Overseas adoption is the process whereby someone of a particular nationality adopts a child from a different country. For years, Ethiopia has been one of the most popular places whence children are adopted. According to the African Child Forum, it ranked third globally in terms of overseas adoption from 2003-2011. This is due, in part, to relatively lax regulations that govern the adoption process, which some argue may subject children to potential dangers abroad, especially if they aren’t actually orphans. However, as EBR’s adjunct staff writer Meseret Mamo reports, government is working to better regulate the process and find domestic alternatives to overseas adoption.
“My name is Ephrem (Oskamp) Abebe, born around 1980 or 1981. I was abused when I was a child. The police brought me to Yekatit 12 Hospital and I lived there for three years. The woman who abused me was probably not my biological mother and I [would] like to tell them that I am all right and I [would] like to meet them. Please help me find my mom, dad or any relatives.”
This is a paragraph from a letter written to the Addis Ababa Police Commission three years ago by a man who was adopted by a family that came to Ethiopia a few years after he was born. Ephrem wrote this letter to the police because he needs their assistance in finding his biological parents or relatives.
Ephrem’s adoption took place when the country didn’t have an organised system to investigate the legitimacy and accountability of parents looking to adopt children or to record the identity and life history of the adoptee. For instance, the available document of Ephrem that is found at Addis Ababa Police Commission only says he was found crying near Yekatit 12 Hospital before he was adopted. Therefore it was difficult to find his biological parents. As a result, the police couldn’t help him.
Adoption that occurs when a parent of a given nationality is granted legal custody of a child from another country is referred to as an overseas or international adoption. Many consider it a last resort among alternative childcare mechanisms for orphans and vulnerable children. In many countries, it is only allowed when it is known for sure that the child doesn’t have living parents or relatives. The document testifying to this fact should be sent to the court, which grants legality to the adoption.
Overseas adoption seems a sound option for orphans. But the reality isn’t always so pretty, especially in countries like Ethiopia, where there was no mechanism to ensure the safety and well-being of children who went through the international adoption process. This lack of a monitoring mechanism made the country an easy place to adopt children in the past.
A report released by the African Child Forum states that Ethiopia ranked first in Africa in the number of children that were adopted internationally. In fact, between 2003-2011 the country ranked third globally, after China and Russia, in terms of the overall number of children that went through an overseas adoption. The same data also indicates that the country held the leading position in 2009.
Data published by the U.S. State Department indicates that child adoption from Ethiopia is becoming popular there. It grew from 42 overseas adoptions in 1999 to 1,567 in 2012, which is the largest after China.
Even though those involved in the process claim that it isn’t costly, research reveals that overseas adoption involves a large amount of money, sometimes as much as USD40,000.
Foreign adoption agencies hold the majority of the stake in this process. Information obtained from the Ethiopian Charities and Societies Agency reveals that currently there are 47 licensed adoption organisations in the country. Before operating, agencies must sign a bilateral agreement with the Ministry of Women and Children and part of the obligation demands the post-adoption reporting of children after they go overseas.
“In the agreement, adopters should report on the status of the children a month after the children arrive to their new home. Following that, updates are required after three, six and 12 months,” says Hiruy Bahiretibeb, Director of the Children’s Wellness Directorate at the Ministry. “After that, they have to report every year until the children turn 18.”
This is more involvement than the previous trend, when the Ministry was not engaged in the process at all. Currently, its involvement is restricted to only responding to the court regarding the authenticity of the documents signed by authorities. “The Ministry only checks the documents presented to the court, whether the documents presented are signed by the proper officials, and if it is in the best interest of the child,” says Hiruy.
The nature of global adoption has been changing dramatically since 2004. For instance, countries like China, Russia and South Korea have reduced the once large numbers of children made available to foreigners while trying to encourage domestic alternatives.
Recently, Ethiopia has taken similar steps by preparing foster care families and local sponsorship. “It is better to find a local solution for local problem than asking for a helping hand from outsiders,” argues Zaid Tesfaye, Deputy Director of the Addis Ababa Women and Children Bureau. “Overseas adoption should be considered after all other alternatives are exhausted.’’
Government officials and stakeholders stress that international adoption should be the last resort among alternative childcare options for orphans and vulnerable children. This is because they hope to avoid certain risks associated with overseas adoption, like identity crises that result from living in an unfamiliar place, and a desire to safeguard the child’s wellbeing. For that reason, overseas adoption is allowed only when it is known for a fact that the children don’t have living parents or relatives before opting for international adoption.
Information from the Bureau shows that it started to focus on foster care as an alternative for orphan children a year ago with eleven families. This fiscal year, 300 families registered to be a foster care family and 30 have qualified.
Zaid told EBR that the trend of domestic adoption is increasing. “Five years ago, three children were domestically adopted by Ethiopians; now that number has grown to 120 children and 70 local adopting parents are on the waiting list.”
Despite the progress, the number of overseas adoptions still exceeds domestic ones in Addis Ababa. According to the Addis Ababa Women and Children Bureau there were 75 domestic and 116 overseas adoptions in the past nine months. Of the 116, 27 children went to live with relatives abroad and 64 were adopted from the Kibebe Tsehay Orphanage, which is administered by the Bureau.
Although the city exerts effort to monitor adoption, information isn’t easily obtainable regarding the adoption of children outside of Addis Ababa. Stakeholders say that this is because many institutional problems have not been addressed. Hiruy says the Ministry has no mandate to monitor orphanages or regional bureaus for the proper implementation of the family law or the United Nations conventions on adoptions.
“Whatever happens, the final responsibility is in the hands of the bureaus; they monitor orphanage centres and write the final comment on the necessity of international adoption,” he told EBR. “The Ministry will not check what is on the ground. We are independent entities with independent mandates; we don’t have the power to monitor and take measures against regional bureaus.”
Still, some changes in the adoption process have emerged in recent years. Since 2009, the testimony of the police as to the investigation results of the abandoned children is now mandatory to proceed on the legality of an overseas adoption. Before 2009, the responsibility of the police was to investigate the abandoned child’s background information as to when, where and by whom the child was abandoned.
This seems to have had a positive impact in decreasing the overseas adoption rate. Now, at least children will not be adopted until police finish their investigation, which usually takes three months to complete.
However Atsede Werdofa (Commander), who is in charge of children and women issues at the Addis Ababa Police Commission, told EBR that it is only this year that the Kibebe Tsehay Orphanage, where the police take most abandoned children, was mandated to report the situation of children under its care to the police, due to outside pressure.
Nevertheless, the police have no mandate to control the orphanages. “I doubt if it is the true intention of government officials when they say overseas adoption is the last resort,” says Atsede. “The officials simply ask us to send them the investigation results.”
Atsede doesn’t deny that most of the time she is in dilemma when she thinks about the possibility of a better life awaiting children with overseas adoption. But the potential for identity crises, which may come sooner or later, affect her decision also. “We do our best but most of the time it is difficult to prove that a child is in fact an orphan,” she stresses. EBR
4th Year • May 16 2016 – June 15 2016 • No. 39