Adoption searchers -- specialized independent researchers working in a unique field that few outside the community of adoptive parents even know exists -- track down the birth families of children adopted from other counties. In Ethiopia, searching has arisen in response to a dramatic boom in international adoptions from the country in recent years. In 2010, Ethiopia accounted for nearly a quarter of all international adoptions to the U.S. The number of Ethiopian children adopted into foreign families in the U.S., Canada, and Europe has risen from just a few hundred several years ago to several thousand last year. The increase has been so rapid -- and, for some, so lucrative -- that some locals have said adoption was "becoming the new export industry for our country."
That increase has also brought stories of corruption, child trafficking, and fraud. Parents began to publicize the stories their adopted children told them when they learned English: that they had parents and families at home, who sometimes thought they were going to the U.S. to receive an education and then return. Media investigations have found evidence that adoption agencies had recruited children from intact families. Ethiopia's government found that some children's paperwork had been doctored to list children who had been relinquished by living parents as orphans instead, which allowed the agencies to avoid lengthy court vetting procedures.
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But, in the past several years, it's become increasingly difficult to find a searcher in Ethiopia. Tasked with determining whether an adopted child is a "manufactured orphan," searchers have faced intense intimidation in Ethiopia as its adoption system boomed and then came under international scrutiny. It took months to find adoptive families willing to share the name or contact information for searchers they had used. The first several times I emailed or called Samuel, he responded with trepidation, confirming with me repeatedly that I was not associated with any adoption agencies working in Ethiopia and that I wouldn't pass on his name or information to any agencies.
He had good reason to be cautious. In August 2010, Samuel was jailed for 41 days in the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray, which shares a hostile border with neighboring Eritrea. He had traveled to the region to film two birth family interviews, one of which Samuel says he did pro bono out of his respect for the family, which had adopted an HIV-positive child. When Samuel met the birth sister of one of the children whose story he was tracking, the local director of a U.S. adoption agency came along, and began accusing Samuel of giving the agency a bad name. (Out of fear of further repercussions, Samuel requested that the agency not be named.) Shortly thereafter, Samuel and his crew were arrested. While in jail, he was told that the arrest was made at the request of the agency, which had accused him of performing illegal adoptions and of filming the "bad side" of Ethiopia to sell to the Eritrean government. An employee of the agency was also arrested -- it's still not clear why -- as well as three of Samuel's friends and a translator.
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The role of searchers won't end any time soon, Samuel is certain. The thousands of Ethiopian children adopted by families in the U.S. and Europe over the last decade will grow up one day. They'll learn about the circumstances around adoption from Ethiopia in earlier years and will want to find out the truth of their background.
Kelly paid $900 in 2009 for her searcher and Samuel charges an average rate of $600. But Kelly has since heard that her searcher increased his rates, asking as much as $3000 to $4000 for a search. When rising demand and supply made adoption an important and rapidly growing source of money in a country that had little of it, even these investigators who are often at odds with agencies have found a place in the adoption economy.