TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Now we're going to talk about a Christian evangelical movement advocating the adoption of children in developing countries. We're used to thinking of adoption as a way for infertile couples or single people to start a family or take in a child in need of a home. But our guest, writer Kathryn Joyce, says some evangelical Christians now see adoption as a religious calling, and many seek to adopt multiple children from developing countries.
The result is a robust demand for adoptable children, which Joyce says has created perverse incentives in the developing world and has led to deceptive practices and abuses in some countries. In many cases, she writes, Americans thinking they're adopting needy orphans get children with parents and extended family who don't understand they're giving up their children for good.
Joyce has written for The Nation, The Atlantic and other publications, and she receive the 2011 Knight Luce Fellowship for reporting on global religion. For her latest book, she did extensive reporting on the Christian adoption movement in the U.S. and traveled to several countries to explore its effects in the developing world. Kathryn Joyce spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Her book is called "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Kathryn Joyce, welcome to FRESH AIR. Why have evangelical churches and institutions focused so much on adoption in recent years?
KATHRYN JOYCE: A few years ago, back around 2007, this was a real turning point for this movement, when a group of evangelical leaders were gathered in Colorado Springs to have a meeting of one organization that's become really prominent, the Christian Alliance for Orphans.
And there, a lot of leaders were getting up and saying things like, you know, as evangelical leaders, we've been focused so much on things that we consider sin, we have been - become so known for what we are against, but we are not doing much to help people.
So adoption and orphan care, which is kind of the broader rubric that they discuss their activism under, that has become something that evangelicals can be for in a positive way rather than just being against, being against gay marriage, being against abortion.
And one thing I heard from a lot of leaders I spoke to was that evangelicals felt that they had kind of unfairly lost a claim to the good-works side of Christianity, the social gospel, the helping the poor. And so they wanted a way to get back into doing something for poor people's rights, and adoption and orphan care came about as something that I think they could invest themselves into without challenging or changing their stances on the other social issues that they care about.
Another issue that I think has been a longstanding tie-in is the connection between abortion and adoption, and how many Christians for a long time have seen adoption as a ready answer to the longstanding abortion debate, and maybe a fuller kind of expression of what they would call their pro-life beliefs - that, you know, they don't just care about children within the womb, but they are doing something to care for them outside of the womb.
DAVIES: I know that you spoke to a lot of people who are adopting kids, trying to adopting kids and assisting others in adopting kids, and that these are in many cases just really admirable and well-motivated people. To what extent is the impetus for international adoption about conversion, about, you know, spreading the faith?
JOYCE: Well, I think, you know, after the other motivations for Christians getting involved in that, there is - I've kind of thought of it as maybe a third or a fourth, or a fifth motivation, somewhere in that ranking. There is absolutely a missionary or evangelizing angle. A lot of the leaders in this movement who have written, you know, who have written some serious books talking about adoption of children as the way that Christians can best mirror the experience of their own salvation - Christians were adopted by God, and so Christians must reflect that experience by then going and adopting children - implicit in that, key to that is this idea that you are saving children twice.
You are rescuing them, physically, from conditions that you think that they shouldn't have to live in, and also you are saving their soul. There is talk about adoption frequently in these communities as a great commission mandate, and the great commission is the biblical charge that Christians go and make disciples of the nation, that they spread the gospel.
And I've spoken to some leaders who say, you know, there is a more moderate interpretation of that, that the great commission, you can interpret that to mean not just sharing Jesus's words, not just making new converts but sharing Jesus's love. By which they mean, you know, the great commission can be sharing water or food with a hungry or thirsty child, doing the same sort of good works that they wanted to get involved in.
But then on the other hand, there are a lot of equally prominent leaders who talk about evangelizing as the key part of this adoption movement. One of them said that as important as it is to find a child a new home, even more important is introducing that child to the gospel.
DAVIES: You write that some of the money that, you know, that goes to people in developing countries, it's a lot of cash for a country where poverty is widespread and that we've seen abuses in some countries, for example Guatemala. What did we see there?
JOYCE: Absolutely. Guatemala became kind of a poster child for some of the things that can go wrong in adoption. For a while, many of the kids who were coming internationally, from other countries to the U.S. for adoption, were from Guatemala. It rose very quickly from a few hundred per year to I think at one point it was about one in every 100 children born in Guatemala were coming to the U.S. for adoption.
And while there certainly were children in Guatemala in need, and in need of adoption in fact, there weren't that many, and the demand from U.S. parents and the incredible amount of unregulated money that was flowing into Guatemala ended up creating the need for more children to be found to fill the demand of U.S. adoptive parents.
So you would start to see people who functioned essentially as child finders. They would go to rural villages and speak to poor families there, to poor mothers, and suggest adoption. In particular, at that time, they were looking for young infants, particularly girls.
In Guatemala, situations even arose where women who were pregnant were being paid to relinquish the child for adoption, and there were even some cases of alleged kidnapping of children, from parents who very much wanted to keep their children, but child finders, in that context, identified them as good candidates for international adoption and sent them abroad to families that thought they were doing a wonderful thing and helping orphans.
And that's a pattern, unfortunately, that has happened in many countries around the world.
DAVIES: And Guatemala eventually shut it down.
JOYCE: They did. They did. They shut it down in 2008, and I mean, there continues to be some adoptions that were so-called in the pipeline, still being processed, but a lot of agencies had to move elsewhere. The thing to know about adoption agencies is, while most of them are nonprofit, they do depend on a steady stream of adoptions to stay in business, to maintain their costs.
And so a lot of them had to look very quickly for a new country where they could be - where they could find a number of adoptable children to fill the market demand from the United States. So a lot of them went to what became the next adoption boom country, Ethiopia.
DAVIES: I wanted to talk about Ethiopia. You described the experience of a couple in New Mexico that wanted to adopt three girls. Do you want to just explain, first, you know, where they saw these three kids, how they - what they knew about them?
JOYCE: Sure, this family - these were the Bradshaws, a military Christian family in New Mexico. And they were young. They were in their 20s, and they became very compelled to get involved and do something for the orphans that they were being told about in Ethiopia, that they were hearing about from their church and around in their Christian community.
And so they came across a video, kind of a catalog video from one agency called Christian World Adoption that showed a number of children in a southern rural region of Ethiopia who were available for adoption. And on that video were three children, three sisters, and they were described as being orphaned by their mother, first, who was said to have died of HIV/AIDS. And they said that the father was also sick with HIV and would soon die. And it was strongly implied that these girls would end up destitute and fall into prostitution if somebody did not step up to adopt them soon.
DAVIES: I mean, obviously the American couple did not understand the language that the kids are speaking. Is it clear whether the kids knew what they were saying or what they were being asked and what was being portrayed?
JOYCE: It seems that they were not clear about that whatsoever. If you look at the video, you can see the kids, and they're these very sweet young girls, young women now, and they are - you know, they're looking around and kind of responding to, like, off-camera cues. They are, you know, singing or performing a little bit for this video.
They are shown later on, in later pictures and videos that were taken, they're shown responding to things that the New Mexico couple sent, you know, photos, photos of their family. And so all of this is being captured. But at the same time, as I spoke with one of the young women later, they did not understand at any point that this was all geared towards adoption.
DAVIES: And how old were the kids? How old were they told the kids were?
JOYCE: Well, that's the key point. The kids were said to be, I think, five, seven and nine. In fact, they were all significantly older. It was more like seven, 11 and 13. So in some cases these kids were said to be almost half as young as they actually were because youth is generally considered more attractive in adoption. Most parents want to adopt younger kids, kids who they feel would have more time to become attached to the family and probably would not have, you know, experienced some of the trauma or emotional or developmental damage of being institutionalized.
So these girls were passed off as much younger than they actually were.
DAVIES: So the couple decide to proceed with this, and the wife, Katie Bradshaw, goes to Addis Ababa to meet the girls. What does she encounter there?
JOYCE: When she arrived there, the first thing when she met the children, she was very surprised to see how much bigger they were, how much evidently older they were than she had been told. So that was the first shock. The second one was that the girls kind of came bouncing up to her, clean, well-mended, well-maintained clothes. They had backpacks with some of their possessions and additional clothes. And they also had a photo album that they were bringing, a photo album and a videocassette that they had taken as keepsakes from their immediate and their extended family.
So as she starts looking through these photos, she sees all of a sudden that actually this family is not destitute, these girls are not about to be orphaned. This is a middle-class family that is filled with caring, involved adults, who even if the father was sick, which ended up being a lie as well, those extended family members would be there to care for the girls.
DAVIES: Now you write that she does get the kids back to New Mexico, and there's a language barrier. But as they talk more, I mean, she begins to have even more suspicions about what she was told, and they manage to call the kids' father back in Ethiopia, right, who actually works for the government. And what does she learn when she gets the father on the phone?
JOYCE: Well, I mean, she learns first that the father is very much in the picture, that he is not sick, he does not have HIV, he's not in danger of dying and also that by Ethiopian standards he has a very stable and middle-class job. Obviously middle-class in Ethiopia is quite different than middle-class in the United States, but in the context of this country, these girls were not in a desperate situation.
What the family had actually been told, it turned out, was that adoption was a possibility for the girls to go abroad and get an education and, in all likelihood, return one day to be able to better help out the family.
DAVIES: And when you say the family, you mean the Ethiopian family.
JOYCE: The Ethiopian family. So there was the father; there was, you know, two older sisters and a brother, who are, you know, either in school, in college, or are professionals themselves.
DAVIES: Now you traveled to Ethiopia and spoke with the father, right, and over time spoke with some of the girls who were adopted, right?
JOYCE: I spoke with the siblings there. The children who were adopted are all still in the United States, though I think some have gone back for a visit to Ethiopia since. I spoke with some of the older siblings. The father was working in another town when I was there, but they expressed to me, you know, we never would have let these girls go if we understood that adoption was forever.
That's another thing that's very important to understand about adoption is that the U.S., the American understanding of what adoption means is not universal. This is not the same idea or tradition that people have in other countries. There is a sort of adoption tradition in Ethiopia, but it's more like a guardianship. Your children are going somewhere for a time, for a better opportunity, and they will probably return. But there's never a severing of family ties, which - in American adoption, that is the - kind of the cornerstone of the entire process is that this is a complete transferrable of parental rights from one family to another, and that does not exist in other countries.
And so, you know, when this family in particular was looking at the option of adoption as it was explained to them, it was just a wonderful chance for girls to go and improve their prospects in America and then return, and the entire family would benefit.
DAVIES: So when the three girls were making the video, and, you know, singing and looking at, you know, pictures of the potential adoptive family in America, they didn't think they were seeking a new home. They thought what, they're going away to be educated?
JOYCE: Yeah, they thought they were going to school. I mean, essentially this was presented to them as an extended study-abroad trip.
DAVIES: So when the Bradshaws learned that these kids were older than they expected and didn't think that they were coming to America forever, they were upset. And when the kids learned that these people expected them to treat them like family and that they would be there forever, they were upset.
JOYCE: Yeah. I think the just overwhelming sadness that some of the girls felt just seemed to be incredible from what I understand, having spoken to both the Bradshaws and to the oldest daughter, Tarikuwa. It's, I mean imagine how you would feel if you were ripped from your family and you knew your family was still alive and, you know, that this was not what any of you thought you had signed up for.
DAVIES: So if the Bradshaws sensed that something was wrong here, that they were being misled, why did they follow through with the adoption?
JOYCE: Well, in the months in between accepting the referral for these girls and actually making it to Ethiopia, the Bradshaws did have a number of questions and they were bringing them up. But they say that as that was happening they were being reassured by the caseworker they were working with with the agency that things were much more what they seemed, that, you know, the story was accurate and this is what they had been told by their Ethiopian colleagues and that's what they should proceed with. But additionally, the Bradshaws I think were under the understanding that they already were assuming legal responsibility for these children and that if they did not proceed with the adoption, they would essentially be abandoning them. So there are, you know, there are kind of various pressures that I think prospective adoptive parents can end up facing as they get more invested in the adoption. You know, obviously a lot of money goes out the door out front - which can be, you know, one reason that makes it hard for adoptive parents to back away from something that starts to seem suspicious or wrong. But additionally, you know, I think these families sincerely do get very attached to the children and are very torn between, you know, what they're being told on one hand from an agency, you know, the information they're being told to believe, and, you know, suspicions that might start to creep up. And I think, you know, an interesting thing about agencies is they are not - contractually they do not need to, they are not held responsible for telling adoptive parents the truth. A lot of adoptive parents need to contractually agree that they might be accepting misinformation from an agency. So I think this really leaves a lot of those folks very vulnerable.
DAVIES: So how has this ended up? I mean the kids are older now. Do they want to remain in the United States? Has the father wanted to bring them back?
JOYCE: Well, I know it's been a long few years for everyone kind of dealing with this. And I think, I understand that the sisters have all dealt with it in different ways. Two of the sisters remained with the Bradshaws family and seem to be doing well there. And I understand that they recently returned to Ethiopia for short-term trips to where they would be doing some of their own work and seeing their family again. Tarikuwa, the oldest daughter, with whom I spent an awful lot of time, is planning a return back to Ethiopia herself. And she is really doing a lot of interesting work. She's now a young woman preparing for college and she wants to make her life's work around adoption corruption and the need for reform. So I think she will be at some point, hopefully, able to return and see her family, who, you know, she now communicates with online and by the phone as much as she is able. But this is, this whole experience - while devastating - still has left her really determined to be a strong advocate for change.
DAVIES: You spoke to the agency, Christian World Adoption. I know you try and get responses to all this stuff. What did they tell you?
JOYCE: I actually was not able to speak to them. They cited confidentiality clauses. But the response commonly, to a lot of what happens with adoption fraud cases like this, is that agencies cannot be held responsible for misinformation that are given to U.S. prospective adoptive parents. And in fact that's kind of one of the biggest loopholes in adoption regulation, is that, you know, agencies are not being held accountable for what adoptive families and also the birth families are being told. So unfortunately I was not able to get a real response from Christian World Adoption. They declined to speak with me about that - and unfortunately, probably won't get one now, because the agency actually went bankrupt about a month and a half ago.
DAVIES: Now, this is a troubling story of deception, where I mean an American couple that want to help people that they assume are just street orphans, kids in desperate need, end up, you know, being deceived about who is sent to them for adoption. Do you have any idea how common - this is one anecdote - how common is it based on your reporting in Ethiopia? Or was it?
JOYCE: I think it ended up becoming pretty common. You know, a lot of adoptions are appropriate and the children were in need. I think, you know, it's obviously important to note that this is not the case across the board. But this is also not just a few bad apples or a few bad cases that somehow slipped through the cracks. When I was over there speaking with UNICEF officials and other leaders in child protection, they pointed out that, you know, some of the scandals that had arisen around this one particular agency, Christian World Adoption - which, you know, was also - had also been the center of a scandal because there was video shown of one of their associates being out in a rural village pretty actively recruiting to find new children to come to America through adoption. So after that broke and became kind of a scandal and forced governments to reassess what was happening in Ethiopia, the child protection workers I spoke to said that it's almost unfair that this agency was singled out, not because what was happening is remotely acceptable, but because it was such standard practice.
I think the problems in Ethiopia have cut so deep that an interesting thing that has arisen is there is a new profession in the adoption industry - that of an adoption searcher, and that is a person who adoptive parents in the U.S. or Western countries can hire to go back, kind of retrace the path of how their child entered an orphanage or the adoption system, to see whether or not what that family was told about their child's origins was true. There is so much widespread misinformation and just lies that are out there that, you know, there is this whole new step of people routinely hiring private investigators to find out whether or not they were told the truth.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Kathryn Joyce. Her book is called "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption."
We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: You write that Ethiopia became a hotspot - to use, you know, a crude word perhaps - for adoption. That happened after some other countries shut down adoption because of abuses, and that when that happened, suddenly the number of orphanages in Ethiopia grew astronomically, right? I mean it seems that you're getting a supply and demand effect here.
JOYCE: Absolutely. Absolutely. There's a truism among child protection workers that if you build an orphanage, it will be filled. After Guatemala kind of shut its doors and most adoptions there stopped, a lot of these agencies, as I said before, had to find a new place to - a new sending country where they could find children who they thought were in need of adoption, and a lot of them came en masse to Ethiopia. And in those first few years, I was told by some agency staff, the way things were done really seems to have had almost no safeguards whatsoever. Child finders, recruiters who go and identify children who could be sent for adoption, were being paid at one point per child that they identified. And they were being paid at a rate that is really astronomical compared to the average annual income in Ethiopia. One figure I heard was $5,000 per child, which is roughly 10 times what most Ethiopians make in a year. So as somebody else said to me, you know, almost who isn't corrupt for 10 times an average income? So there is, you know, there is corruption at the local level that starts at the very local level, as children are being identified to be brought into orphanages which become, you know, sometimes they're very needed and sometimes they are established because this is a way to attract, you know, Western aid and Western donations. And then kind of how this ends up becoming a part of the adoption chain is that people then point to these orphanages and say, you know, children should not be institutionalized - which is absolutely true. You know, it's across-the-board been demonstrated that long institutionalization in orphanages is bad for children's development. But the fact is a lot of these children should never have gone to those orphanages in the first place.
DAVIES: Yeah. It's remarkable when you think of - there is this demand for kids available for adoptions, so they go out in villages and find kids who have family, and then under whatever circumstances get them into the adoption pipeline. But there are, you know, many kids - probably thousands of kids in cities in Ethiopia - who are on the street, you know, begging in traffic.
DAVIES: Are they getting into the orphanages? Are they being adopted?
JOYCE: Almost categorically no. And that's kind of the most tragic paradox. And I've spoken with leaders in the Christian adoption movement about this as well and they agree that this is the tragic paradox. You know, if people traveled to Addis Ababa, you will probably be struck and heartbroken by the number of young children who you see without guardians, begging on the street. And it's really quite terrible, but those children, who are often referred to as street children, are almost categorically not available for adoption because of the way the system is set up and a paper trail is usually necessary to identify if a child is available for adoption, even if it's a paper trail that has been, you know, altered or seems to be fraudulent as in the case we were just discussing before. If a child is just on the street, there is almost no way that they are going to get into an orphanage and get into any sort of relationship with an adoption agency that can, you know, note them and say actually here is a child who probably really does need a family to step in. So it's figuring out how the right children, that the children who are actually in need, could be sent for adoption is kind of the sixty-four million dollar question.
DAVIES: What's happened in Ethiopia since some of these abuses were exposed?
JOYCE: Well, in 2011 there was a slowdown; the Ethiopian government imposed a slowdown in the number of adoption cases that it was going to process of about 90 percent - down from I think 50 cases a day down to five. And that lasted for a short period of time and was extremely controversial. Here in the U.S., adoption advocates and parents were talking about it almost as a hostage situation - saying, you know, how can the Ethiopian government be doing this and, you know, responding to a few bad cases with this massive shutdown that's going to hurt so many other children. And eventually it seems that those numbers started to creep back up to a standard level, what the levels had been before. I do think, you know, it seems like Ethiopia is doing things to try to impose some more safeguards, but you know, adoptions do seem to be continuing for now as normal.
But additionally, what you can see is that a lot of agencies and a lot of prospective adoptive parents are starting to shift their attention once again, looking for the next country. So we're starting to see a lot of discussion about other African countries that are perhaps on the cusp of adoption booms of their own. Maybe Uganda, maybe the Democratic Republic of Congo.
DAVIES: You write in the book that one African country that took a different approach is Rwanda, which looked as if it could have been the next, you know, hotspot for adoptions and replicated the experience of Ethiopia and other places. What was it that the Rwandan government did that was different?
JOYCE: That was very interesting and I have to say this was kind of my experience of, you know, having my preconceptions challenged and upended. I went to Rwanda thinking, because Rwanda has an intense culture of evangelical missionaries, especially from the U.S. and especially from some of the churches that have been on the front lines of promoting adoption and orphan care, including Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, which has an enormous presence there.
So I just thought, you know, this is kind of the recipe for another country to emerge as an adoption boom nation. But when I got there, I was just surprised that that was not what I found. Adoption in Rwanda is extremely difficult. I think adoptive parents who have - the few adoptive parents who have adopted from there are, you know, almost proud of, you know, what a difficult process they weathered going through there and how stringent Rwanda's bureaucracy was in overseeing this whole process.
I think there what we've seen is, you know, a unique and productive collaboration with - between both the government and actually a lot of the Christian advocacy workers who, I think are engaging in different and better practices in that country. Rwanda culturally, I think, has a lot of things in place that make it much more difficult for the sort of fraud to take place that's taken place in other countries.
They looked at Ethiopia - some of their government ministers looked at Ethiopia and were really distressed at the adoption boom that was happening there and did not want it to happen in Rwanda. So I think they have made the situation much less about the ease of accepting U.S. money and support in exchange for allowing adoptions to continue, and much more about evaluating each adoption application from the U.S. or from another country on an individual basis and assessing whether or not that is actually the best outcome for this particular child. And so because of that, we just haven't seen the same sort of rapid growth that there has been in other countries, and today I don't think we have seen the same sort of corrupt cases that just routinely have happened in other nations.
DAVIES: And you've also seen some of these evangelical organizations actively involved in alternatives, right? Like in supporting, you know, programs which will assist families in staying together so the kid doesn't have to go away.
JOYCE: Absolutely. I spent some time there with one church and the pastoral couple who ran it who were trying to establish a foster-care sort of program in Rwanda. So that if a child was abandoned, say, in a hospital after being born, a new baby, instead of going directly to an orphanage, this child might go to a foster family.
And in that process, while the child was in the foster family, the church would actively partner with the government to try to track down the biological family and figure out what went wrong and figure out if, you know, there was a way for the child to be reunited. Why had this child been given up and what did they need in order to parent their child?
Saddleback Church was doing a little bit something similar. They were doing some family tracing and they were also recruiting Rwandan families in their own community to step up to do sort of foster care placements, taking in needy children from around in the community. So I think that universally it's seen as a better and a more welcome step to have communities be able to take care of vulnerable children within their own country, within their own community.
To have local Rwandan families be able to, you know, become parents, be able to become foster parents or eventually maybe adoptive parents to some of these vulnerable children rather than have the kids end up going overseas and all of the problems that can arise from that sort of adoption culture. So things really happened differently in Rwanda and I think there are lessons to be learned there.
DAVIES: Well, Kathryn Joyce, thanks so much for speaking with us.
JOYCE: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Kathryn Joyce spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Her new book is called "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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