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.

Why Are Adult Adoptees So Often Afterthoughts In Adoption?

It’s a pattern of sorts. An issue arises around adoption, domestic or international. Adoptive parents, most often white and well-off, are featured prominently, if not exclusively, in media. Most have very young children. No one apparently thinks that maybe adult adoptees should be included in the conversation.

A recent Twitter dustup reflected this reality. Elizabeth Archer, a British mother of two young children (one by birth and one by adoption), tweeted that she was putting together a series of books, called Attitudes to Adoption, for prospective adopters.  She asked for contributions from grandparents, mothers, fathers, birth families, professionals, and foster parents. “All have an adoption story to tell,” she wrote.

Except, apparently, adoptees.

When Archer was called out for the exclusion of adoptees, she tweeted, “At present I don’t feel I have the resources to do a book about adoptees but if you know of enough people who are willing to contribute then I will take this back to my publisher!” Here’s the problem: she’s not a grandparent, a birth parent (who placed a child for adoption), or a professional either, but she had the resources for those categories.

She got pushback from several adoptees, and I (an adoptive parent) chimed in as well. Archer responded to the comments, saying “I’m just an ordinary mum trying to write some books. I’m raising my own little adoptee so I would never be against sharing their views.”

Adoptees tweeted to her. @housewifeabroad wrote, “To write books about adoption with no input from adoptees will set these further families up to be blindsided by feelings and behaviors which are completely predictable.”

@SheWolfofEng wrote, “Isn’t the most important voice in adoption the voice of the adoptee?”

@neithskye wrote, “This wasn’t an ‘oversight’ at all. This was deliberate silencing. They might not like what we have to say. *How* do you discuss adoption and ‘forget’ about adoptees?”

@SunnyJWriter wrote, “It might be best if you considered the voices of #adoptees. For many years, we’ve been overshadowed by perspectives such as the one you’ve shared. You have an opportunity to help an enormously misunderstood and marginalized population, instead of ones already covered.”

Several adoptees were reported and blocked on Twitter by Archer and others.

After the Twitter pushback, Archer posted on her Facebook page, “I never realized until now what cyberbullying could feel like,” with a sad face emoji. “Guess I underestimated the hate that is out there aimed at adopters from adult adoptees. Feeling a bit vulnerable.”

She was consoled by many, who offered big hugs and condolences. “It’s so easy for cowards to sit at a keyboard and spout utter rubbish to make themselves feel better. Rise above it…you have a life & clearly they don’t.” Archer notes that she “blocked and reported the most venomous ones.” Another supporter wrote, “They’re from a different generation—much has changed since then, not least of all the type of children needing families.” Archer wrote, “I really do feel for the adoptees. Their adoption journey must have been one of great sadness & heartache to live them feeling so full of hate.”

As it turn out, Archer now has an “Adoptees” book in the mix of the “Attitudes to Adoption” series. The missing resources she had tweeted about earlier in the day were found.

Yesterday on her Facebook page, Archer wrote that she is “currently taking a break from Twitter after being targeted by a group of (mainly American) Adoptee Activists.”

I am not sure why citizenship mattered, but there we are.

Archer earlier deleted several comments by adoptees on her Facebook page, though to her credit, she left a post by Holly Lysne, an adoptee who is also an adoptive and biological mother, directing Archer to the podcast Adoptees On, which is a wonderful (based in Canada) resource for adoptees to share their experiences, and for adoptive parents to listen and learn. I recommended Dear Adoption, which is also a tremendous resource. Catherine Johnston, an adoptee and adoptive parent, recommended The Lost Daughters, also a brilliant resource, but Catherine’s comment was deleted from Archer’s page.

Other vibrant adoptee-centric sites would be The Declassified Adoptee, The Adopted Life, I am AdoptedI Am Adoptee, Adoptee Restoration, The Rambler Adoptee Podcasts, Adoptees Connect, and Adoptee Reading. These are U.S.-based, I realize, but, Internet. Out of the Fog is based in Canada.  Intercountry Adoptee Voices is based in Australia, and includes a long list of global adoptee led groups, including in the UK. The writings and talks by Lemn Sissay come to mind, of course, for a British adoptee.

My list is by no means exhaustive. Please feel free to add your recommendations in the comments. I am not trying to omit anyone—just want to get this post out there.

So here’s the point. There is no shortage of information, perspectives, insights, and resources by adult adoptees, but all too often, adoptive parents and media ignore them, or don’t know about them (!), when discussing adoption. That has to stop.

A few final thoughts:

How is it that adoptive mothers of young children are considered experts on adoption? Nope, sorry. You need to have a couple of decades of parenting under your belt to truly understand what it means to be an adoptive parent.

We adoptive parents must stop clutching our pearls when we hear about negative, difficult perspectives on adoption as spoken by adoptees. Dismissing them as cowards or venomous doesn’t make their experiences any less valid; it slams the doors on some really important conversations.

Many adoptees had great childhoods, deeply love their adoptive parents, their parents love them, and still the adoptees struggle with the losses in adoption, which can manifest in many ways over a lifetime. Other adoptees had horrific experiences. All these voices have been marginalized for much too long around the globe.

Thick skin is needed for anyone speaking out or writing in Adoption Land. If Ms. Archer felt she was a victim of cyber bullying and needed to block adoptees (plus get consolation and hugs), she ain’t seen nothing yet.

Adoption and raising adopted children takes a commitment to deep listening and learning,  especially to those who have been adopted.

 

(Need more examples? You can find my posts about the exclusion of adoptees by NPR here and here. My post about a White House international adoption petition that had little inclusion of adult adoptees is here.)

Think Twice Before Signing That Petition About International Adoptions

Why wouldn’t everyone sign a petition to increase international adoptions? Don’t we all want orphans to have families?

Well, there are many reasons not to sign.

One is because many of the children in orphanages (and placed for adoption) are not in fact orphans at all.

Another is that there are multiple ways besides international adoption to help vulnerable children, many of which are far more cost efficient and could help many more children.

Another reason is that essentially emotional petitions like this ignore the horrific treatment of too many first parents, who were often misled about the realities of having all rights severed, and in any case receive no post-adoption counseling or resources whatsoever from the adoption agencies who support the petition.

I’m going to argue, though, that the main reason not sign this petition is this.

You shouldn’t sign the petition because of who is behind it: adoption agencies and adoption lawyers. I am not attacking them. It is, after all, in their interest to increase international adoptions, and some indeed have a genuine desire to help children.

My focus is on the fact that there are virtually no international adoptee groups who support this petition. There are no international birth parents.

That’s right: No adult adoptee groups have endorsed the petition, with the exception of a small, inactive group that is affiliated with the adoption agency previously headed by the main person behind the petition.

I understand the obvious difficulties in logistics of having birth/first parents participate. It’s not impossible, though. As it is, international birth parents are not even mentioned in this ostensible effort to promote international adoptions. That is very telling, and may be the biggest reason not to sign the petition.

Until there is vocal, vibrant support from international adult adoptees and from birth parents, why should any of us support a petition to increase international adoptions? This petition is merely the product of adoptive parents, adoption agencies, and adoption attorneys, and that is not acceptable.

If you need additional reasons not to sign, here are a few more.

The petition fails to even mention one of the most burning issues in international adoption today: the need for retroactive citizenship for all international adoptees. Imagine if all these website owners, adoption agencies, and adoptive parents put their money, time, and energy into demanding that all international adoptees be granted citizenship. Imagine.

The petition fails to mention another burning issue in the adoption community: the re-homing of internationally adopted children, whether done illicitly, or through Second Chance adoptions, or via the US foster care system. How can adoption agencies and adoption attorneys call for more adoptions when there are children whose adoptions are being dissolved and who are being re-traumatized by losing another family?

The petition also fails to mention the ongoing incidents of fraud and corruption in international adoption. Agencies have been investigated, indicted, shut down. Adoptees have found that they were not orphans, contrary to what the adoption agencies told the adoptive parents. How has the industry addressed these realities, even as they are calling for more adoptions?

The petition itself was created by Nathan Gwilliam, the founder and CEO of adoption.com, and Board member of the National Council For Adoption. You’ll see the initials “N.G.” on the petition site. Though not personally connected to adoption, he has used his site to heavily promote the petition, as well as appearing on conservative venues such as the Lars Larson show. Gwilliam also appeared recently on the Glenn Beck show with Ron Stoddart, who is touting the petition heavily on the site Save Adoptions.

The petition is the result of the simmering disputes between the State Department and international adoption agencies. The simplified bottom line is this: The State Department wanted more rigorous standards for adoption service providers. The erstwhile accrediting entity, the Council on Accreditation (COA), felt that the standards were too burdensome/unnecessary, and announced it was withdrawing from accrediting under the Hague Convention. The State Department designated a new entity, IAMME, which will charge more and have 20 paid staff (COA had 4 staff people, and used volunteers from adoption agencies to facilitate the accreditation of other agencies). Adoption agencies and State have been at loggerheads for months over the standards and the fees. Agencies argue that State is trying to end international adoptions, and State argues that more stringent standards are necessary and that the fees will not be as burdensome as the agencies suggest.

Here’s the petition’s mission statement:

We the People, recognizing a child’s right to a family when one is not available in his/her birth country and the loving character of American families, ask President Trump to investigate the causes of the 80% decline in intercountry adoptions since 2004 and to solve the U.S. international adoption crisis. The leadership of the Office of Children’s Issues (at the US Department of State) has been unresponsive to collaborating with the adoption community to solve problems and continues to reinterpret regulations in ways unintended by Congress in the Hague Intercountry Adoption Act. We need pro-adoption leadership who will increase the number of ethical adoptions. The adoption community stands ready to work with the Administration to implement various achievable solutions to help orphans find loving, permanent families.

Ron Stoddart is listed on Save Adoptions as the Contact for the petition. Stoddart is an adoptive parent, is an attorney, and was the executive director of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, an adoption agency licensed in several states. The agency is Hague-accredited, and offers domestic adoption services as well as international adoption programs in 18 countries. They also offer Snowflakes, their frozen embryo adoption/donation service. Stoddart is currently on Nightlight’s Board of Directors.

Ron Stoddart of Save Adoptions

Among the Partners listed on Save Adoptions web page are some 80 adoption agencies and attorneys. The lone adoptee group is Adopted For Good—The Coalition of Adoptees. It is clearly closely affiliated with Stoddart’s agency, Nightlight Adoptions. Stoddart is on the group’s Board of Directors, along with the VP of Operations for Nightlight. The group itself appears inactive. The last post on its Forum was in 2015. That’s it for international adoptees as “Partners.” I found no indication that there are any international birth parents as partners for Save Adoption.

Also, at least three adoption agencies listed as Partners are no longer accredited for international adoption: Amazing Grace Adoptions, Faith International, and Adoption S.T.A.R. The State Department announcements on these and four other agencies whose accreditation has expired is available here and here.

International adoptions have declined, not just in the U.S. but around the globe, for many reasons. Several sending countries (for example, Russia, Guatemala, Ethiopia) have closed or cut back on the number of children sent abroad for adoption. Fraud and corruption have grabbed headlines. Sending countries have expressed grave concern that the U.S. does not grant citizenship automatically to all international adoptees, and indeed has deported some. Some countries are working to promote in-country adoption. Evangelical Christians who once heavily promoted adoption are now revamping their approach toward orphan prevention. The abuse and deaths of internationally adopted children have made sending countries deeply troubled about the well-being of their children. The failure of adoptive parents to send in post-placement reports has caused sending countries to slow or end adoptions.

None of that is mentioned in the rationale for the petition.

Instead, the petition declares that the cause is the Office of Children’s Issues, a narrow focus indeed. This fight between State and adoption agencies may not be settled for a long time. IAMME needs time to do its accreditation work, even as more adoption agencies seem to be opting out of accreditation and adoption every week. The State Department is throwing down more gauntlets around adoption practices such as soft referrals, and agencies are pushing back. State, IAMME, and adoption agencies are scrapping over the new fees that IAMME is implementing. Regulations for monitoring and oversight are especially contentious, which is no surprise, given the vagaries and history of intercountry adoptions. One of the hardest and most important responsibilities of adoption agencies is ensuring that they are closely monitoring their staff on the ground in the countries from which they are placing children.

To wrap up: (1) We all want to help vulnerable children, and we all agree that children deserve safe, loving families. Adoption is not the right solution for all children by any means. The far greater emphasis should be on family preservation, sponsorship programs, literacy, clean water, electricity, job training, medications, and all the other benefits of life in the countries to which children are adopted because they and their families don’t have those benefits in their home countries.

(2) This current debate has the echoes of CHIFF, 2015 legislation ostensibly designed to streamline the adoption process. The CHIFF proponents are almost all the same folks now clamoring for this petition. CHIFF failed miserably for many reasons:  Adoptees and birth parents were not included in policy discussions or as supporters. CHIFF proponents hammered away at the State Department through personal and emotional attacks, ultimately alienating many people who could have been partners. Apparently, the petition folks did not draw any lessons from the CHIFF debacle.

(3) Don’t sign the petition. Until the adoption community genuinely places adoptees and first/birth parents on the same plane as adoptive parents in terms of resources, respect, and visibility, and until the adoption industry addresses issues such as citizenship, re-homing, fraud, and corruption, we cannot move ahead to meaningful policy in international adoption.

The petition, by the way, is aiming for 100,000 signatures; they have about 30,000 now, with one more week to get the remaining 70,000.

 

Post script: For more information about the current tensions between the Department of State and adoption agencies, please take a look at adoptionintegrity.com for several detailed explanations about these and other issues. They have several solid analyses about accrediting entities and an informative, balanced video about the tensions. 

 

 

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.

Four International Adoption Agencies Lose Accreditation Status

Update: Another international adoption agency, Chinese Children Adoption International (CCAI), has had its accreditation temporarily suspended, according to a March 15 email from the U.S. State Department.

The US State Department announced today that two international adoption agencies (Journeys of the Heart and La Vida International) have failed to renew their Council on Accreditation (COA) accreditation under the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. State also announced that Voice for International Development and Adoption (VIDA) has had its COA accreditation cancelled, and Adopt Abroad Inc has been temporarily suspended by COA.

That’s a lot of loss in international adoption business. Is it a trend? An augur?

COA had announced last October that it was no longer going to accredit adoption agencies under the Hague Convention. The State Department has been working with a new accreditor, IAAME, which is supposed to be up and running soon. IAAME’s website can be viewed here. There has been a lot of tension among IAAME, the adoption community, and the State Department over the accreditation process and its costs. The news today that four agencies have lost or not sought renewal of accreditation is daunting. It arguably decreases the pool of adoption agencies who will be accredited under IAAME, and that could have an impact on international adoptions, as well as the costs overall and the work of the new accreditor.

State Department announcement about Journeys of the Heart and La Vida International

State Department list of agencies debarred or cancelled for Hague (needs to be updated)

National Council For Adoption information about advocacy on accreditation

Article  “Tension Between State Department, Accreditor over Intercountry Adoptions”

COA website information about accreditation 

Great News: Adoptee Citizenship Legislation Introduced in US Congress

Thousands of now-adult international adoptees whose parents failed to get them citizenship when they were children might now become U.S. citizens. On March 8, a new Adoptee Citizenship bill was introduced in both the House and the Senate, with bipartisan sponsors. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo) and Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) introduced the Senate version, S. 2522.  On the House side, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) introduced H.R. 5233.

Both bills have been referred to the Judiciary Committee in their respective chambers. The text is not yet available, though it should be soon. I will post it as soon as possible. The description of both says the bill will “provide for automatic acquisition of United States citizenship for certain internationally adopted individuals.”

The Child Citizenship Act (CCA) of 2000 provided citizenship for adopted children under the age of 18 at the time the Act became law. Those who were over 18 were not included in the bill. According to a press release from Sen. Blunt, “The Child Citizenship Act (CCA) left thousands of international adopted children, who are now adults, in an untenable position, facing everything from difficulty applying for a passport to possible deportation…By fixing current law to meet the original goal of the CCA, we will help ensure these individuals have the security, stability, and opportunity their parents intended for them when they welcomed them into their families.”

The legislation would grant citizenship to international adoptees unless they have been found guilty of a violent crime and been deported. This exception has been a point of much discussion and contention around the legislation. Some 20+ international adoptees have been deported, some due to serious crimes, and some due to relatively minor crimes such as selling small amounts of marijuana. Others are under the eye of the Department of Homeland Security because they are without citizenship, but have not committed any crimes. There currently exists no easy or clear path for these adoptees to become citizens once they are over 18 years old. Some did not discover they were not citizens until they applied for a passport or for security clearance at work.

The Adoptee Rights Campaign (ARC) estimates that 35,000 international adoptees are without citizenship, and they will be helped by this much-needed legislation. ARC has been among the leaders on this legislation, along with many others who have urged Congress for years to enact this into law.

Next steps could be hearings, then passage in both the House and Senate, and then signature into law by the president. No one knows the timeframe, but many folks are optimistic that the bipartisan, bicameral introduction of the Adoptee Citizenship Act will help it pass expediently.

That’s certainly my hope. That thousands of international adoptees, brought to this country to join new families, did not automatically receive citizenship because their parents failed to get it or because of bureaucratic errors, has been an untenable, unfair reality that the Congress has taken far too long to rectify. This new legislation would provide a long overdue correction, one wanted by the sending countries, by the adoption community, and by the adoptees.

You can follow the progress of the House bill here, and the Senate bill here.

Adoptive Parents: How Can You Best Participate in National Adoption Awareness Month?

By insisting on letting the voices of adoptees and of first/birth parents be heard.

November is National Adoption Awareness Month, an event which, like adoption itself, is far more complex that it may seem on the surface.

The word “awareness” is pivotal. Originally, the month was intended to bring focus to the need for adoptions from foster care. That focus, like the original intent of the adoption tax credit, has grown much larger, blurrier, and even controversial. What could be controversial about adoption, you ask? Children in families, feel good narratives, tear-jerker holiday specials, cute videos, win-win. Here’s the thing: there are valid elements in all that. There are also harsher realities that are often excluded in the understanding of the adoption mainstream, and we all have to be willing to look at and acknowledge them, perhaps especially this month.

Photo © Maureen McCauley

So, as an adoptive parent myself, I urge adoptive parents to look for and listen especially to the voices of adult adoptees and of first/birth parents this month.

Here are a few sites, in random order. There are many more. I’ll be posting more though the month, as well as interviews with adult adoptees and with first/birth mothers.

Dear Adoption (Essays by adoptees)

Lost Daughters generally, and about #flipthescript specifically (A collective of women writers who were adopted or fostered)

AdopteesOn (Podcasts of interviews with adopted adults)

The Adopted Life (Blog and more by a U.S. transracial adoptee; subject of Closure documentary)

I Am Adoptee (Resource group created by adoptees for adoptees)

Musings of the Lame (Blog by a U.S. birthmother)

Saving Our Sisters (Family preservation site working with women considering placing their children for adoption)

Anti-Adoption (Facebook group focused on publicly exposing the problems in adoption)

Only Black Girl (Blog of U.S. transracial adoptee)

Adoptee Rights Campaign (Advocating for U.S. citizenship for all international adoptees adopted to the U.S.)

First Mother Forum (Where first/birth/real/natural mothers can talk and vent)

There are many more. I urge adoptive parents to use this month to learn, to feel uncomfortable and challenged, and to seek ways to educate themselves and others about the full breadth of adoption.

When Adopted Children Are Killed, Who Is Responsible?

When an adopted child is killed by his/her adoptive parents, is the adoption agency that did the home study complicit?

Generally, the agency that did the home study and approved the parents to adopt is the same one that does any required post-adoption reports. There may often be a second agency that does the actual selection and placement of the child from the country of origin. The legal responsibilities are generally clear. What ethical responsibility does the agency have, in screening prospective parents for potential abuse or worse of their children? What about after the placement has occurred?

Pound Pup Legacy provides sobering information about U.S. and international adoptions in which adoptees have been killed, abused, deported, or otherwise harmed. I imagine little Sherin Mathews will soon appear there. She is the three-year-old child from India recently found dead in Texas. Her adoptive father has been arrested. 

Media reports indicate that Holt International, based in Oregon, was the agency that did the home study, placement, and post-placement work for the adoption of Sherin Mathews. I am guessing that a local agency or affiliate in Texas did the study and the post-placement visits. Did Holt miss something?

In any required post-placement visits, did the social worker, who is a mandated reporter for child abuse, miss hints of danger?

Adoption Advocates International, the agency that approved the adoption of Hana Williams and Immanuel Williams, declared bankruptcy and went out of business in 2014. Hana and Immanuel are the Ethiopian adoptees whose adoptive parents, Larry and Carri Williams, were found guilty for Hana’s murder and for abuse of Immanuel. An AAI staffer testified at the trial about both the home study and the post-placement reports.

Hyunsu O’Callaghan, a Korean adoptee killed by his adoptive father, was placed as a special needs child through Catholic Charities. According to Pound Pup Legacy, Holt Korea (an affiliate of Holt International) was the facilitating agency in Korea.

There are, sadly, many other examples of adopted children killed by their adoptive parents. India, Ethiopia, Korea, and other countries look very closely at these tragedies: Their children were uprooted from their country so that they could be safer and better cared for.

I also think of the child’s parents in the country of origin: When the parents are known, does the adoption agency notify them? What is the ethical if not legal responsibility to them? Does the State Department, which may well have the information in their files? Does anyone provide counseling or support to the parents? I realize that there is no longer a legal connection between the parents and the child. That does not mean that the parents have forgotten the child at all.

What, if any, responsibility does the adoption agency bear?

Would more rigorous home studies screen out parents who are (or become) abusive and worse? Would more stringent and frequent post-placement visits help? There are lots of people looking at this, and legislative proposals being considered. I think we have to look at accreditation as well: Holt is fully accredited by the Council on Accreditation, which may soon no longer accredit international adoption agencies.

Photo by © Maureen McCauley

Any child killed is a tragedy. A child killed by his or her parents shocks us; when those parents are adoptive parents, the shock reverberates. Adoption is supposed to mean a better life for a child who needs a family. The home study and the whole adoption process are supposed to prepare parents, and to screen out those who should not be parents. When things go horribly wrong, and a child is abused or killed by those who are supposed to love and protect her, can we count on the judicial system for justice? What do we say to the countries of origin who have to believe that the families have been vetted and approved? What are the responsibilities to the child’s family in the country of origin?

It may be that there was no way to predict what happened to Sherin, Hana, Immanuel, Hyunsu, and all the others. Still. Better preparation seems a minimal standard. More adoption-competent social workers seems minimal. A mandated and enforced special level of oversight for all adoptive families might be an improvement, perhaps a proactive step to preventing any further deaths. Adoptive families often do not want to pay for additional visits or inquiries post-placement, beyond the state requirements. Non-enforceable post-placement reports are often not sent in by adoptive parents, even as the country of origin requests them. The U.S. Department of State, for example, has posted an alert about Ukraine‘s requirement for these reports. I suspect Ukraine is not alone in not receiving the reports on a timely basis. Other countries may not have the infrastructure to translate, file, and follow-up on the hundreds and thousands of reports; knowing this, some families just stop sending them.

It is heartbreaking to hear of these deaths. Is it naïve to think we can prevent them?