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 perfect child.
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 unethical practices.
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 children."
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 adoptions.
"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."