Cover Story
Joseph, Heidi, and Tate Bayly (Charlie Nye/Genesis)

Life or death

With international adoptions harder and harder to process and a slowdown in Ethiopia, the second-largest source of hope for American parents wanting to adopt overseas, the outcome can be heartbreak, or worse

Issue: "Orphaned no more," July 30, 2011

GREENVILLE, S.C.-When an Ethiopian woman found an abandoned baby girl on the steps of a government building outside the capital city of Addis Ababa in 2008, she reported the discovery to local police and called the baby Bethel: The woman prayed the needy child would eventually belong to a Christian family, and knew that Bethel means "house of God."

More than two years later, the child is fulfilling her name: Grace Bethel leans across the couch in the living room of her Greenville, S.C., home, watching a video of the day her adoptive parents-Scotty and Kerry Anderson-met her at an Ethiopian orphanage. "That's you, daddy!" she says to Anderson, an associate pastor at a nearby church. The curly-haired toddler makes another observation: "I was a tiny baby."

It's true: Like many children in impoverished Ethiopia, Grace was underweight and underdeveloped when the Andersons met her in 2008, but that quickly changed, says Mrs. Anderson: "Three weeks after we brought her home, she rolled over and sat up."

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Joseph and Heidi Bayly can relate: When they met their adopted son in an Ethiopian orphanage in 2009, the 8-month-old weighed just 12 pounds and functioned like a small infant. But Bayly says Tate quickly improved: "In just a couple of months we went from having a 1-month-old to having a 10-month-old."

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Tate swayed in the living room of his Indianapolis home, strumming a tiny guitar and singing the Doxology. Bayly-a pastor in Indianapolis-contemplates what a few more months in an orphanage might have meant for his son: "In the case of Tate, it may well have been that he died."

Video provided by The Good Shepherd Band

That reality adds sobering weight to an announcement that has jolted families trying to adopt children from Ethiopia: The U.S. Embassy reported that Ethiopian officials plan to process new adoption cases at a dramatically slower rate-as few as five cases a day.

For a country that processes some 4,000 inter-country adoptions a year-including 2,500 to the United States-such a slowdown would mark a dramatic decline: Ethiopia represents the second-largest source of international adoptions to American families over the last two years. (Only China processed more adoptions to the United States in the same time period.)

The Ethiopian government hasn't offered an official reason for the slowdown, but the announcement followed at least two developments: Government officials said the swelling volume of cases overwhelmed their limited capacity, while U.S. news reports claimed that corruption had permeated the system.

The first problem seems likely: A small staff in a developing country could struggle with processing a rapidly growing number of adoption cases. But evidence of the second accusation-widespread, systematic corruption-seems far less clear.

Indeed, a deeper look reveals a different picture: Adoption experts say that while problems exist in the Ethiopian system, grievous adoption scandals in countries like Guatemala and Vietnam led Ethiopia to build a better system with more oversight of the process.

And the U.S. State Department reported encouraging results from a January visit to Ethiopia to examine 4,000 adoption cases: Officials said that while they found problems in the program-and the system needs improvement-the children they investigated met the U.S. definition of an orphan.

The Ethiopian slowdown represents a critical moment for one of the largest populations of orphans in one of the poorest countries in Africa. For government officials, agencies, and parents, the moment calls for a crucial balancing act: evaluating claims of corruption fairly, offering practical help to improve the process, and remembering children who will never be adopted.

Ethiopia burst onto the international adoption scene as the rate of foreign adoptions dramatically declined over the last several years: International adoptions by Americans fell from a peak of 22,991 in 2004 to 11,058 in 2010.

The reasons varied: Countries like China tightened adoption requirements, and a handful of orphan-related disasters tarnished the international process. One of the most egregious: In April 2010, a Tennessee woman placed her adopted Russian son on a Moscow-bound plane with a note saying she could no longer care for the child.

But beyond isolated debacles, adoption programs closed in Guatemala and Vietnam after reports surfaced of systemic corruption. Guatemala's adoption program had grown quickly: The country was the second-largest source for U.S. adoptions in 2006. By 2008, Guatemala had surpassed China for the most adoptions to U.S. families: Americans adopted 4,112 Guatemalan children that year.

But problems also grew: In March 2007, the U.S. State Department advised Americans against adopting from Guatemala, saying investigations revealed the system was "rampant with fraud." By 2008, Guatemala closed its international adoption program to new cases, saying it would improve the process. The program remains shut down.

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