Adoption Ethics – A Guest Post by J.R. Goudeau

On Friday, I’ll be joining a good crew of folks this week in Austin to discuss “Human Care,” including issues relating to the ethics of international adoption. Among the wonderful people with whom I hope to spend time is J.R. Goudeau. Today, she’s guest posting here and sharing her view on adoption ethics. Read this, y’all. It’s so good.


The question of the ethics of international adoption has become very, very personal to me. A few days ago, in a Chinese orphanage in a very large city, our third child celebrated her half-birthday. She is now two and a half; we go get her in a few short weeks. Her videos and pictures, her fat cheeks, shy smile and her sweet clapping hands, have changed this debate for me. This is no longer theory. This is real, as real as the grief we are about to enter and navigate together as we start over as a family of five.

The week after Jen Hatmaker began her series of adoption ethics in June, no less than six people in my life asked me whether our adoption was ethical. Part of that is because I live in Austin, where Jen lives, and a lot of us really like her. Part of that is because her series of posts prompted many people to begin thinking about these issues in new ways. We had just been matched with our little girl a few weeks before, and I mentioned to a friend at the time that one of my greatest comforts was the deep sense of peace we felt about the ethics of our adoption.

I was happy to answer those friends’ questions (and the ones that have come up since) and I’m grateful to the people who are helping to change the scope of this debate—we should be asking if adoptions are ethical with the same ease that people ask why we picked one country or a particular special need. I can say with a lot of love that I realize that for some people, the issue of adoption ethics is one that they only realize late into the process as they really begin to understand the ramifications of changing the course of a child’s life forever. But for me that was not the case; this has been the guiding issue of our adoption process.

An ethical adoption was the only option for us.

There are several reasons for my commitment to ethical adoption, but the most important is my experience doing community development in Brazil, where I taught English at a children’s home, and in Austin, where I co-founded a non-profit working with Burmese refugee artisans. The work we’ve done for the last several years in Austin with Hill Country Hill Tribers, helping young mothers and old grandmothers care for their small children and grandchildren by selling their handmade products so they can remain at home, has especially impacted my desire to adopt.

The stance we have learned to take in relation to the Burmese refugees we work is the same stance that we are using in our adoption: I want to flexibly adjust my life around their needs. That means for the refugees, we have learned how to order yarn because they weave. We have researched jewelry designs to help make marketable necklaces and earrings and bracelets. We have taught basic English classes because that is what they wanted to learn. We have learned how to manage MAP and Medicare and the food stamp program because those are the needs our friends have. We have stretched ourselves and turned our lives inside out to pour ourselves into each day as it came. We have learned to listen rather than talk, come alongside rather than instruct, make friends rather than “help” people. And the measure of our success is the strength of the solidarity in our small community.

In the same way, we didn’t want to find a baby that fit our family so much as adjust our family around a child. That means being open to the special needs and developmental delays of a child who has been in an institution. That means holding our plans loosely for the next several years until we understand the full extent of the therapies and surgeries and complexities we will face. Life with our Burmese friends has sometimes been glorious and beautiful, but often it has been heartbreaking and backbreaking. I assume this adoption will be perfect and flawed, difficult and painful and breathtakingly wonderful. I’ll let you know how it’s going a few months in, but right now we are preparing ourselves and our biological children to walk into grief and hardship together.

I didn’t want to adopt a child who was in an orphanage simply because her mother or father could not afford to care for her, what are sometimes called “poverty orphans.” The simple truth is that I felt it would be better for me to go and begin an economic development project or, better yet, support already existing community development works than to participate in a system that makes it seem better for children to be raised in the West than cared for in their home cultures. The complex truth is those are very broad ideas and that each adoption situation is different–there are a variety of reasons why children are relinquished every day–but in general, most Christians I know are much more excited about adoption than they are community development and women’s empowerment and I want to see a major shift in our larger conversation that supports women’s rights and mother’s rights first.

That being said, there are places and programs where ethical adoptions can and should be used as one of many tools in the arsenal to help children. Finding those programs and agencies can be difficult, but doing the research is crucially important. I have asked every person in my life over the last ten years who has adopted why they chose the programs and agencies they did, domestic or international, private or foster. I have read articles and blog posts and scholarly journals. By the time we were ready to adopt, I had a map in my head of where I thought the ethical adoptions were taking place, but then I called and personally spoke with people in 45 different agencies before settling on ours (I’m a nerd who loves research, let’s be honest). The answers I got from day one at our agency privileged birth mothers first, whether foreign or domestic. They care for special needs kids whether or not they are adopted. They work with other agencies happily and openly to advocate for kids. They are choosy and slow and very, very candid about their process. I have asked repeatedly, both generally in terms of their approach and now specifically about our child, for them to show me why it was ethical and they have, over and over again. No question has been too probing or too thorough. This is very different from what other friends have told me about their agencies and I’m so grateful we picked ours.*

Adoption is complicated and specific and tricky. The most challenging thing is knowing when adoption is appropriate and when it is not. The only way to know is by educating ourselves about the complexities of a country or a region or a village or a family. We need to listen hard and well; despite the fact that we lived in Brazil, when we asked good questions, we realized that the Brazilian relatives and friends around our kids were in a better position to adopt and support them than we were. This isn’t always the case, but it was for the three kids I wanted to adopt. I would love if we lived in a world in which every child had a supportive, loving larger family, but we do not. And while Christians are debating the ethics of adoptions (which we MUST do), adoptions overall have slowed down in the last decade and my agency, among others, is advocating daily for special needs and older kids who are hard to place. I don’t think every family should bring home just any kid, but matching the kids who need homes with families equipped to take care of them is an ongoing struggle for our agency and others. While adoption is not the answer from many, many countries and we need to reevaluate entire programs and approaches, we have to be careful not to be so extreme in our response that we discount adoption altogether.

Adoption and community development are two sides of the same coin. With one hand my husband and I are committed to supporting women and men in a variety of places so that they are never faced with the gut-wrenching decision to give up a child and with the other hand we’re bringing home a little one who would spend a life in an orphanage if adoption didn’t exist. Both community development and adoption are extremely important tools; it’s not either/or, it’s both/and.

The problems that lead to children being placed for adoption are many and complex. The solutions to those problems are equally complex and can only be understood by the community on the ground in a specific region, not Westerners who come in with all the answers. But, by listening to the people who live in a region, it is possible to come up with a variety of creative and beautiful responses: It could be maternity care in Haiti or water wells in Burundi or reunification in Uganda or educational development in the Dominican Republic or a refugee artisans’ cooperative in Austin.

And sometimes, it is adoption. Our child will be coming home to our house sometime in November. Until then, we’re living breathlessly in prayer that she and the twenty other children who share her room who haven’t yet been matched and the hundreds of other children who live in her institution know, somehow, that they are loved and worthwhile and precious.

*I’m happy to talk about the specifics of our adoption agency and the choices we made about our country program in the comments, but I wanted to generally advocate for a stance toward ethical adoption that could apply toward any thorough agency or program, not just write a commercial for mine. But if you have questions, I’d love to share anything online or by email.


 J. R. Goudeau is the Executive Director and co-founder of Hill Country Hill Tribers, as well as a grad student in English literature. When she’s supposed to be working on her dissertation, she can usually be found blogging about books, babies and Burmese refugees at
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  • Leigh Kramer

    Good, good stuff, JR.

    • J.R. Goudeau

      Thank you, dear.

  • Jenny Jones

    What agency are you going through?

    • J.R. Goudeau

      Gladney. Their China Special Needs program particularly, but I was very impressed with them when I initially talked to them because of their commitment with domestic private adoptions (which we aren’t doing but shows their methodology). They told me mothers were their clients, not the adoptive families, in the sense that they wanted to make sure that mothers had plenty of time to make decisions with zero pressure–just really different from other agencies that promised babies fast. We have other friends who have had good experiences with other agencies that work in China–Holt and Dillon come to mind, but I know there are others.

  • pastordt

    Well done, Jessica. Thank you. (And prayers for successful completion of everything academic before this precious girl arrives!! I’m going over to your blog now to resubscribe because I haven’t had anything from you in a long while now.)

    • J.R. Goudeau

      Thanks, Diana. It is indeed a very mad season–please resubscribe, but it’s not you, it’s me. I’m afraid all the words I have go into the dissertation. The end is very much in sight, though. Just a couple more weeks and then I’ll rejoin the (online) world of the living. Can’t wait! Hope you and yours are well!

  • Justin

    If I could add another couple of organizations to those you reference. 1. A Child’s Voice // Abide Family Center // Childsifoundation | Very nice post!

  • Freida Potter

    The decrease in international adoptions since around 2004? Massive corruption, as a result of the vast (in a developing country) amount of money that could be warned by getting foreign family to adopt a kid.

    Read EJ Graff’s “The Lie We Love” and “Anatomy of an Adoption Crisis” and Erin Siegal’s “Finding Fernanda”. Read the cables that came out of the US Embassy in Guatemala — babies were kidnapped and trafficked for the express purpose of international adoption. Local women were MURDERED for their babies/young kids! When adoptions from Guat and Vietnam and Cambodia got shut down, the money stopped flowing — and the trafficking dropped off too!

    The evangelical adoption “crusade” to internationally adopt kids with special needs who they claim would otherwise rot in an institution? Many of those kids have biofamilies that visit regularly or who refuse to relinquish their parental rights. The godly Christians who want those babies pray their biofamilies stop visiting! They can’t be bothered to save akid with no family — this is evidence of that. These families merrily dump their adopted kid — disrupt or hand them over to random strangers they met on an internet chat board, as detailed in Reuters The Child Exchange investigation!

    (Many of these families get their commupance — the kids they purchased are so damaged they DESTROY the lives of the supposedly godly families. Jesus knows best, right? For the sake of your future daughter I hope she is healthy and happy and undamaged by her time in the orphanage. For you? You deserve a kid with RAD who will ruin your life).

    I find it so very ironic that you claim to be all about adoption ethics, but are adopting a kid from one of the most corrupt places on earth — tens of thousands of YOUR dollars are supporting crime, corruption and human trafficking!

  • Sandy

    We fostered a little boy in China who had special needs. His parents had abandoned him at a hospital. He was two months old. In his seven months in the orphanage, he went from 4.7 kilograms to 3.3. He was within days of starving death when we got him. Now he is a thriving healthy little boy…and still in foster care in China waiting for his forever family to arrive next month!
    All of of who fostered knew that the best thing for our beloved foster children was to be with their birth families. But the reality is sobering- a one child policy that forces families to give up children who can not support them in their old age. Very little special needs education (none in our city of 7 million), a cash up front medical system and societal prejudice makes keeping a special needs child very difficult for parents. There certainly aren’t any parents who abandon their children and then visit them at the orphanage each week. That would have devastating legal complications.
    The reality of our foster sons life if he weren’t adopted would be a return to the orphanage at some point where he would either be used as a low-level worker or literally tied up to a bed for the rest of his life. We are so thankful for his adoptive family (a family much younger than we are and ready to deal with his life-long special need). Adoption is not the only solution but it certainly is a part of the solution.

  • Christiana

    As ever dear JR , kind and thoughtful. I think this gets at people because they are so close to the issue but anyone who knows you will know that you will give any child of yours such love. And you will also seek to understand your daughter’s culture for all of its complexities. Thank you for being brave in speaking out even if others aren’t so kind in their assessments.