Why “Orphan Fever” Isn’t Always a Bad Thing

by Camille on May 13, 2013

A few weeks ago, Mother Jones published a lengthy article entitled “Orphan Fever: The Evangelical Movement’s Adoption Obsession.” The article reviews the book, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, by Kathryn Joyce.

I’m seriously late to the discussion, but I wanted to throw in a few thoughts. The book and the subsequent article have been making waves in the adoption community over the last few weeks as anti-adoption advocates refer to the book as proof of the evils inherent in all adoption and the pro-adoption crowd goes on the defensive.

I’m not writing this for the pro-adoption crowd. You guys and gals will continue bravely doing what you do, opening your homes and hearts to kids in need. You’ll gather your sweet babies close, give them extra kisses, and continue onward with the hard work of healing, attachment, and connective parenting. You’ll ignore the nay-sayers, the name-callers, and the judgement-passers, and go right on scrimping, saving, and fund-raising to bring home your next child.

I’m also not writing to the firmly cemented anti-adoption crowd. If you’ve made up your mind to embrace that label….if you reject the notion that there are any children in need of families and believe that all adoptions are unnecessary or corrupted, then there’s little reason for you to keep reading. Though, I might suggest that you check out one of my favorite posts, “Do Orphans Need Saving?” from Rage Against the Minivan. Also, I wrote about this documentary called Stuck that came out recently. Pretty sure they didn’t make up the footage of children banging their heads against walls from lack of stimulation or toddlers with teeth rotting from lack of proper nutrition.

But I digress….

I think I’m writing this for the “on-the-fencers.” The ones that read articles like the ones in Mother Jones and ache over injustice, but can’t reconcile such terrible stories with the adoptive families you know. I’m writing for you who have let your mind wander to what it might look like to adopt a child, but have been discouraged by the belief you might be contributing to child trafficking or separating families rather than creating one. I’m writing for those who wonder what exactly God meant when he said that pure and faultless religion is to “look after orphans and widows in their distress…” James 1:27.

So for you, here are a few thoughts:

– Don’t judge an entire institution based on extremes. 

We don’t judge the value of all plastic surgery by this:

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We don’t call for an end to all cruise ships because of this:

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We’re not going to completely disown Ben Affleck because of this:

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And yeah, I realize that adoption is much more serious business, but the same principle applies. Making judgments based on a few extreme examples is unproductive. The problem with Joyce’s book is that she attempts to paint a picture of the evangelical adoption movement by singling out a few isolated examples where things went terribly wrong. Articles discussing the book, therefore, are filled with loaded words ranging from the Mother Jones “obsession” to The Child-Catchers: Evangelicals and the Fake Orphan Racket.”  Yowsa.

The sad thing, is that like any system ran by humans, there are legitimate cases of corruption in adoption that need swift attention and practices that need reformed. In his review, pastor, adoptive father, and blogger Rick Morton clearly acknowledges the valid points of Joyce’s book including the following:

– Adoption should not be viewed through rose-colored glasses. We should always be working toward more ethical practices.

– Christians should be leading the charge in fighting instances of corruption and protecting children from trafficking or abuse. 

– Adoption is not always the answer. We must also support programs that fight the poverty and illness creating orphans.

– Whenever possible, families belong together. We must work to create in-country foster systems and supports allowing more people to parent their children. 

These are important topics, and to someone new to the adoption world,  there’s a great opportunity for education about these subjects.

From my experience, educated adoptive parents can be some of the most effective and influential people advocating for ethical practices. While adoptive parents cannot prevent the heartache and loss their children experience early in life, most are more than willing to take steps to ensure that lies and deceit are not part of the story. But while Joyce’s book does contain some useful information,  well…..the slightly inflammatory language used in reviewing the book and the extreme examples she uses to make her case will likely only offend and turn away readers rather than inviting the pro-adoption crowd to have a meaningful discussion.

Morton writes:

In all, I think Kathryn Joyce has misrepresented us and used fairly rare and isolated examples from the fringe in a way that makes them appear to be from the mainstream of the evangelical adoption community. I bear her no ill will, but It seems to me that she entered into her analysis with a bias instead of a sense of journalistic neutrality. I would love to talk to her and. as Paul Harvey would have said, tell her “the rest of the story.”

For instance, the book features Sam and Serene Allison, a Tennessee couple who adopted four children from Liberia. With four biological children already, the fundamentalist Allisons were apparently grossly unprepared for the realities of providing for, educating, and parenting their internationally adopted children. Abuse, neglect, and abandonment followed, and almost all of their adoptions failed or developed serious issues.

In a response to the article, faith blogger Jonathan Merritt writes the following:

… one has to make a logical leap of stratospheric proportions to assume that the behaviors of this family are somehow representative of the thousands of Christians who adopt each year. Joyce presumably knows this, so to build her case, she leans on a slew of fringe ministries, publications, and personalities.

Joyce also pulls heavily from Above Rubies, a magazine published by Serene’s mother, Nancy Campbell. The magazine is apparently popular among some fundamentalist Christians and some in the homeschool crowd. Apparently, the magazine promoted adoptions from Liberia through questionable agencies. However, Merritt and others point out that the publication is far from well-known, and it certainly doesn’t represent the majority of Christian adopters.

– Christian Parents Will Attempt to Raise Christian Children

(This Isn’t News, Y’all)

Another primary point of the book is that Christians are using adoption solely as a way to bring more souls to the kingdom of God. Okay. Mmmkay, let’s look at this argument.

As a Christian, do I believe God calls me to care for the widow and orphan? Yes.

Do I believe that God wants children to be raised in loving families instead of institutions? Yes.

Do I believe that I can honor God through the way I choose to build my family? Yes.

Do I adopt for the purpose of ranking up a higher score on my Super-Duper, Christianity Conversion Scorecard? Heck, no. Of course I’m going to raise my children with Christian values and traditions….kinda how Muslim parents raise their kids to follow Islam or Buddhists parents will raise little Buddhists.

Actually, of the three young adults in our family, not all of them identify as Christians, and that’s okay. We still love and value them. We try to share our faith by the way we live and treat our fellow man, but we learned long ago that belief is not something that can be forced on another person. We want all of our children to choose to follow Christ because they meet and know Jesus, not because they are blindly accepting what we or anyone else has taught them.

Pearl-style Discipline is a PARENTING problem,

Not an Adoption Problem

The article also spends several paragraphs discussing how families in the book followed discipline techniques in Michael and Debi Pearl, How to Train Up a Child.

There’s no other way to say this: the Pearls are crazy. Completely, totally jacked UP. Go see for yourself. Check out Rachel Held Evans’ post, The Abusive Teachings of Michael and Debi Pearl. She quotes extensively from the book in which the Pearls advocate spanking babies as young as six months with switches and using plumping tubes or belts to spank older children until their will is completely broken.

Several children have died brutal deaths at the hands of parents using the Pearls’ disciplinary teachings. And some of those children were in adoptive families. However, the implication is that this book and its brutal mentality is common or expected among adoptive parents, and that’s just not true.

In a comment on this post, blogger Kristen Howerton says the following:

The Pearls, and the other parenting issues within fundamental families, are PARENTING issues, not specifically international adoption issues. The practices are harmful to bio and adoptive children alike. But horror stories that have occurred in fringe families should not be held as an example of the problems of the evangelical adoption movement, and that is what happened in the article… (emphasis mine) 

Preach it, sister. Preach.

Oh no you didn’t!

Okay, while researching the various responses to the book for this post and trying to give Joyce the benefit of the doubt, I came across this comment from Missy Dollahon. She recently adopted a daughter from Ethiopia, and she blogs at It’s Almost Naptime. I’ve followed Missy’s blog and adoption journey for years, and I admire her faith, courage, and humor. Apparently, Joyce stalked her blog, stole a few quotes, and completely misrepresented her in the book. Dear Ms. Joyce, plagiarism is NOT cool. In Missy’s words from HERE: 

I’m a Christian with moderate political views who recently adopted a two year old double orphan who was classified as special needs after a three year wait and an extensive, two year investigation to determine her orphan status not once, but twice.

I am also someone who was quoted twice so far (and I’m only on chapter 4) by your friend Kathryn in her book, characterized as someone who wanted a baby ‘as young as possible’ without her mentioning that the reason that I (and so many other families) originally requested an infant was 1) it was an agency requirement as our youngest child at the time was only 2 years old and all agencies require an age spread and 2) at the time I had a 2 year old, a 3 year old, a 4 year old, and a 5 year old, only one of whom was in school, so adopting an older special needs child with attachment difficulties seemed quite irresponsible given my resources as a mother.

The way that she described me, you’d think that Nancy Campbell and I got together at Home Depot to buy plumbing line each week to swat our kids with, but I could not be much more different from her extreme examples, and this is apparent to anyone who reads my blog, which Ms. Joyce evidently spent a good deal of time doing. I represent the majority of Evangelicals with ‘orphan fever’ – passionate about justice in ALL forms, including adoption ethics, with nary a denim jumper in our closet.

Oh, but the best part? I was plagiarized, since my second direct quote was not in anyway notated.

Now, what was that you were you saying about shoddy journalism?

Wahahaha! Thanks Missy.


In conclusion, go ahead and read Kathryn Joyce’s book, and if it leads you to seek more information and advocate for ethical adoption practices, that’s wonderful. Just make sure you acknowledge that she wrote with a clear agenda rather than journalistic objectivity, relied heavily on extreme examples not representative of the majority of evangelicals, and completely twisted her portrayal of at least one adoptive mother.

Also, dear potential adoptive parents, don’t be afraid of the fever.  Embrace the obsession. The nervous excitement. The passion. For how else should we feel about children? How else should we treat the youngest members of the kingdom?

In no way do I think that God calls all Christians to adopt; it’s a lifetime commitment down a long and difficult path. It should not be entered into lightly. But there is also no shame in being called. So whether you are feeding the hungry or clothing the naked or caring for the orphan….by all means, do it with some umph! Do it with the fire of the God who works in you.

Because orphan fever is not a bad thing.

And if you’d like a more complete picture of the Christian adoption movement, here are some cool families I know:

The Super Sloans

The Ottinger Family

The McRoberts Clan

We Have Room

Injera and Chocolate Gravy

And as Missy pointed out, they manage it all without beating their kids with plumbing supplies. Amazing, I know.





Jackie May 13, 2013 at 10:46 pm

Thank you! Logically I know that we’re going to find the right kids for our family, kids that will benefit from our unique experiences. And that we aren’t trying to steal a kid from someone who could be a good parent given a few resources. But I’ve been battered by the militant anti-adoption people and it’s really made it hard to shake. And while I know all the things you wrote, for some reason, reading it helped me tonight.

We can’t possibly improve the state of children in this country if we’re demonizing the other side or ignoring evidence that runs counter to our ‘side’. And while making the system better, kids still need to be cared for.
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Camille May 14, 2013 at 8:34 am

Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment. You are welcome! 🙂 Glad I could encourage someone today. I know what you mean about sometimes feeling “battered” by the anti-adoption crowd. We have a daughter who was adopted domestically as an infant among our kiddos, so that really makes me a “baby-stealer” according to some. But as you said, all kids need to be cared for. All deserve a family. Best to you and yours!

Amber May 14, 2013 at 9:17 am

Camille, what an extensive great blog post about this! Thanks so much for all the time and research you put into this!! Just coming off my STUCK high from last night, this was such a great blog to read!

Camille May 14, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Hah! Thanks. Frequency isn’t a strength of mine, so when I write, I go LONG. 🙂 Appreciate the kind words.

Nancy May 14, 2013 at 11:51 am

Great insights here — I was so dismayed and disheartened by the article (haven’t been able to get the book from my library yet, and I’m not planning to pay for it). My greatest dismay was the thought that people considering adoption would be turned away by the biased account she presents. I am all for exposing corruption and evil in adoption, but do some more research, for crying out loud — I was disturbed by her assumption that all Christians are like the tiny fringe she writes about, or her deliberate misrepresentation of Christianity — whichever it was.
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Camille May 14, 2013 at 3:44 pm

Exactly! Thanks for taking the time to read and the encouraging words. 🙂

Missy Dollahon February 16, 2014 at 12:12 am

Just found this. Thank you so much. Being misrepresented stings, even many months later. I appreciate you sticking up for me.

Camille February 17, 2014 at 1:15 pm

Thanks Missy! Love your blog and your precious family. Thanks for all the laughter and inspiration you’ve provided to so many. Keep loving on your kiddos and ignore the haters. We know the ONE who will have the final words.

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