Canadian parents raise concerns
In January 2008, Terri Hambruch embarked on a journey to Ethiopia that looked like it was going to change her life. Twenty months earlier, the woman from Golden, B.C., had adopted a six-year-old girl named Dassie, whom the adoption agency said was an orphan.
During this trip she had to reconcile the notion that she might have to give back this new love of her life.
The quandary stemmed from a conversation Hambruch had with Dassie who asked, after she learned enough English, "Why did you adopt me?"
Terri told her she was an orphan and her parents were dead. "You needed a mom and a dad, and we needed a daughter, so it was a good fit.
"And she said: 'No. My family's not dead.'"
That prompted Terri and her husband Chris to hire a researcher in Addis Ababa to verify Dassie's claim. The child's mother was readily found, which led to the 2008 journey where Terri discovered that Dassie's mother had willingly relinquished the girl with the hope that she would have a better life in Canada.
"It was a huge sense of relief," said Terri. "If she hadn't placed her for adoption, we were prepared to do a repatriation."
Still, Terri Hambruch was upset because she had wanted to adopt an orphan. "I believe international adoption is the last option for a child. If there is anything else that could be done to keep a child in their country, in their home, then that's what you do."
It turns out the Hambruchs are not alone in receiving false information about their Ethiopian adoption. Several Canadian families say they have been misled by documentation they have received from the Canadian Advocates For Adopting Children, based in Minnedosa, Man.
The families claim that CAFAC has informed them their child is an orphan when the parents in fact exist. They also say that sometimes the children's ages are wildly off and the health of these kids varies greatly from what they have been told before travelling to Addis Ababa to pick them up.
Might be unreliable
Roberta Galbraith, one of the founders of the 15-year-old adoption agency, has long maintained that adoptive parents sign a waiver acknowledging that information from Ethiopia might be unreliable.
Roberta Galbraith, co-founder Canadian Advocates for Adopting Children. (CBC) In an interview with CBC's Marie-Claude Guay, Galbraith admitted that the agency attempts sometimes to spot-check and audit the information, but ultimately it is viewed as an insult to the government of Ethiopia to question the documentation too closely.
"I believe that the adoptions that we have done through (the Ministry of Women's Affairs) and the court system have been legal and ethical and followed checks and balances that they themselves established in the system," Galbraith said.
When pressed on who prepares the documentation, she said it is CAFAC's agent in Ethiopia, Haregwain Berhane.
Berhane, a former Ethiopian government employee, has been involved with adoptions for more than 10 years, the last eight as CAFAC's agent, being paid a commission for the number of children she successfully places.
The information she passes on to Canada, she told the CBC's Azeb Wolde-Giorghis in Addis Ababa, she gets from orphanages, although she later said that she is the one who translates the documents into English.
As for the complaints from Canada, Berhane lashes out at the adoptive parents: "All these allegations start not from the concern they have for the children, not because they love their children, but because they are fed up from day one. They start looking for excuses" to give the kids back, she said.
How it works
The way the system works in the majority of these cases is that prospective parents approach the agency with a certain request: for a boy, girl, siblings, or a child of a certain age.
Once the applicant is vetted, the agency finds a child and makes a referral that includes details of the child and a photo. When that child is accepted by the prospective parents, the agency takes care of the child until all the paperwork and medicals are completed.
Doug Hopewood and Christine Ferris of Lasqueti Island, B.C., were quite excited when they received their referral for their daughter Etsegenet. But they were disturbed by some of the details.
They were told she was four years old although she looked much older. They were also told she was found abandoned, her parents were dead and their names were unknown.
"If you know someone's dead, how come you don't know their name?" asked Hopewood.
"We questioned CAFAC about that and they said, well, that may be all the information that you will ever get. They said it was common for children to be taken somewhere like a market or something and just left and people know they will be found there."
When Doug and Christine brought Etsegenet back to Canada at the end of 2006, they were disturbed by her nightmares. She woke up crying in the middle of the night and maintained she had a family back in Ethiopia, even though the referral documents contradicted her.
"At one point she said to me, 'Nobody asked if I wanted to leave Ethiopia,'" said Hopewood. "And it's true. Nobody asked her."
An extended family
Doug and Christine also found a researcher in Ethiopia to dig into their child's past. It turns out she had grandparents, whom she considered her parents because her real parents had passed on by the time she was nine months old.
She also had all sorts of cousins who lived with her, whom she considered her siblings. The CAFAC documents said she had no known relatives.
As it turns out, the orphanage that closely works with CAFAC knew all about Etsegenet's family and took a CBC reporter down to visit them in a village outside of Addis Ababa. Doug and Christine learned that an aunt made the adoption plans for Etsegenet.
"I felt frankly very upset that their grandchild had been taken from them," said Hopewood. "And we felt we'd participated in a terrible crime."
Etsegenet herself claims she was told to lie about her age by Berhane — she was six years old but told she had to say she was four. And she said that Berhane also struck her and other children at the CAFAC foster home in Addis Ababa.
Haregwain Berhane, CAFAC representative in Addis Ababa. (CBC) "She always used to hit kids and she would come to the orphanage and say, 'Now who's been bad?'" recalled Etsegenet, now nine. "Then she would tape theirs hands and would slap them."
Berhane said the child is lying — that she never told her to lie about her age — but she readily admitted to striking the children for disciplinary reasons.
CAFAC executive director Galbraith said she didn't believe Etsegenet was told to lie, asking "Is it possible that a child perceived that it was the reason she was placed and she needed to do that?"
But Galbraith was visibly disturbed when shown videotape of Berhane's admission that she had hit the children.
"I don't remember if Etsegenet was beaten or X was beaten," said Berhane on tape. "We're looking after several children in a group. We don't keep quiet if she misbehaves or whatever. We were disciplining her, not hurting her."
Berhane prides herself in having disciplined children at her foster home and says she loves them, even if they end up far away in different countries. The people who criticize such disciplining methods, she says, "need a psychiatrist."
Galbraith suggested that the acceptance of corporal punishment in Ethiopia is a cultural difference: "What I want you to hear from that is things like that sometimes happened. Do I like it? No. Will it stop in Ethiopia? Not likely. Will it stop in our foster home?" Galbraith said it would: "That's the message I'm sending."
One of the researchers hired by several CAFAC parents to find the truth about their children is Logan Cochrane, an aid worker now based in Vancouver. He speaks the main Ethiopian language Amharic, and has an Ethiopian half-brother who was adopted by CAFAC.
When he was based in Addis Ababa in 2007, Cochrane said more than a dozen adoptive families approached him to find their child's birth parents. The fact he was in such demand indicated to him "somewhere in the system there is definitely a problem — there are far too many families who have information that is clearly wrong."
Angelina Jolie, with her adopted Ethiopian daughter Zahara, and Brad Pitt, with son Maddox, on holiday in Mumbai, India, in November 2006. Jolie and Pitt subsequently adopted a young Vietnamese boy and recent reports say they are also looking to adopt another child from Ethiopia. (Associated Press) The Ethiopian ministry of women's affairs, which oversees adoptions, also has concerns about CAFAC. The Canadian agency is on a list of 31 agencies the ministry claims is not meeting minimum standards of staffing. It has also not divulged financial information that would assess the level of staff they have hired.
Minister Muferiat Kamil told the CBC that "not only are there not enough staff, but the staff that are in the organization are not qualified." The ministry's goal, she said, is to clean up an adoption business that has flourished too quickly since actress Angelina Jolie adopted a two-year-old girl from Ethiopia, one of the more troubled countries in the Horn of Africa, in 2005.
The popularity, says Kamil, led to more than 70 adoption agencies setting up in Ethiopia and she has had to shut down five of them in the past year alone.
Kamil says the 31 agencies on the government's list will have a chance to meet the standards or further action will be taken.
No record of Dawit
Having better trained staff at the CAFAC foster home might have prevented the problems Sandi Siemens found when she went to Addis in December of 2006 to pick up her one-year-old son Dawit.
"He had swollen hands and his wrists were all swollen from edema, protein deficiencies and malnutrition and he had one ear that was just leaking puss," recalled Siemens, who was living in Winnipeg at the time.
"Our first words when they put him in our arms was 'This isn't our son, there's been a mistake, this can't be our son,'" said Siemens. "We had been referred a healthy chubby-cheeked, sparkling-eyed, quite a big boy and we were handed this emaciated little boy."
The Siemens were told the lump on the neck leaking blood was a mosquito bite. When the boy's eyes rolled in his head, an indication of how sick he was, Siemens said they were told a different story, that the boy had been scratched and it became infected.
Back in Canada, a doctor said the condition of the boy would have led to a formal investigation here.
The biggest problem, says Siemens, is that you don't know what to prepare for. She hired Cochrane to get the background of her child and Cochrane's search led him to an Ethiopian government official who said there was no record of Dawit, suggesting he was likely an illegal adoption.
Siemens now lives in fear that Dawit's biological mother could come looking for him and she would have to give him back. Openly crying, she asked: "Is there a mommy out there wondering: 'Where is my little one?'
"We don't know if we'll be left with nothing. We don't know if we have partaken in something that is wrong."
Reopening the files
All the families who came forward to speak publicly to the CBC about their concerns had first tried to address them with CAFAC, without success. They all believe in international adoption and don't want to see it curtailed. All are still caring for the children they adopted.
The government of Manitoba, which licenses CAFAC and approves all adoptions in the province, is now planning to reopen the Hopewood, Siemens and Hambruch files as a result of the CBC investigation.
Provincial officials called us back after we interviewed them to say they intend to discuss the weaknesses in the system with the federal government in the coming weeks and examine the issue of CAFAC's agent, Berhane, being paid on commission.
Many believe that paying adoption agents a commission creates wrong incentives to push kids through the system.