exposing the dark side of adoption
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The next China?


With five-year waiting lists for Chinese infants, Canadians are increasingly looking to African countries for adoption. But the journey is rife with potential pitfalls. Hayley Mick reports


Published on Tuesday, Apr. 15, 2008 8:49AM EDT

Last updated on Monday, Mar. 30, 2009 3:30PM EDT

Michelle and David Huck know well the promise and peril of adopting from Africa.

The Calgary couple's first attempt began smoothly: A Canadian adoption agency newly licensed to work in Sierra Leone matched them with orphaned siblings - Amie, 3, and her one-year-old brother, Sorie. For a year, the Hucks filled out paperwork, prepared a bedroom and paid more than $20,000 in fees. But when Mr. Huck flew to the war-torn country, he made a terrible discovery: Amie and Sorie did not exist. "It was devastating," says Ms. Huck, a social worker.

The Hucks eventually returned to Sierra Leone, adopting baby Samuel from a reputable orphanage run by Canadians.

And last year in Ethiopia, six-year-old Bethlehem Soleil jumped into their arms and completed their family, which also includes two biological children.

The Hucks' story, even with its happy ending, highlights the potential pitfalls as more Canadian families travel to Africa to bring orphaned children home.Canadian adoptions from Africa are on the rise: Last year, there were more than 100 adoptions, a more than threefold increase since 2002. Most are from Ethiopia - now the second most popular country for Canadian international adoptions - rising from 13 adoptions in 2002 to 96 in the first nine months of 2007. South Africa, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Congo have begun sending children to Canada in the past five years.

The trend is in large part due to supply and demand: China's adoption program is slowing down drastically - there are now five-year waiting lists for Chinese infants - so Canadian adoption agencies are spanning out across the globe looking for new programs. Many are turning to Africa, where conflict, poverty and disease have orphaned millions of children - 12 million from HIV-AIDS alone.

Despite the need, and celebrity endorsements from Madonna and Angelina Jolie, Africa's future as an adoption hub troubles some experts because of the potential for abuses.

Earlier this year, Ottawa alerted provincial adoption regulators about serious child-trafficking problems in Liberia - where Canadians have adopted 26 children since 2005. Three jurisdictions - Alberta, Newfoundland and Nunavut - responded by halting all adoptions from Liberia. (Canada-wide moratoriums apply to Cambodia and Guatemala.)

Some experienced adoption agents say there is potential for more problems as agencies scramble for licences in countries where international adoption is new, and proper checks and balances are not yet streamlined.

"Is it competitive? Yeah, it's competitive," says Cheryl Carter-Shotts, who directs Americans for African Adoptions, the first North American adoption agency licensed in Ethiopia in 1996. Now, she says, there are about 60 licensed agencies.

"Families want babies and toddlers. Who's going to come up with babies and toddlers? And how much are you going to charge? Are you soliciting pregnant girls?"

Nothing about adopting from Sierra Leone was easy for Tom and Monique Yurkiw. Almost three years ago, Mr. Yurkiw, a Canadian military medic, was in the country helping to train local soldiers when he met a bright but destitute five-year-old girl named Melrose. Melrose's grandmother, her caretaker, explained that the girl's parents were dead, and encouraged Mr. Yurkiw to adopt the child.

But the Yurkiws soon learned that even humanitarian efforts can't steamroll poverty and corruption. One social worker in Sierra Leone hinted that they could speed up the dragging process if they bought her a laptop. It turned out that Melrose's grandmother, hoping to grant Melrose a better life, had lied about her orphan status. (Melrose's father, who had been in jail, and her mother, who gave birth to Melrose at age 13, later went to a Sierra Leonean court and gave up their legal parental rights so the Yurkiws could adopt.)

Finally, after more than a year of complex paperwork, long-distance calls and about $24,000 in flights and fees, the Yurkiws travelled to Sierra Leone to gather Melrose - then learned her visa hadn't been approved because of a glitch at the Canadian High Commission in Ghana. That threw the entire adoption into question. Two months and another flight later, the adoption went through, but only after the Ottawa Citizen drew attention to the family's plight.

Other couples have had similarly turbulent adoption journeys. Karen and Dave Bakelaar met a boy named Thabiso while volunteering in a South African orphanage. On the advice of a local social worker, the couple returned home to Ottawa to begin the adoption process, only to discover that no Canadian adoption agency was licensed to work in South Africa. What they naively assumed would take three weeks dragged into nine months of angst and dogged effort.

"There were quite a few points where we thought it might not happen," said Ms. Bakelaar, 34, who is studying foreign relations in Ottawa.

The Yurkiws and Bakelaars faced these trials, in part, because they were trailblazers in countries where Canadian agencies hadn't worked before. Last year, the Bakelaars adopted a baby boy, Khosi, from South Africa. This time, the process was relatively seamless because Mission of Tears, the Toronto agency that helped with Thabiso's adoption in 2002, had since facilitated at least a dozen more adoptions from South Africa.

But even Ethiopia, which has one of the longest-running and most streamlined adoption programs in Africa, isn't immune to problems. The Manitoba-based agency Canadian Advocates for the Adoption of Children (CAFAC) was the first Canadian agency licensed in Ethiopia in 1999. It was the only one there until last year, when three more Canadian agencies were licensed, says CAFAC co-founder Deborah Northcott.

Ms. Northcott says she's alarmed at the way some parents are beginning to shop around for services, seeking out agencies who can find a child the fastest, for the least money. "Certainly we do have the consumerist side of families coming out," she said.

Others, like Ms. Carter-Shotts, point out with frustration that while it's true there are millions of African children in need of loving families, most are not the coveted baby or toddler. They are older, not in perfect health, or attached to siblings.

Girls are most often requested - in some cases because families believe it's more difficult to raise black boys in the United States, Ms. Carter-Shotts said.

"I've had people call me and say, 'Oh, I want a child just like Angelina Jolie.' It's very frustrating because we work for the children. I'm trying to place two brothers right now from Liberia. Nobody wants two boys. Everyone wants a girl," she said. "I feel like sometimes we have families who want to go shopping."

The Children's Bridge, one of Ontario's largest international adoption agencies, is now actively steering parents away from its China program and toward others, including two new ones in Ethiopia and South Africa.

Cathy Murphy, the agency's executive director, says that despite the need in Africa, the chances of its becoming the next China will be limited by the extent to which African countries embrace the practice of international adoption. Right now, the majority do not: Some countries, such as Nigeria and Sudan, forbid it, while others, such as Kenya and Uganda, allow it, but put such heavy demands on prospective parents - such as a requirement that they live in the country as long as six months - that it is effectively impossible.

It will also depend on how Canadians want to build their families, she said. "What I try to convey to parents is, there are still many options open to you," Ms. Murphy says. "It just may not be a 10-month-old Asian baby."

All of the families interviewed for this story said that despite their struggles, they have no regrets. Their lives, and their children's lives, have been made better through adoption.

But there have also been lessons learned.

Sometimes Melrose asks if her five-year-old sister, Christianna, who's still in Sierra Leone, can be adopted too. "She's very small, she doesn't eat much, she can sleep with me," she tells her parents.

The Yurkiws - who have five other children, including three from Mr. Yurkiw's previous relationship - say that for now, at least, they can't imagine going through the stress and expense again.

"It's like, 'Melrose, if it was that easy, we'd do it in a heartbeat,' " Ms. Yurkiw said.

By the numbers

The "it" countries in international adoption are constantly changing as quotas fill, programs close and new ones open.

International adoptions by Canadians, January to September, 2007 (latest figures available):

1) China 524

2) Ethiopia 92

3) Russia 83

4) United States 71

5) Haiti 67

Other 338

Total 1,175

International adoptions

by Canadians, 2002:

1) China 800

2) Russia 146

3) India 127

4) Haiti 98

5) South Korea 98

Other 657

Total 1,926

Hayley Mick

Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada

2008 Apr 15