6 Take-Aways from Bethany Christian Services’ Decision to Cease International Adoptions

After four decades helping children find families through inter-country adoption, Bethany Christian Services has announced it will stop providing this service in 2021.

Major constrictions on international adoption by countries like Russia, Ethiopia and China – along with increased costs of US regulations and a range of other factors – have caused inter-country adoptions to drop significantly in recent years: from nearly 23,000 in 2004 to just over 4,000 in 2018.  Bethany is the latest of many agencies that have been forced to close or focus on other forms of service.

News of Bethany’s decision stirs a wide range of thoughts and feelings among advocates for children.  What do we need to keep in mind amidst it all?

1. Good work will continue

Bethany and many other agencies that previously facilitated inter-country adoptions also have long histories of other impactful work, from foster care to health programs to refugee services.   Most all of these organizations intend to continue growing these other programs over the years to come, including Bethany.  In this, they will be working alongside thousands of other organizations and ministries worldwide devoted to family strengthening, health, economic development and much more.  Meanwhile, many respected agencies will continue to help children reach families through international adoption.

2. Local adoptions are rising

Openness to adoption is increasing in places like China, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Ukraine and a number of other countries.  While the numbers of these adoptions are still relatively small – and primarily only include healthy infants – this trend is tremendously encouraging.  Admittedly, we still have immense work to do.  In many countries around the world, powerful anti-adoption stigmas still hold sway.  Adoption of a non-related child is still very rare, and adoption of children with special needs nearly non-existent in most regions.  Even so, these emerging movements provide good reason for hope of further progress over the years ahead.

3. There is still great need for inter-country adoption

Millions of children today are growing up without families.  With strong family tracing and support efforts, many of these can be reunited with parents or kin.  Many others, especially infants, can be adopted within their own country.  These local options should always be our first choice whenever achievable in a safe and timely manner.  But no matter how robust these efforts, countless other children will, in fact, grow up outside of families without inter-country adoption – especially children with even minor special needs.   If all adoption agencies were to shift exclusively to other services, we’d relegate these children to life without family permanently.  Inter-country adoption will never be the mass-scale fix that commodities like food or medicines can sometimes provide, but — properly done — it can transform the lives of tens of thousands of children every year.

4. We must avoid a false dichotomy

The fierce polarization of our culture can push advocates into competing “tribes” – each promoting their own preferred solution and disparaging others.  This can happen even with adoption, appearing to pit local adoption against international adoption as if one had to lose for the other to win.  That’s a false choice.  Thoughtful advocates for children can champion both.  We can encourage and support family strengthening, family restoration and local adoptions whenever possible … while also enabling international adoption when a child is unlikely to find a family nearby in a timely manner.

5. Adoption can be difficult wherever it happens

When a single mother in America tragically returned her internationally adopted son to Russia in 2010, Russians reacted with understandable anger and judgement.  Yet the very next year, Russian adoptive families returned an estimated 4,600 children to local orphanages.  No doubt, these would-be parents were poorly prepared and poorly supported.  But if considering adoption, we must know this:  most every child welcomed through adoption has experienced deep loss, and sometimes much worse.  To receive these children is to share in their hurt.  Adoption is among the most beautiful things on earth, and studies consistently show that it can work profound healing over time.  Yet adoption can also include some of the deepest struggles and pain imaginable, sometimes right alongside the joy.  That is true wherever adoption occurs.  I have dear friends who feel they are walking through fire as they help their adopted children toward healing in Ohio and California and Washington, DC.  I have other dear friends who would say much the same of their local adoptions in Romania and Guatemala and Uganda.

6. Local and inter-country adoption can be mutually strengthening

When part of a well-designed system, inter-country adoption helps grow local adoption and other local services in a way little else can.  These adoptions bring both funding and technical expertise that can help develop local adoption systems – from social workers to judicial systems and more.  Meanwhile, as studies have shown, both humanitarian aid and development investments consistently follow adoptions as adoptive families continue support for their child’s home country – often for decades after the adoption itself.  Meanwhile, inter-country adoption inspires local citizens to consider adoption, even in cultures with deep anti-adoption stigmas.  It is no coincidence that countries with growing interest in local adoption – including Guatemala, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ukraine, China, the Philippines, Korea, Russia, and Romania – are the same countries that saw significant numbers of inter-country adoptions in recent decades.  Why?  Local citizens, initially with great surprise, observed foreigners welcoming children “no one else wanted” – not merely as household help, but as full sons and daughters.  Many are now doing the same.  (It’s also worth mentioning that inter-country adoption has much the same effect in “receiving countries” like the US, as both adoptive families and their friends, relatives and churches are altered profoundly by  adoption.  Again and again I’ve seen a single adoption experience ultimately working to inspire a huge array of local efforts in American communities, from foster care and mentoring to family restoration.)

What can we take from all this? 

We’re not just for international adoption.  And we’re not just for local adoption.  We’re for children knowing the protection, nurture and love of family.  That means we’re for both local adoption and international adoption…and much more besides. 

I believe it reminds that we can (and must!) continue to expand our efforts to support local family strengthening, reunification and adoption – just as Bethany has pledged to do.  Many tremendous organizations, from Africa to Asia, Central America to Eastern Europe are doing exactly this.  There are also myriad locally-led efforts that draw inspiration from World Without Orphans and are also served by the CAFO Global Network.

At the same time, we need not (and must not!) close the door to family for children who will never reach one without inter-country adoption.

Most importantly, we don’t need to fall into the either-or polarization that infects so many issues today.  We’re not just for international adoption.  And we’re not just for local adoption.  We’re for children knowing the protection, nurture and love of family.  That means we’re for both local adoption and international adoption…and much more besidesAnd whatever our unique calling and specialization, we can all work together for these worthy ends.