Author Examines Rise of International Adoption in U.S.

arissa oh

The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life held a luncheon on Wednesday in which Arissa Oh, author of To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption, examined the origins and rise of international adoption in the United States.

Oh, a professor in Boston College’s history department, teaches and researches on migration in U.S. history and its relation to race, gender, and kinship.

Oh started with recent history on the subject, discussing the rise of the Evangelical Adoption Movement and the subsequent creation of the Christian Alliance for Orphans in 2004.

These groups, along with multiple other religious international adoption organizations in America, informed the public of what they called the Global Orphan Crisis. They publicized statistics of orphans around the world, such as the 140 to 200 million AIDS orphans in need of families in Africa, and they even launched an annual awareness program in 2009 called Orphan Sunday.

They created an adoption culture and adoption theology, building a desire within Americans to adopt internationally and providing them with grants and loans to make the process easier.

The Christian Alliance for Orphans felt that even with such high numbers of orphans overseas, if just a fraction of the Christians in America did something, this crisis would be solved.

Oh pointed out, however, that this orphan crisis the adoption movements referenced is not truly the concern they made it out to be.

According to the United Nations, 90 percent of these orphans still have one parent alive, and many of the remaining 10 percent are living with other family members besides their parents.

During a rise in adoption due to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, this same problem was faced yet again. Oh retold the story of a group of Baptists who entered Haiti to rescue children only to be arrested, because the children they had tried to take out of the country were in fact not orphans at all.

Oh couldn’t have been less surprised.

“This has happened before,” she said.

International adoption was first systematized during a time period that is Oh’s specialty: World War II. As “GI babies,” or children conceived by Korean women and American servicemen during the war, were born in large numbers and often rejected by internal agencies because of their American heritage, Evangelical Christian Harry Holt took action.

Holt and his wife Bertha adopted eight GI babies, inspired others to do the same, and created their own agency to provide them a method to do so. This method, however, was very missionary-focused on the organizational level—the application for adoption asked individuals not much other than their occupation and relationship with Jesus Christ.

Once adoption rates of GI babies soared, Korea used this outlet to send its unwanted children to America, such as those with disabilities, with single mothers, or from poor families.


“There are all kinds of ethical problems that challenge the dominant idea of rescuing children that make people more uncomfortable with religious reasons for adoption.”

—Arissa Oh, author of To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption


 As Oh described the time period in which this occurred, she made clear that many Korean parents were unaware of what adoption truly meant. Some families with two working parents were convinced by agencies that sending their children to America would be the best for them, but many incorrectly believed that their children would simply get an education in America and return home to them.

In the 1960s, Korean adoption programs became international adoption programs, and this mindset of adopting from foreign countries grew stronger.

“People don’t adopt transracially domestically so much, but adopting from Africa overseas shows how the exotic difference of a child overcomes the fact that it’s a black child,” Oh said, emphasizing the interesting racial component of these international adoptions.

She also pointed out, however, that as international adoption rates rose, the evangelical seed within the process became less present.

“There are all kinds of ethical problems that challenge the dominant idea of rescuing children that make people more uncomfortable with religious reasons for adoption,” Oh said.

This discomfort spread to other aspects of international adoption as well, also contributing to its decline following the international adoption peak in 2004.

“It became like clockwork for a while,” Oh said. “After the tsunami in Indonesia, after the Haitian earthquake, there were all these American offers to adopt children, and we’re not seeing that so much with Syria.”

Adoption regulations became stricter, a positive sign of government response to fraud and trafficking. Stories spread of children being adopted who already had parents in their home countries, increasing skepticism about the process. The question of whether it is best to take children out of their cultural context and move them to another country was posed.

Because of this, Oh argued, the Christian Alliance for Orphans today is focusing more on family preservation and improving foster care in these foreign countries.

Oh emphasized that this could in part be due to the fact that people are beginning to appreciate the fact that maybe a child is better off living with relatives in the country of his or her culture, rather than being moved across the world.

She also pointed out that social changes in other countries, as well as a redirection of focus to domestic adoption in America, contributed to this decrease in international adoption as well.

The luncheon ended with a discussion of where the children adopted all those years ago are today.

With international adoptions prior to 2000, the children were not automatically naturalized citizens and many formal papers to complete that process fell through the cracks. This has created a problem in today’s political climate, especially for those who were adopted long before 2000 and now have families of their own.

Many children of those who have been deported in recent years have ended up in the American foster care system, separated from their families.

Oh observed that America’s current political climate may slow any future increase in international adoptions, especially since the concerns of deportation for people who were adopted so many years ago are rising significantly today.

“Parents are signing agreements with each other, giving power of attorney to friends and relatives, so if they get deported, their friends can take over their kids and access their bank accounts,” Oh said. “So they’re preparing for that contingency.”

Featured Image by Mary Kate DiNorica / Heights Staff