Moving From TV Shows to Legislative Reforms in International Adoption

TV shows and media reports often create a big emotional response with calls to action. The recent Dan Rather show “Unwanted in America” is no exception. Since the show aired on December 2, there have been 3 Gofundme sites, dozens of Facebook posts, a Facebook page “Unwanted in America,” a big meeting at the Ethiopian Community Center in Seattle, and no doubt many other events. I wrote yesterday about the Convergence of Concern Around Seattle Adoptees. Per that post, Julie and Rich Hehn, the adoptive parents of the Seattle adoptees featured on the show, declined to comment regarding “Unwanted,” so their views are not available.

Beyond efforts to help the young people featured in the show, there has also been much outcry to reform international adoption policies. This interest is not new in itself. In recent years, there has been a huge demand for change, from many different quarters: adult adoptees, Congress, adoptive parents, governments around the world, adoption agencies, family preservation groups, first/original parents, and concerned advocates. The outcry has reached a critical mass as everyone shares many of the same concerns, but sees solutions very differently. The Children in Families First act (CHIFF) is just one example of legislation that sounded good but fell far short, for many reasons.

“Unwanted” is the latest media event to use the stories of various adoptees to shed light on several troubling occurrences in adoptive families. I will describe 4 practices here. All are happening with increasing frequency.

One is a practice called re-homing, where adopted children are moved from one family to another without a full legal and transparent process. A Reuters series detailed the problems with re-homing, and many state and federal legislators have begun looking at possible legislation.

It’s deeply troubling that a child could be transferred via a Yahoo group to strangers, with maybe a notarized letter about power of attorney. What sort of help did the adoptive parents seek and receive, before letting their children go? What legal protections does the child have in these circumstances?

Some states have already taken action. Louisiana and Wisconsin have passed laws already. Rhode Island, Ohio, Colorado, Florida, and other states are moving in that direction. The federal government has held at least one hearing on re-homing, and more will be happening next year. This is all good news. That said, any actions in response to re-homing will, I hope, insist on increased resources and services for struggling families and children.

Another area of concern to many involved in adoption is that far too many internationally adopted children are being re-placed into new adoptive homes. This process may be arranged by an adoption agency or through lawyers, and is essentially the same as the first adoption: the (first adoptive) parents’ legal rights are terminated, and new parents become the (second set of) legal parents. On the Dan Rather show, author Joyce Maynard spoke extensively about her decision to dissolve her adoption of two Ethiopian girls who now live with a new family. I have written about internationally adopted children who are now available for adoption through our US foster care system.

While this has legal transparency and protections, there is great concern about why these second adoptions are needed. Was there insufficient preparation of the first adoptive parents? Was information about the child incomplete or inaccurate? Were there resources provided to help the child and the parents? What is the responsibility of the adoption agencies?

A specific concern raised by the Dan Rather show was the size of the adoptive family. of which 3 children are homeless now. Seattle-area’s Julie and Rich Hehn have 25-30 children, depending on what news article you read. Most of the adopted children (20?) were from Ethiopia. Some of the children had/have special needs. Some were placed with the Hehns after having been adopted and then given up by other families.

Regardless of those realities, I don’t know anyone whose jaw hasn’t dropped in response to the number of children adopted. Common reactions I’ve heard are these: How were the Hehns able to adopt 20+ children? How does that fit with best practices of child welfare? Is that a family, or a group home? Children with defined special needs, with serious medical and/or developmental issues, and with histories of loss and trauma absolutely need families. These children might also especially need more individual parental time and attention, and lots of it. In terms of adoption practice, placements of 20+ children require many resources and supports to be successful.

Large families have of course always existed, and many thrive. A big family can be a positive situation for children who have spent time in an orphanage, used to the rigors and camaraderie of being surrounded by others. Still, one hopes that any family taking in dozens of children is adequately prepared and supported in raising adopted children.

A note: many people have wondered why adoption agencies don’t follow up with families after the placement. Here’s the reason: once the adoption is finalized, the adopted child is the family’s child just like any other child. The family has every right to ignore an agency’s inquiries after the child is legally with the family. Some families want nothing to do with the adoption agency after the placement. Some call on the agency for help and support. This is why pre-adoption preparation is so vital, so that families can anticipate challenges and feel comfortable in seeking help. 

A fourth area of concern is adopted children who are thrown out of their adoptive families, and who sometimes end up homeless. That has been the case for at least 3 of the children adopted by the Hehns, according to the Dan Rather show. Among other heartbreaking parts of the show was the information about how many adoptees are at a homeless shelter in Minnesota. I have no doubts that additional research will show that this is true at other homeless shelters as well.

And, yes, I know that homeless shelters are filled with people from biological families. But there has been a definite uptick in adoptees being displaced from their families as minors or as legal adults. We need to understand why this is happening.

In response to some horrific cases of abuse and worse of foster and adopted children, in 2012 Washington state produced a powerful report with many excellent suggestions for reforms in adoption practice. Regrettably the state legislature has not yet approved the needed recommendations, but advocates are hopeful that there may be progress next year. Other states and the federal government are considering legislative improvements as well.

Bottom line: Let’s watch the TV shows and read the articles about tragedies happening in adoptive families. Then let’s put far greater energy, attention, and funding to pre-adoption screening and services for prospective families, to being open to the experiences and insights of adult adoptees, to including first/original parents in adoption policy discussions, and to providing viable, effective post-adoption resources.









A Convergence of Concern Around Seattle’s Ethiopian Adoptees

The recent Dan Rather AXS TV show, “Unwanted in America: The Shameful Side of International Adoption” has evoked two main impulses. One is to help the adoptees featured, who have been re-homed and/or thrown out of their adoptive homes. The other is to reform laws so that these tragic situations don’t happen to more children. This post provides an update about the Seattle-area adoptees on the show. My next post will discuss the possibilities for reforming adoption laws.

You can watch the Dan Rather show, using the password danrather, here.

Efforts to Help the Seattle Area Adoptees

The Seattle-area adoptees were adopted by Julie Hehn and her husband, who apparently adopted over 20 children from Ethiopia. I have been told Rich Hehn is dealing with a serious medical issue now. The Hehns declined to comment for Kathryn Joyce’s Slate article “Hana’s Story: An Adoptee’s Tragic Fate and How It Could Happen Again,” which has a great deal of information about the adoptees, as well as for the Dan Rather show.

I’ve seen different numbers in different reports as to how many children the Hehns adopted, and how many are currently in their home. There are two YouTube videos from 2009 that feature Julie: one is called “Julie Hehn Super Mom” available here and one is “Mother of 22”  here. Julie was actively involved with Adoption Advocates International (AAI), the adoption agency that placed the Ethiopian adoptees with the Hehns, and she frequently traveled to Ethiopia. AAI has been in the news for being the agency that arranged Hana Williams’ adoption, as well as the agency used by the family featured in the documentary “Girl, Adopted.” AAI closed in March of this year.

In response to concerns about the children adopted by the Hehns and featured on the Dan Rather show, the Ethiopian Community Center of Seattle held a meeting this past Saturday afternoon. About 150 people attended. Most were members of the Ethiopian community; a few were, like me, adoptive parents of Ethiopian children. Everyone shared a deep concern about the status of the Seattle-area Ethiopian adoptees featured on the show.

Several people spoke out against adoption. Some specifically discussed their concerns for the young adoptees. Many ways to help were offered, including resources for emergency shelter, fundraising efforts, and legal assistance. An Ethiopian aide to Seattle’s mayor was there, as were Ethiopian attorneys and other concerned professionals.

Among those attending was Pastor Berhanu Seyoum of the Mekane Yesus Lutheran Church in Seattle. Pastor Berhanu has been working with the adoptees for quite a while. He was featured in the Dan Rather show, as well as in Kathryn Joyce’s Slate article (cited above). Like the majority of speakers, Pastor Berhanu spoke in Amharic to the group. I do not speak or understand Amharic, and I appreciate those who translated for me and otherwise helped me to understand.

Pastor Berhanu has set up a Facebook page, “Unwanted in America,” which has links to 3 Gofundme pages that are apparently all involved in helping the adoptees. My understanding is that the Pastor will be handling the funds. The Facebook page also has a great summary, in English, of Saturday’s meeting, as well as details about what kind of help is needed.


Many complicated issues remain to sort out, but the priority seems to be getting stable housing for the homeless adoptees, arranging medical assistance, and ensuring that all legal matters are clarified. Many people have indicated their wish to help, and while that is wonderful, it also takes time to make sure everyone connects. Still: there is progress.







CHIFF Meeting: Suggestions For Agenda Items

For quite a while, there has been deafening public silence from supporters of the Children in Families First (CHIFF) act. CHIFF is an international child welfare bill that sounds so good and reasonable: of course all children deserve safe, loving families. It is, though, full of flaws, and never gained the momentum that the proponents (mostly adoptive parents and adoption agencies/lawyers) thought it would.

The last piece of “News” on the CHIFF website was in June. Their Facebook site has articles about adoption, but nothing for months about the legislation. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a vocal proponent of adoption-related legislation during her tenure in Congress, lost her recent election, and thus her influence will be gone from Congressional actions. She was the leader on CHIFF, which has a 5% chance of being enacted at this point.

Still, there has likely been much action behind the scenes in Washington, DC. In fact, the CHIFF proponents may be meeting again soon, for all I know. If so, I’d like to make some suggestions for the agenda:

Discussion Items for CHIFF

1–The #flipthescript social media movement during National Adoption Month (November), in which adult adoptees (US and international) have shared their experiences and perspectives. Perhaps all the CHIFF meeting participants will watch the excellent video produced by the talented Bryan Tucker featuring 8 powerful women from the Lost Daughters’ writing collective.


2–E.J. Graff’s November article “They Steal Babies, Don’t They?” The article focuses on Ethiopian adoptions, includes documents attained through the Freedom of Information Act, and provides cross-referenced lists of adoption agencies’ activities.

3–Dan Rather’s December news show on AXS TV, “Unwanted Children: The Shameful Secret of International Adoption.” Use the password danrather to watch the show here. Ethiopians in the US and around the world, as well as the adoptive parent community, have been hard at work to help the adoptees featured in the show. More information on these efforts is available on the Facebook page “Unwanted In America.”

4–Ethiopian Adoption Connection, a free, powerful, grassroots effort which has been successfully reuniting adoptees around the globe with their Ethiopian original families. Many people have found very different information than what they were told at placement. An important corollary is the increasing amount of adoptee-centric and adoptee-led organizations in many countries, such as KoRoot and GOA’L (for Korean adoptees traveling back to Korea). The Facebook group Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora is another example of the increasing presence and power of adult adoptees, who are increasingly engaged in adoption policy work.

5–The failure of CHIFF as introduced and currently to not include retroactive citizenship for international adoptees. More information is available here.

6–The reality that international adoptions in the future will have/must have some form of openness, and thus adoption practice must include far better and long-ranging services to original families, wherever they are in the world.

7–The reality and divisiveness of racism in the US, and how that affects all families involved with transracial adoption. This is a huge, raw, real, vitally important matter. Huge.


I’ve been a broken record on these additional concerns regarding CHIFF, which may or may not be current agenda items:

* Much needed funding for improved pre-adoption and post-adoption resources
* Federal level legislation on “re-homing” of internationally adopted children
* Lack of support for CHIFF from the State Department, from international adult adopted persons, from international family preservation organizations, and from international first parents
* Pre- and post-placement resources, support, counseling, and information for international first parents

If indeed CHIFF proponents are meeting soon, let’s hope all the above items are on their agenda. These Discussion Items are big and complicated. Resolving them will require, at a minimum, the transparent inclusion of adoptees and of first/original parents if the legislation is truly going to make viable changes in child welfare. That’s the first, overdue step.

Dan Rather’s Show: “Unwanted Children–The Shameful Side of International Adoption”

Dan Rather hosted an in-depth show on AXS TV called “Unwanted Children–The Shameful Side of International Adoption.” To view the show, which is available here, you will need this password: danrather.

It’s a tough and important 2 hours to watch and ingest. Much of the focus is on Ethiopian adoptions, and children who have been “re-homed,” moved to new adoptive families with little oversight, assistance, or regulation. Reuters did a series on re-homing; information is available here.

“Unwanted Children” sheds light on some terrible child welfare practices in adoption. The idea that children can be internationally adopted to the United States, and then moved to new adoptive homes with less oversight than occurs with dogs, is deplorable.

Kathryn Joyce wrote powerfully in Slate in November 2013 about some of these adoptees as well. Her detailed, insightful article “Hana’s Story: An Adoptee’s Tragic Fate and How It Could Happen Again” was part of the impetus for the Dan Rather show.

This show, on the heels of E.J. Graff’s incisive report “They Steal Babies, Don’t They?“, is an explicit call to action for change in Ethiopian adoptions. I have spoken out about this; many, many people are deeply concerned around the globe. I hope to see a response soon from organizations such as the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, the National Council for Adoption, the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, and Both Ends Burning to demand changes in oversight and regulations, as well as solid improvement in services provided to adoptive and first/birth families.

Because: enough. I am so proud of groups like Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora, and of Ethiopian Adoption Connection, who are speaking out and working hard to give voice to those who are too often left out of adoption policy discussions: the adoptees and the first families.

As an adoptive parent, I hope to see more eyes opened to some of the realities of adoption practices today, so that the rights of all children and parents are safeguarded, and all adoptions are done with transparency and integrity.

Please note also that a “GoFundMe” campaign has been set up to help the 9 Ethiopian adoptees who “are now homeless after being pushed out of their adoptive home,” according to the fundraiser. Information is available here.