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Adoption – What’s New?

Adoption--What's New?

By Mitiku Adisu
Ethiopian adoption could be turning a corner. The talk now is to “avoid overseas adoption” and in as much as possible to care “for orphans near their birthplace”. This is not a novel idea as it has always been part and parcel of the treaty for international adoptions. What then accounts for this change of heart? It could be the result of pressure coming from rights groups. It could also be a creative endeavor on the part of Ethiopian government in these economically trying times to divert to local institutions the substantial sum of money changing hands in the name of adopting orphan populations. At any rate, the “new” idea is now dubbed the “Bantu Model” [Bantu being a village in Ethiopia]. We are told the model is already showing promising results and will soon be replicated internationally. Interestingly, this all sounds very much the lingo of foreign aid organizations. And foreign aid hasn’t always been the appropriate tool for nurturing individual and institutional responsibility.

An experimental program is presently underway between the government of Ethiopia and a faith-based U.S. charity [the Buckner Foundation out of Texas] shepherded by U.S. Ambassador Susan Jacobs and Senator Mary Landrieu of the State of Louisiana. It is interesting that the “new” approach came up at a time when US international adoptions are declining having reached peak years in 2004 at 22,990 and falling to 12,753 in 2009.

Context matters if we are to make sense especially of child adoption from Ethiopia. And so the first thing to note is that adoption has always been from poor communities to wealthier ones [generally from non-European to European]. There was a story in the early 1970s where a local Oromo farmer in Ambo, Ethiopia “adopted” two children of Baptist missionaries that had wandered off as the couple picnicked nearby. The whereabouts of the children was never discovered until their teen years who by then have in every way become Oromo save for their skin color. Anyone could guess what sorrow was inflicted upon the couple by cultural mores that did not consider the children’s rights or those of birth parents.

Inter-racial adoption in the U.S. remains a contentious issue often touching upon a raw nerve harking back to trans-Atlantic African slave trade. Another incident is the Korean War [1950-1953] at the end of which a problem arose concerning children sired by returning members of U.S. armed forces. This period might well be the beginning of inter-country adoptions and emergence of agencies that specialized in consular, legal, social-cultural, etc, matters. Over the years the issue has been compounded by rising infertility, epidemics, trafficking, child molestation, trade in body parts, bureaucratic red tape, and racially-biased costs [adopting Ethiopian children costs less than adopting Chinese, Russian or Peruvian children].

And yet another aspect is “adoption culture war” shaping up in the U.S. [Christianity Today, May 2010] between pro- and anti-abortion groups. The inclination of some secular groups to pounce on anything Christian is a part of such war. Evangelicals are largely in the anti-abortion [pro-life] camp. The recent increased interest in international adoption by Evangelicals is partly due to an emerging consensus that merely being anti-abortion [or pro-life] is too narrow a position and needs to be leveraged. Hence, the shift to running orphanages, schools, and clinics. Consequently, the battle cry has become “not just pro-life but also pro-child”; not just anti-gay or anti-same-sex adoptions but active involvement in local and global issues. How long after birth or who else the movement would include remains to be clearly defined.

Adoption for some is explained in terms of preparing future missionaries [or democracy-trained citizens] for countries of origin. The assumptions here are loaded and raise few questions. Is it possible that an orphan of Ethiopian origin brought up in a non-Ethiopian culture is better positioned to bring home the ideals of democracy and/or the Christian gospel? Will the training of natives abroad to send them back as missionaries replace the short-term missionary [just as the short-term missionary is fast supplanting the long-term missionary]? And even more importantly, will adoptees want to return home? Assuming they would what are the chances they will have retained local cultures and languages?

Another interesting fact is that the intense involvement in international adoptions by Evangelicals is no more than five years old [2007 being the watershed year]. Though the scriptural mandate [James 1:27] was there all along, the theological rationale for adoptions, orphan-care [widows? the old? single moms?] is still in the beginning stages. Reading some of the articles and books being published [for example, Russell Moore’s Adopted for Life, 2009] makes one wonder if a crusade is not underway. Adoption is now a calling that demanded resolute obedience. We are not minimizing the gravity of the problem or effort put into it when we say this. And the problem is not in the good deed per se but in not doing enough or, more precisely, in not enabling target populations to clean up their mess. Ironically, those favoring less government locally tended to turn blind eye when it came to [more] governments abroad. We submit, lobbying and advocacy roles could be used effectively side-by-side to address the underlying causes for the rising orphan populations [which advocacy could range from environmental to foreign policy to corruption to human right abuses in target countries].

Adoption of this scale is less than a decade-old in Ethiopia’s long history –considering especially the kind of money and number of agencies lined up to finalize the process. Something has gone wrong and gone wrong real bad. Ethiopian adoptions to the U.S. alone registered a jump from 42 in 1999 to 2,277 in 2009 [see chart] and surpassing China in 2010. The thing about global issues is that single items that often go unnoticed become shocking statistics when seen in context and as a unity. The same event seen from the view of individual adoptive families and countries of origin yield a hugely different picture! To illustrate what we mean, let us just follow the treaty agreement and calculate for costs for the years indicated. According to U.S. government report ending FY 2009 the number of adoptees between FY2005 and FY2009 totaled 6,428. Following Schuster Institute median fee structure of approximately $30,000 per child returns a whopping $192,840,000. And this is only the U.S. side of the story.
Who got what chunk of money is not the purpose of this post. We realize those monies sure would include attorney fees, fees to recruiters, to orphanages, to government bureaus etc, not forgetting some change for local handlers. It is possible with due diligence to ferret out what sum went where. Nor is it our aim to make a blanket statement against the good individuals are engaged in though we will not hide our preference for activities that would help strengthen local resourcefulness and decision-making. At any rate, we believe Christian service ought not to be seasonal or latched onto local cultural politics [rather “in season and out of season” which requires patience and may not always yield the desired result]. It is not outside the bounds of this post, therefore, to ask what became of abstinence programs? WWJD? Redeeming slaves in Sudan? For some reason such activities tend to be picked up at will and quickly dropped. Something is fundamentally wrong, don’t you say? Quick fix projects to “go in, get out, and change venue” may look practical and an effective fund-rasing strategy but not necessarily the mark of a disciple of Christ. We are talking about sustained commitment.

To get back to Ethiopian adoptions, one worrying poll by Gallup [August 2010] showed that, if unattended, Ethiopia may soon be losing nearly half of its adult population to migration!

As for change of heart, there appears to have been a widespread problem enforcing the laws. And then there is corruption and stories of orphans with a living parent[s] or relative, stories of “bribed” relative or parent, etc. Often the aim of adoption agencies became finding children for families, not families for needy children. There were also evidence of child molestation [we realize such incidents are few and far in between with few more unreported; from the child’s view, however, one incident of molestation is already one too many]. The unfortunate thing is that “Christian” Adoption agencies have not been immune to cases of corruption.

Child adoption is as old as Ethiopia itself. The idea and practice of orphanages is essentially related to urbanization, poverty and recurring wars. Four decades or so ago there were probably no more than a handful of orphanages, centers for the disabled and remand homes in the entire country and these run by the state or religious individuals and/or organizations. Today, there are several hundreds the rise in number correlating to activities of agencies abroad and to world wide adoption market [and shrewd marketing by adoption agencies]. The latter is, as suggested earlier, tinged with untidy practices. Ethiopian and U.S. governments are probably attempting to bring a semblance of order to the process. Could this in turn drive the untidiness underground now that it is realized to be a lucrative business?

To grasp Ethiopian reality one needs to familiarize oneself with three terms: YaKristna Lijj, Maddago, Ya Tutt Lijj/Gudiffacha. Maddago is where for various reasons a child is brought up by a relative or a total stranger within the larger cultural milieu. Ya Tutt Lijj is where the child is unrelated to the adoptive parent and the adoptive parent promises to bring up the child as his or her own by dipping his or her thumb in honey and suckling the adopted child. YaKristna Lijj is where the godparent takes the responsibility of overseeing that the child is properly instructed in matters of the faith. There was a time no so long ago when, even in the midst grinding poverty, people took care of each other. That is may be the one thing missing. Part of the reason has to do with the politicization of ethnicity and a rising gap in wealth distribution. And the solutions? We believe solutions ought to come primarily from within Ethiopian society. Ultimately, it will depend if national leaders are willing to make child issue a national priority and not simply use it for political end or to dodge their responsibility especially to the most vulnerable in society. Let us hope current activities signal a change of policy.

Let us also remember children in our part of the world are insurance for parents in old age. A mother would be expecting her son or daughter to come home or to take care of her from wherever they happen to be residing. To die knowing one has a son or a daughter who for one reason or another would not be giving a helping hand is the height of sorrow and pain. Earlier posts here here.