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Christian evangelical adoption movement perseveres amid criticism, drop in foreign adoptions

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In this March 2012 photo provided by Bethany Christian Services, social worker Melaku stands with two children at the family's home in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Working for AHOPE which is partnered with the U.S.-based Bethany Christian Services, Melaku visits families to assess their needs, provide counsel to them, and gather information needed for updates to their sponsors in the U.S. (AP Photo/Bethany Christian Services, Josh Franer) (The Associated Press)

To many Christian evangelicals, their commitment to finding homes for the world's orphans is something to celebrate — and they will, gathering at hundreds of churches across America to direct their thoughts and prayers to these children.

But the fifth annual Orphan Sunday, this coming weekend, arrives at a challenging time, and not just because the number of international adoptions is dwindling. The adoption movement faces criticisms so forceful that some of its own leaders are paying heed.

The gist: Some evangelicals are so enamored of international adoption as a mission of spiritual salvation — for the child and the adoptive parents — that they have closed their eyes to adoption-related fraud and trafficking, and have not fully embraced alternatives that would help orphans find loving families in their home countries.

Some adoption advocates in evangelical circles have angrily rejected the criticisms. But the president of the coalition that organizes Orphan Sunday, Jedd Medefind of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, has urged his allies and supporters to take the critiques to heart even though he disputes some aspects of them. Alliance partners, he says, should be eager to support a broad range of orphan-care programs and to avoid the temptation of viewing adoptive parents as saviors.

"When the dominant feature of our thinking becomes 'us as rescuers,' we're in grave danger," Medefind wrote on the alliance website. "What often follows is the pride, self-focus and I-know-better outlook that has been at the root of countless misguided efforts to help others."

One leading critic of the movement comes from within evangelical ranks — Professor David Smolin, director of the Center for Biotechnology, Law and Ethics at the law school of Baptist-affiliated Samford University in Alabama. Smolin plunged into the debate after he and his wife adopted two daughters from India in 1998, then learned that the girls had been abducted from an orphanage where they'd been placed temporarily by their mother.

The evangelical movement "uncritically participates in adoption systems riddled with child laundering, where children are illicitly obtained through fraud, kidnapping or purchase," Smolin wrote in a law journal article. "The result is often tragically misdirected and cruel, as the movement participates in the needless separation of children from their families."

Many of Smolin's concerns were reinforced with the recent publication of "The Child Catchers," a book about the evangelical adoption movement by journalist Kathryn Joyce. It details cases where foreign children adopted by evangelicals were mistreated and looks at problematic Christian-led adoption initiatives in such countries as Ethiopia, Liberia and Haiti — where Idaho church group leader Laura Silsby briefly was jailed for arranging illegal travel of children after the 2010 earthquake.

The evangelical adoption movement, writes Joyce, has provided millions of new advocates for a global adoption industry "too often marked by ambiguous goals and dirty money, turning poor countries' children into objects of salvation, then into objects of trade."

Medefind wrote a detailed response to the book, crediting Joyce for providing an "important warning regarding potential hazards, excesses and blind spots" within the movement. But he also accused Joyce of distortions and bias, saying she overstated international adoption's negative aspects while downplaying its benefits and overlooking promising initiatives.

"Errors and pitfalls will always come with any effort to address deep human need," Medefind wrote. "We must do seemingly opposite things at once: relentlessly pursue the highest ideals — while also knowing that the situation we enter and the results we achieve will often be far less than ideal."

Christian engagement in international adoption goes back many decades, notably to the efforts of a devout Oregon couple, Harry and Bertha Holt, to promote adoption of Korean orphans in the 1950s. Only in the past 10 years, however, has there been formalization of a Christian adoption/orphan-care movement, as heralded by formation of the Christian Alliance for Orphans in 2004.

In 2007, the Christian ministry Focus on the Family — at the time widely known for its opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage — hosted a summit on adoption issues, and in 2008 it launched "Wait No More," an initiative encouraging evangelicals to adopt children from the U.S. foster care system.

In 2009, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, approved a resolution urging its churches to promote "an adoption culture."

"We call on each Southern Baptist family to pray for guidance as to whether God is calling them to adopt or foster a child," the resolution said.

The resolution was drafted by a rising young leader, the Rev. Russell Moore, who now heads the SBC's public policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee. Moore is author of "Adopted For Life," published in 2009, which relates his experiences as father to two boys he and his wife adopted from a squalid Russian orphanage.

Moore suggests that the prospect of evangelizing a child shouldn't be the primary motivation for a Christian to adopt, but says it's natural for an evangelical parent to seek to pass on values to an adopted child.

Another prominent evangelical adoption advocate, Dan Cruver of Traveler's Rest, S.C., addresses that issue in his book "Reclaiming Adoption." The ultimate purpose of adoption by Christians, Cruver writes, "is not to give orphans parents, as important as that is. It is to place them in a Christian home that they might be positioned to receive the gospel."

For some adult adoptees, these aspects of the evangelical approach are troubling.

Philadelphia-area social worker Amanda Transue-Woolston, 28, grew up in Cape May, N.J., after being adopted as an infant by a conservative Christian couple. She speaks respectfully of her adoptive parents, but has abandoned their particular faith for far more liberal Christian universalism.

"My belief is that heavy Christian applications don't help with an adopted child's identity," she said. "How the children view themselves in the adoption is much more important than rigidly holding to common Christian cliches."

At the Donaldson Adoption Institute, a prominent adoption think tank, executive director Adam Pertman commended the efforts of some major Christian adoption agencies to expand programs aiding orphans in their home countries. Initiatives by such agencies as Bethany Christian Services and Buckner International include promoting domestic adoption, foster care and kinship care, and providing support for orphans' local communities.

Bethany and Buckner will be participating Nov. 21-22 in a first-of-its kind conference in Kenya aimed at promoting domestic adoption in East Africa.

Bethany's president, Bill Blacquiere, says many smaller U.S. adoption agencies — Christian and secular — lack the resources and motivation to work on in-country alternatives to international adoption. Some agencies, he said, are lax about checking whether children they place for adoption are part of trafficking schemes and lax in pre-placement training of adoptive families, who in many cases are adopting children with serious physical or emotional challenges.

"A lot of people opened shop and did adoptions quick and easy and made a lot of money," Blacquiere said. "That's not how adoptions should be done. It's not supposed to be easy."

Blacquiere said religious evangelism should not be the primary motive for any adoption.

"The child may be brought up in a Christian family and be exposed to the gospel — that's all good and well," he said. "But our primary reason for doing adoption is to make sure every child has a loving family.

"If people are adopting for evangelism, to rescue a child — that's all the wrong reason," he added. "These are the adoptions that run into difficulty."

If current trends continue, expanded alternatives to international adoption will be needed. The number of such adoptions by Americans peaked at 22,991 in 2004, just as the evangelical adoption movement took off, and has dropped annually since then, to 8,668 last year.

Private adoptions of infants in the U.S. also are declining, though authoritative statistics are lacking. Thus the U.S. foster care system — with about 100,000 children waiting for adoption — offers the most options for evangelicals heeding the call to adopt.

Focus on the Family is urging evangelical churches nationwide to take up the cause, and says its own "Wait No More" program has contributed to a drop of more than 50 percent in the number of Colorado foster children waiting to be adopted.

"Our focus is kids who need families, not families who need kids," said Kelly Rosati, who oversees "Wait No More" and, with her husband, has adopted four children from foster care.

Some anti-abortion activists, including Christian evangelicals, also are showing increased interest in promoting domestic adoption. For example, Ohio Right to Life is behind proposed state legislation to make adoptions easier by increasing the tax credit for adoptive families and allowing final adoption decrees within 60 days after birth, rather than 12 months.

Jedd Medefind, in his response to "The Child Catchers," expressed hope that the overall movement will be seen in the long term as a positive force.

"Is it possible that the Christian orphan care movement carries both strengths and weaknesses similar to many other important movements: prone to certain excesses and enthusiasms, at times naive, always needing of improvement and self-correction — and yet ultimately effecting deep and lasting good for millions?" Medefind wrote. "Only time will tell for sure."

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Online:

Christian Alliance for Orphans response to criticism: http://www.christianalliancefororphans.org/childcatchers/

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Follow David Crary on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/craryap

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