The Child Catchers

September 25, 2013

The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption by Kathryn Joyce, 2013.


In her book, Kathryn Joyce explores the religious Right’s renewed enthusiasm for domestic and international adoption. This craze had several predecessors dating back to the 1800s, in which various denominations of Christianity became interested in adopting babies or youth of different ethnic groups including Jews and Catholics, Native Americans, Koreans, and Jamaicans. The purpose was always to convert them to Christianity and save them from a life of poverty and crime. The bad influences on the children included their supposedly “backward” countries of origin or ethnic groups as well as their own families, even though the children were all portrayed as “orphans.”

Today’s adoption movement is similar. It uses nonexistent crises to make the religious Right appear socially conscious while propping up its ideology and harming the people it is trying to help. Joyce examines several countries that experienced adoption “sending” booms, including Haiti, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Rwanda, and Liberia.


The religious Right promotes the notion that there is a global crisis of millions of children orphaned by disasters and disease when, in reality, the children usually have family members to care for them. More often, religious Right adoption workers con parents into permanently giving up their children by exploiting a misunderstanding caused by cultural differences. Parents think their children will be educated in an affluent country and returned to them. They are devastated when they learn the truth. Some Americans, fanatically believing they are doing God’s will, start adoption agencies and attempt to kidnap children from developing countries without following any legal process.

This overemphasis on international adoption usually causes problems in the children’s adjustment to their well-meaning adoptive families. The most harrowing stories were of Liberian children exposed to the trauma of war and hunger and adopted by Quiverfull families (see “Ideological babies,” Oct.-Nov. 2009 N&L). This is the most extreme branch of the religious Right which emphasizes having, and adopting, as many children as possible. Psychology experts agreed that these children did not respond well to the Right-wing notion of love equaling obedience, nor to the abusive methods of punishment such as beating and food deprivation.


Joyce also discusses the damage caused by the religious Right’s use of domestic adoption to appear compassionate about abortion. She interviews Anne Fessler, author of The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade about the “Baby Scoop Era” of the 1950s and 60s. Young, single women were sent to maternity homes and pressured to surrender their babies for adoption. She tells the more recent story of a woman tricked into a closed adoption (having no contact with the child) in the modern equivalent of these homes. She examines how Korean women have been pressured into international adoption because the social attitudes in that country towards single mothers are similar to those of our “Baby Scoop Era.”

Joyce says that corruption has led to the large “sending” countries shutting down many adoption programs. However, these may be replaced by the international adoption of special needs children and children from smaller countries not falling under the Hague agreement regulating adoption. But she does notice a positive change. A feminist movement in Korea is changing attitudes about single mothers. A new focus supported by Christian organizations, even some fundamentalist ones, is on alleviating the real problem of poverty by funding community programs like education and emphasizing helping poor parents keep their children, helping orphans find relatives, and intra-country adoptions. There is a new realization that citizens of developing countries need allies in solving their problems. For this to succeed, the adoption movement’s supposed goal of social justice will have to overcome its fundamentalist goal of conversion and nationalism.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *