Smear Campaign? No, There Are Other Reasons for Adoption Slowdown in Ethiopia.

Maybe Katie Jay Gordon, Esquire, is right. Maybe the US State Department is shutting down adoption in Ethiopia and then trying to cover it up. Maybe “State is responsible in large part for the dramatic slowing down of Ethiopian adoptions,” and “is responsible for the additional months or years that your child endured orphanage life while they (the State Department) were busy with their smear campaign against your family.”

Those quotes are from her recent blog post, US State Department Covers Up Smear Campaign Against Families Adopting From Ethiopia. I’m not an apologist for the State Department, but I do have a hard time understanding why and how State has covered up a smear campaign against families adopting from Ethiopia. We will have to wait to see the outcome of Katie’s lawsuit.

I certainly agree that there has been a significant slowdown in Ethiopian adoptions in recent years, and it’s not because there are fewer children who need families. I do not, though, think it’s only because the State Department is being uncooperative and smearing families–if they are actually doing that.

No, I’d argue there are many other reasons that adoptions have slowed down. The reasons are not as tidy as the State Department’s ostensible ploy. They are nonetheless very real.

Let’s start with the admittedly anecdotal. I know dozens of adoptive families, and they know dozens as well, who have adopted from Ethiopia, been told one story about their children’s history and reasons for adoptive placement, and who have subsequently found out the stories and the reasons were false. Dead parents are alive. Grandparents or siblings wanted to care for the children. A young mother was bullied into placing. Ethiopians were misled about what would happen after they placed their children.

Loads of examples of fraud and deception. Many have been uncovered when children were able to speak sufficient English, or when families did their own searches, or when adult adoptees returned and reunited. I also know many families who have been afraid to find out that their children might have been trafficked or kidnapped or otherwise fraudulently placed, and so have never opened that particular door.

Ethiopia, adoption agencies, and the US State Department are, I have no doubt, aware of many of these cases. They all follow Facebook and the Internet. They have no legal responsibility for the cases once the children’s adoptions are finalized. We can argue about the ethical responsibility. Nonetheless, I’d bet that the significant amount of fraud discovered after adoption is one reason for the slowdown, as well as for the increased searching, regulations, and hoops (PAIR, for example) these days, prior to adoption.

And that’s a good thing. Too many adoptive and first families have been devastated by fraud in adoption.

For more concrete examples of reasons for the slowdown, look to the news, which reaches Ethiopia as much as it does the US, Europe, Canada, and Australia.

Ethiopia itself announced a slowdown in 2011, for a number of reasons: concerns about fraud, insufficient staff, too many adoptions to process in a short period of time, intent to focus more on keeping children in-country, and more. They have yet to sign the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, and do not yet have the infrastructure that the treaty would require.

There have been several significant related developments in recent years.  One is the recent federal indictment of the adoption agency International Adoption Guides, including one staff person who has admitted guilt. The other 2 American staffers are due in court soon. The Ethiopian staff person remains in Ethiopia, and it’s unclear what will happen with him. The US Justice Department spent years building the case, which has a clear trail of bribery, corruption, and deceit. I’ve written about it several times, most recently here: Adoption Agency Director Pleads Guilty to Fraud, Bribery in Ethiopia.

Another example is the 2009 Australian Broadcasting System’s show Fly Away Children, which was the first major shadow over Ethiopian adoptions, suggesting that many children were being adopted under fraudulent conditions.

An important point here is that the adoption agency involved in that case, Christian World Adoption (CWA), was accredited for Hague Convention work by the Council on Accreditation. That is supposed to be a gold standard of reassurance for the State Department, adoptive families, and overseas governments regarding an adoption agency’s finances, staffing, programs, record-keeping, and so on. CWA was fully accredited–right up to the day in February 2013 when it suddenly closed its doors due to bankruptcy. Several other COA-accredited agencies have also closed, leaving families in the lurch as far as post-adoption services, annual reports, and access to information. These closings also suggest that the COA Hague accreditation is no guarantee of an adoption agency’s stability and longevity.

Another example in the news is the Slate article in November 2013 by Kathryn Joyce: Hana’s Story: An adoptee’s tragic fare, and how it could happen again. The article is about Hana Williams, the Ethiopian adoptee whose adoptive parents were found guilty of homicide. It is also about many other Ethiopian adoptees, young people now living on the fringes of American society, unable to return to Ethiopia but thrown out by their adoptive families. It’s a sobering read, and I’d be willing to guess Slate has readers in Ethiopia as well as in the US Justice and State Departments.

The case of Hana Williams, who died in 2011, has reverberated around the adoption community and the globe. Thankfully it is, one hopes, aberrational. Last December, the Ethiopian TV channel did an hour-long show about Hana and about other problematic adoptions; I have no doubts that the show affected the perception of adoption, and thus could have affected the slowdown.

Unfortunately, there is another tragic case of abuse and endangerment of Ethiopian adoptees right now in Pennsylvania. While again these cases are not common, they are horrifying for any of us to hear about, and would be dismissed only by the most callous hearts. There is a possibility that the adoptive parents could receive probation for the abuse and endangerment to which they have pled no contest. I’ve written about the case here.

It could also be that Ethiopia and the US State Department are paying more attention to recent reports regarding outcomes for first families, about whom an astonishingly, shamefully small amount of research is available. While their voices have been marginalized in the past, first families are slowly being heard, and their needs acknowledged. Some solid research is available here and here. Perhaps adoptions have slowed down so as to improve services to first families, before and after placement. I’d love to hear more from adoption agencies regarding this.

There is also increasing momentum in Ethiopia around orphan prevention and family preservation services. These are big, complicated, vitally important undertakings. Child sponsorship programs through Mommas With a Mission, the creation of new families from widows and orphans by Bring Love In, and the care of children in family settings in AIDS-ravaged communities by Selamta are only a few examples of successful programs that keep children from orphanages, or better, with their families. Add to that the work of AHope, which focuses on HIV+ orphans, and WEEMA, which empowers communities through clean water, education, health care, and economic development programs, and Roots Ethiopia, which supports community-identified solutions for job creation and education, and Ethiopia Reads, which build schools, libraries, and literacy across Ethiopia–add them up (and there are many more equally wonderful programs) and you can see how families can be preserved and strengthened, so that they don’t have to lose their children.

Many of the above and similar organizations are fueled by adoptive parents. If they had not adopted Ethiopian children, they may well not have established, fundraised, and sustained these organizations. It’s an unintended consequence, perhaps, of international adoption. It’s significant–it shows that many parents, while recognizing adoption as a means of bringing a beloved child to them, also know that the circumstances that brought their child to need adoption still exist, after the child is taken out of the country. Arguably, Ethiopia could continue to promote adoptions because of the substantial revenue it means to the country (fees, travel, translators, hotels, meals, guides, etc.), as well as the commitment by many adoptive parents to programs that help Ethiopians at little or no cost to the government. The revenue has certainly declined significantly. I am hopeful that the commitment of adoptive parents to their child’s country will continue regardless. Our goal as adoptive parents should be to build a world where children don’t need to be adopted, where they are born into and stay with loving, safe, healthy families.

I know all too well that there are children in great need right now: in need of families, clean water, access to health care, and basic education. I know what it’s like to be a waiting adoptive parent, desperate to bring an already loved if unknown child into the family. I also know what it’s like to look into the tear-filled eyes of a mother who has wrongly lost her child to adoption.

Time will tell if Ethiopia and the US State Department are making good and thoughtful decisions about adoption. They will, I hope, be able to answer not just to adoptive parents, but also to the adoptees and the first families about ethics, diligence, and integrity.








4 thoughts on “Smear Campaign? No, There Are Other Reasons for Adoption Slowdown in Ethiopia.

  1. Are you familiar with the adoptions of Masho and Roba? They were adopted from Ethiopia to Denmark and a documentary was made about their adoption.

    This documentary was actually one of the BEST documentaries I’ve ever seen on transracial/transnational adoption, showing the perspective of the original parents, the hopeful adoptive parents, AND the children, before and after the adoption. It has been shown in many countries but was barely shown in the US.

    If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend this documentary.

    If reunification is possible, it should be allowed, as should contact/continued experiences with the culture and country of birth, especially when the adoptee and the original family want reunification and continued contact with culture and country of birth. IMHO, no government or bureaucracy should prohibit contact with original family, culture, or country when both adoptee AND first parent(s) want continued contact. Unfortunately, some government agencies in some countries still take on a paternalistic role in these very personal relationships and inseparable bonds.

  2. Katie, can you find something else to do besides trash me in the comments sections of other people’s blogs? It gets awfully old. – Thanks Maureen again for your thoughtful post.

  3. I agree with every single word you’ve written — and it is flat-out terrifying that Katie Jay (who is an educated woman, with a graduate degree) looks at a TON of evidence, including 4 people indicted by the DOJ… and sees a conspiracy to smear adoptive parents (?!).

    Equally scary, is the fact that FAR too many adoptive parents literally cannot be saved from their own bad judgement — these would be folks like Mary of and Staci of, who encountered fraud first-hand during Ethiopian Adoption # 1 and didn’t let it stop them from completing that adoption… nor from going back for Ethiopian Adoption # 2 (!!).

    If first-hand fraud isn’t enough to dissuade college-educated women, who claim to care deeply about adoption ethics and have openly blogged about the steps they took to ensure their adoptions were ethical… well, I have no words for that. BOTH women started their Ethiopian adoption in or after 2010, ie after Fly Away Children & a ton of other evidence of systemic fraud in ET adoptions was readily available to anybody with internet access.

    To be fair, both women hired private investigators during the course of their #1 adoption and claim to have taken steps to ensure it didn’t happen again during adoption # 2.

    Both women now blog eloquently about the importance of family preservation on Ethiopia and have (admirably) kept on touch with their kids’ first families and have even returned to Ethiopia to visit the first families within the last year or so.

    Both women advise against adopting from Ethiopia and are up front about the mistakes they made — that is BRAVE, hard and the right thing to do.

    But, ultimately, it does NOT REMOTELY excuse the fact that both women did NOT actually care about ET adoption ethics UNTIL they acquired all the ET kids they wanted. They didn’t care about ethics enough to ALTER the behavior until AFTER their 2nd ET adoptions were complete. They couldn’t be saved from themselves. Ugh.

    • Have you been there? Sweating in the hotel room, grateful your child is asleep, wrestling with a much more complex question than you seem to acknowledge here? Because blaming APs for our failures to perform due diligence (which are real) doesn’t address the real problem: The system is performing to spec, given that it was designed and is regulated by US adoption agencies (the “experts” who wrote the Hague rules).

      Because I wanted to be accountable to my child, someday when she’s grown up, we recorded the conversation from the moment in which we faced the elephant, 14 years ago in Cambodia. So I know exactly what was going through my mind when we made the tough call: My child wasn’t going back to the family that sold her, whether I was too good to take her home or not.

      Pragmatically, by the time APs got the information that we were participating in fraud, from the local people whose livelihoods relied on that fraud, backing out meant only that someone else would have adopted that child. This is why the only solution to endemic child trafficking for adoption was to shut down, not slow down, the Cambodia program.

      There may be other tactics that can guarantee US families and first families around the world that we’re not participating in wrongful adoptions. But naming and shaming the APs who even recognize that there was moral ambiguity in what we did? You’re right. Saving people from their own bad judgment isn’t even possible.

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