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Monday, 4 June 2007

Americans flock to Ethiopia for cheaper adoptions


ST. PAUL, Minn. – Ethiopia was not on Mark and Vera Westrum-Ostrom’s list when they first visited Children’s Home Society & Family Services here to explore an international adoption.
Ukraine was first, because of their family heritage, until the couple discovered that the adoption system there was chaotic, with inaccurate information about orphans’ health and availability.
Vietnam was second, after they saw videos of well-run orphanages. But the wait would be at least a year and a half.
Then they learned about Ethiopia’s model centers for orphans, run by American agencies, with an efficient adoption system that made it possible for them to file paperwork on Labor Day and claim 2-year-old Tariku, a boy with almond eyes and a halo of ringlets, at Christmas.
From Addis Ababa, the capital city, they traveled to the countryside to meet the boy’s birth mother, an opportunity rare in international adoption. And the process was affordable compared to adoptions in other countries, and free of bribes, which are common in some countries.
It is no wonder, given these advantages, that Ethiopia – a country more often associated by Americans with drought, famine and conflict – has become a hot spot for international adoption. Even before the actress Angelina Jolie put adoption in Ethiopia on the cover of People magazine in 2005, it was growing.
The number of adoptions there by Americans is still small – 732 children in 2006, out of a total of 20,632 foreign adoptions. But the growth curve, up from 82 children in 1997, is the steepest adoption officials have ever seen. Ethiopia now ranks fifth among countries for adoption by Americans, up from 16th in 2000. In the same time period, the number of American agencies licensed to operate there has grown from one to 22.
The growing interest in Ethiopia comes at a time when the leading countries for international adoption – China, Guatemala and Russia – are, respectively, tightening eligibility requirements, under scrutiny for corruption in its adoption system, or closing the borders to American agencies.
Ethiopia’s sudden popularity comes with risks, say government officials in both countries.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to handle it,” said Haddush Halefom, an official at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which oversees adoption. “We don’t have the capacity to handle all these new agencies and we have to monitor the quality, not just the quantity.”
Capping the number of agencies is one solution. And that is what some international adoption officials in the United States are now urging the Ethiopian government to do.
In May, the talk of the Ethiopian adoption chat rooms was Christian World Adoption, an established agency that gave three children to the wrong families.
That case prompted inquiries by the U.S. State Department and the nonprofit Joint Council on International Children’s Services in Virginia, a child welfare and advocacy organization, and the adoption agency itself, Thomas DiFilipo, president of the joint council, said.
Officials at Christian World Adoption did not reply to e-mail messages or telephone calls. But DiFilipo said the agency is reviewing its procedures and has hired immigration attorneys to reverse adoptions if that is what the families wish.
Two elements distinguish Ethiopia’s adoption system, according to dozens of experts. One is the existence of transitional homes for orphans, in the countryside and in the capital, that are paid for by American agencies. These provide services and staffing rare in the developing world.
Not long ago, Sandra Iverson, a nurse practitioner from the nation’s first international adoption clinic, at the University of Minnesota, was invited to visit the Children’s Home Society’s Ethiopian centers
The other signature of Ethiopian adoption is that adopting families are encouraged to meet birth families and visit the villages where the children were raised