It’s taken 14 years and a lot of suffering by adoptive parents to get here—but in July 2014, a new United States law came into effect that requires all U.S. adoption agencies to be federally reviewed and accredited in order to help American families adopt children from other countries.
Sound obvious? It wasn’t. For years, international adoption was the Wild West, almost entirely beyond the reach of federal regulation. That’s because, for more than a century, the vast majority of adoptions took place domestically, usually arranged by religious or child welfare groups, overseen by individual states, which have traditionally been in charge of family law. But private and international adoption grew exponentially over the last several decades—and the federal government is only now catching up.
That regulatory lag means that scores of American adoption agencies were able to sell their services directly to hopeful parents on the principle of caveat emptor, with no direct federal oversight or regulation—working in countries that were far beyond the reach of their official state regulators. Americans trying to adopt from popular source countries like Russia, Guatemala, Vietnam, and Cambodia may not have realized it, but some agencies were sending money to poor countries in ways that induced fraud and corruption, leading the unscrupulous local “facilitators” to defraud, coerce, buy, and even abduct children from their birth families, for personal profit.
In the case of inter-country adoptions, far too often, orphans were “produced” by unscrupulous middlemen who would persuade desperately poor, uneducated, often illiterate villagers whose culture had no concept of permanently severing biological ties to send their children away.
Of course, some agencies operated according to the highest ethical standards—but not all. And neither hopeful parents nor state governments were in a position to figure out which agencies were which. One country after another became an adoption hot spot, as a healthy and necessary adoption program for truly needy children became too popular—and locals would figure out how much money could be made by “finding” (or creating) “orphans.” And the U.S. government had no tools, or inadequate tools, with which to separate the truly humanitarian adoptions from the illicit trade. Prompted in part by the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism’s articles on this subject, Congress finally passed a law closing important regulatory loopholes, which President Obama signed on January 1, 2012.
The new U.S. law, the Universal Accreditation Act of 2012, came into effect very late for Ethiopia, one of the most recent adoption hot spots. Because the Schuster Institute has been reporting on the problem of fraud and corruption in international adoption since 2008, we had previously heard that Ethiopia was shot through with problems. The number of children adopted each year had spiked dangerously, from 165 in 2001 to 2,511 in 2010, an exponential increase. And so, in 2010, we submitted a Freedom of Information Act request, asking the U.S. State Department for any documents from the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa that mentioned adoptions from 2000 onward.
It took four years to get an answer—but here’s what we found.*
WHAT WILL BECOME OF THE AIDS ORPHANS?
“What Will Become of Africa’s AIDS Orphans?” read the headline on the New York Times Magazine’s December 22, 2002, cover story. The article, by reporter Melissa Fay Greene, told the story of a group of orphans in Ethiopia whose parents had died of AIDS, and who had been rejected by their extended families and communities because of the stigma attached to the disease that killed their parents. The children were living in Layla House, an orphanage in Addis Ababa run by an American adoption agency, Adoption Advocates International. Greene wrote that an estimated “million” Ethiopian children were AIDS orphans, “most of whom end up living on the streets,” and quoted others predicting that most of them would become domestic servants—slaves, really—or child prostitutes.