Australians hoping to form a family by adopting children from Ethiopia say they are devastated and baffled by the government's recent decision to close its adoption program with the Horn of Africa country.
The Attorney-General's department announced in June that it would shut down the 22-year program because of an “increasingly unpredictable” adoption environment, rising program costs and more opportunities for children to access alternative care within Ethiopia itself.
The department says the Ethiopia program has “long been the most difficult to manage” and the uncertainty around it has kept prospective Australian parents “in limbo for years”. And, while acknowledging that expecting families will be disappointed, it says the interests of the child must come first.
“We help children find families - not families find children,” Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said in a speech at the 12th Institute of Family Studies Conference in July. “We have to be certain the children are orphans or are truly voluntarily being put forward for adoption.”
“The alternative of the government implicitly supporting some dodgy adoptions where the welfare of children comes a distant second to making a bit of money is just not something I can tolerate,” Roxon said.
But prospective parents and adoption groups are unconvinced by the government's reasons for the closure, which comes after a one-year suspension of the program in 2009. At the time of the announcement 100 Australian families had files waiting in the adoption system - some for as long as 14 years. They say the Attorney-General has abandoned them, and Ethiopian children, too quickly.
“People are in shock… the program doesn't fit neatly into all the government's boxes so now they've decided it's all just a bit too difficult for them,” says Mark Pearce, president of the Australian African Children's Aid and Support Association (AACASA), the peak support group for families wanting to adopt from Ethiopia. He says the decision has been driven by Australia, not Ethiopia.
“The Ethiopians can't understand why the decision was made and some of them are highly offended by the actions of the Australian Government,” he says. “They're very, very protective of their children and they want to make sure the best interests of their children are upheld - but they see that the program was doing just that.”
“Of course a child has the right to grow up knowing their heritage and their history, but children also deserve a loving and secure home and if they face 18 years in an orphanage, they're not really able to connect, either with their community or their past,” he says.
Adoption groups say the argument that there are fewer children in need of families because of increasing long-term care options within Ethiopia, is unrealistic and lacks an understanding of the pressures of poverty.
UNICEF estimates there are five million orphans in Ethiopia, and that two million of those children are living below the poverty line. In a recent report, The Situation of Boys and Girls in Ethiopia 2012, it documents a rise in the number of children in need of alternative care in Ethiopia because of HIV and AIDS, natural disasters, severe poverty, war, internal migration and family breakdowns.
“It's true Ethiopia is doing a great job supporting local adoptions and they're to be commended for that," says Pearce. "But no country has the capacity to place that many orphans through a local adoption program."
He says a further “tragedy” of the program closure, is that development funds that were part of Australia's adoption agreement with Ethiopia have also stopped. The funding was small and not directly linked to orphanages connected with Australian adoptions, but it was “a way for Ethiopia to get some resources to address poverty, community development and fund family reunification programs,” says Pearce.
Jacqui Gilmour is director of Hope for Children Australia, part of an Ethiopian NGO that operates group homes in Addis Ababa for children who have lost parents to HIV/AIDS. She too, says Ethiopia's priority is local adoptions, but that the reality on the ground is very different. “There are just so many children,” she says.
“Local adoption sounds good but it hasn't worked and the people running the orphanages are worried – asking 'who's going to care for those children? Who's going to take them if these programs shut?' There's no government budget for it and they will suffer.”
“We're seeing teenage pregnancy on the rise, and for the first time, teenage mothers as a group are giving up their children,” says Gilmour. Previously, girls' families would have absorbed the babies, but now - with the inflation rate at 45 per cent - they're just not able to.”
On a visit to one orphanage last month, Jacqui says five newborn babies were brought in by police in one morning. Recent moves by the Ethiopian Government to better regulate orphanages have seen many lose their operating licenses and as a result, government-run centres were struggling with too many babies for their capacity.
“Right now I'm scrambling around looking for a couple of thousand dollars to buy this orphanage the nappies that they've begged me for,” she says.
Gilmour says the Ethiopian Government actually considered the Australian adoption program one of its best and wanted to model other programs on its success.
And while the Attorney-General's department clearly states on its website, “there is no suggestion of illegal practices in relation to any adoptions previously finalised between Ethiopia and Australia”, suggestions of corruption couched in Nicola Roxon's statement about “dodgy adoptions” are especially hurtful for adopted children and program partners in Ethiopia.