AAI, Hana Williams’ Agency, Is Out of Business: Now What?

2014 has been a rough ride for international adoption agencies: Celebrate Children International was the subject of a 48 Hours investigation, and International Adoption Guides is under indictment. The so-called Children in Families First legislation is under siege and appears to be foundering. And now Adoption Advocates International is closing. What other signs are needed to convince agencies and agency-affiliates that they need to change the way they are doing business?

On March 7, Adoption Advocates International, the Washington state adoption agency used by Larry and Carri Williams to adopt Hana and Immanuel Williams, announced it was closing its Ethiopian adoption program. Today, March 12, it appears they are closing their doors completely.

An article about AAI’s closing was printed here, in today’s Peninsula Daily News.

Many people are happy that AAI is closing, given AAI’s role in the placement of Hana Alemu and Immanuel Williams. As always in complex situations, though, there are other elements to consider. Many families in the process of adopting through AAI, not just from Ethiopia but from Burkina Faso, China, and perhaps elsewhere, are now in a difficult emotional and financial position. AAI has placed some 4500 adoptees over the last 3 decades whose records must be (I hope) kept available for them, somewhere. There are now children who will not be adopted, who perhaps legitimately needed new, safe, loving families. There are first/original parents, always the most marginalized in adoption, who may not be able to access information about their children.

Interestingly, AAI is a Hague-accredited agency, certified by the Council on Accreditation through April 2016. That COA accreditation is intended to be a high standard that signifies an agency is in excellent financial and programmatic health.

Christian World Adoptions, a South Carolina adoption agency, suddenly closed its doors and declared bankruptcy early in 2013. It was also a COA/Hague certified agency, right to the end. It startles me that 2 COA-accredited agencies within about a year can suddenly just close. What went horribly wrong in their financial status that COA totally missed?

According to the COA website:

Hague management standards apply to all adoption service providers regardless of the type of provider or services provided. These management standards promote accountability and include:

  • Licensing and Corporate Governance
  • Financial and Risk Management
  • Ethical Practices and Responsibilities
  • Professional Qualifications and Training of Employees
  • Information Disclosure, Fee Practices, and Quality Control
  • Responding to Complaints and Records and Reports Management
  • Service Planning and Delivery

When 2 COA-accredited international adoption agencies abruptly close within about one year of each other, many questions are raised about COA accreditation. Certainly it casts a shadow on the strength and value of the accreditation process for other currently accredited adoption agencies.

According to page 36 of COA’s 92 page Policies and Procedures Manual-Hague, when an agency closes, it has to provide to COA the following: a listing of all Hague adoption service(s), the closing date, detailed description of reasons for the decision, and the transition and referral plan for consumers.

In this case, I am guessing that “consumers” are the prospective adoptive parents: the paying customers. I’d like to think that COA would also demand information about the plans and needs of all the children (some of who are surely adults now) who were adopted through AAI, and even of the first/original parents.

Ethiopian adoptions have been problematic for a while, for many reasons: increased awareness of fraud and corruption, implementation of new procedures, increased costs due to labor/time of ensuring the accuracy about why children become available for adoption, and more. There have been far fewer adoptions from Ethiopia in recent years, and there is increasingly great concern in Ethiopia about the outcomes of adopted children. The majority, of course, do fine, but the reality of Hana and Immanuel weighs heavily on many minds around the globe.That’s true for other Ethiopian adoptees. Kathryn Joyce’s Slate article, Hana Williams: The Tragic Death of an Ethiopian Adoptee, And How It Could Happen Again, describes other placements by AAI, and how these Ethiopian adoptees are greatly struggling.

The recent death of Korean adoptee Hyunsu O’Callaghan surely makes all of us–adoption agencies, adoptees, adoptive parents, first/original parents–pause and reflect with sorrow as well. What now?

Indeed, it’s hard to cheer about AAI’s closing. So many doors are still left open for vulnerable families and children around the world.

This could be an incredible opportunity for adoption agencies and adoption agency-related organizations (Joint Council on international Children’s Services, National Council For Adoption, Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, for example) to reach out to those who’ve been too often excluded from adoption policy discussions: adult adoptees (yes, including those whom agencies have written off as angry and rude), international first/original parents (to whom adoption agencies have a deep, ethical obligation), and even adoptive parents who disagree with them. We all want children to be in safe, loving homes. We all agree that if adoption is a viable option, it must be transparent, and all involved must be held accountable. Some are happy to see adoption agencies close, and most of us also know that the closures don’t mean that vulnerable children are now safe and cared for.

It’s time to have some really hard conversations, and not simply because adoption agencies are closing. It’s because all voices are needed if we are going to see viable, positive change in adoption policy. Pay attention, adoption agencies and coalitions: the changes are happening now, due to the adopted adults and first parents who are stepping up, speaking out, and creating overdue change. 

My Thoughts on “The Perilous Journey”

The CBS show “48 Hours” last night focused on a small Florida adoption agency, Celebrate Children International (CCI), and two adoptions that the agency handled (mishandled) in Guatemala and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Click on Perilous Journey to watch the show. (I’m not sure the link will work outside the US.)

There is so much I could say about The Perilous Journey. I’m going to make a few points, and hope that discussions will continue.

CCI, the Hague Convention, and the Universal Accreditation Act

CCI, the agency under the spotlight on “48 Hours” will likely be out of business soon, though not because of this show. In July 2014, all US adoption agencies must comply with the Universal Accreditation Act, in order to facilitate international adoptions. 

There is a global treaty called The Hague Convention on International Adoptions. The US signed (in 1994)  and ratified it (in 2007). The intent is to protect the rights and responsibilities of everyone involved in an adoption: birth/first parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees. The Convention is not without its critics.

To work in countries that have ratified the Hague Convention (such as China), adoption agencies have to become “Hague-accredited,” or approved,  a lengthy process overseen here in the US by the Council on Accreditation. Not all agencies have chosen to become accredited. Non-accredited agencies could still work in countries that had not ratified the Hague Convention.

The UAA requires them to become accredited or approved, whether they work in countries that have signed/ratified the Hague Convention or not. Ethiopia, for example, has neither signed nor ratified the Hague Convention; the Republic of Korea has signed but not ratified. You can see a list of current Hague Convention countries here.

Before the UAA, agencies like CCI which were not accredited under the Hague Convention could work in countries that had not ratified the Hague Convention. That would include Ethiopia, Congo, and Nepal, for example. Once the UAA is implemented, all agencies must be accredited or approved under the Hague Convention no matter what countries they are placing children from.

Right now, CCI can work in Congo and Ethiopia, as shown in the “48 Hours” show, but not in China. CCI was denied Hague accreditation in 2008 and in 2012. See the list of agencies (including CCI) denied Hague accreditation here. I cannot imagine that CCI will receive approval under the Universal Accreditation Act.

The UAA is a big deal, with huge ramifications for the future of intercountry adoption. Will it solve all problems? No. Will there be fewer adoption agencies working in international adoption? Yes. Will fewer children be adopted internationally? Yes, at least initially.

Will hundreds of thousands of children around the globe still be in need of safe and loving families? Yes.

Will the damage already done by fraud and corruption in international adoption be changed by the new law? Not at all. Whether the fraud and corruption was done by the adoption agency, by the agency’s staff in-country, by the original family, by child traffickers in the shadows, by the adoptive family: it is damage that can perhaps be mitigated but not erased.

I am no lawyer, and my discussion above barely skims the surface of international adoption complexity. Anyone looking to adopt needs to be aware of the UAA, and talk with their adoption agency about it. The US State Department’s information about the UAA is available here.

Here is an Orlando Sentinel article about CCI.

Additional Thoughts on The Perilous Journey

The fact that “48 Hours” focused an investigation on one agency is due to the approach of “48 Hours,” not because only one adoption agency is problematic. The complex problems remain, and many do not have the drama, thumping music, and races to the airport of last night’s show.

May we keep our eyes, minds, and hearts open to improving the international adoption process.

Watching the little girls traveling from Congo to Kentucky, thinking about the fact that their world has changed in astonishing ways, I was reminded of my twin daughters’ arrival from Ethiopia to Maryland in 1994, at 6 years old. We (their adoptive parents and brothers) had waited so long, planned so much, and had so many frustrating ups and downs along the process.

Over time, it dawned on me what the journey meant to them: trauma. One day you are a small child in a familiar world. The next day you are a small child in a different galaxy, where people look totally different, want to hug you lots, don’t speak your language, and have an abundance of material wealth (toys, clean bed linens, space, food, so much of everything). I am in awe of what we expected from the girls, and of their resilience. We’ve dealt with joy, love, grief, denial, loss, laughter, sorrow, and healing, all of us, and we continue to do so.

May the reality of a child’s trauma in moving from one country to another–even as it may be “better” for the child–not be minimized. May we adoptive parents in our joy not lose track of what our children have left behind, both bad and good.

No adult adoptee voice was featured in this show, with the exception of the reporter Maureen Maher, a US adoptee.

May the voices of adult international adoptees  and first/original families be fully included in conversations (including TV and radio shows) about international adoption.

I smiled seeing Mrs. Owen using her flat-iron on her hair as she commented on the adoption process. She will now be caring for two daughters whose hair is different from hers. Hair and skin care is not a trivial subject in transracial and international adoption. It is a complex, emotional issue of beauty, identity, and culture.

May we all look to understand what beauty means and involves, outside of our own perspective.

Shows like “48 Hours” evoke a lot of emotional responses, and exist forever on-line and in people’s minds. I always wonder about the privacy of the children. They deserve a voice, especially in cases of fraud, corruption, and trafficking. They also deserve privacy and respect. I acknowledge that I am playing a part in spreading these children’s stories by my post here. I am always seeking balance, and it’s not easy.

May we find a proper balance between meeting children’s needs and exploiting them. May we take seriously the information we share, and recognize the ramifications.

Seeing Fernanda with her mother and siblings, seeing Betsy Emanuel’s conflicting emotions–that was hugely powerful on last night’s show. So much to think about.

There are no quick fixes in international adoption, no magic wands. The economic imbalances between adoptive parents and original parents loom so large to me.

May we keep working together, even as we hear and see what we wish would go away. May all children have safe and loving families.

My July 2013 post “Reflections on Hana: Acknowledging the Failure of the Adoption Community,” may be of interest.

May all of us involved in the adoption community take responsibility, and work together, to help vulnerable children (who grow up!) and families in respectful, ethical, transparent ways.