Evangelicals and Foreign Adoption

Editor’s Note:  I’m pleased to host this reflection on adoption by Maralee Bradley.  As longtime readers know, I’ve kept one eye on the evangelical adoption movement.  This is a very personal and very difficult subject for many people, and worth considering carefully.

As the parent of a child who lived for a year in a Liberian orphanage, Kathryn Joyce’s article about the evangelical adoption movement disturbed me. It gave me that sinking feeling in my gut. You know the one—like seeing your cousin’s mugshot pop up unexpectedly while watching the evening news. You knew your cousin was a little troubled, but you still feel protective of his reputation and by extension, yours.

Joyce has strong words about the ethics of the agencies and families engaged in international adoption. As an example of how that movement can go astray she speaks extensively about the adoption of children from Liberia. She details the mistreatment of those kids when they arrived in the US with more problems than their families were prepared to handle and how this led to children suffering in abusive homes, kids being shipped back, and eventually the shutdown of adoptions from Liberia entirely. This all strikes entirely too close to home for me.

You see, we’re one of those “crazy” evangelical adoptive families that anxiously filled out the paperwork, cried over the pictures of our little malnourished baby, prayed fervently when we heard he was hospitalized with malaria, and when it was all completed took a flight to Liberia to meet our son. We were shocked that within a few hours of being placed in our arms he was looking into our eyes with smiles and giggles. I cried with relief when he peacefully let me give him a bottle and rock him to sleep that first night. After four years of working with older boys from troubled backgrounds through houseparenting at a group home, we felt prepared for anything and expected our son to have struggles. We were aware that orphanage life in a war-torn country could be a recipe for attachment disaster and institutionalization issues. Before boarding the plane for Liberia we read books on bonding, adoption, and Liberian culture. We wanted to be as prepared as possible for whatever his needs might be and expected he might have trouble adjusting to life with us.

Interracial adoption

Apparently that thought process wasn’t shared by many of our fellow adoptive parents.

Which is why it’s hard to read Joyce’s article. She isn’t wrong when it comes to the sad situations some Liberian children found themselves in. They entered families who were woefully unprepared to deal with their issues and were shocked that this child wasn’t grateful to have been taken from their birth culture and everything they had known. These families did not have the coping skills needed and also lacked support from their agencies to help them work through the issues they encountered. There seems to have been a feeling that a child would be better off in US foster care than in a Liberian orphanage so the agencies were prepared to match a child with a waiting family even if they had an inkling that it wouldn’t last. And if they did try to explain to a waiting family that a child had issues, there was a pervasive belief among adoptive families that once they got the child home, love and good nutrition would fix all their problems.

When “love” wasn’t able to conquer those behaviors and adoptions had to be disrupted, families were devastated. Obviously the adopted child was hurt. But so were the biological or previously adopted children who may have lived in fear or experienced abuse at the hands of a child who had learned terrible coping behaviors in the orphanage. It has broken my heart to see these adopted children slowly disappear from family pictures and hear whispers about behaviors no one could manage and the trauma these families experienced.

And these behaviors shouldn’t have been surprising to anyone with an understanding of the events of Liberia’s recent past. My son’s birth mother is roughly my same age which means her country was in a violent civil war from the time she was 8 until she was 15 and then after a brief period of peace the fighting resumed from the time she was 18 until it finally resolved when she was about 22. And then three years later (when Liberia had the fourth highest infant mortality rate in the world) she gave birth to a baby boy. How do you raise a child when you’ve spent the majority of your life living in fear in a country with no stability and little infrastructure? The Liberian civil wars were unusually terrifying because of their use of child soldiers to commit rape and murder. 200,000 Liberians were killed and a million more became refugees to escape the violence. When we were in Liberia it was explained to us that it was nearly impossible to prosecute people for war crimes because if a mother insisted on the prosecution of the man who raped her daughter, then she would also have to fear that someone would prosecute her son for the atrocities he committed. This war left no family untouched and justice was difficult to find. I can only imagine the coping skills needed to survive during this time and how the Liberian people made sense of the terrible realities they had witnessed.

So I was floored by the expectations of some adoptive parents that the kids who grew up in this environment of constant fear and instability could be parented in exactly the same way they were currently parenting their biological children. The problems some of these children brought with them were serious and severe and made complete sense in light of what they had experienced. Adoptive parents should have been prepared for the worst, but as Joyce’s article points out, many of them were caught off guard.

While Joyce’s article may seek to be an indictment of the evangelical adoption movement, I think the story of adoptions from Liberia has value as a warning. As much as we’d like to, we can’t sweep it under the rug. Rather, we need to learn from the mistakes that have been made by agencies and parents filled with hope and good intentions.

Christians absolutely need to be caring for orphans. If we believe in encouraging women to choose life, we need to match our fervor for picket lines, protests, and politics with a fervor for foster kids and adoption. After the adoption of our son from Liberia we adopted two children through foster care and have found a tremendous need for quality foster parents to step up and love these kids. It has been surprising to me to encounter families who are ready to take on the unknowns of an institutionalized child from another country, but are reticent to care for the child next door because of their imagined problems. We should be concerned about the needs of the children in our community and the orphans around the world because their souls matter equally.

Our faith informs our life choices which should reflect the Gospel priority of orphan care. For some of us, that will mean helping an orphan by adopting. While we would desire our kids share our Christian faith, our commitment shouldn’t be just to the act of adopting as some kind of missionary endeavor. We need to parent our children—biological or adopted—in a loving manner that points them to Christ without looking on them as a charitable act or project.

It’s also important to note that all Christians are called to care for orphans, but we are not all equipped to adopt. This is the message of Liberia. This is what I spend a lot of time talking to potential adoptive parents about. Not every family has the skills to adopt a child with a history and not every child is capable of safely living in your typical home environment. I believe many of the sad stories out of Liberia could have been prevented if families had done these four things prior to adopting:

-Examine your motives. Please don’t adopt if your motivation is to “rescue” a child, to appear extra holy, or to be involved in the latest evangelical trend. These reasons will not sustain you when the adoption road gets rough. Adoption is a lifetime commitment to a child who may have difficult needs and may reject you and your love. It should be a decision made because you want to make a lifetime commitment to a child no matter what their issues, not merely because you see adoption as a worthy cause. Think about it–who among us would want to know your spouse married you because he thought you needed rescuing? We marry for better or worse and try to make that decision with wise counsel and a clear head, understanding that difficult times may come. Adoption should be no different.

-Think through worst case scenarios and have a plan. It is incredibly important to know your family strengths to help determine what kind of issues you are capable of handling and what resources are available to you. If a child needs therapy or educational help, are you able to provide it? Do you have supportive family and friends you can be honest with? If this child wasn’t able to safely live with other children, what is your plan?

-Respect birth order. Don’t adopt a child older than the children already in your home. This allows your biological or previously adopted kids to be big enough to say “no” if they need to and minimizes the potential for physical or sexual abuse by a newly adopted child who may have learned unhealthy coping skills in the orphanage. I know some families who adopted out of birth order and it worked out beautifully, but respecting birth order does minimize the potential for harm to other children especially if you’re adopting older kids who have been institutionalized or have a history of abuse.

-Educate yourself. There are many great resources out there to study before bringing home a child. Karyn Purvis’s book “The Connected Child” should be required reading. Talking with other adoptive families, particularly ones who have brought home a similar age child from the same orphanage or country is also an invaluable resource. If a family has had a difficult experience, please resist your first urge to dismiss them as negative or inexperienced. Many serious problems could have been anticipated if the first families who noticed issues with their Liberian kids had been honest about them and families who were still waiting were willing to listen.

We cannot allow ourselves to be shamed or discouraged out of continuing the good work of caring for kids who need families. However, we do need to be careful not to glorify adoption or adopting families in such a way that they can’t be real or human in their struggles. It can be a very difficult road and can be made even more lonely when you feel you can’t be honest because you are being held up as a saint for doing this good deed.

As I look at the beautiful face of my six year-old Liberian I grieve for the kids who couldn’t adjust to American life and for the families who couldn’t adjust their expectations enough to help them lovingly integrate. It’s a blow to the Christian adoption community that in our rush to do a good thing we did some very bad ones. It is tragic that many kids who desperately needed to be adopted into loving homes have had to spend years in Liberian orphanages because of the moratorium on adoptions caused by the unethical actions of adoptive parents and agencies. As Christians, we must be at the forefront of pushing for ethical adoption practices and loving our kids as Jesus would when we get them home—with respect for their differences, an understanding of their history, and a commitment to their future.

Maralee Bradley is a mother of four pretty incredible little kids ages 6 and under.  Three of her kids were adopted (one internationally from Liberia, two through foster care) and their fourth baby they made themselves.  Prior to becoming parents she and her husband were houseparents at a children’s home and had the privilege of helping to raise 17 boys during their five year tenure. She lives in Lincoln, NE and blogs at amusingmaralee.com.

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