How Ethiopia's Adoption Industry Dupes Families and Bullies Activists

He had good reason to be cautious. In August 2010, Samuel was jailed for 41 days in the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray, which shares a hostile border with neighboring Eritrea. He had traveled to the region to film two birth family interviews, one of which Samuel says he did pro bono out of his respect for the family, which had adopted an HIV-positive child. When Samuel met the birth sister of one of the children whose story he was tracking, the local director of a U.S. adoption agency came along, and began accusing Samuel of giving the agency a bad name. (Out of fear of further repercussions, Samuel requested that the agency not be named.) Shortly thereafter, Samuel and his crew were arrested. While in jail, he was told that the arrest was made at the request of the agency, which had accused him of performing illegal adoptions and of filming the "bad side" of Ethiopia to sell to the Eritrean government. An employee of the agency was also arrested -- it's still not clear why -- as well as three of Samuel's friends and a translator.

Although his jailers treated him as a serious criminal, in time, with the help of U.S. adoptive families, Samuel's case reached the attention of the U.S. and federal Ethiopian governments. Families who had adopted through the agency raised thousands of dollars for bail and led a letter-writing campaign that spurred the Ethiopian ambassador to the U.S., at the consulate in Los Angeles, to get involved.

Lisa Veleff Day, a Portland, Maine, mother to two Ethiopian children, participated in the campaign. A number of families in Portland have adopted from Ethiopia, and several had turned to Samuel to help uncover their children's backgrounds -- often after they became suspicious of the stories their agencies had told them. Veleff Day did not hire Samuel -- she was able to find information about her children through a member of their birth family with ties to Portland -- but she had used the same agency that was behind his jailing and had come to doubt their ethics. During one of the last steps of her adoption -- an appointment with the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa to secure a visa -- the agency's country representative coached her to say that her children's birth parents were dead. The representative threatened Veleff Day that the adoption would fall through if she did not.

"Right before we went into the embassy, we were told that there were certain things we needed to say. We were being coached. We were supposed to say that both of these parents were dead. We knew that not to be true. They were telling us to lie," says Veleff Day. "He said if you don't say these things, there will be questions and you won't be able to leave with the kids. We really felt like we were over a barrel, so we did what they said. I'm not proud of that, but they waited this long to coach us, because otherwise we wouldn't have felt as compelled to do what they said."

"Not only had [Samuel] been arrested," recalled Veleff Day, "but the family member, the uncle of a child adopted by friends of ours, was arrested when he started bringing food and water to him. The agency used scare tactics: you talk to this guy, and you might be arrested too."

While Samuel typically finds little more than discrepancies in the children's ages -- younger children are widely considered more attractive to adoptive families -- sometimes he finds that birth families receive no word about their children despite agency promises for updates. One birth family was not even aware their child had been sent to America. Sometimes, Samuel says, birth families are complicit in these falsehoods, making stories they think are more conducive to getting their children adopted.

"People are promoting adoption to foreigners and the birth families were fooled by some adoption advocates," Samuel said. "They got the wrong information about adoption: that if you send this child, you will get some money from the adoptive parents and you'll be someone great."

The contradictions unearthed by searchers in recent years have damaged the reputations of adoption agencies in Ethiopia. Agencies, some adoptive parents claim, have retaliated against searchers, with legal action, jail time, and even death threats.


Karen Smith-Rotabi, an inter-country adoption scholar at the Virginia Commonwealth University, has found that after previous "hotspot" adoption countries such as Guatemala closed down -- widespread ethical problems, from coercion to outright kidnapping led the country's adoption authority to suspend the program pending reforms -- Ethiopia became "a perfect storm for an emerging adoption industry." Its short waiting periods and high availability of very young children made it attractive to international adoption agencies. Some agencies accused of deeply unethical behavior in Guatemala are widely thought by international adoption experts to have moved their operations to Ethiopia.

"As Guatemala's adoption industry ground to a halt at the end of 2007, many American adoption agencies began setting up new adoption programs in Ethiopia," says Erin Siegal, author of the book Finding Fernanda, an investigation of corruption in adoption cases from Guatemala. Ethiopia, which is not a signatory to the Hague Adoption Convention, a standard for international adoption practices, gave an opportunity to agencies unable to win Hague accreditation. In some cases, Siegal says, it seemed to save the businesses of agencies in financial trouble after Guatemala shut down.

"The fundamental issue in Ethiopia is extreme poverty, and that the birth family's idea of adoption is different than ours," Smith-Rotabi said. "Ethiopians don't have that conception of a clean break from one family to another. Some really think that their child is going to get an education and they'll see them again. You have a very sophisticated, legalistic society communicating with a very poor, traditional one."

When people see birth families benefitting from their choice to relinquish their child, she said, that can have a contagious effect in these communities. "It takes over a whole village very quickly. It's very dangerous stuff, playing with people's poverty, emotions, and needs in a way that's really quite profound."

"Parents, especially from rural areas, still believe that they are sending their children so they can get money," said Mehari Maru, a human rights lawyer in Ethiopia whom the Ethiopian government invited to propose an institutional framework for international adoption. "They are not told what adoption means, that they will have other parents. They think about the money they will get and their children's welfare."

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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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