The New York Times ran an in-depth story Monday on Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s adoptions from Haiti. The story, which is the result of more than three weeks’ investigation by the Times, turns up nothing in the way of bombshell revelations. It does, however, fly in the face of pleas by adoption experts not to make children’s lives the center of a politically motivated investigation.
Whether from restraint or lack of content, the Times article avoids being an overt hit piece. On first blush it reads almost like a personal profile — which is notable, considering it was written without cooperation or comment from its subject.
The Times uses quotes from Barrett and her family in prior speeches and interviews to insert their voices into the story. But it’s inescapably clear that reporters went on a fishing expedition, combing through the records of the Barretts’ adoption agency, interviewing families who adopted from Haiti contemporaneously, and seeking out information on the orphanage from which the children were adopted.
Throughout the article, the implication is clear: a family’s decision to adopt internationally is inherently controversial, subject to suspicion, and open to a public inquiry. While it makes no concrete accusations against the Barrett family, the story casts subtle aspersions against their adoption through the inclusion of several generalized details, devoid of context.
To the outside observer, the Times adoption story looks like a piece that couldn’t quite find the facts to fit its original narrative but ran with what it could find, letting its readers fill in the blanks. Let’s address five specific ways this article falls flat.
1. It broad-brushes the complex issue of how to define an “orphan.”
The Times called the orphanage from which the Barretts adopted “typical of many in Haiti,” adding, “many children weren’t literal orphans — their parents simply couldn’t afford to care for them.”
This characterization is misleading to the uninitiated reader. First, it broad-brushes the complex issue of how to define an orphan. UNICEF defines an orphan as “a child under 18 years of age who has lost one or both parents to any cause of death” (emphasis added). U.S. immigration law also recognizes a child who “has a sole or surviving parent who is unable to care for the child” as an orphan. In many cultures and situations, the death of one parent — especially the mother of a young child — is enough to render the child unparented and in need of adoption.
In other cases, a child may have two living parents but is growing up alone. The Christian Alliance for Orphans deems these children “social orphans,” noting that there are millions of them throughout the world. While a naïve observer might conclude that American families should simply give these parents money rather than adopting the child, for most social orphans the answer isn’t that simple, as poverty often isn’t the sole issue. Abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction can all play a role, as we frequently see in the U.S. foster care system.
“The poverty in Haiti is multigenerational, without education or skills training, along with a high birth rate,” notes Lucy Armistead of All Blessings International, an adoption agency working in Haiti. “Just throwing money at the individual families is not a solution. There need to be targeted interventions.”
The bottom line is that we don’t know the precise series of events that led the Haitian government to declare the Barretts’ two children adoptable. We don’t need to know. It’s their personal story, and no one else’s.
2. It quietly admits its prior reporting on Haiti was inaccurate.
The Times looked most closely at the adoption of the Barretts’ son, John Peter, in 2010. He was one of 1,152 children who came to the United States under the Obama administration’s humanitarian parole program, in the immediate aftermath of Haiti’s devastating earthquake. The paper’s previous reporting from 2010 had mischaracterized that effort as sweeping up children who had not been properly vetted for adoption.
Although the Times mentions the accusations from its prior story, to its credit, its reporting on the Barretts’ adoption is far more accurate. The paper acknowledges that John Peter and the other children in the program had already been declared eligible for adoption and matched with vetted families before the earthquake. The humanitarian parole program merely expedited adoptions that were already in process, saving hundreds of children from desperate conditions in quake-stricken Haiti.
The acknowledgment of its prior error isn’t explicit in the piece, but Diane Kunz of the Center for Adoption Policy — who gave interviews for both the 2010 and 2020 stories — noticed. “I was intimately involved with those 2010 adoptions,” she said. “I’m one of the people who made the list of eligible children. There were no earthquake orphans involved. Not one. These children had already been vetted to be available for adoption, and their potential adoptive parents had been previously vetted to be suitable for adoption.”
Kunz noted that the program was a unified, bipartisan effort involving many levels of U.S. governance. “We drafted the documents that enabled these children to be formally adopted, with judicial scrutiny. We got Congress to pass the Help Haiti Act of 2010, which allowed the children to obtain U.S. citizenship post-adoption. This program saved lives. I’m so proud to have been part of it.”
3. It implies guilt by association without evidence.
In its investigation into the Barretts’ adoption agency, A New Arrival, the Times discovered that the agency’s accreditation was canceled in 2017 — seven years after the Barretts brought their second child home. It’s hard to imagine why this information is relevant to the American public today, unless one is hoping to create a vague, guilt-by-association impression of ethical problems.
It’s important to understand that in the highly regulated world of international adoption, an agency is far more likely to get in trouble for record-keeping, balance sheets, or paperwork in its U.S. operations than for anything related to a child’s history overseas.
Furthermore, most agencies work in multiple countries, and their entire operation can be shut down for irregularities in a single program. Speaking about the accrediting body’s action against A New Arrival, Chuck Johnson of the National Council For Adoption said, “The only really specific instances in their report list issues in Ukraine, not Haiti. I don’t know the specific reasons they lost their accreditation, but there is no reason to assume it had anything to do with Haiti.”
4. It misunderstands how adoptive parents speak about their children’s experiences.
An unusual “gotcha” moment appears midway through the Times article: “In 2019, Judge Barrett called the orphanage ‘wonderful’ and said the nannies there ‘loved the children immensely.’ Three adoptees who talked to The New York Times remembered the place with mostly hard feelings.”
These statements are juxtaposed as contradictions, but the reality is that no one understands the damage an orphanage does better than an adoptive parent. Indeed, Barrett’s own quotes—about the malnourished state in which her daughter arrived, for example — make that clear.
However, many adoptive parents prefer to point out the positives about the individuals who hosted them in a foreign country, and to acknowledge the role they played in caring for their beloved children. “Adoptive parents,” says Kunz, an adoptive mother of four, “are very grateful to the people who took care of their children.”
With all that said, the Times article deserves credit for acknowledging the reality of orphanages: they’re no place for any child to grow up. That is precisely why we need adoptive families.
5. This biggest problem with the Times story: it exists.
The New York Times clearly dedicated time and resources to a thorough investigation of Barrett’s adopted children. A number of adoption sources who spoke with the Times reporters told me they felt relieved by the outcome: the story hadn’t become the fabricated hit piece they feared. To the credit of the individual reporters, they seem to have listened to what they heard and grappled with what they found — two loving, successful adoptions.
Yet why was the story written at all? Why did the newspaper of record deem it worthwhile to launch a three-week investigation into the life stories of a Supreme Court nominee’s minor children? Why did they accept the far-left narrative that adoption is inherently controversial? Why did their reporters feel compelled, in the absence of hard facts, to insert baseless insinuations about the children’s personal histories into the public consciousness?
Even in our era of achieving political ends by means of personal destruction, surely we can agree that minor children should be off-limits, without exception. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wasted no words in calling the Times to task for publishing the story. “The political left and the press should leave Judge Barrett’s children alone,” he wrote in a press release. “If Judge Barrett happened to be a liberal icon, the press would be running interference against personal attacks and hounding Republicans to denounce them, not pretending they represent some chin-stroking national conversation.”