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."

SEARCHING

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.

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.

A PERFECT STORM

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."

"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.

'CAN'T DO INDEPENDENT RESEARCH'

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.

A NEW ADOPTION LANDSCAPE

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

Presented by

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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