Latest Turbulence in International Adoption Agencies: Wow

Recent years have seen a lot of discussion about the decline in numbers of international adoptions. Recent days have seen a lot of news about how international adoption agencies are responding to the decline.

A relatively minor roil to start: Yesterday, the US State Department announced that Children’s Hope International has “voluntarily relinquished” its Hague accreditation status. Thus, CHI may not independently provide international adoption services. The State Department announcement doesn’t share the news that CHI has merged with Nightlight Christian Adoptions, known perhaps primarily for its controversial “Snowflake embryo adoptions.” CHI thus will continue to operate in international adoptions under the Nightlight umbrella. Nightlight has Hague accreditation, according to the sole accrediting entity, Intercountry Adoption Accreditation and Maintenance Entity.

The much bigger news was the merger between two large adoption agencies, Holt International in Oregon and World Association for Children and Parents (WACAP), announced on February 7. You can read Holt’s announcement here, and WACAP’s here.

Here’s a quote about the merger from Holt’s CEO, Phil Littleton, who is also an adoptive parent:

“By merging with WACAP, we have an unparalleled opportunity to combine our resources and knowledge to help more orphaned and vulnerable children both in the U.S. and in countries around the world. In recent years, many agencies specializing in international adoption have closed and others have struggled. Longevity and sustainability have been especially difficult for some agencies whose primary source of revenue is adoption. But through robust philanthropic efforts, Holt has grown the mission-critical funding we need to continue our increasingly difficult work in international adoption. At the same time, WACAP’s expertise — particularly in finding loving, trauma-informed families for children in the U.S. foster care system — will be an incredible asset and strengthen our efforts to help children here in the U.S.”

Here’s a quote from WACAP’s CEO, Greg Eubanks:

“For our Board of Directors and our Senior Leadership, many of whom are adoptive parents, it was a choice worth making. We have always held Holt in the highest regard for both its breadth and quality of services as well as its ethical and inclusive practices. When we began to connect with Holt leadership and staff at all levels, we quickly confirmed that we are a good match. By combining our expertise and resources, our mission will go on.  As a part of the Holt organization, we will continue to serve children and families, both internationally and in our own communities.  We will work to ensure every child has a loving and secure home.

This merger will also allow us to continue the expansion of services to children in the foster care system.  (Boldface in original)

For years, WACAP has found adoptive families for children in foster care, over 800 children as a matter of fact.  As we continue that work, and implement innovative recruiting efforts for adoption, we are now seeking families to become foster parents.  These families will provide temporary care for children of all ages until they might reunite with birth parents or relatives, or until they are legally free for adoption.”

Among the issues that Holt will be dealing with is the lawsuit by Korean adoptee Adam Crapser against Holt and the government of South Korea. In late January, Crapser filed what the Associated Press called a “landmark lawsuit” over “gross negligence regarding the way he and thousands of other Korean children were sent to the United States and other Western nations without accounting for their future citizenship.” Crapser is among thousands of adoptees for whom their parents failed to acquire citizenship; he was deported in 2016 back to Korea.

The Adoptee Rights Campaign estimates that there are tens of thousands of other adoptees who do not have citizenship, and could be in danger of deportation. Adoptees have been killed and have died by suicide after being deported. At a minimum, many have been isolated, depressed, and harmed by being returned to countries with which they have no connection, language, work opportunities, family of friends—because they were adopted by Americans to ostensibly have a better life with a forever family.

NBC recently aired a segment about these tragic deportations.

An adoptee from India, who lived in Oregon for decades having been adopted through Holt International, was deported back to India and has struggled ever since.

Neither Holt nor WACAP mentions either deportations nor citizenship issues in their press releases about the merger.

Without big and small adoption agencies robustly, frequently, and collaboratively speaking out about deportation and citizenship, as well as about the genuine concerns of international adoptees and first/birth parents, we are not moving ahead in any meaningful way.

I feel confident we will see more adoption agencies closing, or merging and then closing. On a certain level, that will only leave more adoptees and birth parents without access to their records, without access to post-adoption services, and without recourse to redress the fraud, trauma, and corruption. Until international adoptees AND first/birth parents (not adoptive parents, not adoption “experts”) have many, many seats at the table in the international adoption agency community, I don’t see how the future of international adoptions can even be considered fully and ethically.

Mothers of Loss: Noting the Privilege of Grief and Support

The adoptive mother of an adoptee killed in a car accident has written several powerful, sorrowful posts on Facebook. She has received the support of dozens, in some cases hundreds, of people, and has shared the funeral service, photos, anecdotes, and memories. She has been supported in her grief by her family, her friends, her church, and  her community, both local and online.

How do people recover from the death of a child? Slowly, painstakingly, and maybe never.

How do mothers recover from the more ambiguous loss of a child through adoption? One day the child is here. The next day the child is gone, alive but perhaps never to be seen again.

When someone loses a child to death, we rally. We prepare meals, we pray, we attend services, we send cards, we read Facebook posts, and we type comments of gratitude and support. The parents often receive counseling, medications, and group therapies.

What do we do for the mothers who lose their children to adoption, even when the decision is one of transparency and integrity? How do we as a community support them, through rituals and time? How do we acknowledge their loss?

What about when the loss is one of coercion, or fraud, or shame? Do we show compassion, or do we push their grief and loss out of our minds?

Surely it is yet another manifestation of our privilege that adoptive parents, as citizens in a wealthy society, that grief is shared. In the event of the death of a child, the parents can mourn and share and grieve in both private and public. They can get–as is right–heartfelt support from family, friends, and strangers. People inquire how they are doing, and pray for them, and embrace them in a time of deep, unfathomable loss.

I have never experienced the loss of a child. When my beloved granddaughter turned 6, I couldn’t help thinking that was the age at which her mother had been placed for adoption with our family. I was stopped in my tracks at the idea of losing this child forever, at 6 years old, never knowing where in the world she was. The grief would be overwhelming. I can’t begin to imagine the pain of the loss.

Surely it is yet another manifestation of the inequity in adoption that a first/birth mother placing her children forever does not get the resources and platform of an adoptive mother who loses her child to death. Don’t both experience what we acknowledge is an enormous loss–a child gone forever?

How many first mothers, after placement, never learn if their children are dead or alive?

To lose a child is to lose a part of one’s heart and soul. We in the adoption community must acknowledge the grief and loss of the mothers whose children are placed for adoption, because they have lost a child. To the impoverished Ethiopian and other international mothers walking back to their villages alone and never hearing again about their beloved children–mothers who experience depression, scorn, loneliness, and worse–we must offer recognition and compassion, and provide ongoing services to them. To the mothers who were coerced as teens into relinquishing their children, we must partner with them in their grief, not shame or dismiss them, suggesting they “Get over it. It was a long time ago.” To any mother who has lost a child, we must reach out, acknowledge the loss, and help with the healing. All mothers deserve this. All of them.




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.)



New Gazillion Voices: Powerful and Free

Gazillion Voices, the only online adoptee-led, adoptee-centric magazine, published its 6th edition today–and all content is free for the week. There are essays, videos, a podcast, and articles about Positive Adoption Language, the LGBT community, poetry, and much more. Congratulations to everyone affiliated with Gazillion Voices for the successful launch and now 6 months’ worth of publication. Well done.

Among the articles is one by my daughter Aselefech, “On Closure and Loss.”  Click here to access that essay, and the rest of the magazine. You’ll see why I, as an adoptive parent, feel so strongly about the need for the voices of adopted persons and of original/first parents to be heard and honored. The journey of adoption is complicated, ongoing, and profound. My thanks to Aselefech, and to each of the writers who share their stories and tip their hearts so generously.

Aselefech with (part of) her Ethiopian family: her father and two brothers.

Aselefech with (part of) her Ethiopian family: her father and two brothers.

First Families Project

Wow. Since I published it Wednesday (Dec. 11), my post about The Stories of Ethiopian First Mothers, and of Their Children touched a lot of hearts, and perhaps a few nerves. The response was incredible: close to 600 shares on Facebook, as of today (Dec. 16). More than 3000 views.

Many thanks to those of you who posted a link to my blog, and to those of you who commented and emailed me. I heard from many adoptive parents, some adult adoptees, and a few adoption agency workers. Several people have offered to help, in both big and small ways, and I am very grateful for those offers.

Please feel free to comment and/or send an email: Maureen AT

Over the next few weeks, I will be connecting with several folks who have varied and helpful perspectives on the possibilities of this project. I have no intention to reinvent wheels that already exist and spin well. I believe in partnerships that can move projects ahead in a respectful, transparent way.

One clarification about adding fathers/grandparents/siblings in the project: In proposals I have been writing, I acknowledge first families, not only first mothers. I have no interest in being exclusionary. I do want to be realistic and well-focused. The needs are huge, and there must be parameters in order to achieve success.  I have enough experience with nonprofits to be very aware of the dangers of over-extending resources, especially in the early stages of projects. Small steps can be vital to long-term success.

A recap of the two goals:

(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.

Many thanks to all those who are joining me on this journey.

Watercolor by Katie Griffing Bradley

Watercolor by Katie Griffing Bradley

I love this beautiful painting of an Ethiopian woman smiling as she serves coffee, an essential and intrinsic part of Ethiopian culture. More information on the artist, Katie Griffing Bradley, is available here.

The Stories of Ethiopian First Mothers, and of Their Children

Here is something I am working on, that I thought I’d send out to the universe today:

Among the most marginalized people in the world are the first mothers of adopted Ethiopian children. Many of these women would not place their children for adoption were it not for abject poverty.

Since 1999, about 13,000 children have been placed in the US from Ethiopia. Many of their mothers never hear from, or even about, their children ever again. These women don’t have access to the Internet or support groups or media. They often live in isolation, with their memories and sorrow.

I have yet to hear about US adoption agencies offering significant post-placement services to Ethiopian first mothers, in their language, with cultural competence. Fewer children are being placed from Ethiopia. Adoption agencies aren’t working there as much anymore. So what happens to the first families? What sort of grief and loss counseling do adoption agencies provide to the first families? Who do the first mothers turn to when they desperately miss their children, or want to know if they are alive?

We are missing so much in adoption. So much.

Families are supposed to send updates to Ethiopia. Some do, some don’t. There’s a lot of anger and mistrust, among families, agencies, government workers. My sense is, in any case, that most reports don’t get to the people who most deserve them: the first families. The mothers.

US adoption agencies do gather information about why children are placed for adoption. Increasingly, though, adoptees and adoptive families learn the information is inaccurate, or, worse, horrifically fraudulent. What are the true stories, and will anyone really know what they are?

What about the stories of the first mothers? Who listens to them, and records the family stories, and saves them for their children? Who values those stories?

I’ve begun working on a couple of exciting possibilities to change things.

One project is to create a network–an infrastructure–that delivers, to Ethiopian first parents, reports from US adoptive parents about their Ethiopian children. The reports would be in the Ethiopian parents’ language, and would be read to them if they are illiterate. Yes, photos too.

Another project is to work with Ethiopian first mothers, and preserve their personal histories. What a huge honor that would be. I belong to the Association of Personal Historians, and last month presented a workshop “Rebuilding Personal Histories” at the annual conference about personal histories for adoptees and others separated from their original family history. I’ve since talked with a few folks about doing this work with Ethiopian first mothers. Would that not be amazing?

So, I ask you to accompany me on this journey, in any way you can. Feel free to post here, or to email me at


The photo is my Ethiopian daughter reuniting with her Ethiopian mother. Aselefech wrote about this journey here: “Far Away, Always in My Heart.”

No mother should suffer not knowing what happened to her child. We can change this.