Ethiopia is a large, landlocked country located in the horn of Africa. The 27th largest country in the world, Ethiopia’s topography spans from deserts to tropical rainforests. The capital, Addis Ababa, is where both the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa are based. Though the country has enjoyed substantial economic growth in the last ten years, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) estimates nearly 36 million children in Ethiopia live without access to basic goods and services. Of these roughly 4.5 million children are orphaned, with an estimated 800,000 left parentless due to HIV/AIDS. Orphaned children primarily reside in government-run orphanages throughout the country and foster care, to date, is rare.
From 1999-2017, the dates for which data is available, the U.S. Department of State records 15,630 adoptions occurring from Ethiopia to the United States. Angelina Jolie adopted her daughter, Zahara Marley, as an infant in 2005, which may have spawned more interest in the Ethiopia adoption program. For years Ethiopia ranked in the top five sending countries, alongside China, Guatemala, Russia, and South Korea. At the height of Ethiopia adoption in 2010, 2,511 children were adopted from Ethiopia to the United States.
The requirements for Ethiopia adoption were that prospective adoptive parents were between the ages of 25-65, heterosexual, and be able to provide a safe, nurturing environment. First families would complete a home study then work with an agency to compile their necessary documents to submit to the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs (MOWCA), Ethiopia’s central adoption authority. Once the family’s application was accepted, the family would be eligible to be matched. Prospective adoptive parents open to adopting either a special needs child or an older child, would receive a referral from their agency whereas non-special needs children might be referred either by the director of the child’s orphanage or the adoption agency to the family. The wait times for non-special needs children were longer than wait times for special needs and older children. Sibling groups were possible, and many sibling groups were classified as special needs. Upon receiving a referral, the family would evaluate it and be invited to travel to Ethiopia to meet the child and obtain additional medical and social information about the child. If the family then accepted, they would move on to the Pre-Adoption Immigration Review (PAIR) process.
The Pre-Adoption Immigration Review (PAIR) process is a program which was implemented by Ethiopia in 2003 in response to inconsistencies in the intercountry adoption process. Ethiopia is not a Hague Convention country and as such does not have to follow the rules and regulations with respect to intercountry adoption. There are many facets to the Hague Convention, but two important elements stand out. The first is that every child must be found unequivocally to be an orphan, and second, every effort must have been made to place the child in-country prior to the child being found eligible for intercountry adoption. Even though Ethiopia is not a Hague Convention country, the United States is, and as such, all adoptions to the United States must meet Hague Convention standards. In an effort to meet these standards, the PAIR program was designed to “identify potential irregularities” in the child’s background that might affect the child’s ability to immigrate to another country for the purpose of intercountry adoption. USCIS (United States Citizenship and Immigration Services) evaluated these documents then would issue a letter (Form I-604) to the Ethiopian Ministry of Women and Children Affairs stating USCIS has concluded the PAIR review and the child is free and clear for adoption. At this time USCIS would issue the adoptive family an I-600, which is the Petition to Classify an Orphan as an Immediate Relative. Such processes are not uncommon and many other countries have similar procedures, such as issuing “No Objection Certificates” in China and India prior to filing an adoption in local court.
Once the PAIR review was complete and the I-600 obtained, the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs who would issue an adoption approval letter to the Federal First Instance Court. The court would evaluate the adoption and, if the court found the adoption to be favorable, would issue a foreign adoption decree. At this time, families would travel to Ethiopia (most for a second time) to finalize their adoption in-country. Families would return to the state in which their child resided, stay for a few days, then travel on to the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa to complete their new child’s visa processing. Upon entering the United States, the child would become a U.S. citizen. The cost to adopt from Ethiopia ranged from $30,000-$50,000.
The relationship between the U.S. and Ethiopia adoption began to cool in 2011. In 2008, a ten year old girl, Hana Williams, was adopted from Ethiopia with her younger brother. Three years later, in 2011, Hana was found dead outside her family’s Washington state home, the victim of hypothermia. Further investigation showed signs of repeat physical abuse and long-term starvation. Hana’s younger adopted brother showed additional signs of abuse. Though the family had followed post-placement reports initially, the adoption agency had not been involved with the family since six months post-placement. Both adoptive parents were arrested, tried, and found guilty of Hana’s death and abuse of Hana’s younger brother in a U.S. court of law. Both parents are still serving time.
The death of Hana and the abuse of her brother raised alarm bells in Ethiopia. Many citizens of Ethiopia took to the streets in protest of intercountry adoption. How, the Ethiopian public argued, could they send their young citizens off to a life in another country when the outcome could be as grim as it was for Hana and her brother? Amid these fears, Ethiopia scaled back on the number of children eligible for intercountry adoption, and Ethiopia adoption to the United States began to substantially drop.
A few years later, an outright ban on intercountry adoptions went into effect. Many cite the incident with Hana Williams as the straw that broke the camel’s back, but just as Ethiopia was growing wary of the international community, so too was the international community growing wary of Ethiopia. In 2016, the Danish Minister of Social Affairs and the Interior visited a number of adoption facilities throughout Ethiopia. The Minister was shocked at the lack of consistent information regarding the origins of the children residing in the orphanages. Background histories, medical histories, and family histories were either incomplete or varied from one form to another. How could the international community be certain the children available for adoption were actually orphans in need of a forever home? Already Sweden and Norway had severed adoption ties to Ethiopia among rumors of women selling their children for adoption. Denmark had tightened security around Ethiopia adoption procedures, but the 2016 visit by the Minister was the tipping point. Despite the 2013 PAIR system, information was still lacking, inconsistent, or incorrect. Furthermore, the Minister saw that, on the whole, Ethiopia adoption agencies were run as a for-profit system, fueled by money from foreign adoption agencies (and families). Denmark voted to end adoptions from Ethiopia immediately and made public their findings.
Perhaps in response to Denmark’s findings, or perhaps because of Hana Williams, the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs (MOWCA) began to slow down their issuance of the documents necessary to complete an intercountry adoption. This left some U.S. families waiting over a year to receive the PAIR documents needed to complete their child’s adoption. The U.S. Department of State repeatedly inquired and advocated for a response so the children could move into their forever homes, but the Ethiopian government refused to move. On October 18, 2017, the government of Ethiopia informed the United States they had plans to cease all intercountry adoptions. For those families in process, considerations would be made. The U.S. Department of State alerted U.S. based adoption agencies to the news, who in turn advised their families, and an official recommendation against pursuing an intercountry adoption from Ethiopia was issued. U.S. based agencies ceased referrals for Ethiopia adoption immediately.
Several families were left in limbo and for weeks calls to agencies were met with no answers. Then on November 8, 2017, the government of Ethiopia issued a decree that the only adoption cases that would be allowed to be completed were those cases with a completed Form I-604 determination or cases with a Form I-604 determination pending with the U.S. Embassy in Addis Abba. All other Ethiopia adoptions to the United States would not be allowed to continue. This ruling was particularly hard, as part of the process to adopt from Ethiopia had been to travel ahead of filing Form I-604 to meet the child. Families who had held their children in their arms, but fell short of the Form I-604 distinction, would never be allowed to bring their children home.
January 9, 2018, the official ban on all intercountry adoption passed the Ethiopian parliament. The decision was hotly debated within the walls of parliament with pros for intercountry adoption citing a lack of support and infrastructure within Ethiopia for orphaned children and critics recalling the case of Hana Williams and the mistreatment of Ethiopian children adopted abroad. Within the rhetoric, too, came the notes of national pride. The new “National Child Policy” was about more than concerns over intercountry adoption. Orphans, the policy stated, should be allowed to grow up in their own country, with their own people, and their own traditions and culture. A child placed abroad (through intercountry adoption) would suffer an identity crisis because they would never know what it is like to truly be Ethiopian. The National Child Policy called for the orphans of Ethiopia to “either be adopted locally or supported by a guardian family or tutor” or that they should be reunited with their biological family and relatives. If neither of the above scenarios were possible, then the best course of action would be to place orphaned Ethiopian children in either a government-run facility or in a private orphanage. On February 14, 2018, the Ethiopian Parliament issued a further directive. All pending adoption cases filed in Federal First Instance Court prior to the date of February 14, 2018, would be allowed to proceed, but all other cases would be terminated and effectively banned.
Though the writing had been on the wall with Ethiopia adoption, the ban still hit families and agencies hard. Ethiopia had long been a sending country in intercountry adoption, and many families still wanted to pursue an adoption. Ethiopia is a country with roughly 4.5 million orphans and critics of the ban, both internally and externally, have repeatedly pointed to Ethiopia’s lack of social infrastructure and resources to support the millions of orphans within its borders. Though not a perfect solution, intercountry adoption is one avenue to help those children who have the greatest need. Sadly, it is no longer an option.
Despite the current ban on intercountry adoption, both Ethiopia and the U.S. Department of State are quick to remind families that post-adoption reports are still required. Post-adoption reports are particularly important as they allow for the sending country to ensure that the children they have place abroad are healthy, happy, and safe. In Ethiopia adoption, post-adoption reports are required every six months for the first five years and then annually until the child reaches 18 years of age.
Today the ban on intercountry adoption remains in effect with little hope of reversal. For a reversal to take place, Ethiopia would have to conclude there is a need for intercountry adoption, and then would have to implement a better system of checks and balances to ensure the children eligible for intercountry adoption are in fact orphans. There are still U.S. based adoption agencies working in Ethiopia and several have refocused their efforts towards in-country foster care. Hopefully, these efforts will help alleviate the futures of the millions of orphans who remain.
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