Subsidiarity, and the notion that indigenous solutions should be preferred

It is difficult to believe that the adoption of orphan children anywhere in the world could be controversial. But there are some, including UNICEF, who believe that moving a child from one culture to another, even for the best of reasons, is to be avoided at all costs. In the last two decades this has led to the closing of intercountry adoptions from some of the most disadvantaged countries in the world. The cost of this policy position is born by the children without parents (orphans) who find themselves trapped without options and without hope.

We wholly endorse intercountry adoption as a beautiful act that glorifies God, unites families, and enhances cultures. This endorsement is unqualified, and unreservedly sees intercountry adoption as a wonderful act in itself, not as a second best option, and certainly not the lesser of two evils. WHY? Because we believe that the concept of second best is fatally flawed. The technical term for viewing adoption as a second-best option is known as subsidiarity. In other words, subsidiarity conveys the belief that indigenous solutions to childcare should be preferred over intercountry adoption. This concept does not withstand serious scrutiny for the following reasons:

First, subsidiarity is based on a naive understanding of human nature. Consistent with the very divergence of modern liberal/conservative thinking, this issue is no exception in its reflection of human nature. Advocates of indigenous solutions assume that humans are inherently good, and therefore what humans need is education and resources. This assertion is reflected in statements like, “Rather than take children away from these parents, we should give them the education and financial resources they need to care for their own children.” “Instead of spending $40,000 on adoption, we should give that money to the parents or the family in order to care for the child.” This statement assumes that the problem leading to loss of custody is primarily financial or educational. It assumes that most, if not all, parents are inherently good, but they are the victims of cultural influences that reduce their ability to care for their kids. Yet this view of human nature is unrealistic. When I visited the children of one orphanage we support, I asked the director to tell me how the children came into his care. One child was locked in an abandoned building. Another was found tied up in a garbage bag. Another was thrown in a latrine. Not a single child in that orphanage was relinquished or carefully abandoned. Every one of them was brought to the orphanage after the police found the child abused and profoundly neglected in some way. The vast majority of uneducated and poor parents do not lock their children in buildings or tie them up in plastic bags. But some do. Some of them are bad parents. It should not surprise us that other countries have parents who are so bad they deserve parental rights to be terminated, because the United States has hundreds of thousands of such parents. Almost no one working in the US foster care system believes that all parents are inherently good, and that instead of finding adoptive families we should be investing all that money and time in education and financial support of the biological parents. Sometimes these efforts of reunification work, but often they don’t. Some parents deserve to have their parental rights terminated. Foreign countries have these parents too. So should a child born to poor and abusive parents in Africa or Asia, South America, or Europe be any less entitled to a loving family than a child born to abusive parents here in the US? It would be good if children were born into two parent families who were committed to caring for them – but unfortunately this is not reality. The naivete of inherently good human nature is reinforced by comments like, “Birth mothers are heroes who make a sacrificial choice.” This is often true, but it is not always true. Some mothers are neither heroic nor sacrificial.

Second, subsidiarity mistakes the reasons children become orphans. Critics of intercountry adoption pretend that the primary reason children are available for adoption is poverty. They argue that poverty should never be the only reason a child is adopted, implying that often, or even sometimes, poverty is the sole reason. But in any adoption it is impossible to pinpoint the sole reason for relinquishment. A birthmother may be unwilling to admit the true reasons, or she may be unaware of subconscious reasons. Billions of parents are poor, yet they still do their best to care for their children. So it is too simplistic to assume that poverty is the only reason, even if it is the only stated reason, that a mother abandons her child. Some parents abandon their child because they wanted a boy instead of a girl. Others have such a strong stigma of disability that they cannot or will not care for a disabled child. Children are orphaned by death due to war, natural disaster, or disease or death, leaving no family members to care for them. Some children’s parents are incarcerated. Others have parents who are unable to care for them as a result of drug or alcohol abuse, or mental deficiency. And often parents lose their parental rights due to abuse or neglect. Education and financial resources will not solve these issues. For these children, adoption is the best choice. Not institutionalization, and not foster care, but adoption (whether inter-county or domestic).

Third, subsidiarity sets up an imperialistic double standard. In the US, most people view adoption as acceptable even if the reason is stated as primarily financial.   Yet critics of international adoption do not accept this motivation for poor moms in developing countries. It seems imperialistic for a developed nation to entrust its mothers with a certain freedom of choice, but then to say to poor mothers in developing nations that we know they are making the wrong choice. Along the lines of imperialism, this notion of deference for the native culture is a perpetuation of the “noble savage” myth. Why do we not let these birth mothers have a choice in the selection of adoptive parents, but only Central Authorities have the choice? We all know that the US is replete with unsuitable parents who ought to have their rights terminated, but when we imagine Africa, we can only conceive of parents who are doing their best, in the midst of difficult circumstances. To be fair and consistent, we ought to remain open to the idea that some of these parents are also unfit, even with sufficient education and resources. (The issue of an imperialistic attitude by the U.S. raises its head again when the subject of Hague implementation is examined.)

Imperialistic meddling comes in several forms, even with the advent of globalization. There are scholars who believe natives should not be taught to use currency, thus ruining their native culture. Some believe missionaries should not proselytize and ruin native cultures. The imperialism here is that these critics never seem to ask what the native people want. When asked, people from developing nations generally want currency. When asked, many people groups have requested Bible translators or missionaries. Pertaining to adoption, the childcare experts in these developing nations are asking for intercountry adoption. For instance when I have traveled to Haiti, I met indigenous social workers who advocate for adoption. The orphanage directors desire intercountry adoption. The biological parents and their extended families are begging for intercountry adoption. Most importantly, most of the kids (if they are old enough, or when they get old enough to reflect) want intercountry adoption. The primary voice against intercountry adoption is coming from the ivory tower of developed nations, and it speaks against the desires of the indigenous people. Giving voice and power to the indigenous people means expanding intercountry adoption. Just ask the kids who’ve been adopted, and they’ll tell you.

In a larger sense, the Hague adoption convention is inherently imperialistic because it imposes upon the developing world a Western standard of how things should run, especially how regulations should be implemented.  Specific to the concept of subsidiarity, the authors of Saving International Adoption state, “The subsidiarity principle was not formulated by poor mothers whose children faced this kind of vulnerability, it was promulgated by government officials” (Montgomery and Powell, p. 206).

Fourth, subsidiarity underestimates the degree to which these societies are already stretched. I asked the director of one Ugandan orphanage about the notion of the “wider African kinship group.” I’ve certainly observed evidence of this concept in Africa, and in other countries as well. He responded with profound simplicity: “the concept of the wider African family must be re-examined, in light of the number of orphans.” He was not denying the existence of a robust and beautiful, wide concept of family. He was merely observing that it is not enough…it is not working. He continued, “There is not a family in Africa who is not already caring for multiple family members, especially due to the AIDS crisis.” Even if we accept the power of the wider kinship group to care for children (the evidence is for this power is obvious), it is still not enough. Decades of genocide, war, AIDS, famine, and the persistent presence in every culture of a few bad parents, have overtaxed the kinship system beyond its ability. Intercountry adoption is a powerful, beautiful response. Some cultures do have impressive evidence for the success of their wider kinship groups, thus eliminating the need for formalized foster care or adoption. But several of these nations have not been tested in the ways that Africa and Asia have. For instance, in the South Pacific there is not an orphan crisis to the degree we see elsewhere in the developing world. But the South Pacific has not endured the same level of war, genocide, famine, or devastation by AIDS. We are not certain how strong these kinship ties would be if taxed in the same manner. There is certainly a breaking point. That breaking point occurred in many African, South American and Asian countries. Tying the kinship group back together is desirable, and resources should be allocated for that purpose. But that effort will demand more than foster or adoption resources; it will require amelioration of AIDS, malaria, famine, and warfare.

The notion of indigenous solutions is out of touch with the severity of the crisis, and the paucity of resources. Wishing for foster care in Cambodia is tantamount to wishing for world peace or an end to malaria. If the United States us unable to place one quarter of its foster children who are immediately available for adoption, surely we have no hope of solving these problems domestically in other countries. The mere thought that intercountry adoption is making a dent in the orphan crisis is absurd. Given the current rate of international adoptions in Ethiopia, it would take 500 years to empty the orphanages, and that’s assuming that no new children were orphaned from today forward. But they are. Every day hundreds of kids become orphans in Ethiopia. Intercountry adoption will not solve the orphan crisis. Neither will pie-in-the sky dreams like indigenous foster care or domestic adoption. We must come to grips with the fact that we are facing an orphan crisis that will not be solved by any of these interventions, not even if they were all fully funded and supported.

Fifth, subsidiarity is inconsistent with our own track record. Advocates of indigenous solutions often state that they are in favor of developing a foster care system. First, this is wildly naïve, since we are talking about some countries that have zero dollars allocated for child care. But one has to ask why, if given the wonderful opportunity to nation-build, we would wish on another country a system that has so miserably failed the developed world. As many as 25% of children in the US foster care system are never adopted. Children bounce among dozens of foster families, and ultimately age out with no permanent family. The developed world is trying to reduce the presence of institutional care and foster care in favor of permanency. Surely, since we have the opportunity to influence the developing world we can help them shortcut the learning process and bypass some of our failures. (We will avoid the fact that foster care allows government to maintain control over the lives of children and families for a longer period of time rather than encourage independence.) the most striking proof that indigenous solutions will not work in the developing world is the fact that the United States has also failed to provide a solution to orphaned children.

Sixth, this concept conflicts with The Hague’s own definition of subsidiarity. The treaty states, “For children who cannot be raised by their own families, an appropriate alternative family environment should be sought in preference to institutional care which should be used only as a last resort and as a temporary measure. Intercountry adoption is one of a range of care options which may be open to children, and for individual children who cannot be placed in a permanent family setting in their countries of origin, it may indeed be the best solution.”[1] But the Hague Guide to Good Practice says,

“States should also ensure that efforts to achieve this goal (temporary in-country institutionalization) do not unintentionally harm children by delaying unduly a permanent solution through intercountry adoption. States should guarantee permanency planning in the shortest possible time for each child deprived of his / her parents. Policies should work to promote family preservation and national solutions, rather than to hinder intercountry adoption. It is true that maintaining a child in his or her family of origin is important, but it is not more important than protecting a child from harm or abuse.

  • Permanent care by an extended family member may be preferable, but not if the carers are wrongly motivated, unsuitable, or unable to meet the needs (including the medical needs) of the particular child.
  • National adoption or other permanent family care is generally preferable, but if there is a lack of suitable national adoptive families or carers, it is, as a general rule, not preferable to keep children waiting in institutions when the possibility exists of a suitable permanent family placement abroad.
  • Finding a home for a child in the country of origin is a positive step, but a temporary home in the country of origin in most cases is not preferable to a permanent home elsewhere.
  • Institutionalization as an option for permanent care, while appropriate in special circumstances, is not as a general rule in the best interests of the child.

It is sometimes said that the correct interpretation of subsidiarity is that intercountry adoption should be seen as a last resort. This is not the aim of the Convention. National solutions for children such as remaining permanently in an institution, or having many temporary foster homes, cannot, in the majority of cases, be considered as preferred solutions ahead of intercountry adoption. In this context, Institutionalization is considered as a last resort.”[2]

In other words, the Guide to Good Practice of the Hague treaty foresees a wide variety of cases where intercountry adoption is the best option.

As a final note here, it must be pointed out that not every culture employs the criterion “what is in the best interest of children.” For some cultures and some nations, this question does not figure into adoption law or practice. Even some cultures with robust adoption practices do not place the best interest of children at the center, but instead place the interest of parents or communities as the focus. Several US states, in fact, do not employ “best interest of children” as the dominant criterion for “termination of parental rights.” These states have a preference for parental rights over children’s rights, and mandate judges to ask “have the parents been given every opportunity to preserve their rights?” rather than “in which family would the child be better served?”

Seventh, subsidiarity denies that intercountry adoption is beautiful. Adoption is beautiful because it is a way in which good comes from tragedy. It is a place of voluntary, conscious, sacrificial love bestowed on someone for whom it is not a “given.” Since the civil rights movement in the US, most of us have come to appreciate the beauty of interracial marriage. With intercountry adoption we blend these two beautiful acts and appreciate the presence of interracial families created through adoption. At first the notion of “keeping children in their native culture” sounds good, but naive. But on second thought, I’m not even sure it sounds good. What sounds better rings from Revelation 7:9, “A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.”

Eighth, subsidiarity denies that intercountry cooperation is beautiful. The full title of the Hague convention is, “Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption.” In other words, the purpose of the treaty is to increase cooperation among nations. Increased national cooperation is a desirable and beautiful thing. Nearly everyone agrees that immigration is desirable, that increased global awareness is good, and that the blending of cultures is an asset for all. When intercountry adoption goes well, we are closer to world peace! Goodwill among nations increases, as does global understanding.

Ninth, Subsidiarity is based on a mistaken understanding of culture. Proponents of indigenous solutions tout that “children should be raised in their culture of origin.” The problem with this statement is that culture is not a substance. Nor is it a place. It is primarily an idea. And even as an idea, it is not fixed. “Culture” is nebulous, fluid, and eludes strict boundaries or definition. Everyone belongs to multiple overlapping cultures that are in flux and in conflict with each other. In addition, no child’s culture of origin is an institution, for we are all originally born into families.

Tenth, subsidiarity mistakes a child’s hierarchy of needs. Critics say, “It is best for children to be raised in their native culture.” Which empirical studies conclude this? Experts agree that children benefit when their adoptive parents preserve elements of early childhood in the new home. For this reason, adoptive parents should maintain continuity with familiar foods, language, dress, and customs. Even for children who are too young to remember their country of origin, there will likely be a yearning to visit that country later in life. These cultural ties are healthy and highly recommended.

There is, however, no evidence that an inherent need of a child is to be raised in any specific culture, or a culture typically identified with his ethnic heritage. But even if this evidence existed, surely the supposed inherent need for a specific culture would be lesser than his need for a family. The inherent needs of children include love, attachment, and basic necessities. These needs are better met in families of all cultures than in institutions or temporary placements. Early childhood experts are familiar with the hierarchy of needs, such as food, shelter, and love. At which point did “preservation of native culture” enter that hierarchy of needs, and what was the justification for that decision? Was it based on research? Research proves that children suffer greatly for being institutionalized, even for brief periods of time, especially in their earliest years. The push for subsidiarity has caused children to be adopted later in life (if at all), and therefore this ideology has harmed children by keeping them institutionalized during the most formidable years. When children live in orphanages they incur lower intelligence, less emotional stability, and greater problems with attachment. The push for indigenous childcare has exacerbated these problems.

When the focus is on the welfare of the child, a permanent, loving and stable family should always trump a patronizing attitude that it is better for a child to be raised in an institution, temporary family or in an abusive home rather than be moved to a different culture. This patronizing attitude also presumes that one culture is superior to another when the facts favor the benefits of diversity.


[2] Guide to Good Practice, 29-30

Daniel Nehrbass, Ph.D.

President, Nightlight Christian Adoptions


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