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.