BOZEMAN, Mont. —
As a girl, Danna Hopkins dreamed of having 20 children. Today, she and her husband, Brian, the pastor of an evangelical church here, are building a large family, but not in the way she had imagined.
Hopkins gave birth to four children, now ages 7 to 11. A few years ago, inspired by compassion and a biblical mandate to aid “widows and orphans,” the couple adopted two teenage boys and a young girl from Ethiopia. Then in 2012, they adopted another girl from Ethiopia.
Last year, when they read about the dismal orphanages in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, they started adoption proceedings for four young sisters whose parents, an agency said, had died of malaria and typhus.
“I believe it's what God called us to do,” said Danna Hopkins, 34.
She and her husband, and the Journey Church where he is lead pastor, are part of a fast-growing evangelical Christian movement that promotes adoption as a religious and moral calling.
The movement has also revived debate about ethical practices in international adoptions, with fears that some parents and churches, in their zeal, have naïvely entered terrain long filled with pitfalls, especially in countries susceptible to corruption.
These pitfalls include the risk of falsified documents for children who have relatives able to care for them, middlemen out to profit and perhaps bribe officials, and even the willingness of poor parents to send a child to a promised land without understanding the permanence of adoption.
Its supporters say a surge in adoptions by Christians has offered hope and middle-class lives to thousands of parentless or abandoned children from abroad and, increasingly, to foster children in the United States as well. Hundreds of churches have established “orphan ministries” that send aid abroad and help prospective parents raise the tens of thousands of dollars needed to adopt.
In March, sending shudders through adoption agencies and would-be parents, the State Department issued an alert about Congo. It warned that several children whose adoptions had already been approved by the Congolese government had been “taken from orphanages by a birth parent or relative,” indicating that those children were not orphans eligible for American adoption in the first place.
The U.S. Embassy in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, said last month that it had stepped up its own investigations of prospective adoptions, resulting in delays of up to six months. The Hopkinses are now waiting for the embassy to approve visas for the four Congolese girls, whose adoptions have been approved by the Congolese government.
The movement has been promoted by theologians, and, in one milestone, it was endorsed in 2009 by the Southern Baptist Convention, which called on churches to create an “adoption culture” in response to “the horrors of a divorce culture, an abortion industry, and the global plagues of disease, starvation, and warfare.”
Many of the adoptions involve couples, like the Hopkinses, who already have children.
“The orphan crisis is the greatest humanitarian issue in modern times,” said Jodi Jackson Tucker, 51, of Durham, N.C.
As their children left home, she and her husband adopted four children from Uganda over the past three years.
The presence of evangelical Christians is especially evident in international adoptions, which have declined overall as more countries restrict or ban them because of scandals or politics. In 2012 some 8,668 adoptees entered the United States, down from a peak of 22,991 in 2004.
Couples encouraged by the new Christian movement account for “a significant and growing minority of international adoptions,” in the words of Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research group.
Critics of the movement include Kathryn Joyce, the author of a new book, “The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption” (Public Affairs, 2013), which charges that a “sense of mission has frequently obscured the harm.”
David Smolin, director of Samford University's Center for Children, Law and Ethics, in Alabama, and an evangelical, said the new movement had often fallen into the same traps that led a succession of countries, including Guatemala, Cambodia, Vietnam and Nepal, to halt all foreign adoptions after baby-selling scandals.
“Now people are repeating the same mistakes in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” he said.
Amanda Bennett, an evangelical Christian and a lawyer in Chicago, and her husband, had a heart-wrenching encounter with fraud in Congo last year. Through a U.S. agency, they signed up to take three young siblings from an orphanage.
As they started the process, they began to see red flags: contradictory accounts about the family, indications that the mother was alive, the sudden firing of the orphanage director.
In August they flew to Kinshasa to investigate for themselves and discovered that the fired director was the aunt of the children, whose mother and father in eastern Congo had other children at home.
In a bizarre clash of cultures, the Bennetts met in Kinshasa with relatives who said they were hoping that the three children would be taken to America, get educated and eventually send cash home or sponsor other family members to emigrate.
The Bennetts withdrew, losing $28,000 they had already paid the agency, and have joined with other misled parents to promote more intense scrutiny of African adoptions.
“It's the biggest fear of adoptive parents — that there is family out there looking for the child,” Bennett said. “I think people go into this with good hearts, but like many who go into the developing world and want to help, they don't know how easy it is to hurt.”
Leaders of the adoption movement respond that such lapses are uncommon.
Jedd Medefind, president of the 9-year-old Christian Alliance for Orphans, said that the maturing movement was acting to prevent abuses and help orphans in their home countries.
Many panels at the alliance's latest “summit,” held in May in a Baptist megachurch outside Nashville, Tenn., and attended by 2,500 people, focused on the need for churches to provide post-adoption support, particularly as more families adopt older children with physical or emotional problems.
In their work abroad, he said, more churches are supporting family preservation efforts and indigenous adoption. Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Southern California, for example, has won praise in Rwanda, a country hoping to close down orphanages, for working to keep children with their relatives and aiding poor families.
At the Nashville meeting, Susan Jacobs, the State Department's special adviser for children's issues, said some problems have been eased by the Hague Convention on adoption. A number of countries, including Congo, have not signed it, though. Bill Blacquiere, president of Bethany Christian Services, condemned adoption-agency payments to orphanages that are tied to the number of children they refer, which he said “opens the door to trafficking.”
Done properly, an adoption can seem like the advertised godsend. Silas Hopkins, now 18, arrived in Montana from Ethiopia after being abandoned, shining shoes in the streets.
When he first spotted Brian Hopkins, who was on a mission trip, through a window at the orphanage in Ethiopia, he told a friend, “Dude, that's my Dad.”
The feeling proved mutual.
Four years later, Silas is doing well in high school and says he hopes one day to go back to Ethiopia and “do something cool” such as helping children find schooling and work.
Brian and Danna Hopkins beamed — but they are worried about the four Congolese girls they have not yet met.
Embassy officials in Kinshasa said they would be making a visit in late June to eastern Congo, the unstable region where the girls' orphanage is.
The Hopkinses are flying to Kinshasa this weekend to urge the officials to investigate their daughters as soon as possible.
“We don't know the next time they will have permission to travel there,” Danna Hopkins said of the officials. “It could be months.”