Cover Story

Life or death

"Life or death" Continued...

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

The article also cited a study by Parents for Ethical Adoption Reform (PEAR) that reported evidence of unethical practices by adoption agencies. But the article didn't mention that the PEAR website reports that 134 families responded to the survey-far fewer than the 4,000 cases the U.S. State Department later investigated.

Three days later, a VOA report proclaimed the Ethiopian system "rife with fraud and deception" and quoted a UNICEF official calling the adoption program "a free-for-all." But the report's evidence of widespread corruption was limited: An Ethiopian judge said she believed some birth families lied about their history because they are destitute; some adoptive families shared bad experiences online; and the U.S. embassy reported it had identified "a few bad actors" in the system.

Three months later, the Ethiopian government made a dramatic move: Government officials told the U.S. Embassy in March that they would reduce sharply the number of cases processed each day. The U.S. State Department warned adoptive families to expect "significant delays," and American families braced for long waits.

One thing seems clear: The growing number of adoption cases has stretched the Ethiopian government's limited capacity. As early as 2007, Haddush Haleform, an Ethiopian official, told The New York Times he didn't think the country could handle the swelling work load: "We don't have the capacity to handle all these new agencies, and we have to monitor the quality, not just the quantity."

With a small staff to review paperwork-and a single court to approve adoption cases-the country faces a steep task to manage a bustling international adoption program.

Since the announcement, the U.S. State Department has offered resources to help the Ethiopian government manage the system. (Resources could include anything from more computers to more training for staff.) The State Department says the Ethiopian government hasn't yet indicated what it might need.

But the larger question still looms: Is the program systemically corrupt? A month after Ethiopia warned of a slowdown, the U.S. State Department offered a significant assessment of the country's program. Officials from the State Department and U.S. Customs traveled to Ethiopia to review 4,000 adoption cases by U.S. families. The results: The children generally fit the U.S. definition of an orphan.

That was good news for orphans and adoptive families. It meant that while the system has problems, the State Department wasn't reporting large numbers of exploited children, and it wasn't declaring the system a free-for-all.

But the good news came with concerns: The State Department reported logistical problems in the Ethiopian system, including inconsistencies in paperwork and missing documents. The U.S. embassy has asked agencies to improve documentation about how children arrive in orphanages, and to include more information about their backgrounds.

Sometimes that information is hard to track: Some children are abandoned, leaving their background a mystery. Other children don't have birth certificates. Some birth mothers are reluctant to share the circumstances of their pregnancy, especially if it involves abuse.

But adoption experts agree that some orphanages and agencies could do a better job managing documentation. Chuck Johnson of the D.C.-based National Council for Adoption says agencies and parents could be tempted to bend rules in a foreign country with needy children: "But we're saying: No bending rules."

For adoption agencies, the process brings a dilemma: Agencies need to maintain a healthy distance from children before orphanages recommend them for adoption. This ensures that agencies aren't recruiting children. But despite the distance, agencies are also accountable for ensuring the children are truly orphans.

Daniel Lauer of Holt International-one of the oldest adoption agencies in the United States-describes the dilemma. "At one point we're being asked to be intimately involved with our [orphanage] partners, and also kind of hands-off," he says. "That's a real tension."

That tension has led to painstaking measures for at least three U.S. agencies facilitating some of the largest numbers of Ethiopian adoptions: America World Adoption (AWA) and Bethany Christian Services-both Christian adoption agencies-and Children's Home Society and Family Services (CHSFS) say they conduct independent investigations of every child's case.

After an orphanage refers a child for adoption, each agency says it sends Ethiopian staff to investigate paperwork, travel to the child's village, and videotape interviews with family members, villagers, or local police if possible.

Sara Ruiter of Bethany says her agency contracts an independent company to conduct the video profile and employs a full-time investigator trained by the U.S. Embassy: "We're taking it on ourselves to make sure that any case that comes to us has all the i's dotted and all the t's crossed."

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