The King of Ethiopia in 1923 adopted 40 Armenian Orphans of the Genocide out of Jerusalem. However, now the tables are turned and Ethiopia is losing their future generation to corruption, it remains open to Americans but Ethiopian adoptions have closed to Canadians and other countries because of corrupt practices in the country.
In 2009, a van from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, carrying seven young children and babies, was stopped as it drove outside the rural, central Ethiopian town of Shashemene. The children in the van were wards of Better Future Adoption Services (BFAS), a U.S. adoption agency, and had been declared abandoned—their families unknown—in the capital city of Addis Ababa. Police outside Shashemene arrested seven adults riding in the van, including five BFAS employees. The staff, it appeared to some, had sought to process children who had living family as though they had been abandoned in another region of the country, so that their adoptions to the U.S. could proceed more quickly.
At the time, Ethiopia was in the midst of a dramatic international adoption boom, with the number of adoptions to U.S. parents rising from a few hundred per year in 2004 to more than 2,000 five years later, and around 4,000 worldwide.The boom 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.
Also with the boom came early warning signs of adoption fraud and corruption. Before the van was stopped near Shashemene, there had been a glut of abandonment adoptions being processed in Addis Ababa. The number of adoption cases where the parents were said to be unknown had caught the attention of Ethiopia’s First Instance Court, the body responsible for approving international adoptions. The court announced a temporary suspension on processing abandonment cases that originated in the capital until it could investigate further. For some agencies, the news was likely a blow, forecasting long wait times to process adoptions and frustrated clients in the U.S. But there was a way around: the court would continue to hear cases for children abandoned in other parts of Ethiopia.
One of the children transported in the van would later be adopted by a Christian couple just outside Nashville: 31-year-old Jessie Hawkins, a health and wellness author, and her 38-year-old husband, Matthew, a marketing executive. The Hawkinses had chosen BFAS as a protection against corrupt adoptions, assuming that because an Ethiopian woman living in the United States, Agitu Wodajo, ran it, the agency would operate more ethically than those lacking a local connection. Wodajo’s public professions of Christian faith reassured them as well.
Before the children were moved, BFAS notified Hawkins and the adoptive families they were taking the children to a cleaner and safer orphanage. Wodajo later claimed to me that the children were moved not to change their paperwork but because a colleague of a BFAS staffer who wanted to establish his own orphanage had asked to “borrow” some BFAS children to pose as his wards so he could obtain a license. The U.S. families didn’t learn until much later that the party had actually been arrested.
But there were earlier indications that the children’s paperwork at BFAS was a fluid matter. An e-mail from BFAS to U.S. adoptive families that July said that the agency was trying to locate children’s birth families in case the court decree didn’t allow them to be processed as abandoned. “If [the birth families] are willing, your children will be filed for court as a family member relinquishment and not as an abandonment,” the letter read. “So, BFAS is waiting for one of two things. 1) For the court to open their doors to new abandonment cases or 2) For birth families to relinquish the children so we can file immediately.” It seemed like an acknowledgement that the agency would pursue whatever avenue was quickest.
Hawkins herself was told different stories about the daughter she had committed to adopt, a four-year-old girl who had been declared abandoned and whose mother BFAS now said they were trying to find. “This is when I started to get suspicious,” Hawkins told me. “I thought, if you’re so confident she was abandoned, why are you trying to find her birth mother now?” But, she continued, “You get attached to this child and you’re basically at [the agency’s] mercy at this point. You believe these children are abandoned, orphaned, and you’re willing to do whatever or you’ll lose this child and they’ll live there forever.”
In the weeks that passed, while the children were said to be on the road, Hawkins and the other families grew close, comparing stories of what they’d been told. Some parents heard that nannies working at BFAS were in fact the mothers of some children being relinquished for adoption. In emails Wodajo sent to prospective clients, she wrote that they might be able to adopt infants as young as two months old because they were working with pregnant girls. But as rumors spread that their adoptions would be terminated or libel lawsuits filed if they pushed too hard, a hush fell over the group.
When Hawkins was finally called to Ethiopia to finalize her adoption, the BFAS staff there reassured her that her daughter had indeed been abandoned. But after the girl came to the United States she began acting out, behaving violently toward a set of baby dolls she had gotten for Christmas and systematically shattering glasses she found in the kitchen. A few months later, when she had learned some English, the daughter pointed to a picture of the orphanage that Hawkins had taped to her bedroom wall and told her, “When I lived there, I missed my mom.”
Hawkins responded, “‘Honey, that’s nice of you, but you didn’t know me then.’ And then she kind of looks at me like she’s afraid she was going to be in trouble, and you could see her really choosing her words with the little bit of English she had. And she said, ‘You know, I have another mom.’”
“I can’t even begin to put into words what that feels like,” Hawkins told me. “Finding out that you have someone else’s child simply because you happen to have been born in a country where you’re more privileged than they are? You want to throw up, you don’t know what to do.”
When Hawkins called BFAS to present this information, she reached Agitu Wodajo directly. Despite the many reassurances Hawkins had received in the past that the girl was abandoned, she said Wodajo replied without hesitation that yes, she had met the girl’s mother herself.