On Monday, March 7, the Ethiopian Ministry of Women’s, Children’s and Youth Affairs  announced their plans to reduce intercountry adoptions by 90% beginning  today (March 10) by establishing a quota for processing adoptions (5 per day vs. the current 50 per day).  Voice of America reported that the severe cutbacks are in response to indications of widespread fraud in the adoption process and will allow closer scrutiny of documents used to verify a child’s orphan status. “What we have seen so far has been some illegal practices. There is an abuse. There are some cases that are illegal. So these directives will pave the way to come up with [safeguards],” said a spokesperson for the Ministry.   The Ministry further states that this reduction is being put into place because of the assumption that corruption in intercountry adoption is systemic and rampant and that the Ministry’s resources should be focused on the children for whom intercountry adoption is not an option.

I’ve kept quiet on these reports until now because the US State Department had not confirmed them and because the situation appeared to be in flux.  Yesterday, the Department of State issued an adoption alert confirming these reports.

For the past few years, many of us have been holding our breath about what was happening in Ethiopia.  Anytime a country’s international adoption program is growing rapidly we worry that the influx of western adoption money will pull children away from their families– children who would have and should have remained with their families but for this money.  Ethiopia is certainly growing rapidly.

Ethiopian adoptions by the numbers

Adoptions to the US from Ethiopia by Year (from the US State Department)


2005 442
2006 731
2007 1254
2008 1724
2009 2277
2010 2513


When the Ethiopian Ministry of Women’s, Children’s and Youth Affairs  announced the 90% cutbacks due to rampant fraud, I thought it might be helpful to dig a little deeper.  Fraud and corruption is not always evidenced by the numbers, but generally speaking corrupt adoption systems usually favor young children since the demand in foreign adoption is strongly for AYAHAP (as young and healthy as possible).


(2009 is the last year this data was available. Selected countries. For full report go to Yearbook of Immigration Statistics: 2009.)


Region and country of birth Total Male Female Under 1 year 1 to 4 years 5 years and over
Ethiopia 2,221 1,097 1,124 835 850 536
China, People’s Republic 2,990 682 2,308 475 2,148 367
Russia 1,580 899 681 86 1,220 274
Korea, South 1,106 674 432 947 142 17
Ukraine 605 290 315 D D 457
Guatemala 773 306 467 46 650 77
Vietnam 490 222 268 262 204 25
Haiti 336 151 185 147 189
India 298 84 214 34 189 75
Taiwan 254 134 120 133 86 35
Colombia 237 112 125 62 55 120
Nigeria 122 61 61 14 70 38
Uganda 67 39 28 7 34 26
Liberia 37 18 19 D D 24
Kenya 20 9 11 11 9

D- Data withheld due to limit disclosure.

Percentage of International Adoptions to the US by Age and Country

Country % Under 1 % Between 1- 5 % Over 5
Ethiopia 37.6 38.3 24.1
China 15.9 71.8 12.3
Russia 5.4 77.2 17.3
Korea, South 85.6 12.8 1.5
Guatemala 6.0 84.1 10.0
Vietnam 53.5 41.4 5.1
India 11.4 63.4 25.2
Nigeria 11.5 57.4 31.1

I have a few quibbles with the way these numbers are reported.  The age span of 1-4 is too broad to get a full picture for our purposes since there is a world of difference in the demand to adopt an 18 month old and a 4 ½ year old.  Also, a country’s adoption laws determine the youngest age the child will be available for international adoption, and thus the availability of children under the age of one varies greatly.  In a few countries (notably Korea) few older children are available for adoption.   Note also that these data are for adoption to the US only, but international adoptions to the US make up about half of all international adoptions from Ethiopia, and we would have little reason to expect the numbers to be different for other countries.

What do the numbers tell us?

Although I will be the first to admit that the numbers don’t paint the full picture, I think they are instructive.  It is useful to compare the statistics above for Ethiopia to Guatemala and Vietnam.  (See Table below.)  Since adoptions from Guatemala and Vietnam closed in 2008, statistics for 2009 are only adoptions that were still in the pipeline when adoptions ceased, which is not necessarily reflective of prior years.  I have used statistics from 2008 and 2007 for this comparison.

Comparison of Adoption Statistics by Age


% Under 1

% Between 1-5 % Over 5

Ethiopia (2009)




Guatemala (2008)




Guatemala (2007)




Vietnam (2008)




Vietnam (2007)




The pattern we see for Vietnam and Guatemala is more reflective of what we would expect if birth families were being coerced to relinquish their children by money or if children were being taken/stolen from their birth families The typical pattern with corrupt adoption systems is large numbers of very young children and few older children or children with special needs.  The Joint Council for International Children’s Services reports that 40% of the adoptions from Ethiopia are considered special needs adoptions. Again, a statistic that does not support what we would expect with widespread corruption. I do not have this data for Guatemala or Vietnam.

I am NOT saying that there is not corruption in Ethiopian adoptions.  The exponential growth alone in adoptions from Ethiopia is a major red flag.  I have heard enough stories to believe that fraudulent adoptions are happening.  I also suspect that some of what we are seeing is a cultural difference in what “adoption” means.  In the US we put great stock in adoption meaning becoming a part of another family forever and ever.  Other countries have a more fluid idea of adoption and family.  I don’t know enough about Ethiopia, but I know that this is the case with some other African countries.

I fully acknowledge that Ethiopia alone has the right and the responsibility to decide what is best for their orphaned children. They have their work cut out for them since Ethiopia and UNICEF estimate that there are 5 million orphans in Ethiopia, which is an astonishing 13 percent of the entire child population in Ethiopia.  Under any scenario, international adoption will likely never be the best option for most of these children.  Indeed, it was an option for only about .1% of them last year.

Will these new measures be effective?

I applaud Ethiopia for their concern for these children and for wanting to create a fraud-free adoption system. I question, however, their approach for achieving these goals.  I don’t understand how setting a quota on the number of adoption cases that can be processed addresses either the overall care of Ethiopian orphans or limiting the corruption that exists in international adoptions.  It is analogous to a major city with a huge traffic problem caused by too many cars, a poorly designed highway system, and an underfunded transportation department. One high visibility, but relatively low traffic intersection has a faulty traffic light. It would make little sense for the city to restrict the number of cars through that intersection as the solution to their traffic crisis.  Sure enough, there might be fewer traffic accidents at this intersection simply because there are fewer cars passing through, but accidents will still occur because the light is still faulty.  Just as important, the fundamental problem of too much traffic has not been touched.  All the traffic that was passing through this intersection will now be funneled onto other already overcrowded roads and through other dangerous intersections.  The total number of accidents might well increase.

I don’t know why Ethiopia chose the approach of limiting the number of children that can be adopted as a way to address corruption in their international adoption system.  It’s possible that they don’t have the money to hire enough staff to adequately review the number of adoption applications coming into the system.  It’s possible that too much of their limited manpower is being used to process adoptions which helps too few children.  It is possible that they are trying to scare the shady operators both inside and outside of Ethiopia into more self-regulation. It is possible that this was an easy and visible step, while all other options would be much harder to implement. It is possible that they are embarrassed by the attention they have received for the numbers of children being placed abroad for adoption.  Every country wants to be able to take care of their own—Ethiopia is no exception.  Whatever the reasons, I hope and pray that they will reconsider their approach.

I also hope and pray that those of us who care about children will do a better job of self-regulating.  Adoptions draw attention and thus must be above reproach.  Those who benefit from adoptions –and that would include adoption agencies and adoptive parents—have an obligation to give money and time to help Ethiopia address the fundamental problem of too many orphans.  The solution must be Ethiopian, but we can help with our money, time, and prayers.  Families and extended families need to receive support to stay intact. Most of these children will not ever be considered for adoption, but their needs are still real and still urgent.  In many ways, international adoptions mask these needs by allowing people to assume that the problem of 5 million orphans is being solved.

What can you do to help?

  • Read this excellent summary of the situation by the Joint Council on International Children’s Services
  • Sign the Joint Council on International Children’s Services petition to be submitted to the Ethiopian government.
  • Reach out to a family that is in the process of adopting from Ethiopia.  They are scared and frustrated right now and could use some support.
  • Pray, or send positive thoughts if that’s more your style, for all the orphans in Ethiopia that we can work together to come up with solutions that will begin to reduce their numbers.
  • Join in with a group of Ethiopian adoptive families that are fasting every Friday in support of solutions.
  • Sign up for the Creating a Family weekly newsletter on the top right hand side of this page. We’ll keep you up to date with what is happening.


Image credit:  Dietmar Temps