A few years ago, on a flight from Frankfurt, I sat on the same row with a family who captured everyone’s attention because of the children they were carrying and holding. There were three, the two older children looked like they could be 7-10 year olds, and the third was a toddler-maybe have been 2-3 years old. They stood out, not because the parents were Caucasian, but because the young toddler cried throughout the entire 8 hour trip. If she fell asleep, we could still hear her sleepy weeps. Why was she crying so uncontrollably? Was she in pain, was she sick? Was it her ears adjusting to the air pressure…what was wrong? And then it came, she screamed, emaye…emaye … emaye, she was crying for her mother.
My suspicions were allayed when the older siblings spoke to each other and the toddler in Amharic, the Ethiopian language. So they were Ethiopian. The couple took turns walking the child up and down the aisles, to no avail. The older siblings held her and tried to calm her down, but nothing worked. When we got ready to disembark in Washington, DC, the couple put on T-Shirts on all the children and themselves, can’t remember what was, but it was a name of some church. How did the couple end up with three children who seemed to be siblings? What happened to their real parents…where were they taking them? To this day, I can still remember the tear drenched face of that toddler…her eyes swollen and her body shaking with each sob. Wonder what became of her…where did she end up? What about her siblings?
It was Dan Rather’s expose on the plight of Ethiopia’s children who are brought into the United States through various adoption schemes that reminded me of the three Ethiopian children on that flight. Rather hosted an in-depth show on AXS TV called “Unwanted Children–The Shameful Side of International Adoption” offering a glimpse into Ethiopian adoptions, and the children who have been “re-homed,” moved to new adoptive families with little oversight, assistance, or regulation. Some of these children are presented on the internet and nobody knows where they eventually will end up. It is heartbreaking to see how these children who were sold to adoptive parents in the United States, supposedly to have opportunities for a better life than what they had in Ethiopia, only to now find themselves on the streets- homeless and alone.
The sad story of Hana Williams, an adopted child from Ethiopia who was found dead on 12 May 2011, in the backyard of the family home about 60 miles north of Seattle is another adoption story gone wrong…again, the child was from Ethiopia. Larry and Carri Williams of Sedro-Woolley, Washington were found guilty of neglecting, abusing, and ultimately killing 13-year-old Hana Williams. According to the news report, the couple left Hana to die from “hypothermia and starvation” in their backyard. Hana’s step-brother Immanuel testified he and Hana were “beaten with sticks, hosed down, forced to eat frozen food and locked in closets”. Was Hana better off in the United States than in Ethiopia, as some who support international adoptions claim?
This is not the first time that the Ethiopian adoptions have made the headlines, there have been several reports in the past, but Ethiopia being a “staunch ally” of the United States, the crimes against Ethiopia’s children committed by their own government have been shoved under the rug. Early warnings by some about irregularities in Ethiopia’s booming adoption industry were ignored, or downplayed. The Associated Press reporter Andrew Mitchell wrote in his 26 December 2004 article “Ethiopia’s Latest Export: Adoptable Children” about the sudden boom in Ethiopian adoptions. He wrote:
“…The country of 70 million has more than 5 million orphans, their parents lost to famine, disease, war and AIDS — a catastrophe that the government has said is “tearing apart the social fabric” of the east African nation…Caring for the orphans costs $115 million a month in a country whose annual health budget is only $140 million…So Ethiopia has gone out of its way to make adoption easier…”
The regime which receives millions in budgetary support and aid has decided that it is easier to sell Ethiopia’s children than to find ways to care for them in their own country and with their own families. The mainstream media and Ethiopia’s handlers speak of Ethiopia “achieving middle income status”, “Ethiopia has registered impressive economic growth” and Ethiopia remains the highest recipient of foreign development and humanitarian assistance in Africa, yet there is not enough in the regime’s coffers to take care of its orphaned children.
Dereje Feyissa Dori, the Africa research director at the International Law and Policy Institute, a research fellow of the Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation and adjunct associate professor at the College of Law and Governance, Addis Ababa University writing for the Guardian on 22 October 2014 said:
“…Changes are equally visible in trade and investment. Exports have diversified and the country has become a major shipper of oil seeds, flowers, gold and, increasingly, textiles and leather products. This has been enabled by a steady growth in foreign investment, particularly into floriculture and manufacturing. It is indeed astonishing to see Ethiopia fast becoming a popular destination for global giants such as Chinese shoemaker Huajian and H&M, the world’s second-biggest clothing retailer…”
Dereje Feyissa Dori forgot to mention that adoption of Ethiopia’s orphans is the fastest growing sector of the Ethiopian economy. In TPLF’s Ethiopia, one in eight children die before their fifth birthday and over 150,000 children live on the streets. Out of the five million orphaned children, about 800,000 were orphaned by HIV/AIDS. There are 1.5 million people in Ethiopia that are infected with HIV (sixth highest country in the world). A look at Ethiopia’s booming adoption economy finds the government of Ethiopia at its center-from ownership of the mushrooming orphanages and adoption agencies, the minority regime has no qualms about selling of Ethiopia’s children.
Encourage Africa says that Ethiopia counts one of the largest populations of orphans in the world. Of the 143 million orphans worldwide, more live in Ethiopia than any other country in the world. That is the same number of children under age 18 who reside in Massachusetts, New York State, and Washington DC combined. A 10 January 2005 IRIN post, “ETHIOPIA: Coping with increasing orphan numbers through adoption” said:
“…The rising number of orphans has, however, raised the demand for adoptions to a record high. Some 1,400 children made new homes abroad last year, more than double from the previous year…Adoption agencies also doubled to 30 in the capital Addis Ababa in the last year, a highly lucrative market with some agencies charging parents fees of up to US $20,000 per child…”
Bulti Gutema, the Ethiopian government official in charge of adoptions seemed to be justifying the selling of Ethiopia’s children. He tells IRIN:
“…We would prefer these children to remain in Ethiopia because it is their country…Adoption is the last resort because it doesn’t help alleviate poverty in Ethiopia…We can’t afford to look after every orphan …That is why adoption is one of our existing alternative child-care programmes, although it really solves the problems of just a few children…”
Did he call it alternative child care?
I suppose that explains why Ethiopia’s leaders, including Meles Zenawi were elated that Ethiopia’s children were being adopted by foreigners…Since the regime is unable or unwilling to take care of its own citizens, why not let other do the caring, especially if the regime can make money-hard currency- out of the deals.
A Pulitzer Center report “Casualties of Ethiopia’s Adoption Boom” said:
“…Over the past several years, Ethiopia has rapidly become one of the top “sending countries” in international adoption: the number of children sent abroad has recently grown from a few hundred to several thousand annually. In the context of a global decline in international adoptions–which plummeted from a 2004 peak of 23,000 adoptions to the U.S. to under 12,000 in 2010–Ethiopia’s exponential growth has earned it the label of the adoption world’s “New China”…”
There would be no problem if the welfare of the Ethiopian children was at the root of this boom. Recent investigative reports have shown not just the boom in adoptions, but also of corruption which at its center were Ethiopia’s helpless children, used as dispensable commodity, by unscrupulous adoption agents, with a complicit government.
The Pulitzer report said Ethiopia’s adoption industry was wrought with:
“…widespread irregularities in the paperwork of children adopted out to the U.S. and Europe—sometimes misrepresenting living parents as dead; allegations of fraud or agencies coercing birth families into relinquishing their children; and stories of harassment campaigns against those who question the booming adoption trade, known for bringing significant foreign money into the country through a variety of channels…”
Hence the reluctance of the regime in Ethiopia to bring an end to this lucrative industry…
But how lucrative can the business of selling helpless babies be?
Frank Ligtvoet in his 7 March 2014 article, “A Calculation: The ‘Orphan Crisis’ in Ethiopia” wrote the following:
“…Americans adopt about 2,000 children annually from Ethiopia. If we calculate the median costs for each adoption at $46,000 (Adoptive Families, Winter 2014), then we have a total of $92,000,000… Money talks, and money talks in many languages. In Ethiopia 78 percent of the population struggles with an income below $2 a day. So a bribe of $1,000 is a year’s income for many poor Ethiopians. If the adoption industry is not carefully regulated it will result in more adoption coercion, baby stealing, child trafficking and corruption…”
Some astute Ethiopians say the regime’s adoption scheme is tantamount to “a legally sanctioned export scheme of Ethiopian children to generate needed foreign exchange”. A lucrative enterprise wherein the purchase price, brokerage fees, legal and other fees, all bring the regime much needed foreign currency.
Kathryn Joyce, in her article “Ethiopia, Evangelicals and the Fake Orphan Racket”, wrote:
“…The boom [Adoption} had brought substantial revenue into the country, as agencies and adoptive parents supported newly-established orphanages that became an attractive child care option for poor families; some agencies paid fees to “child finders” locating adoptable children; and the influx of Western adoption tourism brought money that trickled down to hotels, restaurants, taxi-drivers and other service industries…”
The Brandeis University Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism (SIIJ)reported the following:
“…From 2002 through 2013, Americans adopted more than 14,000 Ethiopian-born children. In the beginning, according to officials at the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, those were humanitarian efforts, carefully overseen by the Ethiopian government, resulting in some needy children finding desperately needed new families…But by 2010, numbers had escalated from 105 adoptions a year to 2,511, an astounding increase in a short period of time. Some adoptive parents in North America and Europe were reporting that when their newly adopted children would learn English, they would explain that everything in their paperwork was a lie: They did indeed have families back in Ethiopia and expected to return there…”
On the number of adoption agencies in Ethiopia, the SIIJ report stated the following:
“…the number of applications to adopt from Ethiopia—and the number of American adoption agencies working in the country—were expanding “exponentially,” with eight times as many agencies working in country than had been there in 2000, for a total of 24…By July 2008, the Embassy wrote, more than 70 licensed agencies were referring Ethiopian children for adoption, 24 of them American. There had been only three licensed agencies in 2000…The U.S. has no legal or regulatory control over what happens inside Ethiopia, or any other foreign nation, and zero legal authority over local child or family welfare services or orphanages. All that was the responsibility of the Ethiopian government…”
Ethiopia’s orphaned children have been dispersed involuntarily from their own countries, by their own government. Thousands have been sold, and millions await their fate.
Kathryn Joyce adds that the increase in Ethiopian adoptions has “has been so rapid — and, for some, so lucrative — that some locals have said adoption was “becoming the new export industry for our country.” Misrepresenting living parents as dead, agencies coercing birth families into relinquishing their children, harassment campaigns against those who question the booming adoption trade have been cited by many researchers. Adoption researchers have found cases of “child harvesting,” or unethical recruitment of children, as well as fraudulent paperwork in Ethiopia’s adoption economy. Kathryn Jones in “How Ethiopia’s Adoption Industry Dupes Families and Bullies Activists”  says adoption searchers who have been trying to determine whether an adopted child is a “manufactured orphan,” have faced intense intimidation in Ethiopia.
E.J. Graff, a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, an award-winning journalist and author wrote in his extensive 14 November 2014 report, “ They Steal Babies, Don’t They”  that in Ethiopia:
“…humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators … in the case of inter-country adoptions, far too often, orphans were “produced” by unscrupulous middlemen who would persuade desperately poor, uneducated, often illiterate villagers whose culture had no concept of permanently severing biological ties to send their children away—saying that wealthy Westerners would educate their children and send them home at age 18 …Another fraud indicator was that roughly half of Ethiopian adoptions were coming from a single province: SNNPR, or Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region, the capital of which is Awassa. That suggested a regular production chain, with officials colluding with orphanages to “find” children available to exchange for cash…”
The SNNPR borders Kenya to the south (including a small part of Lake Turkana), the Ilemi Triangle (a region claimed by Kenya and South Sudan) to the southwest, South Sudan to the west, the Ethiopian region of Gambela to the northwest, and the Ethiopian region of Oromia to the north and east. From 2001-2006, at the height of the adoption boom, Hailemariam Desalegn, now Prime Minister of Ethiopia, served as the president of the SNNPR. Wonder how many of the fraudulent adoption agencies and orphanages that have sprung up in TPLFs Ethiopia belong to the regime, its cadres and families? Ethiopians should investigate these agencies and their links to the TPLF and its surrogates…
From the minority regime’s leadership to US Embassy officials, to Senators and Congressmen in the United States, to journalist and adoptive parents, everyone seemed to know that there were “irregularities” in adoptions from Ethiopia, yet it was only in 2014 that any action was taken. Concerns about adoption fraud have been raised and some receiving nations, such as Australia, have placed a moratorium of adoptions from Ethiopia. The US which has been called an “adoption nation”, continues to accept Ethiopian adoptions, but has passed an adoption legislation, Intercountry Adoption Universal Accreditation Act (UAA), takes effect in July, to prevent adoption fraud. In Ethiopia, the business of selling Ethiopia’s children continues unabated.
Kathryn Joyce wrote about the children who had been brought to the United States under questionable and fraudulent circumstances. She said:
“…Adoptive parents in the U.S. began to complain that when their children learned enough English to communicate, they talked about having other families; birth parents declared dead on adoption paperwork were sometimes alive; additional siblings might exist; children said to have been conceived from stranger rapes were in fact born to married couples. On some adoptees’ paperwork birth parents were simultaneously declared dead and unknown… Ethiopia’s government found that some children’s paperwork had been doctored to list children who had been relinquished by living parents as orphans… The thousands of Ethiopian children adopted by families in the U.S. and Europe over the last decade will grow up one day. They’ll learn about the circumstances around adoption from Ethiopia in earlier years and will want to find out the truth of their background…”
Unfortunately, the recent report by Dan Rather shows that they do indeed grow up, but will it not be too late for them? Being removed from their own countries, losing ties to their families permanently, living outside of the cultural traditions and customs of their own people, trying to fit in in a country and families they know nothing about etc. etc. is tantamount to child abuse and an emotional time bomb waiting to explode.
So who is minding Ethiopia’s children, societies most vulnerable?
Ethiopia’s First Instance Court is the body responsible for approving international adoptions. Orphans available for international adoption are identified as such by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, Children and Youth Affairs Office (MOLSA). Investigative reports by various entities show a pattern of “crippling corruption”, “inefficiency”, and “lack of transparency” within the regime. The regime knowingly allowed questionable adoptions to continue instead of shutting down and cleaning up the rot in its adoption industry that was putting Ethiopia’s children at risk. The regime was more interested in maintaining the status quo than risk losing its new found lucrative source of foreign currency.
Karen Smith Rotabi, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies global adoption, in her article “From Guatemala to Ethiopia: Shifts in Intercountry Adoption Leaves Ethiopia Vulnerable for Child Sales and Other Unethical Practices”, illustrates how easy it is to get children from Ethiopia:
“…The system is relatively expedient… national oversight of foreign adoption agency practices is relatively lax … is relatively inexpensive within intercountry adoption programs and agencies even use this as a selling point for potential adoptive families…Ethiopia has not ratified the Hague Convention and, as a result, agreed upon international monitoring systems preventing child sales and thefts are not implemented. This means that US agencies which are not Hague-accredited may continue to operate in this nation—including those that have actually been denied Hague accreditation due to their failure to demonstrate capacity to engage in Hague-practices (internationally agreed upon child welfare standards)…”
Children are vulnerable in Ethiopia because the government is unwilling to stop unscrupulous adoption agencies who have shifted their activities from other nations to Ethiopia to take advantage of the corrupt system. They can carry on with their fraudulent practices in Ethiopia, even if they are banned elsewhere. Karen Smith Rotabi offers an example:
One such agency, the Florida-based Celebrate Children International, was denied accreditation and their practices related to Guatemalan adoptions have been documented in numerous complaints to the child placement licensing authority of the State of Florida (the Department of Family Services [DFS]), indicating serious concerns as about ethics and general practices as voiced by their own consumers/placement families. A recent request of Florida DFS for records related to complaints indicated that there are well over a thousand pages of documents related to complaints and the allegations include alarming recounts of dishonesty. However, the agency now reports having a strong program in Ethiopia including humanitarian aid… how long will it take and how many abuses of children’s rights will occur before appropriate action is taken…”
A “48 Hours” investigation explored the controversial world of international adoptions, in which some overseas facilitators walk a fine line between adoptions and child trafficking. Celebrate Children International is featured in the story.
While UNICEF urged closing of adoptions in other countries, for some reason, Ethiopia’s is being allowed to flourish and the adoption racket in Ethiopia is booming. The regime and its cadres seem to have found a lucrative sector to exploit. According to adoption investigators:
“…the U.S. Embassy began urging the Ethiopian government to de-license at least half of those 70 adoption agencies, including—for the U.S.—the ones that had not received Hague accreditation by the U.S. State Department. Ultimately, the Ethiopian government did not suspend adoption and instead decided to review all of the agencies. But by September 2008, it was clear—to the Embassy’s frustration—that troubled agencies would stay licensed, even those that had apparently lied about the children’s origins, failed to keep records on children’s backgrounds, changed children’s ages to make them more “adoptable,” shuffled children from one part of the country to another so their families couldn’t be traced, and so on…”
Alisa Bivens, a former foreign program director of International Adoption Guides Inc. (IAG), an adoption agency, pleaded guilty to conspiring with others to defraud the United States by paying bribes and submitting fraudulent documents to the State Department for adoptions from Ethiopia. According to August 6, 2014 Department of Justice Press Release:
“….Bivens also admitted that she and others paid bribes to two Ethiopian officials so that those officials would help with the fraudulent adoptions. The first of these two foreign officials, an audiologist and teacher at a government school, accepted money and other valuables in exchange for providing non-public medical information and social history information for potential adoptees to the conspirators. The second foreign official, the head of a regional ministry for women’s and children’s affairs, received money and all-expenses-paid travel in exchange for approving IAG’s applications for intercountry adoptions and for ignoring IAG’s failure to maintain a properly licensed adoption facility…”
This is but one such case, there are no doubt many more, but the Ethiopian regime’s cadres who are responsible for the children are themselves involved in the adoption schemes, who protects Ethiopia’s children?
Frank Ligtvoet, a father and writer on adoption and diversity issues; founder, Adoptive Families With Children of African Heritage and Their Friends says:
“…To solve the ‘orphan crisis’ bigger and probably more economically painful measures have to be taken. Secondly the US has to do its work in a Foreign Affairs context. Third it must focus on the psychological aspect of adoption. If you were adopted from Ethiopia and at a certain point in life you would understand that your existence in the US depended on cheating out your first parents by a system that was supported and condoned by your by now home country, how would you feel about that country, your adoptive parents, the adoption industry? How would you feel about yourself and who you are…?”
Those who continue to adopt children from Ethiopia using shady agencies and fraudulent means are as complicit in the fleecing of poor Ethiopian families, as the minority regime that refuses to protect its own citizens, and some US government officials that choose to look the other way.
Who will listen to the children’s whimper?
Who will hear their lonesome cries?
Who is there to comfort the many defrauded families?
Who will protect the human rights of Ethiopia’s most vulnerable?
From where I sit, as an Eritrean American mother of three beautiful children, I am proud of the people of Eritrea who chose to keep their orphaned children close, at home. To take care of them, to ensure that they maintain their cultures and traditions, and most importantly, their dignity. I applaud the government of Eritrea for its visionary and strict adoption rules for not succumbing to pressure. Very few families have been allowed to adopt and take children out of the country. For the most part, Eritrea’s war orphans have been reunited with relatives, or placed in group homes. Safeguarding the growth and development of orphans and providing them with a family environment, promotes sound emotional and physical development of orphaned children.
A government that seeks to protect and defend its most vulnerable citizens, the children, is one that respects the human rights of its people…In Eritrea , human dignity, human development and human security of the people defines human rights
 http://articles.latimes.com/2004/dec/26/news/adfg-orphans26 Accessed 12 December 2014
 http://www.brandeis.edu/investigate/adoption/docs/FOIAs/Ethiopia/Senator%20Inhofe%20visits%20adopted%20granddaughters%20orphanage%20renews%20pledge%20to%20reevaluate%20USG%20policies%20on%20adoption_Addis%20Ababa_May-05.pdf Accessed 12 December 2014
 http://pulitzercenter.org/projects/ethiopia-adoption-boom-casualties Accessed 13 December 2014
 http://www.brandeis.edu/investigate/adoption/ethiopia-adoptionFOIAs.html Accessed 13 December 2014