African adoptions raise alarm about safeguards


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As Guatemala, China and other adoption hubs have pulled back on foreign adoptions or stopped them altogether, Africa has become the new frontier for adoptions, bolstered by the sight of stars such as Madonna and Angelina Jolie bringing African children into their families.

But the rapidly advancing trend has raised concern that many African countries lack protections to prevent local families from being misled or pressured into giving up children -- the same kind of problem that led other countries, such as Guatemala and Romania, to clamp down on adoptions by foreigners.


Foreign adoptions of African children increased more than fivefold in seven years, even as international adoptions declined worldwide, a new report from the African Child Policy Forum says. Ethiopia is now second only to China in foreign adoptions, according to the most recent available data.

Child-protection groups are alarmed that most of the increase was in African countries that have not signed the Hague Convention, a 1993 agreement meant to prevent children from being abducted or trafficked by setting rules and procedures for cross-border adoptions.

Most African countries lack even basic rules to protect families, a vacuum in which “adoption can become a vast, profit-driven industry with children as the commodity” instead of turning to out-of-country adoption as a last resort for children in need, the report warns.

Unscrupulous companies or people may be tempted by the hefty fees adoptive parents pay -- as much as $14,500. Many children adopted from Africa are so young that it seems unlikely their home countries have thoroughly checked that adoption abroad is the best option, the group said. “There is pressure from the West for adoption. But should we give a child to a family -- or should we find a family for a child?” asked David Mugawe, executive director of the African Child Policy Forum. “Is domestic adoption an option? Is foster care? What is in the best interests of the child?”

In a disturbing note, the U.S. State Department said it continues to find Ethiopian families that have been told the child will return at age 18. Even if families hear their children are being adopted, the idea is so removed from many cultures that parents may not understand that they are losing their children for good. Some African languages don’t even have a word for adoption, Mugawe said.

“In many of these societies, you might send your children away for food or to be taken care of, but you never think you won’t see them again,” said Karen Rotabi, an assistant professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work who studies adoption.


As the numbers soar, some African countries are still grappling with past adoption scandals. In Sierra Leone, a government commission recently found that parents who handed 29 children over to Help a Needy Child International 15 years ago, while the country was in the throes of civil war, did not understand that they were permanently giving them up to be sent to the United States. The commission urged police to reopen criminal investigations and pressed other government ministries to help build contacts between the adopted children and their biological parents.

Liberia halted adoptions four years ago amid allegations of mismanagement and corruption. Adoption agencies had falsified reports to justify adoptions and convinced parents to hand over their children through fraud or misleading information, according to a Liberian government report to the United Nations. Before the moratorium, foreign adoptions had exploded thirteenfold in three years.

The new report builds on the growing unease with the foreign adoption boom. “Africa is having second thoughts,” said Peter Selman, a visiting fellow at the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University. “A lot will depend on whether they want to continue this trend.”


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles