The American Orphan Crisis
It was January 2005, the 32nd anniversary of landmark abortion ruling Roe v. Wade, and Randy Bohlender, his wife, three sons and thousands of other pro-life supporters turned out on Capitol Hill. They were there to pray for an end to abortion.
Not surprisingly, they were met by strong vocal opposition. And one person actually yelled a question that changed Bohlender’s life: “They said, ‘If you had your way, if Roe v. Wade was overturned, what are you going to do with all the babies who would be born?’
“And, you know, that’s valid,” he says. “Sometimes your critics are right.”
During the past decade in the United States, thousands of Christians have come to the conviction that being pro-life means being more than pro-birth. And they’ve embraced adoption and foster care.
“The Church at its best has been known as a people who care for orphans,” says Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO), a network of more than 150 Christian organizations and churches.
The early church was known for taking in children Romans had abandoned in a practice known as “exposure.” But many modern American Christians first came face to face with adoption in the early 2000s as the world began to shrink and the speed of technology and ease of travel introduced them to children in crisis all over the globe.
That’s when a number of prominent Christians began to speak about—mostly international—adoption, including musician Steven Curtis Chapman, pastor Rick Warren and theologian Russell Moore.
“International adoption became a big catalyst for many other expressions for care for orphans, including both international service and engagement with foster care,” Medefind says.
Since 2004, The number of international adoptions has dropped By over 70 percent
Since international adoption peaked in 2004, scandals and politics have forced countries to close or limit adoptions. The number of international adoptions reported by the U.S. Department of State in 2014 is less than a third of what it was then—down from 22,991 to 6,441.
In the meantime, the number of children waiting to be adopted out of the U.S. foster care system has held steady around 100,000. (More than 400,000 total remain in the system, according to the most recent numbers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.)
And there are more than 300,000 churches in the country, points out Kelly Rosati, vice president of community outreach at Focus on the Family.
“If just one family in every third church would welcome home one of these kids, we would have no more orphans in foster care,” Rosati says. “It would be the most powerful witness ever to the love of Christ.”
That’s exactly what the Bohlenders did.
A year and a half after his come-to-Jesus moment on Capitol Hill, Bohlender and his wife, Kelsey, committed to moving forward with adoption. They had no money and no paperwork filled out, but it wasn’t long before they had a phone call: A baby girl had been born in Las Vegas.
“If you want her, just come and get her,” the social worker told Bohlender. The next day, he was on a plane to meet his daughter, Savannah Zoe.
The Bohlenders had been writing and speaking about the adoption for two years when they decided to have a home study done in order to show their home was suitable for another child, just in case. Days after passing the study, they brought home twin girls.
In the years since, they have welcomed the twins’ three siblings, as well as a fourth child of their own. They now have 10 children total—five boys and five girls. They are white and black and Hispanic and Asian. Bohlender has to stop and count when he’s asked how many of them are adopted.
“When you have 10 kids, you’re a magnet for questions, and when your kids represent six ethnicities, you’re a magnet for questions,” he says.
There are questions and concerns about the high cost of adoption—up to $35,000 for an international adoption, according to CAFO—and the long waits involved.
There are questions about transracial adoption—questions Bohlender, who describes himself as “certified as the whitest person on the planet,” says he also has wrestled with. A 2008 report by the Donaldson Adoption Institute found white families generally are unprepared to help adopted children who are black face challenges such as coping with being “different,” developing a positive racial or ethnic identity and coping with discrimination.
“When we went to adopt children of other races, my question was, ‘Can I represent their culture to them as a late 40s white guy who grew up in North Dakota? Could I represent the culture they were going to live in well for them?’” Bohlender says.
Around the world, there are an estimated 150 million orphans
But Ryan Bomberger says the most important things any child needs are love and permanence.”
Bomberger is half-black and half-white and was the first of 10 children adopted by a white, Mennonite family with three children of their own in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. His parents read widely with him, he says. They took him to churches with black congregations and to play with other black children.
But most importantly, he says, they did a “great job” addressing “foundational things,” like the love and permanence of a family and human brokenness.
“What was important to them was loving one another regardless, whatever your background was, whatever your present circumstances were—serving people. That was the start of my life and why adoption is so important to me,” he says.
Bomberger always knew he was adopted, but he was 13 before he understood why his birth mother placed him up for adoption: She had been raped, and his birth was the result.
The teenage years already are tumultuous enough without one’s past being rewritten in a moment, he says, and, “If I didn’t have the incredible foundation of love, if I didn’t have parents who were speaking life into me all the time, I would have fallen apart.”
Instead, everything came together for him in that moment. A month later, he ended up sharing his story with classmates in a persuasive speech against abortion, a story he still is sharing with audiences around the country.
Not only is Bomberger continuing to tell that story, which began when his adopted mother spent a year in foster care as a child. But he is also writing new chapters. He adopted his wife Bethany’s daughter, Hayley, some time after the two were married in 2009. The couple also adopted their youngest son, Justice, on the same day, which Bomberger described as “the best day, next to the day I gave my life to the Lord and [the day of] my wedding.”
Together, the couple now have four children and have launched the Radiance Foundation, which advocates for adoption through outreaches like Adopted and Loved and Sally’s Lambs, a ministry to show expectant mothers they are loved and not forgotten.
Adoption, Bomberger says, is “a powerful parenting choice, and many (mothers) don’t get the credit for making that.”
People also have misconceptions about children in foster care, he says. He loves that Christians feel “concern and compassion for children around the world,” but he feels they sometimes can overlook the need in their own backyards. Or they can think a child in foster care is “broken” because they may have emotional or physical difficulties, as if there were any guarantee a child adopted from overseas or birthed by his or her parents wouldn’t.
Still, Medefind warns against “adoption cheerleading.”
Children who are adopted all have experienced loss, and some may have experienced abuse or other trauma, according to the CAFO president. The Church needs to be frank about those challenges. It needs to prepare families before they foster or adopt, needs to remember that “the beauty of the Gospel story also carries the Cross,” he says.
“Adoption is not a fairy tale. It’s not that movie Annie, where the little kid gets adopted and everybody lives happily ever after,” says Deanna Blincow, co-founder of the Orphan Care ministry at North Way Christian Community near Pittsburgh. “Kids come with very real issues, and it’s going to be hard. But if the Church can’t stand up and do the hard, difficult stuff, then who’s going to do it?”
The Natural Extension of Being Pro-Life
In adopting six children and walking alongside others on both sides of the process, Bohlender says, “We’ve learned a lot.” He also recently received a license to open Zoe’s House Adoption Agency—an agency named for the first, life-filled daughter to join the Bohlender family. Bohlender hopes the agency will remove barriers by making the process more affordable for adoptive families and more caring for expectant mothers.
“It is time for the pro-life movement to embrace the natural extension of the argument, and I think they’re ready to do that,” he says.
More than 3,000 people across the country already have started the process to adopt or foster through Focus on the Family’s Wait No More program, according to Rosati. The number of children waiting to be adopted in Colorado was cut in half between 2008, when Wait No More started there, and 2013, the most recent year for which data is available from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That number dropped from 1,897 to 896.
Churches like North Way are bringing speakers, agencies and other resources together at an annual expo for families interested in adopting or fostering children. It also offers workshops and Bible studies for families who are considering adoption; support groups for those who have adopted and those who are in the process of adopting; and yearly retreats and respite nights for adoptive parents.
That’s because not everybody is called to foster or adopt or even mentor.
100,000 children wait to be adopted out of foster care
Still, Medefind says, “Every Christian community is called to live out the ‘pure’ religion James describes. There is a role for every one of us in that.” He points to James 1:27: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
In fact, Bohlender says, if everybody adopted, his family wouldn’t be able to do what it does.
That’s because, he says, “A support system is huge.” His family has received financial support, as well as support from young adults their children are comfortable with, who have become another part of the family. A trip to the park or to the store with 10 children often requires another pair of hands. Leaving town requires a Google spreadsheet.
“They get to be a part of adoption as much as we are,” he says.
And together, Medefind says, adoptive parents and those helping them “are giving a humble reflection of the character of God.”
“This is not just the orphan story, it’s our story as Christians, as well—that God pursued us when we were destitute and alone, embraced us. He welcomed us into His family and invited us to live as His daughters and sons. When Christians care for orphans and foster youth, whether through adoption or fostering or mentoring or other ways, we are really retelling the story of how God first loved us.”
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