One of the videos recently posted on the official website of Project Hopeful, an advocacy group for adopting children with HIV/ AIDS based in the USA, shows the testimony of a fourteen year old Ethiopian girl. The girl named Selah Twietmayer narrates her adoption story, how she was saved by the Twietmayers family from an orphanage in Ethiopia, where she lived as an HIV infected orphan.
“I’m not ashamed or afraid to tell the truth,” says Selah, referring to her time living in an orphanage in Addis Abeba, after her parents died and got separated from her two siblings.
That is when she met her new family. Yet, she was too fragile to fly to the USA and had to take blood from her adoptive mother, who surprisingly has the same blood type. She is now a high school student and seems to be doing fine.
“What is sometimes good about inter-country adoption is that adopting parents do not discriminate against children with disabilities and other serious diseases,” says Almaw Mengist, state minister for Ministry of Women, Children and Youth Affairs (MoWCYA) in an interview with Ethiopian Business Review (EBR.)
But not every adopted child is lucky like Selah. There are many dreadful stories in the West, the major destination of inter-country adoptees, chronicling abuses of adopting parents against the defenceless orphans they brought from abroad especially from Africa.
Inter-country adoption from Africa is still high, at the time when other nations have tightened their policies resulting in a 50% decline in adoptions from the rest of the world, according to Africa Child Policy Forum (ACPF), a think tank that conducts research and forwards policies regarding the well being of children.
USA, Italy, France and Spain have received the most adoptees while Ethiopia, South Africa and Liberia have sent the largest number of adopted children. In 2010, adoptions from Ethiopia alone accounted for more than 70% of the continent’s total. “We consider it a serious….. growing…. disturbing problem,” says Assefa Bequele (PhD), a research fellow at the Forum in an interview with EBR.
This sizeable number is believed to be the result of poor alternative child care the country avails for its vulnerable children accompanied by unsuccessful efforts made to maintain community based integration and the increase in the number of poor and orphaned children. Yet, according to the State Minister, 2.2 million children have been benefiting from community based child support programs in two and a half years of the Growth and Transformation Plan. “Foster care is already popular in the country but domestic adoption has been a little difficult due to inheritance related issues,” says the Minister.
“As long as it is legal and performed with the standard procedure, the number of adopted children may not matter as it is the right of a child to find a parent,” argues Mengiste Ayele, director of the Secretariat for the Adoption Service Organizations Network.
The three legal documents that are usually referred to while talking about inter-country adoption are: The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990), The United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child (1989) and The 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Cooperation in Respect to Intercountry Adoption.
The Hague Adoption Convention has served as the legal framework to process adoption throughout the world. “We are not one of the signatories of the Hague Convention because there are due diligences we have to fulfill and we are working on it. Once we ratify it, we have to be abided by it,” says Almaw.
The convention states: Inter-country adoptions shall be made in the best interests of the child and with respect for his or her fundamental rights. To prevent the abduction, the sale of, or traffic in children each State should take, as a matter of priority, appropriate measures to enable the child to remain in the care of his or her family of origin.
Only 13 African countries signed the convention so far. “It simply tells us that the majority of the African governments don’t care,” says Assefa.
In Ethiopia, if the to-be-adopted child is 10 years or older, he/she will be asked for their consent. If the child is younger, a parent; member of the extended family or a responsible government body [Child Rights Promotion and Protection Directorate at the MoWCYA has to agree with the adoption before it is processed.
Currently there are more than 62 adoption agencies that are members of Adoption Service Organizations Network, but only 26 orphanages are registered by the MoWCYA, according to the official website of the Ministry.
African countries follow different criteria and procedures when processing adoption. In Benin, for instance, single parent adopters must be above the age of 35 while Burkina Faso does not allow single parent adopters. Some others countries like South Africa allow adoption by people who are gay or lesbian, while other countries have residency requirements. Malawi expects the adopter to be a resident, while South Sudan and Sierra Leon require adopters to live in their countries for two years and six months respectively. Ethiopia forbids adoption by gay or lesbian applicants; those older than the age of 65 and those who are close to the age of the to-be-adopted child.
Reports, however, show that the discrepancy is not only limited to the different requirements and procedures but also to the quality and safety of the adoption process. Capacity and political commitment are mitigating factors. “There is one directorate that regulates issues regarding children. In this directorate, there are only four people who are working on adoption, which makes it difficult to do everything up to the standard,” says Almaw.
ACPF’s 2012 report- Africa the New Frontier for Inter-country Adoption- gives a general idea of who should not be adopted. Mere orphanage status, for example, may not make a child eligible for an inter-country adoption. According to UNICEF, there are 132 million orphan children in the world. The organization’s definition of the word orphan here, however, includes single orphans [that lost only one of their parents]. This should not result in inter-country adoption, and the same is true with temporary emergencies. Poverty should also not be taken as the sole ground for adoptability. “It is very natural that children would want to grow with their parents however poor they may be,” says Assefa.
Children from Islamic countries are not available for adoptions, as the religion prohibits it. Algeria, Egypt, Somalia, Mauritius, Comoros, and Djibouti fall into this category. Adoptive nations like France respect the religious demand of these countries and forbid citizens from adopting from these countries. While Nigeria, one of the Muslim dominated African states, has sent about 957 children abroad through adoption, in the last eight years, according to ACPF.
The other legal aspect that should be considered in adoption process is the consent of the birth parents. In principle, a child is not adoptable unless they are an orphan or the parental rights of their birth parents are terminated by order of a court. However, the principle is not always practiced in many African countries. There have been reports that birth parents have been cheated or coerced into signing papers that terminate their parental rights. Other parents also think that their parental rights would remain after their children are adopted. “There is a serious lack of awareness,” says Almaw.
In 2010 the ministry revoked the license of Better Futures Adoption Services for illegal use of its license and issues regarding child trafficking, according to sodore.com, a local online media company.
“We have our own discipline committee to take measures against such deeds according to our code of conduct working with the responsible government body,” says Dagne Gezahegn, vice chair of the Executive Committee of the Secretariat for the Adoption Service Organizations Network.
The 2010 case of Betty Lube, a 14 year old girl who had been adopted by a Dutch family, shows the possible mischiefs present in dealings with international adoption agencies. Betty’s adoption was revoked by an Ethiopian court for alleged false information regarding her age and the death of her parents presented by the Dutch adoption agency, Wereldkinderen. Against Child Trafficking, an NGO that investigated Ethiopian children’s files going to the Netherlands included in its report that- ‘Betty’s case is the just tip of the iceberg.’
“Once an adopted child crossed the border they are no longer Ethiopians. The Ethiopian government has no legal rights over the child,” says Almaw. “All the follow up visits we do are only based on conventional agreements with the nations of the adopting parents,” says Almaw referring to the occasional visits that social workers of the ministry are expected to make, to check the safety of the adopted children.
Adoption agencies are required by the law to present reports on the status of the child every three months through the first year and every year until the child reaches 18 years old. The reports should be received by [extended] family, if any, the respective orphanage center of the child, the local adoption agency and MoWCYA. This year, another requirement has been added that forces adoption agencies to arrange visits to the adopted children, according to the State Minister.
The illegality of any party benefiting financially from the adoption processes is stated in the child conventions for fear of child trafficking. However African children are vulnerable to child traffickers. The infamous Zoe’s Ark story is a good example. This 2007 scandal was revealed when French citizens were arrested in Eastern Chad for trying to illegally smuggle 103 Chadian kids to France under the name of the social welfare organization, Zoe’s Ark. The children who were not orphans were claimed to be so by the perpetrators. It is hard to predict what would have happened to the kids had they been shipped to France. The French citizens were penalized a total of $8.9 million as a compensation for the 103 children’s families and later pardoned by the Chadian president after a year of imprisonment in France, as BBC reported.
Poverty, war and disease, particularly HIV, are chasing African children away from their homeland. Added to it is the growing international demand for adoption and a high fertility rate in the continent that has made Africa the major seed in the global adoption industry. It is not only a matter of demand for adoption, but also an issue of supply, argues ACPF. This theoretical analysis will only dehumanize the vulnerable children of Africa, unless it leads to a sustainable solution. But until then, every adopted child take with them the fact that the continent was unable, or not caring enough, to raise them.