The end of Ethiopian adoption: how it happened

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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.

Chechebsa, genfo and Ethiopian breakfast

It occurred to me the other day that I’ve barely cooked an Ethiopian food in the last 6 months. Maybe because it takes time, and I’ve been short on that! I’ve made some lentils and tibs, but I haven’t taken the time to make injera from scratch.

So a resolution… to make an Ethiopian feast (with enough sauces to stock the freezer) some time in February!

And, I might try some Ethiopian breakfast food one Sunday. A friend posted this great page with a recipe for Chechebsa which I really enjoy in Oromo country in Ethiopia. I think I might give it a try! T, Mom and I often order it when we are going through Debra Zeit, at the restaurant along the highway. It won’t taste the same, but my girls might enjoy it too.

One thing I won’t be cooking, though, is genfo. Ew. Sorry, genfo lovers, but that stuff is just gross. Healthy, yes, but gross. I’ve had some at an Ethiopian baby shower, and a couple times at special Ethiopian holidays. But no matter how many times I try it – ew. But don’t let me deter you. You can try the paste for yourself.

Anyone else have a favourite Ethiopian breakfast food?

 

5 Tips for Successful Adoption Homeland Travel in Ethiopia

By popular request, I have compiled some of our family’s tips on successful homeland travel in Ethiopia. Not that I am an authority on the subject!… Others travel much more often than we did. But we had an amazingly successful trip, with happy children, happy grandparents, happy parents, and happy birth family at the end of the trip.

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1.Plan your trip around your children’s wants and needs at this time.

We talked extensively with the girls about what their priorities were at this point in their lives, at seven years old, and 5 years from their adoption. Our recent trip was as much about reconnecting with Ethiopia, as it was about seeing family in person. So the girls made the priorities, and we executed them. We made sure that no one else’s priorities took precedent, and so we were able to do exactly what the girls needed on the trip. In our case, that was to go to the spa, spend time in the bush with wild animals, and see their family.

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2.Take only useful people.

When planning the trip, we really thought about who we should invite and take along. We decided to invite my parents, and it was a great move. First of all, my mother has been to Ethiopia many times, and is comfortable in most situations. My father, well I was a little worried about him! in advance… I didn’t know how he would handle the culture shock. He just got very quiet for a few days, and after that, was like a duck in water. But I knew that the girls feel safe around him, and he would provide muscle , if needed. (Complicated family stuff.) He was also very helpful keeping an eye on the girls, and breaking the ice with young Ethiopian family members. The flipside is to make sure you don’t invite anyone to go on vacation. Homeland travel is about the kids, and their priorities can even easily get overthrown by adult priorities, especially people who have spent a lot of money to fly across the ocean.My advice is to not to take anyone who needs babysitting themselves. If they are uncomfortable in other cultures, not well-traveled, or have other high needs, take them on a cruise some other time. So in a nutshell, my tip is to take only people who want to be there to support the kids, not people who have their own agenda. Harsh, but that’s my advice.

3.Run scenarios about birth family.

Everybody has a different story, and everybody has a different relationship with their extended family in Ethiopia, or the country of your child’s birth. We have an open adoption, and my mother and I have this did the girls family before. But the last time that the girls were in personal contact with their family was five years ago, when we picked them up. So we knew exactly which family members we were going to see, but we didn’t know how they would react with the girls. We ran 1000 scenarios… And one or two more right before we left. We talked to doctors, counselors, and Ethiopians about what might happen with various groups of family members, and all that consultation and scenario forecasting totally paid off. The important part of this is that we talked through each scenario with the girls. No matter what happened, we knew what our plan was. The girls knew that if they were overwhelmed, we would allow them to stay in a safe place with a parent or grandparent. They also knew that they were not allowed to run off, and knew some of the cultural events that might happen. I can’t stress enough how much this paid off. We have extremely complicated extended family, and it helped us navigate what would have been several overwhelming days. (A side note, some people object to us saying our family, but within our open adoption, that’s what our I feel can family calls us and that’s what we called them. Family. And the parents and grandparents are included!)

4.Expose your child to as many cultural practices as possible before you go.

Honestly, we didn’t plan this. It was a complete surprise, how much the girls connections with Ethiopian Canadian culture and my many visits and experiences from Ethiopia paid off. The girls learned a few words that they have heard before in short order, the language wasn’t the mean thing. The main thing was that they understood the basic intricacies of social interaction. They knew that anybody who was connected to them in anyway would scoop them up and smother them with kisses. They knew to make themselves scarce and quiet when adults were having coffee. They knew to take their food last after the adults, and that stuffing their faces was mandatory. All those little tiny things really paid off, and the girls felt completely comfortable in Ethiopia. Well not completely… Sugar did find Addis too busy for her. But aside from that, they were right at home. Fish in water.

5.Build in time for processing feelings.

My girls actually suggested that I put this on the list, because for them it was a huge part of the success of the trip. When we were planning our adventures, we made sure that we had time just as a family, without the excitement of Ethiopian family, friends, or volunteering. Even time away from the grandparents. For us, the times our little family feels closest is in remote locations with few distractions. Every family is different, but you know when you really gel and connect with each other: You need to make sure that this happens during the trip. My dad suggested that we go to the bush, Lake Langano, after our visit with the girls’ family, just in case they had big feelings to process. Well, the big feelings still haven’t arrived… But having that space and time with us together was wonderful. The girls also said they really appreciated having every evening together, with no distractions. We made sure that, when in Addis, we stayed at the same guesthouse each night, with private space and a little garden. That meant that there was consistency in location and in routine, even amongst our travels.

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Hopefully these tips and tricks for homeland travel are useful to you. Again, every situation is different, but I recommend going as soon and as often as you can afford. We told the girls that their next trip will be within five years, and they are happy with that. In closing, the second-biggest question I always get is about the fallout of our trip. “Do the girls have unresolved feelings, or big nagging doubts or questions?” We ran the scenarios! Lol, as you we’ll imagine. But the truth is, the culture shock and angst simply didn’t happen. Maybe because we were so prepared, or maybe because we were lucky, but our trip to Ethiopia was a highlight in the girls’ lives so far.

 

In February 2014, we took our daughters back to Ethiopia for the first time, since their adoption in 2009. This is one of many blog posts we have written about our family’s homeland trip. I also go to Ethiopia every year with our charity, Vulnerable Children Society, so there are additional blogposts from all my trips to Ethiopia to enjoy!

Visiting, Shopping and the Spa: our last relaxing days in Ethiopia

In February 2014, we took our daughters back to Ethiopia for the first time, since their adoption in 2009. This is one of many blog posts we have written about our family’s homeland trip. I also go to Ethiopia every year with our charity, Vulnerable Children Society, so there are additional blogposts from all my trips to Ethiopia to enjoy!

After five eventful days in the sun at Lake Langano, we were ready to head back to the capital. We still had a few things to do… Visit friends, visit the folks who run the orphanage the girls lived in, go to the spa and spend the girls’ saved allowance on Ethiopian toys.

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It was a peaceful ride back from Langano, but a long one.

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First, we stopped in at the orphanage where the girls lived for the better part of a year. It’s a different building than then, but the folks who run it, Selam and Wondu, are the same. We’ve visited and kept in touch over the years, but it was the first time we had visited them with the girls. Wondu was delighted to see them. I thought it was so interesting… He’s the only person in Ethiopia who asked about their personalities, their likes and dislikes. Most people, after seeing the girls and knowing they are ok, well… That’s enough for them. But he was genuinely interested. Selam was on her way back from Addis that day, so we met up with her for a brief visit at a truckstop. She was amazed to see them in person… They were such puny pants when she saw them last in Addis.

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Then we stopped in at my friend Menbere’s family’s house. I’m not sure how many times I’ve been there… Maybe four? But anyway, it feels like visited extended family. The girls quickly grabbed their friend N’s cousin, and they played coffee ceremony on the floor and outside, while the real thing was brewed in the living room. It’s was sweet to see Menbere’s sister teaching her daughter about coffee ceremony. Apparently now that’s she old enough to be going to university, (she was just home on spring break,) she’s old enough to take over coffee ceremony duties. Or at least, be schooled by her momma.

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I should also mention that Amaye’s house is my favourite locale for Ethiopian food, in all of Ethiopia! Seriously, Menbi is such a good cook, but here sister might even be better. I’ve eaten in countless Ethiopian restaurants, and she always has them beat. And just for me, they make countless fasting dishes… Let’s just say we all arrived with empty stomachs, and let groaning and and happy!

We had a quiet night at our guest house in Addis, and then our last day in Ethiopia were spent doing the last thing on the girls’ “to do” list: going to the spa!

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I can’t even express how excited the girls were… This was their number one thing to do in Ethiopia. You see, they’ve been seeing pictures of mommy going after each Ethiopian trip, and it’s something we could never afford at home. So we had a gorgeously relaxing day at Boston Day Spa… I mean, look at this kid’s face!

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They were treated like little little princesses! They didn’t have flip flops small enough for their feet after the pedicure, so the ladies carried them bodily over to the manicure table. So sweet!

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The girls had saved their allowance for weeks to spend in Ethiopia, and our last stop before the plane was… You guessed it… The toy store. Yes, my kids go to Ethiopia, and return with more stuffies. Do judge.. They have an addiction.

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And then that night, we left Ethiopia. It took a few days to get home, with three cancelled flights, but we returned happy and healthy. Well, happy, anyway! Lol

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On the discussion board I belong to, a popular topic is “what age should I take my kids back to Their birth country?” Well, my answer is this: as soon as you can financially swing it. I’ll be back in the fall, but id can’t wait to bring the whole family again. Especially our two little Habeshas.

Stay tuned for my tips on successful homeland travel!

Family Forest Fun: Bishangari Lodge at Lake Langano

In February 2014, we took our daughters back to Ethiopia for the first time, since their adoption in 2009. This is one of many blog posts we have written about our family’s homeland trip. I also go to Ethiopia every year with our charity, Vulnerable Children Society, so there are additional blogposts from my trips to Ethiopia to enjoy!

We had four lovely days at Bishangari Lodge at Lake Langano. There is lots to do at the lodge, nestled in the ecological reserve. When our daughters told us their priorities for their first trip back to Ethiopia, second on the list was to spend some time in the bush. We returned to the cabins we had visited five years before, when the girls were three years old.

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The girls and I went horseback riding the first full day we were there… And had a blast. These are literally the largest horses in Ethiopia… I don’t think I’ve ever seen larger ones. So I actually felt comfortable riding on one without killing it. We walked through the woods and the fields, causing to stop and chat with some of the locals. There were amazing birds to see, and it was just lovely to have that quiet time we’ve from the city.

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Back five years ago, the girls were terrified of the warthogs, and found the baboons amusing. Jason actually was grateful to the warthogs, because the only time the girls would come to him back then was if they were more afraid of the warthogs in the bush, than they were of daddy. The first time he really got to hold them was when he was “rescuing” them from warthogs.

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This time, they were delighted by the warthogs, and we spent several hours stalking them in the bush to take pictures. They are so neat, as they graze on their knees and the little ones follow them through the grasses.

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The girls were slightly afraid of the baboons, as the baboons have become a little bit more aggressive. Perhaps a lot more reasonable feelings around the wild animals! One time, Jason and Sugar had going off for a walk, leaving Spice in the hammock outside our cabin and me inside. I came out of the bathroom to hear “mommy! Mommy! Mommy!” I looked outside and saw the hammock rolled up into a sausage, and three baboons sitting around on all sides of the hammock. I chased them away with a stick and pulled my quivering, scared daughter out of the hammock and into the cabin. The poor thing. Another time, a big male actually came after Jason, growling and aggressive. I am told that the baboons are over populating, and the forestry service occasionally “removes ” a few of them.

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The girls spend copious amounts of time in the water, swimming and splashing around, and building castles and other architectural masterpieces on the beach.

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My parents went a little over the deep end birding… And took my husband with them. There were some Brits at the lodge, who had come specifically for the birding… They saw 120 species in one day, and a total of 190 in two days. We didn’t see as many as that… We aren’t so serious about the birds. But with a little guidebook and a little help from the Brits, we still saw enumerable amounts of birds. They came in all shapes and sizes, and you didn’t have to hunt for them very much. Just sit on a lounge chair by the beach, and 30 some odd different birds would fly or walk by. Just up into the bush, and you could hear their calls in the trees, and see them printing from branch to branch. It’s quite amazing. Even if you are not into birds, can’t help but be amazed by the variety of wildlife at Langano.

The only downside to our trip was that I got very sick the third day. I actually have never been sick like that in Ethiopia… And was grateful that I had a private cabin, with a private bathroom, to be miserable in. I didn’t leave bed for 30 hours straight. That was sick!

But there is a silver lining to everything, and because of my absence, Jason actually went with the girls horseback riding on the third day. I still have never seen him on a horse to this day! But there is photographic proof that this actually happened.

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To any families that enjoy wild places and peace and quiet, I can’t recommend Bishangari Lodge at Langano enough. The service is amazing… The people are super nice and accommodating. The food is good, and the cabins are delightful. Simple, but clean and amazingly privately situated. There are few wild places left in Ethiopia… And this is an amazing, safe, and family-friendly way to experience a real Ethiopian forest.

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