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.

Monday in our English Garden

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When we bought this Cottswald cottage style house, I had a dream of building an English garden. I wanted it to overflow with flowers, mainly perennials, and have a wild lusciousness about it.

Six years later… It’s exactly that. Jason has become knobbly kneed English gardener, cultivating roses. Here are some shots from the flower beds this week.

Ps: let me know if you like the text in the photos like this, or prefer the old…

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Every Day Ethiopian Culture

One of my besties, M, got back from Ethiopia a few days ago. She has been visiting her family for the last two months, and it was long overdue that we should sit down and have a coffee.

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I was running horribly late on Friday, as I have been all week. But when I walked into my friend’s house, and out onto the back deck, I immediately felt calm and better.

My other bestie, T, and our new friend and neighbor Y, were sitting on the back deck munching away at some Ethiopian breakfast.

As we sat, and chatted, about work, family, and M’s recent trip to Ethiopia, I remarked on how infused Ethiopian culture is in our daily lives. It maybe just the small things… But isn’t culture like that?

We sat on mattresses and on the floor, around shared plates of food. M made us proper coffee, and we sat and chatted. I was the rude one… I only stayed for 45 minutes. Normally you sit and chat for hours. Visiting like this is this intricle part of Ethiopian culture, and it’s not only a part of my children’s lives. It’s a part of mine.

On a deeper level, it’s amazing how much of our lives have been enriched by adopting our daughters and subsequently connecting with Ethiopians. Not only have I gained family, friends, and a vocation… But we have more cultural touchstones, more traditions, and more community in our lives.

For any of those dear readers adopting a child from another culture, I heartily encourage you to reach out to that child’s birth community. You can’t manufacture friendships… Those simply happen. M and I are like sisters because we are, not because she is Ethiopian. But you can increase your chances of finding good friends, if you proactively seek out people of your child’s culture. Your children’s lives will be enriched, and their foundation solidified… But you might find special friends and hidden joys as well.
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Traditional Cornrows for Sugar’s Spring Style

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From the whole lexicon of cornrowing and braiding in Ethiopia, my daughter Sugar decided that she wanted some classic Oromo cornrowing for her spring hairstyle. My only qualification was that it was pretty tight braids, since I didn’t want to have to do her hair until near the end of June. I’m timing it for summer camps, you see!

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braid-balmWe went through many of my braid pictures from Ethiopia, and we decided to do some classically divided cornrows.

I love this style, because you divide the hair in sections, but then work with the natural curvature of her head to product rows. You start at one of the sections, and then work perpendicularly to the other section. I use Honey Almond Braid Balm in each cornrow, to protect the hair and nourish her scalp. It also really helps my arthritic hands grip the hair.

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The only modern aspect of this style is finishing her braids in buns. Sugar is such an active kid, that this helps her from unraveling (and chewing on) her long braids.

Super cute, I think! And it should last for four – five weeks, no problem. As long as I can keep Sugar out of the pool….

Frugal Fridays: 5 Tips for Homeland Travel on a Budget

I’ve had so many questions about travel logistics, that I thought I would restart my Frugal Friday blog posts with this one on budget homeland travel to Ethiopia.

We were gone for two weeks total, which is not a very long time, but we managed to fly around the world and back again for almost exactly $8000 Canadian. Not bad! Here are my tips on how to have a wonderful time, without breaking the bank.

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Be flexible in your flights.

There were four of us flying, and we had a pretty tight timeline. Usually, to save money on tickets, it’s best to be flexible on departure and arrival dates, and to fly out of airports with a lot of service. I literally finished class and drove to the airport, however, so I at least didn’t have this luxury. What we did was drove to Seattle, which is across the US border. Sometimes driving from your hometown to a major metropolitan center can save a bundle. This saved our family at least a couple thousand dollars, so it is well worth it. This is even with an international Airport in our own backyard. I had to fly out of Kelowna, so I met my family on the way. But my big flight tips are this… Be flexible and when you have to leave, drive to a major metropolitan center, and be prepared to take a red eye flight every now and again.

Also watch those airport costs… Do you know that we paid more for food in airports on our trip then we did in country? That’s ridiculous! And something we will try to change next time. We always travel with food replacement bars, and fruit bars, and a water bottle. Although I don’t use the water bottle in country, it does save us at airports. Also, make sure that you are bringing luggage that fits your luggage allowance. It makes a ton of difference in the long run. We also travel with a tiny scale that allows us to we are luggage and save hundreds of dollars of overweight charges. That is a gadget worth the investment.

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Manage transportation costs.

In country transportation, I mean. In Ethiopia, as well as many other emerging economies, there are different prices for different categories of people. Taxis in Addis Ababa, for example, have a foreigner price, a foreigner that lives in the country price, and an Ethiopian price. If you are not prepared to barter dramatically, it’s simply best for a foreigner to get a driver. Or of course, you can ride in town buses. But if you want the convenience of going where you want to go, I driver quickly becomes a lot cheaper than a taxi. We have a great driver to recommend… His name is now home, and on our last trip had the extremely reasonable rate of 800 per day in Addis Ababa, and 1000 per day outside of the capital. Of course, you also pay for fuel, and his food and accommodation. But when you traveled as much as we do, it’s worth having someone at your beck and call.

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Barter and budget accommodation.

This might may surprise some people, as accommodation often is the second biggest expense. But not with my family! We find that people often spend way too much money, since they are used to western conveniences and don’t take time to look for something at a reasonable price. I understand that there is a good market for hotels at the same rate I would play page in Canada… But that is not for our family.

We stayed at perfectly reasonable hotels, and never spent any more then $40 US a night. Our hotel in the account, was only $20 a night. So first, choose a place without a lot of frills. But secondly, realize that everything is negotiable. If you are staying for more than three nights… Ask for a discount! If you have more than one hotel room and have rooms for drivers and translators, ask for a discount. If you have a popular blog or have sent lots of friends to the same hotel… Ask for a discount! These are not unreasonable request. You can also discuss room or bed upgrades and breakfast as well. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t try to take advantage of business owners in developing countries. However, bartering is part of every day life, and reasonable small discount of 10 to 20% for extended stays are the norm, not the exception.

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Spend money where it counts.

We chose to go to Bishanghari Lodge for three nights… Which was not cheap, by any standards! But it was worth every penny, and is the experience my girls will remember for the longest. We also never skimp on eating out, or on food or drinks with our meals, which is in direct contrast to Canada. In Ethiopia, it is so inexpensive to eat out… You might as well enjoy it and not worry about pinching a few dollars here and there. This also pertains to tipping… Make sure that you tip your hotel staff appropriately. The service will be so much better the second time you visit! And it’s also the Fairway to treat people in the service economy, in an emerging country.

Lastly, don’t spend money where you don’t need to.

Sure, we bought the girls new suitcases for Christmas. And yes, those are included in the $8000 Canadian. But we didn’t need to new clothes for this trip, or fancy travel apparatus, or exorbitant gifts for family. People can spend a fortune before they ever leave home. So think about all those pretrip expenditures, and if they will really add value to your trip. You can save a lot of money by not shopping until you reach your destination!

I hope those tips are helpful! Happy home land traveling!

In February 2014, we took our daughters back to Ethiopia for the first time, since their adoption in 2009. Enjoy the 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!