PHASE I: HUMANITARIAN ADOPTIONS
Melissa Fay Greene was correct: When she was there, international adoption from Ethiopia was a welcomed humanitarian venture for the desperately needy few. As she wrote, “It is the first recourse of everyone ethically involved with intercountry adoption to place orphans with relatives, with friends or with families within their home countries; no one imagines or pretends that adoption is a solution to a generation of children orphaned by disease. It is one very small and modest option, a case of families in industrialized nations throwing lifelines to individual children even as their governments fail to commit the money to turn back the epidemic” of AIDS, in the case of Ethiopia.
During these first years of the program, the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa sent cables back to the Department of State in D.C. explaining—praising, really—how carefully Ethiopian authorities were overseeing the effort. The country might have been a repressive totalitarian state, but in this, at least, it was admirable: As of 2003, it had licensed only three adoption agencies, two of them American, all of which were “expert at managing the Ethiopian adoption process.”
As is true in most traditional cultures, the Embassy noted that, in the countryside, children were rarely abandoned. There were two exceptions. First, children orphaned by AIDS were, at that time, stigmatized by their families and communities; and second, families that migrated to Addis Ababa for work could, once there, become separated from their children, who were left homeless. A government ministry took guardianship, checked on whether they were truly orphaned or abandoned, and identified the few who needed foreign families.
An Embassy researcher talked with someone in the Wolayta Zone Administrator’s office who reported allegations that local orphanages were bribing families to relinquish their children, saying, "Parents were given empty promises and did not know where their kids were going."
In August 2003, “the process of identifying orphans, approving adoptions, and processing immigrant visas for them is extremely rigorous here,” the U.S. Embassy wrote home to the Secretary of State’s office, in part because the Ethiopian government knew that “trafficking in children is a big business.” Yet even in that same cable, written less than a year after Greene’s New York TimesMagazine article appeared, the Embassy noted that some unscrupulous individuals were going into villages to “collect children” by persuading parents to give them up.I
By 2006, the Embassy was cabling home that “Ethiopia is the fastest growing source country for adoptions by American citizens, and the rapid growth mimics the troubling pattern of programs that were eventually closed because of fraud concerns.” By rapid growth, the Embassy meant that while there had been 105 adoptions in 2000 and 165 in 2003, there had been 284 in 2004 and 442 in 2005—and the curve was about to go up much more steeply.
At the same time, the world—led by the U.S.—was finally offering help for countries devastated by the AIDS pandemic. George W. Bush’s 2003 life-saving PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) began helping AIDS-stricken nations like Ethiopia in ways that included distributing anti-retrovirals, sponsoring education campaigns designed to reduce HIV transmission, helping grandmothers and family members care for AIDS orphans by offering micro-grants to feed children and pay school fees, and much more. Over time, it would turn out, this is what would most help Africa’s AIDS orphans: preventing them from being orphaned at all.II
But what did most Americans know about children in Ethiopia, beyond what they read in articles like Greene’s or heard from adoption agencies? Very little. Westerners continued to believe that needy Ethiopian orphans were filling the streets and abandoned infants were being found wrapped in palm leaves—and so they kept applying to adopt. In July 2005, Angelina Jolie adopted an Ethiopian baby, spurring vastly more interest. In March 2006, the U.S. Embassy reported so much dramatic growth that it asked for more staff to handle the flood of orphan visa applications. It worried a little about the Ethiopian government’s ability to keep up with the demand, while acknowledging that Ethiopian officials “appear determined to maintain legitimacy in Ethiopian adoption” and “insist on proper documentation before a child is released to a non-Ethiopian family.”
But a February 2007 cable noted that the number of applications to adopt from Ethiopia—and the number of American adoption agencies working in the country—were expanding “exponentially,” with eight times as many agencies working in country than had been there in 2000, for a total of 24. Contributing to that explosive growth was the fact that China was offering far fewer children for adoption, and Guatemalan adoptions were about to be closed to Americans because of systemic fraud and corruption. In other words, demand was being funneled toward Africa. Which is why the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa wrote, very diplomatically, “One agency recently was found to be working with an American facilitator who had previously presented problematic adoption cases,” although that agency dropped contact with the problematic facilitator. Still, there were too many agencies, too many children coming and going, too many people opportunistically looking in the countryside for “adoptable” children.III
PHASE II: THE GOLD RUSH
At last came the crisis that the Embassy officials had feared. By July 2008, the Embassy wrote, more than 70 licensed agencies were referring Ethiopian children for adoption, 24 of them American. There had been only three licensed agencies in 2000. The system was officially overwhelmed. Ethiopian officials wanted to bring adoption to a complete halt to clean things up—which would have stranded both those children who truly did need new homes, and would leave prospective adoptive parents heartbroken and frustrated, clutching pictures of their promised children but unable to bring them home.