Sweet Child of Mine

Like—one hopes—most Americans, I watch the ongoing story of children separated from their parents at our southern border with horror and sorrow. There will never be anything even approaching reconciliation or forgiveness for the despicable and shameful behavior of those whose hatred and fear of ‘the other’ drives policy enactment like this. My biggest worry is that, with all the other shocks and distractions we’re juggling in 2019, these children will fade into the background.

Last week, we learned that the number of separated and ‘lost’ children is higher than has been reported:  U.S. immigration authorities separated more than 1,500 children from their parents at the Mexico border early in the Trump administration, the ACLU said, bringing the total number of children separated since July 2017 to more than 5,400. Children from that period can be difficult to find because the government had inadequate tracking systems. Volunteers working with the ACLU are searching for some of them and their parents by going door-to-door in Guatemala and Honduras.

One facet of the story I follow even more closely: the very young children who have been recklessly and deliberately removed from their parents, resulting in ‘lost’ identification information, and are put in foster care here, and eventually even deemed eligible for adoption by American parents.

There have been any number of stories about children too young to speak for themselves winding up in places where their parents, who risked everything to bring them to what they hoped was safety, can no longer find or reach them. Often, these parents are not able to get appropriate help, and are deported, leaving children behind.

Bethany Christian Services, a Michigan-based non-profit that took a relatively large number of separated children into foster care over the past two years, has especially come under fire. I have seen memes and stories accusing Bethany (which has accepted donations from the DeVos Foundation for many years) of essentially stealing children for the benefit of white Christian couples who want to adopt.

I know a little about Bethany CS, because it’s the agency we used when we adopted our son Alex, now 31, from Korea. Ironically, we chose Bethany because they had such a good reputation for ensuring that adoptable children were fully available and duly relinquished by their biological parents.

We had heard horror stories about disrupted international adoptions, families who later learned that their adopted children were placed via coercion, or were babies ‘from nowhere,’ whose parentage couldn’t be traced at all. But not with Bethany.

Bethany was also a little pickier than other agencies—insisting on age limits for parents, a stay-at-home parent for the baby’s first six months in America (which we split, each of us taking three months), and a lengthy and rigorous home study process. The ‘Christian’ in their name didn’t really faze us, although we were not church members at that time. Like getting your life insurance from Lutheran Brotherhood, or putting your money in the Catholic Credit Union, it did not seem like a drawback in the international adoption process, which is plenty fraught.

Our caseworker from Bethany carefully guided us through all the steps—adoption, citizenship, and when Alex was 13, a whole-family trip to Korea, where we were able to sit down with a social worker and translator and read his entire file. We also had lunch with his diminutive foster mother, who spent the entire time patting his face and rolling up bulgogi in lettuce leaves for him to eat.

It was always clear to us just how fortunate we were to raise this young man, a gift to our family. Occasionally, low-information people would suggest that Korea was a backward nation and Alex was lucky to have us, but we always knew that wasn’t remotely true—and earnestly sought many opportunities (camps, cultural organizations and travel) to keep in touch with his remarkable heritage.

In the past few years, however—even before hateful border policies—I have become more and more aware of suspicion, even hostility, toward parents who choose international adoptions. Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know filled in some of those blanks. I read more broadly today, including critiques of multi-cultural families built through international fostering and adoption. It’s not as simple as a child needing a home. I get that.

The situation at the border and Bethany Christian Services’ willingness to foster children who have been separated from their parents there put this into sharp focus.  Bethany’s policies about refusing adoptions to LGBTQ families (recently overturned) came under scrutiny. And there was a lot of finger-pointing toward the DeVos family, which has supported Bethany’s work for many years—not surprising, since DeVos charitable giving (and influencing) is everywhere in Grand Rapids, MI, where Bethany is also based. Snopes does a good job of tracking that money and answering other questions about Bethany: here.

I am not defending Bethany Christian Services—but I do hate to see blanket condemnation of international adoption. It’s also true that children should not be warehoused in cages—and that sheltering migrant children is a multi-million dollar business, prone to profiteering and abuse. This is a problem of our own making.

It’s hard to know, any more, where to draw the bright line between well-meaning people wanting to adopt children who need homes and outright, obvious human trafficking. Recently, evangelical Christians have been pushing families to adopt, as a way of demonstrating that they were willing to take care of the children who might otherwise have been aborted:

In 2007, national Christian leaders like celebrity pastor Rick Warren encouraged their followers to shift their focus from issues of “moral purity”—abortion, same-sex marriage, divorce—to something more positive: helping children in need. More than just “pro-life,” it would be a “whole life” response to the longstanding pro-choice challenge that Christians adopt all the children they wanted to be born. It would also be an extension of existing evangelical engagement with global development and health issues. Promoting adoption would help rebrand U.S. evangelicals, from moral scolds to children’s champions.

The premise of the movement was a particularly American response to global child poverty. It was based on the idea that the existence of somewhere between 143 and 210 million vulnerable children around the world—a number that also includes those who live with one parent or extended family, often in poor conditions—constituted an “orphan crisis,” but that there were also 2 billion Christians who could help. If just a fraction of those claiming to be Christians stepped up to adopt, the movement’s leaders argued, parentless and hungry children, as a category, would cease to exist. As one leader put it, the goal was to “get as many people in the church to adopt and adopt as many kids as you can.” 

I find this ominous. I’m the American parent of a child born in Asia, so you might think I would trust that American instincts and institutions for young children in crisis would be good ones. But I no longer have any confidence in ‘American’ ideals, after witnessing what’s happened at our own border.

Alex and Mom cropped

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