Last Wednesday I had a long conversation with the Africa program manager at our adoption agency. Lisa came across as smart, honest and thoughtful. There were a couple of times when she didn’t tell me what I wanted to hear, which I took as a very good sign.
When we first chose Wide Horizons we asked a lot of questions about how the adoption process works, but I don’t think I wrote it down before. What happens is that a family relinquishes a child to the local kebele (like a town council). It is up to the kebele to accept or deny the relinquishment, and Lisa said that sometimes the kebele does turn down relinquishments. But if the family is unable to provide for the child, then the relinquishment is accepted. Obviously here is the first place where something unethical can happen, where families can be pressured. Like any town anywhere in the world, a kebele can have petty people who manipulate others for their own political gain. But Lisa said she believes children are relinquished out of desperate need – dying parents, no food, and no social services. Families are not asking themselves will these children live better if I relinquish them, but will these children live?
After a child is relinquished and has been in an orphanage for at least three months, s/he may be referred to Wide Horizons for adoption. The agency then sends out a social worker to confirm the basic facts of the child’s circumstances. The birth family is read a letter in their language that explains what international adoption is, and what their rights are. They are told that adoption is not a study abroad program, it is permanent, they give up all rights to their child, may never see the child again, and will not receive any money (Wide Horizons used to allow American families to sponsor their children’s siblings in Ethiopia but they no longer allow it as it could create an incentive for relinquishment). At any point up to and including the court date the birth family can change their minds and reclaim the child. But Lisa was very clear that the social worker visit is not a counseling session. The social workers do interview the family and their neighbors to confirm that people are who they say there are, but they do not investigate how thoroughly the birth family thought through their decision, or who influenced their decision, or how well informed they are about life in the United States. Also a family could choose to lie and get the neighbors to lie for them. Lisa was clear that the social worker visit does not guarantee that the information in the child’s file is accurate (first point where that really wasn’t what I wanted to hear).
The next thing that happens is that the child is referred to the adoptive parents. Then the case goes to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. The MOWA has recently been asking for a lot more documentation than they did before, things like birth certificates and death certificates, so as to confirm the facts in the case. This has slowed down the time between referral and the first court date, but it is unequivocally a good thing.
The first court date is our first trip to Ethiopia. I actually didn’t talk to Lisa about this, but I think both the birth family and the adoptive family are present in court. After the case passes court, it goes to the U.S. embassy. At this point the child would be legally ours, but s/he still has to meet the definition of an orphan according to U.S. law to get a visa. This is where a bad adoption agency can get adoptive parents into a terrible situation, if the child according to Ethiopian law is an orphan, but according to U.S. law is not. I’ve done enough research on Wide Horizons to not be concerned about that happening with them.
The U.S. embassy can request additional documentation, which is again a good thing. Lisa said the U.S. embassy can also send an investigator out to the birth family if any facts seem to be in doubt. And then finally, the child’s adoption is approved, we travel to Ethiopia a second time, and we bring the child back to the U.S.
This whole process and the multiple attempts to confirm the facts in a child’s case do reassure me that we will not end up with a child that was stolen from her/his family (that accusation does not seem to be associated with Ethiopia the way it was with Vietnam or Guatemala). But we still could end up with a child whose file contains errors or lies. The advice of experienced adoptive parents has been to independently verify the child’s story and contact the birth family as soon as possible after adoption. I asked Lisa about this and she said what I’ve heard from every agency, which is it’s better for contact to go through the agency. I understand this, because agencies don’t want adoptive parents to start supporting birth families, because that creates incentives for future relinquishments. But my thought right now is that it’s the best thing for the child to have the two families be in contact, and T. and I have enough experience in the developing world to be able to navigate the insane inequities we will encounter. Ask me about this again when my child’s family member is dying of a treatable disease and I can afford the treatment…
The last thing I talked to Lisa about was the comparable ethics of older-child adoptions. She said if I was asking if older-child adoptions have fewer ethical concerns than infant adoptions, then the answer is no. Again not the answer I was hoping for, but after thinking about it for two seconds, it makes complete sense. She works for an agency that prioritizes ethics. For her to say that older-child adoptions have fewer ethical questions would imply that the agency has a laxer standard on infant adoptions. I’m glad that it doesn’t.
Lisa did say, three times during our conversation, that the children with the biggest need are 4- to 6-year-old boys. I have some ideas about why this is. I didn’t discuss these with Lisa, so this is just coming from me. Maybe the birth parents can keep a child at least somewhat nourished as long as the mother is breastfeeding, and at 4- to 6- years old, children are too old to breastfeed but too young to “earn their keep.” On the adoptive family side, the majority of adoptions are driven by women, and maybe women are more likely to be interested in adopting a little girl (some agencies do allow adoptive parents to specify gender preferences). Or maybe some adoptive parents have hang-ups about their family name being carried on by a biological son. Or maybe some white people are intimidated by little black boys. But for whatever reason, the lowest “demand” is for 4- to 6-year-old boys.
T. and I had wondered about the situation of older children, if they had been relinquished at an older age, or if they had lived longer in an orphanage. Lisa said that, in Burundi for example, it’s quite likely that an older child has lived in an orphanage for years. But she has never seen that in Ethiopia, and if an older child is available for adoption, it means that child was relinquished at an older age. Which means before that, the child lived with family. This could be a really good thing, because the child would have experienced a first attachment, which would make a second attachment easier. And the child may have had a loving, responsive parent for at least a few years. But on the other hand, an older child could have been in a very bad situation for more years. An older child may have good memories of the birth family. Or an older child may have more conscious memories of trauma. So again, no easy answer. I’m sensing a theme here.