Ethiopia Working with
Child Advocacy Groups to Clean Up Adoptions
Peter Heinlein | Addis
Ababa17 December 2010
Ethiopia is vowing to
put a stop to what has been described as a 'free for all' in the
adoption of its children by foreigners. But cleaning up a system rife
with fraud and deception will require international assistance to fight
well-entrenched and well-financed interests.
The departure lounge at Addis Ababa International Airport might often be
confused for a nursery. On average, 12 Ethiopian children a day fly away
in the arms of their new European or American parents.
More than half are going to the United States.
Foreign adoption by American families has dropped by almost 50 percent
in recent years as fraud and corruption forced closure of once popular
destinations like Guatemala, Vietnam and Nepal. At the same time,
adoptions from Ethiopia have increased sharply.
Seven years ago, one in 200 children adopted by Americans overseas was
an Ethiopian. Last year it was close to one in five.
Ethiopia now popular destination
As the focus of adoptive parents has shifted to Ethiopia, so have many
of the troubles that forced shutdowns in other places. And as with many
poor countries, Ethiopia has proven ill-equipped to handle unscrupulous
actors chasing the large sums Westerners are willing to pay for the
Susie and Chandler Symons flew home to Seattle, in the northwestern US
state of Washington, this month with two Ethiopian boys aged four and
15. The process was arranged through Adoption Advocates International.
AAI, like most of the 20-plus U.S. adoption service providers operating
in Ethiopia, is accredited by the host government and the Hague
Convention on International Adoptions.
Chandler Symons says they encountered none of the irregularities they
had heard about.
"Both Susie and I had never been to Africa before let alone
Ethiopia, so for us it was very eye opening, seeing that very clearly
things could go wrong, go awry, but it did not happen that way for
us," he said.
Not every ending is happy, however.
Adoptive parent support groups have sprung up on the internet sharing
horror stories of their experiences with a few disreputable agencies and
orphanages in Ethiopia. Parents report being lied to at many stages of
the process, including about the condition or age of their child, about
hidden fees, or even whether the child is a true orphan.
Federal judge Rahila Abbas presides over Ethiopia's only court handling
adoption cases. She admits there is little the court can do to fight
fraud, even when she suspects witnesses are lying, and that officially
certified documents presented to the court are false.
"Some families prefer to lie about their history," she said.
"I think the reason [is] they are destitute. I think that is the
reason why they lie about one of the parents have died or absent. They
lie. Maybe later it will be found, but the authorities couldn't know
each child's history, because they are not going to their home. They
simply bring witness saying my husband died. [We] have to believe the
witness, [we] can't do anything about it."
US Embassy warning
The U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa has been monitoring adoption activity
for nearly two years. The embassy has little oversight authority in the
adoption process inside Ethiopia, but consular officials say they have
identified a few "bad actors" who appear to be engaging in
The State Department has posted four cautionary notices about Ethiopia
on its adoptions website this year. A separate letter from the embassy
to adoption agencies advises them to expect delays in processing cases
from one particular orphanage suspected of fraud.
In a telephone interview, the State Department's senior advisor for
children's issues, Ambassador Susan Jacobs, says adoption agencies
should be accountable for any irregularities in cases they handle.
"I hold the adoption service providers responsible for what any of
their employees do and I also hold them responsible for the orphanages
they support," she said. "It is against the law to pay for
children or to bribe officials. I'm sure there are a lot of temptations
in a poor country but I don't believe most parents want to sell their
Jacobs says the solution lies in demanding all agencies working on
intercountry adoptions be Hague-accredited. That, she says, would
avoid the need for harsher actions that might prevent American families
from adopting truly needy Ethiopian orphans.
More regulation needed
Ethiopian officials have announced plans to set out non-Hague accredited
agencies and shut down dozens of orphanages. But they say they are not
ready to set a definite time frame.
The United Nations children's agency UNICEF is working with the
government to improve safeguards in the system. Doug Webb, chief of
child protection at UNICEF's Addis Ababa office, says tasks such as
closing orphanages must be done carefully to avoid unnecessary
dislocation of vulnerable children.
"If orphanages are closed too quickly, children are
de-institutionalized badly, and we've seen that in many different
contexts. It's not easy to do. We were very concerned and quick to be
ready with technical assistance with the Ministry of Justice and
Ministry of Women's Affairs to provide them with the tools, and we've
just in the past couple weeks received an official request to help with
this de-institutionalization process," said Webb.
International help needed to fix system
Webb says he is hopeful
Ethiopia may turn out to be a story of success in cleaning up a broken
system without taking the drastic step of shutting it to intercountry
"There is always going to be some room for fraudulent activity to
take place," he said. "We can never guarantee that won't
happen. Is it the end of the free-for-all we've been seeing? Yes. It has
to be. We've reached the stage where if we don't take the opportunity
we're presented with now to tidy up the system, to increase regulatory
oversight, to build up the capacity of the public sector, to increase
the ability of the government to stop actors performing... The next 12
months are going to be crucial."
Ethiopian officials shy away from setting deadlines, but express
confidence that with international help, they can fix the system. As
child rights protection director Mahadir Bitow put it, "we have the
commitment, we have the information, so within a [certain period] of
time, we will stop this illegal practice."
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