Our Thoughts and Observations on International Adoption

Since we’ve been here in Ethiopia, on several occasions we’ve been asked our thoughts on international adoption from Ethiopia by parents exploring the idea of adoption.  This is partly because we are an adoptive family and our adopted daughter is from Ethiopia.  It is also partly because we live and work at an orphanage.  It is not an orphanage that deals with adoption albeit, but we’re still familiar with the issues and concerns of OVCs (Orphans and Vulnerable Children), alternative care for children, and international adoption in Ethiopia.

For what it’s worth, below I’ve pasted a slightly edited version of an email response that we recently sent to just such a question.  But first, I want to reiterate that international adoption is a very complicated and somewhat controversial matter.  There are significant political, ethical, sociological, cultural and racial issues connected to international adoption.  The email response pasted below only begins to scratch the surface of these issues.  We’d be more than willing to further engage some of the questions and issues if any readers are interested.  We also want to recognize that there are people who we love and respect that have very different perspectives on this issue.

For the sake of full disclosure, let it be said that we are an adoptive family.  Just over two years ago, we adopted a beautiful 3 ½ year-old girl from Ethiopia.  She’d been in an orphanage since just a couple of months after birth.  We met her while visiting an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity (the order started by Mother Theresa of Calcutta) in Addis Ababa.  We love our daughter dearly and are so glad to have her as a part of our family.  We have no regrets about adopting her whatsoever.  Despite the high-quality, loving care provided by the Mother Theresa sisters and the staff, we firmly believe that she’s been able to thrive and grow as a part of our family in a way that she would never have been able to if she’d continued to grow up in institutional care.  Having said all that, through our own adoption process, our connections in the adoptive community, and our experience living and working at an orphanage here in Ethiopia, we’ve become very cautious and critical proponents of international option.  We’re still proponents, but we’ve come to recognize that international adoption is not always in the best interest of every orphaned child.  Before pulling a child from family, community, culture, language and country, one has to think hard about the best interest and specific situation of that child.  We have also come to recognize that, while international adoption may improve the life of a specific child, it is not a social solution for the larger issue of orphaned children in Ethiopia.

My email response was as follows:

“Hey —-… we’re happy to help you think this through a little.  One warning, though… this email is epic.  It’s just such a large matter and we feel strongly on some aspects of it.

First, let me say that we’re very happy to hear you considering adoption.  We think, in the right circumstances, adoption can be a beautiful thing.  We love our adopted daughter so much and are so happy that she’s a part of our family.  She’s adjusted well and is growing strong and healthy in every way.  We also have a very special place in our hearts for Ethiopia.

Having said that, we’re also glad to hear you asking questions and doing some exploring before jumping into this.  We think it’s very important to pursue international adoption cautiously and realistically, recognizing that there are some real potential pit-falls.  First, for a couple of the simple points:

  1. Adoption from Ethiopia has become very slow in the last year.  Depending on the age of the child you are adopting, it could take several years to complete the whole process (even up to 4 or 5 years).  The Ethiopian government has intentionally slowed down adoption processing considerably and western embassies (U.S. for sure… I expect others as well) are doing a lot of their own investigations into adoptions before they issue visas, which has further slowed processing down.  Prior to a year ago, Ethiopia was processing about 50 adoptions / day internationally.  It was a pace that allowed for and even created some corruption in the system (and not just on the Ethiopia end, by the way).  Because of the demand for Ethiopian children internationally through adoption, agencies, orphanages and gov. officials were not always doing their due-diligence to investigate cases and make sure they were legit orphan cases.  There were also officials and agency staff pocketing a lot of money along the way.  Even a whole industry of guesthouses, tour operators, drivers, etc. had developed up around international adoption (crudely, we came to call it “adoption tourism”).  In the past year, a number of agencies and orphanages have been closed down because of alleged corruption and the process has slowed considerably.  This is especially true if you want to adopt an infant.  You can expect between 3-5 years to process the whole thing from start to finish.  If any agency tells you much less than that for wait-time, I’d be suspicious of the agency.
  2. When we did our adoption, adoptive parents only had to make one trip to Ethiopia (we made several, but that was because of some unique circumstances in our adoption).  You didn’t have to be in Ethiopia for the court date; your agency could simply represent you.  The adoptive parents only had to show up to pick up the child and go to the embassy appointment (for us, the U.S. embassy) for the visa processing.  That has now changed.  As another measure of protection, at least one of the adoptive parents now has to be in Ethiopia for the court date (when Ethiopian gov. legally approves the adoption) and then at least one parent has to return about 2-4 months later to pick up the child and process the visa at the embassy appointment.
  3. International adoption is very expensive.  In the U.S., we were able to claim some tax credits after the fact that reimbursed a chunk of the costs, but just to give you a ball-park, with travel, agency fees, medical backgrounds, security background checks, home-study, etc., you can probably expect it to cost in the range of $20,000.

Okay… now for the more subtle points…

International adoption is a very complicated issue.  I don’t know about other countries, so I can only really speak to Ethiopia.  In the past 10 years, international adoption form Ethiopia has become quite popular and “sexy” (Angelina Jolie, etc.).  In the case of infants, there is actually more “demand” than “supply.”  Those are terribly crude terms, but they explain the situation.  There are actually more adoptive parents in North America and Europe waiting for Ethiopian infants than there are orphaned infants in Ethiopia; thus the long waiting lists.  This strikes me as concerning.  There is actually a situation of parents waiting for children to be born and orphaned.  These adoptive parents are in the process not to adopt an orphan, but to adopt a potential future orphan.  I have problems with this for 2 reasons:

  1. There are thousands of actual orphaned children in Ethiopia that are passed up for adoption simply because adoptive parents want an infant and would rather wait for a future orphan baby than adopt a child that is actually orphaned and in need of a family now.
  2. It creates lots of potential for abuse in the system.  Because agencies and orphanages have waiting lists of parents waiting for an infant and they get their funds from processing adoptions, there is a certain incentive to cut corners in investigating supposed orphan children, or to even “find” or “recruit” infants or to subtly council parents/extended family to give up infants (though with some help, the parent/extended family/community may be able to care for the infant themselves).

So, I would think hard about adopting an “older child.”  By older child, I mean a child that is 2 years old or above, which means that you’re actually adopting a currently orphaned child, rather than waiting in a line for an infant to be born and orphaned.

I would also do a lot of research into whatever agency you use and make sure that agency is really doing its due diligence to investigate the case of the child.  You want to be completely confident that it is in the child’s best interest to be adopted internationally.  We personally believe that before a child is considered for international adoption, all possible options with parents, family and/or community should first be exhausted.  If there is any way that a child can remain with parents, extended family, or community, we believe that is usually best for the child.  All too often, children are brought to orphanages by parents or extended family simply because they hope that the child will have a chance at adoption, sometimes because they hope to get some personal benefit from it.  Unfortunately, the popularity of international adoption has in some cases encouraged the orphan problem in Ethiopian by taking the responsibility away from extended families and communities to raise the orphaned children in their midst.  Why sacrifice to help raise your neighbor’s child, when there’s a very well resourced, USD-financed orphanage in town where the child may have the option of being adopted to America?

Lastly, we always encourage couples to consider a child that for one reason or another is considered “less adoptable.”  This is often because of some illness, disease, disability, or simply because of age.  This is difficult, because it certainly presents some great challenges for the adoptive parent, but often the “diseases” and/or “disabilities” that make a child less adoptable in international adoption are minor and manageable issues.  Unfortunately, there are thousands of relatively healthy orphans lingering in orphanages in Ethiopia because of manageable health issues that prospective adoptive families are intimidated by and therefore these kids are passed over.  For example, it is often very manageable these days to adopt and care for a child with HIV.  This is something that one would need to do a lot of thinking on and a lot of research, but with the availability of ARVs, it’s a very doable thing.  Most children with HIV today, if properly cared for and provided with ARVs, can live long and healthy lives.  At one orphanage in Addis Ababa where we’ve spent some time, there were nearly 500 HIV positive children and with ARVs, the vast majority of them lived very healthy lives and will continue to do so.  Unfortunately, because of their HIV status, most will never be considered for adoption (though this is slowly changing).

I hope that helps.  Adoption can be a very beautiful thing, but there are some horror stories of good intentioned adoptive parents getting involved and discovering much later some of the complications, abuses and problems in the process and finding themselves unintentionally in the middle of them.  We think it’s really important to have lots of realistic information up-front.”

5 responses to “Our Thoughts and Observations on International Adoption

  1. Great post! I get very frustrated that there doesn’t seem to be many children with HIV on the agency lists. Seems like an issue of “supply and demand”
    Let us know if you are aware of agencies that specialize in this. What orphanage in Addis were you speaking of? A hope? I have called several times inquiring about adoption and never heard back. I would love more info on HIV +adoptions in Ethiopia.

    • Hey Bridget… Richelle knows more about A Hope than I do. Richelle and I are more familiar with the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Theresa’s order). They run homes for children with HIV throughout Ethiopia… one of their homes is in Asco, a far north-west area of Addis. Up until a couple of years ago, they did very little with adoption. In the recent last couple of years, there have been some kids from Asco adopted.

  2. Very well put and tactfully written, Richelle. Hope you guys are well. Look forward to seeing you again in August! (BTW, saw the Grays on Monday – weird seeing them on this side of the world!)

  3. I appreciate you sharing your perspective on this, especially because you are there and are seeing and hearing things first hand. I think you have written this honestly and openly and I appreciate your willingness to say the hard things. We adopted siblings from Ethiopia two and a half years ago and they were 7 and 4 at the time. We had originally planned to request an infant, but after reading “There is No Me Without You” by Melissa Faye Green, our eyes were opened to the waiting older children and sibling groups and we completely changed our request. I never would have imagined myself adopting a seven year old boy (along with his younger sister!) when we started the process, but I’m so glad we did!!!

    I hope people really take to heart what you have shared.

  4. Thank you for sharing this. I agree with you so much and have been so blessed by adopting children that were a little older and maybe less likely to be adopted because of “sickness.” Thank you for your manner in sharing this. That is what I like about you : ) This is a complicated issue, for sure, and you handled it graciously.

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