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February 10, 2011

Ethiopia Revokes License of US Adoption Agency

Ethiopia has revoked the license of an American adoption agency, accusing it of child trafficking. The agency has responded sharply, charging it is the victim of government retaliation.

Ethiopia’s Charities and Societies Agency has notified the Minnesota-based Better Future Adoptions Services that its license to operate in the country has been revoked.

The revocation could effectively shut down the agency, which specializes in adoptions from Ethiopia.

A copy of the revocation notice obtained by VOA accuses Better Future of falsifying documents to claim orphan status for children whose parents are still alive. The notification letter, dated December 9 last year, says the fraud was organized in collaboration with orphanages, but does not identify them.

A telephone call to Better Future’s Minnesota headquarters was answered by a machine, but an e-mail posted on its website alleges the revocation was in retaliation for a lawsuit filed by the agency a week earlier.

The e-mail contains an attached copy of a petition filed December 1 in an Addis Ababa court. It alleges Ethiopia’s Ministry of Women’s and Children’s Affairs had illegally blocked the agency from placing children for adoption overseas.

Ethiopia has in recent years become a favorite destination for Americans seeking a foreign adoption. U.S. State Department figures show 2,500 Ethiopian children classified as orphans went to the United States last year. That is more than 10 times higher than in any year before 2005, when the adoption boom began.

A VOA investigation in December revealed a lax regulatory environment and weak social infrastructure in Ethiopia invites fraud in an impoverished country. Doug Webb, head of child protection in the Addis Ababa office of the United Nations Children’s agency UNICEF says the large amounts of money changing hands in adoptions is a huge temptation.

"Money is a powerful factor in this country. We’re talking about $20,000-$25,000 per adoption coming into the country. And there is increasing evidence of irregularities within the system of various types of problems at different levels," he said.

The surge in adoptions from Ethiopia since 2005 set off alarm bells among children’s lobby groups. The State Department issued four cautionary statements on Ethiopia last year, including one in December expressing concern about reports of adoption-related fraud.

A message posted this week on the State Department adoptions website notes that Better Future’s license has been revoked because of the organization’s misuse of its license in activities concerning the welfare of children. It advises prospective adoptive parents working through Better Future to seek legal counsel.

Consular officials at the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa say they opened a broad investigation into allegations of child trafficking in Ethiopia two years ago after detecting a pattern suggesting fraud. The probe was not aimed at Better Futures, but at the entire adoptions business.

Consular section chief Abigail Rupp says the embassy follows the Ethiopian government’s lead on all adoption-related matters. "If we have information about an adoption agency, whether it’s an allegation made or information we evolve on our own through investigation, we share it with the Government of Ethiopia. And in turn we also recognize the Government of Ethiopia has sole authority to decide which NGOs in general and which adoption agencies in particular may operate in Ethiopia," Rupp said.

Ethiopian officials admit they are poorly equipped to fight fraud in adoptions. Judge Rahila Abbas, who presides over Ethiopia’s only court handling foreign adoptions said a lack of investigative authority means there is little she can do to prevent abuses, even when she believes witnesses are lying and officially certified documents are false.

"Some families prefer to lie about their history. I think the reason (is) they are destitute. They simply bring a witness saying ‘my husband died’. (We) have to believe the witness. We can’t do anything about it," she said.

Mahdir Bitow, head of Ethiopia’s Child Rights Protection division has promised a crackdown on child traffickers. She says authorities have already begun closing orphanages that have sprung up in recent years to meet the increasing demand for Ethiopian babies.

Investigations have turned up numerous cases of families who say they were tricked into giving up their children by unscrupulous agents who stood to make thousands of dollars in profits from the sale of a child. Ethiopia is among the world’s poorest countries, with average family incomes of only a few hundred dollars a year.