The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa posted a notice today saying they had been notified by the Ethiopian Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MOWA) that MOWA is suspending its processing of intercountry adoptions, effective immediately. At this point, I have seen no definitive information on the reasons for the suspension, or for how long the adoptions will be suspended.
This news is receiving a lot of attention on Facebook among adoptive families and adoptees. There is plenty of speculation about the causes: an investigation into an adoption agency or orphanage; a response to political events; a desire to ensure that children being adopted are genuine orphans and their reasons for needing adoption are accurate; a desire to change the image of Ethiopia as a country that needs to “export” its children.
Ultimately, of course, Ethiopian government officials are the only ones who know for certain, and it is entirely possible we will never know the reasons.
There is precedence for the suspension; adoptions were effectively suspended in a slowdown for a few months last year. MOWA was reorganized; required interviews were delayed. There is also precedence in many other countries for suspending, decreasing, or stopping adoptions. Examples which come quickly to mind are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Romania, Russia, Guatemala, China, and South Korea. Adoptions have slowed or stopped for political reasons, because of internal fraud and corruption, because of agency fraud and corruption, and because of a country’s shame in having to send its children outside of its borders. Keep in mind that the U.S. also sends children to other countries for adoption, primarily to Europe and Canada. That’s a fact that often surprises people.
I don’t think anyone following Ethiopian adoptions in recent years is surprised by today’s development. The role of money in intercountry adoptions is powerful and for years has encouraged fraud and bribery. With adoption agencies being investigated by the FBI or closing as a result of a U.S. Justice Department indictment, with agencies who had Hague Convention accreditation (the only official accreditation available) suddenly closing because of bankruptcy, with adoptive families finding out that their Ethiopian children have living parents, with Ethiopian birth families having been told they would receive reports and updates which never happened, and with the pendulum of child welfare advocacy moving toward family preservation over adoption–well, it’s a perfect storm of sorts.
There’s no question the numbers of children being adopted from Ethiopia have declined in recent years, as is true in many other countries as well. I wrote last year about what people who were lamenting that decline could do: there are many ways to help the children, and I truly hope anyone moved by this recent suspension will do all they can to work toward orphan prevention and family preservation.
There will always be children who could benefit from adoption, perhaps especially those who are genuine, verified orphans; or those who have physical conditions or disabilities which are untreatable or fatal in their home country.
I so hope that there will be some good that comes from this suspension: efforts to reunite children with their parents and to support family preservation; accurate assessment of whether children are true orphans in need of adoption; and strong policies for family preservation programs, women’s job training, and literacy.
I wish Ethiopia would invite adult adoptees to return and would listen to their stories and ideas. They would hear from those who believe adoption saved their lives and from those who have suffered greatly. They all deserve to be heard. I wish Ethiopia would provide a forum for birth/first mothers to tell their stories as well. I wish the U.S. and other countries would provide the same level of pre- and post- adoption services to Ethiopian birth/first families as they do to adoptive families: the inequity is shameful.
Time will tell what will happen in Ethiopia. This could be a wonderful opportunity for promoting child welfare that is a model to the world, rather than an event that results in no genuine change for vulnerable children.
The State Department notification is available here.
Your teens or preteens may be watching a highly popular show about a teenager who died by suicide. They could even have seen real teens die by suicide livestreamed on Facebook. We all need to open our eyes, talk with our kids, and have suicide prevention resources close at hand. This may be especially important for adopted teens.
Your kids may be watching the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why.” Based on a book with the same title, and produced by Selena Gomez, it’s about a young woman who died by suicide and left 13 tapes behind to explain why she killed herself. It’s a popular show. It includes rape, bullying, grief, and graphic depiction of the dead girl cutting her arm open and dying alone in a bathtub. It’s about how her friends try to understand, and, I guess, try to do better, be kinder, in their lives now.
It’s possible to binge-watch all 13 episodes. And I would guess that most teens, and even pre-teens, could do exactly that without ever talking about it with their parents or any other caring adults.
It’s a lot to take in.
Are you aware of that suicide is the second leading cause of teenage deaths? You can read the CDC report here.
Are you aware that adoptees have been shown to be four times more likely to attempt suicide than non-adopted teens? You can read the report by the American Academy of Pediatrics here.
Are you aware that at least two teens have live-streamed their suicides on Facebook? You can read a newspaper article about it here.
Please don’t stop reading this post, though I know it can feel overwhelming. The risk of suicide by teens is real, and horrifying. Adopted teens may well be more prone to considering, and carrying out, dying by suicide.
There are many resources available for prevention. I’ve written about them here: Resources Around Trauma and Suicide in Adoption. As parents and as people, we need to pay attention to subtle signals, keep communication lines open, and be willing to talk about suicide as we would sex and drugs.
Here’s another good resource: 10 Things Every Parent Needs to Know About Teen Suicide.
Here’s an article from Ravishly: 6 Reasons Why Our Kids Shouldn’t Be Watching 13 Reasons Why.
Here’s an article from Rolling Stone: Does 13 Reasons Why Glamorize Teen Suicide?
And here’s the 24/7 number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 Put it in your phone. I hope you never need it for yourself or for anyone else, and I hope you have it if you do.
Even kids from happy. loving families consider suicide. Even if your teen is doing fine, he or she may have friends who are struggling. Share information. Be aware of the impact of popular shows like 13 Reasons Why. Be aware of teens livestreaming their own deaths on Facebook.
Yes, it’s a lot to take in. Don’t look away.
The U.S. State Department lays the blame on adoptive parents and adoption agencies. The adoption agencies, per the National Council on Adoption, say the decline is due to overly restrictive regulations and anti-adoption advocates. The voices we are not hearing enough of in this discussion are the birth/first parents and the adoptees themselves.
Last week, the State Department released figures showing the ongoing decline in numbers of children being placed to the United States for international adoption: 5372 children in FY 2016. You can read the report here.
The State Department cited three main reasons for the decline: adoptive parents failing to send post-adoption reports to the children’s country of origin; the incidences of adopted children being re-homed; and unethical practices by adoption agencies.
The reports are a reasonable requirement. Sending countries want to know the outcome of children sent abroad for adoption, and adoptive parents are supposed to send the reports. Different countries have different requirements, which are essentially unenforceable once the adoption is full and final. The adoptive parents may have an ethical obligation, but their compliance is subject to their willingness. “Several countries have conditioned the resumption of intercountry adoptions on receiving post adoption reports from parents who previously adopted children from that county,” according to the State Department.
I’d be curious as to whether State has statistics on compliance, or has done research on why parents do not send the reports in. I’d guess a few reasons: Parents have so much going on with family life that the reports fall to the wayside. The parents are mad at the agency and refuse to work with them once the adoption is done. The parents don’t believe the country will ever read the reports. The parents don’t care about whether their failure to send reports will affect future adoptions. The parents are struggling with the child (or have disrupted the adoption, or have re-homed the child) but don’t want the country to know.
Some international adoption agencies have suggested to adoptive parents that the reports would also be sent to the birth/first parents. The birth/first parents may have been told they would receive reports. When the agency failed to get the reports to the families, which anecdotally I have heard many times, parents may have stopped sending them. Some send reports directly to the birth/first family, but not to the government.
Another aspect is the country of origin’s ability to maintain the post-adoption information in an archival, accessible way. That is, a country like China, Korea, or Ethiopia would potentially have received thousands of reports over many years. Does the government have the interest and the infrastructure to file and maintain the reports? Do they scan them and keep them well-organized? The reports from the US are in English, and I doubt they would be translated into national or local languages. It is unclear to me whether the birth/first parents would have any access to the reports. However, I would argue there is an ethical obligation for the country of origin to provide it to the birth/first parents.
Unregulated Custody Transfer (UCT)
Unregulated Custody Transfer is a benign sounding phrase, but is frightening in its manifestation. The State Department equates UCT with “re-homing,” where adoptive parents hand over their adopted children, with little or no legal process or safeguards, to other people. It has happened more often than anyone would like to think, sometimes making the news, sometimes conducted in an underground. Reuters produced a significant report on the problem. Many US states have begun enacting laws and policies to reduce re-homing. The State Department has a UCT Working Group focused on “strategic for preventing UCT and for responding to UCT situations when they occur.”
Prevention, of course, is the best approach: better pre-adopt preparation, and better post-adopt resources and services.
Internationally adopted children also end up in US foster care, a legal means of moving a child to a new family. Some are listed on Second Chance, a program of Wasatch Adoptions. Both of these (US foster care and Second Chance) are technically not “re-homing,” because they are done through legal channels. Still, a great deal of controversy exists around internationally adopted children ending up in US foster care or with Second Chance.
There is, of course, an important link between the post-adoption reports and UCT, foster care, and Second Chance. Parents probably do not send reports when their children are moved from their original adoptive placement, whether legally or illegally. “Foreign countries frequently raise concerns about UCT whenever information about a child’s whereabouts is unavailable. These concerns impact their willingness to maintain intercountry adoption as an option for children,” says the State Department.
Adoption Service Provider Conduct
This issue–illegal or unethical practices by some Adoption Service Providers (ASPs) and about countries’ ability to appropriately monitor adoption activities–is far-reaching in time and complexity. The US Justice Department’s indictment of International Adoption Guides, and the subsequent guilty pleas by the top staff, for bribery and fraud is a well-known example. Other adoption agencies have been under scrutiny as well, some closing suddenly, even with full COA accreditation (i.e., Christian World Adoptions). European Adoption Consultants, an international adoption agency in Ohio, was raided in February by the FBI, with allegations around fraud and trafficking.
Agency workers in both the U.S. and in sending countries have been accused of misconduct. Facebook has regular comments in adoptive parent groups about false information about their children’s histories; adult adoptees have traveled to their home countries and found parents they had been told were dead, or mothers who had been deceived into placing their children in an orphanage. There’s no question that adoption agencies and their staffs have been under greater scrutiny in recent years than ever before, in part because of more adopted persons’ and birth/first parents’ voices being heard.
The State Department proposed new regulations last September that would attempt to address some problems in international adoption, around accreditation and other areas. Adoption agencies have been actively opposed to the proposed regs, saying that they are unnecessary, expensive, and rigid. Chuck Johnson, the head of the National Council on Adoption, told the Associated Press in January that “it was possible that under the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump, the State Department might adopt policies more to the liking of the adoption agencies.” It’s still early in the Trump Administration to see exactly what direction adoption policy will take, though the State Department’s comments on the newly released adoption numbers give us some sense. Update: While the State Department refers to the proposed regs in the narrative about the statistics, including saying they are “reviewing comments from the public on the proposed regulations,” the regs were withdrawn by State in early April. I’ll post more information when I get it.
In any case, adoption agencies frequently see administrative and regulatory policies to be more responsible for the decline in adoptions than the three issues cited by State.
The bottom line: A whole lot of work needs to be done, by a whole lot of folks (State Department, Office of Children’s Issues, adoption agencies, adoptive parents, state and federal legislators, international governments) if international adoption is going to continue in any meaningful way. Right now, there is a fairly strong current of anti-adoption momentum, via groups who view adoption as equivalent to trafficking as well as vocal individuals, primarily adult adoptees, who are demanding change.
And *if* international adoption is going to continue, adoption agencies and the U.S. State Department should make equity in pre-adoption preparation and post-adoption services to birth/first parents. Those 5372 children had families–we know that few children are actual full orphans, and many have grandparents and siblings. The birth/first families deserve excellent adoption services as much as U.S. adoptive parents do, to make sure adoption is the best option, and to encourage family preservation whenever possible.
Note: This is an updated version of my post from March 31, 2017.
My original post under this title included an adoptive mother’s recent experience in taking her son back to visit his Ethiopian family, and encountering other US adoptive families in Ethiopia. This mom, not citing anyone by name, described an evening at a cultural restaurant (a place where there is Ethiopian food and often a show of traditional Ethiopian dancing) where another American family’s Ethiopian child was sobbing, where an Ethiopian adoptee did not recognize injera, and where an Ethiopian child’s unkempt hair was chatted about.
Here’s one excerpt:
Don’t drag your kid to an Ethiopian restaurant on your first night in Addis, allow him to sob on your lap, sit there and continue to eat and then give him a video game to play while you dance for the amusement of the crowd. Your child has to process what is happening. He’s back in his country for the first time in many years. The sights, sounds, and smells are likely triggering deep emotions. Also, his deep embarrassment at you dancing is legit. You are not Ethiopian. Imagine how exposed he feels being an adoptee in that crowd.
It’s not OK to be ignorant to the issues of raising Black boys in the US. It is not OK!
First of all, do your child’s hair!!!!!!!!!!!! For the love that is all things holy, no your child’s unkempt 6 inch curls are not ‘the best hair in our town.’ ” They are a disaster. If you are going to allow your child to have long hair, you need to be prepared to pick it out. Messy is not acceptable. Both boys had hair that might be cool in the white adoptive community, but is cool nowhere else.
In other words, my original post was about a few things: how adoptive families should handle the homeland visit, as well as about the sensitivity (or lack thereof) of white parents around issues of raising black children, especially in predominately white communities and states, where racism flourishes and racial mirrors are rare.
My blog post touched a nerve for many readers. A few days after the post was published, one of the previously unnamed subjects of the post commented, identifying herself, and disputing the details of the incident in Ethiopia. Many of her friends commented as well, defending her as a mother and criticizing both me and the original poster for what we wrote.
Because the mom identified herself, she and her son are no longer anonymous. This means that her son (and friends, neighbors, teachers, strangers) could be identified as well. Thus, I decided, for the sake of the son’s privacy, to take down the original post.
The issue of bringing adopted Ethiopian children back to visit Ethiopia (sometimes specifically to visit their Ethiopian family) is more complex than many people realize. Here are just a few admittedly controversial, argument-inducing points:
- Adoptive parents should not adopt from Ethiopia if they do not have the financial means to take the children back at least once, maybe more. When they do take the trip, it should be organized thoughtfully and flexibly, allowing a lot of space for children’s emotional, physical, developmental, and psychological needs.
- Adoptive parents should do all they can to search for their children’s Ethiopian families, since many (perhaps most?) of the back stories provided by adoption agencies have proven false.
- Many (if not most) Ethiopian families placed their children with the belief that they would see their children again. Many did not fully understand (or were not told) that adoption meant a permanent severing of legal ties with their children.
- The visits with Ethiopian families are far more complex than many people realize. The visits often attract dozens of neighbors and onlookers, even in remote areas. Translators are often the people who drive the families around, good people but not experts in adoption reunion issues. A lot of nuance and actual statements are lost in the emotions of the moment and the limitations (linguistic and cultural) of the translators.
- While Ethiopia is a polite culture, slow to criticize others, Ethiopians and others watch the way that adopted children are treated in Ethiopia. In the US, black people sometimes keep an eye on how black children are cared for by their white adoptive parents, including the children’s hair. To say that hair care is an important issue in the black community is to provide a remarkable example of understatement.
- Some adopted children, when visiting Ethiopia, find it healing and helpful. Lots of adoptive parents post on social media about the success of their visits. Other children are affected differently, sometimes traumatically. Their parents tend not to post.
- The impact of the trips is felt immediately and long after the actual visits, as children grow up and process the realities of loss and gains in adoption.
Many of the commenters on the original post scolded me for being negative, even citing the chestnut, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” That approach would have us all saying nothing about racism. It would have us never sharing information and resources about what experience we have gained through making mistakes, or through witnessing naiveté, insensitivity, abuse, or even cruelty.
The incident related in the original post was, unfortunately, not one-of-a-kind. Many of us, whether adoptive parents, adopted persons, or Ethiopian parents, could cite many examples of the stunning ignorance of white adoptive parents in Ethiopia. We are increasingly hearing the perspective of adult Ethiopian adoptees, and far too rarely, that of Ethiopian birth parents, who are the most marginalized of all in this triad.
My decision to leave the subjects of the initial post unnamed was purposeful, and, I would argue, valuable. Once one of them was no longer unknown, the scale tipped. I appreciate all those who weighed in on this post. I hope that everyone continues to give thought to the complexity of international adoption, especially transracial adoption, not only in childhood but well into adulthood.
A team of researchers worked with 223 birth/first mothers who had placed a child for adoption within the last 25 years, as well as with 141 adoption professions who counsel and facilitate adoptions. A second phase of the research included interviews and more detailed analysis with a smaller group.
A few of the findings, according to a Baylor University press release:
- It was common for birth mothers to express concern about their lack of financial stability during their pregnancies. Financial concerns were often cited as reasons why birth mothers first considered, and ultimately elected, adoption.
- While some of the women had very positive experiences during their decision-making and relinquishment process, others indicated that the information and support they received from the agency or attorney was insufficient to help them fully consider their options and make the best choice for their child. For these birth mothers, the decision to place their child has had a lifelong impact on them and is one they greatly regret.
- Much of the information that adoption professionals reported discussing with new expectant parents focused on adoption-related concerns rather than full consideration of all of the parents’ options. Less than half of adoption professionals specifically mentioned discussing information related to parenting their child or methods for helping expectant parents problem-solve how this might occur.
The Baylor report, based on two years of work, provides several policy recommendations, including these:
• Mandate adoption agencies and adoption attorneys to develop and/or provide free access to pre- and post-relinquishment services for expectant and birth parents. These services should include individual and family counseling provided by a licensed clinical professional.
• Mandate that adoption agencies and adoption attorneys must provide expectant parents with a standardized, informed consent that details the possible outcomes associated with relinquishing parental rights to a child for adoption, as well as potential outcomes that the child may experience.
• Increase and standardize education for expectant parents and prospective adoptive parents about the strengths, limitations and legalities of post-relinquishment contact, including the rights of adoptive parents to decrease or eliminate contact in some states.
• Mandate biannual ethics in adoption continuing education for adoption professionals. This curriculum should address ethical challenges related to working with expectant parents, birth parents, extended family members, prospective adoptive parents and other adoption professionals. The curriculum should also emphasize the importance of options counseling, including full informed consent and access to supportive services.
The adoption professionals themselves called for additional training on grief and loss related to relinquishment. That is revealing.
The Baylor press release quotes one birth mother who “felt pressure to sign papers immediately after having the baby. ‘It was horrible,’ she said. ‘I can tell you right now, if the lawyer hadn’t shown up in my room when I was in kind of a haze from giving birth, I don’t know if I would’ve signed the papers. I should’ve had time.”
U.S. states vary on the amount of time parents have after birth to give consent to placing their child for adoption: 16 states allow consent any time after the birth; 30 states have a waiting period of 12 hours to 15 days before the consent can be given. There is a lot of variation among the states.
“Revocation of consent” refers to the ability of the parents to change their minds about placing the baby for adoption. The time period also varies among states, from 3 days to 180 days. More information on consent and revocation times is available here.
I am on the record opposed to birth mothers signing papers in the delivery room and handing their baby over to the adoptive parents without a decent time to recover after birth and ensure that adoption is the right decision. I’d challenge anyone who has given birth or had any significant surgery/medical procedure to consider whether they’d feel fine about signing significant legal papers right after the delivery or surgery, especially if they were pressured to do so, and especially if the papers related to one’s child being permanently removed, oftentimes with no further contact ever.
As an adoptive parent, I find this university study and the policy recommendations a breath of fresh air in adoption practice. I hope that this information gets to many of the law firms and adoption agencies working with expectant mothers, and that prospective and current adoptive parents insist that the law firms and adoption agencies are aware of this research.
I believe adoption can be a viable option, and the right decision for the first/birth parents, the adoptee, and adoptive parents, if it is done with transparency and integrity. Acknowledging the power (economic, in particular) in adoption held by adoptive parents is critical.
We have a long way to go in improving services and counseling to expectant mothers in the U.S. who are considering adoption, and especially those who are in a temporarily difficult situation but could keep their children if they had better (any) counseling and better awareness of other resources.
And imagine if this level of services and counseling were mandated to be provided to mothers around the globe who place their children for international adoption–because we are way behind on equitable treatment for them.
If you missed the link at the beginning of this post, the Donaldson Institute-Baylor University study Is available here.
Today, International Women’s Day, is meant to highlight the economic power and significance that women have in global economies. I struggle to honor that notion when I consider the astonishing imbalance of power in adoption, especially in terms of domestic infant adoption in the US and of international adoption.
I recently was a small part of a Twitter conversation with a new Florida law firm focused on adoption that posed this question on behalf of expectant mothers: “Can I get paid for placing my baby up for adoption?” That was the first tweet the new firm posted on February 9, so we have a good idea of their priorities and marketing strategy.
This law firm will indeed help with financial assistance for expectant mothers who agree to place their babies for adoption. This is legal, with variations among states. The assistance can include rent, food, cell phone, medical expenses, and “possibly more.” Depending on the contract signed between the mother and the prospective adoptive parents, assistance can continue for four to six weeks after the birth. If the mother changes her mind, she may be liable for reimbursement of expenses. There is, of course, no financial assistance from the law firm to keep the child.
The law firm I tweeted to never responded to my tweets, and has since blocked me. No surprise, no big deal. The reality is there are plenty of other law firms and agencies advertising the same way.
The Twitter exchange reminded me of the tremendous economic imbalance between adoptive mothers and expectant/birth mothers, a disparity that is too rarely discussed and has significant implications for the way adoptive parents talk about adoption and birth parents with their children.
Today, on International Women’s Day, I am struck, not for the first time, by what the disparity in economic power and leverage between adoptive mothers and expectant/birth mothers signifies for motherhood. I am well aware of that disparity, as an adoptive mother through US and international adoption. We pay significant amounts of money; they place their child with us. It is relative wealth that makes us mothers, and scarcity of funds that makes them mothers who may never see their children again. We have the legal means to ensure that outcome, as well as the wherewithal to establish geographical and emotional distance.
I recognize that women have a right to place their children for adoption, and would argue that it must be done in a non-coercive way that creates a level playing field for everyone, not just the women (and men) with money: Not when a few weeks of financial help means a lifetime of sadness. Not when adoption is a permanent solution to a temporary situation. Not when adoption agencies close and are no longer intermediaries between birth families and adoptive families, and leave no ways for the birth family or the adopted person to get information. Not when international mothers are told that their babies will come back some day and help them, and they don’t understand (or aren’t told) that legal adoption in the US means total severance of parental rights.
We adoptive mothers, on this International Women’s Day, can do much to forge equity with expectant mothers and with those mothers who have placed their children for adoption.
- We can keep up our agreements in open adoptions. Obviously, safety is always a factor. Still, we may be able, even in difficult cases, to share information through an agency, mediator, liaison, or family member. That would be so much better than slamming doors, because circumstances can change, children grow up, and information can change lives.
- We can support our children’s journey to search and reunite, without fear. That might mean welcoming their mothers into our lives, or hearing about their visits, or something else. We can be with them if there are dead ends or secondary rejection. We can learn why it may matter to some adoptees to search, and why birth parents may be waiting to know if their baby is alive and well. We can support open records, and access to original birth certificates. As adoptive mothers, our voices are especially compelling to legislators. Use your power.
- We can support family preservation efforts, here in the US and around the world. When we hear that international adoptions may be ending, for example, we can look at ways to continue to help children.
- We can reject placement of babies with adoptive parents in delivery rooms, when women are physically and emotionally exhausted. We can be at peace with the mother having time to decide, after birth, if adoption is the right choice for them. We adoptive mothers can testify for more time for revocation of consent, for better enforcement of open adoptions, and for thoughtfully allocated assistance to first/birth families.
- We can acknowledge that some first/birth mothers will experience a lifetime of grief. If we adoptive parents cannot bear the thought of our beloved child dying, can we understand what placing a child for adoption might mean to some first/birth mothers? Can we bring her into our lives somehow, certainly through empathy if not through actual connections?
- We can support organizations such as Saving Our Sisters. We can read blogs like First Mother Forum and Musings of the Lame, including this post, “The Cost of Adoption: Paying Birth Mother Expenses.”
I am a mother through adoption, and I love my children more than I can say. I recognize that they had mothers before me, and that all of them (my children and their first mothers) have had complex, sometimes painful, sometimes joyous, events as a result of (or in spite of) adoption. I recognize that adoption can absolutely be the best decision for parents and children, and a lifesaving action for children as well. I know it can be also be a divisive, cruel, and unethical transaction.
On International Women’s Day, may we commit to working together as women and mothers in the adoption community.
The judge says it was not a rape case, nor was it about racial bias. While the determination of rape may be legally correct, the case was assuredly about race.
On February 24, Idaho Judge Randy Stoker sentenced a white high school football player, John RK Howard, to probation and 300 hours of community service for an attack in which a black, developmentally disabled teen (also on the football team) was lured into a hug with a teammate, and then another teammate shoved a hanger in the teen’s anus. Howard kicked the hanger further into the teen. Howard was initially charged with forcible penetration by use of a foreign object, and ultimately pled guilty to a lesser charge of felony injury to a child.
The black teen is a transracial adoptee. It’s taken me a few days to post about the case, given its tragic outcome. While there certainly can be gains in adoption, there is also loss, and this young man has lost a great deal.
I cannot imagine the psychological and physical pain the young man has endured as a result of that vicious incident. My sense is that he was struggling to fit in, as a black person in a tiny almost all white, Idaho town, thinking that the football players were his friends, putting up with bullying and taunts because he wanted to be accepted in a football-focused town.
Probation and 300 hours of community service seems an astonishingly light punishment for the perpetrator. What a message it sends to a locker room culture that tolerates, if not encourages, violence and racism.
Equally disturbing, though, are remarks the Judge Stoker made about the case as he discussed his rationale for sentencing.
Stoker said it was not a rape case. I am not a lawyer, but I am guessing that this perspective is based on Idaho’s sexual assault laws that say rape is defined as the penetration, however slight, of the anal (or oral or vaginal) opening with a penis. Stoker said, “This is not a rape case. This is not a sex case…Whatever happened in that locker room was not sexual. It wasn’t appropriate.”
No, inserting a hanger in someone’s anus is not appropriate. It should be criminal.
Stoker also said this “was not a case about racial bias.” Speaking to Howard, the judge, a 66-year-old white man, said, “If I thought you had committed this offense for racial purposes, you would go straight to the Idaho penitentiary.”
It’s hard to see the judge’s statement as anything but naïve, disingenuous, and dangerous.
Howard and other members of the Dietrich High School football team, in a town of 335 people, had taunted and bullied the victim for months before the October 2015 event. One documented pre-season incident, not directly connected with this case, reminded me of a scene from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I wrote about it here: Battle Royal: Racism, Football, and an Adoptee in Idaho.
But this case, says Stoker, was not about racial bias. Stoker may well be a qualified judge (elected to the district court since 2007). His understanding of racial bias, though, is, and I am being polite, sorely lacking.
“The coaches admitted the victim was called fried chicken, grape soda, and Kool-Aid, but only because he said he liked those things.” (You can see video of the judge’s comments here.) Judge Stoker then said, “I don’t think that’s a racial slur. If it is, I guess I’m not very educated.”
I guess not. Those are all slurs, longstanding and historic. Here are a few explanations:
The judge might want to take a look at Code Switch and Black People Are Not Here To Teach You About Race. He might have more free time to peruse these things, as there is a change.org petition with over 166,000 signatures calling for his removal from the bench.
This is not a case entirely about race, I realize, though white privilege is absolutely at its core. At the end of the day, it is about the horrific, violent way one young human being treated another young human being. It is about how power and privilege play out when racial slurs are considered nicknames, when a vulnerable youth is abused verbally and otherwise yet school officials look away, and when bullying becomes physical violence in a locker room. Make no mistake, though: race plays a central, painful role here.
Imagine if it were your child, wanting to be part of the team, who was so violently violated. Learn, act, and do not look away.
In February 2014, four employees of International Adoption Guides were indicted by the US Department of Justice for bribery, falsification of documents, and more, based on a multiyear investigation of Ethiopian adoptions. James Harding, Mary Mooney, and Alisa Bivens, the three American IAG defendants, all pled guilty to various counts about two years ago. They are still awaiting sentencing, three years after the indictment. The one Ethiopian defendant, Haile Mekonnen, as best I know is still in Ethiopia and has not been in court.
According to the 2014 DOJ press release, ” ‘The defendants are accused of obtaining adoption decrees and U.S. visas by submitting fraudulent adoption contracts signed by orphanages that never cared for or housed the children, thus undermining the very laws that are designed to protect the children and families involved,’ said Acting Assistant Attorney General Raman. ‘As today’s indictments show, the Justice Department, alongside its partners both here and abroad, will respond vigorously to these criminal schemes and will act to protect the many families and children who rely on the integrity of the adoption process.’ ”
Behind that legal language is astonishing loss and heartache for many children and their families in Ethiopia and in the United States.
I recently came across a website, justiceformary.weebly.com, which seems to be written by Mary Mooney. While it mostly has password protected pages, it has a long list of the court documents from 2014 to 2016, including the plea agreements from the three defendants, as well as transcripts of several court appearances. The site mentions a court date in January 2017, but I have yet to see anything to confirm that.
In May 2016, the government recommended a sentence for Mooney of 51 to 60 months of incarceration, per this Memorandum in Aid of Sentencing.
A sentencing hearing was held in August 2016.
In November 2016, there was an order filed on Mary Mooney‘s case. My understanding, as a non-lawyer, is that in January 2015 Mooney had made a plea agreement: she pled guilty to making false statements for the agency’s Council on Accreditation process, and the government then dropped other charges, including those related to Ethiopia.
Mooney could, however, face a conviction on charges related to adoptions from Kazakhstan. Mooney’s co-defendant James Harding had operated World Partners Adoption, located in Georgia; he is an adoptive parent of children from Kazakhstan. WPA lost its accreditation to handle international adoptions in 2008. Harding and Mooney then arranged for Harding to take over at IAG, which still had accreditation at that time. Apparently IAG also has charges against it in relation to adoptions from Kazakstan, and Mooney could face a conviction as a result of those.
Any lawyers who want to weigh in would be welcomed. It is not clear to me whether this means that Mooney will face no punishment in regard to the bribery and falsification of documents in Ethiopia, but that could be correct.
Every month or so, I have called the office of Judge David Norton in South Carolina, the judge handling the case. A pleasant court official consistently tells me that, no, there’s nothing on the sentencing yet. He can’t comment on whether that’s unusual, or on any reason as to why sentencing would not have taken place. He says he will send my inquiry on to someone who might have more information. I’ve never heard anything back.
Unless I’ve missed it, I have not seen any outcry about this case from adoption agencies or from the National Council on Adoption.
The three defendants are, I believe, not in jail. I understand and applaud the value of a full and fair legal process. Still, I can’t help but feel deep disappointment in the slowness of this case, especially when the defendants pled guilty. Will the final sentencing be minimal, with the defendants getting jail time reduced?
I also can’t help but feel this long delay for sentencing is a slap in the face of the Ethiopian adoptees brought here via lies and deception. They have gone through so much, as have their families, in Ethiopia and in the US. What is the message for them about the American court system?
Where is the justice for the innocent victims?
We are thrilled to announce our list of international contributors to “Lions Roaring, Far From Home,” the first of its kind anthology by Ethiopian adoptees.
Eleni Merelo de las Peñas
Kasech Navarro Wauters
The writers are listed by the countries in which they currently live. Some chose to use only first names or pseudonyms, for a variety of reasons. We respect the sacredness of each of their stories, which include reflections on being dropped off at an orphanage in the middle of the night, on the impact of racism, on the love for adoptive family and the need to know one’s origins, and on the hopes and dreams a father has for his child. Some have wonderful adoptive families; some had horrible ones. Some have chosen to search for their Ethiopian family; some have been successful and some have not. The writers range from young children to adults in their 40’s. They are amazing people.
And they are patient people. For a variety of reasons, the publication has taken longer than we hoped, and that is life. We plan to announce the publication date soon. The book will feature stunning cover art by the Ethiopian artist Nahosenay Negussie. On behalf of my co-editors, Aselefech Evans and Kassaye MacDonald, we appreciate all the energy and power that has gone into the essays. Amaseganllo.