Interview in 2015 from the Riley Blog:
At this year’s Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO) Summit, David Smolin, Law Professor, was invited along as the “critic” of the movement to take part in one of the breakout sessions between him and Jedd Medicind, President of CAFO. The session lasted one hour and both Jedd and David had equal amounts of time to express their opinions.
Question and answer session
David (Smolin), thanks for agreeing to share with us your recent experience at CAFO. You also shared in a similar way at last year’s CAFO conference. Were there any differences, did you feel there was more openness to listen to your point of view this year than last year?
CAFO for the last several years has been undergoing a transformation in which intercountry adoption (ICA), which had been emphasized early in the movement, receives less attention, while other kinds of interventions and ministries receive greater attention. In addition, many Christians active in the spheres in which CAFO operates have become more informed about the complexities involved in adoption and “orphan” care, and more vocal in questioning the prior simplistic narratives. Some in leadership, such as Jedd Medefind, are open to dialogue. The changes are evidently looking back over the last four years. These positive trends continue to gain momentum, although they still have a long way to go. Of course, the continuing decline in the numbers of intercountry adoptions, while controversial as to causes, continues to underscore the need to emphasize other interventions. If the movement is mainly about ICA, then by the numbers alone the movement would be a failure, as ICA to the U.S. is down 70% over the movement’s decade in existence.
What were the main points that you made and wanted to get across in the session?
While acknowledging the positive developments with the movement over the last several years, I issued a call for the movement to repent from its original approaches to international adoption. Merely de-emphasizing ICA as compared to other interventions is not enough, when the old, erroneous, ICA-centric narratives were so powerfully presented for years, and many of the older, misleading resources—books, films, etc.—are still being disseminated. I believe the movement needs to take responsibility for its mistakes, for a number of reasons: 1. In the absence of a clear repudiation of the movement’s original, simplistic ICA-centric narrative, many continue to act in the present based on those past narratives. A subtle shift in emphasis is not enough to counter years of an erroneous message. 2. The U.S. approach to ICA created a flawed system designed for failure and is largely (although not exclusively) responsible for the decline of ICA over the last decade. The Christian adoption movement advocated for this failed model of ICA, and thus bears a significant part of the responsibility for the decline of ICA. CAFO’s very recent advocacy of the deeply flawed CHIFF (Children in Families First) proposed legislation, without even an acknowledgment of the relevant points of controversy at CAFO 2014, illustrates the problems with failing to acknowledge responsibility for the past, for the result is simply repeating the same mistakes. 3. Many people—children, first families, adoptive families, communities, and the adoption system itself—have been harmed by the mistaken approaches to ICA advocated and implemented by the movement. Those harms are ongoing, for adoption is not just a moment-in-time invention, but alters the lives and trajectories of lives permanently.
What issues did you and Jedd agree on?
I do not want to speak for Jedd—who is quite articulate himself—and I cannot easily summarize what he said. There were points of agreement, and his willingness to dialogue both privately and publicly is positive. Jedd is involved in a difficult balancing act in his role as head of a particular organization. I am hopeful that over time, with the increasing involvement of more diverse voices in CAFO, that Jedd will increasingly move closer to where he needs to be. I think it is very important that he and leadership hear from a lot of people—adult adoptees, people involved in the field in various countries, first families/communities, and adoptive parents who over time become more aware of the greater complexities. In some ways, CAFO is being forced to change, since on the ground the huge decline in ICA and accompanying struggles of adoption agencies require re-orientation.
What issues did you disagree on?
Again, without purporting to speak for Jedd, what I heard from him was that I was emphasizing one side of things, and he sees himself as trying to bring things into balance. So I think he saw himself primarily as trying to balance out what I said, more than primarily disagreeing. From my perspective, it is not just a matter of balance—i.e., how pro-ICA are you?—but of doing things correctly. Good intentions are not enough. I think there are some issues he sees as a matter of balance, or a matter of the inevitability of making some mistakes in a movement, that I see as a matter of the movement making some harmful and avoidable mistakes which it needs to rectify.
From my perspective, the movement did not merely rhetorically over-emphasize international adoption, it actually undermined international adoption by advocating flawed practices.
I think we may also disagree on the fundamental nature of adoption, viewed Biblically. I believe that the “as if” legal model of adoption in the U.S., in which the adopted person is treated as though they had been born to the adoptive family, and not born to the original family, is fundamentally contrary to scripture. Jedd implied that the willingness to fully bring children into the adoptive family is a positive development of a Christian understanding of adoption which has not yet been implemented in many non-Western cultures, but which should be implemented everywhere. However, I am not sure if Jedd agrees that it is equally important to affirm that the adopted person is always, in significant and permanent ways, deeply connected with their original family. As the movement increasingly emphasizes bringing the practice of domestic adoption into more nations and cultures in which Western forms of adoption are rarely practiced, the question of how to define adoption will be increasingly significant. If Biblical, Old Testament law and narrative affirmed a form of substitute family care that does not sever original family relationships, and if the New Testament church did not practice “adoption” as we understand it, can we say that cultures lacking the U.S. kind of adoption are deficient, from a Christian perspective? Can a child be fully in their adoptive family without practicing an unbiblical “severance” of original family relationships? Does the Biblical command to honor our parents apply to adopted persons in relation to their original parents? Although we did not have a chance to fully engage these questions, I suspect that if we did there might be some disagreement.
How many people attended your session? Were you preaching to the choir or did you feel that you were really helping to educate some of the audience who might have been hearing some of these facts for the first time?
In both 2014 and 2015, the dialogue with Jedd was a well-attended breakout session, scheduled in a large room, held toward the very end of CAFO. In 2014 there were audience questions, but this year all questions during the session itself were from the moderator. I think the audience was a mixture of viewpoints.
We heard that you put a call out for the need for repentance in your session. What did you feel people/the movement needed to repent for? What was the reception like from the audience?
As mentioned earlier, I am urging CAFO to clearly and publicly repent of its erroneous approaches to international adoption. However, I like to think it was evident from the dialogue that Jedd and I respect and like one another, and so this probably reduced the tension that might otherwise arise from making such a strong statement. In addition, I stressed my own work in adoption as a product of my own repentance in relation to these issues, as well as the need of the Christian to be constantly repenting of his or her errors and sins, as represented, for example, by the weekly confession of sin in liturgical services.
All that being said, I do not expect the movement to publicly repent, as I have proposed. Instead, the movement will most likely continue to increasingly emphasize interventions beyond international adoption, without really taking responsibility for the mistakes of the past. In the rapidly changing context of international adoption and child rights, this halfway approach will not be enough, but it will be better than nothing.
Do you feel CAFO’s primary focus is predominantly international adoption or do you feel international adoption is equally balanced with other types of care for vulnerable children?
The emphasis at CAFO has been changing over the past years so that international adoption is no longer the main emphasis. Again, the 70% decrease in intercountry adoption to the U.S. makes this almost inevitable.
Do you feel there is a conflict or at least a constraint on CAFO due to their current and historic links to adoption agencies?
CAFO cannot afford to be too reliant on international adoption agencies, due to the sharp decline in numbers. By the point of comparison, the Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS), which for years was in effect the trade organization for U.S.-based international adoption agencies, reportedly ceased operations as of June 30, 2015. For years they tried to transition to being more than the trade organization for ICA agencies, but apparently were unable to create a sustainable model for survival.
CAFO most likely has a broader constituency and membership beyond adoption agencies, which will be important to its survival and relevance moving forward.
Yet, I do think it is likely that CAFO’s ties to agencies have been a constraint on coming to terms to the extent of illicit practices. From my perspective, most of the people who work for international adoption agencies are good people with good intentions. However, most have been slow to understand how the system they helped created and their typical practices undermine international adoption and children’s rights, at least when they work in vulnerable nations with high corruption, weak regulatory capacity, and a high proportion of the population living in extreme poverty.
Do you feel CAFO has a real understanding of the corruption going on in countries that are doing international adoption and do you think he is aware of the crucial role that adoption agencies are playing in this?
One odd thing about CAFO is how little information about illicit practices in international adoption is actually available at CAFO events. So far as I can tell, there have been no planned sessions and little discussion about either the specifics of illicit practices, nor the current crises in Ethiopia, DRC Congo, Uganda, and (in the recent past) Guatemala, Cambodia, Nepal and Vietnam (for example) that are related to illicit practices. CAFO claims to present the best information on international adoption and children’s rights, and yet you could attend all of CAFO with virtually no information or discussions of these issues. Of course, my own breakout session with Jedd cannot hope to adequately address these current and historical problems.
This avoidance of topics is another sign of a lack of repentance, which leads to decreased effectiveness. You cannot operate effectively in the current international environment without being well informed on the topic of illicit practices, past and present.
Did you attend any other sessions or hear anyone else speak, if so who stood out to you and why?
I was not able to attend other sessions this year. My impression, from last year, and review the schedule for this year, is that CAFO has had some outstanding programs on topics beyond international adoption, such as last year’s presentation of contrasting viewpoints of orphanages.
Within CAFO and CAFO partners there is a great deal of labeling children and usage of vernacular which is not only stigmatizing but can lead to inappropriate interventions – terms like ‘orphan’, ‘orphan care’, ‘least of these’, ‘redemption’, ‘redeeming’ etc are all used to promote various work. What are your views on this and is there any hope that CAFO and their partners are willing to start thinking about a different way, less harmful way, of communicating challenges that children may face?
I spoke to Tara VanderWoude at CAFO about a breakout session she gave on “language within the Christian adoption community” which addresses many of the issues implied by your question. I think her concern was more about how such language can harm adoptees, given the losses and complexities involved in adoption
Did you feel that voices from across the spectrum of child care and child welfare reform were present and given adequate voices within the conference?
CAFO’s range of views on international adoption are weak. I am presented as an outsider, relatively isolated radical, and yet in the larger adoption world and other events I attend the views are much broader than what you see at CAFO. In fact, there are many in the broader adoption world with much more critical views than my own on intercountry adoption. My views generally correlate with international legal standards (the Convention on the Rights of the Child; Hague Adoption Convention; Alternative Care Guidelines), and thus in international contexts are not radical at all, but mainstream.
CAFO has started to have some adoptee and perhaps first/birth parent speakers, but representation there is still much weaker than what is occurring in the broader adoption world. Outside of CAFO, this is increasingly a time when adoptees are taking center stage in the adoption community. CAFO seems at an early stage of incorporating some adult adoptee voices, most likely beginning primarily with only the more “positive and approved” adoptee voices. I have personally learned a tremendous lot from the more critical adoptees and first parents, and think it is critically important that CAFO incorporate those voices.
What direction would you like to see CAFO go over the next few years?
Particularly as CAFO emphasizes the development of domestic adoption options in other nations, CAFO needs to engage the core issues around the different forms of adoption and adoption-like practices. This engagement needs to be both Biblical and cross-cultural, without assuming that forms of adoption currently dominate in the United States are normative. Before we try to spread “adoption” around the world, we have to engage the debate over what the Bible actually says about adoption, and about the varied cultural practices involved. We have to be willing to subject our Western practice of adoption to critical viewpoints, rather than assuming it as a positive starting point.
CAFO should be educated on the huge role of illicit practices in shaping the past and present of international adoption.
CAFO should engage the question of when Western money corrupts rather than assists the development of child welfare systems, both private and governmental, in other nations. This includes both international adoption and Western support for specific interventions, whether they be orphanages or otherwise.
CAFO should engage the question of whether/when short-term mission trips to programs for children, such as orphanages, help or hurt children, as well as its cost-effectiveness. Why is so much of short-term missions seemingly for the benefit of the ones going, rather than for the benefit of the people who theoretically are supposed to be assisted?
CAFO should engage the question of how to responsibly assist people who have been harmed by illicit and substandard adoption practices.
CAFO should continue to engage the many controversial questions on alternative care practices apart from adoption, such as the debate over “residential care” such as orphanages.
What advice do you give CAFO so they have a more positive impact in the church on children without parental care?
Study, and educate on, international standards: the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Hague Adoption Convention, and the Alternative Care Guidelines. You need not accept these as the gospel truth, but being ignorant and reflexively critical of them is not helpful. Personally, I think these standards, while not perfect, are generally pointing in the right direction, particularly on issues related to adoption and children without parental care. These standards also are significant throughout the world to governments, international organizations, and the NGO sector, and so it is foolish not to be educated on them.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I hope that people will encourage and stand behind your (Keren and Mark Riley’s) important work in Uganda and beyond. Although improved practices have been put in place in many nations, several African nations opened up for large-scale intercountry adoption in the last five or so years (Ethiopia, DRC, and Uganda) are still in the eye of the storm of illicit practices. I hope people will listen to you as you tell them how difficult (and sometimes impossible) it can be for a nation to develop a proper child welfare system and practices in the midst of large amounts of foreign (i.e., U.S.) money coming in through international adoption and orphanage development. For me, it is personally sad to see the same mistakes made in Africa that were made in years past in Latin America and Asia.
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