Catholic Families Endure Struggle to Embrace Joy of Adoption
Catholic families face significant obstacles to adoption today, but the Church can help them experience the rewards and normalize adoption in the culture.
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — “How perfectly she fits in our entire family.”
Sarah and Ed Mullen had waited five years to be able to say those words to their newborn — and newly adopted — daughter Annie.
The Mullens had expected challenges with fertility, but the Catholic couple were blessed at the start of their marriage with a beautiful baby girl named Dorothy in 2012. However, over the next five years, they suffered the loss of three children due to miscarriage. Finally, in 2018, after learning about adoption from some other Catholic friends, they discerned (Dorothy included) that it was time to pursue adoption.
“Then, it was a waiting game,” Sarah said.
Presently in the U.S., the demand for adoption is high, and the number of children available for adoption is very low. According to the most recent data available, more than 18,000 infants are put up for adoption each year, representing 0.5% of all live births and 1.1% of births to single mothers.
The Mullens first started their adoption journey with a local nonprofit that had expected two to four placements per year. They were one of 14 parents on the list. The waiting — and the uncertainty — was the hardest part.
After a couple of years of waiting, they discovered the nonprofit had not been able to make any adoption placements from local families.
“It sort of took the wind out of our sails for a couple months,” Ed said.
So on the advice of the same Catholic friends who had adopted, they switched to a Texas-based agency, Adoption Alliance, at the beginning of 2020. Finally, they started to see profiles of children coming up for adoption.
They were matched in April with a birth mother who had nine children and was not in a position to care for her 10th child. Sarah and the birth mother corresponded back and forth by email and text, establishing a relationship the family has to this day.
Then, a month later, in May, Annie was born. Sarah and Ed arrived just a couple of hours after her delivery, and Sarah stayed a full three days as the birth mother’s support person.
“Just holding her in the hospital room, when she was a day old, immediately it was like, ‘You were the kid that’s supposed to be with us. You’ve already got me wrapped around your finger, and I just met you minutes ago,’” Ed said.
Sarah recalled the birth mother told her after the hospital stay, “I’m really glad we had this time, because seeing you with her, I know I made the right choice.”
For the Mullens, it was just in the nick of time. They learned many adoption agencies have stopped admitting new parents amid a perfect storm of too-high demand for adoptions and delays in the adoption process exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the adoption process has its barriers for Catholic families, especially those who are open to life through embracing the call of adoption.
Private adoption, via adoption attorneys or an adoption agency, generally runs between $25,000 and $45,000.
“We were blessed to have savings to dip into,” Sarah said. But Sarah and Ed said, for other Catholic families, adoption would be a financial dead-end. They said one role for the Church could be connecting families with financial resources, either through GoFundMe drives or adoption scholarships, to put this choice within reach for them.
Kathleen Buckley Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told the Register that the Church has an important role to play in helping Catholic families meet the challenges of adoption, particularly through providing support and information at the parish level.
Domingo said one less expensive alternative to private adoption is foster-adoption.
Foster-adoption can have its own difficulties, as each child may have different traumas in life that require special attention. However, Domingo said foster-adoption can be “incredibly rewarding for everyone involved” and can put the lives of children “just on a completely different trajectory than if they hadn’t had that experience with that family.”
But Catholic families who approach foster-adoption also need to prepare for the emotional toll of delays, which can vary, depending on the family-of-origin circumstances and each state’s policies. In states like California, she said, where the law errs heavily toward giving parents every opportunity to retain their parental rights, it can lead in some cases to foster families missing their window of opportunity to adopt a child, who then ages out of the foster system without having had the stability of a loving family.
Also, states like California require adoption training with programmatic content, such as on homosexuality and transgender issues, that may make some Catholics feel like what the state is asking of them is not in sync with their Catholic values. Domingo said the Church encourages prospective adoptive parents to go through the trainings, but also advises them that while they stay true to their values, they need to remember the priority is the child’s well-being.
“Should it occur that a child is placed with you who is not a great fit, whom you feel that you would not be the best parent for that child and for what that child is currently facing, then it’s perfectly appropriate to say, ‘This child deserves a family that would be able to handle what they are going through better than we can,’” Domingo said.
Parishes Are Key
Another major challenge is the choice to put a child up for adoption has a lot of cultural negativity surrounding it.
“We need to say placing your child with a loving family and making an adoption plan is really something beautiful and a gift that you can give your child,” Domingo said. “We don’t do that enough, for sure.”
Catholic parishes, however, can be ground zero for creating and spreading that culture of adoption.
Casey Jurecki, parish finance director for St. Philip’s Catholic Church in Pasadena, California, told the Register that the parish has a “very active Respect Life Committee” that has done a lot to promote and encourage adoption among parish families.
In October, they have the Crib Project, placed near St. Mary’s altar, with “gift-of-life tags.” They collect donations that go to two local pregnancy-resource centers, a maternity home and an adoption/foster-care-services nonprofit.
Jurecki and his wife, Marcy, adopted two children, and his wife has given talks on their own adoption story and that of their niece for the past two years during Respect Life Month.
The parish also works closely with a nonprofit called FosterAll, which helps place foster children for adoption.
Jurecki said it is a “slow-but-sure process” opening up parishioners’ hearts to the potential they have for adoption.
“There’s just so much misinformation out there about adoption,” he said. But Juercki said the Church plays a key role in dispelling these myths, such as about the adoption process or about foster children, and supporting adoptive parents in their decision to adopt. “Just to be able to guide people to the right areas of support is really important.”
Damon Owens, an international Catholic speaker and executive director of JoyTOB, told the Register that he and his wife, Melanie, already had six children when they decided to adopt.
“For us, adoption was an entrance into a whole new world,” Owens said. “We were shocked at how difficult it is to adopt.”
Owens said Western culture today marginalizes adoption as “exotic” or requiring extraordinary heroism on the one hand and then creates many fears about adopted children on the other hand. He said much of the negative stereotyping about adopted children reflects the “brokenness in our cultural imagination” and even influences Christians in their views of adoption.
But Owens said the significance of adoption — and why adoption should be normalized among Christians — hit him full force as he heard the judge’s decree that their daughter Olivia was forever part of their family, with all the same rights as any of their biological children.
“All the theology came rushing back to me about what it means to be adopted sons and daughters of God,” he said. “By all rights and by all means, I am yours, and you are mine … there’s no asterisk next to it.”
While the usual way of family formation is natural conception and birth, Owens noted, “without this reality of adoption, all of the salvation story falls apart.”
Making Adoption Normative
Owens said, for Christians, adoption should be “normative,” keeping in mind that without God’s adoption of humanity as his sons and daughters, “none of us could be saved.”
And he said that he prays adoption is a normal part of how Christians see the love of their marriage being fruitful.
“I pray that it’s part of the imagination of every Christian couple that falls in love,” he said.
For Sarah and Ed Mullen, their daughter Annie is living proof of a realized hope and prayers for their family. And it has affected the community around them.
“We’ve had so many people praying for us, in terms of expanding our family, for five to six years now,” Sarah said.
“The joy they have for us is overwhelming in a lot of ways,” she said. “This little person has touched so many lives. There’s so much love here.”
This story was updated after posting to correct a name spelling. The Register regrets the error.