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Orphan Fever: The Evangelical Movement's Adoption Obsession

When devout Christian families made it their mission to save children from war-torn countries, the match was often far from heavenly.

| May/June 2013 Issue
Torn out magazine pages with a photo of a house and a photo of kids
Above Rubies ran these photos of the Allisons' house in Primm Springs and of Serene and Sam Allison with some of their adopted biological children. Above Rubies

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.

A woman reading to orphan kids
Above Rubies publisher Nancy Campbell reading to kids at the Daniel Hoover orphanage Above Rubies

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.

Sometime in 2007, Serene began asking the adopted kids whether they had been sexually abused back in Liberia. This was becoming a panicked theme on Liberian adoptions forums, as sexual "exploration" and abuse at some of the orphanages came to light. Serene accused CeCe of tempting her husband, and, according to the children, began flirting with Isaiah in ways that made them feel uncomfortable. Later, after Isaiah admitted that he had kissed and lain on top of one of the Allisons' biological daughters, four years his junior, the local Department of Children's Services registered a sex abuse report and the family was instructed to keep the boys in a separate bedroom.

"If you have to have a little war before you have peace," wrote Nancy Campbell, "don't be afraid."

In September 2007, Serene wrote a cryptic essay for Above Rubies about situations mothers might face "that seem out of your control or even out of your children's control." The magazine, which had previously resembled a doting grandmother's scrapbook, began mentioning the Liberian children less and less frequently, but they were there between the lines as Campbell wrote about the need for strict discipline to bring about harmony in the home. "If you have to have a little war before you have peace," she wrote, "don't be afraid."

The Liberian kids weren't the only ones questioning their lot. I spoke with Rachel Johnston, a 28-year-old from Louisiana who arrived at Primm Springs in 2007 as an Above Rubies intern­—one of many home-schoolers who signed up as "Rubies Girls." "I had only been there about a day when I realized that things weren't really right," she said. For one, she saw the Allisons and the Campbells refer to To Train Up a Child, a book by fundamentalist preacher Michael Pearl and his wife, Debi, that advocates strict physical discipline starting when children are less than a year old. The book, which has sold nearly 700,000 copies, promises that "the rod" (the Pearls suggest flexible plumbing supply line) will bring harmony to a family in chaos, creating "whineless" children who have learned to submit. "Somehow, after eight or ten licks, the poison is transformed into gushing love and contentment," they write. "The world becomes a beautiful place. A brand new child emerges."

"Many, if not the majority, of the families encounter problems so severe that they had to give up the children."

While Nancy Campbell insisted she "never adhered" to the Pearls' book with any of her children, her own writings stress the need for obedience in the home: "It is amazing how peaceful and happy a child can be after they have received a good spanking," one column reads. Pearl, whose teachings have been at issue in the deaths of several adopted children, told me his methods are not as effective with older children or adoptees from other cultures. Chuck Joyner, the assistant general manager for Pearl's ministry, No Greater Joy, said the organization had heard from some of the hundreds of people who had adopted from Liberia. "Many, if not the majority, of the families encounter problems so severe that they had to give up the children," he said. Pearl worried on his website that some of his followers' Liberian children were "well-versed in all the dark arts of eroticism and ghastly perversion."

Online, parents began writing that their adopted children were manipulative and wild, compulsive liars or thieves, and sometimes violent. "There are two languages in Liberia," wrote one mother, "English and lying." Families described the distressing ways the kids reacted to reprimands, from unresponsive pouting to uncontrollable wailing. Some regarded it as manifestations of PTSD, while others saw defiance. The adoptions began to fail.

"Many adoptive families were not prepared for the devastation that these children were suffering from," acknowledges Acres of Hope's Patty Anglin—the memories, in some cases, of extreme violence, relatives killed, corpses in the street. These were "good, good families," she adds, "but oftentimes they have the heart, but not necessarily the background or education to understand what is involved."

Yet the scope of the failure suggested another problem: With so many adoptees going to families for which attachment and love were defined as immediate obedience, it was a mismatch of children's needs and parents' propensities on an epic scale.

Above Rubies magazine covers
From left: Grace, one of the triplets adopted by Kimberly Forder; Serene Allison with her baby; Isaiah Allison on a go-kart Above Rubies

IT WASN'T JUST Above Rubies readers catching the adoption bug. In 2007, the Christian Alliance for Orphans, which took root around the same time Campbell published her first adoption articles, held a pivotal meeting at the Colorado headquarters of James Dobson's Focus on the Family; pastors emerged ready to preach the new gospel of orphan care and adoption, according to an account in the Los Angeles Times. Focus was soon predicting that, within a decade, it would be "pretty uncommon" for Christians "to not adopt or not care for orphans."

Indeed, just two years later the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Christian denomination save the Catholic Church, passed a resolution calling on its 16 million members to get involved, whether that meant taking in children themselves, donating to adoptive families, or supporting the hundreds of adoption ministries that were springing up around the country to raise money and spread the word. Neo-Pentecostal leader Lou Engle also called for mega-churches to take on the cause, which would give them "moral authority in this nation."

The movement spawned numerous conferences and books built around the idea that adopting a needy child is a form of missionary work. "The ultimate purpose of human adoption by Christians," author Dan Cruver wrote in his 2011 book, Reclaiming Adoption, "is not to give orphans parents, as important as that is. It is to place them in a Christian home that they might be positioned to receive the gospel." At an adoption summit hosted by the Christian Alliance for Orphans at Southern California's Saddleback Church, pastor Rick Warren told followers, "What God does to us spiritually, he expects us to do to orphans physically: be born again and adopted."

Evangelical congregations went wild for orphans. One ministry declared: "Adoption is the new pregnant."

Families wrote about their "adoption journeys" in blogs with names such as Blessings From Ethiopia or Countdown 2 Congo and raised money for their adoption fees by soliciting donations or selling T-shirts. Describing herself as "a dumpster diving orphan lunatic," a mother wrote that she was still "afflicted with my Orphan Obsession" after bearing two kids and adopting four more. One ministry declared simply: "Adoption is the new pregnant."

All of this enthusiasm has created an army of advocates rallying to revive an international adoption business that has been on the wane since 2004, and has reoriented the industry in a more overtly religious direction. Of the 201 accredited adoption agencies listed with the State Department, more than 50—including many of the largest—are explicitly Christian (not counting the Catholic agencies). Still more use religious imagery or language on their websites or partner with evangelical groups. "I adopted in 2001 and there was none of this, but I noticed the creeping religiosity since then," said Karen Moline, a board member for the watchdog group Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform. "On adoption forums, people started signing their messages, 'Blessings,' and there would be pictures of children from a Third World country saying, 'Lost souls.' The fervor is unparalleled."

In 2010, a year when international adoptions overall fell by 13 percent, Bethany Christian Services—one of the nation's largest agencies, with adoption-related revenues of around $25 million—announced that its placements were up 26 percent and international placements were up 66 percent for the first six months. Adoption inquiries had nearly doubled. Bethany's numbers have since declined in tandem with the fortunes of the industry, but the countries still experiencing adoption booms—among them African nations such as Ethiopia, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—have been the focus of intense missionary activity. "I think if evangelicals weren't driving a lot of the adoption business, there would be no international adoption, period," Moline said.

While these families clearly aim to help, the "orphans" they hope to save are a complicated group. Many come from countries where orphanages are essentially the child welfare infrastructure that families turn to in times of need. In some instances, children have been fraudulently passed off as having no family; in others, children with intensive needs, whether emotional or medical, have ended up in homes unequipped to handle them. Although reliable numbers are hard to come by, it is estimated that 6 to 11 percent of all US adoptions fail, with the number climbing to nearly 25 percent for children adopted as adolescents. Failed international adoptions have become so common that a panel on the subject at the 2012 Saddleback summit drew one of the largest crowds of the conference.

THE ALLISONS, for one, had bit off more than they could handle. The remainder of their story, as the children recalled it, went something like this: One morning in the spring of 2008, Serene and CeCe quarreled over dishwashing, and CeCe ended up leaving home with her suitcase. "I told her, 'I'm sick of everything that you guys have been doing to us,'" she later recalled. "'You don't send us to school, you don't feed us the right food.'" When she came back to fetch her siblings, CeCe said, Sam shoved her to the ground.

That night, Sam brought CeCe and Kula, who also had been running afoul of Sam's discipline, to stay at the home of a woman they knew from church until the Allisons could figure out what to do with them. But when she heard the girls' stories, the woman helped them call the Department of Children's Services. There was a court hearing, and Kula, along with Alfred, who had turned 18, were sent to live with their uncle, a Liberian immigrant, in eastern Tennessee. CeCe was bounced to Sam's sister's place and then to the North Carolina home of the director of the Daniel Hoover orphanage. She felt homeless, she told me, "like a street dog that nobody cared about."

In the end, the Allisons delivered CeCe to the Atlanta home of Kate and Roger Thompson, old friends of the Campbells; it was meant to be a temporary stay before sending her to a home for troubled girls. Kate is a Christian singer-songwriter with an album about adoption who had once cared for Serene and her sisters while their parents went on a mission. She has 14 children, 8 of them adopted through foster care. And while the Thompsons differed with the Allisons on parenting, Kate recalled feeling sorry for Serene: "She was barely in her 30s, trying to deal with teenagers with horrendous issues from living in a war zone." But her view began to change a few months later when Serene called to say they were sending CeCe's brother, Isaiah, then 13, back to Liberia. Serene had caught him watching her in the shower.

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