Cover Story

Life or death

"Life or death" Continued...

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

Similar problems plagued Vietnam: The U.S. embassy in Hanoi began investigating reports of fraud in the country's growing adoption program in 2007. By January 2008, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Michael Michalek cabled the U.S. State Department with the results: "These cases offer compelling proof that government-run clinics and orphanages are actively engaged in baby buying and are lying to birth mothers to secure children for international adoption." Later that year, the United States didn't renew its adoption agreement with Vietnam, closing the program to Americans.

As adoptions to Americans in the two countries ended, Ethiopia's program soared: In 2004, during the peak of U.S. international adoptions, Americans adopted 284 Ethiopian children. By 2010, that number had risen more than tenfold to 2,511.

The swelling adoption program brought serious concerns: How could Ethiopia avoid the pitfalls that ensnared other countries? Tom DeFilipo of the D.C.-based Joint Council on International Adoptions says the scandals pushed Ethiopia to develop a better system.

The Ethiopia model-developed in conjunction with adoption agencies and advocates like DeFilipo-includes government audits of orphanages and adoption agencies, and a demanding process with layers of protections.

Consider an adopted child's journey: Since Ethiopian law doesn't allow a birth parent to surrender a baby to an orphanage, the parent presents the child to local officials. The officials investigate and report to regional officials. The regional officials review the case and refer the baby to an orphanage. The orphanage reviews the child's background and eligibility for adoption and forwards the information to an agency.

After the agency reviews the case and matches the child with an adoptive family, agency workers forward the information to the Ethiopian government. The Ministry of Women, Children, and Youth Affairs issues a letter of approval before a judge reviews the case in an Ethiopian court. When that process is complete, the adoptive family forwards the paperwork to the U.S. Embassy. The embassy reviews the information and approves the child for a visa, paving the way for U.S. citizenship.

That's a far different process than Guatemala's system: The country allowed adoptive families to work through notaries who handled many parts of the process for a fee, instead of allowing layers of government checks.

But layers of checks don't make corruption impossible: Birth parents could lie about why they need to surrender a child. Officials could fail to investigate adequately. Orphanages could fail to check a child's background or-worst-case scenario-solicit children for adoption. Courts could falter. Agencies and parents could ask too few questions or fall into corruption of their own.

DeFilipo believes the layers of safeguards do protect against systematic fraud in Ethiopia, but he doesn't deny the potential for trouble: "There's no such thing as eliminating corruption in any human endeavor."

Allegations of corruption in Ethiopia have surfaced on internet adoption forums: Some adoptive parents say their Ethiopian children later told them they weren't truly orphans. Others reported deplorable living conditions in some orphanages.

Last year, a CBS News report about Christian World Adoption (CWA), a Charleston, S.C.--based adoption agency, included an interview with an adopted Ethiopian teenager alleging that CWA paid her father for her and her sisters. In an interview from his Charleston office, CWA's attorney, Curtis Bostic, told me: "CWA pays nobody-period-for children, and there's no need to do that."

Bostic also disputed the report's implication that a CWA worker tried to recruit Ethiopian children for adoption. A video showed the worker telling a crowd of Ethiopian villagers: "If you want your child to be adopted by a family in America, you may stay."

Bostic said the CWA worker traveled to the village with a local orphanage at the invitation of village leaders interested in establishing an orphanage for needy children. He says the worker was explaining the purpose of the team's visit. Bostic also said that an Ethiopian investigation of CWA didn't return negative findings, and that the government allows the agency to continue facilitating adoptions.

A month after the CBS report, the U.S. State Department said it was concerned about media accounts of agencies recruiting children in Ethiopia. An April 6 State Department notice said adoptive families must file more information for the U.S. Embassy to complete investigations of adoption cases. The Ethiopian government also announced additional steps for adoptive parents. By December, the State Department repeated concerns, but didn't warn families against pursuing adoption.

The obvious question surfaced: If corruption had infected the Ethiopian adoption system, how bad was it?

A series of reports by news agency Voice of America (VOA) painted a dire picture. A Dec. 14 article-"Ethiopia Plans Crackdown on Baby Business"-said Ethiopian officials planned to close dozens of orphanages they said served as transit homes for adoptions.

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