Ethiopia has become one of the busiest adoption destinations in the world, thanks in part to loose controls that make it one of the fastest places to adopt a child. Nearly one out of five children adopted by Americans hailed from Ethiopia the past two years, second only to China.
Many youngsters, like Melesech, are thriving in loving homes. Still, the U.S. State Department has cautioned that Ethiopia's lax oversight, mixed with poverty and the perils of cross-cultural misunderstanding, leaves room for abuse.
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The experience recounted by Mel's biological father, Mathewos Delebo, shows many of the complexities. Mr. Delebo, a 38-year-old farmer, acknowledges freely giving up his youngest child for adoption. Earlier this year, in the mud-hut village of Le-barfeta in southeastern Ethiopia where he lives, he described why he did it.
Four years ago, he claimed, a stranger—a middleman in the adoption trade—came to his village and persuaded him to give up a child with the promise that she would grow up and send money to support him. "White people are taking children of the poor and helping them get a better life," Mr. Delebo said he was told. "It will be good for you."
Mr. Delebo claimed he didn't understand that he was giving up Mel for good, and thought that she would send money home. Mr. Delebo doesn't recall the middleman's name and hasn't seen him for years. [Later in the article it says, "First, Mr. Delebo said, he offered two of his sons, who were then about eight and nine. But the orphanage said it needed children younger than five. So he came back with Melesech."]
U.S. government officials say middlemen are often employed by orphanages to find adoption candidates. Mr. Delebo's middleman can't be found so there is no way to know his motives.
The middleman's alleged pitch had its appeal. Mr. Delebo's first wife, Mel's biological mother, died of malaria when Mel was a baby. Today Mr. Delebo, his second wife, and his six remaining children live on the 60 cents a day he earns building huts. Drought has ravaged his crops. The family subsists on maize flour, beans and wild bananas, which grow in abundance.
Mr. Delebo said he now suffers from malaria himself—the disease that killed Mel's birth mother. "I have the same illness," he said. "Sometimes I feel very hot and sometimes I feel very cold."
Despite mixed feelings over Mel's adoption, recently he wondered aloud if it might be a good idea to give up some of his other children. "When I see pictures of Melesech and how happy she looks," he said, referring to snapshots the Roths have given him, "I wish I could send my other children, too." Since the local middleman disappeared, he's not sure how to make that happen.
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Ethiopia isn't a signatory to The Hague Convention, a treaty to guarantee intercountry adoption is transparent and in a child's best interest. The country lacks infrastructure and personnel to regulate a process that usually begins deep in the countryside. Some of the largest and most reputable U.S. agencies adopt from Ethiopia.
A U.S. investigation of Ethiopian adoptions in 2009 and 2010 found inaccurate adoptee paperwork and orphanages using financial incentives to recruit children. The U.S. embassy found anecdotal evidence that scouts purporting to be state health workers weighed infants, then took them away from their parents on the pretext that the children weren't receiving adequate care. Ethiopian families often are solicited with promises that a relinquished child will become affluent and provide for the family left behind, said Ms. Jacobs, the U.S. adoption chief.
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