The Wrenching Complexity of Money in Ethiopian Adoption: Part One

$63 million. A lot of money, right?

Hold that thought.

News has emerged from Ethiopia about some government officials calling for an end to adoption. (You can read my posts about it here and here.) 

Adoption numbers from Ethiopia have declined in recent years, from 284 children adopted to the US  in 2004, to a high of 2,511 in 2010, down to 1,567 in 2012. The number will likely be even lower for 2013.

About numbers: they are so important, and so difficult to fully understand. So easily manipulated.

For example, we hear a lot about Ethiopian orphans needing families. UNICEF has estimated that some 4.6 million children in Ethiopia have “lost one or both parents due to all causes.” The cause could be death, desertion, disappearance, remarriage–any cause.

UNICEF estimates further that, in Ethiopia, there are 670,000 children who have had both parents die due to any cause. You can see the UNICEF chart here. I am not minimizing the needs and heartache of any child, but there are not 5 million orphans in Ethiopia. That’s a UNICEF statistic, often used (though not by UNICEF) to justify international adoption. even the 670,000 figure does not mean that the child does not have a living, loving parent, or an extended family of some sort able to help raise the child.

Nonetheless, there are hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian children growing up in desperate straits. For a tiny percentage, international adoption may have been/may be appropriate and right. Here’s the math. Let’s say 670,000 children were potential candidates for adoption. Last year, 1567 children were adopted to the US. That’s 0.23% of the 670,000 children who are estimated to be orphans.

Yes. Twenty three hundredths of one percent.

What was the money involved in those adoptions? Let’s say $40,000 in adoption agency fees and adoption expenses, for 1,567 adoptions. That means $62,680,000. Roughly $63 million.

63 Million Dollars for the adoption of 1,567 Ethiopian children by US citizens. Last year alone.

That, to me, is a jaw-dropping amount of money.

The money went primarily to adoption agencies. Some went for fees and expenses in Ethiopia. The money did not go substantively to helping fewer children need adoption. It did not go, for one example, toward post-adoption resources and counseling for first parents.

That sum does not necessarily include money that was spent by adoptive parents for expenses in country, and thus into the Ethiopian economy: translators, drivers, guest houses, food, taxis, tour guides, souvenirs. I have no doubts that amount is in the millions as well.

And, of course, many of the families that adopted from Ethiopia applied for and received the US government-funded adoption tax credit: probably millions of dollars there also, given the 14,000 Ethiopian to US adoptions that have taken place since 1999. Many of the expenses above (travel, meals, hotels) were reimbursed by the US government to adoptive parents. (My views about the adoption tax credit are here.)

I am struggling greatly with the amount of money that is associated with Ethiopian adoption, and how it is used. It’s a hugely complex, emotional, and challenging topic. I will be writing a Part Two (maybe Three) soon, so please don’t think I’ve covered even a small part of this heartbreaking, complicated issue.

Here are a few thoughts, and each one needs far more discussion:

  • Surely we can do better to help children and families in need.
  • Adoption is supposed to find families for children, not children for families.
  • Huge cultural gaps exist between the western understanding of the permanence of adoption versus the Ethiopian understanding of the nature of adoption. By western, I mean the US, Canada, and western Europe, the main so-called “receiving” places of Ethiopian children. I don’t include Australia because they ended adoptions from Ethiopia in June 2013. You can read a recent article about that decision here.
  • International adoption is not the answer to poverty. Poverty in itself should not be a reason for adoption.
  • “Ending adoption” does not equate to “children in need will now have loving, safe families.”
  • “International adoption” does not equate to “trafficking,” except when it does, which has been much too often.
  • “International adoption” does not equate to “abuse/death of children,” except when it does, and one time is too many.
  • I recognize that it’s a lot more appealing (from a marketing and/or fundraising perspective) to adopt a child than to financially assist an Ethiopian family preservation organization.
  • Many adoptive families are involved in incredibly beneficial programs in Ethiopia that are preventing or have the potential to prevent children from needing adoption: clean water, literacy, schools, HIV meds, tuition for midwives, micro loans, and more. I doubt that many of these programs and the help they provide would exist if it were not for children having been adopted from Ethiopia.
  • Adult Ethiopian adoptees all around the world can (and I would argue, ought to) play a pivotal role in the determination of next steps in Ethiopian adoption policy. They can tell their stories in a most powerful way, about what they have lost and what they have gained.
  • Ethiopian first/birth families deserve to be heard, and have a place at the table in these and all discussions about Ethiopian adoption policy.

$63 million in 2013. What is possible in the (western) new year of 2014?

17 thoughts on “The Wrenching Complexity of Money in Ethiopian Adoption: Part One

  1. I know your focus is international adoption – but I can’t help but wonder if there aren’t family preservation services here in the US as well that could help in many cases of domestic infant adoption where poverty especially is the main reason for placement. Thanks for another insightful post.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment. There is a lot of commonality as to family preservation services wherever they are in the world. It gets complicated when the services are linked with adoption agencies and/or with orphanages as is the case in developing countries. Many women in the US place because of temporary difficult circumstances, which may not correlate to long-term, entrenched poverty.

      I have a lot of concerns with women placing babies right from the delivery room, for example. I think it’s problematic for many reasons–the woman should have substantive, meaningful time to make her decision not only before the baby is born but certainly after as well, and not when she’s undergone huge physical duress and has both raging hormones and medications inn her body. I don;t understand why pregnant women are given counseling before the bay is born and not after the baby is born–while she still has physical custody, not just after she has in fact and in full decided to place the child, and is then essentially receiving grief counseling.

      Arguably, here in the US we have services such as Medicaid, Planned Parenthood, food stamps, Section 8 vouchers, public education, public transportation, health insurance, clean water, health clinics, legal clinics–none of which is perfect, none of which is a panacea, none of which means we don’t have poverty here. We do. Still, those things are available here in the US, and often inherently assist with family preservation, if people know how to access them. Such services are not so easily and plentifully available in Ethiopia to alleviate poverty. Also, most children placed in US foster care are not there because of poverty so much as to neglect and/or abuse, the roots of which are often their parents’ addictions or incarcerations. Private placements of infants in the US are increasingly by women in their 20’s, mostly Caucasian, who’ve had some college, and who often go on to have some degree of an open adoption with the adoptive family. (I’m basing this on an upcoming survey by David Brodzinsky about birth mothers in the US.)

      There is so much to think about here, especially with regard to the economic imbalance between first/birth mothers and adoptive families. I’m going to keep thinking, and the conversation will continue.

  2. Someone above said it- how many of you have actually been to Ethiopia and spoken with Ethiopians working with displaced children and impoverished families? Although international adoption directly helps only a small number of children, it has an unusually large affect on increasing knowledge of Ethiopia. Numerous USA families who have adopted travel back to Ethiopia or engage in Ethiopian culture here, help extended family members, help orphanages where there is no money and no hope of adoption…and grow to love Ethiopia. Grown adopted children have started programs in Ethiopia. The “give-back” to the birth country has just begun. There are some very sad adoption gone wrong stories out there but they are the minority. Ethiopians who are working with impoverished kids and orphans know kids need families not institutions. By and large they support adoption into good families-no matter the nationality. There are no where near enough willing families right now for the children most in need. And I don’t know who is paying $40K in adoption fees – it was less than half that. Ethiopian Airlines go the lions share (a national airline). But of adoption expenses, more than 70% went directly to Ethiopia. 30% overhead is pretty standard for non-profits. I continue to spend money in Ethiopia every year. Someone needs to do more investigative reporting that tells the flip side of the story

    • I fully agree that children need families, not institutions. I also believe that we can do much better in preventing the reasons for children needing to be adopted. I mention in my post the very beneficial programs many adoptive families have begun in Ethiopia, which wouldn’t have happened had it not been for adoption. I have been involved with Ethiopia Reads for many years, for example. Most of the programs have the effect of preventing more children from needing adoption, through helping to alleviate poverty, disease, and lack of education. Adult adoptees, and other members of the diaspora plus Ethiopians in Ethiopia, are of course doing some effective, powerful work there as well.

      I’d love to see some quantitative study of adoptions “gone wrong.” I know so many families who have found out their children’s stories were very different than what they were told: living birth family members, parents who were duped/misled about the permanence of adoption, mothers who were promised that they would hear again about the children they had placed and never did, siblings in Ethiopia who want to know their adopted brothers and sisters, children who were explicitly trafficked. It will be interesting to see, as Ethiopian adoptees get older and search/reunite, how the numbers pan out.

      As to the $40k, a quick Google search showed me fees ranging from $20-40k, and they included different services. Amounts varied for home studies, agency fees, placement fees, travel (now that 2 trips are required), etc. Even if you go with $20k, which I think is low these days, that’s still $33 million spent for purposes of adopting 1567 children. I’d love to know your source for the 70/30 split. And I, like you, continue to contribute to Ethiopia each year. I do so through sponsorship of a child to go to school, through donations to Ethiopia Reads, through connections with birth family members. I challenge myself and others to do better to help vulnerable children and families in that beautiful, ancient country.

  3. “Adult Ethiopian adoptees all around the world can (and I would argue, ought to) play a pivotal role in the determination of next steps in Ethiopian adoption policy.”

    Yes, we need to hear from adoptees. It is also helpful to hear from other members of the affected community in diaspora around the world. Your recent post with direct quotes from a longtime US resident who is Ethiopian is an important step in that direction.

    Looking at reform broadly, we have to integrate the facts about immigration from placing countries into our ideas for how to fix adoption. For example: 1 in 10 Guatemalans alive today lives in the US. At one time, 1 in 100 babies born in Guatemala was adopted abroad. I don’t know the figures for Ethiopia, but a critical assessment of money transferred because of adoption also has to account for one question you didn’t include: What portion of overall remittances, aid, and/or international trade since 1999 does adoption represent?

    My opinion: It’s pretty well impossible to reform IA without listening to people in AND of the placing countries, because ‘we’ in the US with our good intentions may not understand the way the pipeline is filled, only that we want it closed.

    • Good points here, Alex. I don’t know what the portion would be. My daughters were adopted in 1994, along with about 50 other Ethiopian children. State Department figures show there have been a total of approximately 13,000 children adopted here since 1999. If we say each adoption cost $18k (lowball, I’d think), that’s $234 million. I agree with the next commenter below, that some of that could be considered “offset” by programs set up by adoptive parents and adoptees, programs that would not have happened were it not for adoption. I’d doubt it’s an even split, but would love to see research or analysis on this. It would also be interesting to see the numbers from other adopting places, such as Canada, western Europe, and Australia. As I mention in my post, lots more money has been funneled into the Ethiopian economy because of adoption via hotel/guest house stays, tourism, travel, translators, drivers, and so on. It’s not clear to me if that directly helps children in poverty, but it certainly helps with overall revenue into the country.

      I fully agree that the views of people in and of the placing countries are important in any reformation of IA. We in the US are not necessarily privy to Ethiopian government officials’ debates and discussions. I continue to encourage adult Ethiopian adoptees, Ethiopian first/birth families, and Ethiopians in and of Ethiopia to speak out. We need to hear all these voices.

  4. Wow, thank you for this blog. Truly. Many of us committed to adoption reform have been deeply concerned about Ethiopian adoptions and to see the ‘price tag’ written so clearly with good critical questions and observations is appreciated.

    • Hi Arun. Thank you for writing. I have a filter for multiple or lengthy comments.

      I wonder if you might revise the comment you submitted by making it briefer. I appreciate your understanding.

  5. I’d argue there’s never a time that international adoption’s appropriate. You cannot tell me there is not one single Ethiopian family that is incapable of taking in and raising a genuinely orphaned Ethiopian child.

    I’m sure there are people in Ireland discussing whether it’s ever appropriate to adopt an American child. You and I both know the answer to that one.

    • Hi Dana, with respect, have you visited Ethiopia before? How much do you know about the culture? I love the country so much and visit every single year and will still say that there are challenges to every genuinely orphaned child — especially those with some medical needs — being raised, especially with total love and acceptance akin to their own, by Ethiopian families. Not all, not most, but some.

    • Sadly, it’s not that simple. ‘Adoption’ as we in the US know it, the erasing of the child’s first family and replacement with the adoptive family, is a cultural construct that US power has projected around the world. I don’t know enough about Ethiopia to guess as to whether a family in Ethiopia that has the resources to raise a stranger’s child would also understand that child to be a full member of the family and treat him as an heir. But I know that I don’t know.

      If your argument is that the unlucky children born in countries where there is no child welfare system, and there is no tradition of wiping away inherited status and replacing it with status as a member of an adoptive family, just have to suck it up and be the poorest people (lacking even the poor person’s capital, family ties) in those societies…we both know that’s deeply oversimplified.

  6. Last but not least, there needs to be a deep and extensive international criminal investigation and those who have commited crimes need to be prosecuted. On both sides of the globe. Having had the honour to research in depths a number of cases, i can assure you, that all agencies are involved in crimial activity.- Just think.- in the best case scenario, agency “A” placed 100 children, out of which 99 Adoptions are totally clean. Only in 1 Adoption, either the child was stolen, Visa Fraud, or money laundering, or false information was furnised to the court or the adoption did take place without valid full informed consent.- So? now? Now what? Did this agency commit a crime? Yes- one wrongful adoption is enough. One time stealing in a super market makes you a criminal. One murder makes you a criminal. One crime…Can you tell me 1 Agency were you will vouch, that 100 out of 100 Adoptions from Ethiopia have been totally clean? I bet most agencies would close…and the good thing is they cannot move to the next vulnerable country.

  7. In 2014, people like you can choose to advocate for implementation of the UN Convention on the rights of the child and take the reform which was done in Romania by the European Commission forward. Such a policy, as implemented in Romania helps a lot of children to improve their situation. 63 Million, isn´t much money in terms of a states budget for child protection. So my wish for 2014 is that you may reconsider the opinion of the independant panel on family law experts.- See here from page 6:

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