Australians caught in Ethiopian adoption nightmare
Australian families have made serious allegations of corruption within Australia's inter-country adoption program with Ethiopia.
By Cassie White
The ABC has spoken to several families who claim they have been lied to in the course of their adoption process.
They have told heartbreaking stories of their time in Ethiopia - from witnessing their new baby choking on vomit, to a young boy being kept in a bucket to stop him from moving about. One family had to pay a bribe and others found their paperwork falsified with their child's age dramatically altered.
The families say the Federal Government has been slow to act and has not fully investigated the allegations.
When Jody was holding her baby son in her arms, she was distraught to witness an Ethiopian mother discover she had lost hers forever.
"When I was walking [out of the women's centre] a lady screamed and yelled and cried and fell to the ground," she said.
"This mother had come back to the women's shelter [where] she'd placed her baby for adoption. She changed her mind and came back to get it within a couple of days - but it was already gone.
"That was just heart-wrenching and I felt sick."
She added that she thought the process was far too quick to have gone through the proper channels.
Last year Foreign Correspondent revealed corruption within US-Ethiopia adoptions, and more families have spoken out as a result.
It seems some Australians are not protected from corruption despite it being an Australian Government-run program.
The person in charge of the program is Ato Lakew Gebeyehu. ABC News Online made a number of attempts to contact Mr Gebeyehu, but was unable to do so.
Mr Gebeyehu is responsible for Koala House, a transition home for children going to be adopted by Australian families. This home, which is part of the Australian government program, is accused of not properly feeding the children and maintaining their health.
The office of Attorney-General Robert McClelland says a recent review found issues of concern within the program and is working to restructure the program.
ABC News Online has been told by a spokesman for Mr McClelland that Australia will sign a new agreement with Ethiopia, however whether Mr Gebeyehu remains in his position is still to be decided.
But the ABC has obtained documents showing the Howard government knew of serious concerns about the program in 2005 and that the Rudd government was warned again in 2008 by Brussels-based human rights organisation Against Child Trafficking.
The families interviewed by the ABC have had their names changed because of fears they may lose their children and concerns that life will be made hard for surviving biological relatives in Ethiopia.
Australian parents pay thousands of dollars in fees, donations and aid for the care of their children in Koala House.
But all three families say their children were handed to them with a range of problems including severe malnutrition and pneumonia.
Sarah, who has adopted three Ethiopian children, believes the money she paid to care for her children never reached them.
"In our first adoption we took over about 80 kilos of aid. The majority of that was formula, and because we had a baby we also paid the formula fee for her," she said.
"We were also asked to replace all of the formula she would have consumed during her time she was at Koala House ... and it turned out she was actually fed cow's milk and was lactose intolerant.
"She was massively malnourished when we got her. She had full-blown pneumonia because she'd been swallowing her own vomit."
Sarah's older daughter later explained that she was hardly fed.
"She'd get given rice and carrot mixed together as a meal of porridge for breakfast. Except for when the Australian families came ... [they] would put on a big party ... and when that happened, there would be so much food. But when those families went, then it'd be carrot and rice," she said.
Jody says it was a similar story when she and her husband were in Ethiopia to collect their son from Koala House.
"Our son has attachment issues, but he was never held or cuddled until we got him. He was just picked up to be changed or had a bottle propped up on a pillow," she said.
"We were told when we picked him up that they used to sit him in a bucket so he couldn't learn to move around much. He'd worn all the hair off the back of his head from it rubbing against the bucket.
"A friend of ours had an older child who says they only get one meal a day, which was concerning because the amount of money that we raised for the centre. I raised thousands and thousands."
Earlier this month Mr McClelland announced he will lift a temporary suspension of the adoption program, after concerns of possible breaches of the Hague Convention on inter-country adoption.
The convention is in place to ensure the welfare of children is the priority and that international adoptions are used only as a last resort. Australia is a signatory to the convention but Ethiopia is not.
It will resume operating on April 6 with some changes made, but it appears Mr Gebeyehu will stay in charge.
Against Child Trafficking spokeswoman Roelie Post says Mr Gebeyehu was arrested in Ethiopia and held for 12 days on suspicion of trafficking children to Austria in 2008.
Ms Post says her organisation received little response from the Australian Government after alerting it to this and other alleged concerning practices.
"The children are not orphans. The paperwork is often faked. Parents are declared dead who are not dead and children are given the wrong ages," she said.
"Our organisation sent a letter to the Australian Government with 1,600 pages attached to it with evidence of trafficking in adoptions relating to Australia and India.
"Also we alerted the Australian authorities to Ethiopia, especially to the Ethiopian representative whose name was mentioned in a trafficking case in Austria."
Ms Post does not accept the Australian Government's explanation that Mr Gebeyehu's arrest was just a case of mistaken identity. She thinks there are serious issues that need to be investigated and that the case was mishandled.
"The children come from the same pool, therefore the situation [in Australia] is comparable to adoptions in the US or the Netherlands or any other country."
Sarah says she is aware of older adoptive children recognising each other from Ethiopia and while she stops short of calling it child trafficking, she says it is "on the fringes".
"I have heard that has happened in Australia, where children have known each other prior to coming under Lakew's care - that's a very big coincidence," she said.
All families interviewed by the ABC claim they were not supplied with paperwork and vital information about their children and were blocked by officials from finding information on biological families.
When Anne and her husband adopted their daughter, they say almost all the information about their child's origin was falsified.
They were told she was abandoned, but when through their own search they tracked down the biological parents, they discovered this was a lie.
"The [birth parents] were both devastated, particularly the father. They were so sad to think that their child would have grown up thinking she had been abandoned by them.
"They told us that they could never have done such a thing to their child. They agonised over the decision to relinquish their daughter and they did it legitimately.
"What makes us angry is that our daughter was stripped of her history and there seems to be no valid reason for this to have happened.
"Our child was given a new name and a new birth date and was passed off as having been abandoned."
Sarah adopted two sisters in 2002. She and her husband were told the "orphaned" children were four years old and nine months, with no living relatives.
They later found the eldest daughter was not four, but closer to eight. They also discovered the girls had a mother and that the eldest had two brothers whom she was allegedly warned never to mention.
"She told us exactly where they were and we located them two days later and the brothers told us at the time that she was eight years old," she said.
Jody was also told that her son was abandoned and there was no information about his mother. But years later when her family returned to Ethiopia for their second adoption, they discovered this was not the case.
"With a bit of what we call African persuasion, which is $500, we managed to get a photograph, full name and full details of his birth mother," she said.
"The whole place revolves around money under the table."