Corruption in international adoptions

Expand All / Collapse All

Images of Ethiopia  

Adoption: Ethiopia 

 Click to follow link Capsule overview
of adoption issues in Ethiopia
 Click to follow link Private report
of adoption irregularities
 Click to follow link News reports of adoption irregularities in Ethiopia

NEW "They Steal Babies, Don't They?" E.J. Graff, November 24, 2014, Pacific Standard.

Exclusive U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa documents received through Freedom of Information Act requests reveal how humanitarian adoptions in Ethiopia metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law. 

Read our new report on fraud and corruption in international adoption, "They Steal Babies, Don't They?" and find links to all the documents we received, published here for the first time.

NOTE: This page from the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism website offers documentation of and background about serious irregularities in international adoption. For the systemic analysis of corruption in international adoption, please read “The Lie We Love,” Foreign Policy magazine, Nov./Dec. 2008, and visit our webpages dedicated to international adoption. For ideas about fairer policy solutions, please read “The Baby Business,” Democracy Journal, Summer 2010.

Capsule overview of adoption issues
  in Ethiopia

Number of US Orphan Immigrant Visas Issued to Ethiopia, FY 1990-2008 

In the past two years, news outlets and adoptive parents have been revealing disturbing stories of fraudulent adoptions from Ethiopia. Adoptive families have been discovering, for instance, that their Ethiopian-born children are older than the adoption agency’s documents suggest; that the children believe their parents were paid for them; or that the children or their families did not know they were going abroad permanently, believing they would get an education and come home. Children have turned out to have serious undisclosed medical issues, or are documented as abandoned when they were in fact relinquished by known birthfamilies. Some adoption agencies appear to be soliciting children directly from families. Reports circulate of problematic orphanages or maternity homes that coerce women to relinquish their newborns. The U.S. Embassy has announced that it may now take weeks, even months, to investigate the facts behind “orphan visa” applications, and that receiving a visa for an adopted child may therefore take longer.

These reports come after several years in which there have been signs that at least some of the country’s adoptions have been shifting from “white” to “gray”—that is, from a well-regulated humanitarian effort dedicated to children’s welfare, to a business that is taking children away from their families in order to gain profits from Western adoption fees. In addition to the firsthand reports, concerning signs have included:

  • Rapidly expanding numbers of children being adopted internationally.  For Ethiopia, the numbers of children sent in adoption climbed from a total of 262 in 2002 to more than 3,887 in 2008, with numbers still higher in 2009.  This expansion outpaces regulators’ ability to oversee the system.
  • More than a dozen Western countries and several thousand prospective families waiting for Ethiopian children. Such high “demand,” combined with the possibility of earning a year’s income in adoption fees per child, can tempt the unscrupulous to procure children for adoption at all costs.
  • Rapidly increasing numbers of adoption agencies working in the country, including agencies that don’t have longstanding ties to the country or its child welfare efforts, and agencies not licensed by the Ethiopian government (as required) that are partnering or “umbrella’ing” with other agencies.
  • Change in demographic profile of the children being adopted 
    • from the older children orphaned by their parents’ AIDS, TB, malaria, or other illnesses (the profile of the orphaned children already in the Ethiopian child welfare system); and
    • to healthy young children (who often turn out to have been solicited for the birth families specifically for the adoption trade).
      • In 2009, according to the DHS Yearbook of Immigration Statistics Table 12 [http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/statistics/yearbook/2009/table12d.xls], of the 2,221 orphan visas from Ethiopia issued by the US, nearly two-fifths—835—were for infants under one year of age, who are statistically less likely to be orphaned. Another two-fifths, or 850, were between the ages of one and four years. Only 536 were five or older, the ages of children most likely to be in need of new families, according to UNAIDS and UNICEF statistics.
  • “Homes” for pregnant women that appear to have been created “strictly to provide infants for the adoption trade” (in the words of an observer).
In other countries, all these have been signals that children were being bought, defrauded, coerced, or kidnapped away from their birth families. For more about this pattern, please see:

Private report of adoption irregularities

EDITOR’S NOTE: The posting below from the Adoption Agency Resource Group (AARG) is offered with permission. AARG is a confidential, moderated listserv that attempts to screen out anyone in the adoption business, in order to enable members to exchange honest information about international adoption without fear of libel lawsuit threats, which are said to be common from less ethical agencies. Anyone else may join after applying. The information written here is in accord with stories that I have been told privately by several people who have adopted from Ethiopia. Mike Smith is the group’s owner. The term “PAP” means “prospective adoptive parent”.

#35955 From: "agency_research" 
Date: Wed Mar 24, 2010 2:10 pm
Subject: Ethiopia Adoptions agency_research

Dear Mike,

Since speaking out about my own well documented Ethiopian adoption experience, numerous other adoptive families have confided in me and have shared with me in confidence their own horrific, heart-wrenching adoption experiences. Would you post this message on the AAR group?
While confidentiality prevents me from sharing the specifics, as these are THEIR stories and not mine, I feel compelled to put out a word of caution to those in adoption process or considering adoption from Ethiopia , or any other country really. I've been in contact with several adoptive parents who have found out that much of what they were told about their adopted children was a lie. These parents are now living with so much grief at the reality that their Ethiopian children are expecting to go back to Ethiopia, as are their parents. 

I know there are many adoptive parents who are very happy with their ethical adoption experiences as we were with our first adoption. However, there are other families out there who deserve our consideration as well; families who have become victims of adoption fraud, as well as many Ethiopian families that have been torn apart through corruption and child trafficking. 

I feel compelled to ask you, if you wish, to pass this message on to your group for the benefit of those considering or in process of adoption. I would like to ask your members to please consider some of the issues and circumstances that some post-adoptive families are running into:

  1. Some children listed for adoption are turning out to not be true orphans. Many have living parents as well as extended relatives and seem to be being convinced that their children are somehow better off being raised in America.
  2. Some adopted children are claiming that they were bought.
  3. Some adopted children are saying that they were told to lie about their ages or about the health or social status of their parents, even being threatened if they ever tell that their parents are not really dead as the agency said.
  4. Some adopted children are telling stories of mothers standing outside the orphanage crying for their children and then being told to go away, that they have already been paid.
  5. It appears that some birth families are under the impression that they are sending their children away to school in America to send money on a regular basis or return with good fortune for their families someday when they are older.
  6. Some adoptive families are finding out that the babies they were told were abandoned actually had living, healthy and nurturing mothers.
  7. Some families are finding significant discrepancies in age, and health status.
  8. Some adopted children are relating stories about physical and sexual abuses within the orphanage. Some agencies are concealing this information from adoptive families! This is especially dangerous when coupled with age discrepancies. If you have younger children please consider this point!!
  9. Some adoptive families are saying they thought they were safe from corruption since they opted to adopt older children or children with special needs.
  10. 10. Some agencies that are 'known' for their ethics, are not ethical at all. Many families state they ignored the red flags because their agency was regarded as being highly ethical.

As with any tragic situation, some of the victims of this kind of fraud have found each other and are sharing their stories for support. Many of these parents have expressed their hesitancy to reveal the details of their experiences for several reasons. However that doesn't make the stories any less real.

Please understand people are hesitant to go public for these reasons:

  1. fear of retaliation, threats, including lawsuits from their agency;
  2. fear of backlash from the adoption community;
  3. fear that by speaking out it will affect other adoptive families and true orphans;
  4. they do not want their family members, let alone the whole world, to know that their adopted; children are victims of child trafficking or sexual abuse;
  5. even if their adopted children were victims of child trafficking or abuse there is nothing they can do about it now and perhaps they are better off to forget about it and move on;
  6. they are in the middle of a lawsuit and are prohibited from discussing their case.

Please encourage PAPs who do not wish to be in our not-so-happy little support group to investigate and investigate and investigate their agency,  google their director, their director's spouse, their staff members, their annual salary and check with PEAR and the licensing agencies. Even if there is nothing negative on the AAR board one cannot be cautious enough!!
Tell them to use their first trip, which is now required, to ask as many questions as possible. If there are red flags please heed them. If they are being asked to not contact anyone in Ethiopia or to talk to other families, there may be a reason. If the children are orphans because of poverty and the agency is saying there is no way to sponsor them to keep them together this is not true! There are many organizations in Ethiopia working to keep families intact. International adoption should be a last resort for these children.
I am glad to see the Ethiopia adoption PEAR survey initiative and I hope this will reveal more than I am able to at this time. I urge all ET APs to complete that survey whether they have had a good OR bad adoption experience. The more parents who participate the easier it will be to see exactly which individuals and agencies are responsible for the corruption and which ones are on the up and up.
I do not doubt there have been many happy adoption experiences, and those should be reflected on the survey as well. But PLEASE, for the sake of children and families, please encourage parents that if they or their children have been the victims of fraud, deception or kidnapping, to please share that info with the rest of us, whether it is on this group or through the survey. The rest of need to know which agencies to continue to support and which agencies to avoid. So many families are choosing to stay quiet and if that does not change the trafficking will continue and more and more children and families will be victims. We cannot depend on the governments to keep adoption clean. We need each other to share accurate information and to call for and demand accountability.

News reports of adoption irregularities in Ethiopia

Below are some news articles compiled by the Schuster Institute about adoptions from Ethiopia.

“Challenging Time for Christian Adoption Movement,” David Crary, October 28, 2013, Associated Press.

Some evangelicals are so captivated with international adoption as a means of spiritual salvation that they have ignored fraud and trafficking in the adoption process, and have turned down alternatives that could help orphans within their home countries. 

“The Evangelical Orphan Boom,” Kathryn Joyce, September 21, 2013, New York Times.

The boom in Evangelical adoptions has exacerbated the international “boom-and-bust market for children.” The surge of money from these adoptions has created incentives to establish and expand orphanages as well as identify children to fill these orphanages, often through illegal means. 

“International Adoption: Saving orphans or child trafficking?” Kevin Voight, September 18, 2013, CNN.

In this series, CNN investigates intercountry adoption, hearing from key experts in the field, families who adopted children, and adopted children themselves.

“International Adoption: I was stolen from my family,” Tarikuwa Lemma, September 18, 2013, CNN.         

She went to the U.S. thinking she was studying abroad, but was instead caught up in an international adoption scandal.

“Woman shares her story of being adopted from Ethiopia against her will,” April 28, 2013, MSNBC.

"Inside Ethiopia's Adoption Boom," Miriam Jordan, Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2012.

"Orphaned No More," Jamie Dean, World Magazine, July 30, 2011.

“Ethiopia: U.S. Adoption Agency Involved in Child Trafficking,” Michael Ray, February 15, 2011, CBS News.

The Minnesota-based adoption agency Better Futures Adoption Services had their license to work in Ethiopia revoked because they had been involved in child trafficking according to the U.S. State Department.

"PEAR's Statement Following the Conference: Ethiopia, a New Adoption Agenda," PEAR, January 27, 2011.

"Adoptions from Ethiopia rise, bucking global trend," David Crary, Associated Press, October 12, 2010, MSNBC.com.

"Families in the dark as adoption chief quits," Cassie White, July 8, 2010, ABC News.

The man who ran Australia's adoption program with Ethiopia for 20 years has resigned amidst ongoing serious allegations of corruption.

Ethiopia: Survey for U.S. Adoption Service Providers Placing Children from Ethiopia

Survey responses (in PDFf) are listed below by agency name and responses are published as submitted.

U.S. Dept. of State Adoption Notice: Ethiopia, April 13, 2010.

The Federal First Instance Court of Ethiopia has announced that as of May 9, 2010, adoptive parents must appear at the federal court hearing for their adoptive child in order for the adoption to be approved.

“News stuns Chesapeake couple adopting Ethiopian kids,” Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer, April 9 2010, Virginia Pilot.

Ethiopia: Gelgela Orphanage, PEAR, March 23, 2010.

Letter from U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa to adoption agencies stating the Embassy will be taking extra time to process adoption cases originating from Gelgela Orphanage.

"Ethiopia: Fly Away Home," Mary Ann Jolley, March 2, 2010, ABC News.

In a powerful and disturbing follow-up report, ABC News uncovers major failures [in the international adoption system] including children portrayed as young as 7 or 8, destitute and in danger of being pressed into prostitution who were in fact much older--teenagers--who did have a family who could support them at home. And another harrowing and cruel dimension--children unaware that they're on a one way trip to a new family.

"Child: U.S. Adoption Agency Bought Me," Armen Keteyian, February 15, 2010, CBSNews.

CBS News has accused Christian World Adoption, an American adoption agency, of recruiting children from poor villages in rural Ethiopia for international adoption.

"Australia suspends adoptions from Ethiopia," December 28, 2009, ABC News.

The Australian Government has suspended all child adoptions from Ethiopia over fears that it could be breaking human rights laws against child trafficking.

"Tassie families hit hard by new Ethiopia rule," December 6, 2009, The Examiner Newspaper (PDF).

Families and agents have simply been told there are "concerns" that inter-country adoptions are not consistent with obligations under the Hague Convention and its guidelines on the protection of children, and that a review of the program was under way.

"Dutch agency stops adoption from Ethiopia pending investigation," September 23, 2009, Ethiopian Review.

(UAI News)—A large adoption agency in the Netherlands, Wereldkinderen, has temporarily stopped adoptions from Ethiopia as a result of recent reports about abuse of the system by the government in Ethiopia and local adoption agencies.

"Ethiopia: Fly Away Children," Andrew Geoghegan, September 9, 2009, ABC News.

A pop-media obsession with celebrities adopting children in Africa has resulted in a queue of adopting foreigners dealing with opportunistic adoption agents in operating in a regulatory vacuum. In Ethiopia—and beyond—its creating a heartbreaking mess.

"On international adoption of Ethiopian children," Mehari Taddele Maru, June 27, 2009, The Reporter.

Maru discusses issues surrounding international adoption of Ethiopian children and makes suggestions for their protection.

"Ethiopia: Adoption Alert: Adoptions of Abandoned Children Halted by Ethiopian Court," May 26, 2009, United States Department of State.

The Ethiopian First Instance Court has temporarily stopped accepting cases involving abandoned children from orphanages in Addis Ababa, citing concern over a recent increase in the number of abandoned children being brought for adoption.

"Adoptions of Abandoned Children Halted by Ethiopian Court," May 13, 2009, U.S. Department of State.

The Ethiopian First Instance Court has temporarily stopped accepting cases involving abandoned children from orphanages in Addis Ababa, citing concern over a recent increase in the number of abandoned children being brought for adoption.

"Ethiopian adoption: "Canadian parents raise concerns," John Nicol, March 19, 2009, CBC News Canada.

Several Canadian families say they have been misled by documentation they have received from the Canadian Advocates For Adopting Children, based in Minnedosa, Man. The families claim that CAFAC has informed them their child is an orphan when the parents in fact exist. They also say that sometimes the children's ages are wildly off and the health of these kids varies greatly from what they have been told before traveling to Addis Ababa to pick them up.

Follow the link to watch the video broadcast segment of this article: Learning the Truth. Also broadcast in French: L'adoption tout risque. 

"Kindergeld/Money for children," Andrea Rexer with translation by Dr. Eric Agstner and Sabine von Mering, January 19, 2009, Profil.

An exclusive story about two purported orphans from Ethiopia adopted to Austria through Family for You adoption agency, and claims that Austrian authorities have failed to regulate international adoptions.

Interview: Alemitu Assefa
Interview: Genet Reshid Hassen

“Americans adopting HIV-positive kids from Ethiopia,” Anita Powell/AP, September 2, 2008, Christian Science Monitor (& other outlets).

Of the 14,000 Ethiopian infants born with HIV every year, a handful are now being adopted by Americans. The agency that arranges most HIV-positive adoptions in Ethiopia did two such in 2005; 38 are either completed or pending as of November 2008. Ethiopia is at the forefront of this trend of offering HIV-positive children for adoption, in part because it already offers many children in adoption.

“Baby Steps,” Hayley Mick, April 15, 2008, The Globe and Mail.

Reports that there are five-year waiting lists for Chinese infants, and therefore Canadians are increasingly looking to African countries for adoption. There were 100 in 2007, mostly from Ethiopia. Potential pitfalls include fraud, child-trafficking, potential for problems as more agencies move in, and inadequate agency supervision. Tells stories of Canadian families that were defrauded or faced with other difficulties. "Is it competitive? Yeah, it's competitive," says Cheryl Carter-Shotts, whose agency works in Ethiopia. "Families want babies and toddlers. Who's going to come up with babies and toddlers? And how much are you going to charge? Are you soliciting pregnant girls?"

“Ethiopian Adoption Ban Leaves Children in Limbo,” Mark Tighe, October 21, 2007, The Sunday Times.

“Ethiopia is the tenth most popular country for Irish people adopting from abroad with more than 50 children settled with families in Ireland over the past 10 years. The Adoption Board, however, suspended all adoptions from Ethiopia and Rwanda on October 10 on advice from the attorney-general's office,” citing adoption laws that were “not compatible” with Irish laws.  This leaves five families who were ready to bring Ethiopian children home in legal limbo.

“Surges in Adoption Raises Concern in Ethiopia,” Jane Gross, Will Connors, June 4, 2007, The New York Times.

As other countries have closed their doors to Western adoption, Ethiopia’s international adoption system has become popular—in part because it has involved “model” centers that care for orphaned children and children in need; Western investment in child welfare; and adoptive parents’ ability to meet their new children’s birth families. But there have been very rapid increases in the numbers of agencies working in Ethiopia and the numbers of children adopted from there, leading to concerns that there will soon be problems.

“Out of Africa, a trickle of orphans; Millions of children need homes, but barriers keep them from eager couples overseas,” Stephanie Nolen, May 24, 2006, The Globe and Mail (Canada).

Reports that millions of African orphans need homes. Quotes Montegbosh Asmare about her foster home; Cheryl Carter-Shotts, who directs the agency, Americans for African Adoptions; and others about why most African countries do not allow adoption. Carter-Shotts notes that, since Angelina Jolie’s adoption, some “unscrupulous agents” are “buying” children from illiterate village women and local officials are demanding bribes. Concludes that adoptions don’t fix the underlying problem, which is that “the government in Ethiopia is left struggling to meet the needs of millions of children.”

“Babies are booming export in land of 5m orphans,” Jonathan Clayton, May 19, 2006, The Times of London.

Reports on the destitution and illness that are ravaging the country and its children’s welfare, and the rising number of international adoptions. “Organisations such as Unique, the United Nations’ children’s agency, are concerned that the Ethiopian Government does not have the staff or resources to monitor orphanages to ensure that children are cared for and safe from abuse. They also suspect that many children are being trafficked to work in weaving factories or as servants, and some are being smuggled out of the country.” Notes that Westerners prefer healthy babies, and the sick or older children are not taken.

“Ethiopia’s Adoption Dilemma” Mohammed Adow, October 6, 2005, BBC.

Western adoption from Ethiopia has increased sharply. Nearly 40 agencies handle adoptions. Claims an estimated 5 million orphans in Ethiopia, half orphaned by AIDS. Briefly discusses the international adoption regulations for the nation and the possibility of trafficking.

“Ethiopia, Coping With Increasing Orphan Numbers Through Adoption,” January 10, 2005, Africa News.

Reports that there are five million orphans in Ethiopia—orphaned by AIDS, TB, other illnesses, and destitution. Some 1,400 children were adopted abroad last year, more than double those of the previous year. “Bulti Gutema, who heads the country's adoption authority, says adoption of orphans poses many moral quandaries to his government….‘We would prefer these children to remain in Ethiopia because it is their country,’ he says. ‘Adoption is the last resort because it doesn't help alleviate poverty in Ethiopia.’” But caring for orphans costs $115 million/month and the  country's health budget is only $140 million annually. Most children go to France, Australia, the US, or Ireland.

“Ethiopia’s Latest Export: Adoptable Children,” Anthony Mitchell, December 24, 2004, The Associated Press.

Ethiopia, a country of 70 million, has more than 5 million orphans, their parents lost to famine, disease, war, AIDS, and poverty. Caring for the orphans costs $115 million/month in a country whose annual health budget is only $140 million. To lessen this burden, Ethiopia has made adoption easier. In 2003 a record 1,400 children were adopted abroad, more than double the number in the previous year. “‘We want people to invest in Ethiopia rather than take our children,’ said Dr. Bulti Gutema, who heads the government’s adoption authority. However, ‘we can’t afford to look after every orphan,’ he said, sitting in a decrepit government office that exemplifies Ethiopia’s standing as the world’s third-poorest nation, with almost half the population living on less than a dollar a day. ‘Adoption is the last resort because it doesn’t help alleviate poverty in Ethiopia,’ he said.” Reports that Western agencies charge fees of around $20,000 per child, about half that charged in other countries.

“Americans are bringing home baby - increasingly from Africa,” Abraham McLaughlin, December 4, 2003, Christian Science Monitor.

The explosion in international adoptions has reached Africa. Profiles families that are adopting from Ethiopia. Gives numbers of adoptions from Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

“What Will Become of Ethiopia’s AIDS Orphans,” Melissa Fay Greene, December 22, 2002, The New York Times.

Examines how the community impact of AIDS, other illnesses, and destitution have had devastating effects on Ethiopian children’s welfare. Profiles Layla House and Enat House, model children’s homes, with intimate portraits of the children and their lives, including those adopted to the US. Says that adoptive families “are desperately sought.” Closes with her personal account of adopting a five-year-old girl from Ethiopia, both of whose parents had died, into her large family.

[1] Peter F. Selman, Table 11: Adoptions from Ethiopia 1998–2008:  Countries ranked by number of children received in peak year 2008. Sent via email 11/23/09.  

© 2008-2014 Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, 02454. All rights reserved.

Last page update: November 25, 2014