Everything That Rises Must Converge: Adoption From Ethiopia

Remain true to yourself, but move ever upward toward greater consciousness and greater love! At the summit you will find yourselves united with all those who, from every direction, have made the same ascent. For everything that rises must converge.

–Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, from Omega Point

That Teilhard quote is perhaps more known because of Flannery O’Connor’s brilliant short story titled “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” My point in sharing it today is to note and begin to comment on a recent convergence of numbers, money, information, and tragedies that has the potential to deeply impact Ethiopian adoptions. 

If Ethiopian adoptions are influenced, then Ethiopian children are affected. I’m an adoptive parent of daughters from Ethiopia, I’ve traveled to and around Ethiopia, I’m an active supporter of the effective nonprofit Ethiopia Reads (bringing libraries and schools to children who had none in Ethiopia), and I know lots of Ethiopians and Ethiopian-Americans. I’m familiar with the stereotypes of starving children with distended bellies and flies on their faces. I am aware of the astonishing history and beauty of one of the world’s oldest cultures, one which has experienced wars, droughts, famines, civil strife, and extreme poverty, and one which has champion runners, churches carved out of stone in the earth, breathtaking art and architecture, and potential beyond words.

Girls at Ethiopia Reads Library

If we talk about potential, we must talk about children. I’m going to list a number of recent tipping point items that all impinge upon adoption, in varying degrees. More than that, though, they can perhaps bring greater consciousness to the possibilities for Ethiopian children–in a convergence that I can only hope helps more children to stay with their birth families, or to be placed in a transparent, ethical way in families that are safe and loving.

1. Adoptions from Ethiopia to the United States began in a small way in the mid- and late- 1990’s and swelled dramatically. According to the US State Department, there were 42 children adopted from Ethiopia in 1999, rising to a high of 2511 in 2010. In 2012, the number was 1568. The numbers are expected to continue to decline in the light of allegations of corruption, inadequate infrastructure for processing adoptions, use of bribery, and the revelations about fraud made public by adopted Ethiopian children and adopted Ethiopian adults, by adoptive parents (in the US, Canada, western Europe, Australia), and by Ethiopian birth/first families.

A decrease in adoptions is not necessarily a bad thing–if it meant that children in crisis are getting the care they need. However, a decline in adoptions hardly means an automatic correlation with improved services.

2.  The role of money is staggering, and its implications mind-boggling. Approximately 13,000 children have been adopted to the US from Ethiopia in the last 13 years.  Let’s say each adoption was $30,000. This means $330,000,000 has been in play for these international adoptions completed through agencies. $330 million.

This amount doesn’t necessarily include fees paid to drivers, translators, guest houses, tour guides, souvenir sales, restaurants, and so forth by adoptive parents and agency staff visiting Ethiopia for adoption or for subsequent visits. If thousands of Americans, Canadians, Australians, and Europeans go to Ethiopia each year for adoption-related purposes (either for placements or for family visits), it’s a huge boon to the economy,  and a significant influx of cash for a beleaguered Ethiopian economy.

The gross national income per capita for Ethiopians is $371. (For the US, it’s $48, 620.)  Is it possible to overstate the role of western money related to adoption of Ethiopian children, and how easily it could be manipulated, corrupted, and devastating?

3. Facebook groups and the abundance of blogs by Ethiopian adoptive parents have magnified publicity around adoption. The photos of beautiful children and happy families, the sharing of information and stories, the quest for support and resources during difficult times, the building of community–all this can be good.  And all of it can have unintended consequences, if taken out of context.

Adoptive parents have outspoken and public about having been deceived by their agencies and/or Ethiopian facilitators and/or Ethiopian first families, and about the plusses and minuses of traveling back with their Ethiopian children to visit Ethiopian birth families.

Personal, confidential information about Ethiopian adopted children–good and bad news–is available in an instant.

Ostensibly many of these groups are private or closed. The reality is pretty much anyone can join a closed Facebook group. Anyone can take a screen shot and send it to anyone else, anywhere. 

4. Ethiopian adoptions gone horribly wrong are transmitted quickly around the world.

The recent MSNBC airing of the interview of Tarikuwa Lemma, recounting her story of being adopted against her will under apparently fraudulent circumstances, has been shown on multiple Ethiopian outlets: Tadias magazine, ethiotube.net, amharictube.com, sodere.com, ethiosoul.com, ayyaan.com, ethionews24.com, bolepark.com, and more. In other words, negative news–true as it may be–can form opinions quickly. Many of the Ethiopian sites use the headline “Tarikuwa Lemma Exposed the Selling of Ethiopian Kids.”

Information about Ethiopian adopted children who have been abused or died at the hand of their adoptive parents is also tragic, available, and publicized. The cases of Hana Alemu (aka Hannah Williams) in Washington state and of Douglas and Kristen Barbour in Pennsylvania have angered and broken the hearts of Ethiopians and many others.

Thousands of adoptions go right; thousands of families are (if not perfect) loving and healthy. That’s not what makes the news, and it doesn’t diminish the tragedy of those adoptions that are grievous disasters.

5. As I type this, a documentary and a book about Ethiopian adoptions are generating much buzz.  “Mercy Mercy: A Portrait of True Adoption” is a heart-wrenching film about 2 Ethiopian children adopted to Denmark. It is causing outcry and outrage, it is difficult to watch and not be moved deeply, and there’s an online fundraising site to return the little girl to her Ethiopian family. A recently published book The Child Catchers by Kathryn Joyce focuses on the history and impact of the Christian evangelical movement on international adoption, especially in Ethiopia and Haiti. Both the film and book are sobering for anyone involved in Ethiopian adoption.

Still from “Mercy Mercy” documentary

6. Cultural misunderstandings about adoption are now becoming apparent, which arguably should have happened long ago. Ethiopian culture has a tradition of sending children to other families or sponsors who raise the children, including sending them to school. The understanding is that the children would return to the family to help support them. More than once, I’ve seen this view cited as the (mis-)understanding of a US adoptive placement from Ethiopia, which of course requires total severance of legal rights and no guarantee of a child’s ever returning to the Ethiopian family.

Whether it was inadequate translations, laziness, failure to consider cultural differences, malice, naiveté, good intentions gone astray–the reasons are negligible beside the damage done. Children have been removed from poor families who believed the children would receive an education and then return to them one day. These are parents who did not understand adoption as the permanent placement that we in the US consider it. Increasing numbers of adoptive families, having hired searchers (another profitable new venture for Ethiopia), have found this to be the case, and must discern how to live with this haunting knowledge.

I’m well aware how powerful, overwhelming, and bleak this list is. There are conversations about adoption blazing around the world right now, in the US, in Canada, in Ethiopia, in Australia. Yes, there is anger and frustration, perhaps shame, perhaps sorrow and regret. Nonetheless, I’m hopeful. From these convergences and conversations we must rise; I hope we are led by Ethiopian adoptees and by Ethiopian first/birth families.  We can move toward transparency and creative solutions for children and families in crisis. It is past time to move toward that ascent.

8 thoughts on “Everything That Rises Must Converge: Adoption From Ethiopia

  1. Maureen, an important and thought-provoking blogpost as always. As with most international adoptions, the rights of children have been decoupled from the rights of the parents who birthed them. I think one of the key steps in rising is to ensure that the voice of Ethiopian parents is heard loudly and clearly.

    The Ethiopian program is unique in that first families are present and often very accessible. I would be quite interested in having a discussion about how we adoptive parents act as allies to Ethiopian parents. How do we magnify their voices? How do we help make them present in this conversation? Having our children’s families in our lives has shown me how very vital this is.

    • Excellent, important points, Chris. I’d love to tackle this and will do so, and welcome your thoughts and ideas as well. It’s a real paradigm shift for adoptive parents to be advocating for involvement of international first families: I think some paps still go to international to avoid any birth parent involvement, which is pretty much impossible on a several levels.

      Ethiopia is unique, having evolved into a somewhat unintentional model of open adoption with undefined parameters in a very short period of time. Challenging for everyone. And a great opportunity too.

  2. It definitely is a bleak list – go to any country that places in the West and you’ll find a similar list, too. But you are right, rise we must.

    I am coming to believe that the first step is in addressing the failings of our adoption practices right here in the U.S.: OBC access, citizenship for intercountry adoptees, for-profit adoption agencies.

    We have to stop corruption wherever we find it. It really bothers me that just these three issues that I list here get so little attention from the adoptive parent community, never mind the mainstream. How do we counteract the effects of religions orphan programs that are rushing abroad to “save the children” when the very people that do that couldn’t care less about the injustices we face right here.

    I guess we just keep going.

    • We keep going, and we keep talking together. Thank you, Margie, for your comment. I see a significant linkage between access to OBCs and automatic citizenship for international adoptees. Both are reasonable and make sense, as a practical matter and as a human rights matter. Adoptive parents have held the power in adoption for policy way too long, and I’ve been arguing for them to step back a bit and let adopted persons and first parents move up. Still, I’d really like to see adoptive parents wielding some leverage on OBCs and citizenship in particular.

  3. Unfortunately, adoption reform has been progressing just drip by drip in the face of staggering resistance. I’m hoping all these media and on-line stories — negative as they are — will lead to a more public understanding of all the factors that contribute to ethical problems in adoption. Why, for example, should there be such overwhelming legislative resistance to adult adoptees simply having access to their own original certificates of birth? You would think, in light of the data that we have, that that subject would be a no-brainer, and until all the facebook posts of adoptees and mothers looking for connections started to appear, the subject received hardly any press at all, and never balanced press. I think we can all agree that there is something terribly wrong with the business model that drives adoption here in the US, and hopefully these stories will get the conversations going that need to happen.

    • I agree, Susan. I would also argue that more adoptive parents need to step up and speak out about access to OBC’s. I am very disheartened and discouraged about Washington state’s legislation–here we are, so ostensibly progressive, and we won’t allow adults to have their own birth certificates. It’s outrageous. Stories matter–as do basic human rights.

  4. But how do you get the ASP’s and adoption lobbyists / spokespeople to take action. To hear, admit, accept that harm has and is being done, to change?

    • An excellent, reasonable question with no easy answer–which to me does not mean we let it go and wring our hands. I think there are some possibilities, and I will be writing about them soon. Part of the answer, I think, is in giving greater voice to adoptees, and holding agencies far more accountable than we have in the past. Stay tuned, and please enter the discussion. Thank you.

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