Originally published in Austrian magazine Profil, January 19, 2009 / Translation by Dr. Eric Agstner
Exclusive story. In the case of countless children having been adopted in Ethiopia it is unclear whether they really are orphans. Two of them are certainly not. The documentation of a large number of human tragedies and unparalleled failure of the Austrian authorities.
By Andrea Rexer
Only as her second son comes in the door the face of Alemitu Assefa brightens up again. The young Ethiopian woman takes the small child on her lap, holds on to his small legs and hugs him. So far she only spoke about her elder son. She would like so much to embrace him - as she was promised then, when she gave him away because of her emergency family situation. After three years he should return. But this son was adopted more than four years ago as alleged orphan by Austrians. Small Max*) does not know anything about all this. He was still in his pampers when coming to Austria. “I would be grateful to only die after I have seen him personally and embraced him”, says the Ethiopian per Video message and tears come into her eyes.
The case of Assefa is not the first one of this kind. Two years ago already it became known, that the adoption papers of Hanna, an alleged Ethiopian orphan, had been forged. At that time the Austrian authorities spoke about a “single case”. A rather bold estimate: Profil has been presented the depositions of two Ethiopian women whose own children are in Austria. Both women mentioned cash payments for the children and unrealized promises to see the children again. Though the mothers did not know each other their stories are so similar that one has to ask the question whether there is a system behind. It cannot be excluded that also other families are concerned.
Both Max as well as Hanna where adopted with the assistance of the Austrian association Family for You (FFY).
Till it terminated its activity in the past year FFY was the largest private international adoption association in Austria. Licensed by the City of Vienna it supported families with the bureaucracy necessary abroad for an adoption and prepared the parents for the new family situation. In the seven years of its activity FFY brought close to 400 children to Austria, 70 of them coming from Ethiopia.
Deribe Nesibu, the Ethiopian representative of Family for You, has confessed to the authorities in Addis Abeba in the meantime to have had the papers of Hanna forged. He was arrested and released on bail. The investigations of the prosecution in Vienna are still pending. Litigation for compensation is pending against FFY - the adoptive parents sued to be reimbursed the costs of the adoption. When the accusations became known FFY stopped its activity a year ago, now it is broke: it is bankrupt (see box page 17).
Grey area international adoption. Official figures how many international adoptions take place in Austria per year do not exist. The Ministry of Justice estimates the figure to be 250.
Jurisdiction is with the respective offices of the laender governments, granting the foster permit to the parents. Such approval allows any private person to adopt children abroad and bring them to Austria. There is neither a central place to go for potential adopters nor a uniform control. There is not even a standard guideline how an international adoption is to be carried out in Austria. In consideration of this vacuum it does not surprise that cases like those of Max and Hanna could happen.
One of the two women who come out now in the interview is the mother of Hanna. The girl had caused headlines in Austria already when it became known that her adoption had been revoked by a court - as it had happened because of forged documents. The documents showed Hanna as 4 years old though she was already 9 years at the time of adoption. Together with Max, who should according to the papers be her real brother, she came to the same family to Austria. Not even this was true. The story busted because Hanna - contrary to many other children - had not been adopted as baby and could therefore remember her mother. Hanna made her adoptive parents responsible for her fate and her behavior became increasingly peculiar.
Today she lives, sealed off from the public, under the guardianship of the district authority Neunkirchen in a children´s home.
That not only Hanna had become victim of the dishonest wheeling and dealing of the Ethiopian representative of FFY busted when the meanwhile 14 years old met her mother in Ethiopia in the past fall. There was a warm welcome with the family, however the child decided to complete her education in Austria and return to the children’s home.
The visit was not only a decisive event for Hanna. It also had far reaching consequences for Max. The Ethiopian authorities made Alemitu Assefa, the mother of Max, and Genet Reshid, the mother of Hanna, acquainted with each other after they had gone there searching for their children. By her own inquiries Alemitu Assefa knew that also Max was in Austria. When Genet Reshid told her from the official visit of her daughter Assefa sensed the ppportunity to present herself. “I showed them a picture of my son. They could not believe me when I told them that I am his birth mother”, she says in the interview.
“They could not believe when I told them that I am his birth mother”
Now you have already found out the whereabout of your son and the condition he is in, what is going to be your expectation afterwards?
I have given away my son once. According to what I heard, he is presently living in good condition. What I need now is just to see my son in person. I miss him very much. I would be very much pleased and gratified if I died only after seeing him in person and hugging him.
The social worker Michaela Schneidhofer recognized Max on the picture, as he was the alleged brother of Hanna. “We have forwarded the information to the family and to the prosecutor´s office” says Schneidhofer. That´s where the trace ends.
The department of administration of the City of Vienna in charge of the control of the association does not even know about the incident. Martina Reichl-Roßbacher, head of the department, did not even react to the proposal of Profil to describe the second case. FFY would not be active anymore, therefore she would not be in charge any longer, is the message she has passed on. Also Max does not yet know about his birth mother. The decision whether he will have contact to her and whether he will continue to live in Austria is with the adoptive family. “To the extent we are informed the parents do not want to revoke the adoption” says Schneidhofer. It must have been a severe blow for the family to know that also her second child has come to Austria with forged papers. According to their lawyer they do not wanted to comment on this in the media.
Then, they made my child sit next to him in the car and she drove away. I went back to my place and cried. The father said I should get her back if I am hard on myself saying that the father has not agreed. Then, I was in a dilemma and prayed that God and St. Michael would strengthen me. On the 19th May my child left our home and I took my husband to the hospital on ..
“I believe they took advantage of the situation”
Emergency situation the despair is mutual. Alemitu Aseffa has given away her son believing that she would maintain contact with him and see him again after three years. The decision to give Max away was not easy for her. “Then I was severely ill and close to death” she excuses her behavior. In her despair she followed the advice of a friend to give the child to an orphanage. However, after this day she didn´t hear anything from the organization anymore.
Very similar is the story of Hanna´s mother Genet Reshid. When her husband was doomed to die she could hardly feed her children. She too got into contact with FFY Ethiopia. A man appeared and looked at the family. The mother was ready to walk over dead bodies - namely her own: “He said that for the adoption either the father or the mother of the child need to be dead. I proposed to do as if I were dead”. Shortly afterwards FFY picked up the girl. “I went into the house and cried. The father said I should get her back if I would be hard to myself and say that the father did not approve. I was in a dilemma and prayed that God and Archangel Michael should strengthen me”. Also she was not informed in the beginning where the daughter was taken and she too was promised that Hanna would return after three years. Both mothers had hoped that the children would be better off if they would not live at home any longer. According to the guidelines of the child support works Unicef international adoptions should only be possible if no adequate nursing institutions can be found in the homecountry of the children. If it gets around in the developing countries that the children have the best chances abroad a
dangerous dynamism will begin. The problems are worse if the parents are paid money for the children.
This is exactly what obviously happened in the case of Family for You. Genet Reshid says that the assistant of the Ethiopian FFY representative left her 300 Birr - ca. EUR 22,--. This is approximately three monthly wages of the mother, a considerable amount in Ethiopia. Even if little for a natural child. Therefore the woman complained with FFY - and had success. Further monthly payments of ca. EUR 15,-- followed, till Nesibu was arrested because of the forged
documents. In the meantime he has been released on bail.
An Austrian family had to pay ca. EUR 10.000,-- for such an adoption to FFY; only a small part of this was spent for administrative fees. Genet Reshid does not know whether Nesibu received money for brokering the child, but she assumes: “I believe they took advantage of the situation”.
Agstner: “You can certainly accuse FFY
of illegal adoption brokering by failure”.
Alemitu Aseffa, the mother of Max, has not received money according to her information. But also she alleges that FFY made money with her son: “I have been told that it was this organization which disposed of my son by sale “.
Good will. Even Petra Fembek, chairwoman of FFY Austria does not categorically exclude that there are further cases: “There is no absolute safety in any adoption in any country”. She feels deceived by her Ethiopian representative. “I am very hurt that something like this could happen though the Ethiopian authorities and we have checked all documents repeatedly” according to Fembek. FFY did not make profit through the adoptions. In the adoption agreements it would be determined, that eventual exceeding proceeds would go to orphanages or serve the individual support of children in their countries of origin. “We also wanted to help the children there who were not adopted. I was totally convinced to do the right thing” says Fembek.
Sometimes good-will is not sufficient. “You can certainly accuse Family for You of illegal adoption brokering by failure” says Eric Agstner, lawyer of the Lower Austrian Family concerned. According to his opinion the organization omitted the control of its own staff.
The prosecutor’s office would investigate since months in this case but little has happened. “Even the control by youth welfare was a joke”, says Agstner. There would not be the slightest requirements to documents, when naturalizing adults Austria would be much more finicky.
The administrative department 11 of the City of Vienna in charge of youth welfare and Family for You considers itself to be powerless. Its speaker, Herta Staffer, says that the legal regulations were respected. “Who shall examine the authenticity of documents? We have to rely on the Ethiopian authorities which have examined the documents a couple of times” says Staffer.
Remains the question why an authority puts its stamp on documents of which it admits not to be able to examine the authenticity.
Chaos in competence. Youth Welfare is not the only authority dealing with international adoptions. The Ministries for Justice and Family affairs as well as the laender share the lawmaking.
A competence jungle in which even persons involved easily loose track. “In order to reach better conditions for protection, mainly with regard to document safety, we propose a central international adoption agency“ says Josef Hiebl, lawyer at MA 11. Such authority should coordinate the examination procedure. However, this requires an agreement between the federation and the laender on the jurisdiction. A special law on adoption could meet the
Parents of adopted children feel neglected by the authorities. Some Austrian families have already started on their own to trace tracks of the children in the country of origin. And were successful, like family Klepp for example (Profil reported). They have collected all hints of the life for their son Paul, being born in Ethiopia, and visited all stations personally. From the police station where Paul was accommodated to the nurse in the orphanage the boy has all documents and pictures in his album. “Our child has not been bought, it is the most beautiful gift which we can imagine”, says his mother Bärbel Klepp. She refuses the general allegation that all international adoptions have come about by child trafficking.
Also lawyer Eric Agstner underlines that in case of children from Ethiopia not all the documents are forged: “In case of those who are detected as foundlings and brought to the police I evaluate the document safety as relatively high”, says Agstner. More caution would be appropriate in case of the so called “Kebele-letters” which are issued by sort of local administration. Such officers may obviously easier be bribed, says Agstner.
Failure of the authorities. Even if no adoptive parents must fear that the children will be taken away from them - which according to lawyer Agstner is only possible upon their own request or upon request of an adoptive child of age - there remains a stale after - taste. It is worrying to know that the authorities obviously could not prevent these cases. It is admirable if families like the Klepps examine the documents of their son precisely and with large effort - though, however, this should not be their task.
It is an urgent task of politics not to leave these families in the lurch, but to put international adoptions on new feet by clear legal regulations. International adoption is the only chance for a child for many married couples as the waiting list for domestic adoptions is very long.
Additionally, they have the hope to offer a child from abroad opportunities which it would possibly not have elsewhere. International adoptions have a long time ago been organized professionally in other countries like Iceland. There not each single youth welfare struggles through foreign documents but a central office bundles the know-how of the staff. If it is safeguarded that international adoptions are implemented in a trustworthy manner they may be
finally regarded again as what they are: a great opportunity for children, parents and society.
Adoption Agency “Family for You” - bankrupt
Families fight for services paid in advance which cannot be rendered by the association anymore.
The association Family for You is obviously bankrupt. That is what FFY chairwoman Petra Fembek tells profil. “I do not see a perspective anymore” is what she says. Already a year ago the association stopped its activity till further notice. As an end of the inquiries of the prosecutor in the case of Hanna is still not in sight, it would not be possible to take up the activities again, says Fembek. Therefore she handed in the license of the association to the City of Vienna.
The decision concerns the majority of the almost 400 children whose adoption Family for You has accompanied in the recent years. FFY not only invoiced costs for the handling of the adoption but also for the so called postplacement-reports which have to be sent to the countries of origin of the children in regular periods, till the child is of age. This way the country of origin will safeguard that the children are well off abroad.
For postplacement-reports to the Ethiopian authorities FFY charged 1500 Euro. Since it is clear that the association cannot render the service anymore the parents attempt to be reimbursed the money paid in advance. The association has already offered the parents a settlement in which they would receive 50% of the amount immediately and the remainder after termination of the court cases. “We had to make provisions for costs of litigation” explains Petra Fembek.
Meanwhile she has stopped the settlement payment as a new situation has been created because of the imminent bankruptcy proceedings.