Response from the (Australian) Attorney-General's Department to questions from ABC News Online

Date: 2010-03-16
Source: ABC australia

Date uncertain, prior to March 16, 2010

Why did the Government suspend Ethiopian adoptions?

On 18 November 2009, the Attorney-General suspended the Ethiopia-Australia inter-country adoption program due to concerns Australia could no longer conduct inter-country adoptions in Ethiopia in a manner consistent with its obligations under the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect of Inter-country Adoption. A key reason for the suspension was concerns about the apparent linking of referrals of children to the program with the provision of financial/material assistance to individual orphanages.

What was the outcome of the Government's trip to Ethiopia?

An Australian delegation travelled to Ethiopia from 17-24 January 2010 to discuss the suspension and investigate options for the future of the Ethiopia-Australia inter-country adoption program.

The delegation met with the Ministry of Women's Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Federal First Instance Court, International Organisation for Migration, UNICEF, the Grace Centre for Children and Families, Regional and Zonal level governments, and a number of foreign embassies and orphanages. The delegation also met with the Australian representatives and visited Koala House.

The delegation obtained additional information about the requirement for Australia to provide development assistance and how this might be done in a manner consistent with the Hague Convention. The visit also provided the Department with an enhanced understanding of the practical challenges facing the program. It informed the review and subsequent decision of the Attorney-General announced on 5 March 2010.

Can the Government guarantee the backgrounds and identity of children adopted to Australia?

While the Government has implemented rigorous safeguards to maximise integrity in our programs, inter-country adoption involves inherent risks. The Government cannot 'guarantee' all information relating to the backgrounds and identity of children in inter-country adoption programs.

International humanitarian organisation Against Child Trafficking warned the Government in November 2008 about corruption in the Australian-Ethiopian adoption program. Why didn't you investigate then? Why has Australia continued to employ Lakew Gebeyehu and his wife, despite the fact that he was named by an Ethiopian woman as an intermediary in the fraudulent adoption of her child to Austria?

The Attorney-General's Department did investigate these concerns. The information provided by Against Child Trafficking focused on the arrest of the Australian Representative in 2007 on suspicion of child trafficking. It was found that the suspicion against the Australian Representative was misplaced, and that there was some confusion between the Austrian and Australian program. The charges against the Australian Representative were subsequently dropped, and the Austrian agency was de-licensed.

The previous government's 2005 Interim Report on the Ethiopian/Australian adoption program stated that between 2002 and 2004, of the 117 Ethiopian adoptions reviewed, it had concerns with at 44 cases - yet the Government still employs the same agent. Why is that?

Since it took responsibility for the program in mid-2007, the Attorney-General's Department has been following up concerns with the Ethiopian program, including those raised in the 2005 report. This has resulted in a comprehensive review of the program, which began in 2009.

The review has concluded that the program can continue, subject to progressing appropriate safeguards which will ensure the program's Hague compliance and ongoing integrity. One of these changes will include negotiating a new service agreement with an Australian representative. The new service agreement will clarify in greater detail the role, responsibilities and reporting requirements of the Australian Representative.

The current representatives, Ato Lakew Gebeyehu and his wife, Woz Misrak, have represented the program since 1994. There have been no substantiated allegations of child trafficking during their involvement with the program.

We have spoken to three families who want to remain anonymous, who all claim they were told their children had been abandoned and had no family. They've discovered that is not the case. Isn't there a problem with the way these adoptions are being managed in Ethiopia?

The process of relinquishment in Ethiopia is complex. Birth parents will often decide to abandon their children instead of going through the process of formally relinquishing a child where the birth family is known and may be provided to the adoptive family. In this situation the child is still legally considered to be abandoned.

They also claim that Lakew Gebeyehu deliberately stood in their way when they tried to get information about the backgrounds of their children. What do you say about that?

The Australian Representative provides families with all available information about their child. Given the circumstance in Ethiopia, it is often the case that extensive background information is not available. The additional background checks being implemented from 6 April 2010 should improve the level of information available to families. However, the Government takes any allegations of impropriety seriously and will follow up any concerns that are communicated to it.

One family adopted a child they were told was four, who turned out to be eight. How does that happen?

Issues in relation to accurate documentation, for example documents relating to the age of children, are common in Ethiopia due to there being no requirement to register births or obtain birth certificates. Representatives are dependent on the information provided to them by a child's family and/or local authorities. In the absence of any available documentation, representatives estimate a child's age to the best of their ability. Given older children referred to the program are often malnourished and neglected, accurate assessments can be problematic. The Australian Representative does not have access to dental assessments and bone scans (typical methods used in Australia to estimate age). The Australian Representative also relies on other documentation (such as baptismal certificates) where these are available.

Where are the kids available for adoption going to be sourced from? Which organisations?

The program will establish relationships with specific orphanages in which the Attorney-General's Department has trust and confidence. Agreements with specific orphanages will be progressed during the March 2010 delegation to Ethiopia. As these agreements have yet to be finalised, it is not appropriate to identify the orphanages with which the program is likely to work at this stage.

Have there been any concerns expressed about any of those organisations?

See above.

Some parents have told us of how adoptions have been fast tracked when donations are given to Lakew Gebeyehu. What do you think about that?

Allocations of children in need of adoption are not necessarily made in chronological order. The matching guidelines are followed in order to find a family for a child in need, not to find a child for a family. This means that some families may be waiting longer than others to have a child allocated to them. Some families may perceive that another family's allocation ahead of them means their file has been 'fast-tracked' when this is not the case.

Some parents have also told of how their children were malnourished and in poor health when they picked them up from Koala House - surely this is unacceptable?

Ethiopia is a developing country. Ethiopian children, particularly children whom have been placed for inter-country adoption, do not enjoy the same level of health of children who have grown up in Australia. Many children arrive in Koala House with significant medical conditions including malnutrition. The Australian Representatives have provided significant care to children referred to the program, including 24 hour direct care for seriously unwell infants.

Why is it that often the children are not adopted from orphanages, but come directly from families?

Children are typically referred to the program via a licensed orphanage, with the approval of local Ethiopian authorities. Rare exceptions may be where a sibling of a previously adopted child is relinquished by their family specifically to the Australian program in order to be reunited with their birth sibling. The Australian program does not actively look for children to be referred to the program.

Why does Australia as a Hague signatory engage in international adoption with a non-Hague country?

Like many Hague countries, Australia engages with non-Hague countries on inter-country adoption. Ethiopia is not Australia's only non-Hague program. Australia is, however, committed to ensuring that all our inter-country adoption programs comply with the principles of the Hague Convention. This is the case whether or not the partner country is a signatory to the Convention.


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