They Steal Babies, Don’t They?
Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.
- So by the time Greene’s article was published in 2002, the U.S. State Department—and many regulators in the developed world—knew that what had gone wrong in Cambodia could go wrong almost anywhere. It had happened in Peru, Colombia, Romania; it was happening right then in Nepal, in Vietnam, and most notoriously in Guatemala. The problem was the underlying myth: While there are indeed some healthy infants, toddlers, and young children desperately in need of adoption, “millions” is inaccurate. As I have reported extensively elsewhere, most children in need of international adoption have special medical needs, trauma, or are five or older, like Greene’s Ethiopian-born daughter Helen.
Many poor nations’ international adoption programs started, as in the Ethiopia that Greene portrayed, with a few genuinely humanitarian adoptions, saving children from desperate circumstances. But once word spread among hopeful Western parents that healthy little ones were coming quickly out of a particular country, far more people would sign up than a small, poor country could effectively manage. National governments would become unable to continue carefully supervising every adoption. Demand would begin to outstrip supply, leading to that obvious two-part capitalist solution: increased prices and increased production.
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, or would send a monthly stipend, or some other culturally comprehensible fostering plan.
But as I mentioned earlier , there’s a hopeful ending to this story. The developed world has pulled together a treaty, the 1993 Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, that offers a regulatory system and child welfare guidelines. After 21 years, the Hague Convention has been fully joined by 93 countries, including—in 2008—the U.S. But Ethiopia is not one of them. Until now, because of a quirk in U.S. law, that meant that American agencies working in Ethiopia were also not governed by Hague rules. But in July 2014, the Universal Accreditation Act went into effect, a new U.S. law that plugs at least our part of that particular hole. When that law came into effect, the adoption agencies that most troubled the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa shut their doors and went out of business. At roughly the same time, the governments of the United States and Ethiopia agreed to work together to screen out fraud. The story of adoption from Ethiopia, in other words, is a story of a crisis—but a crisis in which those involved managed, at least partly, to eke out some significant regulatory, legal, and diplomatic improvements
Here’s how it works: Imagine that someone wants to adopt, and has heard wonderful things about adoption from Ethiopia. He finds an adoption agency that Ethiopia has licensed to work there, choosing it because he likes the director, or a friend praised it, or because the director is, like him, an evangelical Christian. After he gets his home study and other paperwork completed, and puts down a significant deposit, the adoption agency sends him a “referral,” a picture and a dossier of information about a child it says needs a home. If he accepts this referral, saying that, yes, he wants to adopt this child, he may be asked to send more money to “reserve” her, lest she be offered to some other waiting family. With the information that your agency sends, he fills out the elaborate I-600 application, the “petition to classify orphan as an immediate relative,” asking the U.S. government to grant him a visa to bring that child home.
For the hopeful parent, that’s seen as nearly the end of the “paper pregnancy”: He has endured home studies, fingerprinting, criminal records checks, agency shopping, months or years of waiting, and has finally fallen in love with the picture of this child, and can barely wait to bring her home to her room. But for the U.S. government, the I-600 orphan visa application is not the end; it’s just the beginning. That is the very first time that the U.S. government is officially authorized by an American citizen to investigate that child’s circumstances, to see whether she is an orphan under U.S. immigration law. The U.S. authorities have to hold adopting Americans responsible for whether that promised child is, in fact, free for adoption—on the fiction that the prospective parents have some independent knowledge about the child
Consular officers and aid workers both knew that sometimes African entrepreneurs figure out that running an orphanage can be a profitable cash business: Solicit some children from the countryside by offering to feed, house, and educate them for free, and then solicit donations from American churches or European charities, skimming plenty off the top.
Of course, U.S. officials did not want to question the legality of the adoption at the very end, after an American family had legally adopted a child under Ethiopian law, making it impossible for them to fly home as a family. Doing so had led to disasters in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Guatemala. On the other hand, no Embassy official wanted to put an American seal of approval on what could be seen as, essentially, child trafficking for profit—a term that the U.S. didn’t use officially, but which Embassy officials were using amongst themselves in these memos and emails. So the Embassy had to work with the adoption agencies, local orphanages, and Ethiopian authorities the way embassies always do: through influence and pressure, pushing them to follow the rules.IV
In 2008 U.S. officials did gain an important tool. Eight years earlier, the U.S. had passed a 2000 law called the Intercountry Adoption Act (IAA), authorizing entry into the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. In 2008, the U.S. at last finalized and put into practice the detailed regulations that adoption agencies had to follow in order to be “Hague accredited.” Although it was and is a highlyimperfect system, the IAA and Hague accreditation at least gave the U.S. government a legal relationship with some adoption agencies—so the U.S. wasn’t dealing only with the prospective adoptive parents, who had the least amount of information about what was going on.
But here’s the loophole: Because Ethiopia had not joined the Hague convention, IAA accreditation was not required before American agencies could help Americans adopt from that country. Which meant that American agencies that had not passed a Hague review—which included some of the worst, with terrible records of child trafficking—were free to work in one of the countries that had the fewest protections in place from unscrupulous actors. And by this point, to the U.S. Embassy’s frustration, Ethiopian authorities were apparently licensing every applicant—for reasons never made clear.
That doesn’t mean everyone in the Ethiopian government was blind to the problems. In July of 2008, the Ethiopian foreign minister told U.S. ambassador Donald Yamamoto that the Ethiopian government was considering shutting down international adoption entirely, because the government “had concluded that middlemen were actively buying and selling children for intercountry adoptions.”
According to the cable, the Embassy tried to persuade the Ethiopian minister not to do anything so drastic, since that would leave too many children and parents in “legal limbo”: Americans who had adopted children under Ethiopian law would be unable, under American law, to take those children home. Tom DiFilipo, CEO of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS), offered the Ethiopian government $220,000 to help pay for better oversight, ensuring that its members’ donations came through JCICS so that no individual agency would be able to use its donations to pressure for more orphan referrals—although, of course, even JCICS’s donation could be interpreted as paying to keep the adoption pipeline open. An agreement was never finalized, according to DiFilipo.
JCICS and 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.
According to one U.S. Embassy document, Ethiopian officials said they didn’t blame American adoption agencies for the irregularities; rather, they blamed Ethiopian orphanages for cutting corners to bring in money. Ethiopian officials bemoaned how little power the Ethiopian federal government had over regional and local governments that ran family policy, as is true in the U.S., where the federal government does not have the power to oversee, say, a Florida-based adoption agency (except, under the new law, if that adoption agency wants to arrange adoptions from overseas).
Many poor nations’ international adoption programs started with a few genuinely humanitarian adoptions, saving children from desperate circumstances. But once word spread, far more people would sign up than a small, poor country could effectively manage.
As one Embassy official, Kelly Folliard, wrote to Abigail Rupp, the consular chief, “Last week I spoke at length with the orphanage director from Kebebe Tsehaye government-run orphanage.... He mentioned that they haven’t received any new babies in over a month. Babies are typically brought in by local police, and the average is about 2-3 babies per week. The director is convinced that the police are being paid by private agencies to bring the babies to them.”V
And so by 2009 the U.S. changed its focus and began trying to lean on the American adoption agencies that it had reason to believe were behaving unethically. (For more details, see the Schuster Institute’s index of U.S. adoption agencies mentioned in these FOIAs, with the agencies’ responses to what those State Department documents say.) For instance, Embassy staff visited the infamous Gelgela orphanage, which had been exposed in a scathing March 2010 Australian documentary as having solicited children directly from villagers. That documentary, and another report from CBS News, spoke with Americans Katie and Calvin Bradshaw, who had adopted three Ethiopian sisters through Christian World Adoption—only to find that the girls had expected to return to their middle-class family back in Ethiopia