Evangelical adoption nightmares.

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Thanks to all the medical stuff going on, I haven’t been blogging so much. I have been reading a whole lot, though (which is more fun anyway). I came across this sad story of “missionary” adoption at Mother Jones. I had heard over the past 8 years or so, about the push among Evangelicals to adopt. It was presented very much in a missional form: the Bible speaks frequently of feeding the hungry and clothing the needy. Don’t forget to help the orphan and do unto “the least of these”. I was inspired by some of the stories I heard, of kids from war torn countries being adopted into loving American families.


Then, I read this:


IN 2005, SAM ALLISON, a Tennessee housepainter in his 30s, arrived at Daniel Hoover Children’s Village, an orphanage outside Monrovia, Liberia. He’d come to adopt three children, but ended up with four: five-year-old Cherish; her nine-year-old brother, Isaiah; their 13-year-old sister, CeCe, who had taken care of them for years; and Engedi, a sickly infant whom Sam and an adoption broker had retrieved from “deep in the bush.” The older children’s father had sent them to Daniel Hoover during Liberia’s 14-year civil war, after their mother died in childbirth. The orphanage, run by a ministry called African Christians Fellowship International, often ran short of food, and schooling was sporadic. The children, who were forced to flee temporarily when rebels attacked the facility in 2003, referred to America—whose image looms large in a country colonized by freed slaves in the 19th century—as “heaven.”

In Tennessee, Sam and the four adoptees joined his wife, Serene—a willowy brunette who’d attempted a career in Christian music—and their four biological children. Together they moved into a log cabin in Primm Springs, a rural hamlet outside Nashville. Serene welcomed the children with familiar foods such as rice, stew, and sardines, and they were photographed smiling and laughing.


The cabin adjoined a family compound shared by Serene’s parents, Colin and Nancy Campbell, and the families of Serene’s two sisters. Colin is the pastor of a small church and Nancy a Christian leader with a large following among home-schoolers. Her 35-year-old magazine, Above Rubies, which focuses on Christian wifehood, has a circulation of 130,000 in more than 100 countries—mostly fundamentalist Christian women who eschew contraception and adhere to rigid gender roles. The aesthetic is somewhere between Plain People austerity and back-to-the-land granola, with articles like “Plastic or Natural?,” “Raising Missionaries,” and “Green to Go,” featuring recipes for concoctions like “green transfusion” and “My personal earth milk.” In a Facebook photo, Nancy twirls in a tie-dyed peasant skirt. Her daughters, striking women with waist-length hair, use Nancy’s magazine to peddle motherhood-themed CDs and health and lifestyle books with titles such as Trim Healthy Mama. It’s an extended family that thousands of home-schooling mothers know nearly as well as their own.


In 2005, Above Rubies began advocating adoptions from Liberia, arranged through private Christian ministries. Campbell—whose magazine likened adoption to “missions under our very own roof!”*—spent a week visiting Liberian orphanages and returned with “piles of letters addressed ‘To any Mom and Dad.'” She touted the country’s cost-effectiveness—”one of the cheapest international adoptions”—and claimed that 1 million infants were dying every year in this nation of fewer than 4 million people. “When we welcome a child into our heart and into our home,” she wrote, “we actually welcome Jesus Himself.”

Campbell urged readers to contact three Christian groups—Acres of Hope, Children Concerned, and West African Children Support Network (WACSN)—that could arrange adoptions from Liberian orphanages. At the time, none of these groups was accredited in the United States as an adoption agency, yet they all placed Liberian children with American families for a fraction of the $20,000 to $35,000 that international adoptions typically cost. Before long, members of a Yahoo forum frequented by Above Rubies readers were writing that God had laid the plight of Liberian orphans heavy on their heart. “Families lined up by the droves,” one mother recalled. They “were going to Liberia and literally saying, ‘This is how much I have, give me as many as you can.'”


The magazine’s Liberia campaign, it turned out, heralded an “orphan theology” movement that has taken hold among mainstream evangelical churches, whose flocks are urged to adopt as an extension of pro-life beliefs, a way to address global poverty, and a means of spreading the Gospel in their homes. The movement’s leaders, as I discovered while researching my upcoming book on the topic, portray adoption as physical and spiritual salvation for orphans and a way for Christians to emulate God, who, after all, “adopted” humankind. Churches reported that the spirit was proving contagious; families encouraged one another to adopt, and some congregations were taking in as many as 100 children. Dozens of conferences, ministries, and religious coalitions sprang up to further the cause, and large evangelical adoption agencies such as Bethany Christian Services reported a sharp increase in placements at a time when international adoptions were in decline.



All was not harmonious in Primm Springs either, according to the four Allison adoptees I interviewed at length for this story. (Sam Allison has denied all of their allegations.) “Everything was good for a month,” CeCe, now 21, told me. “We got to the next month and things started to get a little weird.” Serene’s raw-food offerings were unfamiliar, but Sam would discipline them if they balked at eating her meals, the children said. Other cultural impasses included the children’s use of Liberian English and the Liberian prohibition on children looking adults in the eye. “They’d say, ‘You are so rude. I’m talking to you!'” CeCe recalled. “They expected us to adapt in a heartbeat.”


In October 2006, a year after their first Liberian adoptions, the Allisons adopted another pair of siblings: Kula, 13, and Alfred, 15. “In Africa we thought America was heaven,” recalled Kula, who is 19 now. “I thought there were money trees.” Primm Springs was a rude awakening: It was dirty, she recalled, and she had no toothbrush. The new house Sam was building—with the older kids working alongside him—often lacked electricity. There was only a woodstove for heat, and no air conditioning or running water yet. Toilets were flushed with buckets of water hauled from a creek behind the house. The children recalled being so hungry that they would, on occasion, cook a wild goose or turkey they caught on the land. “We went from Africa to Africa,” CeCe said.


It gets worse:


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.


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.


And even worse:


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.


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.”



While reading that last part, I said aloud, “No! I don’t believe it!”. Both K and Z looked up at me in surprise. But I was really that taken aback that the Allison’s would actually pack up a 13 year old boy- who they adopted, who was their son- and send him back, like they ordered the wrong thing from Amazon and decided he wasn’t a good fit. For some of the other parents mentioned in the story, I truly feel sorry for them. They seemed to have the best of intentions, but the reality is, these kids had gone through hell. They needed LOTS of emotional help, probably far more than they could provide. They got caught up in a movement and simply couldn’t handle it. It’s tragic because it compounded the problems of the already over-burdened Liberian orphans. I’d encourage you to read the whole thing, because things did improve a lot for the Allison adoptees, including a marriage, a baby and a recociliation.


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