Nepal to Ethiopia: A Study in Corrupted Adoption

Oliver Duggan

adoption 300x199 Nepal to Ethiopia: A Study in Corrupted AdoptionVictoria 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.

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  • manacha

    Good for the mother and her daughter. It is a very moving article, I wish them both happiness. 

  • Helena

    I hope that all turns out well and that Victoria and her Daughter have a happy life together.

  • Richard Carter

    Sadly, the usual emotional argument solely from the point of view of the would-be adoptive parent. Whilst you can understand why the woman wants to adopt, to do so removes the child from its cultural context and is simply storing up trouble for later on, when the child reaches adolescence and begins to question where they came from.

    Also, the real problem is that international adoption achieves nothing for the vast majority of children in developing countries: consider Malawi, for example, where that awful Madonna bought her children: it has a million orphans, is Madonna going to take a significant number of the 999,998 remaining there? Her money would be better spent in improving the conditions of the children who are there.

    A further problem is that, especially in Central/Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union (popular with Americans as a source of nice, blonde-haired blue-eyed white children), the vast majority (an estimated 95 per cent) of children in “orphanages” have at least one living parent. What they need is the development of appropriate support systems to prevent their being sent there in the first place: a much cheaper and far better solution.

    Finally, the article bleats about “rumored [sic] corruption” wholly from the point of view of the would-be adopter, but it poses horrible problems in the countries themselves. But that doesn’t seem to count very highly in Victoria’s concerns.

    For a rather more balanced view see, for example, Save the Children’s paper on international adoption:

  • simon anstey

    Sadly the usual emotional response from an outsider looking in. Perhaps you could tell me exactly what cultural context a child in a cardboard box lying on a street corner has? Do you really believe that a child who looks so different from its mother will wait until adolescence to question that? Do you think that children lack self awareness? Why are there so many non-adopted adolescents who show cultural and social problems? Bad parenting perhaps, or social disadvantage, poor education systems, poorly paid parents, bad housing, inadequate nutrition and associated health problems…..? 

    The fact is that the greatest majority of adoptive parents are well educated, well paid, well housed, without criminal records, emotionally stable and balanced and in good health. The vetting process assures this. This is the cultural context the child will grow in. Adoptive parents and their children are acutely aware of the differences between them. The constant staring and the interminable “is s/he adopted?”, from strangers assures this. Every five year old adopted child I have asked knows exactly where they come from and where they are. The majority of three year olds know too.
     I agree that “ international adoption achieves nothing for the vast majority of children in developing countries”, but why should should that be the responsibility of adopting parents? Is that not the responsibility of the government? of aid organisations? of parents and families? Love or hate Madonna I cannot understand why she should take care of all those other kids. Should she have left the ones she took because she could not help all the others? Exactly how much could be done for 1,000,000 children with the money that she used to adopt? Do you know how much money she used? Do you know what it costs to adopt?While adoption may not achieve anything for the vast majority of those left behind it achieves everything for those taken. To imply that this is valueless is both naive and heartless. Fees paid in some countries are given to the education authorities in the adoptive districts; those monies support children’s homes and their activities. Money which would otherwise not be forthcoming from any quarter. Many of the orphanages in Romania that I visited did indeed have some children who had parents. They were good children’s homes, who had a-dollar-a-day to spend on each child; developing a support system to prevent children having to arrive in that situation would be hard to achieve on that budget.  I worked in a children’s home in the  UK where the budget was immensely larger, in a country which both has and uses the resources to prevent children being there in the first place, but which still has children in homes.

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