Fly Away Home
Fly Away Children drew an extraordinary response and demonstrated a deep concern about the way some international adoption agencies are operating and dramatically affecting the aspirations of many Australians looking to adopt overseas.
Our story unearthed a great deal but we knew there was so much more to examine, so much cause for concern and urgent reform.
In a powerful and disturbing new report we uncover major failures including children portrayed as young as 7 or 8, destitute and in danger of being pressed into prostitution who were in fact much older - teenagers - who did have a family who could support them at home. And another harrowing and cruel dimension – children unaware that they’re on a one way trip to a new family.
They say they were told they’d be returning to Ethiopia.
In this report we hear from the children.
Journee Bradshaw, aged 16: ”I didn’t know that I’m going to stay here, I mean, they never told me that I’m going to have a family that I’m going to stay with and I’m supposed to be their daughter. They never told me that, I just found out when I got here.”
Kate Bradshaw (who adopted Journee) “You can’t imagine the depth of her pain. No one will understand the damage, it was seriously as if someone had ripped the soul out of her body and just left her. It was unbelievable, it was absolutely unbelievable.”
We meet other families in the same predicament and show how one agency at the centre of the scandal attempts to discredit anyone who questions the process, including adoptive parents and Foreign Correspondent.
Maureen Flatley, Adoption Reform Advocate: “If we don’t reign in American adoption agencies and if we don’t regulate adoptions, adoption will continue to be a human rights catastrophe.”
On March 5, 2010, the Office of Children's Issues in the U.S. Department of State announced changes in their intercountry adoption procedures. See report.
JOLLEY: It’s ten below zero in the small, Midwestern American town of Iowa Falls, a winter wonderland for some, but not for Journee Bradshaw.
JOURNEE BRADSHAW: It’s very hard because you don’t know how things work, you know? New place, new language, new culture, everything’s new - new family, new friends.
JOLLEY: This 16 year old looks like she’s leading a very normal American life, attending high school, making friends and contemplating her future. The reality though, is she firmly believes her real home is far away from here.
JOURNEE BRADSHAW: I didn’t know that I’m going to stay here. I mean they never told me that I’m going to have a family that I’m going to stay with and I’m supposed to be their daughter – they never told me that. I just found that out when I got here.
JOLLEY: Journee Bradshaw was born in Ethiopia. How she came to be living in a small town in the United States is just one harrowing example of what happens when good intentions collide with money, corruption and the largely unregulated adoption industry in Ethiopia.
KATIE BRADSHAW: You can’t imagine the depth of her pain. No one will understand the damage. It was seriously as if someone had ripped the soul out of her body and just left her. It was unbelievable. It was absolutely unbelievable.
JOLLEY: When Foreign Correspondent travelled to Ethiopia last year to investigate international adoptions, we knew the system was faulty, but we were stunned by both the scale of the industry and the exploitation of the vulnerable. Hotel foyers were filled with western families and their newly adopted children, but behind many snap shot moments lay a trail of deception. Children being recruited from families for adoptive parents overseas….. mothers who say they were tricked into giving up their children.
MUNHERA AHMED: I have no words to express my emotions.
JOLLEY: Ethiopia, unlike the United States, has not signed the Hague Convention on inter country adoption. As a result, international adoptions have become a first rather than last resort and foreign agencies are taking advantage.
MAUREEN FLATLEY: Well here is one of the biggest pieces of hypocrisy in adoption. If they’re Hague accredited, what are they doing, doing business with a country that isn’t a Hague signer? And the answer is that they know that they have much more freedom to do whatever they want to do and to bully people in countries that aren’t Hague signatories.
JOURNEE BRADSHAW: It’s like selling. I told my family here that I feel like I’d been sold.
JOLLEY: Journee Bradshaw first found herself with this family who live in Virginia on the east coast of the United States. Katie Bradshaw and her husband Calvin, already had two biological children but a heart condition prevented them from having more. They picked three sisters aged 4, 6 and 7 from the website of an agency called Christian World Adoption or CWA. But when they received CWA’s DVD they had questions about the eldest.
KATIE BRADSHAW: I called our caseworker numerous times saying this girl looks much older.
JOLLEY: Katie Bradshaw says CWA reassured her the eldest was no older than nine.
KATIE BRADSHAW: Okay she said the situation with these girls is that the father is very, very poor. The only living relative they have is their father and their 14-year-old brother. Their father is very ill, he’s dying of HIV and she said you know being that they’re very poor, they will become prostitutes and immediately I think any woman who hears the photo of the children you’re looking at are about to become prostitutes, what woman wouldn’t say ‘oh my gosh I must do what I can’.
JOLLEY: Six months later the adoption was complete and Katie Bradshaw flew to Ethiopia to pick them up.
KATIE BRADSHAW: I just kept looking at the eldest girl and thinking to myself my gosh, she’s got to be a teenager. This girl has got to be at least thirteen years old. What am I going to do? What am I going to do? I’m twenty six.
JOLLEY: Journee was not 7, not 9 – she was 13. Her sisters Mia and Mary were 11 and 6.
KATIE BRADSHAW: You know they get you in the country and then you find out the truth and what do you do? You know you’ve spent all of this money and here are these children and here’s this big lie, now what do you do with it all? Cause you have a plane home in 48 hours.
JOLLEY: It turned out the girls had three older sisters, a brother and a healthy father who is a government employee.
KATIE BRADSHAW; [watching video] So this is the food that you were eating at your celebration?
JOLLEY: Their family had given them a lavish farewell and videoed it for them to take to America.
KATIE BRADSHAW: A lot of friends and family for some orphans right?
JOLLEY: In the US, Journee Bradshaw proved too much for her young adoptive family to handle.
JOURNEE BRADSHAW: Every day like they have family dinners and it’s like yeah I want to go to Ethiopia, I don’t want to be here and she was like, you’re part of our family, you need to start acting like it. And I was like, I’m not part of your family.
KATIE BRADSHAW: She would have meltdowns for an hour where she was screaming and crying and pounding her fists and slamming against the wall and throwing herself on the floor. I would sit on her bed in her room and I would watch her because I didn’t want her to be alone, but she was a teenager - I couldn’t hold her down.
JOLLEY: Angry and unsettled, Journee Bradshaw went to live with Katie Bradshaw’s mother, Mary Nelson, and although she’s separated from her two sisters, it seems to work.
JOURNEE BRADSHAW: That’s my brother kind of scared, that’s my dad, my sister.
MARY NELSON: So this is the teacher… this is the nurse.
JOURNEE BRADSHAW: Yes she got into nursing school…
MARY NELSON: It was very hard to hear the phone calls from Katie. It’s taken a long time to just accept it and when she was in Ethiopia and hurting, figuring things out, that things weren’t just right – I’m sorry (upset) – it was heartbreaking because I knew all they wanted to do was adopt some children who had no family and make a life for them.
JOLLEY: And so in the middle of the mayhem a confused and damaged teenager. Journee Bradshaw claims CWA told her she was going on a study trip, an adventure to the US that would see her return to Ethiopia often - not the one way trip it turned out to be.
What would you say to a 16 year old girl who had been traumatised by having been lied to by CWA?
CURTIS BOSTIC: Well first of all you’re presuming that happened, right? You don’t have any proof of that. You don’t have any evidence of that. I don’t know if these things are even true, but the second thing I would say is I really doubt that a 16 year old girl was lied to in the fashion you told me. It just doesn’t make sense, Mary Ann. There are so many children that are available, why twist and contort and steal and harvest? Why do those things if there are so many children who legitimately need help? It just doesn’t make sense.
JOURNEE BRADSHAW: I think they’re ruining people’s lives. I was so angry. I just wanted to go there one time and say why?… why me? What have I ever done to you, you know? What have I ever done to you that makes you lie like this and have me stuck here, where I can’t go back until I’m 18.
MAUREEN FLATLEY: If we don’t rein in American adoption agencies and if we don’t regulate adoption, adoption will continue to be a human rights catastrophe.
JOLLEY: Based outside of Boston, Maureen Flatley is a child welfare advocate who’s worked for more than a decade trying to reform America’s international adoption industry.
MAUREEN FLATLEY: In the US we think of adoption as a good thing and it is, it can be a good thing. But for something that’s so important and affects the lives of not just the children but the families who adopt them often times, not to mention the birth parents, we’ve really been very careless about it and we’ve really let the fox guard the hen house.
JOLLEY: Adoptions have taken a place at the heart of America’s identity of generosity and family values. Americans adopt more foreign children than the rest of the world combined. Concerts like this held during adoption month are backed by international adoption agencies and appeal to Christians to save the world’s orphans. International adoptions have become a major money spinning industry but there’s little corresponding oversight of private adoption agencies. States make their own laws, the Federal Government has limited control and with the Christian movement a powerful lobbying force for votes, politicians at all levels tread carefully.
MAUREEN FLATLEY: Well I think that the adoption industry has been extremely skilful at positioning themselves as the advocates for adoption, as opposed to the business interests of adoption. They have intimidated and in some cases overtly threatened American politicians and specifically members of Congress to allege that if they attempt to do anything to regulate adoption in this country, they will be anti adoption when in fact just the opposite is true and what no one wants to acknowledge in adoption is that these agencies are not doing this for free, they’re charging people for it.
JOLLEY: Pam and Juan Johnson were certainly pro adoption. They already had five children from their previous marriages, but their faith led them to embrace Christian World Adoption’s call to rescue the world’s orphans.
They have six Ethiopian children, two sets of siblings. Their adoptions have cost them more than a hundred thousand dollars and a great deal of heartache.
PAM JOHNSON: We were told that at 9 and 11 they were going to be put out on the street and be prostitutes, that it was just a matter of time. Our heartstrings were so pulled that those things would happen.
JOLLEY: Their eldest adopted daughter turned out to be 16, not 11 and they discovered all of the children had large extended families, aunts and uncles, who could provide.
PAM JOHNSON: Several very wealthy, they never would have been put out on the street. They never went without two meals a day. They lived in a home that had electricity, they lived in a home where they had enough beds so all kinds of circumstances were not what we were told.
JOLLEY: Worse still, like Journee Bradshaw, one sibling group had no idea they were leaving their mother and Ethiopia for good.
PAM JOHNSON: Our children were told they were coming here just to go to school and they could go home. They have a mother at home. They’re having a very, very difficult time bonding and rightly so. How can they…. how can they bond and become part of a family and integrate in if they think they’re going home? I’m angry that my children will have to sort through this emotional mess.
JOLLEY: Christian World Adoption is one of the largest adoption agencies in the US. Its CEO – Tomilee Harding – is a prominent figure in the industry but despite a number of invitations, has chosen not to step forward for this report.
MAUREEN FLATLEY: I think it’s fair to say that Tomilee Harding has been one of the conspicuous leaders in the adoption industry who has lobbied very actively against greater accountability, greater oversight and certainly against Federal regulation of adoption.
JOLLEY: Persistent requests, over the last 7 months, for an interview with Christian World Adoption management have all been rebuffed. Instead the agency sent its lawyer.
Why hasn’t Tomilee Harding spoken to us?
CURTIS BOSTIC: A couple reasons actually. One is because there is a measure of distrust between CWA and ABC and candidly their view would be that ABC has misrepresented things that have occurred in Ethiopia and so they’re cautious.
JOLLEY: In an hour long interview that he insisted on videotaping and has since posted on the internet, Curtis Bostic said he couldn’t discuss individual cases for legal reasons and denied that CWA had done anything wrong, accusing Foreign Correspondent of gross inaccuracy.
CURTIS BOSTIC: CWA is an incredibly gifted, incredibly passionate organisation whose people pour themselves out every day for people who can do nothing for them. I think that’s more than can be said for most of us.
JOLLEY: And he gave us a taste of how the agency reacts to challenges about its practices.
Why didn’t CWA have a program keeping those children within their family?
CURTIS BOSTIC: Does ABC?
JOLLEY: No… because that’s not our job.
CURTIS BOSTIC: Do you? Because it’s not your job? Is it CWA’s job? CWA has it as a job because CWA cares about people. It’s a peer reviewed, accredited, Hague approved 501C3 organisation. Your business has an $850 million budget in 2008. You do nothing to help the starving kids in Ethiopia and yet here we sit while you throw stones at the way a non profit organisation tries to pour out and give to those people. Isn’t there an irony to that?
JOLLEY: The real irony is the organisation that claims to oversee the practices of international adoption agencies is actually made up of those same adoption agencies. Based just outside Washington DC close to legislators, the Joint Council on International Children’s Services is arguably the most powerful international adoption lobby and advocacy group in the world. CWA’s Tomilee Harding is a past President and current member.
MAUREEN FLATLEY: The Joint Council has one goal and one goal only and that is to avoid Federal regulation of adoption. They are the big tobacco of adoption. They are a trade association that nominally espouses the highest standards but which is harbouring the very people who have been involved in some of the biggest abuses in adoption and they haven’t laid a hand on them.
JOLLEY: The Joint Council launched an investigation into CWA following our story last year, but so far has refused to publish the findings – and has not taken up interview opportunities with Foreign Correspondent.
US International adoption agencies are rarely held accountable for their practices. This northern Californian adoptive mother feels abandoned. In our program last year, Lisa Boe who had previously lost a foster child to SIDS, claimed CWA promised her a healthy boy but she soon discovered her adoptive son had a long list of serious medical conditions.
LISA BOE: 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 – I’m sorry (upset).
CURTIS BOSTIC: I want you to know that I’m going to investigate statements that you make. Just like you investigate mine.
(VOICE OVER) Christian World Adoption’s response to Lisa Boe speaking out… well, they’re suing her.
(TO CURTIS BOSTIC) Why is CWA suing Lisa Boe?
CURTIS BOSTIC: (pause) Let me say it this way. Tonight, Mary Ann, half a million children in Ethiopia will sleep on the street. By sunset tonight 500 will die from starvation and there are children today who need to be rescued, there are children today who need what caring American and Australian families can bring them. What Lisa Boe did was make a series of exaggerations and misrepresentations that has slowed and in some cases halted that process.
JOLLEY: When the Bradshaw’s complained to a consumer watchdog, CWA claimed they were unfit parents and tried to have both their adoptive and biological children taken away from them permanently.
KATIE BRADSHAW: So they reported us to the child protection services and recommended that they remove the children from our home. Thankfully we had a caseworker who was able to get it cleared up for us but it was… it was frightening. It was absolutely frightening. I’ve never been so scared in my life.
JOLLEY: Christian World Adoption told us it’s not responsible for verifying any of the information it provides to clients - not the children’s ages, health, or even whether they’re really orphans.
Why then have we spoken to several families who actually have discovered that their children come from middle class, educated parents? Why does that happen?
CURTIS BOSTIC: Well in order for a child to be adopted the Ethiopian Government has to deem the child an orphan. CWA does not do that. The Ethiopian Government reserves that right to themselves.
JOLLEY: The problem with that is the Ethiopian Government hasn’t signed the Hague Convention on inter-country adoption and the system is open to abuse by families, officials and agencies. The Bradshaws, Boes and Johnsons are not isolated cases and Christian World Adoption isn’t the only agency of concern. Many adoptive parents who have used other agencies have told us similar stories – equally as devastating.
KATIE BRADSHAW: This has got to stop. Adoptions have got to get ethical in every country across the board. This has got to quit being about money. This has got to start being about children and I really…. I hope that the world will wake up to what a crime of humanity this is. This is trafficking in my opinion, the way that these are being conducted.
MARY NELSON: Her world was ripped away from her and we can’t replace that.
JOURNEE BRADSHAW: I’m trying to make other people’s lives better, because mine was horrible. I don’t want anybody to go through the things I did. What happened just happened, you know? You can’t really change the past but you can change the future for yourself and others – that’s what counts.