Kathryn Joyce’s new look at the adoption industry, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, contains within its pages true horror stories. Perhaps most shockingly, the book details what appears to be the long-term abuse of a group of Liberian orphans “adopted” into a life of virtual slavery in Tennessee — starved, hit, manipulated, and isolated by “parents” practicing an extreme brand of back-to-the-land Christianity.
But Joyce, through intensive reporting around the world, also tells the stories of “orphans” who have actual families, even mothers, back home and who were adopted under false auspices, as well women in the United States who are manipulated into relinquishing children for adoption by crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs).
Throughout the book, these dynamics of exploitation are recreated on a macro scale as the increasing drive for Westerners, often people of faith, to adopt orphans keeps feeding into, and off of, a global system of poverty, corruption, and mistreatment of women and children. Joyce’s work touches on bigger social issues, like the intersection of capitalism with reproduction, the role of religion in shaping policy, and the way conventional — and even inspirational — narratives of care and charity intersect with old paradigms of oppression and power.
Joyce recently spoke to RH Reality Check about how the movement she chronicles relates to abortion politics and the treatment of biological families of adoptees at home and abroad.
RH Reality Check: Ideologically speaking, how did the concept of adoption as a positive alternative to abortion end up morphing from “Don’t have an abortion, adopt!” rhetoric into this massive movement to actually facilitate adoption on a broad scale?
Kathryn Joyce: Adoption and abortion have long been linked. For years, it’s been presented as a neat, common-ground solution to the abortion debate — something that politicians on the right and left can agree on. For liberal politicians, it offered a way to moderate support for abortion. For conservatives, it was presented as a solution for women who didn’t want to parent, or who couldn’t. It was also framed as an answer to the pro-choice challenge: Who is going to care for all these babies you want women to have?
RHRC: You also address how the post-Roe landscape demographically affected the practice of adoption.
KJ: The real push to increase adoptions came in the last few decades, after the rate of domestic infant relinquishment for adoption dropped, going from around 20 percent of never-married white women in 1972 to closer to 1 percent today. The rates were historically lower for women of color, who were less likely to be pressured to relinquish in pre-Roe days because there was more adoption “demand” for white infants. Today, I think domestic relinquishment rates for Black women are statistically zero. So as demand outstripped “supply,” a lot of organizations became invested in increasing the number of women relinquishing.
RHRC: The capitalist angle strikes me, almost like the “market” for adoption mimics 19th century European imperialism, going to new territories to find “supply” through exploitation.
KJ: Yes, I think you see that overseas as well as here in the United States — the sort of “country-hopping” that happens in inter-country adoption, as adoption booms and busts move from nation to nation, but also in the experiences of U.S. mothers, about whom some organizations wrote multiple reports, trying to figure out how they could encourage more adoptions.
RHRC: Given your contact with people on both sides of the equation, do you think the choice to carry to term and then relinquish is never going to be as common as adoptive parents want it to be, which tips the power relationship?
KJ: I think, understandably, a lot of prospective adoptive parents wish to parent an infant as young as possible. Many want to experience all of those stages, and to be able to bond from as young an age as possible. However, while there certainly are children in need of adoption, there are simply not that many healthy newborns or young children in need. Both at home and overseas, the populations of orphaned or vulnerable children more in need of adoption tend to be older and have more needs than the sort of children most would-be adoptive parents seek. And when there is that sort of imbalance between supply and demand, and added to that the very hefty fees that adoption agencies command — $25,000 to $35,000 on average, and sometimes much more — there’s a lot of potential and incentive for coercion and exploitation. Obviously it doesn’t happen in every case. But it happens much more frequently than the adoption community would like to admit.
RHRC: One of the most lingering parts of your book, for me, was the section on the parallels around lack of transparency and manipulation. There are the family members abroad who may have a different understanding of “adoption” than the agencies that take their children as well as a kind of deception that takes place here, at places like crisis pregnancy centers, where moms think they’re having open adoptions but get closed out, shunned.
KJ: In some of the foreign countries where I reported, like Ethiopia, there’s a completely different cultural understanding of adoption. Traditionally, “adoption” there has been understood much more as a guardianship-type situation, where a family may send a child to a wealthier relative in a city for better education and opportunities. As international adoption became a booming industry in Ethiopia, what happened in many cases is that families there were proudly handing over children — both babies and adolescents — for adoption. Later, in a number of cases, it became clear that the family had understood the adoption in a very different way than the U.S. families and adoption agencies do. Many assumed their children would still be their own, and might return later to help the entire family. We’re seeing the same sort of situation now in Uganda.
You can see something similar here in the United States. Some mothers who relinquished children — first mothers, mothers of origin, or birth mothers — feel that they gave their children up under deeply misleading or coercive circumstances. Pregnant women from conservative religious backgrounds may be more vulnerable to this sort of pressure, but a number describe how their faith was used to convince them that adoption was the most selfless, mature, and loving choice that they could make. Bible stories were cited to show how God would bless them for making the choice.
RHRC: That resonates with your section profiling women who had been pushed into adopting through CPCs. There was so little regard in the process for the wishes of the birth mother, because she was a “sinner,” almost a vessel to be discarded after the birth.
KJ: A number of mothers told me that they felt they were relegated to the position of “birth mother,” or worse “breeder,” before they’d even given birth. As though, because they were pregnant out of wedlock, they didn’t deserve to keep their own child. When women were in maternity homes or communities that emphasized that, the lessons became internalized.
In some cases, the promise of open adoption seemed coercive as well. While there are many adoptive families that honor open adoption commitments — an agreement, not usually legally binding, that there will be some predetermined amount of ongoing contact between the adoptive family, child, and biological mother or parents — sometimes the promise of open adoption can end up being empty words. A number of mothers I spoke to described how they thought they were agreeing to an adoption in which they would remain a permanent part of their child’s life, only to have the adoption close later on, when the adoptive family became uncomfortable.
RHRC: Do you think there should be some sort of contractual agreement for open adoptions?
KJ: Yes. To be truly ethical, open adoptions should be very clear and, ideally, legally binding. That’s very rare in the States now. But as one adoption agency dedicated to truly open adoptions told me, it’s very important that expectations are made very clear before any adoption, and that prospective adoptive families not foster an intimate relationship that they’re not willing to maintain in the long term. Because when that happens, many mothers are left feeling abandoned and used as soon as they give up the child.
RHRC: What are the biggest warning signs prospective parents, faith leaders, or whoever should look for in terms of adoption agencies that are potentially unethical or exploitative?
KJ: Prospective adoptive parents frankly need to be prepared to undertake an enormous amount of research, reading up on other families’ experiences with any agencies they’re considering, not just in the country they’re hoping to adopt from, but any other country where that agency has done business.
If there are a lot of cases (particularly in inter-country adoption) where the stories families were told by adoption agencies later turn out to be untrue, that can be a red flag. Also, people need to look very hard at the situation in the country, and consider what trends they’re seeing. Are most children being relinquished coming from intact but poor families? Are there other indications of corruption? Are orphanages in the region tied too closely to adoption agencies for support?
RHRC: Your book has already prompted soul-searching among evangelicals who may be “pro-life” and pro-adoption ideologically but acknowledge the horrors you’ve uncovered. Do you think that it’s possible to separate the “orphan theology” that drives the exploitation from the exploitation itself?
KJ: That’s a complicated question. There are a number of Christian groups that are doing positive work on this issue driven by their faith, and the belief that the Bible calls them to care for widows and orphans, as one of the most relevant scripture verses puts it. But the constant focus of many evangelical churches not just on orphan care, broadly conceived, but on the imperative to adopt — and, theologically, the idea that adoption parallels the Christian salvation experience — has created an imbalanced emphasis on and demand for more children to adopt. I think that’s where the Christian adoption movement risks causing more harm than the good it does — when the majority of its efforts are directed at individuals raising huge sums of money to adopt children into their own families.
RHRC: To do your reporting as thoroughly as you do, you’re obviously able to personally connect with people ideologically different from you. Do you also think reforming the adoption system and focusing on root causes like poverty and lack of development is something that people on different ends of the spectrum operating in good conscience can or should collaborate on?
KJ: Some of the responses that were the most important to me personally came from people within or close to this movement — Christians, adoptive parents, and sometimes both — who have witnessed these same problems in their own work in developing countries, or as parents. I was moved more than I can express to see some of these people willing to engage in dialogue with someone (me) from a very different background and perspective. I think these are often the people who have already come to understand how important it is to not have the U.S. adoptive parents’ perspective be the center of all adoption narratives, but the urgent need for the voices of families of origin/birth families and adoptees to be given equal weight.
RHRC: Where is a good starting point for this complex work?
KJ: Finding the way to better practices starts with solid self-assessment as well as discussion that brings in voices that have not been heard. As one of my sources told me, the basic problem that is common to all sorts of adoption, domestic or international, religious or secular, is the tendency to make the first family invisible. When you really start paying attention to that, and the perspective of adoptees — adults and children — I think the conversation is almost automatically different.