A Crackdown on International Adoptions
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.