I was keenly interested in Kathryn Joyce’s The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, a book about the evangelical adoption trend and the industry it’s driving, from the moment I heard about it. My own evangelical parents adopted two children from Haiti, and I had just read The Girls Who Went Away, a devastating book that describes the pain and loss of forced adoptions in the days before sex education, access to birth control, and reproductive rights. I was also beginning to see the adoption trend as another example of the persistent evangelical tendency to promote individual charity as a solution to systemic problems—particularly when those problems involve solutions like reproductive health and government help.

Joyce’s book is excellent and has elicited a predictable reaction in the Christian blogosphere, based in part on Joyce’s reporting in Mother Jones about a fundamentalist adoption gone terribly wrong. Basing his assessment on one interview, Ed Stetzer called her book “a hit-and-run journalistic hatchet job.” Jonathan Merritt reacted to Joyce’s article by accusing her of “attacking Christians for the good things they’re doing,” relying on “weak sources to paint a partial and distorted picture,” and making “a logical leap of stratospheric proportions to assume that the behaviors of this family are somehow representative of the thousands of Christians who adopt each year.”

The problem is that Joyce never makes this leap, neither in her book nor the Mother Jones story. Nowhere does Joyce claim that the extreme cases, particularly those involving child abuse, are representative of evangelical adoptions. She is consistently at pains, in both the book and her interviews, to stress that the people she’s writing about are almost all good people with admirable intentions. She does point to a well-documented trend, that spans from fundamentalist evangelical groups all the way to major organizations like Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention, in evangelicals advocating international adoption as a kind of acceptable social charity work that doesn’t compromise fundamentalist positions on sexual ethics. It changes nothing that Merritt has never heard of some of the adoption organizations involved; anyone who has actually been through the process certainly has. In both her book and her Mother Jones story, Joyce charts the history of this rising phenomenon without overstating its size or influence.

As is often the case when mainstream reporters present portraits of evangelical behavior that cut through their own self-justifications, Merritt tries to sidetrack the story with detailed assessments of the exact size and influence of certain books and organizations Joyce mentions and claim she has attributed some sort of outsize influence to them. The goal seem so be help evangelicals circle the wagons, not to consider that some in their tent—almost all very good people—are participating in what has become a global network of child trafficking to serve the desires of Western parents.

Joyce makes the very well-reported case that evangelical families are a big factor driving the international adoption trend, and many aspects of that trend should be reformed and reconsidered. In my reading of the book so far, she questions the way that evangelicals sometimes talk about adoption, the misleading statistics they use to describe the “orphan crisis,” the troubling theology that God has ordained another family to suffer the loss of a child so that you can adopt one, the clumsy Western condescension toward poor developing countries, and the tendency toward corruption in an industry “too often marked by ambiguous goals and dirty money.”

Joyce’s reporting on these aspects is very deep and very fair. She has interviewed hundreds of people, including adoptees, adoptive parents, and the leaders of the evangelical adoption movement. Indeed, in this Q&A by Ed Stetzer, some in the evangelical adoption movement acknowledge she’s right: that trafficking is a problem, that adoptive parents sometimes ignore warning signs about corruption, and that we need to prevent the orphaning of children in the first place.

This is a difficult discussion because many in the evangelical movement hear Joyce’s criticism and immediately think of the good, loving, and generous people they know who have taken in children who were truly in need and have taken on a colossal parenting challenge with grace and love. My own parents are an example of that.

But you can’t evaluate an entire system based on the individual people you know, especially when you may not know the full truth behind their stories, or by your own assessment of certain organizations’ “influence” from where you sit. The international adoption process can be confusing, murky, and very emotional; I can see why parents ignore warning signs in their deep desire for a child, and how easily agencies can deceive. I believe that my parents did a wonderful thing, but we still saw firsthand the corruption that Joyce describes, and we adopted children who are not technically “orphans” but have living parents who are simply facing terrible poverty.

Merritt betrays the bias of the adoption movement in his final dismissal of Joyce: “Her ideas for actually solving the orphan crisis that now affects more than 100 million children are more than lacking; they’re non-existent.” This entirely bypasses Joyce’s argument: that this statistic is misleading because the “supply” of global orphans is actually rising to meet the bottomless demand of wealthier Western parents. In so many cases, the billion-dollar adoption industry has turned third-world mothers into vessels for the hopes of Western families, and the children they birth have become a commodity. It’s a hard truth, but doesn’t it deserve more than a sweeping dismissal?

About The Author

Alisa Harris

  • Alan Jacobs

    “Nowhere does Joyce claim that the extreme cases, particularly those involving child abuse, are representative of evangelical adoptions.”

    And yet every adoption story she tells in the Mother Jones piece is a story of abuse: physical, emotional, you name it. Children are left uneducated, forced to do manual labor, beaten. No other kind of behavior is even mentioned. And the MJ article is what the evangelicals you quote are complaining about.

    If Joyce is more fair elsewhere, it’s right for you to say that, but she allowed MJ to run an adaptation of her book that condemns evangelical adoptions absolutely, without a single reservation or mitigating claim. Every single evangelical family represented in that piece is either ignorant or monstrous or both, and there’s not a hint of a suggestion that any evangelicals behave otherwise. If that’s not a hatchet-job, what on earth would be?

    • http://www.thedailybeast.com/contributors/david-sessions.html David Sessions

      Alan,

      The point of journalism is to uncover the abuses, the extreme cases. The MJ piece is a story about one of those cases, which are given more context in her book, but stands on its own just fine as a piece of reporting. It’s silly to say that every story about an extreme case has to be papered with disclaimers about the fact that this doesn’t represent every case – of course it doesn’t, no one’s claiming it does. (Kathryn’s MJ story in no way “condemns evangelical adoptions absolutely.”)

      No one takes a story about Foxconn or Walmart’s abusive labor practices in Mexico to be implicitly say that all multinational corporations commit labor abuses and are therefore absolutely evil. Only an extremely defensive reader – a corporate flack, perhaps – would think so. The much more plausible interpretation is: X is happening in this case, it’s bad, it might be happening in more cases, and more attention needs to be paid to it. And that’s a fair assessment of this adoption situation.

  • Alan Jacobs

    I see, David. So then you’d have no problem with someone writing a piece for a conservative Christian magazine on Kermit Gosnell’s clinic and titling it something like “The Pro-Abortion Movement’s Death Obsession.” The author of such a piece wouldn’t need to say that not all supporters of abortion support Gosnell, because we don’t want stories “papered with disclaimers,” and anyway “the point of journalism” — the point — “is to uncover the abuses, the extreme cases.”

    Kind of odd to define journalism in a way that excludes, among other things, telling stories about people who do good things. I prefer to think that journalism needs to have a commitment to truth-telling, and that means telling as much of the truth as fairly as you can, not just cherry-picking the “extreme cases” that suit the prejudices of your audience.

    And a belligerent hack-job like Joyce’s essay is counterproductive anyway. It rallies the MJ base, Palin-style, but just creates defensiveness and self-righteousness among the people and institutions that really do need to change. Telling a fairer story is not only more truthful but ultimately more effective, though I guess here’s no point saying that to hardened partisans.

    • http://www.seoulshakedown.com Ali McNally

      So what if Joyce is “excluding” the good in international adoption? The evangelical adoption movement has always “excluded” the bad and continues to do so.

    • http://www.somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/ suzannah | the smitten word

      how is this even a partisan issue to you? evangelical adoption advocates should be the first ones to acknowledge the problems and yes, unethical practices with international adoption–so that we can light a better way. it doesn’t serve orphaned children or God’s glory to brush serious concerns under the rug or to rip children from their living mamas’ arms.

      also, it’s strange you bring up Gosnell, because Merritt’s ‘i didn’t know anything about the Peals/abuse, so they mustn’t be influential/a legitimate concern at ALL!’ reminds me quite a bit of (often male) reporters claiming that since the case wasn’t on their radar, their (often female) colleagues surely weren’t covering it for years! how arrogant is it to frame one’s understanding of influence, coverage, gravity, or anything else to whether *I* knew about it or not.

      we all have blind spots. the evangelical adoption movement would do well to address its own–and unbeknownst to Merritt, many are: http://coconutrobot.com/2013/02/are-you-in/

  • http://www.thedailybeast.com/contributors/david-sessions.html David Sessions

    I would have a problem with that, because that’s a ludicrous comparison. Kathryn’s article is nothing like “The Evangelical Adoption Movement’s Child Abuse Obsession.” I would have no problem with a straightforward story about the Gosnell clinic that didn’t go out of its way to assure all the hypersensitive pro-choicers that all other abortion clinics are wonderful safe places (which I’m sure they aren’t.)

    As far as this particular story and the Mother Jones audience, sure, you’re probably right – it’s headlined for a certain audience, and probably doesn’t do a lot besides reinforce existing fault lines. But all of these are realities of dissemination: the context has to stop somewhere, someone has to decide how it’s packaged, it has to be presented to a certain audience, etc. None of that is escapable, and the fact that it’s packaged for a particular audience doesn’t discount any of the facts it presents. I agree that stories liked this packaged for liberal audiences inevitably make conservative Christians defensive. It’s something I’ve puzzled over a lot, and ultimately I’m not sure it’s a strong argument for anything in particular.

    I think this is a classic case of partisan commentators reading in their own defensiveness and agendas, something longform journalists are continually frustrated by. We all want the good people we know on our side to be exempt from the criticism of a few bad apples or a trend that unfairly implicates them, and so load in a bunch of additional context that is really not all that relevant to the actual information being presented in a particular story. I know I do this all the time, but I think everybody would be better of if we were able to let criticism and information reveal uncomfortable things about our own side and not pretend everyone we like is blameless.

  • http://menliketreeswalking.blogspot.com Matthew Loftus

    Having not read the book, I’m curious: does Joyce discuss the bigger numbers re: outcomes of adopted kids (e.g. how many international adoptions are referred to CPS or are taken away, how many “orphans” who end up being adopted really aren’t, etc.) If that data exists, it would certainly help settle the question that Dr. Jacobs has appropriately raised.

    Given the explosion of short-term mission trips and general volunteerism/voluntourism across the board (and not just among churches– colleges, high schools, and other groups are goin’ to Mexico for a week all the time)– I would like to know how Joyce linked the growth of “orphan” exploitation to the growth of Christian international adoption.

    I would also wonder if Joyce looked at affluent evangelicals adopting cross-culturally within America (especially special needs kids), as that data would probably help you discern/compare trends in international adoption.

  • http://www.somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/ suzannah | the smitten word

    i really appreciate your writing this. i know that there are evangelicals engaging the hard questions about the ethics, difficulties, and sometime dark side of crosscultural/interracial/international adoption, but merritt’s piece was truly stunning is its celebrated refusal to do any research or to acknowledge that good intentions alone won’t erase any of the concerning problems joyce explores.

  • http://www.keely-prevailingwinds.com Keely Emerine-Mix

    I’ve read The Child Catchers, and I read Joyce’s previous book, Quiverfull. In both, she presents, as an insightful, skilled, unbiased and extraordinarily focused analysis of movements within Christiandom that are at best problematic and at worse horrific. What strikes me, as a Christian, is the degree to which she avoids judgment of motives, ridicule of beliefs, and condemnation of sincere efforts to do right — while continuing to hold to the highest journalistic standards of attribution, multiple sources, primary-source materials, and dogged research. That alone — her ability to write well and accurately about disturbing things without the slash-and-burn commentary some might expect — makes her work not just remarkable, but necessary. (Kathryn Joyce does nothing in a “Palin-like” manner, and to suggest so is to betray either a sexism so rank as to be immediately dismissable, or a depth of defensiveness so regrettable as to be immediately disqualifying). Having now proved that I have spoken strongly in ways that Ms. Joyce arduously avoids in her work, I’ll say that the Church would be well served if it examined itself and its defensiveness when criticized, rather than assuming that every analysis that reveals bad behavior is an example of the terrible suffering and widespread persecution of the Godly in America. It is not. The Church in America generally hasn’t the depth, courage, or wisdom to attract real persecution; it does, however, often exhibit clownish and clumsy behavior that blinds it to real evil and often lures it into its commission. Keely Emerine-Mix

  • http://www.babyscoopera.com Karen Wilson-Buterbaugh

    I, too, read Kathryn Joyce’s wonderful book, The Child Catchers. I agree wholeheartedly with Keely Emerine-Mix’s review above!

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  • Paul

    Thank you for writing this piece. All I could find before this were pieces that were clearly pushing strongly to the right or the left. That isn’t what should be at issue here. Treating children as commonities, and not caring properly for them is wrong, not matter which side of the isle you are on.

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  • EMB

    I read the whole book. I do not belong to a church, nor am I involved in the adoption field. This is a feminist stab at the christian right plain and simple. The book deals mainly with women’s loss and pain and drifts far away from children’s health or well-being. Her writing is touchy but crafty. By highlighting the greatest hits of adoption failure she seems to believe that justifies a worldwide slowdown of child placements. As if one adoption mistake is a mistake like capital punishment. Oy.
    Above it is stated:
    “She is consistently at pains, in both the book and her interviews, to stress that the people she’s writing about are almost all good people with admirable intentions”. This is patently false. Christians are mocked and called names like “naive” and “hothead” and “misguided” in the book. Then with they are thanked for cooperating in the back of the book. Patronizing all the way.