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.








Heading for Ethiopia: Family, Half-Marathon, and First Mothers Project

Tomorrow morning, my daughter Aselefech, granddaughter Zariyah, and I will leave for Ethiopia. We will spend time with Aselefech’s family, with whom she reunited in 2008 (having been adopted in 1994), and with whom she and I last visited in 2011. It will be my granddaughter’s first trip to Ethiopia, where she will meet her extended Ethiopian family–grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins. Zariyah will see where her mother was born and spent the first five years of her life, and where Aselefech would have grown up, if she hadn’t been adopted.

I know there have been many reunions and ongoing connections between Ethiopian adoptees and their original families. I wonder, though, how many children of adoptees have been able to meet their Ethiopian relatives.

It’s all about family, and how we define it.

Our time with Aselefech’s family is certainly a huge highlight for all of us. Another exciting part of our time there will be Aselefech’s Ethiotrail half marathon via Run In Africa, a business co-founded by renowned Ethiopian long distance runner Gebregziabher Gebremariam, who among other accomplishments won the New York City marathon in 2010.

Aselefech is running the half marathon to raise funds for Bring Love In, a nonprofit in Ethiopia dedicated to family preservation, by creating new families from widows and children and by keeping children out of orphanages and with their families. She set a goal of US$5000, and has exceeded that goal; all the money (except for a small percentage to CrowdRise) goes directly to Bring Love In. We are so grateful to everyone who has supported her and contributed to her campaign. More information is available here.

We will also be spending time in the capital city of Addis Ababa, visiting with friends and family, and doing some sightseeing of beautiful Ethiopia.

I also hope to begin work on my First Mothers project, to preserve and share the stories of Ethiopian original mothers, those who have placed their children for international adoption.

I’ll be posting occasionally during the trip, and no doubt quite a lot when we return.

Many thanks to everyone who has been with us on this journey, offering words of support and encouragement, sharing ideas and possibilities, and being vital, vibrant resources. Thank you (in Amharic): Amaseganallo.







Invisible, Silent Birth Parents: What Do We Know of Their Grief?

Imagine if you heard that the child of a friend of yours had died. Maybe a baby was stillborn, a toddler had a terrible disease, a child was struck by a car. The parents would be devastated. There would be religious services, perhaps. There would be outpourings of sympathy. The parents would likely receive counseling and therapy, join support groups, and take much time to recover and heal.

Do we think the grief and despair are different for impoverished parents who place their children for international adoption? After handing over their child or children, oftentimes never to see them again, what happens? What support and counseling do they receive? The answer, for most, is none.

According to a master’s thesis from a student at Addis Ababa University, some 80% of Ethiopian birth parents suffered with moderate or severe depression after placing their children. Before placing their children, 5% reported receiving counseling about their decision.

After placement, what percentage received counseling services?


That, to me, is unconscionable.

The Ethiopian birth parents cited in this thesis dealt with their grief and loss mostly through prayer and through talking with friends. Both of those responses are appropriate and can be helpful, no doubt. But, really, is that the best we can do for them? Leave them alone and isolated in their grief after forever losing a child?

Most of the Ethiopian birth families in the thesis research placed their children because of poverty. They reported average monthly incomes of below 200 Ethiopian birr, or about $20. Their children were not orphans. Unlike parents who have tragically lost their children to death, these parents chose to place their children for adoption, and to potentially lose them forever. But is horrific poverty really equivalent to having a choice?

One birth mother said:

I had no regular income at the time of relinquishment. I was a daily laborer. Starting at the last month of my pregnancy, I couldn’t continue to work as a daily laborer, and it was very difficult to get an employer who can tolerate a pregnant or nursing woman to do his/her work.  No one was willing to employ me. My only choice was to give the child for  orphanage or adoption both for the sake of the child and for my survival. However, deciding on relinquishment was not a simple matter. It was so painful.

Most of the birth parents discussed in the thesis were between the ages of 16 and 37;  31 were birth mothers and 11 were birth fathers. About 32% were married; the others were unmarried (40%), widowed (12%), or divorced (16%). All too often, birth fathers are not fully considered in adoption policy discussions. In this research, the average depression of male respondents was greater than that of female respondents.

A friend of mine is an adoptive parent of 2 young Ethiopian children, and is in contact with her children’s Ethiopian families. She shared this with me.

…our first visit with family at the orphanage post-adoption in 2010 was eye-opening because that’s when I first heard from the orphanage directors about first families desperate for news for their kids. And then when I followed up with an acquaintance that was an ex-agency employee, he said that he was contacted a lot by grieving first mothers. He said one repeatedly called him in the middle of the night crying and begging for information on her child. Good God. That’s even hard to type.

The first parents hope and cry for information. But all too often their voices are not heard. I doubt this reality is unique to Ethiopian first families. I am sure it resonates for Chinese, Guatemalan, Korean, Russian, and other birth parents as well.

How do the adoption agencies who placed the children  provide post-adoption services to international birth families?

Most agencies offer some sort of post-adoption resources in the US for adoptive families, though there is a great need for more. Therapists have practices that include adopted children and families. There are attachment centers, behavioral coaches, medications, and many other resources available, especially if the families have insurance and funds for them.

Where do post-adoption services for international birth families fall on the spectrum of priorities for adoption agencies? Are post-adopt services even on the list?

I don’t take adoptive parents off the hook here, either, including myself, though I recognize that follow-up with Ethiopian first families can be complicated for many reasons.

It’s just too easy, though, to close our eyes, ears, and hearts; to want to think positive thoughts about birth parents who made a loving decision; and to not want to think that our joys are built on someone else’s deep sorrow and abject poverty.

I’m convinced we can and must do better for birth families. We need to let go of fears.The possibilities include having hard conversations about loss and grief, taking deep breaths and thoughtful actions, and demanding transparency and equity in adoption.

My next post will include some concrete ideas about how we might do this.

(A note about the research on Ethiopian original families: there needs to be lots more. The thesis I cite in this post is available on Amazon for around $40, which to my mind is a lot of money for a 42 page slim book. I have not been able to find the thesis on-line. I have written before about 2 other master’s theses (available on-line) that provide research about birth parents. One is Research on Ethiopian Birth Families: A Must-Read. The other is Ethiopian Birth Mothers After Relinquishment: MSW Research from Addis Ababa University.)



Running to Keep Ethiopian Families Together

On August 17, exactly 3 months from today, my daughter Aselefech, adopted at 6 years old from Ethiopia, will run a half-marathon near where she was born. She is doing this to raise money so more children in Ethiopia will have safe, loving families.

Please join her on this journey. You can donate or join her team by clicking here. All donations are tax-deductible, and the money goes directly to the charity she has chosen: Bring Love In, an organization in Ethiopia that unites widows and orphans to create new families, and prevents children from going into orphanages.

Zariyah and I will be with Aselefech in Ethiopia to cheer her on; we are hoping that members of her Ethiopian family will be there too! The half-marathon is sponsored by Ethiotrails, and will take place at the Abijatta-Shalla Lakes National Park, in the Rift Valley.


Our family was created through adoption. My children are my joy, and I love them more than I can ever say. I believe in adoption, and want all children to have safe, loving families.

I also believe that, whenever possible, children should stay with their families, and in their home country. Bring Love In helps children who have lost their parents to AIDS or other causes to have families again, and they help widows to love and care for children who need moms. The children can keep their language, culture, and heritage, and grow up safe and strong. Families are created and preserved in a powerful way, breaking a cycle of poverty and providing hope and possibility.

Family is a big deal, and is created through ties of blood, adoption, and love.


Please support Aselefech in her efforts to keep families together, to create new families from widows and orphans, so that all children might grow up safe and loved. Many thanks!


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.


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.

Research on Ethiopian Birth Families: A Must-Read

As an adoptive parent, I feel very strongly that the voices of birth parents need to be heard and listened to, in our own families as well as in adoption legislation and policy.

A few salient quotes from an academic research report, Birth Families and Intercountry Adoption in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia:

“70% of adopted children have a surviving birth parent in Ethiopia, making it painstakingly clear that most of these parents are not offered other types of assistance…

The conceptualization behind intercountry adoption obscures focus on the most inexpensive and highest quality option–enabling a child to remain with his/her living birthparent and assisting that birthparent to make a local plan for after his/her death…

Some of the most impoverished communities in Africa have proven capable of caring for orphans and vulnerable children, even in the context of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, when nurtured by programs that identify and seek to repair the holes in the safety net…”

These excerpts are from a 2010 thesis written by (US citizen) Sarah Brittingham for her M.A. in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.



Despite their obvious and vulnerable role in international adoption, birth/original/first parents have received too little attention in terms of academic work, and certainly in terms of post-placement services. This thesis sheds additional light, along with the MSW work of  Kalkidan Alelign. You can read Ms. Alelign’s important thesis in my post, Ethiopian Birth Mothers After Relinquishment: MSW Research from Addis Ababa University.

Sarah Brittingham’s research has an extensive amount of references, including research on Marshall Islands’ adoptions that is remarkably relevant to Ethiopia: “If I Give You My Child, Aren’t We Family? A Study of Birth Mothers Participating in Marshall Islands–US Adoptions.” Brittingham’s research echoes that of the Marshall Islands, in that “Few (Ethiopian) participants showed an understanding of intercountry adoption as complete severance of ties with their children. Instead, adoption seems to represent ‘a link between two families creating a relation of kinship for support and expanded rights.'”

That notion of “a link between two families” is challenging to define, as it is a form of open international adoption. I believe that will be the model for the future of inter country adoption, a model that relinquishes fear and falsehoods. If adoptions are to continue, they must be ethical, transparent, and fair.

Here is a quote from an Ethiopian birth mother, comparing her experience to that of a close friend’s:

We both gave our children through the same agency, but I don’t hear about my children. When I went to the agency to demand information, they told me contact is based on the adoptive parents’ willingness and personality. Some want a picture, calls, etc., and some don’t, and they can’t do anything about it. It is up to the adoptive parents. But I think that if it is the same agency and the same law, it should apply to all parents…

I would love to hear the insights of adoption agencies on this, on what the agreements or inferences were and are regarding post-placement contact. My sense, based on anecdotes, is that increasing numbers of adoptive parents are reaching out and contacting Ethiopian birth families on their own, but I have no hard research on that.

I do feel certain that enormous confusion exists over what information the birth families were promised, following the placement of their children. There is great hope, even expectation, among many Ethiopian birth families that their children will go back to Ethiopia, and contribute to the country, and perhaps to the birth family as well.

One participant in the Brittingham thesis says “I wish for God to give me a long life so that I will be able to see (my children).” An adoptee “believed that intercountry adoption was the best way to help her mother, stating, ‘it’s better we go outside, and when we have something of our own, we will help you.’ ”

We–adoptive parents, adoption agencies, and adoption policymakers–need to hear these voices of Ethiopian original parents and of adopted persons.

We need to insist on additional research on intercountry adoption outcomes, especially as related to birth families.

We need to insist on improved, equitable services for all involved.

Many thanks to those who are researching these issues.

May those who are proposing new laws, policies, and funding genuinely hear the voices and the needs of marginalized first families.





Ethiopian Adoption Connection, and an Update on the First Families Project

Great news: a website is up and running that allows Ethiopian birth families and the adoptive families of Ethiopian children, and the adoptees themselves, to connect with each other. It is called Ethiopian Adoption Connection; click here to access it.



This exciting new resource was developed by Andrea, a US adoptive mom of Ethiopian children, and US birth/first mother Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy, who writes the highly regarded blog, Musings of the Lame.

Andrea and Claudia have combined their considerable skills, time, and energy to create this wonderful site that allows both Ethiopian birth families and adoptive families to enter data and connect with each other. The site also has information about searchers, about online groups, and about other resources. It is in English and Amharic, and they hope to have other Ethiopian languages as well.

This project is a courageous, powerful labor of love. It meets a desperate need. Please use and share this site; please contribute to its support, if you can.

This site is a sign of positive possibilities in the adoption community, which is complex and tangled in many ways now.

Is there more to do in terms to share information between Ethiopian families and adoptive families? Sure. Ethiopian Adoption Connection has begun blazing a vital path.

In a December 2013 post, I discussed two goals of a First Families Project, designed to connect Ethiopian first families and US (or other) adoptive families of Ethiopian children:

(1) To create an infrastructure to deliver information from adoptive families to Ethiopian first families. This one is very complicated and potentially fraught with all sorts of problems, involving laws, money, emotions, unintended consequences, and more. Lots of gray areas. I’m looking forward to seeing what the possibilities are, and then bringing about positive changes.

(2) To record, honor, and preserve the stories of Ethiopian first mothers. This one has its own complexities, and will be easier to implement.

As a community, we have to keep thinking, talking, and connecting. Like many others, I am continuing to look at ways to improve the delivery of information between families, hoping to better meet that first goal.

About the second goal: In December, I wrote about The Stories of Ethiopian First Mothers, and of Their Children. All too often in the adoption process, first/original/birth mothers are deeply marginalized. This is true especially in international adoption, where first mothers are often much poorer, less educated, and less empowered than us adoptive mothers in the US or other receiving countries. Adoption agencies rarely provide any level of post-placement services to the first mothers. There is no reason to think that those mothers don’t deeply grieve the loss of their children, nor that they don’t deserve some measure of services in the days, weeks, and years after making a plan for (losing their child to) adoption.

Let me stress that while I cite first mothers here, I am well aware that first fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and others also may be grieving and wounded, even in cases where they believe adoption is best for the child.

In the short-term, I continue to advocate for services to international first parents, before and after placement. The services should be equitable to what adoptive parents receive. I’d argue that those services need expansion as well, of course. Still, international first parents are at a huge disadvantage in terms of support and services.

In the long-term, I am working on several partnerships to record and preserve the stories of first mothers. Yes, there could be a Kickstarter project in the summer. Yes, there are travel plans afoot. It’s good stuff. I am grateful to be doing this work.



The IAG Indictment: “Deceit, craft, trickery, and dishonest means”

A grand jury indictment recently accused four employees of the adoption agency International Adoption Guides (IAG) of adoption fraud conspiracy. The purpose of the conspiracy? “To unjustly enrich themselves and obtain and retain business in Ethiopia through deceit, craft, trickery, and dishonest means, circumventing the laws of the United States and Ethiopia governing intercountry adoption and making corrupt payments to Ethiopian officials to secure a business advantage.”

The IAG website is down now, for “scheduled maintenance.”



The indictment specifically names James Harding, Mary Mooney, Alisa Bevins, and Haile Ayalneh Mekonnen as committing fraud via intercountry adoption. It also refers to Clients A through G (adoptive families); Child 1 through 7; Employee A and B; Orphanage 1, 2, and 3; Ethiopian Official 1; and Ethiopian Government School 1. The school was for deaf children, and IGA apparently procured several children from that school, while paying for the Ethiopian Official’s graduate education.

What did all these people do, between 2006 and 2011, according to the indictment?

  • Fraudulently procured adoption decrees
  • Misrepresented relevant information relating to the adoption of children
  • Fraudulently signed off on adoption contracts
  • Misrepresented to the US State Department and the US Department of Homeland Security that the children had been lawfully adopted
  • Submitted counterfeit forms (Form 171-H) so that adoptions would be processed more quickly
  • Instructed prospective adoptive parents not to talk about their adoptions during the process
  • Made corrupt payments, gifts, and gratuities to Ethiopian officials

Of course, what they also appear to have done was destroy families, here in the US and in Ethiopia, not through adoption so much as trafficking.

The indictment includes a paper trail of IAG emails, some specifically talking about bribes, forgeries, and fraud. One of the more poignant email lines: “Again, the family must not find out about this.”


Ethiopian Adoptions To Continue: ETV, First Mothers, and Small Steps

Word on the Internet is that Ethiopian adoptions will continue. I’ve seen it on Facebook groups, at least one adoption agency site, and elsewhere. Among other sources is the One Child Campaign which posted this yesterday on their Facebook page:

“Earlier today Minister Zenebu, along with other high level MOWCYA officials, met with agency network representatives. In this meeting it was clearly expressed by Minister Zenebu that she does not plan to work to stop adoptions, but desires to focus on eliminating bad practice and continue to invest in good practice of Ethiopia adoptions. She reiterated that neither MOWCYA nor the Ethiopian Government plan to shut down adoptions within Ethiopia, and went on to encourage agencies to continue their work as normal.”

(MOWCYA is the Ministry of Women, Children, and Youth Affairs. Zenebu Tadesse is the Minister of MOWCYA.)

Encouraging adoption agencies to continue their work “as normal” could be a mixed signal, in the face of years of concerns about fraud and corruption. I’ve no doubts everyone involved around the world supports the need to eliminate bad practices and uphold ethical practices with transparency and integrity. What that exactly looks like continues to be the subject of much discussion, but I’d argue it should, at a minimum, include the insights and experiences of birth families and of adult adoptees. 

Recently, an Ethiopian government-sponsored TV show aired in Ethiopia, almost exactly at the time the government officials announced that Ethiopian adoptions might end. (You can read my post about the announcement here.)

The ETV show talked about children stolen from mothers in the name of adoption, about an Ethiopian child who died at the hands of her adoptive parents, and about (Ethiopian-born, adopted to Sweden, world-class chef) Marcus Samulesson’s birth family–though that last story has not been confirmed as best I know.


The show aired in late December, and I would guess that it was intended to influence the Ethiopian people in their attitudes about intercountry adoption.

You can watch the December 2013 YouTube video here.The show is in Amharic.

. The highlights:

  • Many government officials speak about the huge concerns that many Ethiopians have about international adoption.
  • There are photos of and information about Ethiopian adoptee Hana Williams, whose US adoptive parents were convicted in October 2013 of abusing and killing her. (I’ve posted at length about Hana and the trial; you can read more here.)
  • There are brief Interviews with and film of American adoptive parents in adoption court proceedings, and commentary about the costs of adoption ($20,000 and more).
  • Three stories are featured about Ethiopian mothers who lost their children to adoption, including a woman who says she is the mother of renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson. Again, that’s not been proven as far as I know.

The birth mothers’ stories are heartbreaking: one who says her son was taken to an orphanage, and then adopted to France, while she was in the hospital, and one whose children ended up fraudulently in America for adoption. The mother says the US agency director said that she (the director) was doing the mother a favor by placing the children for adoption. And then there is Marcus Samulesson’s (unverified) family–mother. siblings, more. Samuelsson’s Facebook page (in the “Recent Posts by Others” section) includes some inquiries, it seems, from Ethiopians asking him about it.

One mother on the show says: “I haven’t slept in years.”


The ETV show was seen by thousands (millions?) of Ethiopians, is available on YouTube, and adds to the complicated, emotional, economic, and political maelström of adoption. What is the reality of best practice, and what is not? How do we best help children in need? How do we keep families together?

The voices of birth families need to be heard and respected, as do the voices of adult Ethiopian adoptees. I hope all the adoption agencies are listening to them as well, especially if they are “continuing work as normal.”

I’ve been talking with a lot of people about the possibilities for better connections between birth families and adoptive families–which means, of course, for the children, in as many positive ways as possible. I’ve been talking with a lot of people about the gathering of the stories of first mothers. I wrote about all this in my post “First Families Project,” just over a month ago, and will be updating soon. There is some powerful energy happening, and some wonderful possibilities, even amidst the sorrow, anger, and mistrust. Small steps. Huge thanks to those who have offered their stories, their energy, their compassion, and their support, on behalf of vulnerable children and families.

Ethiopian Birth Mothers After Relinquishment: MSW Research from Addis Ababa University

Adoption agency staff and social workers, prospective and current adoptive parents of Ethiopian children: Nothing should shock you in this research. It may break your heart a bit. I hope it will bring us closer to meeting the realities of Ethiopian birth mothers, and birth families.

Written as a thesis by Kalkidan Alelign, an Ethiopian graduate student for a Master’s Degree in Social Work at Addis Ababa University, “Birth Mothers’ Experience After Relinquishment” is an anomaly of sorts. It appears to be one of only two academic papers that look at what happens to Ethiopian birth mothers after they place their children. I’ll discuss the other in my next post on this subject. My thanks to Themia Sica for first posting the link in a Facebook adoptive parent group. Kalkidan is now vice president of Ethiopian Adoption Connection, also known as Betesab Felega. They do remarkable, valuable work reuniting Ethiopian adoptees and their families.

To say there is a need to provide post-adoption counseling to Ethiopian birth mothers is a laughable understatement. Agencies: are you listening, especially if you are looking at moving to new countries to place children? Please do not abandon the first families.

The writer of the thesis, Kalkidan Alelign, defines adoption as the separation of mothers and their children as a result of relinquishment.

The thesis itself is typical in that half of it is the question/objective, the literature review, and the research method. It’s around Chapter 4, “Findings,” that the objective academic language delves into the lives of 5 birth mothers: Fikirte, Hayat, Hewan, Nina, and Selam. The names are not real. The emotions are.

Admittedly, it’s a small sample. The author calls it qualitative research, and my sense is that it is likely quite representative of many birth mothers in Ethiopia.

Of the mothers interviewed for this thesis, 3 are single, and 2 are widows. They range in age from 25 to 30. Two are Muslim, 3 are Orthodox Christian. Their education ranges from “none” to a diploma. The interviews took place a year after relinquishment for 2 of the mothers, 3 years after for 2 mothers, and 5 years after for 1 mother.

I’ll give an overview here, and I encourage you to read the thesis for yourself.

Why did the mothers relinquish?

  • Money problems (usually temporary)
  • Social pressure (stigma, children born to unwed parents)
  • The mother’s HIV status (fear of dying and wanting to have a plan for the child/ren)
  • Lack of social support (the father of the child didn’t want the child; no friends or relatives to help with a baby)

The above reasons are not surprising. But what about this one?

  • Disinformation (expecting to maintain contact in some way)

Hewan, a 30-year-old widow with no education, said “she was willing to relinquish because she was told she would be receiving information about her children…However, it had been about five years and she still never heard about her children. Nina and Selam had to wait three years before they heard about their children.”

Hewan, Nina, and Selam also “never had the chance to say good-bye to their children.”

Read that sentence again, and then look at your children.

“All participants indicated that relinquishing their children was ‘the most difficult experience’ of all.”

Nina said of her last day with her child: “I could not sleep. I was holding him and staring at him all night long…I was telling him not to be scared and that he would grow up being a good man. Even though he was only four days old, he was looking straight into my eyes and it felt like he was searching for my soul.”

What were the feelings of the mothers after they relinquished their children?

  • Realizing the Loss (Nina: “After I gave my child to the orphanage I went home. There the first thing I did was take a shower, then it hit me. I just lost my baby and here I was being comfortable. I cried for a long time every day.”)
  • Anger (“After they relinquished their children, it was challenging for them to be back in the environment in which their children were lost from…They were also crying a lot and were angry almost every day.”)
  • Regrets (“Selam and Hewan regretted their decision in relation to what their expectation was and what the reality is. They state they were told by the delala (the broker) that they will have frequent contact with their children or with the adoptive parents…Hewan said: ‘If I knew that there would be no contact, that I would end up wondering about my children every day, that the pain does not go away…if only I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have relinquished my children.'”

Two of the birth mothers do not regret their decision. Hayat and Fikirte…have met the adoptive parents. Both have some sort of contact with their children, one through the adoption agency and one via telephone and email. Fikirte says ‘The meeting and the pictures assured me that my daughter is well taken care of. She has grown up and is living a life that I am sure she wouldn’t be having if she was with me.'”)

  • Blame (Two mothers blamed themselves “for not being mother enough to endure the challenges they once faced.” Others blamed the father, or family, for “not caring enough or for not understanding their pain.”)
  • Grief (“All participants stated that they grieved for their children every day. They also stated that though they grieve every day, some days are more painful than others.”)
  • Fear (“Nina and Hewan imagined everything that may go wrong in their children’s lives. They also wondered if their children understood why they relinquished them. They wonder if their children would accept them as their mothers when and if they meet them in the future.”)

Further, those who have children after placing a child for adoption feel overprotective, For Hewan, “It is her fear that she would lose him (the child she kept) too and ‘end up alone.'”)

The mothers also talked about circumstances that evoked or worsened their experience, such as “holidays, birthdays, and any other days that are celebrated in each family…On such days they either wish for their children to be part of the celebration or blame those who are celebrating it for doing it in the absence of their children.” Other triggers were “visiting a mother who gave birth, watching a mother with her son in public, watching young couples walk hand in hand, and watching a mother begging for alms with her children.”

Another trigger is lack of contact. Hewan said “having no contact with her children or the adoptive parents has made her loss ‘unbearable.’…She further stated that all the negative news that she heard about adoption in different media affected her, including her will to live.”

What are some of their coping mechanisms?

  • Acceptance (“Fikirte said, ‘When I finish my daily work, I sit for a long time and look at her (daughter’s photo) album or the framed picture of her in my room. I feel mixed feelings of happiness and sadness.'”)
  • Talking (“All participants reported that talking about their feelings and getting support from friends makes a lot of difference in their experience of relinquishment…(W)hen they share their experience, they feel like a weight is lifted off their shoulders…”)
  • Helping Others (Nina said, “When I see mothers in trouble or youngsters in the street I would go and talk to them to show them that somebody cares. Because I feel if somebody had cared enough I wouldn’t be in this position. Everything I feel I have missed or should have been done for me, I do it for others.”)
  • Concealing feelings (“All participants reported that they prefer not to talk about their feelings whenever they feel that they are judged or when they feel people would not understand them.”)
  • Withdrawing (“…the participants stated that the response from the community regarding their decision and how they should live their life after (the relinquishment) makes them question their desire to be part of the society.”)
  • Spirituality (“All of the participants stated that their faith has a major contribution in helping them accept what happened in their life.”)

I have met and embraced my daughters’ Ethiopian mother. My heart aches for her and for these mothers, recognizing that we can, and must, provide better, humane, and helpful services to them, the women who have placed their children in the hands of others. Regardless of whether adoption declines or continues, there is an obligation to not forget these mothers and families.

While this thesis is difficult to read, I am grateful for it. Ms. Alelign, the thesis author, recommends the following, in terms of social work practice:

Counseling, to make sure that birth mothers fully understand what relinquishment means and can make genuinely informed decisions. “Counseling services should also be provided to help birth mothers deal with what they experience after relinquishing.”

Advocacy, “for better awareness of the community about  birth mothers…because a positive response from the community can have an impact in minimizing the challenges they face while trying to play their role in society.” Advocacy is also important regarding “awareness as to how significant it is for the birth mothers to have contact with the adoptive parents or their children.”

Networking, because “Creating a psychosocial support group for birth mothers is also very important at this level since there are no support groups or organizations that help birth mothers.”

We must see their faces and hear their voices when adoption policy is discussed.

We must listen to them, and we must tell their stories.