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Children In Families First (CHIFF) and the Evangelical Adoption Movement

It's no surprise that in this age of Congressional gridlock, legislation that is supported by both Michelle Bachmann and Elizabeth Warren has garnered praise for its "bipartisanship". What is surprising is that self-described progressives like Senators Brian Schatz and Elizabeth Warren didn't blink an eyelash before co-sponsoring a bill that is endorsed, indeed was proponded, by a who's who of evangelicals and notorious adoption industry groups often at the heart of the most serious adoption abuses and child trafficking scandals.

What's going on?

The Children in Families First Act, or CHIFF was introduced last year by Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA). It was hailed as a bipartisan coalition success story in a time when such a thing is almost unheard of. Supporters describe the bill as a vehicle designed to save children "stuck in orphanages" and paint a rosy picture of "influential offices that CHIFF will create in the State Department and USAID" to "ensure that family preservation, family reunification and adoption are true priorities in both U.S. foreign aid and in the influence of U.S. diplomacy." CHIFF supporters further assure us that the bill will "allow the U.S. to help other countries build systems of support for children with special needs, to find local adoptive families for these children, and to make international adoption more streamlined..."

Last week, 58 members of the Harvard faculty signed a letter endorsing the legislation, at the behest of their colleague, Elizabeth Bartholet, who never met an intercountry adoption she didn't like.

As an adoptee, I support adoptions that are done with transparency, that meet the needs of the child (as opposed to the desires of prospective adoptive parents), and that ensure all parties to an adoption are treated with integrity and respect. It is easy to understand why at first glance this bill might seem like a good thing. Everyone wants children, especially orphans, to have permanent, safe, caring families.  

However, thousands of adult adoptees in the United States, including international adoptees, are actively involved in adoption policy, yet not a single significant group of them support CHIFF or were invited to give input during the drafting of this legislation.   Shouldn't a bill that purports to be about and for international adoptees at least consider their voices?

Additionally, there are international adoptee professionals who could have provided much needed insight during the drafting of this legislation and policy discussions, but none appear on the list of CHIFF supporters nor on the CHIFF Executive Committee. Indeed, CHIFF's EC reads like a "who's who" list of those who have for decades opposed transparency in adoption and ethical, responsible provisions regarding termination of birthparent rights; including the National Council for Adoption, Saddleback Church, Both Ends Burning, and the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys.

Some additional names of endorsers will be recognized by those of you who followed the tragic story of Veronica Brown who was taken from her father and handed over to adoptive parents after a long, horrific custody battle in which it came to light that adoption agencies and attorneys conspired to hide her adoption from her father, and get around federal law in facilitating the adoption.

In addition, some of the major players pushing CHIFF are behind the evangelical adoption crusade.

After the Haiti earthquake, the evangelical adoption movement quickly gained steam, agitating for the expedited adoption of Haitian children.  Senator Landrieu was at the forefront of the charge using emotional language of rescue and hostage release.

As the Nation article details, eventually ten people, Southern Baptists, were jailed "after trying to transport thirty-three “orphans”—most solicited from living families—to an unbuilt orphanage in the Dominican Republic, to await prospective evangelical adopters. Throughout the scandal the group members maintained they were simply “ten Christians who obeyed God’s calling.”

It is believed that one of the authors of this bill, and certainly a staunch supporter, is Whitney Reitz, legislative aide to Senator Mary Landrieu,  who at the time of the Haiti earthquake debacle was quoted as saying that if they ignored the Hague convention in pushing through American adoptions of Haitian children, many of whom had desperate families looking for them during the displacement caused by the earthquake, well,  she 'wasn't going to apologize for that'.

Mother Jones wrote a comprehensive expose of evangelical "Orphan Fever"  where many of the same names in the evangelical network can be found among the endorses of CHIFF.

Critics of the movement include Kathryn Joyce, the author of an excellent book, “The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption”(Public Affairs, 2013), which charges that a “sense of mission has frequently obscured the harm.”

Supporters allege that the State Department has failed to “promote” adoption and point to the decline in foreign adoptions. Shouldn't the focus of any international adoption policy be first on keeping families together whenever possible? Failing that, efforts to encourage local adoption in-country deserve far greater attention and funding than what currently exists. Rather than focusing on making international adoption easier for those who want children, shouldn't there first be an evaluation of already existing family preservation and reunification programs, and whether they are meaningfully funded? There are many successful examples of such programs like Reunite Uganda which has been successful in keeping families together and in reuniting children wrongly separated from their parents, many of whom were lost in the orphanage system.

Though marketed as supporting family preservation and "kinship adoption", the truth is CHIFF approaches the issue of children in foreign orphanages and group homes as one of needing simply to pressure foreign governments to close them down and then grease the skids to place the children more quickly and easily with American families. This ignores the fact that many of the children in these homes are not in fact orphans, and have birthfamilies who love them and are faced with extreme poverty. Moreover, many of these orphanages and group homes are ethical care programs sponsored by UNICEF and Children’s Villages that are working to keep children in their own language, culture, and families whenever possible. This is not a family preservation bill, it is a bill designed to get more children in the pipeline for wealthy American couples to adopt them, period.

Of course, there will be some instances when international adoption is what is best for a child, and there will always be a need for legislation and policy that provides a framework for international adoption with integrity. In that regard, while a few of the provisions contained in the bill are useful, overall it has no place in American public policy, much less US foreign policy.  It will only compound the escalating abuses in international adoption and further compromise the already limited ability of the US government to provide adequate oversight or enforcement of existing law.

One of the most pressing concerns about this bill relates to an apparent desire on the part of Sen. Landrieu and others to move certain administrative functions related to intercountry adoption away from State and into other US agencies, including the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).   This bad idea will only serve to further dilute the State Department’s ability to build on existing programs and ensure consistency whether of policy development, implementation or law enforcement. The State Department has been this country's best and most reliable defense against growing and increasingly serious abuses including rampant human rights violations and child trafficking.

It should be noted that HHS has failed to provide meaningful oversight of domestic adoptions in the US, whether private or from the public child welfare system in this country.  HHS has been unable to capture or retain adequate data about adoptions in this country.  Indeed, as “rehomed” international adoptees increasingly reside in the US foster care system, the inability of HHS to adequately track those children has been exacerbated.  Thus any suggestion that HHS play a role in this is misplaced and misinformed.

Last year, Reuters did a powerful investigative report exposing the dark world of Internet "rehoming" of international adoptees.

Just this month, the Department of Justice, after years of investigations initiated by the State Department, indicted four current and former employees of an adoption services provider after prosecutors say they conspired to defraud the U.S. in connection with the provider’s services in Ethiopia.

The State Department has noted in its opposition to this bill that CHIFF would undermine the roles of the U.S. Central Adoption Authority by taking away most of its authority and greatly fragmenting intercountry adoption-related responsibilities within the Department and the interagency. This would only increase bureaucracy, create risks of inefficiency in the U.S. intercountry adoption process, and ultimately decrease protections for children, prospective adoptive parents, and birth parents without providing clear, new benefits.

According to State, CHIFF dismantles the sole office in the Department that focuses 100 percent of its resources on ensuring that intercountry adoption remains a top U.S. foreign policy concern. The legislation dissolves the very office that consistently works to improve intercountry adoption policies and procedures around the world and instead creates a larger bureaucratic structure – the Bureau of Vulnerable Children and Family Security.

State also expresses concern that countries of origin which are increasingly selective in choosing the receiving countries with whom they will work, choosing to partner only with countries that provide sufficient protections to children, will become hesitant to partner with the United States if CHIFF is passed.

CHIFF lacks broad support outside the adoption industry and is not supported by Secretary Kerry, Senator Menendez, Chairman of Foreign Relations, the committee of jurisdiction, or even the ranking Republican on the Committee, Senator Corker.  This is a bad bill that cannot be "fixed."  

In my opinion no new legislation should even be considered until thorough oversight hearings are conducted on a variety of international adoption issues, including the availability of adequate post-adoption resources for families and children, ensuring that all individuals brought to the United States for the purposes of adoption have US citizenship, an examination of the current use of the adoption tax credit, on which the United States government has spent almost $7 billion, primarily reimbursing adoptive parents for the costs of international adoption (hotels, meals, travel, etc.), and the identification of already existing organizations currently involved in family preservation to determine the adequacy of their funding and to avoid duplicative efforts and unnecessary bureaucracy.

Please write your representatives and Senators today, especially if one of them is a co-sponsor of this legislation, and ask them to oppose CHIFF and call for hearings.

Especially given the recent DOJ indictments and ongoing investigations initiated by State with regard to the blatant stealing of children from other countries through bribes of officials and orphanages, and the recent death of 3-year old Hyunsu O'Callaghan, the latest in a long string of deaths of international adoptees at the hands of their adoptive parents, being associated with this legislation is increasingly toxic.  Certainly many countries who have already shut down adoptions to the US aren't going to feel positively that we're now trying to move forward, without hearings on the mountain of troubling abuses and incidents, with federal legislation designed to deregulate, expedite, and reduce oversight.