immigration

Are Evangelical Adoption Agencies Stealing Children?


American religious groups have a long history of adopting children from asylum seekers and from families in poorer nations. But are they saving kids’ lives—or trafficking them?



After a long and arduous journey from Guatemala, asylum seeker Beata Mariana de Jesus Mejia-Mejia and her 7-year-old son, Darwin, crossed the U.S. border on May 21, 2018. For two days, the two were fed cold soup through a hose, before immigration officials came and pried the screaming boy from his mother’s arms. They wouldn’t tell her where they were taking him. Over 2,000 children were separated from their parents under the Trump administration’s performatively cruel “zero tolerance” immigration policy. Able to connect with a lawyer who helped her pro bono, Mejia-Mejia sued the federal government, which had violated her rights both under the U.S. Constitution and international law, and on June 22, the mother and son were reunited. Many separated families will not see a similar conclusion to their ordeal.

Despite a June 26 court order to reunite all separated parents and children within 30 days, many families have yet to be reunited, and there is plenty of reason to worry that some may never be. Just this weekend, the New York Times has reported that hundreds of migrant children have been taken from shelters across the country from Kansas to New York in the dead of night, and bussed to a barren tent city in Western Texas. The Trump administration itself now admits that as many as 463 parents may have been deported without their children. And there’s yet another devastating consequence at play: Children of asylum seekers are at risk of being adopted by American families, leaving little legal recourse for their parents.

There is ample precedent from U.S. history with regard to both Native American populations and international adoption to justify such concerns. And since intercountry adoption has become much more strictly regulated and less available to prospective American adoptive parents in recent years, there is unmet “demand” in what adoptee activists generally describe as “not a social good” that places children who truly need families with parents, but as an adoption market focused on selling children to prospective parents who want them. Over the last couple of decades, the popularity of adoption boomed, particularly among the Christian Right. The demand among evangelicals for adoptable children does not appear to have dropped despite a steep drop in the number of children available for adoption.

Bethany Christian Services is among the contractors working with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to house separated children. Adoptee advocates and activists were among the first to sound the alarm when this news about Bethany broke, because this evangelical adoption agency has a long record of abuse allegations, according to Rewire News. Bethany is also among a number of Christian organizations to receive large donations from the family of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. For its part, Bethany insists it is complying with the federal court order to reunify families. But is full compliance even possible? So far, it would appear at best unclear due to the uncertainty of what the Trump administration will do and what further court battles may ensue, especially in light of reports that ICE is destroying records along with threats made by Customs and Border Protection officers that children of asylum seekers will be adopted out to American families.

The children sent to Bethany have been placed in temporary foster care as part of Bethany’s work with refugees, but it is possible that their foster parents could become attached and sue to terminate the parental rights of the parents they crossed the border with, or who sent them over the border with relatives such as aunts and uncles.

“It is important to realize that adoption of these children cannot be accomplished by an adoption agency alone or even the federal government,” explains adoption and immigration lawyer C.J. Lyford, from Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania. “Before any child can be adopted a state court judge must review the case and make a determination that based on the circumstances of the case, there is a legal basis under the state’s law to terminate the parents’ rights, such as abuse, neglect or abandonment. Before this determination can be made the parents must be given notice and an opportunity to object, although, admittedly, parents who have been deported may find it difficult to fight such proceedings.”

Researcher and journalist Kathryn Joyce, one of America’s leading experts on adoption, has also concluded that concern is warranted. Joyce explains that we are in a moment “where a huge number of people seem to realize that it would be deeply unethical to pursue adoption of children forcibly removed from loving but deeply vulnerable parents,” and that so far public pressure has militated against the possibility. “It’s important to keep track of this issue after it fades from the headlines, because the prospect of inappropriate adoptions in this case is likely something that would happen months down the line,” says Joyce. Looking into the history of intercountry adoption by Americans, and the particularly prominent role that evangelical Christians have played in the recent past, will help us to understand what is at stake.

Lisa Munro was an instructor on a study-abroad program in Guatemala during the 2012-13 school year, when one of her students revealed that she was a Guatemalan adoptee who was participating in the program in order to search for her birth family. Munro, an adoptee herself, emerged disillusioned after working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala from 2004 to 2006, coming away “with this very strong conviction that not only was I not helping people, I was actively oppressing people.” The years of Munro’s service coincided with the height of Guatemala’s popularity as a site for intercountry adoption by Americans. “Every flight I took out had at least three Guatemalan kids on it with their new white adoptive parents,” Munro says. It wasn’t mere coincidence or anecdotal, but an alarming trend. According to reporting by E. J. Graf, “In 2006, American parents adopted one out of every 110 Guatemalan children born.” Kathryn Joyce’s research has also shown intercountry adoption to be highly profitable to agencies like Bethany, although the conditions under which illegitimate adoptions of Central American children separated from their parents at the border may happen now are distinctly different.

Guatemala is one nation that has been especially vulnerable to adoption agencies run like for-profit businesses. The money adoption agencies inject into the economies of poor countries like Guatemala fuels coercive and deceptive practices among private actors and the government, which has a long history of corruption. Bethany Christian Services was among the organizations most involved in Guatemalan adoptions before the country moved in 2007 to bring its adoption laws in line with the Hague Adoption Convention, effectively shutting down intercountry adoption in 2008.

But inhumane international adoptions, often driven by evangelical zeal and a kind of white Christian saviorism, continued. Following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which left tens of thousands of children orphaned, there was a wave of missionaries visiting the country and scooping up children like collectors’ items, thanks to a hastily approved policy, which allowed for expedited and under-regulated adoptions from the country—in many cases of children who had living parents. According to the New York Times, more than 1,100 children were taken from Haitian orphanages and sent to the U.S. to be placed with adoption agencies. Many spent months in U.S. detention facilities. Others were discovered to have surviving relatives and spent months—even years—caught in legal limbo.

The federal court ruling of July 9, 2018 that migrant families cannot be held in long-term detention provides a glimmer of hope that America’s institutions and norms may beat back the Trump administration’s assault on human rights. So does the recent intervention of U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan, who ordered two plaintiffs being represented by the ACLU, a mother and daughter, returned to the United States after the government had moved to deport them in violation of a court order. But what happens to migrant families and children from this point on is still unpredictable, and, according to California appellate lawyer Teri Kanefield, who over the summer volunteered to help with asylum cases through the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) at the Karnes Detention Center near San Antonio, Texas, the chances for reunification of children with parents who have already been deported are low. It will be difficult for deported parents to fight against suits to terminate their parental rights from abroad, and U.S. courts all too often have sided with affluent, white Christian contenders for parental rights against their poor and/or brown biological parents or relatives, as in the 2015 case of Encarnacion Bail Romero.

Who Is ‘Fit’ For Parenthood?

When Trump supporters speak of “making America great again,” they often seem to be imagining the 1950s, a time when white Protestant hegemony was still largely unchallenged in American society. In this period, post-war respectability politics led to the severe stigmatization of unwed motherhood, with medical professionals doing their part to pathologize unmarried women who became pregnant. Known in the history of adoption as the Baby Scoop Era, this period also saw the institutionalization of intercountry adoption following the Korean War. Conservative (white, middle class) Christian moralism is a key factor for subsequent developments in both domestic and international adoption, and those two stories are intertwined. In the Baby Scoop Era, shame frequently resulted in silence around children “born out of wedlock,” and that shame affected the “bastards.”

Lisa Munro, who is white and American born, considers herself one of the “scooped” babies of the era, despite being born a couple of years after most historians locate its conclusion, in 1973. “It’s hard to live feeling like somebody’s dirty secret,” she says, referring to the stigma surrounding women like her mother, which was inextricably bound up with a missionary ethos to “save” babies like her, although, today, adoptees generally consider poverty or single motherhood not to be valid reasons to separate children from their birth mothers. Munro eventually made contact with her birth mother, despite facing difficulties caused by closed records laws. Munro’s birth mother was willing to tell most of the family about her, but Munro had to remain a secret to her grandparents because of the stigma. These paternalistic values still drive conservatives involved with both domestic and intercountry adoption today, as illustrated in this 2014 internal Bethany e-mail from Bill Blacquiere, then president and CEO of Bethany, and obtained by DAME, which is highly revealing of Bethany’s socially conservative political agenda:

I do want to be clear on Bethany’s practice. First, our statement of faith states, “God instituted marriage as a life-long covenant between one man and one woman.” Second, Bethany’s mission is to demonstrate the love and compassion of Jesus Christ through quality social services to those in need. We believe that to demonstrate that love and compassion, we must have a close, personal relationship with Jesus Christ. First and foremost, we seek to have all Bethany employees be like-minded in that conviction. Aligned with that, we must always consider if a person’s choices and lifestyle support the faith-based culture and core beliefs that exist at Bethany.

Bethany’s strategy to deal with these social and cultural changes is to continue working on religious liberty legislation.

The Baby Scoop Era’s official end is generally placed in 1973 in part because that is the year the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade. Access to safe, legal abortion and a slow cultural shift away from the patriarchal norms of the post-war period led to a steep decline in the number of infants placed for domestic adoption. The frequent removal of Native American children from their families, which was not addressed until 1978, with the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act, was also a hallmark of the Baby Scoop Era. The act, which enshrines a role for tribal involvement in custody cases affecting Native American children, is not always properly enforced. Teri Kanefield reports that she has “filed dozens of appeals on behalf of Native American families who have had their children removed from them in violation of the Indian Child Welfare Act.” Previously, as Kathryn Joyce notes, the U.S. exhibited a pattern of “the removal of Native American children to boarding schools and white adoptive homes in an effort to ‘kill the Indian and save the man.’” Joyce has reported extensively on the way that such colonialist saviorism has driven abuses in intercountry adoptions in places like Guatemala and Haiti, as well as on concerns regarding a possible increase in violations of the ICWA in light of high demand for adoptable children. Those sounding the alarm about possible adoptions of children separated from their parents at the border see a parallel situation.

In a period in which Roe, long widely considered to be settled law by everyone except the Christian Right, is genuinely threatened by a right-leaning Supreme Court, it is worth posing the question of whether a return to the era of dangerous back-alley abortions may also mean a return to the practice of “baby scooping”—the kind of pressuring, shaming, and manipulating of single and/or poor mothers into placing their babies for adoption that predominated in the Baby Scoop Era. Indeed, many Christian adoption agencies, including the massive Bethany, have never really given up on this approach. In the 1980s, evangelical adoption agencies began working closely with then-proliferating, thoroughly deceptive crisis pregnancy centers to manipulate vulnerable pregnant women into eschewing abortion and signing away their parental rights, often providing assistance on the condition that the mothers place their children for adoption, as documented in Kathryn Joyce’s The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption. Such practices have led to legal action against agencies like Bethany, which also offers “pregnancy support.”

That the values of institutions like Bethany are now deeply out of sync with most of the American population may be one reason that Christian involvement in adoption now stands out in a way it did not in the past. Asked whether Christian adoption agencies have any particular issues on the whole relative to secular agencies, Joyce replied, “It’s hard to make a blanket statement. There have been many adoption agencies—as well as private adoption attorneys—of all backgrounds accused of serious ethical lapses like coercing parents into relinquishing their children, recruiting children from communities that have different cultural understandings of adoption than what’s practiced in the U.S., or falsely promising parents that they’ll have open adoptions.”

White evangelicals have been involved with the history of adoption in post-war America in important ways since the beginning, but their ideology and practices more closely meshed with prevailing American norms in the immediate post-war period. The early Cold War was an era of widespread apocalyptic fears and a broad consensus supporting the sacralization of American society as a means of opposing “godless Communism,” which allowed evangelicals to find a comfortable place in the American mainstream.

It was evangelicals who were largely responsible for the formal institutionalization of intercountry adoption, which initially focused on South Korea after the Korean War. After becoming concerned about “GI babies,” the offspring of American soldiers and Korean women, evangelicals Bertha and Harry Holt, who adopted eight children from Korea, led a campaign that soon expanded beyond GI babies. They lobbied Congress to change immigration laws, then very restrictive with respect to immigrants from Asia, and founded Holt International Children’s Services, which facilitated Korean adoptions for Christian families. And yet despite the loosening up of restrictions on Asian immigration to America, internationally adopted children did not automatically become American citizens, a legal problem that has still not been fully resolved.

According to historian Arissa Oh, author of To Save the Children of Korea, the original Holt International Children’s Services application form for prospective parents was only a half-page long. The application requested the following information: husband’s name and job; wife’s name (her profession was not requested; she was expected to be a homemaker); sex and ages of children desired; and a description of the prospective parents’ personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Subsequently, international adoption “spread to other developing countries: most notably Vietnam in the 1960s, Colombia in the 1970s, Guatemala and India in the 1980s, and China, Romania, and Russia in the 1990s.” In response to recent changes in the international adoption landscape that limit intercountry adoptions to the United States, Joyce notes, “the Christian adoption movement has evolved over the last five to six years, and for both practical, and, I believe, principled reasons, has shifted some of its focus away from international adoption to other forms of child welfare work, like promoting local adoption and foster care in developing nations, and family preservation efforts.”

Nevertheless, many white evangelicals still tend to view adoption as a divine calling and a missionary project, and their zeal may lead them to turn a blind eye to the corner-cutting and human-rights abuses that so often occur in international adoption, since they believe the end result is to fulfill “God’s will.” Recent evangelical demand for intercountry adoptions has contributed to the creation of incentives for manipulative and corrupt practices. In addition, a sense of mission alone does not adequately prepare adoptive parents to deal with the challenges of adopting international or special needs children—children in the care of conservative Christian families have been subjected to abuse, neglect, and rehoming, as in the case of Hana Williams, who was adopted from Ethiopia in 2008 by Larry and Carri Williams. These evangelical adoptive parents used abusive disciplinary methods common in fundamentalist homeschooling communities, leading to their adopted daughter’s death and their conviction for manslaughter.

Since, at the present time, highly organized white right-wing Christians largely drive demand for adoption, they have an outsize influence on adoption policy. As many as seven states have passed laws to allow faith-based adoption and foster care agencies to restrict placement of children only to homes with married, heterosexual couples, or even only to Christians. Despite lawsuits from the ACLU against such discriminatory practices, more states are prepping bills of their own.

The likelihood that some of the children removed from their parents at the border will be adopted despite having living biological parents not guilty of abuse, neglect, or abandonment—a practice that may constitute an act of genocide under the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide—demands an investigation of the intersections between immigration law, which operates at the federal level, and adoption law, governed by the states. According to a report by the grassroots coalition Adoptee Rights Campaign, from 25,000 to 49,000 kids who were adopted between 1945 and 1998 reached adulthood without U.S. citizenship. ARC estimates that another 7,321 to 14,643 children adopted after 1998 are currently at risk of reaching adulthood without citizenship, whether as a result of ignorance, poor legal advice, or outright abuse by adoptive parents.

How does this happen? Until this century, no international adoptee had a legal right to citizenship. The Child Citizenship Act, passed in 2000 and in effect from 2002, conveys citizenship to intercountry adoptees under 18 years of age who enter the country on adoption visas. Those who had already turned 18 or who had entered the country on non-immigration visas or as undocumented immigrants when the law went into effect were left without a path to citizenship, however. In some cases, parents who adopt abroad must complete a process of re-adoption in a U.S. court prior to their adopted children’s 18th birthday, but, as adoptive mother Anne Martin-Montgomery, a Mandarin instructor and volunteer with ARC, explains, there is “no penalty or burden on the parents to complete this process.” She adds, “Adoption is not about providing a permanent home for every child. If it were, we’d have better laws.” As things stand, we must face the fact that “some children of U.S. citizens do not have equal protection under the law.”

Some intercountry adoptees have been deported to countries to which they have had no connection since birth, and where they do not speak the language. Faced with such a situation, Phillip Clay, a deported South Korean adoptee, committed suicide. Martin-Montgomery notes that we can expect a dramatic rise in such deportations in the current climate, adding that she suspects “that every single detention center is now housing adoptees,” but because such information is not gathered, there is no way of knowing for sure.

Congress could easily close the remaining holes in the laws governing citizenship for intercountry adoptees. ARC, along with Lyford, are among the proponents of the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2018, which is sponsored by Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri and Democratic Representative Adam Smith of Washington. Despite this bipartisan sponsorship, adoptee advocates hold out little hope for the bill’s passage, as most conservatives in Congress view the issue in terms of immigration, an issue on which few congressional Republicans will deviate from the hard-line dictated by the GOP base. Michael Mullen, a Korean adoptee currently serving as president of Also-Known-As, a New York–based organization dedicated to the empowerment of intercountry adoptees, observes that the support of adoption agencies and the greater involvement of adoptive parents—“This easily could have been their kid,” he notes—might help the bill win passage, but he still considers its prospects in the current Congress grim. “In any kind of conflict related to immigration, it’s like you can’t even have the conversation,” Mullen said.

When reached for comment for this article, Bethany spokeswoman Morgan Greenberg would only issue a prepared statement: “We have been informed by HHS that separated children will be reunified with their families and are working with HHS to ensure children are safely reunified with families.” She deflected a follow-up question about whether reunification will prove possible in all cases by reasserting that Bethany is complying with HHS.

Is America on the verge of another chapter of stealing children, often children of color, and colonizing them through placement with “good Christian” (read: white conservative) families? In this chaotic time of lurching cruelty by the Trump administration and pushback from grassroots activists, the courts, and civic leaders such as Kanefield, who is voluntarily providing legal services at the border, it is difficult to make predictions. Activism by concerned citizens and pushback from the courts has helped to mitigate the harm done by the Trump administration, but this isn’t sustainable when Trump is packing federal courts and SCOTUS with right-wing radicals. Even if all the children separated from their parents at the border are eventually reunited with their parents—an unlikely outcome—our government will have subjected numerous innocent families seeking asylum to severe trauma that can never be erased.

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