Earlier this week, the Atlantic published an essay by David French describing racist attacks his family has experienced over the last few years. Many of the attacks came at the hands of alt right white supremacists infuriated both by the criticism French, a “never Trump” conservative, has levied against the president, and the fact of French’s multiracial, adoptive family. In 2010, French and his wife adopted their youngest daughter from Ethiopia. Since 2015, he writes, racist trolls have targeted them, photoshopping pictures of their daughter into images of gas chambers and plantation fields.
But those weren’t the only attacks French describes. Long before his family endured attacks from the racist far-right, he says they’d faced attacks from the left, from those who framed adoption as, among other things, an act of “cultural imperialism.” As part of his explanation of the left’s hostility to the idea of white parents adopting children of color, he cited my 2013 investigative journalism book, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption. Not because I wrote—there or anywhere else—about French’s family, but because my book reported critically on a Christian adoption movement that arose in the mid-2000s and swept through U.S. evangelicaldom. A movement that French, an evangelical, identifies with, writing of his early optimism that, through adoption, his family could live out the Scripture verse: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” French is very clearly a loving dad, and the racism his daughter has dealt with is obviously ghastly. But his attempt to draw equivalence between that sort of hate attack and what he presents as corresponding attacks on his multiracial family from the left felt to me like a willful misreading of the history I lay out in my book.
At the height of the Christian adoption movement in the early 2010s, the Scripture verse French cites was in wide circulation, as advocates proclaimed that God was “the first transracial adoptive dad” and called on Christians to spread a viral adoption culture in their congregations. “Get as many people in the church to adopt,” one leader said, “and adopt as many kids as you can.”
Books promoting “adoption theology” positioned adoption as a means of evangelizing. One argued: “[T]he ultimate purpose of human adoption by Christians, therefore, 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.”
As French points out, a good portion of my book does critically assess that theology and its effects. But that’s not the main point of the book. Most parents in the movement were motivated by more basic reasons than theology: to start or grow their family, and to help address what they’d been told was an overwhelming global “orphan crisis” composed of 143 million to 210 million orphans in need of homes.
The problem was that most of those children weren’t orphans in the way people generally think of the term. The vast majority had lost only one parent or lived with extended family.
The orphan crisis, really, was a crisis of poverty, instability, and catastrophe—both natural and man-made. And adoption, as a multibillion-dollar industry, had become one where too often poor or vulnerable families were recruited, coerced, or duped into relinquishing children to fill Western demand. In other words, people with good intentions became a dangerous driving force in an industry that operates on supply and demand as much as any other.
The money each international adoption involves—typically $35,000 to $40,000—can distort local child welfare systems and economies in poor adoption “sending countries.” That is, when new orphanages are built in poor nations, parents are likely to see them as a means of better food, shelter, and education for their children. So many place their children there not as abandonment, but a means of temporarily easing the family’s burdens. As a UNICEF worker in Ethiopia told me in 2011, “If you build an orphanage, it will be filled with kids.”
In too many countries, families have been persuaded to send their children abroad for international adoption, often without a full understanding of what that entails. The American vision of adoption—as the permanent replacement of one set of family ties with another—is not universal. In many countries, adoption is more akin to a temporary guardianship, or the expansion of a family to incorporate additional caregivers. I’ve sat with families in countries like Ethiopia or Uganda who thought they were sending their children abroad for education, and that they’d return at 18. And I’ve spoken (including for the Atlantic) with many adoptive parents who were horrified to realize, when their children learned English, that the backstories agencies had told them about their children were wrong.
Domestic adoption isn’t immune to these issues. In the era of widespread maternity homes, from the 1940s to early ’70s, millions of unmarried American mothers were coerced into relinquishing infants under circumstances not unlike Ireland’s Magdalene laundries. More recently, women describe crisis pregnancy centers, modern maternity homes, and adoption agencies drumming home the message that they’re too young or poor to parent. Other vulnerable populations, like Arkansas’ Marshallese diaspora community, have been targeted by private adoption attorneys exploiting their tradition of intrafamily adoption.
French’s essay acknowledges, in its first line, that every adoption starts with loss: that of a child losing her parents. But the loss faced by parents of origin is rarely acknowledged. “If you want to look at what’s wrong with international adoption, state adoption, and Christian adoption,” one adoption agency director told me, “it all has to do with how they treat birthmothers. The common denominator in all of those is that the birthmother is invisible.”
In addition to systemic problems, there are horror stories of abuse: Take the death of Ethiopian adoptee Hana Williams at the hands of her adoptive parents, and the homelessness of many other adoptees, which I investigated for Slate in 2013. Or the widespread allegations of abuse, rehoming, and illegal repatriation of Liberian adoptees, as I reported in Mother Jones.
These awful stories do not by any means characterize most adoptions, and they don’t just happen among conservative Christians. (The devastating killing this year of six children adopted by the progressive same-sex Hart family made that clear.) But such terrible outcomes are enabled in part by the transformation of adoption—with all its fraught questions of race, class, gender, colonialism, and trauma—into a movement.
These are points that have long been made by adoption scholars and reform advocates—many of them adult adoptees and birthparents, who know these issues most intimately—as well as adoptive parents like David Smolin and Jen Hatmaker, both evangelicals. Last year, I had the honor of speaking at the annual summit of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, the largest umbrella group in the Christian adoption movement. The panel, a conversation with CAFO President Jedd Medefind, was framed around “civil disagreement,” but there was much more civility, and shared concern about the inadvertent harm adoption can do, than conflict.
That widespread concern has led many in the movement to go beyond their early focus on adoption to advocate for family preservation and “alternative care” options like domestic foster care and adoption within developing nations. In Uganda, some advocates are in the early stages of building child welfare systems like the imperfect but better systems of the West, to prevent the need for institutionalization and wide-scale international adoption.
I grieve and am angered by the disgusting attacks on David French’s family—attacks that non-adoptive families of color also know all too well. Racism and hate are real. But so are systems that unwittingly perpetuate institutional racism, sexism, and classism with less personal malice, and often the best of intentions. We have to pay attention to both.