For some, churches are always the problem. Despite decades of efforts to recruit, train, and support families to foster and adopt children who have been neglected, abused, or abandoned, churches still get the blame when things go wrong. Some of these attacks are drearily predictable. Writers like Kathryn Joyce have made careers out of suggesting that Christians are engaged in child-trafficking, and that the only reason they want to take in orphans is to gain more adherents for the faith. But the most recent attack on churches—in the form of a feature-length article in Newsweek—is perhaps the most absurd yet.
Reporter Julia Duin suggests that churches somehow conned families into adopting children without warning them about the challenges they might encounter. “Parents,” she writes, “now say that the churches that encouraged them to adopt in the first place aren’t there for them now.” In particular, she says, parents weren’t prepared for the mental-health issues that the children in their care might have.
This is a story that might have been written a quarter of a century ago, when Americans faced the aftermath of a rise in international adoptions. Christians had been adopting children from places like Romania, where they had endured neglect in institutions and had developed severe attachment disorders as a result. Just two years ago, in fact, The Atlantic ran a moving piece on the subject, describing a child named Izidor who was adopted from a Romanian institution at the age of 11 in 1991. He was never able to adapt to live in the home of the San Diego family who took him in. Ultimately, his violent outbursts and their inability to afford a psychiatric hospital for him led him to move out at the age of 18. As he told the author, “I’m not a person who can be intimate. It’s hard on a person’s parents, because they show you love and you can’t return it.” In the mid-to-late 1990s, the news was full of stories about such damaged adopted children. Indeed, more than one parent tried to send their child back.
So troubling were these experiences that child-development experts developed a program about 20 years ago to help kids who had experienced this trauma to learn how to function in a family. Foster parents and child-welfare systems around the country now use Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) to help children adopted internationally and from foster care.
Duin cites a ten-year-old study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that reported the rate of “adoption disruptions” as ranging from 10 percent to 25 percent. She says that “this little-known statistic points to a meltdown in the industry and a sign that adoption and foster care have become a landmine for many families who believed God had called them to help these children.” But note, these are disruptions—the termination of an adoption that has not yet been completed—as opposed to dissolutions, in which an adoption is legally completed and then undone. There are all sorts of reasons for disruptions, particularly for kids in foster care, but we should not delude ourselves into thinking that churches failing to warn families about mental illness are responsible for many of these.
Mental illness is indeed a tsunami coming for families who adopt children, particularly out of foster care. These kids have often experienced years of abuse and neglect at the hands of their biological parents. (And the prevailing zeitgeist in the child welfare field is that they should be left in these homes even longer.) By the time they are adopted, they may have experienced multiple placements with relatives and nonrelatives. There is a shortage of mental-health professionals to help them, a shortage of beds in congregate care facilities for the most severe cases, and a child-welfare system that is ill-equipped to handle such cases.
But there is no evidence that churches that encourage adoption have failed to warn families of these problems. While different churches do better and worse jobs of supporting foster and adoptive families, pretty much all the innovation in this area in recent decades has come from churches. Duin even interviews some of the leaders of faith-based organizations that have tried to support these families.
Organizations like the Christian Alliance for Orphans, which links together hundreds of groups across the country (and the globe), have worked to give families the proper training they need to bring these kids into their home. Many even use TBRI to train parents. They have organized circles of volunteers to wrap around every adoptive and foster family so they don’t feel that they are going on this journey alone. And they have tried to create more foster-friendly churches, where children with mental or behavioral health challenges are not exiled from Sunday services because of disruptions they may cause. These efforts remain a work in progress, but tens of thousands of Christians are engaged in them.
Duin quotes “Gwen,” a pseudonym for a mental-health counselor in Mobile, Alabama, who tells her: “There is still idealism and naivete in the Christian community. . . . Right now, there is a huge push toward foster care. From a mental health perspective, some of these families are engaging in a rescuer victim-relationship with their foster or adopted children: ‘I will be a rescuer to these victim children, and I’ll do God’s work and they will be thankful and have few problems.’”
Perhaps some families that adopt out of foster care are naïve, but what, exactly, is the alternative? Is there a surfeit of non-Christian families volunteering to foster? Are they somehow more prepared for the mental-health tsunami? Are they more realistic about these prospects because they’re not doing “God’s work?” The answers: no, no and no. Most states have a shortage of foster families. And evangelical Christians are disproportionately stepping up to do this work. They also happen to be the ones with the organizations that train and recruit foster and adoptive parents. And they have the tight-knit communities required to support families engaged in this very hard work.
Throwing evangelicals under the bus because they are the ones actually making these efforts—risking the stability and happiness of their marriages and families to make room for vulnerable kids—is deeply unfair. Duin and her editors at Newsweek should know better.