Orphan Fever: The Evangelical Movement's Adoption Obsession

In Mother Jones magazine, a story about the dark side of the evangelical adoption movement that has swept the United States over the past decade: "When devout Christian families made it their mission to save children from war-torn countries, the match was often far from heavenly."

There's a related infographic on the rise in US adoptions from war-torn countries, and corresponding corruption.

The story focuses on an evangelical Christian Tennessee family who adopted, and according to their adoptees, abused, a series of children from war-torn Liberia. They first adopted four children, then another two.

[Christian wifehood magazine] Above Rubies feature on evangelical couple Sam and Serene Allisons, with their adopted and biological children.

They didn't attend school, either; home schooling mostly consisted of Serene reading to the younger children. When the older kids watched a school bus drive past on a country road and asked why they couldn't go, they were met with various excuses. So Isaiah and Alfred worked with Sam in his house-painting business or labored in Nancy Campbell's immense vegetable garden while CeCe, Kula, and Cherish cleaned, cooked, and tended to a growing brood of young ones. It was also the job of the "African kids," as they called themselves, to keep a reservoir filled with water from the creek. CeCe hadn't yet learned to read when Serene gave her a book on midwifery so she could learn to deliver their future babies. "They treated us pretty much like slaves," she said. It's a provocative accusation, but one that Kula and Isaiah—as well as two neighbors and a children's welfare worker—all repeated.

Discipline included being hit with rubber hosing or something resembling a riding crop if the children disrespected Serene, rejected her meals, or failed to fill the reservoir. For other infractions, they were made to sleep on the porch without blankets. Engedi, the toddler, was disciplined for her attachment to CeCe. To encourage her bond with Serene, the Allisons would place the child on the floor between them and CeCe and call her. If Engedi went to CeCe instead, the children recalled, the Allisons would spank her until she wet herself

The Mother Jones report focuses on the plight of this group of Liberian adoptees, but as I read it, I'm struck by how closely their story—and the larger context of adoptions from conflict zones in Africa—mirrors what I've investigated here in Guatemala over the years, where I am currently covering the genocide trial of former general and dictator Rios Montt.

As multiple expert witnesses for the prosecution in the genocide trial have testified, the internal armed conflict here tore apart indigenous communities and families, killing parents, creating orphans, displacing children, and acculturating them out of their indigenous identities.

The Guatemalan Army was closely tied with Christian organizations, including Montt's own "El Verbo" evangelical Pentecostal church, which facilitated adoptions en masse, leading to Guatemala becoming one of the largest "sender" countries for foreign adoptions.

There are many similarities between the Guatemalan adoption industry story and the 2000's-era Christian adoption phenomena described in the Mother Jones piece. Related reading, for those interested: Finding Fernanda, a book by Erin Siegal about how an American housewife discovered that the Guatemalan child she was about to adopt had been stolen from her birth mother.