Ethiopian Adoptions: An Eye-Opening, Jaw-Dropping Investigative Report

E.J. Graff has written a far-reaching, detailed, urgent investigative report on Ethiopian adoptions: “They Steal Babies, Don’t They?”

Many people, including me, have been extremely concerned about the role of fraud and corruption in adoptions in Ethiopia. For far too long, according to Graff, “orphans were ‘produced’ by unscrupulous middlemen who would persuade desperately poor, uneducated, often illiterate villagers whose culture had no concept of permanently severing biological ties to send their children away.” It is heartbreaking–for the children, for the Ethiopian parents, and for the adoptive parents.

This report is an “exclusive investigation of internal US State Department documents.” These adoption-related cables, emails, and other written material were requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

There is also “an alphabetized index of every U.S. adoption agency and Ethiopian orphanage that we found mentioned in these hundreds of pages. Each item…below the name of the agency or orphanage is a link to the FOIA-ed documents posted on our site. We realize that these are raw documents, out of context, and give only partial impressions of what some Embassy staff members were thinking at particular moments. To offer a fuller picture of what was happening, we asked every U.S adoption agency named in these documents whether they would like to submit a response that might clarify, correct, or comment on anything mentioned regarding their agency.” The agencies’ responses are available here.

Graff is ultimately optimistic about the future of Ethiopian adoptions, as a result of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, Uniform Accreditation Act which took effect in July 2014 as well as the Pre-Adoption Immigration Review (PAIR). We all want children who need safe, loving families to have them. If that happens through adoption, we all want the adoptions to be transparent and ethical–nothing short of complete integrity.

As the adoptive parent of twin daughters adopted from Ethiopia in 1994, and as a mother who met my daughters’ Ethiopian family in 2008, I know firsthand the role of inequity, economics, and heartache that adoptions can have. I also know the love and joy surrounding all of us, as we have been able to meet, talk, and learn. I am hopeful that many people–especially adoption agencies, government officials, prospective parents, adoptive parents, and Ethiopian adoptees around the globe–will read this. I am less confident that Ethiopian birth parents, marginalized and too often voiceless, will have their questions answered and their fears resolved, but that is their right, and only fair. And fairness is long overdue.

My thanks to E.J. Graff for her incredible efforts on this important article, and to the US State Department for its work to make adoptions more transparent. I applaud all those involved in adoption, in Ethiopia and around the world, who are genuinely committed to ensuring an ethical process that protects the rights of children and families.


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.