A few years ago, the small Northern Utah community I live in was rocked by a scandal which ultimately led to the conviction of five members of the Focus on Children adoption agency.  The scammers charged prospective US parents $13,000 (single child, $20k for a pair) to facilitate the process of adopting children from Samoa. Adoptive parents were told the children were orphans or had been abandoned by their families, which wasn’t true. Samoan parents had been given token fees glossed as “humanitarian assistance” and told their children would be well-educated by their US “parents” and could return to Samoa and be reunited with their families at any time. (1) Numerous issues were raised by this case. The culture of this region of the West is child-centered in the sense that “family” is defined primarily by a focus on the care and upbringing of (many) children. Childlessness robs adults of their raison d’être. Even families with biological offspring, elect to adopt additional children. Demand for “suitable” babies and children exceeds supply and adoption agencies, including those facilitating foreign adoptions, are legion. There is careful scrutiny of the process—especially in the wake of this scam—with the paramount goal being to provide a “permanent” family for children. (2)

This concern for “permanency” would not be shared with the people of Samoa and this discrepancy in views on children provided the basis for the scam. That is, Focus on Children tailored its narrative differently to match cultural expectations. Prospective adopters in the US were presented a picture of family-less children without support and a bleak future whom they might rescue and, at the same time, achieve a nurturing parental role. Samoans, however, saw wealthy Americans sharing their riches with the deserving but poor Samoans. Samoans were not overly troubled by the child’s separation from the birth family because the benefits—education leading to professional employment unattainable on Samoa—offset the emotional cost. They fully expected to retain family ties with the “adoptees.”  There are two deeply rooted Samoan values that illuminate their perspective. First, Samoan “children are encouraged in a variety of ways to be sociocentric, to notice others and take their point of view.” (3). They are expected to quickly develop a lifetime obligation to those who cared for them and this bond would survive lengthy separation, particularly if the migrant obtained resources that could be shared with the natal community. Second, adoption or fosterage (there’s no clear distinction) is extremely common, upwards of 40% of children in a village survey were not living with birth parents. (4) As I’ll show in this essay, these Samoan ideas are actually quite widespread, particularly the view that, for various, often pragmatic, reasons, children are readily removed from their birth families.

The removal of children from their natal families, even shortly after birth, is so commonplace and so varied it has been labelled “child circulation” in contemporary anthropological studies, implying multiple moves during childhood. For example, in the Andes, a “young person may be left temporarily at an orphanage while his or her parent goes elsewhere for work, allowing the parent an opportunity for getting ahead without the danger of permanently losing a child.” (5) In historical accounts, it is referred to as “child transfer.”  As I have argued elsewhere, even infants are “on probation” and may not have a “birth right” to a permanent place in the family. (6) In antiquity, infanticide was widely accepted as occasionally necessary, as it has been among the majority of tribal societies. In Roman society, outright infanticide or abandonment (with the possibility of the infant being taken up to be reared as a slave) would happen before­ the baby had been formally accepted into the family. (7) From antiquity through much of European history, in most families that could afford it, an infant would be placed with a “wet nurse.” It might well reside with the wet nurse, with only occasional visits from parents. (8)

Attaching the child firmly to a secure nuclear family to achieve a state of permanency  reflects values inherent in modern, well-to-do Euroamerican society (and elite “colonies” in the rest of the world). Impermanency is not only characteristic of social norms prevailing elsewhere but it is seen as an essential and very valuable attribute of children’s development. The range of positive outcomes that can be realized through child circulation is legion. Here are a few examples:

  • Consider that, until recently in human history and culture, life expectancy was quite low, in particular, death in child birth was a common fate. Consequently, a significant portion of the world’s children would experience the death of one or both parents. And this would usually necessitate a move to the home of a relative and dispersal of siblings.
  • On Madagascar where land is scarce and surplus children cannot be absorbed in agricultural labor, they are sent to live with wealthier households that can use them. (9)
  • There is no stigma associated with sterility. If Baining [New Britain Island] partners do not have children, they simply adopt them from kin—who’re obligated to donate extra children. (10)
  • On Vanatinai Island [Melanesia], The verb ‘to adopt’ literally means “to feed.” An unwanted infant would be placed in the crotch of a tree and anyone was then free to retrieve, wash it, and raise it as their own. (11)
  • Among the Kpelle [West Africa], children are given to childless adults to raise and form ties with so they will have helpers or caretakers as they age. (12)
  • Among Tswana [Botswana] cattle herders, children are moved between caregivers, going to live with a mother or an uncle in town for a few months, then back to a home village to stay with grandmother, then out to an arable agricultural site or a cattle–post for weeks or months. (13)
  • When it is time to wean Araucanian [Chile] babies, they are moved to grandma’s place to reduce the conflict and stress. (14)

A number of societies value adoption or fosterage for improving child outcomes. For example, the Baatombu believe parents cannot enforce sufficient discipline to socialize children in proper behavior. Adoptive parents are less restrained by emotional ties and can be more effective parents. (15) In the seventeenth century “The daughters of the… merchant classes were frequently entrusted to an elite family so that they could acquire the social skills required of an accomplished gentlewoman.” (16) For hundreds of years after the founding of the Christian church, children as young as six might be donated to monasteries as “oblates.” This meant one less mouth to feed as well as a spiritual ally in case of need. (17)  Among impoverished European and American families, children were “bound out” or moved to households as servants or artisan apprentices where they’d at least be fed and clothed and might, if they were fortunate, learn a paying profession. (18)

At the other end of the economic spectrum are “Raj Orphans:”

[British children in colonial India were threatened by, among others,] abscesses, bites of wasps, scorpions…snakes…cholera, colic, dysentery…malaria, typhoid, and smallpox …parents…sent their children away to boarding schools by…seven [after which they] saw their…parents only once every three or four years. [Also] children brought up in India were felt…to be somehow of inferior quality, a belief which affected the marriage prospects of girls and the careers of boys. (19)

We see a parallel story playing out among recent immigrants to Europe and America. This is the practice of sending pre-adolescent or adolescent children back to the “home” country to curb the pernicious influence of peers in their adopted country.  African migrants see the child rearing values of the West as permissive and child-centered, antithetical to their own. They are prohibited from using traditional methods to shape their children’s character, including corporal punishment. Parents have idealised their birth community as a place with strict discipline and hardship—experiences which they see as character building. By sending them home to live with relatives leading more “traditional” lives, they hope to undo the damage done by exposure to Western values. The extended family happily accepts their charge, as fulfilling customary obligations and strengthening ties to advantaged kin.  (20)

To return to the opening case, while safeguards have been implemented, foreign adoptions remain a source of conflict. As I have indicated, the varying understanding (permanency vs impermanency) of what adoption means is one source of this conflict. The Netherlands is debating a ban on all foreign adoption as a result of reports that have highlighted the potentially negative consequences. In poorer countries numerous “child aid” organizations have created a virtual industry devoted to gathering up suitable children to supply the demand for adoptees. Mothers are invited to place their children in one of the new NGO-established (or, in some cases, the child is kidnapped) “orphanages.” For example, in Uganda alone, private orphanages have grown from 212 in ’09 to 800 in ’13. Promises of a better life for their children persuade poor parents to consign them to the institution. In turn, the orphanages serve a warehousing and distribution function in which the faux “orphans” are sorted and marketed to foreign adoption agencies.

…the children who are adopted are not typically the children who most need families. Instead, they are the ‘most marketable:’ healthy infants and toddlers who are often taken out of their family, cycled through an orphanage to establish their legitimacy as ‘orphans’, and placed with another family abroad. The tragedy, then, is that intercountry adoption—while it claims to ‘rescue’ needy children for ‘a better life’ abroad – actually condemns many more children to a life of institutional care. (21)

At the same time, numerous “sending” countries have either temporarily or permanently banned foreign adoption because the system is so ripe for abuse. I would appreciate comments as I don’t see a way forward.


  1. P. Manson and S. Gehrke. Focus on Children scam: No jail time in adoption-fraud case.  Salt Lake Tribune, Feb. 5,th   2009.  http://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/ci_11782689
  2. http://www.nationalcenteronadoptionandpermanency.net/
  3. E. Ochs. Culture and Language Development: Language Socialization and Language Acquisition in a Samoan Village. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  4. B. Shore. Culture in Mind: Cognition, Culture, and the Problem of Meaning. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  5. J. B. Leinaweaver. The Circulation of Children: Kinship, Adoption, and Morality in Andean Peru. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.
  6. D. F. Lancy. The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings2nd edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
  7. M. Corbier, Child Exposure and Abandonment In S. Dixon (Ed.). Childhood, Class and Kin in the Roman World. (pp. 52-75). London: Routledge, 2001.
  8. G. Sussman. Selling Mother’s Milk: The Wet-Nursing Business in France, 1715-1914. Urbana,IL: University of Illinois Press, 1982.
  9. B. Ravololomanga and B. Schlemmer. “Unexploited” labour: Social transition in Madagascar. In B. Schlemmer (Ed.), The Exploited Child. pp. 300–313. New York: Zed Books, 2000.
  10. J. Fajans. They Make Themselves: Work and Play Among the Baining of Papua New Guinea. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
  11. M. A. Lepowsky. Food taboos, malaria and dietary change: Infant feeding and cultural adaptation on a Papua New Guinea Island. In L. B. Marshall (Ed.), Infant Care and Feeding in the South Pacific. pp. 51–81. New York: Gordon and Breach, 1985.
  12. D. F. Lancy. Playing on the Mother Ground: Cultural Routines for Children’s Development. New York: Guilford, 1996.
  13. D. Durham. Apathy and agency: The romance of agency and youth in Botswana. In J. Cole and D. Durham (Eds.), Figuring the Future: Globalism and the Temporalities of Children and Youth. pp. 151–178. Santa Fe, NM: SAR Press, 2008.
  14. M. I. Hilger. Araucanian Child Life and Cultural Background. Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, vol. 133. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1957.
  15. E. Alber. “The real parents are the foster parents”: Social parenthood among the Baatombu in Northern Benin. In F. Bowie (Ed.), Cross Cultural Approaches to Adoption. pp. 33–47. London: Routledge, 2004.
  16. S. Cavallo. Family relationships. In S. Cavallo and S. Evangelisti. (Eds.) A Cultural History of Childhood and Family: In the Early Modern Age. Pp 15-32. Oxford: Berg, 2010.
  17. S. Crawford. Childhood in Anglo–Saxon England. Gloucestershire, UK: Sutton, 1999.
  18. R. W. Herndon and J. E. Murray. Children Bound to Labor: The Pauper Apprenticeship System in Early America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press 2009.
  19. M. MacMillan. Women of the Raj: The Mothers, Wives, and Daughters of the British Empire in India. New York: Random House, 2007.
  20. C. H. Bledsoe. and P. Sow. Back to Africa: Second chances for the children of West African immigrants.  Journal of Marriage and Family, 73: 747–762, 2011.
  21. K. Cheney “The Netherlands’ proposed ban on foreign adoption” openDemocracy, 2016.  https://www.opendemocracy.net/ beyondslavery/kristen-e-cheney/netherlands-proposed-ban-on-foreign-adoption-and-abuses-of-scientific  Interestingly, this practice can be traced back to the Renaissance where abandoned children were sustained in an institution until  they could be, profitably, placed as a servant or apprentice. P. Gavitt. Charity and Children in Renaissance Florence: The Ospedale degli Innocenti, 1410-1536. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press, 1990.

About the Author

David F Lancy Ph.D.

David Lancy, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at Utah State University and the author of The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings.

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