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Shifting policies, stigma complicate placement of ‘Ebola orphans’

By Jill Hodges, special to Humanosphere

A dozen years ago, a crisis like the Ebola outbreak might have led to a surge in international adoptions, as the AIDS epidemic did in Ethiopia.

The headlines from then and now are sadly similar:

What Will Become of Africa’s AIDS Orphans? (New York Times Magazine,  12/22/2002)

An Ebola Orphan’s Plea in Africa: ‘Do You Want Me?’ (New York Times, 12/14/2014)

What’s likely to be different this time is the response.

After the Times piece on AIDS orphans ran just before Christmas in 2002, adoptions to the US from Ethiopia spiked from 105 for that year to a high of 2511 in 2010. But today, growing efforts to stem corruption in international adoptions and to keep kids better connected to their birth families, communities and homelands emphasize domestic rather than international solutions for orphaned children.

Here’s why: Finding a way to allow a child to remain in his or her home country has always been a priority in theory, if not in practice. In recent years, that priority has received more attention, particularly as evidence of corruption in international adoption has continued to emerge.

An investigation into the adoption system in Ethiopia by E.J. Graff published recently in the Pacific Standard documents what has become an increasingly familiar cycle: A limited number of humanitarian adoptions sparked by a national crisis spirals into a far larger, high-stakes international market for adopted children that exceeds local authorities’ regulatory capacity.

Graff’s report suggests that what started as an effort to place kids who legitimately needed homes eventually morphed into a situation in which some individuals and organizations were trying to round up children for the lucrative international adoption market. The report includes correspondence from the US Embassy in Ethiopia noting evidence of deception, coercion and bribery of birth mothers to feed the flow of healthy babies available for adoption on the international market.

Until recently, US authorities’ ability to address problems in the countries where adoptions originated was limited if the country had not signed the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, an international agreement that took force in the US in 2008.

The Convention prioritizes finding placements for children in their home countries and includes protections against selling and trafficking children. The problem, as Graff points out, was that adoption facilitators operating in countries that had not signed the Convention were not subject to its provisions. That changed last April with the enactment of the Intercountry Adoption Universal Accreditation Act of 2012 (UAA), which requires all adoption service providers working with families in the US to comply with the Convention’s standards and requirements.

At the same time, concerns over corrupt practices have led one country after another to suspend adoptions to enable regulators to, in essence, catch up. As a result, international adoptions to the US have declined nearly 70% from a high of 22,991 in 2005 to 7,094 in 2013, according to figures from the US State Department.

The Times’ coverage also reflects the shift: the 2002 article on children orphaned by AIDS in Ethiopia highlights kids learning English in preparation for their adoptions to the US; this week’s piece on Ebola orphans in Sierra Leone features prospects for domestic adoption.

But finding a way for the kids to remain in their own extended families and communities, or at the very least in their home countries, presents particular challenges for those who have lost their families to Ebola.

These kids—UNICEF estimates there may be as many as 10,000—face an especially harsh stigma due to the relatively easy transmission and high fatality rates associated with the disease.  The orphaned children are seen, as Jeffrey Gettleman’s article says, as “time bombs,” making it difficult to find relatives and community members in these struggling countries who are willing and able to take them in.

Jill Hodges

Jill Hodges is a Seattle-based writer who focuses on the effects of globalization on individuals. She directed and wrote Extended Family, a documentary on connections between adoptive and birth families in international adoption, and is a co-editor and a contributing author to Risks and Challenges in Medical Tourism: Understanding the Global Market for Health Services.  



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