Ethiopia is poised to overtake China as the number one country of origin for foreign adoptees in the United States.
Matches between orphans and families have been on the increase in what’s widely been recognized a one of the most successful intercountry adoption programs in recent years.
However, many adoption experts are now pointing to signs that that may soon be changing. There’s a danger that the window for adopting from Ethiopia may be closing as so many other intercountry adoption programs have done. Although American agencies are still processing dossiers and the Ethiopian government remains open to these adoptions, there is a general unease about what may happen in the near future.
Winds of Change
Prospective parents should give great weight to a statement by Doug Webb, the chief of child protection at UNICEF in Addis Ababa, who in December said, “The next 12 months are going to be crucial.”
As with other countries whose programs have been shut down (i.e. Nepal, Vietnam, Guatemala) to Americans, there have been accusations of child trafficking and the presence of unscrupulous actors who trade on the misfortune of birth families for profit. There have been allegations of coercion of birth mothers to relinquish babies. On the orphanage side, there have been accusations of fraud, in particular, reports that some Americans have been misled about the age of the child they’re adopting.
Further, many American agencies that facilitate adoptions are under review by the Ethiopian government. In December one agency, the Minnesota-based Better Future Adoption Services, had its license revoked by the Ethiopian government amid charges of “fraud.” Families who were working through this agency have seen their adoptions halted and have been advised by the U.S. State Department to seek legal counsel.
Susan Jacobs, U.S. Ambassador and Special Advisor to the Office of Children’s Issues at the Department of State, has urged all agencies working on intercountry adoptions to be Hague-accredited, including those operating in Ethiopia. And recently the Ethiopian government has reversed its course and announced that it plans only to work with Hague-accredited agencies going forward, although the government has given no timeline for this change.
Separately, the U.S. Department of State recently reported that it has concerns “about reports highlighting adoption related fraud, malfeasance and abuse in Ethiopia…”
The U.S. Embassy has issued notices to American adoption agencies telling them to expect delays up to several months or more as investigations are initiated into individual cases. The State Department warns parents not travel to Ethiopia unless their adoption agencies has confirmed that they have a visa appointment, which means their child has been cleared to be brought into the U.S.
A current State Department posting reads: “We understand that this may result in a longer period before parents are able to bring their adopted children to the U.S. However, this additional scrutiny is required to ensure that the adoption is legal under both U.S. and Ethiopian law.”
To Hague or Not to Hague
Ethiopia has not signed the Hague Convention adoption.state.gov/hague/overview.html. There is international pressure on the Ethiopian government to ratify the treaty. Although it has not done so yet, it has begun to study the effects of the implementation of the safeguards that child protection advocates have lobbied for.
On the surface, additional safeguards for children and the crackdown on corruption sound like positive steps. And they will be if indeed the current discussion results in actual implementation and a streamlined process.
However, experience in other countries has shown that all too often these steps do not result in improvements, but rather in the slowdown and ultimately shut down of intercountry adoptions.
If these signs on the horizon in Ethiopia do wind up indicated what many in the international adoption community fear — the beginning of the end of Americans ability to adopt from Ethiopia– this would be a tragedy.
The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that there are 5.5 million orphans, children who are the casualty of poverty and illness, especially since AIDS deaths are on the ascent in the country.
Although for the 2010 fiscal year, the U.S. State Department reports that there were only about 2,500 adoptions from Ethiopia, that number reflects a significant uptick over the 284 orphans adopted by Americans six years ago. These rising numbers mean that fewer children are destined to spend their lives in orphanages or living on the streets.
Conditions in Ethiopian orphanages tend to be poor—many go without running water– and, in some cases, dangerous with reports of beatings and sexual abuse. Every child who is adopted is one more spared a childhood spent in these overcrowded conditions.
As the international community has intensified its scrutiny, Mahadir Bitow, the head of the Ethiopia’s Child Rights Protection Agency, has responded by announcing that she intends to close 25% of Ethiopia’s orphanages. She does not say where these orphaned children would go.
All prospective parents looking to adopt from Ethiopia should pay close attention to the rapidly changing conditions. And the entire world should keep watch.
A shrinking intercountry adoption program in Ethiopia, a country where there is an extremely limited domestic adoption program available, will be a dangerous sign that once again adults –even those with the best of intentions — will once again stand in the way of helping children.