Ethiopia is vowing to put a stop to what has been described as a 'free for all' in the adoption of its children by foreigners. But cleaning up a system rife with fraud and deception will require international assistance to fight well-entrenched and well-financed interests.
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As the focus of adoptive parents has shifted to Ethiopia, so have many of the troubles that forced shutdowns in other places. And as with many poor countries, Ethiopia has proven ill-equipped to handle unscrupulous actors chasing the large sums Westerners are willing to pay for the perfect child.
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Adoptive parent support groups have sprung up on the internet sharing horror stories of their experiences with a few disreputable agencies and orphanages in Ethiopia. Parents report being lied to at many stages of the process, including about the condition or age of their child, about hidden fees, or even whether the child is a true orphan.
Federal judge Rahila Abbas presides over Ethiopia's only court handling adoption cases. She admits there is little the court can do to fight fraud, even when she suspects witnesses are lying, and that officially certified documents presented to the court are false.
"Some families prefer to lie about their history," she said. "I think the reason [is] they are destitute. I think that is the reason why they lie about one of the parents have died or absent. They lie. Maybe later it will be found, but the authorities couldn't know each child's history, because they are not going to their home. They simply bring witness saying my husband died. [We] have to believe the witness, [we] can't do anything about it."
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Ethiopian officials have announced plans to set out non-Hague accredited agencies and shut down dozens of orphanages. But they say they are not ready to set a definite time frame.
The United Nations children's agency UNICEF is working with the government to improve safeguards in the system. Doug Webb, chief of child protection at UNICEF's Addis Ababa office, says tasks such as closing orphanages must be done carefully to avoid unnecessary dislocation of vulnerable children.
"If orphanages are closed too quickly, children are de-institutionalized badly, and we've seen that in many different contexts. It's not easy to do. We were very concerned and quick to be ready with technical assistance with the Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Women's Affairs to provide them with the tools, and we've just in the past couple weeks received an official request to help with this de-institutionalization process," said Webb.
Webb says he is hopeful Ethiopia may turn out to be a story of success in cleaning up a broken system without taking the drastic step of shutting it to intercountry adoptions.
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Ethiopian officials shy away from setting deadlines, but express confidence that with international help, they can fix the system. As child rights protection director Mahadir Bitow put it, "we have the commitment, we have the information, so within a [certain period] of time, we will stop this illegal practice."
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