Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Long post about our agency

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.


  1. Great post. You had a good conversation with your agency. I hope these changes head off closing of this program. Despite problems, children will go without homes without adoption as an option.

    "The MOWA has recently been asking for a lot more documentation than they did before, things like birth certificates and death certificates..."

    This would be a good thing, but I don't think birth certificates are that common. The culture does not celebrate birthdays and many kids are born in rural homes, where clearly nobody is present to draft a birth certificate.

    "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. "

    Unfortunately I know of a family in this situtation now, but it was the Ethiopian Government who denied their entry into the country even after they passed court. Their agency is not as reputable as yours.

  2. Hi:
    We adopted our daughter from Ethiopia she is now 15 months old, and our agency also told us that we should contact them to send anything to our daughters birth family. We did meet her uncle and have some basic information of where she is from, and I think follow up on our own because I am not sure how much the agency really tells us about the family. I realize their need to play the middle man.
    I wanted to say thank you for sharing, about your religious thoughts.

  3. Hi Kamala! Thanks for the comment.
    Hi Bob! I might be wrong about Lisa mentioning birth certificates. She might have just said death certificates. Thanks for pointing that out.

  4. Great informative post, such a nice review for me=) Your conclusion is correct: No easy answers. In the end IA is a leap, even with an agency like WHFC. And I so appreciate their matter of fact attitude and lack of sugar coating. IA is not the place for butterflies and rainbows. I think the additional steps by MOWA, the courts and US Embassy are in the right direction. And I really hope that some of these changes eventually lead to the revocation of certain agency's licenses. A longer time from referral to embassy is well worth if if encourages ethical practices.
    Great post. Have you guys decided your adoption age range yet? I can't remember...

  5. Hey, Meg, get off my comments section and start writing about your referral call already! We're DYING over here!

  6. I was in a very similar mind-set as you are, when I was at the same point you are. But I probably was not as educated as you. I think it is crucial to know if your agency arranges for birth family meetings. (Mine did.) And, if so, will they allow you to video-tape or audio-tape or bring your own translator to the meeting (mine did not.)
    Also, what I never thought to ask but so wish I would have... What percentage of their placements are for "abandoned" children? Are you able to meet the "finder" in these cases? If not, at what point in the process will you see the police file? (Are you sensing that we didn't get a chance to meet a birth family member????) Also, can you request to only be referred a child who has at least one living relative?
    While I believe there could be corruption in ANY placement... if you are brokering in babies, I am sure you wouldn't mind paying actors to pretend to be birth families... I do think there is more room for corruption with "abandoned" babies. I also believe some of the cases of corruption that were exposed last year and involved police officers were "abandonment" cases.
    Obviously WHFC has a good ethical reputation. So does the agency I went with. But after being there and seeing the disconnect between the folks in the US and the folks on the ground in Ethiopia, and the further disconnect between the Addis care center essentially run by the Ethiopia division of our agency versus the rural care center run by completely different entities, I just don't know that picking an ethical US agency is enough (although it is the MOST important first step.)
    So sorry that this is becoming a post and not a comment. Forgive the self-promotion, but I did write a post about this a few months ago (http://semiferalmama.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/whats-your-high-horse-standing-on/)
    I believe the statistic I have heard is the 60-80% of all PAP's request a girl (that applies to every country and domestic).
    I actually recently asked my agency about birth certificates. They are not common, although in 2010 the government started to encourage and issue them. Still, it might be a long, long time before they are used in rural areas.
    Oh, and to make sure I am perfectly clear, I believe our adoption was ethical, and I still think Ethiopia is a viable program. I just wish I had asked more.

  7. I too wish I had asked more and received more paperwork.

    When we were picking up our son, we were allowed to examine, but not copy his full record. While we already had most of the paperwork in there, we did not have all of it.

    Since they would not make copies, I took a photo of each page. I was not popular, but they did not stop me. Other parents there were surprised I did it.

    I need to have someone translate the documents one of these days. I hope I only find confirmation of what i think I know about my son.

    What I learned is that you need to stick you neck out a bit to get all your answers.

  8. I think in a few weeks I'll have another long list of questions for our agency, and another long phone call. Thanks for all the advice, keep it coming!

  9. I think it's great that you're asking so many tough questions so early in the process. Not many do. There are no easy answers but I'm glad you're with an agency that seems to give the real, tough answers instead of making up the easy ones.

  10. Hi Kyra, We adopted a four year old boy a year ago. Attachment has gone according to the book; developmental trauma (being ripped from his family and placed in first one orphanage, then another, and then being stuffed on an airplane with nearly complete strangers and sent to a strange place with strange smells and sights (snow!) and food) -- it's a long road to recovery from that. Facts in referral and from birth family visit do not add up to his story. We're trying to get answers, but we may never know the real deal (and we used WHFC). And, according to my social worker, the reason why little boys 4 - 6 get relinquished is they are approaching or at school age and the parents come to the realization that they can't afford to send them. Little girls get kept home to be the worker bees -- boys can't fetch water or firewood or water after age 7 or it will reflect poorly on the mother. Don't know if you've seen my blog: karensadoptionjourney.blogspot.com. Some of our story is there. There are indeed no easy answers -- if we hadn't been in line to adopt him, someone else would have. His family relinquished him, and would have regardless of whether our dossier was in Ethiopia waiting for a match. We can only do our best with the hands we've been dealt -- all of us. I don't believe for a minute any corruption was involved, but I remain conflicted about international adoption, as I have from the beginning. I cried when we landed at Dulles, in part out of joy for finally being home with our son (if I'd known our flight home home had been canceled, I might not have felt quite so joyful) and partly out of sadness for his loss of his first home. I felt like I went to a country that needs so much and my "help" was to take one of their kids away. I feel profound sadness that it will be years before he'll be able to see his brothers and "little girl" again. He misses them terribly. I so desperately want a response to the letter I sent, but am beginning to think it may never happen. BTW, WHFC was one of the few agencies that responded to PEAR's questionnaire about Ethiopian adoption programs. It's interesting reading and may be of some help to you. I'm guessing if you go to PEAR's website you can find it with some digging.

  11. Karen, I do follow your blog. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I'd like to talk to you somewhere more privately. Can you send an email address to yiothetisi@yahoo.com? Thank you!

  12. HI! I don't think I have ever come across your blog before...not like I have a ton of time anymore though. We brought home sibs through WHFC in June of 2010. Our son was 4.5 on paper, but we think he is closer to 7.5 years. Our daughter is turning 4 on paper this Thursday, however, we tell her that she is turning 5. Our attachment process has been better than we ever could have expected. Our children are so happy. We didn't have a lot of the classic attachment issues with either of them. The first 2 weeks at home were the most difficult, but still, no where near as hard as I know it could have been. A few crying fits with fists to the floor, but that is all. If you ever want to talk, let me know. I noticed that you may have not yet decided on an age range. I, of course, would highly recommend 3+ !! I have a blog too, if you are interested: amyanddougsjourneytoethiopia.blogspot.com

    Good luck~

    1. Hello fellow commenters,

      My husband and I live in Boston and are considering working with WHFC for adoption from Asia. We would love to be in touch about your experiences with them, or other local agencies. Email me at laraawild@gmail.com if you have a chance. It's scary putting your trust in an agency, epically with such mixed reviews out there. Thank you!

  13. Hi there - Just found your blog through Liz's link (Liz is great at making connections)! I loved this post on a number of levels. We are also with WHFC and we have had similar conversations with folks there throughout our wait so far. I look forward to following along on your journey.

  14. Amy, is there an email address where I can write you... I have lots of questions about children in the age range you adopted.
    Kelly, are you blogging?

  15. You ask great questions Kyra. Thanks for sharing. The bit about 4-6 year old boys was very interesting. Your conclusions seem sound. I wish there was a way we could find out if they're accurate.