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Objects of salvation.

The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption

By Kathryn Joyce

New York: PublicAffairs, 2013, 352 pp., $26.99, hardcover

Organized campaigns to protect the weak are among the most distinctive of all modern movements. From abolition to animal rights, projects of rescue have been overwhelmingly missionary in origin, with roots not merely in religion but in specifically evangelical forms of Christianity. This has certainly been the case with adoption. During the past decade, US evangelicals, most of them white, have enthusiastically embraced transnational adoption as a religious mandate. Their efforts to save children globally are the subject of The Child Catchers.

Biblical injunctions "to look after orphans and widows in their distress" and "to help the least of these" have been interpreted by growing numbers of Christians as divine directives to expand their families by adopting large numbers of children from countries in the developing world. Kathryn Joyce takes a dim view of such "serial adopters" and makes her own position abundantly clear: "a bad or an unnecessary adoption can be worse than none at all," she writes. For believers, however, transnational adoption does several things at once. It exalts adopters into Christlike figures who emulate God's "adoption" of all born-again souls. It does tangible good for suffering children on earth. And it assures adoptive parents of their everlasting future in heaven.

Joyce's book is based on 200 interviews conducted in Haiti, Liberia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and South Korea. It moves back and forth between the adoption politics of those nations and the "rainbow congregations" that have sprung up in evangelical churches across the United States. Saddleback, a megachurch that hosts 20,000 worshipers each Sunday in its Lake Forest, California, headquarters, has made orphan care one of its "signature ministries." The US agencies most heavily involved in transnational adoption, Bethany Christian Services and Christian World Adoption, are also evangelical. Others, including Holt International Children's Services, started that way decades ago.

Tiny churches and freelance advocates are also involved. Laura Silsby, for example, went from obscurity to international infamy when she was stopped at the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic in late January 2010, not long after the devastating earthquake there. Silsby, with the Idaho-based New Life Children's Refuge, was arrested on kidnapping charges. She and nine other missionaries were attempting to transport 33 Haitian children out of the country as part of their self-described Haiti Orphan Rescue Mission. They had neither permission nor documentation, but felt called by God to remove the children from danger and deliver them to "loving Christian parents who would otherwise not be able to afford to adopt."

The Child Catchers raises pointed, uncomfortable questions about episodes like this, and about religious motivations in adoption. Why are ostensibly good intentions invariably accompanied by piles of cash? Why are tragic misunderstandings so common? Why do sincere efforts to help children often entail willful ignorance of the conditions of life in their countries of origin or arrogant assertions that children adopted by westerners are all incredibly lucky? The Christian adoption movement Joyce describes turns "poor countries' children into objects of salvation, then into object of trade." This may sound extreme, but Joyce argues that the Christian adoption movement is exemplary, and that religion has made the business of transnational adoption dirtier than it used to be. And her questions matter, whether you think that unethical adoptions are the rule or the exception. They matter even if you believe, as I do, that adoption across borders can loosen the tenacious hold of blood over belonging and authenticate kin relationships that are at once voluntary and binding. And Joyce's questions extend to delivering emergency relief, aiding refugees, and a host of other practices grounded in kindness, compassion, and commitment to the moral value and equality of all human beings.

The book outlines a pattern that is reenacted around the world. First, the desperate circumstances of children in [fill in name of country] are publicized in the wake of war, natural disaster, or both. This prompts a growing demand to help that country's children, which creates pressure to identify children available for adoption, which results in cases of fraud and abuse to which governments eventually respond by limiting transnational placements or closing them down entirely. When opportunities to adopt children dry up in one country, they open up in another, leading to another cycle of adoption boom and bust that has been documented in the maps and statistics compiled by the US Department of State (see When Guatemala closed to transnational adoptions in 2008, for example, there was a sudden interest in Ethiopia in 2009 and 2010, only to be followed in early 2011 by a crackdown on Ethiopia's placements after publicity revealed shady placements. For Joyce, this is disheartening proof that "the idea of 'orphans' [is] a hazy category for Americans--interchangeable across the world."

Evangelicals are hardly alone, but they have played leading roles in this sequence of events. Most children in need of basic sustenance globally are not orphans, but the rhetoric of "orphan crisis" has circulated freely in communities of faith, where it inspires both moral concern and financial donations. Missionaries have spearheaded "voluntourism," in which affluent vacationers, secular as well as religious, spend time doing meaningful things in impoverished corners of the world. The construction of orphanages in countries without functioning child welfare systems is typical, and has been a high priority of missionaries worldwide. Once established, orphanages' promise of food and shelter attracts children, most of whom are not orphans, but whose parents are extremely poor. Finally, overflowing orphanage populations are taken as evidence of the pressing need for more transnational adoptions. And thus, according to Joyce, does the global adoption market reproduce itself.

Joyce does not mention that the number of transnational adoptions by US citizens has decreased steadily since its high point in 2004. Why is the number of transnational adoptions now less than half of what it was a decade ago: 8,668 in 2012 compared to 22,991 in 2004? Does this decline make the Christian adoption movement more important or less?

Joyce's chapter on Rwanda is noteworthy because it indicates that the destructive pattern of crisis and corruption in transnational adoption is not inevitable. In this small East African nation, known in the West primarily for its horrific 1994 genocide, reformers have succeeded in eliminating bribery and scrutinizing every child identified for transnational placement to ensure that he or she does not have living relatives. The result? Only a handful of transnational adoptions have taken place: a total of 172 since 2009, compared to 13,091 from Ethiopia during the same period. US missionaries in Rwanda have adjusted. They advocate foster family placements rather than orphanage construction and apparently consider transnational adoption a last resort.

Joyce mentions in passing that evangelicalism has swept Rwandan society, providing a hospitable environment for missionaries from the United States and elsewhere. The surge of evangelicalism in many African as well as Latin American nations during exactly the years when the Christian adoption movement took hold in the United States is surely a critical, but almost entirely overlooked part of the story.

Joyce glances backward in time, but her historical analysis is thin, considering how many precedents there are for her subject. The orphan trains and Indian boarding schools of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the US, to mention only two examples, were also religiously motivated. They too set out to save vulnerable children from poverty and deprivation. The evangelical Protestants who championed them also acted in the name of child rescue. Like today's critics of transnational and transracial adoption, Catholic parents responded with charges of childstealing and Indian nations with accusations of genocide.

There is nothing new about transferring children between adults and even communities. What was new about evangelicalism was the equation it made between such transfers and humanitarianism: the conviction that adoption should take place for the sake of children rather than to satisfy adult desires for love, labor, or property. Historically, humanitarianism represented a stunning shift in patterns of emotional response to the suffering of strangers. Most famously exemplified by movements to abolish slavery, humanitarianism underlined the common humanity (and eventually "human rights") of people previously considered so different and inferior as to be almost inhuman. It is no exaggeration to suggest that the empathy humanitarianism elicited provided the moral foundation for twentieth-century systems of social provision. This was a triumph, but to confuse humanitarianism with simple benevolence also overlooks its complex influence in global contexts, where great power meets great powerlessness, and where helping has required "civilizing."

Campaigns to protect children from terrible trauma have, consequently, extended well beyond charity. They have systematically removed children from parents, communities, and (recently) nations, and have blamed those parents, communities, and nations. Adoptions designed to safeguard development by promoting "the best interest of the child" have invariably placed children on a path of upward social, economic, and cultural mobility, moving them from poorer to richer families, and away from cultural, racial, and national margins. In narrating the short history of the Christian adoption movement, The Child Catchers touches on a grand narrative in which salvation and superiority are the knotted strands that define quests to save all innocents from harm.

Ellen Herman teaches history at the University of Oregon. She is the author of Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States (2008) and the Adoption History Project, online at
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Title Annotation:The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption
Author:Herman, Ellen
Publication:The Women's Review of Books
Article Type:Book review
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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