They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

E.J. Graff, Pacific Standard

In this article, journalist E.J. Graff, uncovers some of the corruption, fraud, and deception common within the “mini-industry” of U.S. adoptions from Ethiopia, and how that “industry” has come to see better regulation through diplomacy and a new federal law. Ethiopia saw an exponential increase in US adoptions from 2002 to 2010. This sudden increase in the demand for Ethiopian adoptions created a market for “finding” (or creating) “orphans.” “In the case of inter-country adoptions,” says the article “far too often, orphans were ‘produced’ by unscrupulous middlemen who would persuade desperately poor, uneducated, often illiterate villagers whose culture had no concept of permanently severing biological ties to send their children away—saying that wealthy Westerners would educate their children and send them home at age 18, or would send a monthly stipend, or some other culturally comprehensible fostering plan.” This practice had already been seen in places like Cambodia, Peru, and Nepal, and was now happening in Ethiopia.

Having reported on fraud and corruption in international adoption since 2008, the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism sought to uncover the truths behind the allegations of corrupt adoption practices in Ethiopia. The Schuster Institute examined documents from the US State Department going back to the year 2000 and found that the spike in US adoptions from Ethiopia was prompted, at least in part, by an article written in the New York Times Magazine in 2002 describing the sad and desperate situation of children orphaned in Ethiopia by the AIDS epidemic. After 2002, the once well-managed and modest international adoption program in Ethiopia began to be overwhelmed by demand, making it more difficult to manage and, therefore, more vulnerable to fraud and corruption.

So, in 2008, the US Embassy in Ethiopia began to make unannounced visits to adoption agencies to investigate their practices, and found that many were engaging in unscrupulous activities in order to obtain more children for adoption. The Embassy urged all American agencies in Ethiopia to refer children for adoption only if they could be definitively proven to be orphans. However, the U.S. had little authority to enforce these recommendations or to investigate into adoption services in Ethiopia.

Therefore, the Embassy used the tools it did have - influence, diplomacy, and pressure - to work with the local agencies and authorities to clean up the adoption system in Ethiopia. Though they were met with several frustrations in the process, including loopholes in the US international adoption law and the  Hague Convention on Intercountry adoption (a treaty that the US had signed but which Ethiopia had not and, therefore, did not have to be honored in Ethiopian adoptions), US Embassy officials eventually reached an arrangement with the Ethiopian government in 2011 which allowed the Embassy and its partner, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), to investigate the individual cases of children before they were approved for adoption by the Ethiopian courts. Since this process, called the Pre-Adoption Immigration Review (PAIR), was instated, US adoptions in Ethiopia have decreased. Another significant development in the process of cleaning up Ethiopian international adoptions is the Universal Accreditation Act (UAA), a law signed by President Obama in 2012. This law, enacted in July 2014, requires all U.S. adoption agencies to be federally reviewed and Hague accredited in order to oversee international adoptions, a requirement that was not previously in place.

Though there may continue to be some incidents of fraud and corruption in the adoption system, “American and Ethiopian vigilance appears to be paying off,” concludes the article. “And now that the UAA has gotten rid of agencies that cannot or will not pass regulatory inspection, adoptions from Ethiopia should become even more trustworthy.”…