vulnerable children

What Now? the fate of Ethiopia’s vulnerable children after the ban on inter-country adoption

Thousands of children have been adopted from Ethiopia to various countries around the world. However, revelations from advocacy groups and adoptees themselves have sparked debate  over whether inter-country adoptions should be allowed to continue. In the beginning of 2018, after a period of suspension, the government made the decision to completely close international adoptions. But the issue of whether the systems inside the country will be able to handle the care of these children has been a point of contention among those who work in child welfare and services. EBR’s Menna Asrat looks at the way forward for Ethiopia’s vulnerable children.

The death of Hana Williams, the 13-year-old adoptee from Ethiopia whose body was found in the backyard of the American couple who adopted her, shocked not only those who stand against the demand driven inter-country adoption system, but the entire nation.

Hana’s death in 2013 kicked the adoption debate into high gear. And five years later, in the beginning of 2018, Ethiopia passed a law banning inter-country adoption, after a period of suspension. The ban, enacted to stop the widespread identity crises, abuse, and mistreatment children by adopted families face, saw many ongoing adoption processes halted.

Inter-country adoption in Ethiopia reached its peak in the 2000s after countries like Romania, Guatemala, Cambodia, Nepal and Vietnam banned the practice, and adoption agencies began to flock to the country. According to some estimates, by 2010, there were more than 70 foreign adoption agencies registered in Ethiopia. Although there are limited formal statistics available, it is projected that adoptions increased from a few hundred in the early 2000s to more than 20,000 within a decade.

The United States is a major destination for Ethiopian orphans. Hana was one of more than 15,000 Ethiopian children who were adopted by American families and taken tothe United States since 1999.

According to officials at the Ministry of Women and Children’s Affairs,   at the forefront of child welfare in the country, the closure was enacted because of the difficult issues children were facing during the adoption process, and after they were adopted. “International adoption, from the beginning, was the last option for children. All possible solutions to care for the child in the country and in their community would have to be exhausted first,” Alemayehu Mamo, director of public relations at the Ministry, explained to EBR. “But what we found was that the children were not receiving the necessary care and support, and in some cases their rights were being violated.”

In addition, according to Alemayehu, some children were experiencing identity crises. “Taking all of this into account, we realised that it was possible to take care of these children in the country. To help this, a national child policy was introduced last year in order to protect vulnerable children.”

Yet, thereare mixed feelings about the closure of inter-country adoptions among those who work in child welfare. Those who support the ban point their finger atthe negative impacts of inter-country adoption on Ethiopia’s most at-risk children to make their case. Zebider Zewdie, founder and director of Mary Joy Development Association, is one of them.

Zebider had the chance to visit children adopted by foreign families, and what she witnessed, she says, was shocking. “First of all, the children I have seen who are adopted by foreign families are just not happy. They miss their community,” she explains to EBR. “They tell me they miss seeing their parents’ friends and neighbours. They want to know where they came from.”

Based in Addis Ababa, Mary Joy works in a total of 26 towns around the country, and seeks sponsorship to support 1.5 million people (of which 30,000 are children). Founded 23 years ago, it works in local communities to sponsor and support children and the elderly without resorting to institutional care. “Many of the children were adopted at an older age, and therefore were aware of the process. This led to a fundamental cultural divide between families and children,” says Zebider.

Kassaye Berhanu Macdonald was adopted as a baby—unlike many of the children Zebider met—and now lives in Montreal. Her experience growing up with her family in a relatively small town was a typical one. However, as she grew up, she began to become aware of the differences between herself and her peers.  “The area I grew up in was not racially diverse,” she says. “Even though I never experienced any overt racism, internally, it affected me that I had no racial mirror.”

Kassaye’s youth was marked by a search for the truth, something that is common in the stories of many children who have been adopted, particularly at an older age than she was. But, she explains, it is not that way for all adoptees. “Everyone has their own experience and their own struggle,” she says. “There is a lack of resources for and about people who have been adopted.”

Ethiopia was one of the biggest destinations for prospective adoptive parents from the United States, with Ethiopian adoptions accounting for around 20Pct of total adoptions by US citizens.  As a result, those who opposed the ban argue that, the closure of foreign adoptions leaves many vulnerable orphans without options.

One of the oldest orphanages in Ethiopia, the Abebech Gobena Children’s Care and Development Association provides institutional care for 150 orphans, with 1.5 million direct and indirect beneficiaries around the country. The organization stopped sending children abroad for adoption a few years ago.

“Instead of banning adoptions outright, the government should have explored better options,” says one of the officers at the Association. “There are many children who are living on the streets and have no one to look after them. There are success stories of children who thrive with their adoptive parents. Even if there are problems, there are better ways to do it.”

Dagnachew Tesfaye, a legal expert who has worked in the field of child welfare and adoption for many years also argues that the ban may not have the intended effect. Drawing from his experience, he says completely closing international adoptions is not the solution to keeping children safe and well cared for.

“Since the suspension of international adoptions in 2017, the number of children who have gone overseas through adoption has not been more than 300 or 400, which is much lower than the previous years,” Dagnachew elaborates. “The ban is not as simple as it is being portrayed, as a protection for children. Many of them have special needs. Many are HIV-positive. But you don’t see many local people opening their arms to them. Many of them were adopted by international families and go on to live good lives.”

Of course, the increase in the number of orphans in Ethiopia left many who provide community-based or traditional model of orphan support financially stretched beyond their limits. Although institutional care appeared to be financially viable as compared with the traditional model of orphan support for Sub-Saharan Africa countries like Ethiopia, it is comparably expensive for governments and NGOs.

Studies indicate that there are approximately five million orphaned and vulnerable children in Ethiopia, many currently residing in overburdened and under-resourced institutionsthat are in desperate need of alternative support systems.

A study published in 2011 by Bethany Christian Services Global, an NGO based in the United States, indicates that in order to fund institutional care for orphans, the undertaking would be well beyond many developing countries’ financial means. This is because institutional care of children can be up to 12 times the per capita cost compared to traditional models of orphan support options.

Zebider stresses institutionalising orphans is not the solution. In her experience, children who are supported and allowed to stay within their communities arrive at better outcomes.

“Children shouldn’t have the stigma of being segregated and called names because of their situation,” she explains. “Mary Joy pushes for them to be able to stay where they are, supported by sponsors.” However, no matter how children fare in community based care or institutional care, in Zebider’s opinion, it is far better than inter-country adoption.“Children grow up under all kinds of circumstances,” explains Zebider. “Even in poverty, if they are surrounded by people who know them and love them, they thrive.”

Institutionalisation is one of the last-line options for vulnerable and orphaned children in Ethiopia. All of these options would have to be exhausted in order for children to be cleared for international adoption, according to Alemayehu.

The first option is family reunification. Even if parents are not available, the priority is to place children with capable and willing family members. The second is the traditional model of orphan support. Children are placed with members of their parents’ idir or mehaber (traditional social and financial institutions) or other community members. This method has the advantage of letting the child live in a familiar place, at a time when things may be precarious. Children in this position are supported by the community, or by organisations like Mary Joy.

The third option is placing the child up for adoption with a local family. “We have the cultural framework for taking care of vulnerable children already. Culturally, people have systems to look after children who have lost both their parents,” explains Alemayehu. “[Local] adoption is just one of them.”

The fourth option is placing the child with a temporary foster family. Although the Ethiopian foster system does not yet have a formal legal framework, foster families are working at the regional level and with NGOs, to provide care to vulnerable children. Foster care is one of the rapidly growing options for orphans in Ethiopia. If these options fail, the child is then placed in an institution or orphanage.

Alemayehu says children who live in orphanages and institutions are a very high priority for the Ministry. “The first priority of the government is ensuring that even if some of the homes and orphanages close, the children are not faced with hardships. There are legal frameworks to ensure that if a home closes, the children are first properly transitioned to other options.”

Some, like Kassaye, say that the bottom line is that it is necessary to ensure that families are not forced to resort to giving up their children. “At the base of this issue is the fact that families have a right to keep their children,” she says. “Poverty is a large part of the problem and people need to be empowered to work for themselves and to make informed reproductive choices.”

6th Year . March 16  – April 15 2018 . No.59

Menna Asrat

Deputy Editor-inChief

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