In 2009, a van from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, carrying seven young children and babies, was stopped as it drove outside the rural, central Ethiopian town of Shashemene. The children in the van were wards of Better Future Adoption Services (BFAS), a U.S. adoption agency, and had been declared abandoned—their families unknown—in the capital city of Addis Ababa. Police outside Shashemene arrested seven adults riding in the van, including five BFAS employees. The staff, it appeared to some, had sought to process children who had living family as though they had been abandoned in another region of the country, so that their adoptions to the U.S. could proceed more quickly.
At the time, Ethiopia was in the midst of a dramatic international adoption boom, with the number of adoptions to U.S. parents rising from a few hundred per year in 2004 to more than 2,000 five years later, and around 4,000 worldwide.The boom had brought substantial revenue into the country, as agencies and adoptive parents supported newly-established orphanages that became an attractive child care option for poor families; some agencies paid fees to “child finders” locating adoptable children; and the influx of Western adoption tourism brought money that trickled down to hotels, restaurants, taxi-drivers and other service industries.
Also with the boom came early warning signs of adoption fraud and corruption. Before the van was stopped near Shashemene, there had been a glut of abandonment adoptions being processed in Addis Ababa. The number of adoption cases where the parents were said to be unknown had caught the attention of Ethiopia’s First Instance Court, the body responsible for approving international adoptions. The court announced a temporary suspension on processing abandonment cases that originated in the capital until it could investigate further. For some agencies, the news was likely a blow, forecasting long wait times to process adoptions and frustrated clients in the U.S. But there was a way around: the court would continue to hear cases for children abandoned in other parts of Ethiopia.
One of the children transported in the van would later be adopted by a Christian couple just outside Nashville: 31-year-old Jessie Hawkins, a health and wellness author, and her 38-year-old husband, Matthew, a marketing executive. The Hawkinses had chosen BFAS as a protection against corrupt adoptions, assuming that because an Ethiopian woman living in the United States, Agitu Wodajo, ran it, the agency would operate more ethically than those lacking a local connection. Wodajo’s public professions of Christian faith reassured them as well.
Before the children were moved, BFAS notified Hawkins and the adoptive families they were taking the children to a cleaner and safer orphanage. Wodajo later claimed to me that the children were moved not to change their paperwork but because a colleague of a BFAS staffer who wanted to establish his own orphanage had asked to “borrow” some BFAS children to pose as his wards so he could obtain a license. The U.S. families didn’t learn until much later that the party had actually been arrested.
But there were earlier indications that the children’s paperwork at BFAS was a fluid matter. An e-mail from BFAS to U.S. adoptive families that July said that the agency was trying to locate children’s birth families in case the court decree didn’t allow them to be processed as abandoned. “If [the birth families] are willing, your children will be filed for court as a family member relinquishment and not as an abandonment,” the letter read. “So, BFAS is waiting for one of two things. 1) For the court to open their doors to new abandonment cases or 2) For birth families to relinquish the children so we can file immediately.” It seemed like an acknowledgement that the agency would pursue whatever avenue was quickest.
Hawkins herself was told different stories about the daughter she had committed to adopt, a four-year-old girl who had been declared abandoned and whose mother BFAS now said they were trying to find. “This is when I started to get suspicious,” Hawkins told me. “I thought, if you’re so confident she was abandoned, why are you trying to find her birth mother now?” But, she continued, “You get attached to this child and you’re basically at [the agency’s] mercy at this point. You believe these children are abandoned, orphaned, and you’re willing to do whatever or you’ll lose this child and they’ll live there forever.”
In the weeks that passed, while the children were said to be on the road, Hawkins and the other families grew close, comparing stories of what they’d been told. Some parents heard that nannies working at BFAS were in fact the mothers of some children being relinquished for adoption. In emails Wodajo sent to prospective clients, she wrote that they might be able to adopt infants as young as two months old because they were working with pregnant girls. But as rumors spread that their adoptions would be terminated or libel lawsuits filed if they pushed too hard, a hush fell over the group.
When Hawkins was finally called to Ethiopia to finalize her adoption, the BFAS staff there reassured her that her daughter had indeed been abandoned. But after the girl came to the United States she began acting out, behaving violently toward a set of baby dolls she had gotten for Christmas and systematically shattering glasses she found in the kitchen. A few months later, when she had learned some English, the daughter pointed to a picture of the orphanage that Hawkins had taped to her bedroom wall and told her, “When I lived there, I missed my mom.”
Hawkins responded, “‘Honey, that’s nice of you, but you didn’t know me then.’ And then she kind of looks at me like she’s afraid she was going to be in trouble, and you could see her really choosing her words with the little bit of English she had. And she said, ‘You know, I have another mom.’”
“I can’t even begin to put into words what that feels like,” Hawkins told me. “Finding out that you have someone else’s child simply because you happen to have been born in a country where you’re more privileged than they are? You want to throw up, you don’t know what to do.”
When Hawkins called BFAS to present this information, she reached Agitu Wodajo directly. Despite the many reassurances Hawkins had received in the past that the girl was abandoned, she said Wodajo replied without hesitation that yes, she had met the girl’s mother herself.
Hawkins hired several searchers—private investigators who have found steady work helping adoptive parents research the circumstances of their child’s adoption—to try to find the mother, and even tried bribing BFAS nannies, but there wasn’t enough to go on. As more information about how BFAS operated came to light, Hawkins had difficulty absorbing it all. The first time she read the word “trafficking” in relation to the agency, which was stripped of its Ethiopian registration in late 2010, she had to sit down. “When my daughter cries herself to sleep that she misses her birth mother, having given birth before, I know that there’s someone else on the other side of the world doing the same thing. And I have her daughter. I love my daughter, and selfishly, I want to keep her forever. I want there to be this great story behind it about a child who needed a home and got one. But a lot of times I feel like we’ve done something wrong.”
Hawkins and the other families were far from the only ones who experienced the ugly side of Ethiopian adoptions. Adoptive parents in the U.S. began to complain that when their children learned enough English to communicate, they talked about having other families; birth parents declared dead on adoption paperwork were sometimes alive; additional siblings might exist; children said to have been conceived from stranger rapes were in fact born to married couples. On some adoptees’ paperwork birth parents were simultaneously declared dead and unknown—a logical gap that could go unchallenged as paperwork wound its way through Ethiopia’s elaborate adoption bureaucracy.
Further, mothers in Ethiopia began coming to orphanages or government offices with questions and complaints about how adoption had been represented to them. Adoptive parents shared stories in online forums about visiting remote villages and being greeted by Ethiopian families desperate to get word about how their children were doing. It was a demonstration of one of the most significant problems with the adoption boom in Ethiopia: that the American understanding of adoption is not universal, and did not align with Ethiopia’s tradition of the concept, where parents may send children to wealthier relatives or guardians for better opportunities, but never sever parental ties.
In videos that agencies supplied to prospective adoptive parents, Ethiopian mothers were filmed proudly handing over children they had raised nearly to adolescence, smiling at the camera in a way that suggested they didn’t know what they were agreeing to. One prospective adoptive mother received such a video from her adoption agency, and when she hired a translator to interpret the Amharic conversation the agency had with the mothers of two unrelated children she wanted to adopt, the translator implored the woman not to proceed. “She said ‘Please, I beg you, do not go forward with this adoption. The mothers do not understand anything.’”
When adoptive families sought more information about how their children had been relinquished, and sometimes found stories that contradicted what their agencies had told them, they were devastated. “It feels terrible,” one adoptive mother told me. “Like you stepped on something solid and it turned to quicksand.” Another explained, “When you go to adopt, the last thing you imagine is going into some developing country and stealing someone’s child.”
Bit by bit the stories added up to a compelling body of evidence, and American officials started to look more closely at Ethiopian adoptions. In March 2010 the U.S. State Department, the body that investigates whether or not children are actually eligible for adoption as orphans, announced through its embassy in Addis Ababa that it was placing extra reviews on some adoptions. The embassy had been looking for patterns in the cases that came across their desks: the same social workers or police officers “finding” abandoned children in case after case, or multiple children from a single agency with similar background stories. It was the only tactic the State Department had at their disposal to counter potential corruption. The next month brought word that Ethiopia’s government was closing nine orphanages for providing inadequate child care and sending too many children for adoption. By the end of the year Ethiopia announced plans to shutter nearly 50 orphanages.
Also at the end of the year came news that the government had revoked the accreditation of Better Future Adoption Services, accusing it of child trafficking. Several months earlier, an Ethiopian newspaper called Sendek published an interview with a friend of the editor: BFAS’s former deputy country director, Abebe Tigabu. Tigabu had recently been let go from BFAS, and he denounced the agency in Sendek, accusing Wodajo of participating in numerous unethical adoption practices.
Tigabu, an attorney, elaborated to me that he had started working for BFAS after he advised them on getting charges dropped in the Shashemene case. He claimed he had helped get charges dismissed by offering bribes of laptops and cash to those involved in the cases’s prosecution. All of the Shashemene children, like Hawkins’s daughter, went on to be adopted to the United States, and Tigabu claims that Wodajo was so pleased with this result that she offered him a fulltime job. As country director, Tigabu claims, he witnessed children’s records changed so that they were adopted under false last names, thereby destroying their ability to track their heritage later. Further, he said female employees of the agency were heavily pressured to give their own children up for adoption—children who were later declared “abandoned.”
Children who had parents, he claimed, were recruited with promises that adoptive parents would give the birth families gifts or payments “and change your life even” if they formally relinquished custody in court. When that didn’t work, he claimed, the children’s paperwork was changed to allege they had been abandoned at an orphanage in another town. In that way, he said, “the adoption process is finalized in an easy way. There is no need for the family to appear at the court. They say . . . the parents are dead or that they abandoned the child and left the area.”
After the Sendek accusations came out, Wodajo promptly responded by denouncing Tigabu as a disgruntled former employee who was retaliating for having been fired for embezzlement. She denied the trafficking allegations and pointed to the victorious court verdict regarding the Shashemene trial. “Because of our Faith, ethical and professional background,” a BFAS statement read, “we had and will never ever be engaged in exploitation or use of children for exploitation under any circumstances.”
In December 2010 Ethiopia’s Charities and Societies Agency revoked Better Future’s license, citing involvement in child trafficking and falsifying documents. A printed notice was posted outside the CSA offices in downtown Addis Ababa, reading that BFAS had been closed and its property confiscated.
In a contentious phone interview in 2012, Wodajo expanded on her defense to me, arguing simply, “What happened was we hired the wrong person” and claiming that Tigabu had coached birth parents to lie to the government to get back at BFAS for being fired. She denied that BFAS had ever taken in pregnant women to relinquish their newborns and argued that when things had gone wrong on her watch, it was because she had been out of the country. But she fell mute when I asked whether that meant other agency employees, like Tigabu, had processed an unethical adoption.
“Nobody pressured nobody,” she said. “You know that there are over four million orphans in Ethiopia? You don’t need to go any wrong way to get a child.” She paused, then continued. “I know it is not a clean business. I know that very well.”
From the book The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption by Kathryn Joyce. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013. Support for the reporting in this piece came from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.