By Andrew Geoghegan | ABC
Since Angelina Jolie adopted her daughter Zahara in 2005, the number of Americans adopting Ethiopian children has quadrupled.
A pop-media obsession with celebrities adopting children in Africa has resulted in a queue of adopting foreigners dealing with opportunistic adoption agents in operating in a regulatory vaccuum. In Ethiopia – and beyond – its creating a heartbreaking mess.
International adoptions may seem like an ideal solution to the dreadful deprivation among the young in Ethiopia and the often impossible circumstances confronting parents trying to feed and raise their children.
The reality though, is far from ideal.
Some adopting parents suspect or discover the new child they’ve taken in is not an orphan as they’d been assured. The child may also have a litany of health problems that has been covered up by corrupt officials.
Also many ‘relinquishing’ Ethiopian parents or carers may have been duped into giving up their children through a heartless process called ‘harvesting’ and can’t hope to re-establish contact with them.
Ethiopia has 5 million orphans needing homes and the United States has millions of homes needing babies. Africa Correspondent Andrew Geoghegan and producer Mary Ann Jolley, discover it’s not a simple mathematical equation or zero sum game. There are virtually no government regulations or policing of the process. Many international adoption agencies flashing Christian credentials are taking advantage of the situation. Corruption, fraud and deception are rife.
Foreign Correspondent follows a Florida couple in their mid fifties as they travel to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, to pick up their three adopted children, aged three, four and six. It’s a gut wrenching moment when they meet the birth mother who has come to the orphanage to say a final goodbye to her children. This transaction appears above board but it’s all too common for Ethiopian parents to give up their children for international adoption after being coerced by adoption agencies.
Foreign Correspondent investigates the activities of one of the biggest American agencies operating in Ethiopia. In a remote village in the country’s south, the agency openly recruits children with parents. Each child offered for adoption is then filmed for a DVD catalogue which in turn is shipped out to potential adoptive parents.
A world away in California a mother of one – looking for a brother for her son – chooses from a CWA DVD catalogue. The agency’s sales pitch promised a healthy, abandoned child, but that could not have been further from the truth. Her story is tragic and disturbing and exposes the callousness of the profit oriented international adoption business
A group of grieving mothers who have given up their children for international adoption gather at an orphanage to tell their stories. All claim they were told by adoption agencies they would receive regular information about the whereabouts and wellbeing of their children, but have heard nothing.
It’s a thought-provoking edition of Foreign Correspondent and a must watch for anyone considering adopting a child from another country or who has celebrated the apparent social consciousness of Hollywood A-listers.
Click here to watch the documentary.
GEOGHEGAN: Palm Beach Florida is home to Christian couple Tim and Joni Gooley. He’s a pastor, she’s a school guidance counsellor. They’re empty nesters in their mid-50’s, looking to do some good in the world.
JONI GOOLEY: “We kept looking around our house saying we’re not Bill Gates or someone like that where we can contribute a large amount of money, but what we have is a home and we have bedrooms.”
TIM GOOLEY: “Right. We’ve been blessed with a lot and especially … compared to the rest of the world.”
GEOGHEGAN: The Gooley’s have four adult sons, the youngest Taylor is home from college on holidays, but they’re not done with child rearing just yet. They’re getting ready to welcome not one but three new children.
TIM GOOLEY: “It did go from one to two to three. It was never one but in people’s eyes around, our friends, they went oh two are you kidding? Three are you nuts? And so it progressed.”
JONI GOOLEY: “But you certainly couldn’t imagine breaking the three kids up.”
TIM GOOLEY: “No.”
GEOGHEGAN: Behailu, Meskeren and Endale are siblings aged three, four and six and live in an orphanage in Ethiopia.
JONI GOOLEY: [Looking at picture] “This is Meskeren. Now look at her. She looks like a little movie star.”
TIM GOOLEY: “Yes, she does.”
GEOGHEGAN: They’re expecting challenges but the Gooleys believe their faith will bridge any cultural divide.
JONI GOOLEY: “Our culture is our family culture. Our culture is the Gooley culture. You know we’ve raised four boys, we have a culture within our home that has to do with loving God, respecting each other, caring for each other – that kind of stuff.”
GEOGHEGAN: After a year of paperwork, the Gooleys are finally on their way to collect their new children. It’s a sixteen hour flight to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa but a universe away from the family’s life in the US. Gabriel Gooley, their eldest son, has flown in from Europe and is on hand to meet his parents. There’s no time to digest the dramatic differences. The family is off to the orphanage, an hour outside the city.
(AT THE ORPHANAGE)
As the family gets to know the children, a woman watches on. This is the children’s birth mother. The Gooley’s were told by their Florida based adoption agency that she’s very sick with HIV but today, even with the emotional turmoil, she looks remarkably strong.
ORPHANAGE: “She said I can’t take care of them anymore. I don’t have anything to feed them so I don’t want to see them die so that’s how she gave them to us.”
GEOGHEGAN: The orphanage claims it normally only accepts orphans but in the case of these three children, it says it made an exception because the mother couldn’t look after them and begged the orphanage to take them. The children are now legally the Gooley’s. The mother’s compensation – a photograph to remember them by.
ORPHANAGE: “So we have a picture for her framed and we’re going to give her as a gift.”
JONI GOOLEY: [To birth mother] “And also we consider it a privilege for her to share her children.
That was one of the most dramatic things I’ve ever been part of, but I know how much she must love them and I respect that [hugging and crying with birth mother].”
TIM GOOLEY: “God is a huge God. He wants to care for his people and his children and he has given us that task – the world that task. Whether you’re Madonna or whether you’re Joni Gooley, it is there for the doing.”
GEOGHEGAN: Ethiopia has become a fertile ground for international adoptions. It’s estimated thirty children leave the country a week. Across the city, hotel foyers have become clearing houses, departure lounges for many families and their adopted children. This is the scene in just one hotel in Addis Ababa. And the website You Tube is plastered with new parents’ home movies.
The crude reality is that children have become a big Ethiopian export. A child welfare agency here estimates international adoptions are generating revenue for the government of around one hundred million dollars a year, and the government is showing now sign that it is going to jeopardise that income for the sake of the children.
Ethiopia is not a signatory to the Hague Convention which requires international adoption be used only as a last resort. So as a result, a completely unregulated industry has grown up. More than 70 agencies operate here, almost half are unregistered. Corruption, fraud and deception are rife. The unscrupulous practices of this industry alarm one of the country’s top human rights lawyers, Mehari Maru.
MEHARI MURU: “I have heard several words which I don’t accept in these adoption processes, ‘harvesting’ is one of them is…. completely wrong, that you harvest the child for adoptive parents.”
CWA WOMAN: “If you want your family to be adopted by a family in America, you may stay. If you do not want your child to go to America, you should take your child away.”
GEOGHEGAN: This active drafting of children from families for the international adoption market is harvesting.
CWA WOMAN: “We know that you love your children.”
GEOGHEGAN: The American agency, Christian World Adoptions or CWA is one of the most active. Here a CWA staffer is seen recruiting children in a remote village in Ethiopia’s south, where evangelical Christianity prevails.
CWA WOMAN: “These are two cute brothers.”
GEOGHEGAN: There are five million orphans in this country, but few here. Most of these children have parents.
CWA WOMAN: Meragene has some kind of infection on his face. The Mum says it should clear up somewhat…
GEOGHEGAN: Child by child, family by family, they roll up for their photo opportunity and what amounts to a sales pitch by the CWA staffer.
CWA STAFFER: [On video tape] “This is Tegegne Bekere, he’s a little abandoned child and this kind man and his wife have taken him in and are helping him out but he needs a family. We think he’s about three years old.”
GEOGHEGAN: CWA’s sale pitch is mailed across the United States to families inquiring about Ethiopian adoptions. Californian couple, Lisa Boe and her husband Frank, chose Tegegne Bekere from CWA’s January 2007 DVD catalogue.
LISA BOE: “They run about six to eight hours and I sat and watched every child but there was one little boy and he was introduced as an abandoned child who was looking and needed a mummy and he was just this tiny, beautiful little boy. Big eyes and he looked just horrified and I just fell in love with him.”
GEOGHEGAN: Lisa Boe was assured – guaranteed – that the little boy was an orphan, but it didn’t take long before she had doubts.
LISA BOE: “There was a picture of the people that had found him and there’s a man and a woman in the picture, I point to the woman and he calls her ‘mamma’.
I would have never…. never brought home a child that has a mum…. never.”
EYOB KOLCHA: [Kingdom Vision International Orphanage] “I didn’t understand clearly what was happening then because I was an employee and I was there to obey and to do what I was told to do and when I see today, it is completely unacceptable because you cannot go to the community and announce, ‘oh we are here today to talk about adoption’. The children are in their community…. they need to be supported there first.”
GEOGHEGAN: Eyob Kolcha quit his job at Christian World Adoptions in December 2007 after more than a year with them. He’s still in the Internet and adoption business and runs an orphanage in Addis Ababa.
EYOB KOLCHA: “It was considered good for the children in the community and that people. So they were informed that they would go to America and they would live with families. There was no information before that time. There was no information after that.”
GEOGHEGAN: “Did their parents realise that they were now legally someone else’s children?”
EYOB KOLCHA: “They didn’t understand that. Even I don’t think most people, most parents understand even elsewhere in Ethiopia right now.”
GEOGHEGAN: “It’s the commercialisation of children isn’t it? At what point does that then become trafficking?”
MEHARI MARU: “If a parent or a guardian gives this consent without supplied information to them, then there is a problem it will fall under trafficking.”
GEOGHEGAN: Foreign Correspondent contacted CWA’s United States headquarters many times during the course of filming this story, seeking a response to claims it harvests children and is involved in corrupt practices, but the agency did not respond. We had little choice but to go underground.
[Hidden camera] When we visited CWA’s office in Addis Ababa posing as potential adoptive parents, case worker Aster Hiruye denied the agency harvests children.
“You know you don’t go to communities and say, do you want to give up your child for instance?”
ASTER HIRUYE: “No, we never do that, never. And we can’t do that.”
GEOGHEGAN: “That’s illegal is it?”
ASTER HIRUYE: “That’s illegal. That’s against the law.”
GEOGHEGAN: Across the city, the Gooley’s have custody of their three children and are staying at a guesthouse with several other American families who have also adopted Ethiopian children through various agencies.
The families offer one another support but the guesthouse also offers a discreet location. The Gooley’s Florida based adoption agency had warned the family that international adoptions are a sensitive issue for ordinary Ethiopians.
Most agencies discourage adoptive parents from spending too much time in Ethiopia, just a few days to arrange visas through their embassies. Some adoptive parents don’t even bother to make the trip. They have their children delivered by an escort service.
At an orphanage in the town of Nazret a couple of hundred kilometres west of the capital, mothers have come to tell their stories.
WOUBALEM WORKU: “My name is Woubalem Worku. I gave one son for adoption and I have two children left. I was not able to raise him, that’s why I gave him up, but I wish him all the best wherever he is. I want to see him in person, or at least a photo.”
MOTHER #2: “I do not regret. But when the lady took him away she said she would let me know his address. She said she’d assist me and my other kids when she took him away. At that time I was homeless [crying]. Until now, I’ve heard nothing. It’s almost 3 years.”
MUNERA AHMED: “I have no words to express my feelings and my anguish about what happened to my children, and what I did. As a mother, not to be able to know my kids’ situation hurts me so much. I have no words, no words, to express my emotions. I even regret the day I gave up my children for adoption. That’s how I feel.
GEOGHEGAN: Munera Ahmed gave up two sons, one twelve months old and the other five after her husband left. When her family found out, they took her remaining daughter, leaving her alone and filled with regret. She has no idea what’s happened to her adopted children, despite assurances from the agency that she’d be kept informed.
MUNERA AHMED: “I was told I’d have up to date information about my kids every 3 months. They also said they would educate my little daughter. It was on this basis and belief that I gave up my children to the organisation.”
GEOGHEGAN: Minara Armid has made the three hour journey to Addis Ababa her children were adopted through the Canadian Agency, Kids Link, and she’s come to the office today because she wants information about where and how her children are.
[To man at agency] “She had two children, adopted out and she was promised information about what had happened to them, where they’d gone and how they are, but she has been given nothing.”
MAN AT AGENCY: “They just left the office”.
MUNERA AHMED: “But they were here just now. I saw them from over there.”
GEOGHEGAN: Since our visit, the agency has gone bankrupt and closed its doors. Minara Armid may never trace her children.
MUNERA AHMED: “The manager is not a bird. She cannot fly. She cannot fly out of the building.”
MAN AT AGENCY: “Come back tomorrow at 3pm. Goodbye.”
GEOGHEGAN: Janesville, Northern California is remote and quiet. It’s home to just a few thousand people including now Tegegne Bekere, the little boy we met earlier. He started his new life with a new name, Zane Boe. Lisa Boe and her husband Frank have a son of their own, but they wanted a brother for Zach. A heart problem ruled out any plans for another pregnancy and a foster child they’d taken in died of SIDS. Lisa Boe met Zane for the first time at the Christian World Adoption home in Addis Ababa in April 2008.
LISA BOE: “All of a sudden they brought this beautiful little boy, they’d got him in their arms. I could tell that he’d been you know… kind of ruffled up, and she was carrying him tight and she came and she stood him before me and I kneeled down to meet him and I was just surprised when he couldn’t stand.”
GEOGHEGAN: The healthy child she’d been promised by CWA was not. Far from it.
LISA BOE: “Okay in the morning he takes Trileptal which is for his seizures…. anti-seizure medication. His problems are he has cerebral palsy. He has microcephaly… he has a cyst in his left lobe of his brain that’s very large and takes up a greater portion of his left lobe. He has seizures…. He’s better with medication but he has food aversion….. he has tremors from head to toe…. His eye bounces non-stop. He is going blind in his left eye. His legs and feet are crippled and turn inward and they’re tightening due to the cerebral palsy.
[With court documents] Look at this, the medicals that went through court… says that he’s perfectly healthy. There’s no deformities, no problems, no apparent neurological deficits.”
GEOGHEGAN: When Lisa Boe confronted the CWA doctor in Ethiopia about the false information, he showed her his notes referring Zane for specialist medical tests for his eyes and his legs.
LISA BOE: “Here is the eye referral that they say doesn’t exist.”
GEOGHEGAN: These are erased from Zane’s official medical records.
LISA BOE: “And here’s the paper where they even used white-out over somebody else’s name…. put his name over it.”
GEOGHEGAN: [Hidden camera] “Well there are some serious allegations.”
When we tracked down the doctor at a hospital in Addis Ababa he told us he couldn’t remember the case, but claims that CWA had pressured him on a number of occasions to change records, most notably the age of the children. He no longer works for the agency.
Lisa Boe is now struggling with a seriously ill child and mounting medical bills.
LISA BOE: “His three medications alone per month is over $749 per month.
I would say that they need to drop Christian from their name. They are not being honest. They are doing things for profit.”
GEOGHEGAN: Had she known the extent of Zane’s medical problems, Lisa Boe admits she probably wouldn’t have gone ahead with the adoption.
LISA BOE: “We had actually discussed getting a disabled child when we were adopting and we had decided because our prior son that we were trying to adopt passed away and it would have been well beyond what we could take. We had already had a huge heartbreak. The prognosis for Zane shortens his life and the thought of burying another child is well beyond what I can do…. [very upset] I’m sorry.”
GEOGHEGAN: The Gooley’s eight day stay in Ethiopia is almost over and the orphanage’s church is giving them and the children a send off.
TIM GOOLEY: “They’re our children. They’re all our children.”
ORPHANAGE: “I would say it’s a sad moment and a happy moment. It’s a kind of a bitter- sweet experience for us. We believe that you are a good family and we are happy about that. The Lord is good.”
GEOGHEGAN: It’s a sobering moment for the Gooley’s, but there are no second thoughts. They’re convinced that they’re doing the right thing by the children.
TIM GOOLEY: “This is really an act of God that we were placed in this place at this time with these kids and that he’s working from both sides of the Atlantic on caring for these kids.”
JONI GOOLEY: “We’re our brother’s keeper and it really hit me when I talked to the mum for a while, just myself, and tried to tell her that you’re still their mother and I’m their mother, that we’re all helping each other in this world. She’s going through some tough times. Maybe when they’re nineteen I hope I would have the courage to say if you want to go back and move to Ethiopia, let’s go back.”
GEOGHEGAN: For now though the children must adapt to a new family and a new world. And their mother has to deal with the loss and the choice she made.