The end of Ethiopian adoption: how it happened


It was almost exactly 6 years ago the Jason and I became the parents of two beautiful little Ethiopian girls. Aren’t they growing up beautifully?

This last week, we learned that there would be no more Ethiopian adoption for Canadian families.  Both programs are now closed … And no more children will find families in Canada.

Although it wasn’t a surprise, the email that came from the adoption agency had sad note of finality to it. When I shared the news with my almost-nine-year-old daughters, one of them commented wistfully “that makes me sad, because there are so many children in Ethiopia that really need homes. I’m not sad for us, but I’m sad for the kids who will live in orphanages and who won’t have a family.”

I have to admit I feel the same way. Since I am in Ethiopia every year, and have had an active role in this last adoption attempt, we’ve known for a while that it was highly unlikely to adopt from Ethiopia again. My sadness for those unadapted children was more nuanced though, because I see a system that has failed them. Some families will likely be much more surprised that there is no more Ethiopian adoption. What went wrong? How did adoption stop, when Ethiopia sent thousands of children to live in Canada only a few short years ago?

Here’s my take on why there won’t be any more new adoptions from Ethiopia to Canada.

First… The big picture. In the early 2000s, international adoption kicked off in earnest in Ethiopia. As has happened many times across the globe before, the demand for children catylized a system into overdrive. There was real social need for childcare and for non-institutional, long-term placement solutions, as this was the height of the HIV epidemic. Adults were disappearing, neighbours and grandparents were overrun, and domestic adoption wasn’t on the radar for the average Ethiopian.

Due to the demand, more orphanages and agencies popped up than anyone could oversee and handle.  Adoption agencies started getting competitive, and more than a few resorted to bribery, child solicitation and other horrid forms of corruption. Meanwhile, there were other agencies doing good work, checking and ensuring the authenticity of the adoptions. We can’t forgot those! And then, there was the grey area. As someone who has spent a fair amount of time in Ethiopia around child care organizations, I know there are a lot of well intentioned people who brushed aside the complicated ethical concerns of international adoption to ensure children were placed in a home. A change on the paperwork to make the children more adoptable, or easier to pass through the courts. I heard stories like this over and over, from both sides of the pond.

Of all our friends who adopted children from Ethiopia,  I would say that roughly half of those adoptions were tainted with some lies, or shortcuts along the way. Ours is one of the others… The legitimate, honest adoptions where everyone knew what was going on. Since we have an open adoption with our girls’ family, we know that the big information information we received about the girls’ background was true, and they really did need to have an adoptive family. But a complete pre-adoption story was the exception, not the norm. All those other fibs, lies and outright injustices Started to come out as children got older and could talk, and the international adoption parenting community got rightly pissed off. Many people hired investigators to find their children’s birth families and true stories… All which should have been clearly shared by adoption agencies and orphanages in the first place!

With all these pissed off parents and investigators running around, and the cracks showing in some agencies’s methods, the government started cracking down on adoption. Regions had backlogs. Judges weren’t available. The ministries issued statements. Meanwhile, the government was auditing the heck out of the agencies, and (good job Ethiopian government) managed to close down many of the more blatantly corrupt orphanage and agencies.

Back in Canada, things were going amuck for the two adoption agencies that had open Ethiopian programs.

First, the Imagine Adoption bankruptcy. If you haven’t been following my blog for six+ years, then you may not know that we were caught in the middle of that fiasco with our girls. In fact, I was the one who had to break it to the Ethiopian staff that their employer was broke. Our twins had become legally ours July 3, and then on July 13 I found out that our adoption agency was bankrupt. My mom and I flew to Ethiopia on six hours notice (not knowing how long we were staying…) and the rest is history. But that bankruptcy was due to the director of the agency spending the money, that was supposed to be feeding and caring for our children, on a new pool, horse and house renos. Oh by the way, she finally was “sentenced” this year. It’s amazing how she got away with stealing from the mouths of orphaned children in a third world country. There is a special place in hell for that kind of person. Eventually, another agency took over the Ethiopia adoption licence and the program limped along. They aren’t taking new clients for Ethiopia

The other licenced agency had financial difficulties not a few years later. We put in our oar with them for this second adoption, but heard this past week that they are closing their program. For the last couple of years, we had two organizations barely making it along. What a mess.

Back in Ethiopia, enough adoptive families had stayed at the Hilton and Sheraton where the politicians hang out to cause concern over the mass exodus of children leaving the country. Many of the families didn’t stay to learn about their children’s culture. They just flew in, ate $30 salad buffet lunches at the overpriced luxury hotels, and flew out again with their babies in tow. The wealthy Ethiopians, government officials and hotel staff were astounded.

Orphanages and agencies closed their doors, and also routinely didn’t get post-placement reports back to the people who had placed the kids for adoption in the first place. Many birth families didn’t get any information about their kids, and told their painful stories of loss to the media. Justifiably, people were outraged. Culture is so important in Ethiopia, and for children never to connect with their birth families again and to be disconnected from their culture was a loss for the families, but also for the country.

And then the horror stories started filtering in. I was in Ethiopia when the story of Hannah Williams broke. I was sitting in a cafe, meeting with some of our partners for the NGO I run. One man mentioned in grief about “all the kids that were dying that had been adopted.” I was confused, and didn’t know what they were talking about, until I managed to get wifi the next day and learned about the tragic death of that poor little girl. It was horrible. And it forever changed the way the average Ethiopian saw adoption.

Thousands of Ethiopian children found loving homes overseas. Many of those adoption were honest, and good solutions for children that needed homes. But there was also corruption, financial mismanagement, lies and deceit, pissed-off parents, concerned government and judiciary systems, grieving birth families, a horror story of one beautiful little girl, and a proud Ethiopian people wondering why their children weren’t being raised as Ethiopians. So bit by bit, the house of international adoption in Ethiopia came falling down. And now, in Canada and many other receiving countries, it’s gone.

International adoption doesn’t solve orphan crises. It can be a good solution for some children that need a home, and don’t have other options. however, adoption never does address the root issues that lead the children to need homes in the first place. Now, more than ever, we need to help our Ethiopian friends fight poverty, foster social equality, spread education and keep families together. If you were considering adopting from Ethiopia, or had children from Ethiopia touch your life in some way, I hope you’ll consider helping one of the many organizations take care of the country’s children. They need your support more than ever.

We appreciate your donations for our charity, Vulnerable Children Society‘s work on behalf of children and families.

On a personal note, I am so grateful the people who safeguarded our children, and enabled them to find a home with us. I am thankful for the girls’ family, who saw a way when there was no way to care for the girls. I’m grateful to the orphanage that shared everything they knew about the girls’ family with us. I am grateful to the judge who gave me a complete heart attack as we went through seven court dates, just to ensure that the reason for adoption was actually true. (It was.) And I’m grateful that our first adoption agency, in the throes of bankruptcy, didn’t have the capacity to intervene in our relationship with the girls’ family. Lastly, we are grateful to our girls, who have enriched our lives in countless ways, and who we love more than anyone in the world.

37 thoughts on “The end of Ethiopian adoption: how it happened

  1. Very well written. I always appreciate your take on things. It really is sad to hear how everything went down with Ethiopian adoptions… and to think of the kids that truly do need parents. But you are right, this isn’t the entire answer.
    I’ve been wondering lately about how you are doing in your adoption journey. Are you guys still looking to the US as an option???

    • Hi Emily… I’ve been passively keeping my eye out for kids in the foster system that fit our family’s parameters, but no luck so far. We came close a few times, but not yet. We are also keeping our eye out for other options, but the wind is out of my sails a bit now…

  2. Wow.. Thank you for such a detailed account of what happened with the Ethiopian adoption program. How sad that corruption and deceit (plus the whole Imagine Adoption fiasco) contributed to the end.

    Love the photos of you and your girls at the beginning of the post! They’re such young ladies! I remember watching the video when you got your referral.. and now– wow!– they’re so grown up!

    • They are gorgeous, aren’t they? Inside and out.

      Of course, this is just my take on things… There are lots of other valid viewpoints out there….

  3. This is the first I’m hearing about the closure for Canadian adoptions and I have mixed emotions, sadness for children who need homes and won’t find them, relief for the pain that will be spared for families in cases where things are unethical, worry for the future of the kids still in orphanages there, hope that Ethiopian families will step in and begin adopting in-country.

    We are among the families who did not get accurate information on multiple things of importance. We are also fortunate enough to have found some of our kids’ birth family ourselves when Mark traveled back to Ethiopia a year later. But the agency of course was no help in that.

    I’m sad that your family will not be welcoming another Ethiopian-born child and for the other waiting families whose dreams were shattered with this news. But I guess I’m hopeful that they (and you) will be able to adopt other children who need homes. Because we all know that there is that need.

    • Thanks Sharla, for your story too.

      It sort of stinks that the girls will never have more Ethiopian siblings… But then, at least they have each other. I’m sure that’s a big deal for your two as well…

  4. Two years ago we were in the beginning/middle parts of a DRC adoption when everything went south in that country as well. Our friends were adopting from Ethiopia. At the same time we both had to switch ways to find children that indeed did need families and were true orphans. My friends brought their two year old daughter home from China a few months back and we have been fostering our future daughter for 19 months and have just now reached a point where we “may” be close to the end. In both cases our children are truly without family members who are capable physically, mentally, financially, or legally from raising them. We are truly our children’s last resort. That is how adoption should be. It should not be “buying” a baby. I feel TERRIBLE about the way adoptions have gone in foreign countries. I wish that it wasn’t the way it is. I hate to say it, but I was pretty uneducated about corruption and bribery until we started the adoption process. Any adoption process where you are advised to take thousands of dollars cash for being allowed through court or to leave the county should send up major red flags! Thank you for your post!

    • We were trying to adopt from the DRC for a time as well… after a few months, we saw the writing on the wall and jumped ship. But there are definitely so many children in need in that country.

      Just a point of clarification / opinion. Our children are not orphans, but they still needed a home that could care for them safely. All over the world, there are kids who need homes for so many different reasons. The important thing is that no one was coerced or lied to along the way.

      For me, the most important step forward is to try to enable some of those people to keep their children, so they don’t have to place them in care because of poverty, illness, stigma or any other reason. We can help some of those people by fighting poverty and injustice. So I agree with you that adoption should be a last resort! Absolutely…

  5. Wow, thanks for sharing, Arnica. This must be very hard right now, but you have a very eloquent way of explaining it all. We were so sure a few years ago that we were meant to have a child from Ethiopia. While that did not end up being the case, I will always have a special place in my heart for Ethiopa, and its wonderful people. I absolutely love how immersed you have become in that culture. What a blessing to your girls. And they sure are a blessing, not just to you, but to all who know them.

  6. Really great synopsis, Arnica. Your girls glow with happiness in that beautiful family photo.

    I worry so much about the children stuck in orphanages in Ethiopia and I wonder about community and government efforts and their success, if any, at keeping children with their families. Are there any changes to report on that?

    May I share your blog post?

    • Hi Beth – of course you are welcome to share… and contribute your own impressions as well!

      I do worry about the kids. The good news is that more agencies are working on family togetherness, and there is a push for domestic adoption in Ethiopia. That said, it’s a hard sell, and talking to people who run an orphanage licensed for domestic adoption, a year ago there was still very little interest in Ethiopia. According to them, anyway.

  7. Well written Arnica, as your ‘roommate’ at the Weygoss for a brief time in Ethiopia, I love seeing how your lovely girls are doing. You are inspiring to many of us who feel the same way. I had always known as a single parent that I was only going to adopt once, but my heart breaks for those ‘could be little brothers or sisters’. Our families all have such rich story. I am reminded of a time last summer when my daughter and I were walking on the beach and looking at the footprints being left in the sand behind us. My words of wisdom to her then were that her footsteps were evidence that she walked in that very place at that very moment. Her comment back to me was ” Mommy, I have footsteps everywhere, even in Africa !” May all of our childrens footsteps remind them of where they were and follow them into who they will become someday.

  8. Thank you for such a thorough and articulate overview of the history and complexities of the Ethiopian adoption programs. I shared on my facebook page as well. I am so thankful that we were able to adopt once from Ethiopia (can’t imagine life without Meskerem). Also grateful that we have had (and will continue to have) contact with birth family. We’re hoping to travel back to Ethiopia in the next couple years.

    • It is such a blessing to have an open adoption, isn’t it? I really don’t understand agencies not allowing birth family contact – it’s robbery.

      • I completely agree re: importance of open adoptions, Arnica! What we found particularly mystifying was the contradiction between the Canadian adoption agency and their representatives in Ethiopia. Before our last trip, we wanted to make arrangements to contact Meskie’s birth family. The Canadian agency reps did not help at all and openly discouraged our attempts. Once we got to Addis and connected with the Ethiopian agency folks, they essentially said, “Of course you should visit her family” and they even had Meskie’s birth father’s cell number as he had been in touch with her multiple times. If we weren’t proactive, we would not have been able to establish an open adoption!

      • I’m so glad you have that contact for her! IT’s all the difference in the world for our girls, knowing who they are and how they ended up where they ended up…

  9. Personally I would put the rate of Ethiopian adoptions with falsified information and/or documents at higher than 50% – especially if you exclude anyone who hasn’t independently verified the truth of their child’s story. I think lots of people believe in good faith they have the correct information when they don’t. (And that used to include me – I believed I knew the truth until I went back in person with a non-agency affiliated translator, and got the real story. Nothing like realizing the beautiful life book you painstakingly made for your child is mostly lies ….)

    I think it was more like hundreds of kids who came to Canada though not thousands – the peak year was 2009, I believe, with 177 adoptions. But still, huge numbers and growth which was disastrous as you pointed out.

    • thanks so much for those insights, June! If anyone has a link to the stats, that would be great. My quick google search didn’t turn anything up.

      You are right that many people just don’t KNOW… they don’t know if their children’s story is correct or not. And the bullying form agencies telling people to cease and desist finding out the truth was totally crazy.

    • The Ethiopian adoption had to close — an at least 50% rate of major fraud is simply unsustainable. And untenable.

      The MAJOR issues in Ethioian adoption have been publicly known since 2008 — “Fly AwaY Children” and “Mercy Mercy”. Available for any potential adoptive parent who actually cared about ethical adoption via Google.

      There are SO many APs who pay lip service to the importance of adoption ethics — Ran into fraud on Ethiopian adoption #1, adopted the kid anyways, returned quickly for ET adoption #2 and THEN started speaking out on the evils of corruption they chose to ignore!!

  10. First, Arnica, I’m so sorry to hear that your plans have been sidelined with the closure of the program. I’m sure that was very hard news to hear, particularly after changing back to Ethiopia after a deliberate and thoughtful process. When I first learned of the closure a few days ago, I had hoped that families already in process would still be able to maintain their open files, and I’m sad to hear that this isn’t the case.

    I have such a mixture of emotions, and won’t belabour all of the reasons because you’ve already done so very eloquently. We, too, are in the fortunate position of knowing our children’s stories to be true, and we, too, have somewhat of an open adoption (our birth family is very remote and hard to access to communication is limited to once every 12-18 months). But we’ve certainly heard of stories that are different than ours and we mourn with those families and, in particular, the children involved.

    Anyway, thank you for putting pen to these insights and again, I’m very sorry for your loss. I’ll look forward to hearing in the coming months and years how your journey will continue to wind its way until your family is complete.



    • Thanks so much, Ruth… I think it’s important to also tell the stories that were true… not all Ethiopian adoption was tainted by corruption.

  11. I had to stop by to say that I was shocked to realize that I have been following along with your blog for 6+ years. It went so fast!

    On another note, I really appreciate your assessment of the situation in Ethiopia. It’s a cycle I think we’ve all seen too many times in international adoption, and I hope that prospective parents will see posts like this and start out armed with a little more knowledge.

    • There are some great articles and books out there written about other countries and what has happened. But I think the common denominator is that if a program really takes off quickly, the system can’t grow with the proper checks and balances. Interestingly, the countries that have become Hague compliant before growing their program seem to be doing to at a slower rate, and managing them a lot better.

  12. Pingback: My Heart Aches for Ethiopia | Growth Through Adoption

  13. I was fortunate enough to have adopted my amazing daughter (I am in awe of her! an incredible little girl!!) through Imagine in 2010. I got quite a bit of information about her birth mom- even a grainy photocopy of her picture- but she disappeared during just before the final court hearing. I also got names of my daughter’s grandfather, an aunt, and an uncle. I am trying to find the birth family now but not much progress has been made in the last 6 weeks. Does anyone have any advice, reliable contacts etc that can help?
    I plan to return to Ethiopia in the next few years- hopefully so my daughter can meet some of her birth family and fill in the details of her story.

    • There are definitely searchers out there, Shannon, and it makes a lot of sense to look before you show up. (Less surprises, and they can often get a lot further than you can.) check out the Ethiopia homeland travel and birth family Facebook group… Lots of resources there!

  14. I am so sad to hear that about Canada! A couple of years ago here in the US the government changed the adoption policies to prevent much of the problems that were occurring with fraud and the many horror stories of illegal adoptions, through the PAIR process. Basically it makes the process several months longer, but instead of adopting right off the bat, we as parents get essentially “preapproved” to adopt, then they refer the child(ren), THEN the US does extensive work to make sure the child is legally adoptable. Our agency, Adoption Avenues, here in Portland fortunately has been doing it for many years and we got a lot of wonderful references from families who’d adopted multiple times, plus they were super upfront about how different the process is in Ethiopia. I just wish that Ethiopia would join the Hague Convention as it’s so much better for everyone involved to have those protections in place. We are about 8 months in (our dossier is now in Ethiopia) and hoping by the end of the year to have at least the referral!

    • I really hope you have a smooth ride… which would be the opposite of what usually happen, unfortunately. You can also look online about doing a private search into your child’s background… it’s a rare case when you get ALL the legit info from an agency and orphanage. And all info is good uno to have! Lots of luck!!!

      • Thanks! Yes we’re in that “black hole” period waiting for a referral. They just reorganized MOWA in Addis, moving all their existing adoption staff to a different department and hiring all new people to process paperwork….that and the protests/violence in Addis at the start of the year put us back 5 months in the process as they are just starting work this week. Oy!! We chose our agency after meeting with a family who’d adopted from Ethiopia through them 3 separate times, so fortunately we got a good thorough “reality check” at the very beginning. I’m so glad we did so we keep our expectations low on the wait time and bureaucracy 🙂 Thanks for writing!

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