The Joys, The Challenges Of Adopting From Ethiopia

The desire to adopt has taken some would-be parents around the world. Now, the East African nation of Ethiopia is second only to China when it comes to international adoptions to the U.S. Host Michel Martin speaks with three parents about understanding Ethiopian adoption.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Today, we wanted to turn our attention to international adoption, specifically from the East African country of Ethiopia, which might ring a bell because that's where actress Angelina Jolie adopted her daughter, Zahara, in 2005.

And it might surprise you to learn, as we did from a recent report in The Wall Street Journal that since 1999, more than 11,000 adoptions in the U.S. have come from Ethiopia and, although the figures dropped last year due to tougher laws set by the Ethiopian government, over the past two years, Ethiopia has been second only to China as a destination for Americans seeking to adopt. That's because the country's short waiting periods and the availability of infants and toddlers has made it attractive after scandals in other countries like Guatemala caused agencies to look elsewhere.

But there have also been complaints that the process is more susceptible to abuse than it should be. We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon three mothers who have all adopted from Ethiopia and have had varying experiences.

Bridgett Davis adopted Abebitu in 2008. She joined a family that already included one biological son. Dr. Jane Aronson is a pediatrician. She's also CEO and founder of Worldwide Orphans Foundation. She has two boys and her 14-year-old was adopted from Ethiopia in 2004. Also with us, Cindy Burt, who adopted Meheret in 2008. She also has two biological sons and a daughter, Beatrice, who was later adopted from Uganda. And I want to mention that Cindy Burt is coming to us via her mobile phone from Germany, so if you hear birds in the background and some noises on the line, that's what you're hearing.

With that being said, welcome, ladies, moms. Thank you so much for joining us.

BRIDGETT DAVIS: Thank you.

DR. JANE ARONSON: Thanks for having us.

CINDY BURT: Yeah. Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: And let me just start by saying, you know, there's a lot of value judgment around adoption, especially international adoption, so I'm going to declare this a no-judgment zone so that people can speak freely about whatever they want to say.

And I'll start with you, Bridgett. Why did you decide to adopt from Ethiopia, and was it a good experience?

DAVIS: I realized when my son, my biological son, was about 6 or 7, that I actually did want another child. I was very clear I wanted a daughter. I didn't feel any need to try to give birth to another child. I thought adoption would be a great option and I had heard about a few people through word of mouth who'd had good experiences adopting from Ethiopia.

And then the clincher for me was that it was an African country and that felt right. I'm African-American and I had a feel about that part. I wanted to, if I could, adopt in this African country and sort of help myself and perhaps help that child at the same time.

MARTIN: And it was OK? It was a good experience? You felt good about the process?

DAVIS: It was beyond OK. It was beyond OK. It's been amazing and, when I say amazing, I don't mean perfect. I just mean incredible. I've grown. She's taught me so much. She's changed our family for the better. She's a joy and I can't imagine not having done it.

MARTIN: Cindy Burt, what about you? And I should mention that you are speaking to us from Germany and you are outside in search of a good Wi-Fi hotspot, so I just want to explain why people might be hearing...

BURT: Yes.

MARTIN: ...birds chirping behind you. Your experience was a little different. Would you tell us about that?

BURT: Yeah. We felt no need to continue having children biologically and Ethiopia - everything about it was a great fit. We've had some tough things come up, but the actual experience of adopting her was beautiful.

MARTIN: So, Cindy, as I understand it, though, the difficulty is that you thought that your daughter was an orphan. It turns out, she's not.

BURT: We were told that her father had passed away and that was not true and there were several other things that we found out were not true. Ours is a pretty mild fraud, compared to some that I've heard, so we are grateful for that.

MARTIN: Does she know? Does your daughter know that her biological parents are still alive?

BURT: Yes, she does.

MARTIN: So, Dr. Aronson, you have deep experience in this field. I mean, you are - as I mentioned, you're a pediatrician. You are also the founder of a foundation. You've seen many adoptive children over the years and you're also an adoptive parent from Ethiopia, also previously adopted from Vietnam.

I'm just wondering, which experience do you think is more common? Cindy's or Bridgett's?

ARONSON: I think there are a lot more different kinds of experiences than Bridgett's and Cindy's, actually. I'm a person who deals in the gray. I've seen well over 10,000 children adopted from abroad and I've been doing adoption medicine for 25 years. But I think what I want to focus in on right here is that the use of the word fraud is very challenging for me.

Adoption comes to us through many cultural dysfunction, if you will. The definition of an orphan is a little quirky. You know, UNICEF defines it as a child less than 18 who's has lost either one or both parents. That's quirky in a way because lots of people grow up with one parent and they don't see themselves as an orphan. But the truth of the matter is, you know, there's lots of children in the world - the vast majority of orphans, by the way, our social orphans, where the family is there, both parents are alive, but they have no means of supervision. The family may be ill, unable to live in a home setting of permanency because of extreme poverty. So then the child is thought to the best placed in an orphanage or in an adoptive home whether domestically or internationally.

MARTIN: Mm. Wow.

ARONSON: So this plays a big role, in my opinion, for what Cindy is talking about and I hope that we can somehow, you know, understand that that still can be an orphan child.

And in Ethiopia - just so, 'cause that's what we're talking about today - I really in my years of doing adoption medicine, and I'm not part of the process in the country necessarily, but I really haven't seen fraud. I have many stories in my back pocket about an uncle or an aunt coming to an orphanage and relinquishing a young baby, a toddler, an older child, more than one child, siblings, groups...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

ARONSON: ...and then I see them saying, you know, I'm Uncle Getachew(ph) and I'm Aunt Betelem(ph) but they may actually be the parents.

MARTIN: Well, Dr. Aronson, I just want to stop you right there and ask, Cindy Burt, what is it that most concerns you? Is it you feel that they were misled or you feel that they didn't really understand that they were relinquishing her forever, that they thought she was going to come back, like going to school and then come back in the summers or something like that? What's the thing that concerns you most?

BURT: The thing that concerns me most about our experience was as we saw her lack of trust over time. She would get almost there, 95 percent of the way, and then she would sort of stop.

MARTIN: I see. So she felt like she started out her life being lied to and...

BURT: Right.

MARTIN: Yeah. And that's kind of hard. Well, what have you done since? I know you sought out the parents. Have you been able to reconnect with both - just to help her put that missing piece of the puzzle together?

BURT: At this point we send matters, photos and video and we get some in return. I think she really struggled with that reconnection in the beginning. I think we've almost destabilized her place in our family by suddenly re-introducing another family to her. So we've just walked through it slowly but surely and we do hope to go visit them soon. So we're looking forward to it.

MARTIN: Bridgett, let me ask, did you feel or ever experience a sense of judgment around your decision to adopt from Ethiopia? You obviously kept your daughter's Ethiopian name. I assume that was name she was given at birth.

DAVIS: Yes.

MARTIN: Tell me about that.

DAVIS: My experience might be particular again, to my being African-American. I think a lot of my black friends didn't understand. They might not have come out and said why are you doing this, but they had their way of making it clear to me they didn't get it. Because there are, as some did say to me, many millions of black children in this country who need parents. Why would you go all the way over there like them? That's the implication.

MARTIN: Like them? What's the like them? I don't understand. Who's them?

DAVIS: Like them is wealthier white families who some people in the black community judge for making that choice. They feel it's perhaps there's something that's faddish about it, and so there was a confusion, I think, and curiosity. A real concern that I was somehow neglecting "my own," quote/unquote, to make this choice.

MARTIN: Did anybody say that to you or you just picked up at vibe?

DAVIS: I've had at least one person just come out and say this is my concern. But I knew that was the implicit point that these people were making to me, and I understood it. I didn't like it but I understood it. I thought it was narrow minded but I knew it came from a lack of understanding too. And I'm happy to say that more African-Americans are adopting from Ethiopia and from other countries. They are, you know, it's just it was a foreign experience literally to a lot of people.

MARTIN: I see. Sure.

if you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In the past two years, nearly one out of five children adopted by Americans internationally came from Ethiopia, and our moms today all adopted from that country and they are sharing their experiences with us.

I'm joined today by Dr. Jane Aronson. She is a pediatrician. She's also the CEO and founder of Worldwide Orphans Foundation. Cindy Burt is with us and Bridgett Davis.

Dr. Aronson, I didn't ask about your experience. I know, what about you?

ARONSON: I had an experience a lot like Bridgett's. I, you know, adopted a 6-year-old boy, we already had a 4-year-old at home who was adopted as an infant from Vietnam and I was really eager to adopt an older child because I felt that that would be a nice experience for us as a family, especially for my son. And I felt very strongly about the fact that older children rarely get an opportunity to have permanency out of a situation like that. And yet, I would say that when a child first comes home there are a lot of challenges. A child has to learn English and has to learn what it's like to live in a permanent family and has to trust, and it takes a long time. I mean, my son will be 14 in July and I still see that he's forever, you know, changing and evolving in his understanding of himself as a person who lost his family, as a person who was adopted, and as a person who's an Ethiopian boy, now a teen, and a family with two moms and an Asian brother. I mean, it's all, you know, complicated stuff that he has to figure out and he does a darn good job and he has a great sense of humor, by the way, about it all.

MARTIN: Well, I'm going to take your word of wisdom on this, Dr. Aronson, and not try to generalize from the three experiences here and make them sort of universal about adoption or adoption from Ethiopia in particular. So well, just to conclude, I'll just ask each of you for your word of wisdom for other parents who may be contemplating adoption, particularly from Ethiopia, for whatever reasons.

So Dr. Aronson, do you want to start? What's your word of wisdom?

ARONSON: I think you really have to not be judgmental. I mean, it's about everything in life, I think. I'm giving myself my own advice right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ARONSON: So as a parent you need not to be judgmental. You have to have an open heart. But at the same time you have to really be prepared for the kinds of things that you are not thinking about. And then I think Cindy laid out a story, which is important for us to hear because it shows us that there may be quirks and things that are different about the unfolding of the child's story, and I think that those things, and I know in all my 25 years of doing this, this is not just about Ethiopia. It's about that world. It's a complicated world and there are lots of things that you may not know that you may find out later in life. And so I try to tell people don't be so definitive. You represent the story in the best way you can but you try to be open and you try to be able to take in what may change, and also, especially for older children about their memory.

I want to say finally that children may not be able to express what they know initially because they're afraid, they don't have the language. And then over time, let me tell you that things come out. And even now, my son will be 14, we still have some unraveling of very interesting perceptions and thoughts and feelings about what happened to him and pieces of memory that are so difficult for him to know. Is this really things you told me? Are these things I might imagine? Are these things real? That's the most fascinating part. And to not jump to the place where you then say can't be.

MARTIN: I see. Interesting. Cindy, what's your word of wisdom?

BURT: Woo. I know for a fact that there are a lot of children in Ethiopia that are in need of homes right now. I really, truly believe that international adoption is a great thing. Our second adoption was fantastic and really showed us all the good things that it can be. Maybe that's another thing I would say is it's tough to know that we were part of something that caused our daughter pain because we sure love her and we're sorry that that happened.

MARTIN: Bridgett, what's your word of wisdom?

DAVIS: Well, I would say that it's important to keep in mind that there are no guarantees when you give birth. I've done both. I've had a birth child and an adoptive child. They're both a crap shoot. One is no more guaranteed than the other, and you have to go into either experience with that understanding, that you have to just know you have signed on and you will accept whatever happens because you decided this. You made the decision, not the child. The child didn't ask to come here. So I feel you have that responsibility.

I would also say to an adoptive parent, please, please, do not assume that your child should feel grateful. I think that that has caused so many problems in adoptive households because the parents had fantasies and expectations and believed that they had gone through so much to, quote/unquote, "help this child," that the child doesn't feel grateful enough. Unfortunately, it's a human reaction, but I just want to say, not with judgment but with warning that, you know, we have to constantly remember this child has been snatched, literally, from all they know into a brand new world. And so if we have that patience and we put all the pressure and expectation and responsibility on ourselves and not on the child, that hopefully it can turn out well.

MARTIN: Our moms today all adopted from Ethiopia. Bridgett Davis and Dr. Jane Aronson joined us from our studios in New York City. Cindy Burt joined us from her home in Germany. Ladies, moms, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

ARONSON: You're welcome.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

BURT: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And next week in our Moms panel, we'll continue our conversation about women and weight that we started on Monday. You might remember that we talked about that op-ed by writer Alice Randall in The New York Times that's causing a bit of a stir. She said quote, "many black women are fat because we want to be," unquote.

Now, many people took to the blogosphere to blast Randall's argument, saying she's just reinforcing stereotypes about African-American culture and relationships, or just blaming the victim. But whatever you thought of Randall's argument, it's clear she's thought a lot about it. She takes on the issue of black women and weight in her new novel "Ada's Rules." Ada is a preacher's wife who wages her own war with weight as she cares for the flock, her husband, grown kids and her aging parents. It's something that Alice Randall talked about for a video promoting her book.

ALICE RANDALL: I love Ada. She's my funniest character. She's a large black woman who has the audacity to be in love with her body and her life, and to be sexy at the same time. And she's practical enough to try and do something about her health. At the beginning of the novel, she is 220 pounds and she thinks her gorgeous husband may be having an affair, though he seems to still be in love with her.

MARTIN: Author, Alice Randall will join our regular Moms contributors to dish on their own battles with weight and on her book "Ada's Rules." That's next Tuesday on TELL ME MORE.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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