Ethiopia is planning to shut down dozens of orphanages and withdraw accreditation from several foreign adoption agencies, in an effort to halt what critics say is a thriving baby business.
The Bright Hope transition center in Addis Ababa is a showcase child care facility, financed by a faith-based Texas charity. Twenty abandoned children, ranging in age from several months to four years, play in a carefully supervised environment as they wait to be placed in adoptive homes.
Bright Hope Director Getahun Nesibu Tesema says most of these orphans will be taken in by extended family members in Ethiopia.
"Our main focus is to help the children here in Ethiopia," Getahun said. "Adoption, international adoption especially, is our last resort."
But Bright Hope is an exception among foreign adoption agencies, in that it tries to place children within Ethiopia. This year, foreigners will take away about 5,000 Ethiopian orphans, often paying between $20,000 and $35,000 each for the privilege.
Half that number, nearly 2,500, will go to the United States. That is a ten-fold increase above the numbers just a few years ago.
U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, co-chair of the Congressional Adoptions Coalition recently stopped at Bright Hope during a visit to the country that is becoming the destination of choice for Americans adopting overseas. Landrieu says it is easy to see why the number of Ethiopian orphans going to the United States has skyrocketed.
"One of the reasons is because people in America are falling in love with Ethiopian children," Landrieu said. "They love them. It's very simple. They think they're beautiful and smart."
The rapid rise in Ethiopian adoptions has set off alarm bells among children's lobby groups. The U.S. State Department issued a statement this month expressing concern about reports of adoption-related fraud, malfeasance and abuse in Ethiopia.
The statement warns prospective adoptive parents to expect delays in the adoption process. It says additional information may be required to determine facts surrounding a child's relinquishment or abandonment and whether the child meets the definition of orphan, under U.S. Immigration law.
Embassy consular officials say nearly two years of data collection has enabled them to identify individuals and agencies involved in unusual adoption activities.
U.N. Children's Fund in Addis Ababa chief Doug Webb says the large amount of money changing hands in adoptions is a huge temptation in an impoverished country.
"Money is a powerful factor in this country," Webb said. "We're talking about $20-25,000 per adoption coming into the country. And, there is increasing evidence of irregularities within the system of various types of problems at different levels. And, these have been well documented by PEAR."
Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform did a study of Ethiopia, this year, after detecting a pattern of troubles similar to those in Vietnam and Guatemala before they were closed to American adoptions. The PEAR study turned up evidence of unethical practices by adoption agencies and the use of coercive methods to persuade mothers to give up their babies.
Conditions in orphanages were found to be particularly severe. Some had no running water or sanitary facilities. Children are said to have suffered sexual abuse and beatings.
Ethiopian officials say their own studies confirm PEAR's findings. Mahadir Bitow, head of Ethiopia's Child Rights Promotion and Protection Director tells VOA one of the first priorities will be to close dozens of orphanages that appear to have sprung up to meet the demand for children.
"Before 6-7 years there were not a lot of orphanages, like there are now, so the increased number of adoption agencies brought about the increase in the number of orphanages in Ethiopia," Mahadir said. "Most of these orphanages are not orphanages. They are transit homes. They receive children. They give to adoption. They are a (pipeline). So in the future we will not need all these orphanages."
Mahadir would give no time frame for shutting down orphanages that exist simply to fill the demand in the United States and a few other Western countries for Ethiopian babies.
She acknowledges the plan to close as many as 25 percent of the country's orphanages could create temporary havoc, as officials scramble to place thousands of de-institutionalized children. But she says taking away financial incentives should reduce the supply of babies offered for inter-country adoption.
Mahadir tells VOA the government also plans to re-accredit all foreign adoption agencies, using higher standards to weed out those involved in questionable practices. Child care advocates have been urging such a move for years.
Part two of this series will examine whether an impoverished country like Ethiopia, with a weak social services infrastructure, can successfully fight the moneyed interests intent on keeping the baby pipeline open. And, if they do succeed, whether the phenomenon will simply pop up in another part of the globe.