered an orphan and is actually not eligible to be adopted.  However, if only one birth parent is listed on the child's birth certificate, then it becomes impossible to know if there is a living second parent and who the second parent is.  This then means that situation is viewed as one where the child has only one living parent, even though the second parent is still alive but often absent from the child's life.)  The other component of this is that if a child has no living relatives to speak for the child, it can be very difficult to prove that the child is really an orphan.  It is actually easier to adopt a child who has a consenting parent than to adopt a child who is a true orphan.  The orphan definition issue raises questions like "Is it wrong to allow a child to be adopted even though there is a second parent who has not consented?"    and "Are true orphans being prevented from finding families because they have no family to attest that the child is truly available for adoption?" 

Other issues that people find it hard to agree on include
-should a child be allowed to stay in an orphanage if the parent has no plans to relinquish for adoption but has no plans to parent the child?
-at what point are a birth parent's decisions final?  Within international adoptions, there are multiple interviews that take many many months.  I know of several families who had birth parents refuse to attend the final interview to relinquish their parental rights despite having agreed in other interviews months earlier.  While I believe a parent should have the right to change their mind, at some point, especially in a process that takes 2+ years, there needs to be a cut off which serves the child's best interests.  Without it, a child is simply a pawn who can be yanked around at the whim of birth parents/adoptive parents/orphanage staff/etc..
-In countries like Haiti, there is no functioning child welfare system.  Should orphanages/adoption officials be allowed to take matters into their own hands in order to prevent children from being abused/neglected, specifically should they encourage parents to adopt and should they refused to return children who are being abused back to abusive parents especially when an adoptive family is willing to adopt the child in question?
-Money is a huge problem in international adoption and is corruption is often listed as a major problem.  Parents should never receive money for a child.  However, is it okay for a parent to receive services from an organization (ie assistance with food and housing) after placing a child for adoption?  It is okay to provide a parent with money for transportation to and from important appointments?  Is it okay for an adoptive family to provide financial assistance to a birth family after the adoption is complete?  Are there birth parents who would see all of these things are perks that make adopton a smart "financial decision?"  And finally are we as Americans setting a double standard when the average cost for a domestic adoption is $25, 000 which often includes things such as housing, food, and medical allowances for a birth mom?

I've just scratched the surface of those types of questions.  And I'm not an adoption professional, an adoptee, or a birth parent.  It is not a simple topic and we as Christians who desire to be involved with adoption and orphan care need to be aware of the ethical ramifications of our choices.  We need to listen to what others are telling us and to evaluate our own positions on where the line is in terms of what is ethical.  The bottom line is Christians cannot become part of a corrupt adoption culture, even if they believe their intentions are noble.

Up tomorrow...a response to The Nation and my own thoughts on key aspects of adoption/orphan care, specifically for Christians and the church as a whole

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