“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.
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.
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.