Angelina Jolie and the Traumatization of Orphans

Update: Angelina Jolie has refuted the context and accuracy of this incident, via Vulture, Variety, and others. I have not yet heard a response from the writer of the original Vanity Fair article cited in this blog post, and I hope that writer speaks out also. A controversial description like this one, of a casting call involving orphans and manipulation, should have raised red flags for fact checking prior to publication.


Why would Angelina Jolie exploit orphans?

Thousands admire her, as well as her rainbow family, even as some are bemused by her behaviors. My guess is that Angelina Jolie years ago gave up caring about what other people think of her, and goes ahead with her creative journey, sharing personal information when the time is right. The new Vanity Fair cover story is one such example, in which she talks about life after Brad, dealing with health issues, and her days as a cleaning up and cooking mom.

Jolie also talks about her new Netflix movie, First They Killed My Father, and her time in and love for Cambodia. Her first son, Maddox, was adopted from there in 2002, and Jolie is a Cambodian citizen.

In Vanity Fair, Jolie talks about the casting for her movie, and this is where the heartache really begins.

“To cast the children in the film, Jolie looked at orphanages, circuses, and slum schools, specifically seeking children who had experienced hardship. In order to find their lead, to play young Loung Ung, the casting directors set up a game, rather disturbing in its realism: they put money on the table and asked the child to think of something she needed the money for, and then to snatch it away. The director would pretend to catch the child, and the child would have to come up with a lie. ‘Srey Moch [the girl ultimately chosen for the part] was the only child that stared at the money for a very, very long time,’ Jolie says. ‘When she was forced to give it back, she became overwhelmed with emotion. All these different things came flooding back.’ Jolie then tears up. ‘When she was asked later what the money was for, she said her grandfather had died, and they didn’t have enough money for a nice funeral.'”

Looked at orphanages, circuses, and slums, specifically seeking children who had experienced hardship?

Set up a game?

Rather disturbing?

How about exploitative, cruel, and arrogant? To knowingly impose trauma, humiliation, and shame on little girls, many of whom have likely experienced tremendous losses, including the loss of parents? Yes, deeply disturbing.

Not surprisingly, Jolie is receiving a lot of criticism for this.

The Telegraph in the UK reports that this incident has sparked outrage. Business Insider says the casting method is being deemed cruel. Twitter is busy on #AngelinaJolie.

I’d venture that the adoption community is divided about Jolie. Many people outside the community think it’s warm and wonderful that she adopted a bunch of cute kids, and I have no doubt that many people looked into adopting because Angelina adopted and People magazine wrote all about it. Many people within the community express concern about celebrity adoptions, making a tempting trend out of the intense complexity of international, transracial adoption.

The Vanity Fair article describes Jolie’s adoption process in Cambodia:

“…she visited an orphanage in the provincial town of Battambang, having promised herself that she’d go only to one, that she wasn’t going to shop around. But Jolie felt uneasy as she wandered the rooms, meeting the children. ‘I didn’t feel a connection with any of them,’ she recalls.

‘They then said, ‘There’s one more baby.’ Baby Maddox was lying in a box that was suspended from the ceiling. She looked at him. He looked at her. ‘I cried and cried,’ she recalls.”

I have no idea what agency Jolie used, or the details of the adoption process. Most countries don’t allow prospective parents to “shop around,” the phrase Vanity Fair uses to describe Jolie’s process. This commodification of children in adoption is but one of many reasons that international adoption has declined.

Cambodia has suspended adoptions several times in the last decade, largely due to trafficking. Jolie has also adopted from Ethiopia and from Vietnam, both of which have also essentially closed to international adoption. Jolie’s daughter Zahara, from Ethiopia, was not an orphan; there have been several media stories about Zahara’s Ethiopian mother wanting to hear from Zahara.

While most internationally adopted children have living parents or other close family members, and very few are actual orphans, the children have lived through tremendous trauma and dangers. The children still in orphanages and slums around the world deserve compassion, family preservation, literacy, and safety.

The Cambodian children who were recruited to try out for a part in a movie–children from orphanages and slums–were treated cruelly by people who should know better, especially an adoptive parent.

Angelina Jolie is a powerful, beautiful, wealthy, western woman. I’ve no doubt she has done much good in the world. I am sure her presentation in the media has flaws and inaccuracies, but, as presented in Vanity Fair, this movie casting method, this exploitation of impoverished children, speaks only to selfishness and creative focus gone tragically awry. My heart aches for the now forgotten, cast aside orphans and other vulnerable children.



Here’s one way to help: The Cambodian Children’s Fund.

Orphan Hosting Programs: Giving Hope or Creating Trauma?

Programs which host orphans for a brief, fun visit to the US have been around for at least 15 years. They are one of those efforts that often seem wonderful, but are in fact much more complicated than they might appear initially. Among adoptive parents and adoptees, they evoke a volatile range of emotions. We all agree that children deserve safe, loving families. How we get them to (or keep them in) those families is full of controversy.

What are “Hosting Programs for Orphans”?

There are many of them. I think the earliest program to bring children from orphanages (in Kazakstan, I believe) to visit the US was Kidsave, started by two adoptive mothers in the late 90’s. Project 143 started in 2010, and has a format similar to other hosting programs. They have worked in China and Latvia, and have a new Ethiopia program this year. Children are selected on the basis of age and ability to benefit from the program. Age is a factor because the focus is often on children who are older, who have been in the orphanage a long time, and who are likely to age out of the orphanage without being adopted. Some of the children have special medical or other needs. Good behavior and academic success are listed as criteria in some programs. Host families in the US agree to have a child or children live with their family for four or six weeks (the length of time varies in different programs), and show the orphanage children what life is like in a family in the US. The host family also agrees to get medical and dental care for the children; the insurance is usually covered by the hosting program, not the family. The children must return to their country at the end of the hosting period.

The cost to the host family is in the range of $2.000 to $3,000.

The children may or may not be legally available for adoption. And here is where things are murky. While some host programs are seen as “cultural experiences” and some are to share Christian faith, their underlying purpose usually is to get the children adopted. Some hosting programs are run either directly or indirectly by adoption agencies. The host families are not supposed to talk about adoption with the children. The children are not supposed to know that they are being considered for adoption. The host families may pursue adoption after the hosting program, but are under no obligation to do so. Adoption costs are generally in the range of $25,000 to $40,000, and must be completed by an accredited adoption agency.

The main countries from which children visit are (or were) Russia, Ukraine, Latvia, China, Colombia, and Philippines. Other countries, such as Nicaragua and Ethiopia, have hosting programs as well.

Arguments For the Summer Hosting Programs

The hosting programs may be the children’s best (last) chance to be adopted and to have a permanent family. The adoptions that occur as a result of the hosting programs probably never would have otherwise occurred. According to Kidsave, for example, “We have found that during the summer, miracles happen, and many children are adopted by American families they meet during the Summer Miracles program. Since 1999, more than 1,700 children have participated in the program and over 80% of them have found permanent families as a result.”

The children who are adopted through hosting programs often advocate for the children left behind in the orphanages.

The host families who don’t adopt often become informal sponsors of the children they hosted, keeping in contact, providing financial assistance, and in other ways mentoring and helping the child (teen, young adult).

The strategy is similar to approaches used in the US foster care community to find families for children who are older and in danger of aging out of the system, often to very difficult situations. Getting the kids in front of families is a powerful way to promote the orphans as individuals deserving a family.

Regardless of whether they are adopted, the children learn some English, and they receive medical and dental care here in the US, some of which may have been unavailable in their country.

The hosting programs raise awareness of the needs of children in orphanages, and this can mean increased assistance and donations to the orphanages.

Hosting programs offer children the experience of being in a family, role models for healthy parenting, and hope. From a Christian perspective, via New Horizons for Children (the largest faith-based program, facilitating orphan hosting nationwide), “Receiving unconditional love and nurturing and being treated as a member of their host family who will usually maintain contact even after the child returns home to their orphanage. This gives them hope. Learning that they do have a Father, the same Father in Heaven that we all have…who loves us dearly and is always with us and lets them know they are never alone.”

Arguments Against the Summer Hosting Programs

The hosting programs increase the layers of trauma for children who visit and are then not chosen for adoption.

The children may bond with the family during the visit, and then never hear from them again, another trauma in a life of many traumas.

There is controversy about mission trips and orphanage tourism. The hosting programs are a “reverse mission trip,” where the children are brought here instead of the family going there. Some argue that orphanage tourism does more harm than good. Can we learn from that?

It is unclear how a brief, “summer camp” experience in the US is inherently better than no experience at all for an orphanage child. It is unethical, perhaps even cruel, to show a child a “Disneyland” view of life, and then send him back to poverty and hardship.

There is little or no research on outcomes for these children, either those who are adopted or those who are not. We need to know outcomes for children adopted after being hosted, especially given concerns about adoption disruptions and re-homing. We also need to know the impact of the programs on those who are not chosen for adoption: what are the ethical responsibilities to those children?

The hosting programs focus on bringing the children to the United States, rather than seeking out local families (in Ethiopia or other country of origin) to host the orphans. Why not work with families in-country who could show examples of strong parenting and economic security, instead of bringing the children around the globe?

The majority of the hosting programs are started and run by adoptive parents, with little or no involvement by adult adoptees. Some see this as an ongoing marginalization of adult adoptees, and the continuing use of white privilege.

There may be unintentional and unavoidable pressure on host families to adopt the orphans who visit. (Some of the programs take place at Christmas time, which for Christian families could be especially emotional.) The decision to adopt should not be impulsive or without significant preparation. Knowing what the child will return to in the home country may impel a decision that is not best for anyone.

It’s unlikely (though possible) that the children do not know they are being considered for adoption. This gives the prospective parents an ability to screen or “test drive” children, which has an uncomfortable ethical element in terms of international adoption practice.

If the program goes on for more than one season from an orphanage, and some children are adopted as a result, surely the next wave of children will be aware of the possibilities of the hosting program as an audition for adoption to the US.

The amount of money involved (about $3,000 for the hosting, potentially $25,000-$35,000 for adoption) could be better used for family preservation programs or other investments that either keep families together or prevent children from ending up in orphanages. That money would help many more children than the few who end up being adopted from these programs.

The children are not necessarily orphans at all. They may not even be eligible for adoption, something that might not be known until a family looks into adopting the child. Children who were thought to be orphans have later been found to have living family members, or to have been adopted under fraudulent circumstances. This has been true in recent years in many countries, and it is one of the reasons that international adoption has declined.


Plane at LAX. © Maureen McCauley Evans


What’s the bottom line here? The argument that “Imperfect as it may be, this is at least one way that orphans find families” is the perhaps the strongest motivation for the hosting programs. But at what cost, and to whom?

I am going to continue thinking this through, and I hope you will also. So much is at stake.