Journalist Kathryn Joyce caused a stir this year with her book The Child Catchers, a sweeping indictment of the evangelical overseas adoption movement. Joyce claimed that much faith-based adoption is corrupted by trafficking, patriarchy, and bad theology. On top of her report, covered on The New York Times‘s front page, the number of adoptions by Americans has declined by 62 percent since 2004, even while UNICEF reports there are still at least 13 million children worldwide who have lost both parents.
Evangelical Christians are an adoption-happy bunch, because we were adopted once too. A family that welcomes needy children into a loving home provides a potent symbol of the in-grafting gospel. Yet we know all too well the gap between how things should be and how things are. Orphanage horror stories are sickeningly common. In 2010, 10 U.S. missionaries were charged with trafficking 33 Haitian children into the Dominican Republic. One of the world’s largest sex abuse scandals took place at a Canadian orphanage run by the Christian Brothers until the late 1980s. Then there’s the case of the vanishing orphanage: In a Kenyan village, a Christian orphanage hosted church leaders from Colorado. On an unannounced follow-up visit, one leader discovered the orphanage was a “highly sophisticated web of lies” that used fake staff and “rented” children.
Further, some government leaders and researchers believe orphanages don’t address the systemic issues underlying orphan care. Rwanda, for example, had one of the largest concentrations of orphans—about 1 million—after the 1994 genocide. Since then, tens of thousands of Rwandan children have successfully moved into extended family and foster care. Next year, Rwanda aims to close all of its institutional orphanages as a reaffirmation of traditional village and family-based care for orphans.
Amid fresh doubts about orphanages, what can Christians, who are told to “look after orphans . . . in their distress” (James 1:27), learn? The answer is complicated—there is no silver-bullet solution for the challenge of orphan care. But first, we should remember that nothing is worse for a young child than the death of a parent.