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Noticing Nuance: Competing Permanency Options for Children

By Crystal Kupper

Subtle yet steady, a culture war has been slowly brewing in the child advocacy world. It boasts no herald to announce its merits to the nation, and few outside its fields of battle could articulate exactly what the fuss is about. Even so, the line in the sand has seemingly been drawn: either you are pro-adoption or pro-family preservation and reunification — and the spoils of war are the precious children, up for the taking by whichever side can yell the loudest and longest.

Yet there are some — including the National Council For Adoption — charging into the fracas to call a time-out. From adoption professionals, social workers and policy-makers to churches, nonprofit organizations, adoptive families, and community volunteers, child advocates around the globe are drawing attention to a new way of “doing business” amongst vulnerable children.

Their message is simple, they say. Family preservation and reunification efforts are not at odds with being pro-adoption, and vice versa.

Instead of viewing one as the only effective way to help vulnerable children find and keep family, we should embrace a wider variety of permanency options. Indeed, these options can help discern children’s —and families’ — best interests. Not to mention that the institution and practice of adoption is strengthened in a setting where there are robust options to ensure that family preservation and reunification efforts are available.

These shades of grey, it seems, make for a brighter rainbow after a continual storm when it comes to trying to do right by the world’s most vulnerable citizens.

The Initial Call to Arms

Cultures, even ancient ones, have long had their own unique ways of dealing with children living outside of parental care. And much to the shock of many Americans, the widescale solutions were neither orphanages nor adoption in the modern sense (at least until the last few centuries). Instead, kinship or community care traditionally came first.

Then came the orphanage model beginning in the 18th century, where children were effectively warehoused in bulk. The idea was to shelter and educate parentless children until a (usually wealthier) family adopted them. The first American orphanage arrived in Mississippi in 1729[1], and the first adoption law passed in Massachusetts more than a hundred years later in 1851.[2] The old was out and the new was in; adoption was the mainstream way to turn the parentless into the parented.

Except it didn’t work for everyone.

Historical documents and anecdotes are rife with tales of institutional abuse, trafficking of kids with parents, “aging out” orphans left unsupported, and adoptions for the sole use of manual laborers or other nefarious purposes. Combine that with erased traditions of kinship and community care, therefore, and it’s easy to see how the seeds of “anti-adoption” were planted and watered by genuinely concerned individuals and movements.

Community and cultural bonds were broken when children were moved elsewhere. Loving mothers and fathers were left with empty arms after being deceived or coerced into sending their children to “places where they will be taken care of.” Kids were left without a past, or at least an unimportant one, it seemed. Trauma reigned in ways both secret and overt, even in the best and most well-meaning adoptive families.[3]

That knowledge — that adoption isn’t a Hollywood fairy tale — eventually built up and spilled over in multiple arenas, including academic[4] and social. In recent years especially, adoptees and birth parents from around the globe have taken to the internet and adoption-related events to share their stories. [5]

In many cases, they are grateful for the institution of adoption. But those with skin in the game can no longer ignore the many voices that speak a more nuanced story, including messy layers and conflicting emotions.

“Adoption can be a beautiful and redemptive story for all involved,” says Jedd Medefind, present of Christian Alliance for Orphans (CAFO). “But there are so many different painful and broken situations. Each one calls for a tender heart and a solution that’s well-fit for that situation.”

In some cases, the solution is adoption. In others, it’s remaining with parents or other relatives. Sometimes, it can even be a mix of both, where an adoption is open with plenty of biological family involvement.

One thing the solution can never be, say the experts: a competition where the primary goal is to crush the “other side” into oblivion.

“I am seeing more and more advocates, including foster and adoptive parents, social workers and organizational leaders, who are very committed to holding these seemingly opposite ideas of commitment to family strengthening on one hand and child protection and finding new homes for families when that’s necessary on the other,” says Medefind, himself an adoptive father. “I see that as very encouraging.”

Love Learning

This tension between family preservation and adoption is something I have waded into personally. My nine-year-old daughter Guyana is adopted from Armenia, a former Soviet territory. Though I have never met her biological parents, my husband and I are in semi-regular contact with them through an intermediary (for privacy reasons, I will call them David and Veronica).

Guyana’s first parents, as we say, are significantly older than my husband and me. When they learned they were pregnant with twin girls in 2011, they were overjoyed. Though they are poor, David and Veronica have a good marriage and are surrounded by loving family in their tightknit small village, including two older children. They regularly attend church and are active members of the community, so despite David’s occasional unemployment (he is a contract laborer), life was and is good.

Then came the ultrasound where one twin (Guyana) was diagnosed with severe spina bifida. The doctor encouraged David and Veronica to abort Guyana and let her healthy twin live. The cost of the abortion was not a factor, as abortions are paid for by the Armenian government for low-income women[6], yet David and Veronica refused.

“Do you understand that she will die if you keep her?” the doctor asked. “That no one will want her, even if she lives? What will you do with her?”

They told the doctor that even if they couldn’t raise a child with such an intense special need (and as it turns out, spina bifida was just the beginning), they could not kill her. And in spite of the fact that Guyana could not safely remain in Armenia (there is not a single specialty children’s hospital in the entire nation, for instance), they felt confident that Americans would eventually adopt her, because Americans love all children.

Americans would eventually adopt her. Clearly, the U.S. has a global reputation as pro-adoption! David and Veronica made the sacrificial decisions to both let our daughter live and let her live away from their family’s love when they could have just “taken care of the problem” and not spent a lifetime worrying about how their daughter was faring eight thousand miles away.

Yet I have lost track of how many times my fellow Americans have met Guyana and immediately assumed that her biological parents are either nonliving or unloving; since she resided at an orphanage when we adopted her, the thinking apparently goes, then her parents were either dead or criminals.

Most are surprised when I bring up my and my husband’s admiration for her first parents. “Wait, you mean she has parents? And they’re good people?” When I confirm yes, the second question is inevitable: “So why didn’t they want/keep her?” as if it was thanks to some personal flaw on their part and not from a systemic failure like poverty and lack of medical access and social support for people with disabilities.

Seth Holmes’ words come to mind in this case, that “perhaps instead of blaming [the biological parents], it is more appropriate to understand them as human beings doing the best they can in the midst of an unequal and harsh system.[7]”  There is a clear lack of awareness in my circle (and most likely America at large) about what life is like within these unequal and harsh systems, about why these noncriminal parents “give up” their children to orphanages, institutions and social services and therefore “need” adoption.

I used to be no different. I am the third consecutive generation in my family to adopt and/or foster, meaning that for as long as I can recall, orphan care has been presented to me as common. I know no other way. But a caveat: I knew “no other way” except foster care and adoption, blissfully ignorant of the complexities and nuances of birth families, systemic poverty and so on.

Over time, however, through the stories of biological parents like my adopted daughter’s and others like her, as well as scads of academic research and trips to Eastern Europe — I earned my master’s degree in International Community Development — chinks appeared in my orphan care philosophies.

I heard a story of a man standing at the bottom of the cliff, catching children being tossed over. He is saving them! But then he realizes that someone has to be at the top, throwing the little ones to their demise. And unless he recruits a replacement, the children will die when he leaves.

But what if he could stop them from being thrown in the first place?

I could no longer ignore the fact that I had been enjoying being the savior at the bottom of the cliff and had no interest in checking out the action at the top. Yet was I actually saving anyone? I began to research family preservation: what it meant, how it looked, which organizations were emphasizing it and with how much success. And what I found changed my entire perspective.

Quite simply, if true justice had been realized from the beginning — if Armenia had the medical and societal resources — I would not be Guyana’s mother, her mother would be her mother. The privilege of being my daughter’s mom, frankly, came at the cost of another woman’s heartbreak and trauma.

Does that mean I have become anti-adoption? Far from it! Adoption can be a redemptive, loving route of healing for adoptees, adopters and even birth families. But my perspective was radically broadened to see that adoption was not the panacea I previously imagined. Indeed, what is often seen as a fairy tale ending for Americans could very easily be a nightmare, or at least a bad dream, for many birth parents (especially overseas).

Some nights I am haunted by the eyes of Veronica, my daughter’s first mom. She has given me her blessing and repeatedly expressed her unending gratitude to me and my husband for adopting her daughter. And I have never felt guilty for my role. But still, her dark eyes — the obvious inspiration for Guyana’s — are replete with the shattered emptiness of losing a child, and my heart breaks alongside hers.

When it comes to children who “need” outside influences like adoption, social services and orphanages, there are no easy answers.

Best Practices

In that vein, the nuances of maintaining or finding the best homes for vulnerable children are not always obvious. And despite the best of intentions, child advocates do not always agree on the kindest course of action for any child and their family. My husband and I received at least one angry email, for example, berating us for not taking the money spent to pay Guyana’s adoption fees and “moving Guyana’s family to America so she could stay with them” instead.

Besides the obvious — the adoption monies in no way equaled what it would cost to move and provide for an entire family here, if they were even given government approval — Guyana’s first family had no wish to leave their relatives and Armenian way of life. In her case, adoption was the best Plan B for all parties. For others, however, especially those without major special needs, it may be a traumatically unsettling twist of fate.

Such “this or that, that and this” is not easily explained to children nor adults — a fact missionary Tori Rayle knows all too well. As a “house parent” at Children of the Promise in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, Rayle, 30, has fostered 15 young Haitians thus far in groups of five to 10 at a time in a family-style home.

The situation is far better than an orphanage, Rayle says, and prepares them for possible (almost always international) adoption. And that’s a practice she supports.

“Having smaller numbers means we can be a family and each child can have individualized care,” she points out. “Having trauma-informed caregivers…helps children begin to heal from their traumas and to work on attachment. Our children have people who will fight however hard they need to get the kids the medical care, the physical care, the emotional, educational and nutritional care they need.”

But just as — if not more — exciting for Rayle is another portion of Children of the Promise’s offerings for struggling Haitians: family preservation services. The nonprofit gives formula or specialized peanut butter to parents who may be tempted to “use” an orphanage’s services as food security for their child(ren), for starters. Children of the Promise also offers parenting classes, basic medical services, temporary orphanage stays while ill parents recover and have even coordinated with Haitian social services to establish a fledgling local foster care system.

“I think adoption is a beautiful mess and I will advocate for children in orphanages to be adopted until the day I die, but I would love even more for children to not need to be adopted, and for families to have work and needed support to keep their children with them,” says Rayle.

Almost six thousand miles to the east, Kim Johnson supervises the joyful chaos of nine children and men at her family’s homestead in Ivanivka, Ukraine. She and her husband, alongside their children, moved to Ukraine in 2013 to serve local men and boys with disabilities. Since then, they have adopted one teenager and become legal guardians to three men from a nearby orphanage.

The nonprofit they founded, Wide Awake International, has an ultimate goal of emptying Ukraine’s orphanages. That can be accomplished, she points out, through orphanage prevention — an interesting twist on family preservation — and adoption, though she realizes one option is immensely more attractive to most First Worlders.

“[Family preservation is] much more nuanced, and strategies differ by country and culture. Family preservation requires addressing poverty and broken systems, and cultural beliefs,” says Johnson. “It’s super intricate and messy. When you compare that with adoption, swooping in and ‘saving’ a child seems like a much simpler way to help.”

Indeed; plenty of Americans have adopted from orphanages, for instance, but far fewer have uprooted their entire lives to a foreign nation to effectively close those orphanages via lack of clients, as the Johnsons have.

“We found the biological father of one of the men who is now in our family, and his father explained the struggle it was to care for him when he was young and his special needs were discovered,” says Johnson. “He said eventually they just gave up and gave him to the institution, because no one would help them and they were so tired of fighting. I think that is a story for many.”

Recently, an American family chose Andrew, the last remaining adoptable boy at “their” orphanage. But before that, Andrew’s story wasn’t atypical; he lived with his biological family for his first four years before his special needs landed him in an orphanage. He was eventually transferred to a particularly heinous institution for men where he almost died before Kim and her team stepped in.

For two years, Wide Awake tried to help Andrew’s mom parent by providing therapy, living situation resources, financial assistance for Andrew’s care and more.

“But she would never rise to the challenge. She rarely visited him, and took little interest in his wellbeing,” Johnson says. “The hard decision was made by her to sign away her rights so that Andrew could know have the permanency of family. She knew that she did not have the ability, support or resources to care for him for the rest of his life.”

There’s the cold, hard, uncomfortable truth: “We tried to preserve the family, but in the end, adoption was the best outcome for Andrew.”

Messy, nuanced, both/and, in other words. Never either/or.

As CAFO’s Medefind says, quietly and deliberately, “When you’re working amidst the world’s brokenness, so often things are immensely complex, and there may not be clear answers to get to the end you’re hoping for.”


The false dichotomy of pro-adoption versus pro-family preservation/reunification helps neither advocates nor the children they so deeply want to serve. Rather than staking a claim on one exclusive team, there is a better way of utilizing both to strengthen the overall goal of family.

The good news: times are changing.

“I really do believe there are deep roots to both adoption and family preservation, and both today are enjoying more attention than they have in the past,” says Medefind. “What we’re seeing is a deepening of the understanding of the complexity of our world. That sometimes adoption is necessary to provide a new family for a child, but often it is possible to restore that child to his or her biological family.” A mutual strengthening, if you will.

And perhaps that is the point, the tiny bullseye on what feels like an ever-shifting target: not that adoption or family preservation and reunification are the exclusive aims, but useful arrows in the child advocate’s quiver.

Crystal Kupper is a writer, photographer, runner, mom-of-four and Air Force wife living in Arizona. There's nowhere else she'd rather be than outside with her family, preferably clad in Oregon Duck gear.







[7] Holmes, Seth M. Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies Migrant Farmworkers in the United States. Univ. of California Press, 2014.