In 2008, a 38-year old Oklahoma nurse whom I’ll call Kelly adopted an eight-year old girl, “Mary,” from Ethiopia. It was the second adoption for Kelly, following one from Guatemala. She’d sought out a child from Ethiopia in the hopes of avoiding some of the ethical problems of adopting from Guatemala: widespread stories of birthmothers coerced to give up their babies and even payments and abductions at the hands of brokers procuring adoptees for unwitting U.S. parents. Now, even after using a reputable agency in Ethiopia, Kelly has come to believe that Mary never should have been placed for adoption. She came to this determination after hiring what’s known as an adoption searcher.
Adoption searchers — specialized independent researchers working in a unique field that few outside the community of adoptive parents even know exists — track down the birth families of children adopted from other counties. In Ethiopia, searching has arisen in response to a dramatic boom in international adoptions from the country in recent years. In 2010, Ethiopia accounted for nearly a quarter of all international adoptions to the U.S. The number of Ethiopian children adopted into foreign families in the U.S., Canada, and Europe has risen from just a few hundred several years ago to several thousand last year. The increase has been so rapid — and, for some, so lucrative — that some locals have said adoption was “becoming the new export industry for our country.”
That increase has also brought stories of corruption, child trafficking, and fraud. Parents began to publicize the stories their adopted children told them when they learned English: that they had parents and families at home, who sometimes thought they were going to the U.S. to receive an education and then return. Media investigations have found evidence that adoption agencies had recruited children from intact families. Ethiopia’s government found that some children’s paperwork had been doctored to list children who had been relinquished by living parents as orphans instead, which allowed the agencies to avoid lengthy court vetting procedures.
“Her entire paperwork, except for a couple of names, was completely falsified,” Kelly said. Mary’s paperwork listed her as two years younger than she was; it said she had one older sister when she in fact had two younger sisters; and, most importantly, it said her mother had died years ago. “One day I said to Mary, ‘You know how your paperwork says you were five and you’re really seven?” Kelly recalled. “It also says that your mom’s dead.’ And she goes, ‘My mom’s not dead.’ She was adamant that her mother wasn’t dead, and in fact she wasn’t. Her mom is alive and it took our searcher just two days to find her.”
Kelly, through a friend who’d also adopted from Ethiopia, hired a searcher. She sent copies of all her paperwork and waited for him to make the nine-hour drive from the capital, Addis Ababa, to the northern region from which Mary had been adopted.
The searcher determined Mary’s real birth date, that her birth family and mother were OK with the adoption, and also collected some photos as well as information about Mary’s background. Kelly is planning to take Mary back to visit her family in March.
“I wanted to verify that she hadn’t been stolen. I searched with the intention of sending her back to Ethiopia if I found out she’d been stolen,” said Kelly.
Kelly doesn’t believe her agency knowingly falsified the information. As with many cases of fraud or corruption in Ethiopia’s adoption program, it seems that the story was changed at the local level, long before the adoption proceeded to the country’s federal courts and oversight agencies. Mary’s grandfather, who had often been her main caregiver, relinquished the child while her mother was working elsewhere in Ethiopia; something that was only possible because he and several witnessed claimed that the mother had died.
“I can’t imagine the weight that was on her,” Kelly said of Mary’s recollection of her home in Ethiopia. “After I told her the paperwork said her mom was dead, she thought maybe she was dead and nobody told her. So it was huge for her to know she was right, that her mother was alive. I was lucky she remembered and was strong enough to stick with her story.”
This summer, I accompanied a young Ethiopian searcher I’ll call Samuel on a birth family interview: a trek deep into the rural countryside of Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s Region (SNNPR), the province of origin for many Ethiopian children adopted to the West, to locate the family of a toddler-age girl adopted to Canada.