Bethany Christian Services based in Grand Rapids, Mich., is a global nonprofit organization caring for orphans and vulnerable children on five continents. Founded in 1944, they are the largest adoption agency in the United States. Their mission “is to demonstrate the love and compassion of Jesus Christ by protecting and enhancing the lives of children and families through quality social services.” Bethany cares for children and families in 20 countries and has more than 100 offices in the United States. Since 1951, Bethany Christian Services has placed more than 39,000 children in a home.
Bill Blacquiere has served as President of Bethany Christian Services since January 2006. I recently spoke with him on the issue of religious liberty and adoption. At the end of the interview I provided links to a few pertinent news stories for background that are related to this interview.
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We’ve heard a lot in the news about threats to religious liberty because of federal mandates related to healthcare, but what is the major religious liberty threat for faith based adoption services or agencies?
There is growing societal pressure to confine Christian liberty to just a few areas such as our house of worship, family life, and personal devotions. It has affected Bethany in the following ways: First, states have approved administrative rules which prevent private adoption and foster care agencies from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and marital status when selecting families, foster parents, or adoptive parents. Currently, there is proposed federal legislation that would make it illegal for an agency to choose to work only with two parents of the opposite sex.
Give us a sense of a few areas internationally that Bethany Christian Services or other adoptive ministries are experiencing setbacks in terms of being able to make the best impact for children and orphans?
Internationally, Bethany works with 19 countries. There are many opportunities to provide services that protect and enhance the lives of children. In many developing countries they lack financial resources to improve the lives of children and families. In addition to the lack of funds, some countries simply do not prioritize the needs of children and families over their military defense or government institutions. Currently, the countries of Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Guatemala, Romania, and Russia are all closed for international adoption. These countries have either closed adoption or the U.S. State Department has stopped working with them due to large practices of corruption. Historically, this has resulted in many children continuing to live in institutions or on the streets in these countries. This is very frustrating for agencies like Bethany that want to see adoptions done by proper laws and regulations. Once a country is closed for international adoption, it requires a lot of resources and policy changes to get it re-opened.
What countries or regions of the world are you most optimistic about right now that may have traditionally been a problem spot for Bethany Christian Services?
There are a number of positive changes in many of the African countries as well as in China. Bethany is providing foster-to-adopt programs with indigenous families in China and Ethiopia, and is starting a new program in Uganda. Families in these countries are stepping up to take children out of institutions into their homes, with the goal of eventually adopting them. These countries along with United States are implementing policies and programs that are promoting family care for children rather than placing them in group homes or orphanages. We see this as a very positive change in the care of children and families. In addition, these countries are very open to home-based family and community services, which strengthen families to continue to care for their children. Through these programs and child and family sponsorship, along with micro-enterprise and job development, families are empowered to take care of their own children.
Where in our world today is the trafficking of children the absolute worst? How is Bethany involved in this crisis?
Child trafficking is a horrific problem in Asian and African countries. Children are trafficked for forced labor and sex work. Bethany is working in the country of Ghana and Haiti with victims of child trafficking. In both of these countries, children as young as five years of age are forced into labor─ much of which causes injuries and death due to the dangerous working conditions. Bethany works with law enforcement and provides shelter care for children who are trafficking victims. In addition, Bethany works with the United States Immigration Department and provides counseling and treatment for children and adolescents who come to this country as victims of child trafficking. Bethany uses trauma-focused therapy and group therapy to help these young children and works with them to live with families or independently.
What is the impact on the ban on Americans adopting Russian children? How has it affected Bethany?
Due to political disagreements between the United States and Russia, Russia passed legislation signed by President Vladimir Putin that prohibits children from Russia going to United States through international adoption. Children who have been through a Russian court for an approved adoption to the United States were allowed to be reunited with their adoptive families. This was a very small percentage of families who have been approved for international adoption and even for families who had met their child in Russia. While the U.S. State Department is still trying to resolve this with the Russian government, it appears that for hundreds of families an adoption from Russia is not possible. It is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of children in Russia who live in orphanages and who now will not be able to become part of a permanent family in the United States. Many families grieve the loss of the child they have met in Russia, and many, unfortunately, have been denied the opportunity to adopt a child from Russia.
What advice can you offer to a Christian family considering adoption?
In the last seven years, the number of children coming to the United States by international adoption has declined by over 50 percent. In 2006 and 2007, approximately 20,000 children annually came to the United States through international adoption. In 2012, 8,600 children came to United States through international adoption. It is projected that this number will drop to approximately 7,600 in 2013. Many families have to wait from three to seven years to adopt a young child internationally. However, there are many older children between the ages of five and 14 that need a family and are available for international adoption. In addition, there are children with minor to severe physical and mental impairments that are living in institutions and need the love of a family. Bethany encourages Christian families to consider adopting older children, including children in sibling groups and children with physical or mental impairments. We currently have 300 children who are waiting for adoptive families from other countries. Additionally, there are 104,000 children in the United States foster care system who are available for adoption. These children are older and have come from a neglectful or abusive background. Bethany is working in numerous states to have these child placed in a loving ome.
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