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.

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