Sentencing Hearings on IAG’s Fraud, Bribery (Finally) Held Today

Update: On October 20, 2016, I spoke with a clerk in Judge David Norton’s office who said that sentencing would not occur for at least another month. The clerk said that was because a different judge had originally heard the case. That judge has passed away, and Judge Norton “inherited” the case and apparently needs more time to decide on sentencing. The three defendants pled guilty about two years ago. The sentencing hearing was held August 29. The clerk said it is unusual for sentencing to take so long, but it was due to the previous judge’s death and a new judge in charge of the case. I am so sorry for all the families caught up in this. No such thing as closure.

 

More than two years after the staff of International Adoption Group (IAG) were indicted for fraud and bribery by the U.S.Justice Department, the three defendants finally faced a judge today for their sentencing hearing. Mary Mooney, James Harding, and Alisa Bivens, all of whom had pled guilty, appeared in court today before District Court Judge David Norton in Charleston, South Carolina. Judge Norton could make a decision on sentencing within the week, though the exact time frame is unclear.

Camille Smicz and her family are among the victims of IAG. Camille was present in the courtroom today, and provided a victim impact statement. Camille’s voice spoke for the many families, in the U.S. and in Ethiopia, harmed by the criminal actions of IAG.

Today, according to Camille, the judge mentioned his concerns with the delays in this case, including Mary Mooney’s effort to change her plea from guilty to not guilty, (That attempt was denied.) Minimum sentencing could be probation. Maximum sentencing would be five years in a federal prison. Once sentenced, the defendants have 14 days to appeal the decision.

The prosecution in this case called a forensic financial analyst as a witness, who spoke about the finances of the victims due to IAG’s actions. The prosecution is asking for restitution for some of the families. It is unclear how or whether that will happen.

Camille noted that Alisa Bivens had been a youth pastor at a church up until last month,  and recruited 26 people from her church who wrote letters on her behalf. There was at least one person from the church who plans to report back to the congregation regarding the sentencing hearing.

While it has taken an inordinately long time to reach this point, the case seems to finally be moving toward a sort of closure. I know families are exhausted from the emotional toll this has taken. The extent of the corruption, fraud, and bribery done in the name of helping children is unconscionable.

My thanks to Camille Smicz for sharing this information, and for speaking out for the victims. I urge you to read Camille’s victim impact statement.

As soon as I hear the judge’s decision, I will post again.

Birthdays and Adoptees: Finding Power in Both

My sons were adopted as babies; my twin daughters at six years old. When they were little, we had the mad abundance of birthday parties, at the pool, the soccer field, the grandparents’ front yard. The parties were full of presents, friends, family, ice cream, and cake.

Who was missing at these birthday celebrations? The women who gave birth to the children. The people (fathers, siblings, grandparents) who are biologically related to them.

I can’t help but wonder what those birth days were like for those family members.

Birthday parties evolve over time. Some adoptees have a rough time on their birthdays. In our family, we have all grown in our understanding of how a child’s beginnings can affect the child, and how powerful memories can be. We have seen how longing for what is not conscious can be quite deep. We have lived watching the ways that trust can be broken and losses felt, and how hard it is to heal that broken trust. My children’s birthdays are still celebrated, of course: they can count on receiving socks every year. And other stuff too. But they are in their late 20’s now. Still very young, but hardly children–except in the sense that they are always my children.

They are also the children–always–of their first families. Each child has had a different approach to connecting with their family of birth, and those stories are theirs alone to tell.

Today is the 27th birthday of my twin daughters, Adanech and Aselefech, adopted from Ethiopia in 1994. Aselefech has been actively involved with the adoptee community. She wrote a wonderful post today at Lost Daughters, a writing collective of women adopted in the US or internationally as children. In it, she celebrates her connections with other Ethiopian adoptees whose hearts are in the country of their birth, their mother land, their home country. These young people, part of the diaspora, are actively working to help their younger selves in Ethiopia: children who witness their mothers die, children who are deeply loved but whose families are horrifically impoverished, children who beg on the streets, children who are unable to walk or to see, children who never go to school.

Happy Birth Day. May all children know safety, love, education, and hope. May these adoptees bring light and healing to each other and to the children. May all the voices be heard.

My daughters, my granddaughter, and me. © Maureen McCauley Evans

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Going Back, Giving Back: An Ethiopian Adoptee Runs For Ethiopian Orphans

My daughter Aselefech–an Ethiopian adoptee, part of the African diaspora, a mother herself–will be running a half-marathon in Ethiopia this August. And head’s up–she is doing so to give back to her country, by raising funds for an organization that is dedicated to family preservation, finding families in Ethiopia for Ethiopian orphans.

How beautiful and wonderful is that?

Aselefech and her twin sister, adopted at 6 years old, now 25 years old, have reconnected with their first family in Ethiopia. Aselefech wrote about her journey here: Far Away, Always in My Heart.

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One of their older Ethiopian brothers now lives in Seattle; the siblings have gotten to know each other well, again.

Aselefech with her brother (reunited in 2009) and her daughter. Photo: December 2012

Aselefech with her brother (reunited in 2009) and her daughter. Photo: December 2012

Aselefech is finishing up her undergraduate degree, and moving toward a master’s in social work. She writes honestly and powerfully as a columnist for Gazillion Voices, sharing her experiences with racism, with grief, with love, with loss. She’s done webinars, YouTube videos, conference workshops, and adoptee seminars, talking about the joys and the challenges of being adopted, internationally and transracially.

And now she will return to Ethiopia for the third time. Her daughter and I will be there too. We will visit with her Ethiopian family. My granddaughter will meet her Ethiopian grandmother, and play with her cousins there. Aselefech will run 13 miles with Ethiopians and others in her home country, to raise funds (via Crowdrise; please stay tuned) for Ethiopian family preservation.

Konjo. Beautiful. From sorrow and loss, we can find joy and hope.