February 1, 2016


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

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