Commentary Religion

Stoking Fire: The Adoption Movement’s ‘Supply Crunch’

Eleanor J. Bader

A new report commissioned by Political Research Associates outlines how a drop-off in international adoptions increased demand for domestic adoption, raising questions about how "adoptions from Indian country factor in the equation."

“Evangelical interest in adoption emerged in the last ten years,” writer Kathryn Joyce begins. “It’s framed as an abortion alternative, a way to save women from ending unwanted pregnancies. Crisis pregnancy centers make adoption their secondary message: Don’t just choose life, choose adoption.”

And that’s just the tip of the evangelical adoption iceberg.

“Evangelicals paint a picture of a worldwide orphan crisis, with hundreds of millions of children who can be rescued,” Joyce continues. “For some it also fulfills a Great Commission mandate,” a way to bring a heathen child into the Christian fold.

Joyce and I are sitting in a quiet Queens, New York, café discussing a report, The Adoption Crunch, The Christian Right, and the Challenge to Indian Sovereignty that she wrote for the Massachusetts-based organization Political Research Associates. It’s a fascinating document.

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In it, Joyce describes what she calls the “adoption cliff”: the steep drop-off in international adoptions, from 23,000 a decade ago to just 9,000 in 2013. It’s a decline she attributes to a wave of scandals involving the acquisition of babies and their subsequent adoption by relatively well-heeled U.S. households. “In Guatemala,” Joyce wrote, “strong Western demand for adoptable infants led to an influx of foreign cash, and unethical actors procured the supply—sometimes using coercive payments or outright kidnapping. … As a result, a number of adoption agencies—including some of the largest—have been bankrupted or forced to close.”

Not surprisingly, this has caused many people wishing to adopt—evangelical Christians as well as the non-religious—to turn their gaze to adoptable kids living in the 50 states. The problem? According to Joyce, “Domestic infant adoptions began dropping exponentially after the legalization of abortion and the increased acceptance of single motherhood that began in the 1970s.”

These facts, of course, have made adoption difficult for evangelicals. Nonetheless, groups like the Christian Alliance for Orphans and Rick Warren’s Saddleback mega-church are so hopped up on saving the parentless that they miss no opportunity to urge their brethren to “reflect God’s heart” by taking in a needy child.

The reality, however, is that many adoptive parents do not want a child—they want a baby or infant. So what to do about the dearth of adoption-ready newborns? Joyce reports that adoption advocates have begun pushing to streamline the process to make it “better, cheaper, and faster” for would-be parents. “In Texas,” Joyce wrote, “they propose to do so by demanding that women seeking abortions undergo hours of mandatory adoption counseling.”

In addition to state initiatives, Joyce explains that there’s also been momentum on the federal level. The Children in Families First Act (S. 1530 and H.R. 4143) has collected an unusually broad roster of sponsors: liberal Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) alongside conservative Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and Trent Franks (R-AZ). According to a website supporting the bill, if passed CHIFF will “put in place laws and systems that allow for international adoption as it is a necessary and appropriate way to meet the needs of children who cannot find homes domestically.”

If you think it sounds pretty vague, you’re 100 percent correct.

What’s more, Joyce says that she worries about changes in adoption policies more generally. She cites the case of Baby Veronica as a key example.

As you likely remember, in the fall of 2013, Cherokee Nation member Dusten Brown was forced to relinquish his biological daughter, Veronica, to Matt and Melanie Copabianco, a white South Carolina couple. The case was extremely fraught since Brown had previously indicated that he wanted to abrogate his parental rights. Brown’s ex, Christina Maldonado, took Brown at his word; after giving birth to Veronica in 2009, she put the child up for adoption, and the Copabianco’s raised Veronica for the first two years of her life. Although Brown regained custody of Veronica in 2011—shortly after being discharged from the Army—two years later the Supreme Court reversed the decision and Veronica was sent back to the Copabiancos’.

While this is admittedly an oversimplification of the numerous twists and turns in the case, at its core is an important question: Was Veronica, whose biological dad was willing and able to rear her, really in need of adoption? Secondly, if we say we want fathers to be more involved parents, how can we allow paternal rights to be so cavalierly dismissed?

Then there’s the issue of race.

“The Baby Veronica struggle introduced a relatively new element to the story of rising demand and decreasing supply,” Joyce wrote in the report. “How do adoptions from Indian country factor in the equation?”

According to Joyce:

Maldonado initially sought to omit Brown’s identity from adoption paperwork, fearing his status as a Cherokee tribal member would impede the adoption. Adoptions of Indian children are governed by the Indian Child Welfare Act, a federal law that gives tribes a say in Indian children’s custody. Enacted in 1978, ICWA was ostensibly passed to keep Native children within their families by regulating child custody procedures for children who are eligible to be registered members of recognized tribes.

That the Copabianco family emerged victorious made many wonder whether the ICWA was worth the paper it had been printed on. But the decision did more than this—it turned media attention on the 36-year-old law itself. As was predictable, numerous right-wing pundits and their evangelical pals used the Baby Veronica decision as an opportunity to argue that the ICWA was outdated. In a bow to so-called compassionate conservatism—that is, in light of the many Native babies and youngsters living in poverty—they posited that the statute needed to be revised, if not tossed completely. At stake, they said, was the noble task of saving thousands of boys and girls from deprivation and want.

Left unaddressed in the clamor was the reason the ICWA was passed in the first place: The enormous number of Native kids who were removed from their homes by public and private social service agencies during the 1950s and 60s. In fact, the American Indian Child Resource Center charges that at the time of ICWA’s passage, “the adoption rate for Indian children was 8.4 times greater than for non-Native children. … The American Indian family was being separated at a rate greater than any other culture in the U.S.” The belief that white people “knew better” was at the heart of this appalling piece of American history—history that involved “civilizing” Native children by pulling them out of their families of origin.

Joyce speaks carefully, and makes clear that she does not want to overstate the dangers inherent in the evangelical adoption movement. At the same time, she calls the outcome of the Baby Veronica case extremely troubling. “There’s been an interesting alliance between the people who were most excited about the outcome of the Dusten Brown/Baby Veronica case and people who are making adoption into a religious calling,” she said. “My concern is about what this could portend for adoptions from Indian country since there is such a huge demand for babies to adopt.”

It’s something that should concern us all.

News Human Rights

Advocates Cheer New Indian Child Welfare Act Regulation

Nicole Knight Shine

The first comprehensive update issued since ICWA's implementation in 1978, it requires state courts to ask all participants in child custody proceedings whether a child is an “Indian child," legally defined as being a member of, or eligible for membership in, a federally recognized tribe.

A new federal rule issued this month under the Indian Children Welfare Act could keep more Native children in tribal communities, advocates say.

The new regulation requires state child custody proceedings to more consistently apply the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) by imposing several new standards. The first comprehensive update issued since ICWA’s implementation in 1978, it requires state courts to ask all participants in child custody proceedings whether a child is an “Indian child,” legally defined as being a member of, or eligible for membership in, a federally recognized tribe.

The regulation, issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and set to go into effect in December, also clarifies when child custody cases can be transferred to tribal courts, and requires parents and the tribe to be notified when a family is involuntarily relinquishing a child, among other key provisions.

Prior to ICWA’s enactment, an estimated 25 to 35 percent of Native children had been separated from their families in what congressional testimony at the time described as an “Indian child welfare crisis of massive proportions.”

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Dr. Sarah Kastelic, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association (NICWA), called the new federal rule a “historic step” in a “child welfare system [that] still falls short for our Native children.” Native children, according to Kastelic, are four times as likely as white children to be removed from their homes on their first encounter with the courts, even under identical circumstances.

American Indian and Alaskan Native children are overrepresented in the country’s foster care system at more than 1.6 times the expected level, according to a 2007 report by NICWA and the Kids Are Waiting campaign, a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts. In Alaska, for example, Native children make up 20 percent of the population, but account for about 51 percent of children in foster care, the report noted.

Proponents of the regulation point to the complex and much-publicized case of Baby Veronica. A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision required Cherokee Nation member Dusten Brown to turn over his biological daughter, Veronica, to a white South Carolina couple who had raised her the first two years of her life, as Rewire reported.

Critics, meanwhile, argue that ICWA’s provisions leave children to languish in foster care longer than non-Indian children.

Timothy Sandefur, vice president for litigation with the Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based libertarian public policy organization that has ICWA-related lawsuits pending in state and federal court, said the law’s provisions ignore the “best interests of the child.”

Sandefur said he’d ultimately like the U.S. Supreme Court to find ICWA unconstitutional.

“This is a matter of racial discrimination, because this law creates a separate and unequal system for Indian children,” Sandefur said in a phone interview with Rewire.

A 2005 report by the U.S. General Accounting Office analyzing foster care in four states found “no consistent pattern” between the length of time children covered under the ICWA remain in foster care compared to children who are not.

Culture & Conversation Media

TRAP Laws and the Abortion ‘Crisis’: A Conversation With Award-Winning Filmmaker Dawn Porter

Tina Vasquez

Recently, Porter spoke with Rewire about the inaccurate framing of abortion as a “moral” issue and the conditions that have created the current crisis facing providers and patients alike. Her film will air nationally on PBS’ Independent Lens Monday.

Dawn Porter’s documentary TRAPPED focuses on the targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws designed to close clinics. But, as Porter told Rewire in a phone interview, TRAPPED is also about “normal people,” the providers and clinic staff who have been demonized due to their insistence that women should have access to abortion and their willingness to offer that basic health-care service.

Between 2010 and 2015, state legislators adopted some 288 laws regulating abortion care, subjecting providers and patients to restrictions not imposed on their counterparts in other medical specialties.

In Alabama, where most of the film takes place, abortion providers are fighting to keep their clinics open in the face of countlessand often arbitrary—regulations, including a requirement that the grass outside the facilities be a certain length and one mandating abortions be performed in far more “institutional” and expensive facilities than are medically necessary.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling this month on a Texas case regarding the constitutionality of some TRAP laws: Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. The lawsuit challenges two provisions in HB 2: the admitting privileges requirement applied to Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen, Texas, and Reproductive Services in El Paso, Texas, as well as the requirement that every abortion clinic in the state meet the same building requirements as ambulatory surgical centers. It is within this context that Porter’s film will air nationally on PBS’ Independent Lens Monday.

Recently, the award-winning filmmaker spoke with Rewire about the Supreme Court case, the inaccurate framing of abortion as a “moral” issue, and the conditions that have created the current crisis facing providers and patients alike.

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Rewire: What has changed for the clinicians featured in TRAPPED since the documentary premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January?

Dawn Porter: Now, in Alabama, the legislature has passed a law banning clinics within 2,000 feet of a school. There’s a lot of frustration because the clinicians abide by the laws, and then more are put in place that makes it almost impossible to operate.

Everyone has been really focused on Dalton Johnson’s clinic [the Alabama Women’s Center for Reproductive Alternatives] because the clinic he moved to was across the street from a school, but the law has also affected Gloria [Gray, the director of the West Alabama Women’s Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama]and that’s not something a lot of us initially realized. She’s afraid this will shut her down for good. I would say this has been a very hard blow for her. I think Dalton was perhaps more prepared for it. He will fight the law.

The good news is that it’s not like either of these clinics will close tomorrow; this gets decided when they go back for relicensing at the end of the year. Right now, they’re in the middle of legal proceedings.

Of course, we’re all also awaiting the Supreme Court decision on Whole Woman’s Health. There’s a lot of uncertainty and anxiety right now, for these clinic owners in particular, but for all clinic owners [nationwide] really.

Rewire: Let’s talk about that. Later this month, the Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling on that caseEven if the Supreme Court rules that these laws are unconstitutional, do you think the case will change the environment around reproductive rights?

DP: It really depends on how the Court writes the decision. There may be no case in which it’s more important for the Court to have a comprehensive decision. It’s a multiheaded hydra. There’s always something that can close a clinic, so it’s crucially important that this Court rules that nothing can hinder a woman’s right to choose. It’s important that this Court makes it clear that all sham laws are unconstitutional.

Rewire: We know abortion providers have been killed and clinics have been bombed. When filming, did you have safety concerns for those involved?

DP: Definitely. The people who resort to violence in their anti-choice activities areI guess the most charitable way to describe itunpredictable. I think the difficult thing is you can’t anticipate what an irrational person will do. We took the safety of everyone very seriously. With Dr. Willie Parker [one of two doctors in the entire state of Mississippi providing abortions], for example, we wouldn’t publicize if he’d be present at a screening of the film. We never discussed who would appear at a screening. It’s always in the back of your mind that there are people who feel so strongly about this they would resort to violence. Dr. Parker said he’s aware of the risks, but he can’t let them control his life.

We filmed over the course of a few years, and honestly it took me a while to even ask about safety. In one of our last interviews, I asked Dr. Parker about safety and it was a very emotional interview for both of us. Later during editing, there was the shooting at the Colorado clinic and I called him in a panic and asked if he wanted me to take our interview out of the film. He said no, adding, “I can’t let irrational terrorists control my life.” I think everybody who does this work understands what’s at risk.

Rewire: It seems Texas has become ground zero for the fight for abortion access and because of that, the struggles in states like Alabama can get lost in the shuffle. Why did you choose to focus on Alabama?

DP: I met Dr. Parker when he was working in Mississippi. The first meeting I did with him was in December 2012 and he told me that Alabama had three clinics and that no one was talking about it. He introduced me to the clinic owners and it was clear that through them, the entire story of abortion access—or the denial of itcould be told. The clinic owners were all working together; they were all trying to figure out what to do legally so they could continue operating. I thought Alabama was unexplored, but also the clinic owners were so amazing.

To tell you the truth, I tried to avoid Texas for a long time. If you follow these issues around reproductive rights closely, and I do, you can sort of feel like, “Uh, everyone knows about Texas.” But, actually, a lot of people don’t know about Texas. I had this view that everyone knew what was going on, but I realized I was very insulated in this world. I started with Texas relatively late, but decided to explore it because we were following the lawyers with the Center for Reproductive Rights and they were saying one of their cases would likely go to the Supreme Court, and Whole Woman’s Health was most likely. They, of course, were right.

When you’re making a film, you’re emerged in a world and you have to take a step back and think about what people really know, not what you think they know or assume they know.

Rewire: In TRAPPED, you spliced in footage of protests from the 1970s, which made me think about how far we’ve come since Roe v. Wade. Sometimes it feels like we’ve come very far, other times it feels like nothing has changed. Why do you think abortion is such a contentious topic?

DP: I don’t think it’s actually that contentious, to tell you the truth. I think there is a very vocal minority who are extreme. If you poll them, most Americans are pro-choice and believe in the right to abortion in at least some circumstances. Most people are not “100 percent, no abortion” all the time. People who are, are very vocal. I think this is really a matter of having people who aren’t anti-choice be vocal about their beliefs.

Abortion is not the number one social issue. It was pretty quiet for years, but we’ve seen the rise of the Tea Party and conservative Republicans heavily influencing policy. The conservative agenda has been elevated and given a larger platform.

We need to change public thinking about this. Part of that conversation is destigmatizing abortion and not couching it in a shameful way or qualifying it. Abortion is very common; many, many women have them. Three in ten U.S. women have had an abortion before the age of 45. I think that part of the work that needs to be done is around stigma and asking why are we stigmatizing this. What is the agenda around this?

Evangelicals have done a great job of making it seem like this is an issue of morality, and it’s just not. To me, honestly, it doesn’t matter if you’re pro-choice or anti-choice. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and beliefs. I can respect different opinions, but I can’t respect someone who tries to subvert the political process. People with power and influence who tamper with the political process to impose their beliefs on other people—I really can’t respect that.

Rewire: There are a lot of entry points for conversations about abortion access. What brought you to focus on TRAP laws?

DP: People often discuss abortion in terms of morality, but that’s not what we should be talking about. The reason why these laws have been so effective is because they successfully harm the least powerful of the group they’re targeting. Who’s getting picked on, who’s suffering the most? Women of color, people who are low-income, people who don’t have health insurance. There’s something so unjust about how these laws are disproportionately affecting these populations, and that really bothered me. I’m certainly interested in abortion as a topic, but I’m also interested in politics and power and how those things take shape to hurt the most vulnerable.

Rewire: In TRAPPED, we get to see a very personal side of all the clinicians and providers. One clinician discusses having to be away from her six children all of the time because she’s always at the clinic. We get to see Dr. Willie Parker at church with his family. And it was amazing to learn that the remaining providers in Alabama are friends who regularly eat dinner together. Was it intentional to humanize providers in a way we don’t usually get to see?

DP: Absolutely. The anti-choice side has successfully painted the picture of an abortion provider as this really shady, sinister person. I spent three years embedded in these clinics, and that couldn’t be further from what I saw. These are passionate, brave people, but they’re also very normal people. They’re not superheroes or super villains. They’re just normal people. It’s not that they don’t think about what they’re doing; they’re just very resilient and courageous in a way that makes me very proud. I wanted people to see that.

Rewire: Honestly before watching TRAPPED, I never thought about the personal toll that pressure takes on providers. Dalton Johnson used his retirement funds in order to continue providing abortion care. In several scenes, we see an emotional Gloria Gray struggling with whether or not to keep fighting these laws. Do you think people generally understand what it’s costing providers—financially and emotionally—to continue operating?

DP: I don’t think a lot of us think about that. People like Dalton are saying, “I would rather cash out my retirement than give in to you people.” We should not be asking people to make that kind of sacrifice. That should not be happening.

We also don’t spend enough time thinking about or talking about all of the things that have happened to create the conditions we’re now dealing with. It’s like a perfect storm. Medical schools are not training abortion providers, and the abortion providers that are around are getting older and retiring. Of course laws keep getting passed that make it more and more difficult to run a clinic. In this kind of environment, can you really blame people for not wanting to be providers? Especially when there’s the added pressure of having to take not just your own safety into account, but the safety of your family.

Anti-choice people target the children of abortion providers. They target them at home. This is a hard job if you want to have a life. I mean that literally too—if you literally want to have your life.

This is why so few go into this field. As the number of providers in some states continues to get eliminated, the burden left on those standing is exponentially greater.

The reason why we have a crisis around abortion care is not just laws, but because we have so few physicians. There are all of these factors that have come together, and we didn’t even get to cover all of it in the documentary, including the fact that Medicaid doesn’t cover abortion [under federal law. Seventeen states, however, use state funds to cover abortion care for Medicaid recipients.] A lot of this is the result of conservative lobbying. People have to be aware of all the pressures providers are under and understand that we didn’t get to this point of crisis accidentally.

Rewire: It can feel hopeless, at least to me. What gives you hope when it comes to this unrelenting battle for reproductive rights in this country?

DP: I don’t feel hopeless at all. I feel like it’s really important to be aware and vigilant and connect these dots. I wanted to help people understand the complications and the challenges providers are up against.

These providers have done their part, and now it’s time for the rest of us to do ours. People can vote. Vote for people who prioritize providing education and medical care, rather than people who spend all of their time legislating an abortion clinic. Alabama is in a huge fiscal crisis. The education system is a mess. The Medicaid system is a mess, and the whole Alabama state legislature worked on a bill that would affect a couple of abortion clinics. Voters need to decide if that’s OK. I think this is all very hard, but it’s not at all hopeless.