Nepal to Ethiopia: A Study in Corrupted Adoption
Victoria exudes motherhood, even amongst the dank synthetics of Finfine’s old, strip-lit bar. And even now, whilst rain drills the potholed car park outside, in the uncomfortable company of harsh-featured afternoon drinkers and without her daughter, this elegant European transmits a contradictory familial comfort. She is one of those parents so in love with her family that there’s heartening warmth in the most fleeting exchanges, and an overt protectiveness in more lasting ones. In short, she’s a mum. And it shows.
But being a mum isn’t something that came easily to Victoria. As an international adoptive parent, determined not to cut corners or resort to bribery, she was forced by a rapidly corrupting system to fight tooth and nail for her little girl. It was a fight that took its toll and almost forced her from the ring. After her second or third blow in as many years and as many countries, Victoria admitted early that she came close to throwing in the towel. “After all that, I was very depressed. I thought there was no point in continuing my search. Never mind, I told myself. I tried. Okay, I give up.”
Unsuccessful adoption attempts are rife in Ethiopia, as well as the rest of Africa, and halfway through Victoria’s story it’s easy to see why. Like many before her, after several years, a handful of fruitless and depressing visits to orphanages throughout the world, thousands of pages of paper work, hours of phone calls and countless sleepless nights in her European home, Catharine had come so close but had so far still to travel.
Her search began, in the early noughties, with a holiday. “I was always very fond of Asia,” Victoria said, reflecting on the time she’s spent in India, Nepal and Vietnam. So when she decided to adopt, with the support of her Italian partner whom she’d met with true European style on a flight from Paris to Rome, the Eastern continent was the obvious choice.
And so for two years Victoria leapfrogged between her job teaching artistic therapy for children and her tireless search to find her daughter in the quagmire of Asiatic adoption. At the time, only one country in Asia was open to the kind of single parent, private adoption she was pursuing, and so her search led to Nepal. “I went there, I liked very much the country so I though okay, I’ll go with it.”
“But it was very corrupt: with $6,500 in your wallet you could buy any child you wanted,” she explains. “So, after days and nights trying to find honest people to help, and after so many bad stories, I decided forgot it.” Her decision was a prescient one. In the same month the French government ceased its international adoption relationship with the Asian country, and more were to follow suit. Canada has still prevented all adoption with Nepal, as has most of Europe, on allegations of corruption and child trafficking.
“So I turned to Vietnam, because I wanted to keep one foot in Asia,” she says. “But it was the same. In the end everybody wanted to take something from you. I decided to renounce it. I said to myself: if the only way to become a mother is to pay a huge amount of money then I don’t want it.”
Again Victoria demonstrated sound foresight. Vietnam, like Nepal, has become more than a headache for inter-country adoptees. Yesterday, for example, a pro-adoption rally, dubbed ‘Step Forward for Orphans’, took place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to protest the US government’s restriction of adoptions from both Vietnam and Nepal. The policy, which was introduced in an attempt to prevent kidnapping and abuse within orphanages, has, according to representatives from Friday’s march, left many children in squalid conditions with no medical attention, and left families in a limbo without children for up to 3 years.
“There are thousands of orphans all around the world who dream of a loving, permanent family to call their own,” said Chuck Johnson, president and CEO of the National Council For Adoption. “Our hope is that the Step Forward for Orphans March brings attention to the problems in inter-country adoption that must be addressed now.”
The problem though, is that inter-country adoption is rapidly becoming a highly profitable market, largely because it remains almost completely unregulated. Expensive and well-advertised agencies have sprouted across the world, as child-rearing entrepreneurs have realized parents present the lucrative combination of desperation and ignorance. “Your neighborhood health club is more heavily regulated,” says Trish Maskew, executive director of Ethica (a nonprofit outfit that advocates better international adoption laws).”The industry allows unlicensed facilitators to work without oversight. The U.S. government refuses to act, and consumers walk into this blind.”
But for Victoria, even before to the true extent of agency-manipulation was revealed, Asia had been spoilt. She returned to her home dejected, disheartened and all but inconsolable. She put her dreams to one side and tried to come to terms with a life without adoption. Her husband however, an older man with substantial ties to Ethiopia, convinced her a holiday in the country he loved would furnish some consolation.
“I came to Ethiopia just to visit some friends and get to know the country. But when I was here I felt something very strong […] it was as if something was waking up inside,” she beams with the smile of an ex-patriot who has found a home away from home.
And Victoria’s love for Ethiopia in not unusual: according to the US Child Welfare Department, Ethiopia remains the second highest origin nation for inter-country adoption. With 2,513 adoptions to America in the last year it lies just 900 behind China’s 3,401 – something which has started to alarm the Ethiopian government.
So, as one last-ditch swing against the heavyweight monolith of international adoption, she took a minibus to The Ethiopian Children, Youth and Family Affairs Department (CYFAD) in early 2005.
“I went to get information and they told me: ‘yes we accept single application, we accept on private basis, so you can do it.’” Her eyes widen and start to gloss over, remembering the moment it all clicked into place. “I was feeling pregnant for the last two years of my life, and all of sudden it was like I had reached the place where I could eventually deliver my child.”
But private adoption, the kind preferred by Victoria, was, and remains, a tiresomely complex process. Whereas parents who go through an agency can complete the process, almost entirely, from an armchair at home, privately adopting parents are forced to acquaint themselves with the legal and regulatory polices of both countries involved. They must prepare their own briefs, translate their own documents and attend their own hearings the support of those in the know. And to make matters worse, Catharine was going through the process just as the Ethiopia was changing the tides.
“On the 12th May 2005, I received an email from my Ethiopian friend,” Victoria explains. “It said: ‘your documents are ready but I just heard the Ethiopian government have decided to close all private adoption.’” In her words: “It was like waiting years to get pregnant and eventually, in the 8th month, you feel you a losing your child. It was incredible painful for me.”
Again Victoria was not alone in her anguish: Ethiopia has since begun actively investigating its unusually high position in the adopting league tables. It has, in an attempt to crack down on rumored corruption, limited international adoption by 90% and consistently considered completely closing all private adoption – a measure it is yet to enact conclusively. And in a continuation of the reforms encouraged by Prime Minister Zenawi, CYFAD announced last month the closure of 12 orphanages across the country.
Victoria though, was not entirely without hope when she read her email: “On Saturday – 14th May – I decided to go to Ethiopia. It was useless to just sit and cry at home.” Meanwhile, on the exact same day, at the exact same time, almost 3000 miles away, two members of Addis Ababa’s police force were picking up a box that had been dumped on the corner of the street. Upon inspection, they reported, the cardboard compartment contained a baby they would come to describe as ‘an absolute abandoned’.
Almost two weeks later, Victoria escorted the same tiny little girl to the local hospital for her health check. “So I left for the hospital in a taxi, with this little baby wrapped up in a blanket in my arms.” She begins. “And this is where it happened, what I was waiting for… I looked at this little baby, like a little bird in my arms, while three doctors around her were checking her head and drawing blood and so on. And I looked at this baby, and she looked at me, and I said, from deep inside me: ‘you are my daughter, and whatever the results, I will not leave Ethiopia without you. You are the one. I will be your mummy for ever.”
Authors note: Some names and places have been changed to protect the identity of the subjects.
Follow the author on Twitter: http://twitter.com/olidugganTagged in: Adoption, children, Ethiopia, Nepal, Orphanage, Vietnam
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