Trevor and Marlene Janzen's first miracle took nine months. To the Saskatchewan, Canada, couple, that seemed a natural time to wait for a baby. They adopted their first son, Eyob, from Ethiopia in 2005.
Although they had been through the process once before, their second adoption took twice as long. After waiting 18 months, the Janzens welcomed little Sofoniyas home in 2007.
Soon, they were ready to bring a third child into their family.
"We thought it might take two years," Marlene said. "And we waited and waited."
In May 2011, they returned to Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, to pick up their second daughter, Biruktawit. The "roller coaster" process took four years.
Long considered one of the easiest nations from which to adopt, Ethiopia is in the midst of dramatic changes that are making the adoption process tougher, longer, and more expensive. Government officials say the shift will ensure the legitimacy of such adoptions. But critics, including many adoptive parents, argue the new policies are punishing young children who need families by slowing down a process that can already take years to complete.
For some, it has stopped things entirely. Since it began facilitating adoptions in Ethiopia, Oregon-based Holt International has placed more than 500 orphans with American families. This fall, the organization stopped taking applications from families wanting to adopt from Ethiopia.
"It's not fair to families to say, 'Sure, come on in and begin the process,' and then have them wait and wait and wait," said Susan Soon-keum Cox, Holt's vice president for public policy and external affairs. "We already have families waiting longer than we feel they should." Such complications have caused the number of international adoptions by Americans to fall to their lowest since 1994.
As an orphan in 1956, Cox was one of the first children adopted from overseas when her adoptive family brought her to the United States from South Korea. Since then, American parents have adopted a quarter-million children internationally.
Over the years, the most common "sender" nations have shifted with social and economic winds. As China and Russia began to emerge as new economic powers in the mid-2000s, the number of international adoptions from those nations fell.
As that happened, adoption officials in Ethiopia filled the gap. The second most populous nation in Africa, Ethiopia sent about 850 orphans to other countries in 2004. By 2007, the number had more than tripled to an estimated 3,000. American families alone adopted 1,727 children in 2011 from Ethiopia, and hundreds more orphans went to families in Canada, Europe, Australia, and South Africa.
Some believe the rapid increase of adoptions out of Ethiopia—and the tens of thousands of dollars in agency fees involved in each case—invited corruption and set the stage for the current decline. Investigators exposed cases in which biological families were paid, lied to, and conned into relinquishing their children. Several Christian-based adoption agencies were implicated in illegal and unethical actions.
Early last year, Ethiopia's Ministry of Women's Affairs (MOWA) decided to put on the brakes. It announced a 90 percent reduction in the number of cases it would review—bottlenecking the process in the small agency, which must sign off on all adoptions before someone takes a child out of the country.
New regulations dictate all orphaned and abandoned children go first to a government-sponsored home instead of any of the scores of private orphanages scattered throughout the nation and concentrated in Addis Ababa. At least 26 nongovernmental orphanages have been closed, and insiders say 20 more may be shut down in coming months. Many of those private orphanages used to maintain direct relationships with adoption agencies across the Western world.
Cox said, "Sometimes a slowdown is necessary to reassure everyone that there will never come a day when you look at your child and have any doubt whatsoever that when they say, 'Why was I adopted?' you can say, 'Because there wasn't a family in Ethiopia that could care for you.'"
Nonetheless, Cox would like to resume taking applications from prospective parents. And she'd like to speed up the process for those whose cases have stalled.
In recent weeks, the ministry has given some people reason to hope things might get better. In the spring and summer, ministry officials were reviewing just five cases a day. Now, on some days, it is up to forty.
It is unclear, though, whether the ministry is resuming a pace that would return Ethiopia to its status as one of the top sending nations in the world—or if it is simply trying to alleviate the backlog caused during the initial slowdown.
Abusing the System
An adoption official from MOWA (who spoke on the condition that she not be identified) said the government isn't interested in shutting down international adoptions. But she said sending children out of the country "is not our preferred solution."
One American couple recalled a different government official telling them he was "uncomfortable" signing off on paperwork that would send an infant girl to the States to be a slave. He approved the adoption despite his reservations.
But the MOWA official said there are good grounds for suspicion. She argued there is "proof" that Westerners have adopted children to work as household help—though she couldn't produce such reports of child exploitation.
It is not hard, however, to find cases in which caregivers have horribly abused Ethiopian adoptees. In September, police arrested Larry and Carri Williams in connection with the death of their 13-year-old adopted Ethiopian daughter. The girl died outside their home in Sedro-Woolley, Washington, shortly after midnight in near-freezing temperatures. Prosecutors alleged the couple forced her to sleep outdoors, provided her inadequate food, and often locked her in a closet for days at a time with a tape recording of the Bible.
In Utah last year, Lon Kennard pleaded guilty to three counts of aggravated sexual abuse of children he had adopted. Kennard, who also helped found the Village of Hope orphanage in the small Ethiopian town of Kersa Illala, will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Such cases are rare, but headline-generating situations contribute to a belief "that American people do that all the time," said Gail Gorfe, who has arranged hundreds of placements in 15 years through Adoption Advocates International.
Instead of international adoption, the MOWA official explained that the state prefers to place orphans with extended family members. However, family members often refuse to take custody because they simply cannot afford to feed and clothe an additional person.
She said the government also encourages domestic adoption. But there are very few Ethiopian families able to adopt. The demand far outstrips the number of available families. Lastly, the official said, the government wants to refocus its orphanages on long-term care. Many thousands of orphans in reality will need to stay in a group home until early adulthood.
All of these goals sound good to Matthew Jennings, an adoptive father from Virginia. But until the Ethiopian government is able to deliver on them, Jennings wonders about the wisdom of slowing down the process that brings orphans into loving families in the United States and other developed nations.
It took two and a half years for Jennings and his wife to move through the adoption process, including an "absolutely terrible" six-month period in which the Christian couple had won Ethiopian court approval to adopt their daughter, Ajabi, but could not get the ministry to sign off.
"We really had no idea what was going on," Jennings said. "We felt that our time with our daughter was being stolen from us."
Their case isn't unique. World Association for Children and Parents president Lillian Thogersen said her agency is serving five American families who completed the adoption process but are unable to contact their children. Officials moved the children out of orphanages that the government closed.
"We know where they are, but we've been unable to get in to see them," she said.
Thogersen said she supports a more transparent and legitimate process. But she is concerned that these parents—and worse, their legally adopted children—have been caught in the middle.
The United Nations estimates that as many as five million children in Ethiopia have lost one or both of their parents to HIV/AIDS, malaria, or other diseases. Many others are born into families too destitute to care for a child. Hundreds of thousands of children live alone on the streets.
Adoption coordinator Gorfe is quick to acknowledge that international adoption isn't a long-term solution for Ethiopia's orphan crisis. The rapid increase in adoptions over the past 10 years has spawned "a lot of orphanages that aren't really orphanages" but holding houses reserved for children—mostly infants—who are expected to be easily adoptable, Gorfe said.
"That goes against what an orphanage is supposed to be," she said. "Many kids are ending up in the streets because they're not being taken by these orphanages."
At the Kidane Mehret Children's Home in Addis Ababa, Sister Lutgarda Camilleri said the new regulations add to their work, yet she supports the government's objectives to ensure confidence in the system.
But the changes have had unintended effects on her orphanage, which cares for 150 children, many considered "unadoptable" due to age or health conditions.
The new government rules have resulted in Kidane Mehret receiving fewer infants, which means less attention from would-be parents across the globe since infants are much more easily placed. And that means less support for the majority of aging orphans who won't be adopted.
"When we had babies, people came here and when they came, they would sponsor these older children," Camilleri said. "Right now we have three children who are siblings; they are 8, 13, and 15. They have to be adopted together. But tell me: Who is going to take a 15-year-old with AIDS?"
At the heart of the nun's lament is a simple fact about the limits of adoption in Ethiopia: It barely scratches the surface of the problem.
Matthew D. LaPlante is an assistant professor of journalism at Utah State University.
Copyright © 2012 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous articles on adoption include:
Adoption: A Long and Winding Journey | Like our adoption into God's family, earthly adoption can be complex and costly. (Her.meneutics, November 1, 2011)
The Adoption Crusade | What a misleading article in the 'The Nation' can teach evangelicals. (April 27, 2011)
The Hard Realities of International Adoption | Torry Hansen's story and the ensuing Russian adoption freeze might make some families reconsider. (Her.meneutics, April 27, 2010)
Strong on Zeal, Thin in Knowledge | Lessons from Haiti's arrest of American Christians trying to take children out of the country. (February 3, 2010)
Matthew D. LaPlante's previous reports from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia include:
Growing in the Word | What the Ethiopian Orthodox have learned from the expansion of evangelicals. (September 16, 2011)
Ethiopia's River of Death | A handful of tribal Christians are fighting child sacrifice. (August 17, 2011)
CT also has more news stories on our website.
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