“The Child Catchers” by Kathryn Joyce

I recently read Kathryn Joyce’s The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption. The book’s premise can be summarized by this excerpt from the description on Kathryn Joyce’s website:

To tens of millions of evangelicals, adoption has become a new front in the culture wars: a test of “pro-life” bonafides, a way to reinvent compassionate conservatism on the global stage, and a means to fulfill the “Great Commission” mandate that Christians evangelize the nations. Influential leaders fervently promote a new “orphan theology,” urging followers to adopt en masse, with little thought for the families these “orphans” may actually have. Christian adoption activists have added moral weight to a multi-billion dollar adoption industry intent on increasing the “supply” of adoptable children, both at home and overseas.

The Child Catchers is a shocking exposé of what the adoption industry has become and how it got there, told through deep investigative reporting and the heartbreaking stories of individuals who found that their own, and their children’s, well-being was ultimately irrelevant in a market driven by profit and now, pulpit command.

There’s a lot to say about The Child Catchers, but my overriding reaction is intense frustration that so little has been learned and implemented following Guatemala’s shutdown. Many of the cases cited by Kathryn Joyce take place in Ethiopia and involve corrupt facilitators in-country, who coerce and trick before the final faked paperwork ever makes it as far as the US Embassy. As you probably know if you’re reading this, Ethiopia replaced Guatemala as the adoption “hot spot,” and adoption numbers there sky rocketed after Guatemala closed.

Will nothing ever change?

My second reaction is more of a question: Why should anyone’s religious beliefs enter into the debate over corruption in international adoption? Adoption practices either are corrupt, or they’re not. If they are, shut them down. Or better, don’t allow them to start, which is the intention of the Hague Treaty.

If adoption practices are not corrupt, then it really shouldn’t be anyone’s business why someone chooses to adopt, or what religion they embrace. Religious freedom is one of the hallmarks of the US. Honestly, I’m curious to know what Kathryn Joyce hopes to accomplish by criticizing evangelical Christians for their beliefs and practices. Because my guess is that such criticism in fact may produce the opposite effect of what she intended. Instead of reform, it may (understandably) cause (some) evangelical Christians to feel attacked, leading to a posture of defense.

As I noted above, the book’s description states “[t]o tens of millions of evangelicals, adoption has become the new front in the culture wars,” implying that tens of millions of evangelicals are adopting children internationally through nefarious means. This simply isn’t true. The number of intercountry adoptions to the United States in 2012 in total was fewer than 9,000. If the “tens of millions” refers to evangelicals who are concerned about children in need, then wonderful. Otherwise, the figure seems exaggerated and misleading.

Overall, Joyce’s book is thoroughly researched and well-written, albeit to me as an adoptive mother, unfairly one-sided. Adoption for my husband and me, and every other adoptive parent I know (and that’s a lot of people), is about creating a family. That said, I respect Joyce’s point of view and her right to tell the story she feels compelled to report.

One quibble, though, with The Child Catchers, in general:  Joyce devotes much ink to the case of “self-declared missionary” Laura Silsby, who illegally removed children from Haiti after the earthquake, even while admitting Silsby was an outlier who chose not to follow the rules. This was true of several “players” Joyce profiled, who seem extreme in every way, not only regarding adoption.

Also: I was sorry and confused to read that some US birth mothers affected by the 50s “Baby Scoop,” now feel that parents who opt for open adoption are doing so only as a way to ingratiate themselves to birth mothers, and perhaps convince them to relinquish their babies. As many of you reading this know, our family chose open adoption with our kids because we believe it’s healthiest—mentally, psychologically, spiritually, and just the right thing to do—for everyone involved. I’m very sad to learn that some birth mothers may feel we have an ulterior motive or immoral agenda.

Here are links to interviews and articles for more information. The first is a cogent rebuttal by adoptive parent and Senior Counsel at the Center for American Law and Justice, David French. The remainder feature Kathryn Joyce and The Child Catchers:

From the National Review Online: Is the Left Launching an Attack on Evangelical Adoption? by David French.

An interview with Kathryn Joyce on NPR’s Fresh Air: How Evangelical Christians Are Preaching the New Gospel of Adoption.

Kathryn Joyce’s 2011 article in The Nation: The Evangelical Adoption Crusade.

Kathryn Joyce’s 2011 article in The Atlantic: How Ethiopia’s Adoption Industry Dupes Families and Bullies Activists.

An book excerpt in the May 2013 Mother Jones: Orphan Fever.

Finally, a link to an MSNBC interview conducted by Melissa Harris-Perry with Tarikuwa Lemma, a young woman featured in the book who was adopted from Ethiopia at 13 and is now an adult. Scroll around the site to find the interview with Kathryn Joyce and Karen Moline, board member from PEAR (People for Ethical Adoption Reform). I especially liked what PEAR board member Karen Moline said, as an adoptive mother to a son from Vietnam, circa 2001 I believe. Something like “American parents are so trusting that they never, ever believe that bad people motivated by greed could be involved in adoption.” Yes, that would be my husband and me, in the beginning of our process, before we knew anything.

On that note. Still praying for the families of the Guatemala 900, waiting, at a minimum, for more than five years. ~


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6 Responses to ““The Child Catchers” by Kathryn Joyce”

  1. Sveta Nikitina-Kim says:

    Reading the book now, towards the end. Excellent review. This should be published!

  2. Jessica says:

    Thank you so much for reading the book, Sveta, and for your kind words about my review. I appreciate the vote of confidence!

  3. nina says:

    Great review Jessica! As always you bring out the questions and issues that need to be looked at. I agree – this should be published! I am looking forward to reading the book.

  4. Jessica says:

    Thanks, Nina. I feel as if I’m a minority of one with my opinion; every major review I’ve read, like the book itself, skewers the Evangelical movement as the cause of corruption. Maybe because I’ve been looking at this subject for so long, I view it differently. Corruption existed long before Evangelicals embraced international adoption; Evangelicals did not invent adoption corruption.

    Fix the system! Get to the root of the problem! To me, that’s the real issue–not one’s religious beliefs or motivations for adopting.

    Anyway, another review to read, on Salon:


    I’ll lend you my copy! ~

  5. Tracie says:

    From your post: “My second reaction is more of a question: Why should anyone’s religious beliefs enter into the debate over corruption in international adoption? Adoption practices either are corrupt, or they’re not. If they are, shut them down. Or better, don’t allow them to start, which is the intention of the Hague Treaty.”

    I think I can help answer this. In this case it is relevant because unlike criminal traffickers, these people actually believe what they’re doing is for a greater good–so that it’s not money motivating them, but a belief they’re unquestionably “doing right”–and that the creator of the universe has instructed them, personally, to proceed with this. They believe they’re literally above any laws of men, not only that they might get around them.

    Understanding motivates matters any time you’re seeking solutions to a problem. “Why” people are misbehaving can’t be ignored if the goal is to address the problem robustly. A belief that these children’s souls take priority over preservation of their family units means these people prioritize getting these children out of non-Christian situations *over* keeping the families intact. To them, a child reunited with family in a non-Christian situation is a child “lost”—not a child “saved.” This is at odds with what is *actually*, demonstrably, best for the children, but these people are blinded to that by religious rigor—which can often be a far stronger personal motivator, than simple financial gain.

    Good people are being misled into doing horrible things. Trying to treat them as “the same” as a person who, for example, does not care about the children, who is just trying to make a quick buck, is unwise. Greater understanding of the situation can only help with useful solutions. For example, do you imagine a criminal trafficker, without “god’s work” and “good Christian homes” to fall back on, could have so easily slandered UNICEF, and been immediately believed to be telling the truth, even gaining government support of legislators here in the US? Likely not. But an Evangelical church concern? It’s nearly automatic social and governmental support. “Bad UNICEF” standing in the way of these “good Christians,” is much easier to get people in the U.S. to buy into, than “Bad UNICEF” standing in the way of these “child traffickers trying to sell stolen babies.”

    The book makes it clear that the trafficking problem is greatly compounded the moment Evangelicals get a whiff of the blood of desperate families that may be encouraged (coerced/tricked) to relinquish their children to a “better life” (a Christian upbringing). She gives examples of nations that allowed international adoption, ended up on the radar of the Evangelical adoption drives, and then had to shut down such adoptions, because the Christian movement is *that* influential and powerful in creating the demand side of this equation. It takes an abuse and turns it into an overwhelming tide of destruction. As the author notes—infertile couples alone could not create this type of overwhelming demand for “orphans.” But the Christian Evangelicals can create such a tide easily.

    > As I noted above, the book’s description states “[t]o tens of millions of evangelicals, adoption has become the new front in the culture wars,” implying that tens of millions of evangelicals are adopting children internationally through nefarious means.

    Actually, this is not what I got from the quote or the book. It appeared to encompass how the overall Evangelical movement adds their numbers to fuel these fires. The author early on uses Silsby’s own story of failed adoption attempt after failed adoption attempt (and outrageous costs—tens of thousands of dollars), to show that a successful adoption isn’t always easy (which is why they are motivated to move to trafficking instead). These people may not be, themselves, adopting, but support the trafficking: Consider those who contributed money to Silsby, for example. They’re just as much a part of this trafficking—even if they, themselves, don’t adopt her trafficked children. They’re still funding the trafficking, because it’s god’s mission, in their heads. Saying “tens of millions of evangelicals, adoption has become the new front in the culture wars,” is not the same as claiming all of them have successfully adopted, or even that they’re all interested in personally adopting. It’s simply an initiative they have adopted and support—that causes destruction.

    > This was true of several “players” Joyce profiled, who seem extreme in every way,..

    Yes, I agree, they are religious extremists. But the people who donated to their “missions” are probably the standard pew-on-Sunday Christians, who don’t even question what sort of evil they might be handing their money toward. The pastor says it’s a worthy cause/mission, and so they hand over their money for it and go home feeling good for “helping” these poor children. I think the author is very clear that these are people with *good intentions*–but who are easily led/misled, out of a willingness to do god’s work here on Earth. Unlike the criminal trafficker, you can arrest him and shut him down. And everyone applauds the shutdown of the criminal “bad guy”—but shut down the Christian mission, and you are the “bad guy” who hates children (just ask UNICEF). I recall when Silsby was caught on the border—the media coverage immediately turned sympathetic toward her, reporting it was just a misunderstanding, a clerical mishap. The initial headlines of the missionary child trafficker immediately became “poor woman, trying to help kids, is just in the middle of a big paper-work malfunction.” What group openly stealing babies for money—without the “god’s work” veneer—is going to be so lovingly handled for destroying families and harming children?

    These “extreme” people did what they did with support from many, many like-minded people of a shared faith who aren’t “extreme”—but who are every bit as misguided, because they believe this is good god-willed mission work they’re supporting—even when the “extreme” member is caught red-handed. She’s excused—a martyr, arrested for trying to save god’s children. And if we simply view her in the same way we do the criminal who traffics kids for money, we will deal with *her*, but fail to make sure her supporters—the Evangelical Christian movement—understand that funding these types of projects is supporting a real evil. Unless that movement is called out—as well as Silsby—the demand and money pushing other Silsbys to do likewise—won’t be impacted in the least.

  6. Thank you for your comments. I stand by my belief that corruption in international adoption existed before the Evangelical movement embraced it. And it should be noted that much of the corruption happens before any American citizen becomes involved: that is, paperwork is doctored or children are “found” by local operators who are motivated by profit.

    For most Americans who enter the world of adoption without the benefit of deep research (and this is most of them), corruption around the subject of adoption is unthinkable. They don’t break laws and they can’t fathom that other people do. Learning about corruption in adoption comes as a total and complete shock.

    In addition, most American parents who adopt are instructed by their agencies not to leave their hotels in-country. This is important because it means that most American parents have seen nothing of the country from which they are adopting, and thus are unable to form a realistic picture of what it “looks like.”

    Adoption is a complicated legal process that requires mounds of paperwork and a significant emotional and financial investment on the part of families. To reduce the process to adoptive parents being motivated by the “whiff of the blood of desperate families” is incredible to me. This does not describe the emotion or thought process of me, or any person I know.

    Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and in fact, I’ve learned little can be done to change another person’s mind. It appears as if Kathryn Joyce has a specific point of view, as evidenced by this book as well as her previous writings about the Evangelical movement, and now is focusing her efforts on maligning all of international adoption because of a small percentage of dishonest players. That’s her right.

    In any case, adoption programs around the world have closed and are closing due to evidence of corruption, the decision of countries not to participate, and a growing popular opinion against the process.

    Thank you again for writing.

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