Orphanage school pupils in Gulu, Uganda.

Orphanage school pupils in Gulu, Uganda. Photo: Getty Images

When you log in to Facebook, you're usually confronted by at least one friend spruiking for charity donations or bemoaning a lack of finances.

Sami Rigelsky, a Christian blogger from the United States, is happy to do both. The mother of six has breathlessly described on social media the chancing upon an overseas orphan with Down syndrome, Ava, who she feels God has called upon her and her husband to adopt.

The call for finances to pay for the adoption is also apparently divine in nature. God called on Sami to adopt and, in her faith, she firmly believes God will provide the money and path to adopt - despite the long trials and massive expenses normally associated with international adoption, let alone future medical care, logistics or the practicalities of adding a seventh child to the family. God will provide all and God’s way of providing money is apparently for Sami to ask her friends for donations.

Sami Rigelsky and family

Sami Rigelsky and family

In her initial post on the blog Ava on the Way, Sami wrote:

“The question that instantly rose to the surface was "How on EARTH will we afford this?" An adoption from her country is upwards into 31 THOUSAND dollars. We don't have that in the bank. :) That's when we know God spoke to our hearts that it will have to be of and from HIM. We had to step out, in faith, and let Him do His thing. So, we sent in an application to her government for pre-approval. We heard back on the 4th day that it was a YES!!! (Usually takes 10-14 days!!!) So, while we have NO clue how God will raise up the funds needed to make Ava an UNorphan and turn her into a Rigelsky, we trust that He will.”

Sami isn’t alone in her enthusiasm for God-sanctioned adoption. In fact, many evangelical Christians have been seeking out international adoptions, particularly from Liberia or Ethiopia who have in the past had lower administrative hurdles and fees than other countries.  

According to Kathryn Joyce, journalist and author of  The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption, evangelical Christians have taken enthusiastically to international adoptions so they can emulate Christ while supporting their pro-life beliefs, mimicking biblical adoption tales and showing their devotion to teaching their faith – even if it means adopting a child from overseas.

Religious communities and churches have heavily promoted international adoption, with the Orphan Care Alliance noting that “Adoption has unquestionably risen as a major focus of evangelical churches and organizations through sermons, conferences, support groups, subsidies and orphan-awareness Sundays.”   

The enthusiasm is often dampened by the costs, legal hurdles and long time frames involved with international adoption.

Globally, international adoptions have almost halved since 2004 (from 43,142 in 2004 to 21,991 in 2011). In Australia, the statistics for International adoptions has dropped significantly since 2002, from a high of 434 accepted placement proposals in 2004-2005 to 149 in 2011-2012.

This is where Christian adoption agencies have stepped in, with newsletters suggesting countries with cheaper fees and no Hague Convention concerns as though they were suggesting a travel destination. Some agencies and churches offer funding packages and or  subsidies.

The demand for orphans to adopt has outstripped supply in poorer countries where adoption can provide revenue for many people. There are stories of parents pressured to give up their children for adoption and  children presented as orphans though at least one parent is still alive. In one notable case, church leaders were found trying to smuggle 33 children for adoption into US families.

The zeal to “save” an international orphan is based on the assumption there is a glut of children worldwide locked up in orphanages or wandering destitute and alone. Some adoption websites claim that there are up to 150 to 210 million orphans needing adoption. Emotive language is used to describe “pretty girls” at risk from sex trafficking or lost children who are hungry for food and family.

Unicef, however, have explained the statistics differently. Of the potentially 132 million orphans in Asia, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and Caribbean (2005), only thirteen million children, (or 10 per cent)  have lost both parents.

It may be true that there are 132 million children right now in need of a new family, shelter, or care. However, is the best response one that focuses on providing care for individual children, or one that supports the families and communities that care for orphans?

The Australian Attorney General’s Department suggests the latter, stating that “even where orphans are living in institutions, many are regularly visited by family members. Generally these children are not considered to be in need of intercountry adoption.”

Sadly, adopting a child from overseas is not as simple as hearing a call from God and saving a child.

In an article for Mother Jones, Kathryn Joyce recounted tales of evangelical communities who suddenly fell out of love with international adoptions when the reality of caring for, integrating and homeschooling children – some of whom had been through extreme trauma – became too much.

Joyce shares the story of two children who were sent back to Liberia with some cash and left to wander the airport alone.  The children who escaped their adopted homes (some of which were abusive) formed clusters of rootless orphans as they navigate adulthood.

Many of the prospective parents feel they are doing the right thing – who wouldn’t want to live in a rich nation like America or Australia? America in particular is held as a fantasy kingdom for many, a land of perpetual wealth and opportunity.

But  for some orphans, the West is no land of plenty. Joyce’s recounts the story of Liberian children arriving in a poor rural area of the United States to a household with no running water and a lack of food. "We went from Africa to Africa" says Cece, who was adopted when she was 13. 

It’s true that many children and families have been positively transformed by international adoption. The emotional impulse to rescue a child is understandable. Turning an emotional impulse into action without considering the impact and consequences? Less so.

It also has the troubling possibility of turning these children into commodities, props to symbolise the pious charity of a Christian who believes a life with them is better than their life at home.

For one mother who adopted from Ethiopia, the reality has hit hard:

 “I can’t even begin to put into words what that feels like,” [Jessie Hawkins told Kathryn Joyce for the Daily Beast]. “Finding out that you have someone else’s child simply because you happen to have been born in a country where you’re more privileged than they are? You want to throw up, you don’t know what to do.”

Hawkins continues, saying “When my daughter cries herself to sleep that she misses her birth mother, having given birth before, I know that there’s someone else on the other side of the world doing the same thing. And I have her daughter. I love my daughter, and selfishly, I want to keep her forever. I want there to be this great story behind it about a child who needed a home and got one. But a lot of times I feel like we’ve done something wrong.” 

Who knows if Ava will find her way to Sami's family - and if she will ever  be left feeling like Jessie Hawkins.

Other ways to help children in need

These agencies support the most vulnerable locally and abroad.

Medcins Sans Frontiers

Unicef

CARE

Aboriginal Literacy Foundation

Smith Family – Learning for Life