Thinking of Hana Williams, Seven Years After Her Death

Had she not been murdered by her adoptive parents seven year ago today, Hana Williams would now be 20 years old. We will never know what might have been, what kind of light she may have shone in the world. We have not forgotten you, Hana. You are firmly in our hearts.

Hana Alemu (Williams), in Ethiopia

Since the anniversary of her death last year, adoptions have closed in Ethiopia, in no small part because of the reaction there to the abuse and murder of Hana in 2011, as well as the abuse of her adopted brother Immanuel. There have been other reasons given for the ban, among them the failure of adoptive parents to send in post-placement reports, failure of adoptive families to maintain the children’s Ethiopian culture, fraud and corruption, policies to promote in-country adoption, and more. I think, though, we’d be hard pressed to think that Hana’s death was not a major reason.

That she died as a result of her adoptive parents’ treatment is horrifying enough, but when those of us who attended the 8 weeks’ long trial in 2013 heard about the abuse she endured during the three years she lived in America—well, it’s almost unbelievable. Suffice to say she weighed less at the time she died (78 pounds) than she had when she arrived from Ethiopia in 2008.

Her adoptive parents will remain in jail for many more years. I often wonder how the seven Williams’ siblings are doing. The judge, at the sentencing, said it was largely their testimony that convinced the jury of the heinousness of the crimes.The Williams’ siblings witnessed the abuse of Immanuel and Hana, and then Hana’s death from hypothermia in the family’s backyard. I continue to hope they have found healing.

I don’t have any update on Immanuel. He may have been adopted by another family who could provide resources to heal the trauma, who could help him navigate well as a deaf person, and who could deal with his PTSD.

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day in the United States. Hana died three days after Mother’s Day in 2011. I’ve often wondered what her Ethiopian mother would have thought of this tragedy, and I grieve for all of Hana’s Ethiopian family.

If you are so inclined, do something for the vulnerable children of Ethiopia, or vulnerable children anywhere. May Hana’s memory bring some good to the world. May she rest in peace.

The Heartache of Another Adoptee Suicide: Rest in Peace, Kaleab Schmidt

On April 30, just three days ago, Kaleab Schmidt ended his life. He was 13. He was an Ethiopian adoptee. May he rest in peace and in power. May his family, his adoptive parents and his sisters, also adopted from Ethiopia, find healing and consolation.

Before I go on, I need to say that most adoptees do well. I do not want to pathologize adoptees in any way. I share this news with, I hope, respect for the family, for Kaleab, and for all those who struggle. We have to be able to acknowledge suicide, even as we long to prevent it.

Kaleab lived in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, in the city of Regina. According to his obituary, he loved his family, played lots of sports, was on the honor roll at school, was great with pets. He looks, from his photo, like a beautiful young man who should have had a long and wonderful life.

My understanding from folks who know is that there may have been bullying involved. It was probably bullying based on race.

My heart aches so.

What can we in the adoption community do?

We can contribute to the GoFundMe for the funeral and other expenses.

We can offer prayers for the family, if that’s our faith tradition.

We can learn about suicide prevention; that’s a U.S. based resource. A Canada-based resource for suicide prevention is here. We can learn about suicide and adoption.

We can acknowledge the reality and extent of bullying.

We can learn about and believe the realities of race-based bullying.

We can acknowledge the need for racial mirrors and mentors for adoptees.

We can hold our children close, and try to give them both room to talk as well as tools for dealing with their struggles.

We white adoptive parents can recognize and endorse the importance of race and the reality of systemic racism in our global society. We can support other families and adoptees, offering help and resources.

This is the third time I’ve written about an Ethiopian adoptee who died by suicide. Each was deeply loved by their families. Each left behind parents and siblings and others who had to recover from the loss. I am so terribly sorry for each young person and their families.

Again, I acknowledge that there are thousands of adoptees who do not die by suicide. There may well be some additional risk for adoptees nonetheless, and we would be naïve not to consider that. More research is needed.

I’m so damn sad.

May Kaleab be remembered for his life. May his family, in Ethiopia and Canada, find peace.

The Problem of Post-Placement Reports and Ethiopian Adoptions

The Ethiopian Parliament ended international adoptions in January. However, according to a Facebook posting by an adoptive family, some adoptive parents and Ethiopian officials apparently want to “prove to Ethiopia’s parliament that adoptive families in the US are a great resource for the orphan crisis in Ethiopia.”

(Spoiler alert: This perspective completely excludes the experiences of adult adoptees and of Ethiopian birth parents. Without their voices, this whole undertaking will fail.)

A recent meeting took place in Washington, DC, at the Ethiopian Embassy, with four adoptive families, an official from Ethiopia’s Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs, and embassy officials. The main takeaway of the meeting: to create a flood of post-placement reports from adoptive families, because, they said, Ethiopian “adoptions are closed because families vow in court to do post-adoption follow-up reports on the health and well-being of the children before getting custody, but the majority don’t turn in reports. So the measure of adoption success is not measurable.” To prove that adoptions are successful, “they need a flood of post-adoption reports from families!”

The failure of families to submit post-placement reports was perhaps one reason for Ethiopia to end adoptions, but it’s hardly the only one. Other reasons include the death of Ethiopian adoptee Hana Williams and attendant outcry, the failure of adoptive families to preserve and honor their child’s Ethiopian heritage, the ongoing concern about fraud and corruption, various reports about Ethiopian adoptees being “re-homed,” and, one would hope, a sincere desire to strengthen the child welfare system in Ethiopia to protect the rights and meet the needs of vulnerable children.

So what’s the deal with post-placement reports? Why don’t families send them in?

Here are a few reasons:

  • Many American adoptive families have no confidence that the reports are read, filed, and stored safely in Ethiopia.
  • Some adoption agencies told adoptive and birth families that the Ethiopian birth families would be able to access the reports to know how their children are doing. That simply hasn’t happened.
  • Some families have learned that the story they were told about why their child needed to be adopted was not true. The children aren’t orphans. There was coercion and fraud. The Ethiopian family thought the children were going to the US for education and would return to their Ethiopian family. Given the lies, families stopped sending reports.
  • Adoption agencies closed or were shut down, and left no information about how to follow-up with the reports.
  • Some families just got busy. Since there is no enforcement mechanism, there’s no way to mandate the reports.
  • Increasing numbers of families are in contact with their children’s Ethiopian family, and therefore feel no need to send the reports to the government.

In any case, there’s now a campaign of sorts to get adoptive families to flood the government with post-placement reports. The reports, according to an adoptive family who attend the Embassy meeting, “should include 6-8 photos and a summary of the child’s well-being—physical health, emotional health, education/activities, relationships within family, family summary (jobs, church, people, etc.) and any incorporation of Ethiopian heritage (this goes a LONG way!)”

(Spoiler alert: Way too many US families don’t live anywhere near Ethiopian people, or black people, or other-than-white-people. Incorporation of Ethiopian heritage should be a core value for adoptive parents, one that means more than art on the walls and a summer heritage camp once in a while.)

I understand the value of the post-placement reports: to reassure a sending country that their children are alive and well. I doubt that the reports will make any inroads to the Parliament officials who banned adoptions in Ethiopia, and they won’t do much to help current vulnerable children.

What, besides post-placement reports, can begin to heal the damage done by fraud, corruption, bribery, and trauma to children through the adoption process? How can the good outcomes be noted and discussed? What can possibly be done to effectively help vulnerable children in Ethiopia, now that adoptions are ended?

I suggest that adoptive parents sending in a post-placement report include the following  points along with their photos and updates:

  • We would like to have clarification about the reports we send: Are they translated into Amharic? Are they stored and filed safely? If my child’s Ethiopian birth family wants to see the reports, how does that work?
  • We would like to know what services and resources are offered to Ethiopian mothers and fathers after they have placed a child for adoption. We have many resources for adoptive parents and families here in the US. What is available for birth families in Ethiopia?
  • We would like to understand why adult adoptees are not actively invited to participate in these meetings and forums on Ethiopian adoption. Are we wrong that the outreach seems to be almost exclusively directed to adoptive parents with young children?
  • How can we adoptive parents better promote family preservation and in-country adoption in Ethiopia? Here’s what we are doing about that now: (Families can then describe how they are promoting both preservation and in-country adoption.)
  • We heartily endorse and encourage adoptive families and all interested parties to support the work of Beteseb Felega / Ethiopian Adoption Connection. They are doing work that is vital to the Ethiopian adoption community.

Whether you send a post-placement report or not, you can still send these talking points to the contact person: mulugeta@ethiopianembassy.org.

Bottom line: More post-placement reports from adoptive parents of young children are not the solution. Critical engagement and involvement of adoptees and birth families are long overdue. I do not understand why their inclusion has been such an afterthought and oversight.

There are concrete steps:

  • The Ethiopian government can confer with organizations such as Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora. Many Ethiopian adoptees around the globe are already actively helping vulnerable children and families in Ethiopia, whether their own families or via nonprofits or businesses, and many more would welcome the opportunity to do so.
  • The government can invite adult adoptees to return to Ethiopia and help them with getting to know their country of origin.
  • The government and adoption agencies can provide follow-up services for Ethiopian mothers, fathers, grandparents, and siblings who have been impacted by adoption.
  • The government and adoption agencies can insist on post-placement reports from Ethiopian birth families. I’d like to hear from agencies about why this isn’t done currently, in terms of best practice for all those affected by international adoption.

These steps could help achieve several important goals: to increase family preservation, to promote in-country adoption, and to bring light and transparency to Ethiopian adoption history. Until we stop excluding adult Ethiopian adoptees and Ethiopian birth parents, there will be no substantive change.

What NPR Got Wrong in its Story About Ethiopia’s Adoption Ban

NPR recently did a soft story: “In Ethiopia, A New Ban on Foreign Adoptions Is About National Pride.”

Here’s what went wrong with it:

In a story about Ethiopian adoptions, not one adult adoptee was included for perspective. Nor was an Ethiopian birth parent quoted, if any were even consulted.

The tragic death of Ethiopian adoptee Hana Williams was glossed over. Her murder by her adoptive parents was considered homicide by abuse, and roiled the Ethiopian adoption community as well as Ethiopians in Ethiopia and in the diaspora.

Fraud and corruption didn’t even get a mention in this story. Staff from one agency were indicted by the US Justice Department, pled guilty, and were given jail time. That’s not insignificant. Many adoptive families and adoptees from Ethiopia have learned that the reasons that adoption agencies provided for their adoption were not true or accurate. For example, many adoptees have living birth family members, though the adoptive parents  were told the children were orphans. A conversation with adult adoptees who have searched and reunited with their Ethiopian parents would bear this out multiple times.

Further, there are Ethiopian adoptees who have been “re-homed” when the adoptive family cannot or will not care for them anymore. There are Ethiopian adoptees in the US foster care system. Ethiopian adoptees have annulled their adoptions.

There are many ways to help vulnerable Ethiopian children and families that do not involve adoption.

Oh NPR. You’re certainly not the only news service to omit adult adoptees and birth parents when discussing adoption issues. The impulse apparently is to engage adoptive parents, and that’s it. Well, sometimes prospective adoptive parents are also interviewed. Birth parents and adult adoptees are afterthoughts, if they are considered at all.

And that tired narrative, that lazy approach, has to stop.

Media: Don’t give the mic solely to adoptive parents. And maybe not to them at all.

The main person interviewed and photographed for the story by NPR East Africa  Correspondent Eyder Peralta is a white woman from Ohio who has adopted two Ethiopian children, the second one in January when the Ethiopian Parliament passed a law ending international adoptions.

Thus the only person with a role in adoption who was interviewed to talk about Ethiopian adoption was a white woman of very young children. Not an Ethiopian adoptee, nor an Ethiopian birth parent, either of whom could have provided far more insight into the impact of the ban on adoptions in Ethiopia than a new adoptive parent. I say that as an adoptive parent whose Ethiopian children are now 29 years old.

Why Ethiopia ended adoption: (1) Failure of adoptive parent to keep children connected with their heritage and culture

The first point here, and it is not a part of the story at all, is that Ethiopia has the right to make decisions about its children. The rest of us can disagree, but recognizing the Ethiopian government’s rights as a sovereign nation is important.

The reasons the Ethiopian government provided for the ban on adoption had to do (1) with the adopted children losing their heritage and connection with culture and (2) the response to the murder of Hana Williams.

In the NPR story, Peralta writes about Niki and Brad Huelsman, the white parents who adopted their Ethiopian son in January, saying “They want Girma and his 6-year-old sister to learn about their heritage.” Unfortunately, there is no discussion or insight here about how complex that learning can be, how deeply racism impacts black Americans, and the fact that the Huelsman family’s village of Morrow, Ohio, is 96% white. Are these two Ethiopian children a significant part of the 0.4% of African-Americans in the tiny town?

That sort of pointed question is a valid one in the context of Ethiopian adoptions, and especially when, as Peralta writes, Ethiopian lawmakers ended adoptions because they were “worried that Ethiopian children taken abroad could suffer identify crises and psychological problems.” The adoptive parent confirms those fears of the Ethiopian lawmakers. The children featured in the article will be raised in a small, white village in Ohio, and unless the family is moving to a far more diverse area, the children will likely grow up loved and also lacking in a genuine sense of what it means to be Ethiopian, black, and Ethiopian-American—exactly one of the fears of Ethiopian lawmakers.

Why Ethiopia ended adoption: (2) The death of adoptee Hana Williams and abuse of adoptee Immanuel Williams at the hands of their adoptive parents

The Ethiopian government was also concerned with the physical abuse of their children. I was deeply disappointed when Peralta referred to Hana Williams but did not say her name. In fact, all he said was that the “Ethiopian child from Seattle died after she was left outside in the cold,” a description that is dismissive, disrespectful, and insufficient.

Hana died from hypothermia and from malnutrition, having wasted away to a weight (78 pounds, at age 13) that was less than what she weighed on arrival from Ethiopia three years prior to her death. She died from abuse and torture she endured over a period of months, having been locked in closets, made to eat outdoors, being given frozen food to eat, being forced to shower outside, having her head shaved because she cut the grass too short, and otherwise slowly abused to death. Her adoptive mother was convicted of homicide by abuse. Her adoptive father was convicted of manslaughter.

Hana Alemu (Williams)

Hana died, and her adopted Ethiopian brother Immanuel also was abused; he will bear the lifelong scars. Hana’s tragic death in 2011 at the hands of her adoptive parents horrified Ethiopians around the world. It horrified many people, including adoptive parents like me, as well as adoptees and of course birth parents in Ethiopia.

Yes, it is an isolated incident. We all understand that. But the fact that it happened was jarring at best for anyone who had previously thought that Ethiopian children were being adopted to a better life. We cannot talk about the adoption ban without consideration of that mindset.

The Bigger Picture on Adoption

The NPR story ended with a wistful, naïve, narrow note:

“The Huelsmans made it back to the United States in January with Girma in their arms ‘This transition is about as good as it could have gone,’ Brad Huelsman said. Big sister is a little jealous, but Girma has learned to love the family dogs and has even adjusted to the cold. ‘Sometimes I look at him even now and think I can’t believe he’s home,’ Niki Huelsman said.

But it’s a shame, they say, that other American families won’t know this joy.”

The naiveté is the notion that adoption is about bringing joy to American families. NO. Adoption from Ethiopia is/was not about bringing joy to American families. It was, and should have been, about finding families for Ethiopian children who have endured loss and trauma, and who genuinely have no other options.

Adoption also has to be about acknowledging the losses by the Ethiopian birth families, and the fact that adoption agencies offered them virtually no follow-up or counseling post-adoption, in marked contrast to what is offered to adoptive parents. In my trips to Ethiopia, and I’ve heard this from other visiting adoptive families, it is not at all unusual to have Ethiopian birth parents show tattered photos and ask adoptive parents, “Do you know where my child is?” Unlike American adoptive parents, Ethiopian birth parents rarely have received any sort of counseling or post-adoption services from the adoption agencies, or even any information about their children, though oftentimes they had been promised they would get news. An important resource has been Beteseb Felega, Ethiopian Adoption Connection, which has reunited many Ethiopian birth parents with their children.

For my final note here, I will say that while there will be no more adoptions for the foreseeable future, adoptive parents and others can still help vulnerable children in Ethiopia. The NPR story, like so many that follow only the tired narrative, seems to suggest that only adoption can help the children, and that is simply not true. There are sponsorships available, for some $30 or $50 a month, far less than the $50,000 for a single adoption, that will allow children to go to school, to have decent meals, to receive much needed medications. Roots Ethiopia provides (among other resources) supplies for children with Down syndrome.

Here’s a post that skims the surface of the multiple ways to help Ethiopian children and families.

We need to stop romanticizing adoption as a delightful fairy tale and acknowledge the losses as well as the gains. We need to insist that the voices of adult adoptees and of birth parents be at least equal with those of adoptive parents; I’d argue they should be considered the ones with greatest insight in adoption. And we need to stop throwing up our hands and acting as if international adoption is the only way to help vulnerable Ethiopian children.

Here’s hoping media catches up with this reality, and stops promoting stories that don’t begin to tell the full story.

 

Post script: Be sure to take a look at an Ethiopian adoptee’s comments on Twitter: @AselefechE

Consider emailing Eyder Peralta, the writer of the NPR story, at eperalta@npr.org, or tweeting your comments about the story to @NPR and to the writer, @eyderp.

Ethiopia Moves to Officially End International Adoption

Several Ethiopian news sources have reported that the Ethiopian Parliament is considering a new draft bill amending current law to end the adoption of Ethiopian children by foreigners. What are the reasons? No doubt there are many. Ezega news reported that the “inability by biological parents to trace their children and adoptees being denied the chance to communicate with their biological parents have been major issues that have been echoed in parliament.”

Those two reasons—Ethiopian parents being unable to learn anything about their children post-adoption, and adoptees being unable (due to adoptive parents’ refusal?) to contact their Ethiopian parents—exemplify deceitful practices by adoption facilitators who promised Ethiopian parents they would have contact with their children after adoption, though there was no guarantee of that since adoption permanently severs ties legally. The reasons also represent lost opportunities for adopted children (who grow up, and who I hope will learn their truths) to know their Ethiopian parents, even as they were raised by adoptive parents in the United States and elsewhere.

According to U.S. Department of State statistics, over 15.000 children were adopted from Ethiopia to the U.S. between 1999 and 2016, and of course thousands of others to Canada, Europe, and Australia. About 50% were three years old or younger at the time of adoption. In 1994, when my twin daughters arrived at six years old, there were 54 other Ethiopian children adopted to America. Adoption from Ethiopia has been fraught for years with so much: the murder of adoptee Hana Williams, the federal indictment of the adoption agency International Adoption Guides for fraud and corruption, and at least two temporary suspensions of adoptions by Ethiopia. At least three Ethiopian adoptees, from Netherlands and Denmark, annulled their adoptions. Many families discovered that the children they adopted were not orphans at all, but children who had clear and vivid memories of their mothers and families. Many families traveling back to Ethiopia with their adopted children encountered Ethiopian mothers desperately searching for their children. Adult adoptees have traveled to Ethiopia in search of their original families and have sometimes found them, finding also that their Ethiopian families had been deceived into placing them for adoption. Some have been unable to locate their original families, despite great efforts to do so.

While there certainly have been new families formed for children who needed them, there have also been multiple scandals and heartaches.

The Ezaga article notes that “due to problems especially with foreign adopters, over the past few years the issue of adoption has been stirring heated debates among various members of the community, including MPs (Members of Parliament).”

Ethiopian officials have been watching closely what has happened to the children adopted from Ethiopia. So have Ethiopians in the diaspora, as well as those in cafes in Addis, or in Hawassa, Shashemene, Gambela, and elsewhere.

There are many reasons for ending adoptions, especially those adoptions that resembled trafficking much more than any ideal of child welfare. Maybe the precise reasons don’t even matter, though I am not dismissing the tragedies of families deceived and the losses of children who were never orphans.

That said, what also matters now is what happens to the children who genuinely need families, and especially those who need medical care that is not available or not provided in Ethiopia.

Ending adoption does not mean that children don’t still need help, safety, and families. I often wonder about the children in Russia after Putin ended adoptions to the US, and in Guatemala after adoptions ended there. The needs of the children remain as extensive as ever.

So yes, let’s hope that domestic in country adoption will be a priority. Let’s hope that family preservation will flourish, and that there will not be more children dying, or begging in the streets, or suffering in isolation. As the Ethiopian officials have watched adoptive families, let’s hope the world watches and helps them to care for Ethiopian children. Perhaps Ethiopia will establish adoption programs for older children and for children with special needs, rather than ending all adoptions. Perhaps efforts like this campaign to help an Ethiopian child with a rare, painful disease, difficult to treat in Ethiopia, will gain more support–it’s a great example of family preservation. Please help if you can.

Sofoniyas and his mother

 

Let’s hope that the community of adoptive parents will rise up. In so many ways, we should be the ones leading the charge to make sure that, whenever possible, children can grow up not adopted but with their original families, and within their original cultures. No more saviorism or rescuing. It’s time for us to step up and support our children’s brothers and sisters.

 

 

Let’s hope adult adoptees continue to connect with Ethiopia, and with their Ethiopian families, with the support of their adoptive families. Let’s hope that the Ethiopian families who are searching for their children, for the knowledge that their children are alive, will be able to gain information, and maybe someday, peace.

Let’s hope this is a wake up call for anyone involved with adoption about the role of money and the vulnerability of children.

And let’s do a lot more than just hope. In the next few weeks, I’ll be posting information about ways to sponsor children and to promote family preservation, for far less than the cost of even one international adoption. It’s time.

 

 

 

 

 

Runner’s World on Gabe Proctor: Ethiopian Adoptee, Championship Runner, Suicide

Gabe Proctor with his siblings Joanna and Samuel, in 2000 and in 2013

 

Gabe Proctor lived a short, loving, and complex life. Adopted from Ethiopia around age 10 after his mother died, he grew up in Vermont, went to college in Kansas and Colorado, became a championship runner, worked hard to support his family in Ethiopia, and died by suicide at this past May at age 27.

Sarah Lorge Butler has written a thoughtful profile of Gabe in Runner’s World: After Runner’s Suicide, Anguish and A Search for Answers. She spoke extensively with Gabe’s family, as well as his coaches and running partners. The sorrow and loss are palpable, as are the questions that can never be answered.

I am among those quoted in the article, and I have written many times about suicide and adoption. There are simply no clearcut answers. According to the Runner’s World article,  ” ‘In understanding mental health and adoption, researchers now think about a combination of risk factors,’ said Maria Kroupina, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Minnesota. Adoption itself is one risk factor. Others include prenatal stress to the child’s mother. Genetics, or family history of mental illness. Stress in early childhood, from scarcity of resources or abuse or neglect. The loss of a parent.

It’s a process for adopted children and the adults in their lives to navigate these issues from the past. ‘Children and young adults need ongoing help,’ she said. “No health care providers would put a child with asthma or a heart condition in a family and say, ‘Please figure it out.'”

Gabe’s family remembers him as a talented, thoughtful, loving son and brother. His coaches remember him as incredibly hard-working and determined to push himself to achieve his best.

From the article: “During his best year in 2014, he had the fifth-fastest half marathon time in the U.S., but his heart is what people remember. Proctor especially looked out for those who had trouble fitting in or seemed burdened in other ways.”

Like many adoptees, especially those adopted at older ages and with siblings, Gabe never forgot his Ethiopian connections. “Gabe made four trips to Ethiopia over the years, and as his running career progressed, he realized his talent could help his relatives in Ethiopia. As a professional, his singular goal was to use his running to support his family. Gabe had a shoe deal from Asics, and he lived simply, never owning a car, for example. Samuel says before Gabe’s death, his brother had built houses that his Ethiopian family could use for rental income.”

Gabe Proctor in Ethiopia, July 2006

I give credit to his adoptive parents, Caryl and Jim Proctor, for sharing their son’s story. They and others who loved Gabe urge “family and friends of people who are struggling with depression to confront it head on.” Jim Proctor “implores parents to pay attention: ‘Accept that the warning signs are warning signs,’ he said…’Don’t ignore it.'”

There are many resources available to help with suicide prevention; I have listed many of them in this post: Resources Around Trauma and Suicide in Adoption. Whether or not adoption is involved, we should all be aware of resources for depression, anxiety, and suicide ideation. Yes, these are tough topics. And they need to see the light of day, because that’s the only way we can help each other.

‘Gabe was adamant about this,’ his younger brother, Samuel, said. ‘Always treat people the absolute best you can, because you don’t know what they’re dealing with.’

 

 

The Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24/7, is 800-273-8255. You can also text 741741, the crisis text line available 24/7, and text with a trained crisis counselor.

IAG Officials Sentenced

The three defendants from International Adoption Guides were sentenced yesterday, : Mary Mooney got 18 months in prison. James Harding got 12 months in prison. Alisa Bivens got probation. All had pled guilty to the charges of fraud, bribery, and corruption brought against them by the US Justice department; the crimes all involved Ethiopian adoptions. Many families, in the US and in Ethiopia, were harmed by IAG.

Correction/Update: The charge also involved adoptions from Kazakhstan. Mary Mooney was sentenced for accreditation fraud for Kazakhstan. Harding and Bivens were sentenced of conspiring to defraud the United States in connection with Ethiopian adoptions.

In addition, the three defendants have been ordered to pay restitution. Mooney was ordered to pay $223,946.04 to victims who adopted from Kazakhstan. Harding was ordered to pay $301,224.25, and Bivens $31,800.00, presumably to victims of the Ethiopian fraud. The court will be contacting the victims individually with the restitution calculations.

I do not know if any Ethiopian parents are included as victims.

It is unclear when Mooney and Harding will begin their prison terms.

Here is the press release from the U.S. Department of Justice regarding the sentencing: “Founder, CEO, and Employee of International Adoption Guides (IAG) Sentenced For Adoption Fraud Schemes.”

Angelina Jolie and the Traumatization of Orphans

Update: Angelina Jolie has refuted the context and accuracy of this incident, via Vulture, Variety, and others. I have not yet heard a response from the writer of the original Vanity Fair article cited in this blog post, and I hope that writer speaks out also. A controversial description like this one, of a casting call involving orphans and manipulation, should have raised red flags for fact checking prior to publication.

 

Why would Angelina Jolie exploit orphans?

Thousands admire her, as well as her rainbow family, even as some are bemused by her behaviors. My guess is that Angelina Jolie years ago gave up caring about what other people think of her, and goes ahead with her creative journey, sharing personal information when the time is right. The new Vanity Fair cover story is one such example, in which she talks about life after Brad, dealing with health issues, and her days as a cleaning up and cooking mom.

Jolie also talks about her new Netflix movie, First They Killed My Father, and her time in and love for Cambodia. Her first son, Maddox, was adopted from there in 2002, and Jolie is a Cambodian citizen.

In Vanity Fair, Jolie talks about the casting for her movie, and this is where the heartache really begins.

“To cast the children in the film, Jolie looked at orphanages, circuses, and slum schools, specifically seeking children who had experienced hardship. In order to find their lead, to play young Loung Ung, the casting directors set up a game, rather disturbing in its realism: they put money on the table and asked the child to think of something she needed the money for, and then to snatch it away. The director would pretend to catch the child, and the child would have to come up with a lie. ‘Srey Moch [the girl ultimately chosen for the part] was the only child that stared at the money for a very, very long time,’ Jolie says. ‘When she was forced to give it back, she became overwhelmed with emotion. All these different things came flooding back.’ Jolie then tears up. ‘When she was asked later what the money was for, she said her grandfather had died, and they didn’t have enough money for a nice funeral.'”

Looked at orphanages, circuses, and slums, specifically seeking children who had experienced hardship?

Set up a game?

Rather disturbing?

How about exploitative, cruel, and arrogant? To knowingly impose trauma, humiliation, and shame on little girls, many of whom have likely experienced tremendous losses, including the loss of parents? Yes, deeply disturbing.

Not surprisingly, Jolie is receiving a lot of criticism for this.

The Telegraph in the UK reports that this incident has sparked outrage. Business Insider says the casting method is being deemed cruel. Twitter is busy on #AngelinaJolie.

I’d venture that the adoption community is divided about Jolie. Many people outside the community think it’s warm and wonderful that she adopted a bunch of cute kids, and I have no doubt that many people looked into adopting because Angelina adopted and People magazine wrote all about it. Many people within the community express concern about celebrity adoptions, making a tempting trend out of the intense complexity of international, transracial adoption.

The Vanity Fair article describes Jolie’s adoption process in Cambodia:

“…she visited an orphanage in the provincial town of Battambang, having promised herself that she’d go only to one, that she wasn’t going to shop around. But Jolie felt uneasy as she wandered the rooms, meeting the children. ‘I didn’t feel a connection with any of them,’ she recalls.

‘They then said, ‘There’s one more baby.’ Baby Maddox was lying in a box that was suspended from the ceiling. She looked at him. He looked at her. ‘I cried and cried,’ she recalls.”

I have no idea what agency Jolie used, or the details of the adoption process. Most countries don’t allow prospective parents to “shop around,” the phrase Vanity Fair uses to describe Jolie’s process. This commodification of children in adoption is but one of many reasons that international adoption has declined.

Cambodia has suspended adoptions several times in the last decade, largely due to trafficking. Jolie has also adopted from Ethiopia and from Vietnam, both of which have also essentially closed to international adoption. Jolie’s daughter Zahara, from Ethiopia, was not an orphan; there have been several media stories about Zahara’s Ethiopian mother wanting to hear from Zahara.

While most internationally adopted children have living parents or other close family members, and very few are actual orphans, the children have lived through tremendous trauma and dangers. The children still in orphanages and slums around the world deserve compassion, family preservation, literacy, and safety.

The Cambodian children who were recruited to try out for a part in a movie–children from orphanages and slums–were treated cruelly by people who should know better, especially an adoptive parent.

Angelina Jolie is a powerful, beautiful, wealthy, western woman. I’ve no doubt she has done much good in the world. I am sure her presentation in the media has flaws and inaccuracies, but, as presented in Vanity Fair, this movie casting method, this exploitation of impoverished children, speaks only to selfishness and creative focus gone tragically awry. My heart aches for the now forgotten, cast aside orphans and other vulnerable children.

 

 

Here’s one way to help: The Cambodian Children’s Fund.

IAG Sentencing Rescheduled Yet Again

Update: The sentencing hearing for defendants James Harding, Alisa Bivens, and Mary Mooney has now been set for August 10, 2017, 10:00am, Courtroom 2, the Waring Judicial Center, 83 Meeting St, Charleston, SC,  before Judge David Norton.

 

 

To perhaps no one’s surprise, given the years this process has taken, the sentencing hearing for the three International Adoption Guides’ defendants, all of whom pled guilty about three years ago, has been rescheduled from July 13 to Thursday, August 17.

The sentencing hearing for Mary Mooney is now scheduled at 10am, for Alisa Bivens at 10:30am, and for James Harding at 11am. The hearings will take place in Courtroom 2, at the Waring Judicial Center, 83 Meeting Street, Charleston, SC, before Judge David Norton.

I have no idea why the sentencing has been rescheduled. It could be for the judge, for the probation officer, for the defendants, for the lawyers. I have been told that these delays are not unusual when it comes to sentencing for federal crimes.

Here’s hoping for justice.

 




 

An Academic Analysis of Ethiopian Illegal Adoptions: A Sobering Roadmap

“Children for Families: An Ethnography of Illegal Intercountry Adoption From Ethiopia,” an article by Daniel Hailu, Ph.D., in Adoption Quarterly, provides a stunningly clear road map of how illegal adoptions have occurred in Ethiopia. His research corroborates many anecdotal experiences, discusses the impact of Ethiopian sociocultural views, and offers suggestions for reform.

The issue of illegal adoptions from Ethiopia has been simmering for years. I don’t think anyone has statistics on how many adoptions have been legal or illegal. Families have shared stories on Facebook. Adult adoptees have learned, after search and reunion, that their adoptive parents were not told the truth about why adoption was needed. Birth/first families were deceived or coerced into placing their children in an orphanage. Blame can be focused on many people: adoption agencies, police officers, brokers, government workers, adoptive families, first/birth families, and almost anyone involved with adoption and fees.

Adoptions from Ethiopia have declined dramatically in recent years. In May of this year, the Ethiopian government suspended adoptions, though it appears that children who were in the legal custody of their adoptive parents have been allowed to leave Ethiopia. I posted recently about the upcoming sentencing hearing of three International Adoption Guides’ officials, who have pled guilty to charges involving fraud and corruption in Ethiopia. A frequent source of debate on Facebook among adoptive families is whose adoption was fraudulent, whose adoption agency was checked out thoroughly, whose adoption was “clean.” Some prospective and new adoptive families discount the stories of families who have discovered lies and deceits in their children’s adoptions.

Dr. Hailu’s article describes how illegal and unethical adoptions occur. He interviewed 54 “informants,” people intimately engaged in adoptions in Ethiopia. He writes:

“At the root of illegal adoption are fabricated documentation and false testimonies that establish the legal basis for the subsequent adoption processes. Informants reported that these bases could not be established without the support and protection of local authorities, including some police officers.

An orphanage involved in illegal adoption perceived four major advantages in involving local authorities, as summarized by an informant:

First, local authorities facilitate identification of brokers from within the local community where orphanages have no other trusted link.

Second, officials in clandestine support brokers in recruiting children: The authorities identify children for potential adoption and also coax parents and guardians into giving their children away for adoption.

Third, the official expedites issuance of a letter of testimony that the orphanage needs from the kebele (neighborhood or ward) administration or the social court in order to take the case to the First Instance Court.

Fourth, the officials buffer the orphanage from any allegations that may be posed by any higher authority against recruiting an ineligible child.”

No one disputes, I hope, the role that money has played and continues to play in adoption. Between 1999 and 2016, some 15,300 Ethiopian children arrived in the U.S. Using a fee of $30,000 per adoption, some $459 million went from the U.S. to Ethiopian adoptions. Granted, not all of it went to Ethiopia. Still. Millions of dollars poured into Ethiopia from adoptive families, not just to the adoption agencies, but also to the orphanages, and to others working in the network to secure children for adoption.

Here is one matter-of-fact and chilling quote:

“The following description of a country representative of an adoption agency regarding the relationship between adoption agencies and orphanages is shared by several other informants in the industry:

‘Take my case as an example. I have entered adoption agreement worth millions. Neither UNICEF nor any government subsidizes me. Rather I get the money from adopting families. They expect me to give them babies. My boss expects babies. So, I expect the babies from the orphanages to whom I agreed to give part of the millions. It is a clean supply and demand relationship that exists among adopting families, adoption agencies, and orphanages. Essentially, we are providing children for families rather than finding families for children without parental care.’ ”

And how would country representatives or brokers convince families to place their babies and children in the orphanages, and thus for adoption?

That method, according to Dr. Hailu’s article, is also matter-of-fact and chilling.

“Three techniques were identified that brokers applied to coax parents and guardians into voluntary relinquishment of parental rights. The first was to appeal to the natural wish of parents for the future well-being of their children.

An informant explained:

As a first strategy, “Brokers would convince parents/guardians that it was better for the child to grow under better care than suffer with them: They promise that the child would be sent to [a] good school, eat well, [and] wear nice clothes and would generally live comfortable life. The brokers also give them the false promise that they would get to see the child once in a while whether the child is adopted locally or internationally.”

These promises have generally proven false, of course. Many adoptive parents and adopted persons have encountered Ethiopian birth parents who beg them to find out about the children they lost to adoption and have never heard from, despite the “promises” they were given. One important resource is Beteseb Felega—Ethiopian Adoption Connection, which has reunited many adoptees with their Ethiopian parents. Whether the adoptive parents had made the promise or not, many Ethiopian parents were told there would be contact. I’ve heard of adoptive parents finding out that the Ethiopian parents hoped to know if their children were alive and well—and the adoptive parents refused to respond. I hope they can face their adopted children and tell them this someday, as the children will grow up and likely find out their truths.

The second strategy of brokers to acquire children is to draw the attention of parents or guardians to their poverty and entice them with a promise of economic gain that they would potentially accrue by giving their child away for eventual adoption.

Another informant explained:

“The broker calls the attention of guardians to the financial assistance and visits that some guardians who have previously given away their children may have obtained from adopting families. There may be many such stories known to the people that brokers use for their purpose. For example, adopt[ive] parents of a child had sent money to the biological parents in our area, who used it to open their own beauty salon. Some guardians have reported to have come to the orphanage for the purpose of giving their bank account number to the adopting family in anticipation of transfers.”

The issue of how, whether, and how much adoptive families contribute to the financial support of their children’s Ethiopian families is a hot button topic. Some people feel it encourages other Ethiopian families to place their children for adoption, hoping to get a financial return, a concern borne out by Dr. Hailu’s article. Other parents feel it is their ethical right and responsibility to send their child’s siblings to school, or to buy a goat, or to wire money on a regular basis. It’s complicated. There is no question there has been an impact, in any case. I hope there will be more studies done, by the Ethiopian government or by academics, on the financial contributions to birth/first families.

In the third strategy, the broker capitalizes on the socially constructed prestige that could be accrued out of having a child living abroad.

“A related enticement is the social prestige that can be derived out of forging familial linkage with a ferenji (i.e., a white person). Although guardians are the main targets, these coaxing rhetorics have a stronger influence on older siblings of the child being prepared for adoption, who consider this a special opportunity presented to their younger siblings. This is due to increasing globalization that is creating an image of opportunities and affluence that may be available in the freng hager (i.e., the country of white people).

Consequently, in addition to persuasion by brokers, siblings who are too old to be adopted put pressure on their parents to place their younger siblings in the hope that the above reported social and economic benefit may eventually trickle down to them as well.”

Many adoptive parents have been told their children were abandoned. Dr. Hailu’s informants describe how the abandonment is staged.

“Staged abandoning of a child takes the form of a play in the theater. The play is written and directed by the broker. He also casts the characters and assigns them roles. In this drama the parents/guardians are coaxed into leaving the child at a predetermined place and time that is out of public view.

Soon after the child is seemingly abandoned, an assigned person reports the case to a predetermined police officer. The police officer who is ready to take on his role goes to the site and takes the child to the police station where all necessary records are made. The police officer then takes the child to the temporary custody of the orphanage on whose behalf the broker has directed the drama. The case is then taken to the First Instance Court.

Abandoned children pose much less procedural and legal challenges for orphanages. To begin with, the strategy is, informants reported, generally applied with infants who had not yet developed verbal capacities lest the child leak information regarding his or her guardians or the staged abandoning.”

While there is much information in this article to process, some of which is familiar to many, some of which will be eye-opening and jaw-dropping, Dr. Hailu also offers some solutions.

A referral system could enable unparented children to benefit from NGO services, and hence avoid institutional care and intercountry adoption. Hailu writes that “In Ethiopia, there already exist thousands of NGOs that provide community-based services to children. For example, 275 NGOs that are operational in Addis Ababa in 2013 had implemented more than 291 child-focused projects investing Birr 703, 641, 865 (Hailu, 2013). But there is currently no referral system to connect the children in need to the services that could be provided.”

Dr. Hailu also writes that “Informants reported that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, when making decisions based on the recommendations of its regional counterparts, generally does not undertake an independent investigation about the child’s social economic status. This is partly because it lacks the institutional capacity to travel to the child’s locality of origin to conduct the investigation, and partly because regional governments could construe the attempt at independent investigation by the federal government as interfering in their autonomy.”

I believe Dr. Hailu is suggesting here that independent investigations by MOWA, if feasible and done with transparency, could provide oversight and confirmation of accuracy of reports from the regional governments.

Changing sociocultural attitudes about adoption in Ethiopia could also, Dr. Hailu suggests, help to minimize illegal adoptions.

In testifying that a child is an orphan or abandoned, “witnesses see their false testimony as an act of benevolence, or even socially required action, to both the child and family. If they refuse to falsely testify, they could be regarded as miqegna (literally means one who does not wish the good of others), with potential negative social repercussions. Therefore, transforming the cultural and social-psychological allure within local communities is a critical strategy to minimizing illegal intercountry adoption.

This may involve preventive interventions of systematic and sustained public education regarding child rights, the adverse impacts of institutional care and intercountry adoption on children, and legal adoption processes. It also requires protective interventions of strict legal enforcement against participation in illegal intercountry adoption.”

In terms of the financial incentives inherent in international adoption, Dr. Hailu writes that “criminalizing direct adoption-related transactions between adoption agencies and orphanages” could be effective. “This will require setting up a centralized agency under a relevant ministry managed by a public/private partnership. The agency may be part of a national social welfare system that may be mandated to undertake individualized assessment of each unparented child and refer the child to various alternative care options including intercountry adoption.

As part of the welfare system, institutional care providers may be given subcontracts or grants by the centralized agency (and not by adoption agencies) to provide institutional foster care until a better placement is found for the child. Measures to ensure accountability and transparency in the operations of the agency need to be put in place in order to prevent officers of the agency from establishing corrupt relationships with adoption agencies and orphanages.”

There are many possible ways to curb or perhaps end fraud in adoptions from Ethiopia. They require diligence, funding, infrastructure, marketing, training, and sustainable capacity. I know many people and organizations argue that ending international adoptions is the only way to end the fraud and corruption. I know others who say that adoptions should continue only for children with special needs who cannot get appropriate (life-saving) care in Ethiopia. Others argue that adoptions, not life in abject poverty in an orphanage, would be best.

I’d argue that family preservation, orphan prevention, and in-country adoption are goals that everyone who cares about Ethiopian children should prioritize. I’ve written about the many ways to help children in Ethiopia: If Adoptions Decline, What Happens to the Children?

I hope Dr. Hailu’s article, which is available here (a paywall), will be widely read by anyone connected with Ethiopian adoptions, or who has an interest in child welfare. Although I was familiar with much of this information anecdotally, it is quite powerful to see it set in academic terms.

Ultimately, of course, it is Ethiopia’s decision to decide how to end fraud in Ethiopian adoptions, and how to make enact policies that best help children. I believe there are many in the adoption community who are watching the next steps carefully, and who are willing to help. I hope that, in addition to the usual government workers or international lawyers or lobbying groups, Ethiopian adoptees and birth/first families play a vibrant role in any discussions.