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When orphan care goes bad: Russell Moore on why adoption is not for everyone

(Ivan Jekic/ iStockphoto)

Some said the parents thought the children they had adopted were demon-possessed. The story was that they’d tried exorcism, and couldn’t drive the devils out. The parents say the story was nothing quite so supernatural. The children displayed severe mental and emotional trauma, they claim, to the point that they feared for the safety of their other children, so they sent them to live with another family.

I can’t judge from here who’s right or wrong in the particular case of reports surrounding why Arkansas state Rep. Justin Harris (R) gave away his adopted child. I just know this story is all too familiar.

Every few weeks or so, it seems, I hear of another family on the verge of “disruption,” the term used to describe families relinquishing back to the system children they have adopted. As with divorce, in some of these situations, there is no alternative to the tragic outcome. But as with divorce, in other cases, many of the adoptions did not need the nuclear option.

As a Christian, I believe every part of the church is called to care for widows and orphans.

Those of us who advocate on behalf of children in need of parents, whether in religious communities or advocacy groups or in government agencies, should make clear from the beginning the high stakes involved in adoption and foster care. The only thing worse than a family shirking their duty to vulnerable orphans is a family adopting when they’re not equipped to do so after being made aware of all of the risks involved. Jesus tells us, after all, that only a foolish king goes out to a war with an army he doesn’t have.

Our culture all too often fear children who have been adopted. While the demon angle of this story may or may not be fabricated, I have heard of a television evangelist suggesting that children adopted from overseas might have demons attached to them. This sort of orphan paranoia isn’t just from those who are religious. I have been told by secular “progressive” parents that they don’t want to adopt because they are afraid the child might “turn out to have something wrong with her.”

These fears are unfounded, as the large numbers of well-adjusted children in American culture, adopted at all stages of life, demonstrate. But we could also easily overreact to the bias against adopted kids with a picture of adoption that is overly sentimental, gauzing over very real heartache that can come with adoption.

Potential parents should be told, from the beginning, that every child adopted or fostered will be, in a very real sense, a “special needs” child. In every case of adoption or foster care, there’s a tragedy. Someone died, or someone was addicted, or someone was impoverished, or someone left. Sometimes the trauma of this reveals itself immediately—and sometimes it remains subterranean for years.

What we need are not potential parents who have checked off all the potential risks on a disclosure statement. We need instead parents who are eyes-open about what could happen, and who see that what they are adopting is not a project or a cause but a child, a child with all the complications, joyful and heartbreaking, that can come with being human in a fallen universe. This means spending as much time in the pre-adoption process as good churches do in the premarital counseling process, making sure the potential parents are ate of the vows they are making, and that they are up to keeping them.

This also means, though, that we support families, especially those who are raising children with difficult past trauma. The community — including church communities — can’t see the adoption story as ending when the last baby shower present is opened or when the welcoming party from the Sunday school class has left the airport. Adopting parents with difficult children need the ministry of those who will see to it that families don’t suffer alone in difficult situations, even if that just means providing ways for couples to get away for a few days to regroup or to consult with mental health professionals as they seek to love their child through some special trauma.

No matter what we do, we will always have some families formed through adoption who splinter apart, just as we have families formed the more typical way who fracture. But by making sure the community sorts the merely good-intentioned from the adequately equipped from the adoption pool can help. And ensuring that we have not just one family involved in an adoption, but a network of “extended relatives” willing to help shoulder the responsibility, can bolster the family’s adoption.

Adoption is a beautiful, life-giving act, when taken up by those called to and equipped for it. But it does a child no good to be brought into a family that has counted their blessings but hasn’t counted the cost. In the worst of these situations, the formation of a family can end up in an ugly torrent of blame, with parents and children and the system sometimes all demonizing each other with their words, sometimes quite literally. Children and families deserve better than that. 

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