Helene Lauffer knew Muslim children — orphaned, displaced, neglected — needed homes in the United States. She knew American Muslim families wanted to take them in.
But Lauffer, associate executive director of Spence-Chapin, one of the oldest adoption agencies in the country, couldn't bring them together.
The problem was a gap between Western and Islamic law. Traditional, closed adoption violates Islamic jurisprudence, which stresses the importance of lineage. Instead, Islam has a guardianship system called kafalah that resembles foster care, yet has no exact counterpart in Western law.
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However, Islamic scholars say the restrictions were actually meant to protect children, by ending abuses in pre-Islamic Arabic tribal society.
Ingrid Mattson, professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, said adoption in that period had more in common with slavery. Men would take in boys, then erase any tie between the child and his biological family. The goal was to gather as many fighters as possible as protection for the tribe. Orphans' property was often stolen in the process.
As a result, Muslims were barred from treating adopted and biological children as identical in naming or inheritance, unless the adoptee was breast-fed as a baby by the adoptive mother, creating a familial bond recognized under Islamic law.
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Open adoption, which keeps contact between the adoptee and his biological family, is seen as one potential answer. In New South Wales, Australia, child welfare officials created an outreach program to Muslims emphasizing that Australian adoptions are open and adopted children can retain their birth names. The New South Wales program is the only well-known adoption campaign targeting a Muslim minority population in a Western country.
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Catherine England, a Muslim who teaches in the Seattle area, adopted four children after she and her husband learned they could have no children of their own. One of her children is an orphan from Afghanistan. Two others are biological siblings.
"I felt that my understanding — and this is entirely my understanding — is that what is forbidden in Islam is closed adoption," said England, who converted to Islam more than three decades ago. She consulted a Muslim scholar who she said affirmed her view that open adoption was allowed.
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