3 Ethiopian Adoptions Annulled: A Wake Up Call

Adoption is forever. Except when it’s not. Three young adoptees have had their adoptions overturned in Ethiopia.

In 2013, the case of Betty Demoze in Holland was “the first time a foreign adoption has been revoked in Ethiopia’s long history of overseas adoption.” Two weeks ago, according to Danish news reports and ACT (Against Child Trafficking), Ethiopian courts annulled two more adoptions of Ethiopian children, both adopted to Denmark.

We hear a lot in the U.S. about birth parents contesting adoptions, and children being returned (or not) to their birth families. My understanding is that this is far more rare in international adoptions. Still, I am struck by the fact that the Ethiopian courts have agreed to annul three adoptions.

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Ethiopian child 2014. © Maureen McCauley Evans

According to news reports, Betty, the young woman adopted at age seven to Holland, was abused by her adoptive family. She returned to Ethiopia at 14 with her foster mother, and reunited with her Ethiopian parents. According to a VOA article, “The documents in Betty’s adoption file were falsified and were full of errors. They gave the wrong age, and wrongly stated that Betty’s parents had died. After a failed criminal case two years ago against those involved with providing the papers, the 14-year-old started a civil case.”

It took about three years for the case to move through the system. In 2013, the Ethiopian court “cancelled” Betty’s adoption in 2013. She is now almost 18.

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Betty Lub Demoze and her Ethiopian mother after her adoption was annulled in Ethiopia, 2013. Source: politiken.dk

In the Denmark cases, one of the children is well-known to many in the adoption community: the little girl Masho in the wrenching 2012 documentary “Mercy, Mercy.” At four years old, Masho was adopted to Denmark in 2008, and was eventually placed in a state institution due to behavioral problems. Her Ethiopian parents had been diagnosed with HIV, and then got better with medical treatment. They say (and many people involved with the Ethiopian adoption community have heard this often) that they were promised contact with and information about their daughter, but that never happened. She is now 12 years old.

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Still photo from documentary Mercy, Mercy

According to ACT, which has been heavily involved in the cases, authorities from the Ethiopian Ministry of Women, Children, and Youth Affairs, which handles adoptions, visited Denmark in January 2016, seeking information about Masho and about other adopted Ethiopian children, including Amy Steen, now 15 years old. Amy was nine when she was adopted from Ethiopia, where her mother had been diagnosed with HIV. Amy ended up in foster care in Denmark. Her Ethiopian mother also had been promised information about her daughter, and she never received it.

On April 7, 2016, the Ethiopian courts agreed to annul the adoptions of both Masho and Amy.

Arun Dohle of ACT has helped me understand this better with this insight: “The adoptions were all revoked due to one simple reason. The adoptive parents treated the children ‘detrimental to their future.'”

As I (a non-lawyer) understand this, Denmark and Holland can consider whether to overturn the adoptions as well. It’s a complicated legal situation, with different international laws. “It will be up to a Danish court to see what consequences the Ethiopian ruling will have in Denmark, explains Claus Juul, who is Legal Adviser at Amnesty International Denmark,” a translated quote from the Danish press.

To sum up:

  • It is possible for an adoptee to file a civil case to overturn his or her adoption from Ethiopia.
  • There are now three cases as precedents for annulling Ethiopian adoptions.
  • Ethiopian parents have successfully used legal measures to overturn the international adoption of their children.

Many questions come to mind. What could have been done to prevent these adoptions from needing to be annulled?

What if Ethiopian families had access to and means of affording top-notch legal services? Their poverty, often the reason for the placement of their children, also prevents them from obtaining legal justice. I’ve written often about the inequity in post-adoption services provided by agencies to adoptive parents versus birth/first parents. Adoptive parents have often found fraud in the adoption process; they post about it on blogs and Facebook groups. Sometimes the Ethiopian parents learn about it as well, especially when there are reunions. Fraud, as Arun Dohle rightly reminds me, is not in itself a reason for the adoptions to be overturned.

Will more Ethiopian parents seek to annul the adoptions?

Will more adoptees seek to overturn their adoptions in Ethiopia? These cases so far are European, and involve minors, adopted at four, seven, and nine years old. Does the age at which children were adopted make a difference, since they may well have memories of family members, though they lack the language to convey their facts?

What happens when one country annuls the adoption but the other one does not?

Will adult adoptees seek to annul adoptions? I don’t know if that’s possible, and I would guess that different countries have different rules. Will adult adoptees sue their adoption agencies or their governments for reasons such as fraudulent adoption, placement with abusers, or failure to keep agreements with birth parents regarding contact and information?

In March, Denmark announced that it was ending adoptions from Ethiopia. Sweden will be ending them soon as well. In 2011, Ethiopia itself substantially cut back the numbers to the U.S. and elsewhere. I wrote recently about positive actions to the decline in numbers of children being internationally adopted: there are still so many children who need help. In my next post on the subject of adoption annulments, I will offer some responses to this serious wake up call.

7 thoughts on “3 Ethiopian Adoptions Annulled: A Wake Up Call

  1. Pingback: The Beginning of the End of Global International Adoption? | Light of Day Stories

  2. It’s so pain full to me and I can imagine the psychological trauma suffered by Masho from the first day she was taken away, really it cannot be measured. I hope God will guide her way in life.

  3. For the past 2+ years I’ve been trying to annul my adoption (US/domestic) through the courts, so far without success. I firmly believe this is an option that should be available to EVERY adoptee upon the age of majority, regardless of circumstance.

  4. My thoughts immediately go to the homeless Ethiopian adoptees in Seattle, cast out by their “forever families,” to Hanah and others who have died and suffered at the hands of their American adopters. How many of them were imported to the U.S. under similar fraudulent methods? How many were not truly “orphans” and actually have families in Ethiopia wondering about and longing for news of their well-being? As they grow up and regain their autonomy and voices, I suspect my questions will be answered.

    • Indeed.

      Washington state is working on its efforts to protect adopted and fostered children in cases of abuse, but, like many states, has a long way to go. Certainly the countries of origin are increasingly, and rightly, demanding accountability in the children’s treatment. I would guess that more open adoptions will be the model for the future, though I know that’s not a streamlined, mutually enforceable method. Transparency and integrity have to be the mantra in child welfare work, for everyone.

      Thank you for commenting.

  5. I have been following that story and have been so happy to see the steps the Ethiopian government has been willing to take. Hopefully more justice for more children will come. As you mentioned, what could have been done to prevent this from being necessary in the first place? Thanks for another thought-provoking, timely post!

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