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The American Orphan Crisis

400,000 kids in the U.S. are displaced, and the system is crumbling.

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.

The Bohlenders

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.

The Bombergers

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.”

Top Comments

Courtney Schmidt


Courtney Schmidt commented…

I am not an adoptive parent myself, but I have many friends who are. I believe those friends would be offended by the distinction between adopted children and "children of their own." Children belong to their parents and are considered "their own" whether they came to the family through biological or adoptive means. I appreciate the intent behind this article, but that distinction can be very hurtful for children and their families.

Jenn Slaton Rohrer


Jenn Slaton Rohrer commented…

Dear Relevant magazine.. I just read your article about the American Orphan crisis. I have to admit that I couldn't even read past the part of the article which states.. "In the years since, they have welcomed the twins’ three siblings, as well as a fourth child of their own. " What did I land on? "Their own!" As if the children that they adopted are not theirs. It's not only hurtful to the parent's, but also to the children. Please change your wording. Sincerely, An adoptive mom.


Maggie Watanabe


Maggie Watanabe commented…

This is a misleading article. There is no American Orphan Crisis. There are very few orphans in the US foster system. Most of the children in the system have at least one living parent and more commonly two.
The article goes on to connect anto adoption views with pro adoption views. Adoption and abortion are unconnected as no woman can choose to give away her child until she has decided to carry her pregnancy to term. To suggest adoption as an alternative to abortion insults all adopted people by suggesting that we were almost aborted. This may seem extreme but like many adult adoptees I often have total strangers telling me I am lucky not to have been aborted. This is utter nonsense and adopted people are no more likely to have just missed abortion than any other people.
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.”
This passage doesn't mean to go take other people's children for yourselves, it means take care of the children with their mothers. It's about family support, not severing children from their families to add to one's collection of supposed orphans. Too many supposed Christians have used this to deny children their own culture and family on the assumption what they have to offer is better. They may offer more material goods but that doesn't mean a better life.
If Christian families want to help children in need, let them provide good, stable foster homes. Let them give the money they would spend on adoption to help with family preservation. Let them donate to third world countries to support children living their with their families. Just stop taking other people's children just to feel good about yourselves.

Michelle Milburn Muenich


Michelle Milburn Muenich replied to Maggie Watanabe's comment

I understand the pain you feel, although not as a person who was adopted. I placed my son for adoption at birth almost ten years ago. It is true; he was never an orphan. But I was not capable of being an adequate mother at the time -- that's not low self-esteem; it's a statement of fact now that I am parenting children.
The same is true of parents in other countries. Our daughters from Uganda have their first mother -- who is still living (their first father passed away) -- and I am convinced she loves her children. But there were issues in her home beyond poverty that were endangering the lives of her children.
The loss they have faced as we left their home culture is enormous; I have seen it on their faces. It breaks my heart. And you're so right -- there are lots of children in orphanages who have loving families with whom they could be reunited if they had more support.
But it is not right to suggest that every international adoption could have been prevented by helping preserve first families. There are parents with real problems in Uganda, just like there are in America. Not every adoptive parent is a child-snatcher, and that's really unfair.
Also, foster care is excellent at helping children who need to be removed from their first families; they are also excellent for helping parents work through their problems so they can safely parent their children. But children belong in permanent families. Adoption is necessary for many. People who have aged out of the foster system will say this better than I can. They are not technically orphans in the sense that they may have a parent (or two!) living, but their first parents aren't safe parents (for various reasons). To discount their need for another permanent family because the people who gave them life are still alive is extremely misguided.
Also, I'm so sorry people think you were lucky to not be aborted. That is horrible, like oh my gosh so horrible and wrong. I never considered aborting my son, not for one minute.

Jennifer Price Fitzner


Jennifer Price Fitzner replied to Michelle Milburn Muenich's comment

It's a very sad situation. I do not have children of my own, and my husband and I would love to adopt domestically. However, having a foster child you've bonded with taken away is a real possibility here. It also does not help that prospective adoptive parents are required to take courses first, and in our case these were only offered an hour away. Why not an on-line module? The good news is that kids from abroad deserve a family as much as any other child, so I am looking forward to calling one of those kids my own.



crashtx1 replied to Jennifer Price Fitzner's comment

This article is so flawed it's hard to know where to start. We have two adoptive children. To adopt a child is not a political statement, it is a calling, and required thought, prayer, and education. That is unrelated to the horror of abortion.

Michelle Milburn Muenich


Michelle Milburn Muenich commented…

I kind of missed the part in the article that talked about how the system is crumbling... Did I miss it, or did you write a misleading headline?



Christy commented…

I agree with the logic of the article as far as thinking about extending what it means to be pro-life. It's why I do what I do as a foster parent. I don't like how the lines are blurred between orphans and foster children and children adopted from foster care. There are many children waiting for adoption, far too many, but the family in the article did not adopt a waiting child; it sounds like they fostered the twins, then adopted them, or maybe it was a domestic private adoption? Then it talks about adoption ministries and mothers making a choice for adoption. That is also not the situation of children waiting for adoption. The difference is that fostering almost always has the goal of reunifying children with their biological families and children have almost always been removed against the wishes of biological parents, so tying that to adoption movements and adoption language is confusing. We should care for all vulnerable people: orphans, children who may return to their families, parents whose children have been removed (often the parents have been victims of something as well).

It's very important to talk about the need for people to adopt waiting children or become foster parents, and how we should live out the gospel to do these things. This article is confusing and did not talk about it well.

Greg Harvey


Greg Harvey commented…

The challenge of trauma's impact on these children is pervasive. Many who've adopted have become familiar with Empowered To Connect to address these issues. ETC is a ministry developed out of research on treating traumatized kids at Texas Christian University and they wanted their research to reach the public as fast as possible so they've been working through the churches. My wife and I became trained in how to share this info and volunteer our time to help other parents like us. All Christians should learn about these issues because they may be that kid's Sunday School teacher, or fellowship with the parents and they need some understanding in order to best serve their church family.

Venga Tu Reino


Venga Tu Reino commented…

How sad; this makes my heart ache.

"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." James 1:27

Why is it that churches are generally so terrible at doing what Jesus told us to? We should be caring for those that are vulnerable and defenseless and proclaiming the Kingdom of God, baptizing and making disciples.

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