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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

Kathryn Joyce's research and reporting for this article were supported by a Knight Luce Fellowship for Reporting on Global Religion. Her related book, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, comes out this month.

teenage boy
Isaiah is estranged from the Allisons, who sent him back to Liberia. Amanda Kimbrough

The Thompsons begged them to reconsider, to send Isaiah to counseling instead. They also called Children's Services, which, according to Kate, warned the Allisons that it could be illegal to repatriate Isaiah. But Sam and Serene sent him off anyway. "They told me, 'If we told people about what you did, they'd put you in jail,'" Isaiah told me later. "I felt so bad, I didn't even care."

When Isaiah and his escort, a man Sam knew, arrived in Monrovia, they found the orphanage closed. The escort left him instead with a pastor who cared for street children. Isaiah begged the man not to leave him behind. He had only a backpack of clothes and $40—and his green card would expire in six months if he remained in Liberia. He spent three weeks scavenging for food, until his great aunt found out he was in Liberia and brought him home to River Cess, a desolate coastal outpost where he could no longer understand the Kru language his cousins spoke. Isaiah felt safe, at least, but food was scarce, and he took to sleeping most of the day to escape his hunger. He also contracted malaria, as did a five-year-old cousin, who died one night by his side. "To stop myself from crying," he told me, "I would think that what I did was really bad, and this is the least I can do."

Frantic, Kate and Roger Thompson eventually tracked down Isaiah in River Cess and brought him back to Atlanta. Shortly before they did, the Allisons emailed Isaiah in care of Acres of Hope, assuring him that they had forgiven him, as well as the Thompsons, "for this interference...Remember the beautiful times we had together, remember we loved you always. No one can ever take away the truth of what really happened here."

Isaiah had a printout of the email on him when he arrived in Atlanta 20 pounds lighter and suffering from PTSD. He hadn't read it. During his four years at the Allisons', he hadn't learned how.

ULTIMATELY, all but 3 of the Campbells' and Allisons' 10 adoptions ran into serious problems. They were purged for a time from Campbell's website, prompting readers to gossip about the family's "disappearing children." In a 2009 video, Serene claimed that the missing adoptees were off at school. Campbell's biography was amended to say she had adopted "some" Liberian children.

In response to specific questions for this story, Sam Allison responded with a blanket email dismissing the children's allegations as "lies and untruths." Nancy Campbell conceded that Serene "did have some problems with her older children (who were adults) and wanted their independence immediately...She embraced these children as though they were from her womb and it was terribly painful for her to be rejected by them." Only one of her own adoptions failed, Campbell said.

The Campbell-Allison clan was hardly the only one struggling. The Liberia forums were overflowing with tales of failed adoptions, most of them involving placements facilitated by the Christian brokers Campbell endorsed.

One couple was convicted of beating one of their Liberian daughters to death after she mispronounced a word.

Some ended in tragedy. In 2008, Kimberly Forder, a Washington woman whose adopted eight-year-old boy had died of pneumonia in 2002, pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Prosecutors blamed his death on her systematic abuse, alleging in court documents that Forder starved the boy (he ate dog food) and made him sleep in a crib. One punishment reportedly consisted of dunking his head in a bucket of water used to clean dirty diapers. This was the same family Nancy Campbell escorted through Dulles with their Liberian triplets—adoptions arranged by WACSN after the eight-year-old's death.

In 2010, a county court stripped a Mennonite Brethren family in Fairview, Oklahoma (WACSN also had ties to the Mennonites, most of whom are not evangelical), of custody of four Liberian sisters. Penny and Ardee Tyler had been convicted of felony child abuse for, among other things, tying one of their adopted kids to a bedpost for two nights, and leaving her outside in the cold; their adult son was convicted of rape by instrumentation.

The next year, Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz, a home-schooling California couple adopting through Acres of Hope, admitted to beating one of their three Liberian daughters, seven-year-old Lydia, to death for mispronouncing a word. In their home was a copy of Michael Pearl's To Train Up a Child. "You must know that they did not kill their children with the little switches that we advocate using," Pearl said, in reference to several fatal incidents. They were "locking them outdoors, giving them cold baths, denying them foods, and beating them mercilessly. There's nothing in our literature that would suggest anything like that."

Stories also began to pile up about children who had been returned to Liberia. "You heard about the Tennessee case that returned the child to Russia?" Edward Winant, former vice consul in charge of adoptions at the US Embassy in Monrovia, asked me when I visited the country for my book. "We've had at least three similar cases." One girl, no more than 10 years old, was found wandering around the airport with $200 in her pocket.

I also met Bishop Emmanuel Jones, a Liberian evangelist who runs a home for street children. He has taken in three returned adoptees and says he knows of at least five others. Most are boys who have displayed sexual behavior or girls who "don't want to submit," he said. It's hard to say what happens to other "rehomed" Liberian children because disrupted adoptions are poorly tracked, and many times the children simply drop off the map. At one point the Liberia forums were abuzz with adoptive and foster parents seeking new homes for their children. Some families called for suspending judgment of parents coping with failed adoptions, which were beginning to seem almost a routine part of the process. "Let's be a community of support for ALL adoptions," wrote one poster, "in any aspect of their journey."

A girl holding a baby
CeCe has reconciled with the Allisons. Kathryn Joyce

CECE NOW LIVES with her husband, Samuel, a fellow Daniel Hoover adoptee, and Sammy, their toddler, in a modest apartment complex in a suburb of Charlotte, North Carolina. Samuel's sister, who was also adopted, lives there as well. Charlotte is a hub of Liberian adoptees; Samuel, a slim and quiet 23-year-old, was part of a touring boy choir adopted, almost in its entirety, to local families—the heartwarming story of the "Hallelujah Chorus" was featured in Oprah's O magazine. When he and CeCe married, in 2011, all of her bridesmaids were Daniel Hoover alums, and a good number of their friends were children from adoptions that fell apart. "Most of us, when we came to America, there was some part of us that a lot of adoptive parents didn't understand, that we would never be the same like their own kids," CeCe said.

Samuel works days at a Tyson chicken processing plant where CeCe began working nights when their baby was about a year old. She also tries to supplement their income with a direct-sales jewelry business. She applied to cosmetology school but didn't have adoption papers to prove her citizenship, nor full educational records. CeCe had asked the Allisons for them, but for close to four years they wouldn't return her calls.

It turned out the Allisons had neglected to complete the stateside adoption process, thus jeopardizing the legal residency of some of the children—as Kula discovered during her 2011 readoption by Pam Epperly, a longtime Tennessee foster mother. "Kula made disclosures that disturbed our court staff as well as the judge," a representative from a Tennessee children's service provider told me. The rep alerted the Department of Children's Services, which opened two cases on the Allisons but closed one of them after the remaining children did not disclose any abuse. Several months later, with the other case still pending, the Allisons left the state. Unable to track them down, DCS ended its investigation.

"Even though it ended badly, it's still a connection," a social-services worker said of the kids' reconciliation with the Allisons.

At some later point, the Allisons apparently returned to Tennessee. In the summer of 2012, hoping to keep tabs on her kid sister, CeCe sent them a message on Facebook. Alfred had already reconnected with the family, and when CeCe asked to see Cherish, she heard back at long last. Sam and Serene asked if she was "ready to move on and let God take control of things."

Last September, for the first time in years, CeCe returned to the Allisons' home. Cherish was nearly a teenager, and Engedi, who hadn't been talking when CeCe left home, was a big girl now. Sam cried and Serene apologized. CeCe posted a Facebook picture of Serene holding baby Sammy ("First grandchild!"), and before long she had resumed friendships with the entire Campbell clan. When she returned for Thanksgiving, Alfred and Kula came too.

The turnaround doesn't surprise the social-services worker who asked DCS to investigate the family. It's like battered wives syndrome, she told me. "If the children at any point established a connection, they're going to want to return…Even though it ended badly, it's still a connection."

IN 2009, LIBERIA imposed an emergency moratorium on international adoptions, citing "gross mismanagement." The move came in response to a tense child-trafficking dispute between the government and Addy's Hope, then an unlicensed Texas agency whose clients, the government said, did not have permission to take children out of the country. (Addy's Hope disputes this.) The agency's representatives had rushed a group of seven children onto a plane, evading the British NGO Save the Children and Liberian officials who tried to stop them. It was the last straw for a problem-plagued program.

During my 2011 trip, I visited Addy's Hope's old orphanage. In a bare but tidy concrete building, pastor Baryee Bonnor and his wife were still caring for 19 children left in limbo by the moratorium. The American parents who had intended to adopt "stopped supporting them when adoptions closed," he explained, and few of the Liberian parents had returned to reclaim their children.

Now Liberia is poised to reopen for overseas adoptions, supposedly under more stringent requirements. Thus far, only three agencies have been approved to work in the country. One of them is Acres of Hope, which now partners with a licensed agency and also has begun arranging adoptions from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

On my very first night in Monrovia, as I ate at a hotel restaurant popular with expats and development workers, a Christian Lebanese logging executive came to my table. When I told him why I was there, he asked if I wanted to adopt a child, and offered to take me the next day to the interior, where he would help me find a baby to bring home. I declined, but he remained excited by the prospect, and was already forming a plan. "They all need adoption," he said, his eyes growing misty. "It would be viewed as a miracle."

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