How Ethiopia's Adoption Industry Dupes Families and Bullies Activists

"Much of the potential for abuse through non-regulation is at a local level," said Doug Webb, Chief of Section for Adolescent Development, Protection, and HIV/AIDS at UNICEF Ethiopia, which is working closely with the Ethiopian government to establish a more comprehensive domestic child welfare system in the country. "A lot of the arrangements and paperwork that makes things appear differently than they are happens at the local level, out there in the bush with brokers, agents, officials, and policemen. Once the paperwork reaches the federal level, in some cases, the opportunity for abuse may have already been taken."

Smith-Rotabi warned that Ethiopia must learn from other countries that have seen sharp rises in adoption. In Guatemala, adoption corruption eventually came to have what she called "hidden structures of organized crime," with critics facing so much intimidation that many hired bodyguards. In one case, she says, a scholar researching adoption there disappeared completely and is presumed dead.

Ethiopia's federal government is working to address problems in the country's adoption system. But the adoption industry has become so lucrative and so strong, especially in rural parts of the country, that many people who've raised questions about the process say they've faced intimidation and harassment from the industry.


In 2009, Arun Dohle, a researcher for the non-profit Against Child Trafficking (ACT), traveled to Ethiopia to investigate 25 adoptions handled by the Dutch agency Wereldkinderen Child Welfare Association. The research was commissioned by the agency but, when Dohle's findings led to him being "put out" of the country, ACT published the report independently under the title "Fruits of Ethiopia, Intercountry Adoption: The Rights of the Child, or the 'Harvesting' of Children?"

"We were seriously threatened by the orphanage directors and by the local representative of the agency we were working with as well," Dohle said. "We got a letter from Ethiopian orphanages saying we were involved in illegal adoptions. The social worker [I was working with] was accused of damaging the image of Ethiopia. It proves you can't do independent research." He added, "Of course [the research] was actually legal, but they were dropping high-up names of politicians."

In his research, Dohle found that a majority of the 25 cases included clear ethical concerns. These included living and easily-identified parents listed as dead or unknown, agency or orphanage representatives giving false information on court documents, parents relinquishing children in the stated hopes of receiving support from adoptive families, and orphanages recruiting children directly from intact families. He recorded testimony stating that some child recruiters are salaried employees of orphanages and work to collect children from villages, health centers, and other places families visit. He also found, much as Smith-Rotabi later suggested to me, that Ethiopian families don't have the same understanding of adoption that Western agencies do.

The report explains that research came "to an abrupt end" when a local representative of the agency learned of Dohle's research and "threatened to report the researcher to the Ethiopian immigration or police."

Officials from two orphanages that Dohle had identified as problematic (both of which have since been closed by the Ethiopian government), Bethezatha Children's Home Association and Gelegela Integrated Orphans and Destitute Family Support Association, sent a letter to Wereldkinderen accusing him of engaging in illegal adoptions; of "terrorizing the families of children who have been placed in the Netherlands" by claiming that children are being sold for compensation, for organ harvesting, or for experimental HIV medication testing (his report made none of these claims); and of taking birth families hostage during interviews. "These situations have proven to be rather problematic to our operations," the letter stated. It demanded that all Wereldkinderen adoptions be investigated, claiming that the investigation impugned not only the orphanages in question but the government of Ethiopia as well.


The adoption landscape is changing rapidly in Ethiopia. Amid mounting evidence of fraud and ethical problems, the Ethiopian government announced in March that it was putting the brakes on its international adoption program, slowing by 60 to 90 percent the rate at which it processes paperwork for children being internationally adopted. It also revoked the license of one adoption agency accused of creating fraudulent documents for adoptees. In July, the government began implementing a plan to close one third of the nation's orphanages, shuttering those it found were functioning more as transitional homes for the adoption industry rather than providing care for children in need; to date, 23 in the SNNPR region have been shut down. People with knowledge of the industry told me that agencies were firing staff in response to the slowdown and a number of agencies were expected to face closure without the revenue stream of steady Ethiopian adoptions. A UNICEF analysis of Ethiopian court data, however, indicates that the slowdown didn't last long and that this fall, the number of adoptions being processed has bounced back to normal levels.

Still, UNICEF's Doug Webb said that the environment in which these abuses took place has changed dramatically in the past year. "There are people in government who are very concerned about this, but we've turned a big corner here. The situation is over where alleged abuses were ignored, swept under the carpet; where nobody was listening and there was too much money involved."

"In many ways," Webb said, "that story is done. The climate has changed so much. Now it's discussed more openly. The government at the highest levels is speaking out against abuses in the system."

"I hope the slowdown is helping things," said adoptive mother Lisa Veleff Day, "but I sort of doubt it. They say they're checking things more carefully, but this is big business for Ethiopia. The terrible shame is there are so many kinds who are genuinely in need of adoption, and those are not the ones being adopted."

The role of searchers won't end any time soon, Samuel is certain. The thousands of Ethiopian children adopted by families in the U.S. and Europe over the last decade will grow up one day. They'll learn about the circumstances around adoption from Ethiopia in earlier years and will want to find out the truth of their background.

Kelly paid $900 in 2009 for her searcher and Samuel charges an average rate of $600. But Kelly has since heard that her searcher increased his rates, asking as much as $3000 to $4000 for a search. When rising demand and supply made adoption an important and rapidly growing source of money in a country that had little of it, even these investigators who are often at odds with agencies have found a place in the adoption economy.

This article supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

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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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