Evangelical Christian Adoption Movement Hit by “Tsunami” of Mentally Ill Children

Chrissy Shelton, of Longview, Washington, comforts her son, Jonah, during his stay at a state…

Chrissy Shelton, of Longview, Washington, comforts her son, Jonah, during his stay at a state institution for special needs youth in Lakewood, Washington
Chrissy Shelton

For years, evangelical Christians were enthusiastic supporters of adoption by sponsoring conferences, targeting adoption-friendly Sundays and staging adoption fairs in parish halls.

Thousands of overseas children got new homes. Leading the way were evangelical luminaries such as recording artist Steven Curtis Chapman (three daughters from China) and then-Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore (two sons from Russia). Enthusiastic parents took up the challenge, traveling overseas for one or more children, even adopting special needs kids whose home countries were not interested in their care.

More than a decade after this movement peaked, many families who went overseas are in crisis mode: respite weekends are booked through 2023, there is an annual Christian conference devoted to burned-out parents, and a new documentary has been released on desperate families who have extremely ill children. Parents now say that the churches that encouraged them to adopt in the first place aren’t there for them now.

Few statistics exist on the number of adoptions gone wrong, other than a 10-year-old study by the US Department of Health and Human Services reporting “adoption disruptions” ranging from 10-25 percent. This little-known statistic points to a meltdown in the industry and a sign that adoption and foster care have become a landmine for many families who believed God had called them to help these children.

No one told them there could be an aftermath. Here are some of their stories.

Evangelicals adopted at a higher rate than others

“Joy” was a social worker in Tacoma, Washington, who adopted a 9-year-old boy in 2000, hoping for the best. She had 32 years of experience working for the state and a Christian agency where she’d helped more than 600 people adopt foster children.

The divorced mother of two was prepared for challenging behavior, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and developmental delays and PTSD from the child’s six years with mentally ill biological parents. What stunned her was that by age 15, her son was a registered sex offender. Bad relationships, drug abuse and a child out of wedlock followed. Now 30, he cannot hold down a job.

Drawing on her experiences, Joy began teaching workshops on single parenting and raising tough kids for Refresh, an annual conference for foster and adoptive parents at Overlake Christian Church in Redmond, Washington.

2017 Refresh Conference at Overlake Christian Church
A couple approaches Overlake Christian Church in Redmond, Washington, during a 2017 conference called Refresh for parents of adopted and foster children.
Julia Duin

She would warn people there was a “coming tsunami” for thousands of families who had adopted children.

They would be grappling with teenage – or older – children with intractable mental and emotional problems while their churches – which encouraged them to adopt in the first place – did little or nothing to help.

Evangelicals have been twice as likely to adopt a child (at 5 percent) than other Americans (2 percent), according to Barna Research, a California group that publishes cultural and religious trends.

For Catholics, the biblical mandate to “defend the cause of the fatherless” (Isaiah 1:17) and to “care for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27) was emphasized deeply in orphanages run by Mother Teresa in India, says Vanita Thomas, who regularly visited one in her hometown of Bengaluru, India. When dating her future husband, Peter, she asked whether they could adopt children.

“To my surprise and delight, he agreed without hesitation,” she remembers. In 1997, they heard of a 6-year-old Indian boy who had just watched his mother burn herself to death. Worse, she’d called to him, asking him to die with her in the flames. They adopted the child, naming him Sandeep, followed by a 4-month-old Indian girl from a nearby hospital. In 2004, they had a biological daughter.

“At that time, we truly believed that love and fresh air would help any child thrive,” she says now. “We were obviously clueless about trauma. Our son had lost his family and had seen his mother die in a horrific manner.”

On the adoption circuit, a much rosier picture was being painted. A 2000 piece in “Today’s Christian Woman” magazine – while mentioning attachment disorder and the adverse effects of orphanages – cheerfully concluded that “most adopted children acclimate very well, both emotionally and developmentally.”

At the time, American adoptions comprised half of all adoptions worldwide, says Barna, and the majority of those adopted were children of color.

In a thorough piece on the “adoption fever” that swept through churches, investigative reporter Kathryn Joyce, writing for Mother Jones magazine, noted the “explicitly Christian” tone of one-quarter of the 201 agencies listed with the U.S. State Department. A greater percentage partnered with evangelical groups or broadly hinted of religious connections on their web sites.

Then China – the biggest source of adopted children – began restricting adoptions in late 2006.

Other countries (Russia, Kazakhstan, Guatemala, Ethiopia) then banned them outright because of international politics, national pride or because some of the orphans were actually children kidnapped from their biological families. Some countries (Ukraine, Bulgaria, Poland and the Dominican Republic) remained open, but the focus was on older children, sibling groups and special needs kids. (Ukraine has since shut down because of war).

Meanwhile, the Thomases discovered that Sandeep had Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), an extremely difficult condition where a child does not bond with his new caretakers. RAD is one of a host of problems no one warned these parents about – along with ultra-violent behaviors and mental disorders way beyond their ability to handle.

Sandeep, Sneha Ruth and Sarah Thomas
On the left from the top: Sandeep, 13; Sneha Ruth, 7, and Sarah Rachna, 1, the children of Vanita and Peter Thomas, of Redmond, Washington. On the right are the same children in a photo taken 13 years later in 2018. From left, they are Sarah, Sandeep and Sneha Ruth.
Vanita Thomas

“The majority of people in our circles had no understanding of PTSD or RAD and they assumed that we were crazy, helicopter parents who unnecessarily over-controlled our kids and that we didn’t know anything about real parenting,” Vanita Thomas says. “This is a common complaint of adoptive parents: judgments come from family, friends, teachers, and the church.

“We shouldn’t be pushing people into the deep end of the water, then saying, ‘Figure it out.’ It is the entire church’s responsibility to take care of orphans.”

But a lot of churches didn’t do so, although evangelicals have remained passionate about adoption, giving generously to orphan care ministries, according to a 2017 Christianity Today piece. And “Orphan Sunday,” an annual event in early November that became prominent around 2009, is now observed by churches in 90 countries.

In 2007, Jennie Owens and her husband, Lynn, adopted two children from a group home they worked at in Florida, as well as a third child who came from foster care. All three had issues, especially the child from foster care.

“Before we adopted him, the school sat us down and told us that if he was 18, he’d be labeled a sociopath,” she says. “He had autism on top of all of the trauma.

“We had some idea that they had severe issues, but not to the level they had them … We were so overwhelmed that my body started to shut down from the stress. I had a doctor tell me that I was going to die if I didn’t get rid of my stressors.”

She also tried working with the family’s local church to get babysitting help during services so parents like them could get a small break. She was met with resistance.

“I know of families who stopped going to church because there were no programs that could handle their children,” she says. “People ask, ‘Why can’t these kids just get over it?’ “

Multiple families interviewed told of feeling alienated from their churches. Gina, a Bellevue, Washington, resident who asked her last name not be used, said all her church did is provide a few meals. Her son, 4 ½, has fetal alcohol syndrome disorder (FASD), a debilitating condition when the mother drinks alcohol during pregnancy. It’s known for its violence and severe behaviors, and there is no cure.

Church members would suggest his problems were demonic in origin.

“I actually finally stopped going to church with my FASD kiddo,” she says. “I was tired of people not understanding and judging my parenting. I also was tired of trying to educate people about trauma and special needs.”

When Lauren and Jonathan Biard of Everett, Washington, adopted two boys in 2003 from Kemerovo, Russia, they paid a doctor with an independent adoption consulting practice to perform scans of the children to make sure neither had the disability. The physician assured the couple neither boy was affected.

But the oldest son definitely has it, Lauren Biard says, and the inaccurate diagnosis just added to the trauma.

“Had we known what it all entailed, we would not have followed through with the adoption,” she says. “Fetal alcohol is brain damage. It cannot be repaired.”

She belongs to one of the rare congregations that furnishes extra caregivers to help disabled children, a monthly group for young adults with disabilities and a group for parents and caregivers.

The reason? Her church has a pastor whose two adopted children are special needs.

Autism, fetal alcohol syndrome and mental illness

In 2012, the first Refresh conference attracted about 170 people. By the time 2017 rolled around, there were more than 1,600. It was clear from many of the workshops that a lot of adoptions had gone wrong. Joy, who was a speaker at Refresh, said the adoption movement was hitting the skids because people were seeing its hard realities.

Refresh Conference, 2017, Overlake Christian Church
Volunteers at the 2017 Refresh conference at Overlake Christian Church in Redmond, Washington, wave good-bye to attendees at the conference for parents of adopted and foster children.
Julia Duin

“The whole model of Refresh was brutal honesty, where you could say stuff you couldn’t say to your relatives, neighbors and friends,” she remembers. “People think you can fix it all with love, but you can’t.”

Among evangelicals, it took a long time for the positive narrative to die. When Chrissy and Tory Shelton, a Longview, Washington, couple, adopted their oldest son, Jonah, he came with genetic abnormalities, ADHD, possible fetal alcohol complications, autism and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD), a condition with extreme irritability and anger outbursts.

“He was kicked out of the nursery for being aggressive with other children and the youth group because he’d talk about dismembering bodies,” she says.

She was passed over when her church held foster/adopting information clinics.

“It made me feel like I was a failure because I couldn’t get us to an acceptable place behaviorally enough for them to want to have us on the stage to explain our story,” she says. “But the other parents were able to and so they were called on.”

As Jonah grew increasingly violent, he was sent to a state institution for 13 months. He moved home for a year, then was sent to a group home after he threatened the life of his younger brother. The group home has made a “miraculous” change in her son since last November, she says, and she hopes to help families with similar problems.

“I just want to be there for the parents,” she says. “There is so much mom guilt. You don’t want to give up on your baby.”

A 2009 survey from the National Alliance on Caregiving and the American Association for Retired Persons found 16.8 million unpaid caregivers caring for special needs children with no break. One advocate for these families is Jessica Ronne, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, whose handicapped 17-year-old son, Lucas, needs round-the-clock care. She founded a non-profit called The Lucas Project to provide respite funds for adoptive and biological families of high-needs children.

“This isn’t going to end well if we don’t support these families,” she says. “The autism rates alone are astronomical now. Now that we can save these babies earlier – well, these babies grow up and require total care.”

Churches are great at advising people not to abort such children, “but there’s no one helping you,” she says. “A special needs parent’s list is never ending – medications, appointments – some days, we can’t even get out of our homes.

“I understand people don’t want to help with scary kids. But bring a meal or clean my house. Come on a Saturday and help with yard clean up or collectively watch the kid so the parents can go on a date for a few hours. The church needs to go out in the world – that is, go into the homes of these families.”

Jessica Ronne family 2018
This 2018 photo shows Jessica Ronne with her family. She has founded a non-profit called The Lucas Project to provide respite funds for adoptive and biological families of high-needs children.
Jessica Ronne

She engaged two Nashville filmmakers, Tom and Amanda Dyer, to produce a 45-minute documentary, “Unseen,” about caregivers that premiered April 24 in Grand Rapids. The trailer can be viewed on caregiverdoc.com.

“Our goal is to create a farm residential option for Lucas and others like him,” she says. “There are beautiful retirement communities going up everywhere – why can’t we construct one for those with disabilities?”

Respite for families

One person who was aware of these desperate families is Andrea Roberts, a Methodist whose oldest son, Reece, was born with Down Syndrome in 2002. She started Reece’s Rainbow, a foundation to promote international adoption of handicapped children, many of whom would otherwise die of neglect. During her 11 years there, she helped arrange close to 1,700 adoptions.

She began realizing the greater need was respite for the families of these children.

“It takes years to get services,” she says. “Then there is having to deal with your kid’s violence and worrying about your other children in the home. There is no respite care and no one to keep your kid while you have the breaks you need. There are not enough experienced caregivers to give you support or it’s extremely expensive.”

A Mother's Rest
This photo illustration shows the exhaustion felt by many parents of adopted and foster children who seek out the services of A Mother’s Rest, a foundation that has respite inns in Maryland and Georgia.
A Mother’s Rest

By 2016, her son was hitting puberty, “and it was a living hell,” she says. “I knew if I felt this way, others had to be too. I was in a serious mental health crisis at that time. I needed uninterrupted sleep and to be the person I used to be before all this.”

In 2017, she left Reece’s Rainbow to found A Mother’s Rest, a series of weekend retreats at 44 bed and breakfast lodgings around the country. She also bought two inns – one in New Market, Maryland, and the other in Mount Airy, Georgia, as permanent lodges for retreats. Both are booked through 2023.

“I want to encourage more churches to be aware of who is in their community – and who can’t come to their services because they are caring for somebody,” she says. “I haven’t been to church for 15 years for that reason. There is no one to sit with Reece. He’ll moan or run out of church.

“We’ve not been on family trips either because Reece limits where we can go because of his behaviors. There are so many megachurches in this country that could focus on special needs families.”

Reece’s Rainbow is still operating in numerous countries, but overseas adoptions of healthy children were already collapsing midway through the past decade. As a result, Bethany Christian Services, the country’s largest Christian adoption agency, stopped international adoptions in February 2020, saying its international work had dropped from hundreds of adoptions annually to less than a dozen.

By this time, U.S. adoptions were the lowest in 50 years, from 22,988 in 2004 to less than 3,000 in 2019, the last Covid-free year. Covid-19 dealt major damage to the system, with dramatic drops in adoption in 2020, basic foster care services suspended and court hearings and placements delayed.

There were also movements toward helping orphans stay in their own country with family members or – this is countercultural in many societies – with families that are not related. Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, has taken a leading role in helping orphans in Rwanda find blood relatives to live with. Pastored by Rick Warren, a minister best known for his best-selling book “The Purpose-Driven Life,” the church has also taken over hosting Refresh conferences, starting this past March.

Christian Alliance for Orphans summit
Participants enjoy a break at a Christian Alliance for Orphans summit in Cincinnati last year.
Christian Alliance for Orphans

Parents who would have ordinarily adopted from overseas have pivoted toward foster care despite its challenges, says Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance For Orphans (CAFO). A CAFO conference last year in Cincinnati attracted 1,500 people in person and more online.

“When I started here in 2009, it was me and one other staff member,” he says. “Now there’s 23 full-time staff,” plus the number of member organizations has increased from several dozen to about 200.

His organization is encouraging churches to undergird adoptive families with what he calls “wrap-around support,” but that message isn’t getting out, says “Gwen,” a pseudonym for a mental health counselor in Mobile, Alabama.

“There is still idealism and naivete in the Christian community,” she says. “Right now, there is a huge push toward foster care. From a mental health perspective, some of these families are engaging in a rescuer victim-relationship with their foster or adopted children: ‘I will be a rescuer to these victim children, and I’ll do God’s work and they will be thankful and have few problems.’ “

She no longer attends church because of significant “trust issues with local organized faith communities” who were of little help to her over the years. Her now 16-year-old son was adopted from Guatemala as a 7-month-old and “I knew from the moment I saw him something was terribly wrong,” she says. The child’s head was unnaturally flattened from laying too long in one place and he screamed constantly. By age 4, he had been diagnosed with RAD and ADHD.

She advises parents to take the long view with their children.

“Their job is to get these kids to adulthood with a minimum of suffering and connect them with resources they can access as adults,” she says.

She and her husband eventually divorced, plus Covid re-traumatized her son, who attempted suicide a few months later.

“We are recovering from that,” she says, “and now he tells me he is happy to be alive.”

https://www.newsweek.com/2022/06/24/evangelical-christian-adoption-movement-hit-tsunami-mentally-ill-children-1712533.html