Tuesday Topic: Is International Adoption the Right Response?

Dimples at the orphanage -- Fall 2006

This question comes from Renee who asks:

My husband and I did not enter into international adoption lightly; in fact we gave it *much* thought. In the end it seemed right, and we felt it was where the Lord was leading us. I still wonder though, even after bringing our son home, whether it was in fact the right thing to do. To take him out of his home country. To perpetuate the cycle of westerners swooping in and carrying children away, instead of putting our money toward programs that could help to break the cycle and keep children in their families of origin.

My rational mind says there are 5 million orphans in Ethiopia alone, it is going to take a LOT to break the cycle, and what is to become of the children in the meantime? I don’t think I will go before God someday and have him tell me adoption was the wrong choice, but when I read blogs written by adult adoptees committed to adoption reform, I admit to feeling very insecure about our decision.

Do you have a peace, an assurance, about international adoption? How did you arrive there? We are supporting Christian organizations that help to lift children and families out of poverty. Right now, somehow that just doesn’t feel like enough. Will I always have these feelings?

Renee is asking a very significant and challenging question.  I would appreciate your thoughts, even if you are still processing this yourself and haven’t reached a conclusion.   Let’s talk.

Encourage one another,


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Let me introduce myself. Russ and I are the parents of twelve children by birth and adoption, and sometimes more through foster care. I'm the creator of One Thankful Mom which has been as much of a gift to me as to my readers. In 2011 I became a TBRI® Pracitioner* and have lived and breathed connected parenting ever since. I'm deeply honored to be the co-author, together with the late Dr. Karyn Purvis, of The Connected Parent; it is her final written work. I love speaking at events for adoptive and foster parents. I'm also the co-founder of The Adoption Connection, a podcast and resource site for adoptive moms. I mentor and encourage adoptive moms so you can find courage and hope in your journeys of loving your children well.


  1. Marissa
    October 19, 2010

    I've ran this question through my mind so many times. I've got 3 children adopted from Ethiopia but I don't consider myself someone that supports international adoption in the least. I understand the criticisms surrounding it and don't take them lightly.

    When my 2 newest kids came into our family my point of view shifted a great deal. Is international adoption the right response? Well, it was for them. In fact, for them it was the only response. I've come to appreciate that adoption is one small piece in a greater picture. It's relational, which is the most important aspect of anything we do. It spurs people to care more, do more. It's created a passion within me for the poor and sick that I just didn't have before. And then there's the best part, the kids that make our lives a little more joyful.

    I think being uncomfortable with international adoption is a good thing. I hope to stay that way. It means we truly appreciate the significance of the choice we made for that child.

    1. Joelle
      October 20, 2010

      I love your response, "I think being uncomfortable with international adoption is a good thing." because it keeps us from developing tunnel vision. I think if we can keep the perspective that what we do is one part -and only one part-not the whole solution, then we are more likely to support other ways of helping. I can not speak as one who has adopted but I feel greatly drawn to prayer. I'm not a great prayer warrior who spends hours on my knees but my heart is always before the Lord beseeching Him on behalf of those who have need. I don't have many financial resources to give to organizations working to help the orphaned children–God uses other people in that way. We must each be faithful to what we are led to do and encourage others to do the part given to them.

  2. shannoncl
    October 19, 2010

    Here's my take on it- and I know many do not agree but I've did not come to this conclusion lightly. Adoption is not ideal. International/ DOmestic… it matters not. It is never the perfect situation when a parent- can not – care for their child. In no way shape or form is that ever the "best" scenario. So to wonder whether adoption (in this case int'l) is the right thing… is wording it improperly. We live in a broken world. It would be best if it were not so- but we don't live in that world. The question is- how do we live- give- thrive- honor God- honor our blessings… in this broken world. If adoption (int'l or dom) disappeared from possibility. That would not mean that children would not need families. There is no ONE SOLUTION. The reality is- we live in a world where children need love, God and family.

  3. Amanda
    October 19, 2010

    I can only answer for my girls. They had no family. My money would maybe give them an education but where in their economy would they use it? My oldest(12) would have aged out of the orphanage at 15 and then what? My girls would have been split up and forced to fend for themselves. My money and an education is not a good enough substitute for my love and our family. For our girls it was absolutely the right thing to do.

    That being said, I too struggle with feeling like what we have done is not nearly enough. Opening ourselves to people who desperately need God and us should be a lifestyle, not a one time choice.What does that even look like? In the end I have to trust that God is big enough to handle the big picture and that it is my job to be open to the relatively small things He asks me to do.

  4. Tammy
    October 19, 2010

    As I sit in my hotel room in Uganda with my son, the same exact thoughts are running through my head. We are heading to the embassy in 6 hours and my stomach is in knots. I've prayed for God to open doors if this is what is right for him – and so far the doors have opened. Yet, I sit here wondering if I am doing the right thing. He is 7 years old and loves his country so much….

  5. Teresa
    October 19, 2010


    No adoption is not the answer if you want to change a whole society. Governments have to help their people raising out of poverty and we can support that volunteering, fund raising etc…
    Adoption is a way of creating or increasing a family.

    For charity I have a charity I support and send money to every month in the Phillipines, my son was adopted because we wanted to be parents again and his parents too, it certainly had nothing to do with charity.
    It was more a selfish act (wanting to be parents) to be very honest.

    International adoption helps a hand full of children world wide having different opportunies in life, but it is not a global answer.
    Global answers are creating social enterprises who provide decent payed work, it's doing lots of serious development work, IA will only help a few little people, it doesn't change governments, it doesn't change societies.
    It provides parents for children who couldn't live with their birth families.
    And it give us long dreamed of children.

  6. Kate in NY
    October 20, 2010

    This has become an increasingly fraught topic for me, especially as I become more acquainted with the adult adoptee reform movement. On a "macro" level, I get their outrage. The $20,000 I spent on Abi's adoption could have gone to help literally hundreds on Ethiopian children and families. Because I am "rich" and "they" are poor, I have the privilege of raising their children. The mind reels from that kind of injustice. And now more and more people "want" beautiful Ethiopian children, and so there is a supply-and-demand situation, and waiting lists for children. People speak of their adoptive children being "meant for them," but this statement, however well-intentioned, makes me cringe – I love my adopted child with all my heart – but I can never feel he was "meant" for me because the situation of his being in our family is inherently so tragic, so wrong.

    But then, there is the "mircro" level – – – the individual children and their stories. I am not a very religious person, but I felt called to adopt as clear as any message I have ever received. The problem of orphaned children is so big, so monumental – it's like the feeling I get when I think about all the millions and millions of stars out their in the universe, with their own individual solar systems, and I feel so tiny and insignificant. But then I look inward – to my little family, our happy house and garden, and think how we are working to leave this world better when we are gone. Then adoption makes perfect sense to me.

    This is so long and I am so passionate about this topic – but I just want to say that as adoptive parents, I feel we can integrate the macro and the micro by accepting adoption as a personal, even selfish choice – and not as something particularly noble or charitable. If we want to save children, we should write a check. If we want to grow our families in a beautiful way and open our lives to another child, then we can choose adoption with easy hearts. Ideally, we should do both.

    1. Michelle
      October 21, 2010

      You are so right to split it up that way Kate! Of course, change the society, alleviate poverty, help children survive in their home country with biologic family members or in an adoption in their own country.
      However, I am not willing to sacrifice the lives of individual children to further an idealogic (and unobtainable) goal. Many of the big organizations (insert UNICEF here) are willing to sacrifice the lives of individual children to move towards their 'macro' goal.
      My youngest daughter would be dead right now without the intervention of the orphanage we adopted her from and the orphanage would have been too full to take her in if they didn't participate in international adoption. Only God knows which child will be saved from starvation when my daughters leave and make room for 2 more children.
      I support international adoption but I also see the big picture and send money and prayers to relief organizations (although NOT to UNICEF!). I think it odd when an adoptive parent via international adoption doesn't do both.

  7. Elizabeth
    October 20, 2010

    I am right there with you Renee… and that is after completeing two international adoptions. We have two sons from VIetnam and I struggled with the same questions. But recently something happened that confirmed we had done the right thing for these two children, right now. Our older adopted son had been in foster care and had loved his foster family very, very much. For along time I pondered whether taking him from then was the right thing to do. They are older and were not in a position to adopt him, though I think they would have if they could.

  8. Elizabeth
    October 20, 2010

    (Too long-winded — again) Last year we received news that the government was closing the orphanage our son had been associated with (the foster care was supervised by our agency and the orphanage). All of the children still in foster care who had not been adopted (or able to be adopted) were without warning removed from their foster homes and placed in a much larger, not-quite-so-nice orphanage that was still open. I can't imagine the grief for all involved. If my son had still been there, this would have been him, no matter how much the foster parents loved him. Without adoption there is no permanency.

    We, too, support organizations which strive to maintain family unification and often it doesn't feel as though it is enough. I wish I knew what would feel like enough… perhaps nothing until all children live in stable homes.

    1. Paula
      October 20, 2010

      Elizabeth, I love this "Without adoption there is no permanency." This hits the nail on the head for our family. Our kids got permanency from adoption. They probably would have bounced around from family member to family member for all of their childhood otherwise. Yes, I am very sad that they have lost so much and it makes me sad that their birth family couldn't provide a stable home for them. It's something I think about every single day. But I am very glad that my daughters now have a family and home forever.

  9. Eileen
    October 20, 2010

    Both of our adopted children had diseases that in their home country pegged them as "un-adoptable". Staying in China, not only would they not have been adopted, they most likely would have met with a great deal of stigma and been denied access to schooling. International adoption was really, the very best option for them.

    I don't know Ethiopia adoption, but with China, I do feel like it's wrong for foreigners to insist on adopting healthy infants. There are Chinese people who want to adopt, but sadly, they cannot pay the fees that Westerners are paying and so they're being denied or forced to pay fees that are too high for their standard of living, or they're waiting far too long. This feels wrong to me. If a child has an opportunity to be adopted in their home country, I think that's what should happen. If they don't, I think a loving foreign family is far preferable to a childhood spent in an orphanage.

  10. Linda
    October 20, 2010

    This is what I often ponder… how did early believers… our brothers and sisters in Christ obey this verse: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." -James 1:27 …before there were telephones, airplanes, trains, automobiles, computers,…

  11. Kayla
    October 20, 2010

    This is a very thoughtful conversation by those who have posted so far. So many people have said so many good things. It is a fallen world that we live, one where the best solutions to fix problems are often imperfect. I also liked what someone else said about the difference between the big picture and the individual child. Adoption was right for my kids and every single kid deserves a shot at a family versus an institute or an unstable revolving door of care. But how to do that is where the big picture comes in and where you realize the impossibility and unethicalness (is that a word?) of it.

  12. Kayla
    October 20, 2010

    Addressing the orphan/global poverty crisis requries more than just one approach. To say we should be donating money to help kids in country does nothing to address the basic, fundamental need kids have for a family, to be that special somebody whose picture is in someone's wallet. To say it's all about adoption and getting kids into families does not address the problems like domestic violence, unemployment, food shortages, lack of education, lack of medical care, and the disinfranchisement most women face around the world specifically in regards to the ability to work and provide for a family as well as their ability to say no to sex and prevent pregnancy. To be serious about orphan care/global poverty requires us to look at all of it and to take a multi pronged approach that addresses ALL of the issues that cause children to be placed for adoption as well as looking at how orphanage care is not in the best interest of most children while understanding what might be done to keep families together, encourage people in country to care for the children in country, and promoting ethical interionational adoption.

  13. Jennifer
    October 20, 2010

    Our son is adopted from Ethiopia. His birth mother relinquish him at age 2 because she did not have the resources to parent him. We have had people in the USA ask us why she would give him up. I have to say that I am surprised they would ask. She was 17 when she gave birth to him, there was no father in the picture, she has a job that only paid in food and she had no home, health care etc. The reason she relinquished him (she said this) is that she wanted a better life/opportunity for him. In the USA 17 year old girls with supportive families and better financial situations give there children up for adoption all the time for the same reason. They want their child to have a two parent home, a good education, a good shot at a job and a easier life. There are so many things in life that are broken but as a Christian I feel called to step in and transform brokenness when God gives me opportunity. Divorce is broken but we can help the single mom parent her children, poverty is brokenness but we can give, sickness is brokenness but we can provide care….we live in a very broken world. International adoption, all adoption is amazing and necessary but because of the sin filled world we live in it is still broken.

  14. Mary
    October 20, 2010

    As I type I have a 2 week old foster baby boy asleep upstairs. His situation is tragic and very common. Poverty, mental illness, family cycles that perpetuate a total lack of "rightness" in the life of children or adults. I have found on this journey in foster care that one single "motive" for fostering or adopting is not right. Like someone said above, tunnel vision is huge. We latch onto one reason and then it takes over. Like the rescue motive or the mercy motive or the "fix-it" motive, etc. Is there anything wrong with wanting to use resources (financial, emotional, relationsal, spiritual) to "rescue" a child? No. But if I just latch onto that one fact, I am going down a bad path.

    I think I came to grips with foster care and adoption when I realized I need "them" as much as "they" need me. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian church in NYC has an amazing image of "shalom." He says that God created life to be like a tapestery–threads that are woven together and have amazing strength and beauty as a result. But with sin we have the separation of those threads. We have "rich" and "poor." We have "healthy" and "sick." We have "families" and "orphans." What the gospel does is it calls us back to being connected to one another. Like Jesus, we move towards those who are "unlike" us.

    So I would say–is it wrong for me to take a child out of poverty and neglect (for a time or forever) in this country? Will my money correct the cycles that get passed from generation to generation? It's not just our money–it's ourselves.

    I agree that adoption is never best. But adoption is the best reality in a broken world. But as we adopt, I think we need to embrace who our children are and recognize that they enter our world and we need to enter theirs. So in international adoption, this child connects you to a country, to a people, etc. Because we need them as much as they need us.

    1. Sami
      October 26, 2010

      OK, thank you for this!! I love it!

      We're considering adoption and this the biggest question for us. I do though, think of how amazing it would be for our whole family to be changed by loving a child, and thus a country an thus seek to help that country? Relationships are such powerful things!

  15. learningpatience
    October 20, 2010

    Such good comments. (Though I don't have time to read them all.)

    This question is something that I struggle with all of the time. I do wish that the world was a different place. I do wish that adoption was not needed. I do wish that changes would take place. But I cannot for a second think it better for a child to grow up in an orphanage than to live with a family and have real parents and siblings. I cannot think it possible that it is better for a child to live in a situation where caretakers change round the clock and security is not known. Hear me clearly: I'm not saying a child should will do better to grow up rich or in a rich country/family/place. I'm saying children need families.

    The reality is that right now, there are millions of children living without parents.

    The reality is that right now those children need families.

    The reality is that governments and organizations who should be "fixing" these problems are broken themselves (for any number of reasons).

    The reality is that we are a family that wanted more children.

    The reality is that it IS hard in ways that I could have never known beforehand . . . but it is so very worth it.

    The reality is that even if they grow up and hate us for taking them from their culture and move back there never to contact us again (which I don't think will happen), we did all that we could to love them; and they will have grown up knowing that they had a next meal and learning to read and write and having someone to tuck them in and take care of them when they were sick and hold their hands and teach them about the world.

    We're doing our part elsewhere too, but that wasn't going to meet our children's needs in the way that adoption has in the time that adoption has.

    So all of that to say that while I am pretty sure that IA isn't right for all kids and probably isn't the solution for most kids, it is a blessing for some. (I sure would hate to throw out the baby with the bath water, considering children's lives are at stake!)

  16. Julie
    October 21, 2010

    Wow, Renee brings up some very interesting points. Lots of food for thought. I may have to respond in several different comments.

    Yes, adoption is part of God's plan for caring for and protecting orphans. If He calls you to adopt, then it would be wrong and foolish to ignore that. It is the right thing to do to welcome a child into your family that has no family. God asks us to do what we can with what we have when He opens our eyes to a problem. 147 million children need families. We're a family. We can make a world of difference in this one life.

    And yes, we should be doing things to help families stay together.

    And yes, we should be fighting poverty.

    And yes, we should be educating mothers and fathers about how to take care of their children.

    And yes, we should be stopping corruption.

    And the list goes on.

    So, I guess my point is: What has God opened your eyes to and what has He equipped you for and what is He calling you to do? If you are faithfully doing what you can, then there is no guilt. I know we can all do more, and that's a matter of growth.


  17. joyfully original
    October 22, 2010

    I'm so grateful to all of you for all the comments and insight. I have been reading and re-reading, and likely will come back to re-read some more. Such wisdom here, and so much to chew on, thank you.

  18. Kirstine
    October 24, 2010

    Hm… I'm missing some comments on the loss of culture and connection to whatever 'living history' is left for the orphan. I mean, isn't that what some adult adoptees have been mourning? That they lost something being adopted internationally? And that they maybe lost a great deal more than what we think about when we see them as merely 'orphans in need'?

    I still haven't found out where I stand on this question – if I would persue international adoption in the future. When I think about it, it humbles me to think of the responsibulity to incorporate the childs past, the childs original culture etc in their life so they won't feel all ties have been cut as they were moved to the other side of the globe.

    One adoptive mom said she felt it was always better to be in a family than in an orphanage. But what if there is some family left? What if they are 3, 5 or 7 years old and have language, friends, a daily life? I'm not sure what to answer to these questions but I was hoping this debate would address it. I do know Jesus told us to care for the orphans. But how do we do that best?

    1. Kate in NY
      October 25, 2010

      Good points, Kirstine. A month or so ago, there was a very long and heated debate on the NPR website – the discussion revolved around a review of Scott Simon's new book about his adopted Chinese daughters ("Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other.") Many of the comments came from adult adoptees, and they were angry. And grieving. They wrote precisely about the kind of historic and cultural losses you discuss above. One poster suggested that our Western notion that an individual nuclear family is ALWAYS the best place for a child to grow up is itself arrogant and presumptuous.

      I get his point. Maybe for the orphaned child, culture, language, tradition and extended family are all that s/he is left with, and we have no right to take them away. On the other hand, when we were in Ethiopia we saw plenty of children living on the streets, with no one to care for them, no food, no shelter, no education, no future – and danger and illness always lurking close at hand. That is where it gets so complicated! Even if we do find a way to integrate the "big picture" and the "small picture" when it comes to IA, who's to say we know even what's best?

      1. Kirstine
        October 31, 2010

        I understand why adult adoptees could get upset with the excerpt from Scott Simon's book. It didn't seem to have much understanding of what his daughter was going through as she was placed on the laps of strangers – now her parrents. He describes how she is crying and they just try to be happy and giggely hoping she'll chear up soon.

        But – about international adoption in general, I'm humbled by Honeybee's acount of what it's like not to have a mom. (https://www.onethankfulmom.com/the-daily/when-mommy-is-sick-by-honeybee/) I guess that kind of over rules other arguments you might have. Every child needs a family and if that's only possible through international adoption, so be it. But let's not close our eyes to what they give up in the proces.

  19. Shari
    October 24, 2010

    We are a family w/ 12 children, 7 of our children are adopted or we have guardianship. We have a mixture of Jamaican, Blackfoot, Mohawk, Chipewyn (Native American), & Ukrainian. 1 of our daughters was adopted from Ukraine…the others 6 came as foster children who stayed & became a precious part of our family. We do what we can to foster knowledge of & pride in & connections to their unique cultures & birth families.
    I believe we must take each child as an individual w/ individual needs. Each of our children has unique needs that lead to their adoption. It's hard to make statements about global problems when you look into their little faces…the story of the starfish on the beach touches me every time I hear it…all those starfish lying on the beach ..how can I make a difference?…but I can to THIS one.
    In a foster parenting class , we were given a picture of the Maslow's heirarchy of need. Children need a family before they can assimulate a cultural identity. Family is the foundation on which a healthy life is built.

  20. KTBrad
    October 27, 2010

    Ive had a hard time deciding if I should reply, and if so, how to. Being on the receiving end of an adoption scam that has left my children broken, I now hold an unpopular opinion of IA. I think as long as we Westerners demand healthy young children, third world countries will try to meet these demands, by any means they feel necessary. I think there should be a priority status. And true orphans with medical needs should go first. I spend hours up hours crying over the children on the Reeces Rainbow site, knowing that I failed those TRUE orphans. Those children who will never have a Mom to tuck them in at night or hold them while they cry. Instead, we adopted middle class children who would have attended college in Ethiopia and have a huge supportive extended family there. Four years later, we have yet to make peace with this all… I think supporting kids in their native country is much less selfless. And adopting children that may be considered less desirable, but are TRUE orphans, is what Christ would be pleased with.

  21. Wendy
    November 8, 2010

    Late to the table on this, but it's exactly what I recently battled with, and it cycles back on me occasionally. I also get caught up in reading blogs by adult adoptees. While their perspective is valuable in preparing for how my own adopted daughter may feel later in life, I also need to temper the adult adoptee's views with reality. And the reality is that MOST (at least in the visible blog grouping I read) of the adult adoptees writing were NOT adopted internationally. They were domestically adopted out in the 60's and 70's (Baby Scoop Era, from what I've learned from them), whose original birth certificates are no longer open. Having your young teenage mother pressured or forced into an adoption simply to provide a child to an infertile couple couple with money is a very different background from being orphaned/relinquished in a 3rd world country, and the injustice of it is completely understandable. Their anger and quest for reform does not change the fact that there is a place for adoption, especially internationally.
    I believe that international adoption is simply a band-aid to a very deep insidious wound. It helps a few, but it doesn't solve the root of the problem. I often question what I would have done if I had known my daughter's situation BEFORE we adopted her. Would it have helped to simply financially support an aunt who might have raised her? Maybe. I'm grateful for the peace the Lord has given me on it, but I still have to honestly answer that "maybe" it would have made a difference.
    And so I start this cycle of feeling guilt and grief over bringing our daughter our of her country and culture. And then I am reminded by a very wise friend that if we start simply giving large sums (relatively speaking) of money to families to support their children, then we will have simply traded one broken system for another, in creating another solution that can and will be used improperly. HOWEVER, it is my prayer and desire and even our inherent responsibility that adoptive parents will take the lead in developing support and infrastructure that will help remove the causes of children being orphaned, to help heal the deep wound. We need to become the champions of clean water and health care and affordable medicines and equality for women and economic opportunity for women…the list goes on. Can the children waiting in orphanages just sit and wait while we work on all these issues? No…they need families, and they can't wait until this uphill battle is won. And so we do everything in our power to keep our daughter connected to her heritage and culture. And we work for her country-now our country. The beautiful thing I see emerging is that adoptive families are truly becoming the greatest supporters of their child's country, and are working for change more passionately than anyone else!
    There is nothing simple about adoption. We pray for guidance. *Hopefully* prospective adoptive parents are researching ethical practices and choosing accordingly. And we walk the walk of promoting and empowering and funding change.
    I love how one commenter pointed out the macro/micro levels of the adoption scene…you have to look at both. Interestingly, I was having this whole "guilt battle" just two days before leaving for Ethiopia to legally become my daughter's parent. It was gut-wrenching. I did come to peace before I left, thanks to some wise counsel. But then I visited more than one orphanage while I was there, and it broke my heart. Honestly, one of my less-than-Christian thoughts was "Just let one of the angry, hateful, 'shut down all adoptions' critics come and hold all these crying, soaked babies for a day, and then see what they say." One Ethiopian once put it this way, "When you don't have food, water, or a home, then culture becomes a luxury."
    I fear I've written too much too late, but the fact that we remain uncomfortable with international adoption while at the same time participating in it is, I believe, and very strong position from which to operate.

    1. One Thankful Mom
      November 9, 2010

      Wendy, you definitely have not written too much. Thank you for your honest and transparent thoughts.


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