How Ethiopia's Adoption Industry Dupes Families and Bullies Activists

As the "searchers" who track down adopted children's histories increasingly uncover stories of fraud, corruption, and worse, these specialists are facing threats and even violence.

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Two biological sisters, ages 4 and 6 and adopted in Ethiopia, listen to the singing of the national anthem during a U.S. naturalization ceremony / AP

In 2008, a 38-year old Oklahoma nurse whom I'll call Kelly adopted an eight-year old girl, "Mary," from Ethiopia. It was the second adoption for Kelly, following one from Guatemala. She'd sought out a child from Ethiopia in the hopes of avoiding some of the ethical problems of adopting from Guatemala: widespread stories of birthmothers coerced to give up their babies and even payments and abductions at the hands of brokers procuring adoptees for unwitting U.S. parents. Now, even after using a reputable agency in Ethiopia, Kelly has come to believe that Mary never should have been placed for adoption. She came to this determination after hiring what's known as an adoption searcher.

Adoption searchers -- specialized independent researchers working in a unique field that few outside the community of adoptive parents even know exists -- track down the birth families of children adopted from other counties. In Ethiopia, searching has arisen in response to a dramatic boom in international adoptions from the country in recent years. In 2010, Ethiopia accounted for nearly a quarter of all international adoptions to the U.S. The number of Ethiopian children adopted into foreign families in the U.S., Canada, and Europe has risen from just a few hundred several years ago to several thousand last year. The increase has been so rapid -- and, for some, so lucrative -- that some locals have said adoption was "becoming the new export industry for our country."

That increase has also brought stories of corruption, child trafficking, and fraud. Parents began to publicize the stories their adopted children told them when they learned English: that they had parents and families at home, who sometimes thought they were going to the U.S. to receive an education and then return. Media investigations have found evidence that adoption agencies had recruited children from intact families. Ethiopia's government found that some children's paperwork had been doctored to list children who had been relinquished by living parents as orphans instead, which allowed the agencies to avoid lengthy court vetting procedures.

"Her entire paperwork, except for a couple of names, was completely falsified," Kelly said. Mary's paperwork listed her as two years younger than she was; it said she had one older sister when she in fact had two younger sisters; and, most importantly, it said her mother had died years ago. "One day I said to Mary, 'You know how your paperwork says you were five and you're really seven?" Kelly recalled. "It also says that your mom's dead.' And she goes, 'My mom's not dead.' She was adamant that her mother wasn't dead, and in fact she wasn't. Her mom is alive and it took our searcher just two days to find her."

Kelly, through a friend who'd also adopted from Ethiopia, hired a searcher. She sent copies of all her paperwork and waited for him to make the nine-hour drive from the capital, Addis Ababa, to the northern region from which Mary had been adopted.

The searcher determined Mary's real birth date, that her birth family and mother were OK with the adoption, and also collected some photos as well as information about Mary's background. Kelly is planning to take Mary back to visit her family in March.

"I wanted to verify that she hadn't been stolen. I searched with the intention of sending her back to Ethiopia if I found out she'd been stolen," said Kelly.

Kelly doesn't believe her agency knowingly falsified the information. As with many cases of fraud or corruption in Ethiopia's adoption program, it seems that the story was changed at the local level, long before the adoption proceeded to the country's federal courts and oversight agencies. Mary's grandfather, who had often been her main caregiver, relinquished the child while her mother was working elsewhere in Ethiopia; something that was only possible because he and several witnessed claimed that the mother had died.

"I can't imagine the weight that was on her," Kelly said of Mary's recollection of her home in Ethiopia. "After I told her the paperwork said her mom was dead, she thought maybe she was dead and nobody told her. So it was huge for her to know she was right, that her mother was alive. I was lucky she remembered and was strong enough to stick with her story."


This summer, I accompanied a young Ethiopian searcher I'll call Samuel on a birth family interview: a trek deep into the rural countryside of Ethiopia's Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region (SNNPR), the province of origin for many Ethiopian children adopted to the West, to locate the family of a toddler-age girl adopted to Canada.

Starting in the southern town of Sodo, we took a 12-mile drive through rural roads that were so bad it took over an hour: first over deeply-potted dirt throughways, cutting across expanses of grazing land, then off-road until we arrived at a hamlet so small and remote it might have been impossible to find without a guide. But even this village -- a handful of houses and an HIV clinic -- was not our destination. We took a dirt path through the backcountry, but our Land Ranger got stuck in deep trenches of mud. A handful of local children emerged shyly from the bordering fields and led us, on foot, the last half mile up to a solitary mud-walled house surrounded by lush gardens and neatly fenced in with stripped tree branches.

When we arrived, only a toddler boy stood in the front yard, naked below the waist. But the spectacle of several travelers carrying tripod and camera quickly drew nearly 30 neighboring children and adults, who watched solemnly while Samuel framed shots of the exterior of the house. The birthmother Samuel sought to interview, a widow in her early 40s with seven other children still at home, was called from a neighbor's house to host her unexpected guests. She smilingly obliged without question when Samuel and his colleagues explained that they'd come to film for several hours at the request of her daughter's new adoptive parents. Sitting in a chair in the fields behind her house, her fingertips pressed together and her eyes cast down, she answered dozens of questions about her background, her remaining children, and the circumstances of her husband's death, which had prompted the adoption.

For several years, Samuel, a soft-spoken filmmaker from Addis Ababa in his mid-20s, has traveled deep into Ethiopia's countryside to locate the remaining parents, brothers, sisters, and neighbors of Ethiopian children adopted to the U.S. and Europe. For a moderate fee -- around $600, including travel and lodging expenses for a two or three person crew -- he would create a DVD of interviews with family members and a brief glimpse of the country the child came from. He started doing this work for a prominent U.S. adoption agency then later moved on to independent production, working from a script of 60 to 70 questions he'd compile with the adoptive family to ask of whatever closest relative or neighbor could be found.

But, in the past several years, it's become increasingly difficult to find a searcher in Ethiopia. Tasked with determining whether an adopted child is a "manufactured orphan," searchers have faced intense intimidation in Ethiopia as its adoption system boomed and then came under international scrutiny. It took months to find adoptive families willing to share the name or contact information for searchers they had used. The first several times I emailed or called Samuel, he responded with trepidation, confirming with me repeatedly that I was not associated with any adoption agencies working in Ethiopia and that I wouldn't pass on his name or information to any agencies.

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Kathryn Joyce is the author of Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement and a book on adoption and religion forthcoming from PublicAffairs. Her writing has appeared in Mother Jones, The Nation, Slate, and other publications.

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