Opening a closed adoption...across oceans, language and $$$ differences
November 1, 2014 11:17 PM   Subscribe

We adopted a preschool age waiting child from rural Ethiopia a few years ago who was portrayed as having "developmental and physical problems from severe malnutrition," a birth mom who had passed away and an elderly father who was sick and could no longer care for the child. We have discovered since then that there are disparities in what we were led to believe about the situation leading to our child's relinquishment and we are trying to figure out how to navigate opening up the adoption with the birth family in rural Ethiopia. And this is going to be difficult.

I would love to hear from Mefites who have

1) reconnected with birth family after an adoption,
2) have reconnected with extended family who live in much poorer financial circumstances and have had to navigate that, and
3) any Mefites with first-hand knowledge of the culture/customs of southern rural Ethiopia.

To protect our child's privacy, I'm going to have to omit some identifying information. And to make this easier to write about, I'm going to call our child Tich. But here are the facts as we know them currently. Wanting to stress that much of this is information we received AFTER completing the adoption:

-Birth mother died ~11-13 months after Tich was born.
-Tich was relinquished ~age 2 to rural orphanage in Ethiopia.
-Tich has older siblings and a grandmother.
-Birth family is poor by Western standards and even some Ethiopian standards, but is surviving as subsistence farmers.
-Birth father has had past health problems but is very much alive.
-It's possible that Tich's early malnutrition was related to an infectious disease that is easily treatable in the West.
-Birth family has expressed that they very much loved and wanted to be able to keep Tich. Birth father visited Tich in orphanage when possible.
-After our meeting with one of the social workers from the local orphanage in Ethiopia, there are suspicions that the relinquishment might have been coerced, but we have no documented evidence of this. The spoken perspective of the orphanage directors, that children are "better off with wealthier families from the West" coupled with pushy and repeated requests for monetary donations to the orphanage is all we have.
-We were able to send an independent searcher to visit with the family after we had been back in the U.S. for a year and send them photographs of Tich. They were able to verify that the birth mother was most likely dead, but that the rest of the family was very much alive and overjoyed to see photos of Tich.
-There was a translated videotape from our searcher that expressed how happy the family was to receive this information, how they wish that someday Tich will return to visit them, and they did NOT ask for money.
-We did ask the searcher to bring them gifts of food from us, they returned with that food for them on another day.
-The family is still very poor. Picture them living on a subsistence farm with unpredictable farming conditions (drought, etc.) in living conditions that are identifiably less comfortable than their neighbors.
-There is no running water or clean water available; a small tukel made of sticks and dried grass for 7-9 people to sleep/cook in with all the livestock (goats, chickens); a small plot of land for farming (we do not know if it is rented or owned). The children in the home have torn clothes and no shoes...they cannot afford to send them to school. This is in contrast to many neighbors who have better, larger tukels or cinder block houses. They have no cow for milk or plowing (unlike neighbors), nor do they have electricity or a cell phone or any transportation (cart, car, motorbike) unlike some of their neighbors.
-The nearest post station for mail is 45 minutes away by car. And it is not safe or secure to send money or goods via post, they will be stolen.

We have been very open with Tich regarding the birth family, what we know, and what we don't know. Tich has pictures of the birth family, and seems to remember birth father from his visits to the orphanage. However, it is unclear what Tich actually remembers and what Tich is filling in as to help him/her make sense of her own story about life before us. In the past 4-5 months, Tich has been grieving and talking about them a lot. I am supportive of anything that Tich wants to express about grief and loss. Tich is approx. 5-5 1/2 now...there is no certain birthdate. The infectious disease is gone, Tich's health is much improved, Tich is not developmentally disabled. Tich doesn't remember birth mother, but has begun to understand the concept of death/dying and has expressed loss.

I'm already getting counseling for support on how to support TICH through this messy, complicated situation. We were led to believe different things about our child's origin story and now do NOT want to close the door on the real origin story or the birth family for the sake of emotional and logistical convenience. On one hand, it is pretty devastating that this has happened to all parties involved. On the other hand, we feel pretty fortunate to have uncovered all of this sooner rather than later.

We always knew we would return and visit. Tich wants to visit now. Tich seems to have very confused impressions of what life is actually like there, even after viewing photos. There is some "magical thinking" that Ethiopia is the place where Tich will be able to do whatever he/she would like to do, whenever. Tich is very attached to us as well, and has settled into our family, and school and friends and a social life. But it is not impossible that Tich could have the best of both worlds in some way.

Because I am much more aware of the financially fragile situation of the birth family, I am concerned about their welfare. But I strongly suspect that it is not as easy as giving money directly to them, because of the complicated politics and social structures in this rural village. Especially as I know from conversations with the local orphanage director that other international families have funneled lots of money to other birth families through them (while they pay themselves "transaction fees" for arranging this), and I cannot rule out that this orphanage and even the village kebele may have pressured the birth family to relinquish for this reason. I have researched NGO's in the area and there really are none. Making the family more healthy, comfortable and financially secure in the most basic of ways is a shaky tightrope to walk. It is a frustrating puzzle.

What can I/do I do as a supportive adoptive parent? I worry that Tich doesn't have the language or emotional resources to truly process a visit back to Ethiopia at 5 or 6 years old. I worry about the birth family and their welfare, including the siblings. I want them to have updates about Tich as I sincerely look at this situation as two families loving and supporting a child across two continents. I want to do the "right" thing in a situation where there seems to be no "right" answer.

I'm really trying to avoid a situation like this.

Throw away email is postadoptioncontact (at) gmail (dot) com

As a postscript, and because it may be a question. We REALLY researched agencies here in the U.S. not understanding how separated that they are from the local orphanage system in country. This was not a fly-by-night agency and is generally the agency that others look to as the gold standard in adoption ethics. I put this caution here for others who have adopted internationally or who are looking to adopt...there are too many potential weaknesses in the chain of custody for international adoption agencies to be able to guarantee that there will be no ethical questions in any adoption. We went in with our eyes wide open and were willing to walk away if something didn't feel right, and it still happened to us.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
We adopted and it turned out to be adoption trafficking. We ended up adopting two more siblings and continue to have an open adoption with phone calls and visits. We did consider at one point early on returning our children to their first parents, but due to the specific situation at the time, that wasn't possible.

Have they clearly stated that they want Tish to stay with your family? I completely understand what it's like to have that decision - a decade more on and I still remember the half hour that it seemed we would have to undo the adoption, and the crushing grief and joy of realising that there was no intact family to return to them too. I know adoptive parents who did return children post-trafficking (and yeah, agencies are able to traffic with good intentions and 'clean' paperwork) and both outcomes are hard.

I think a trip makes a huge difference. For every trip we made, the kids have found it very hard in the run-up and shortly after, then would stride forward to a better plateau of emotional health. There's nothing that can replace face to face.

Daughter from Danang was very unprepared and the expectations were out of sync on both sides. You need to talk to families with open adoptions in Ethiopia and establish what Ethiopian families view adoption as, and filial responsibilities.

The financial stuff can be complicated - our approach was that we were now the extended family safety net, and that we would provide regular cash support for healthcare and education (much like any extended family overseas would be expected to do). Emotionally, we told our kids that this was from me and my husband because we viewed their family as relatives through us, but as kids, their responsibilities were to study hard and grow up good, not provide financial support (yet - we live in a culture where kids are expected to save money for their parents, so there's fortunately less conflict, and our kids' family members have generally overlapped with us on message). I have stepped in as the buffer for toxic messages, but it's a constant navigation because it simply is complicated by culture, power, class, race, money etc. We looked to what was appropriate and possible by the local standards in the birth country.

We have photographs of family members all over our house and try to include them in daily conversations routinely. I use first and second parent (I'm their second), rather than birth/adoptive because I think it's more truthful.

Language is a huge issue. It came at an academic cost, but I have zero regrets about making sure most of my kids can speak directly to their family. Invest in making sure that Tish can speak his family's language. It will change so much as an adult for him. If one of you can take lessons with him HUGE HELP. So worth it.

Magical thinking is totally developmentally normal and fine. You just talk it through and keep repeating the message that both families love Tish, etc.

You need to visit. You also need to do this independent of the orphanage and agency. Get your own translator.

Go slow and steady and small with the help. Set boundaries and keep your promises. Build relationships with the extended family, not just the immediate family.

Find out about getting a mobile phone for texting/calling - if you get language lessons, you could arrange for a weekly phone call for the teacher to help translate until you and Tish can talk directly.

Money-wise, try and imagine if Bill Gates turned up at your door and was the adoptive dad of your kid. Most people truly won't see you as a lottery ticket, they want help, family contact and to know that their kids have a chance. But you need to carefully contextualise how much you can afford to pay. My husband and I would discuss exactly how much we could spend - not with the kids - and as it turns out, we've never been asked for as much as we were willing to give.

You can email me or email me at viggorlijah at with questions. Welcome to the club! there's lots more of us extended-by-adoption international families out there, and our kids are so much happier and healthier with MORE love and truth in their lives.
posted by viggorlijah at 11:59 PM on November 1, 2014 [45 favorites]

I worry that Tich doesn't have the language or emotional resources to truly process a visit back to Ethiopia at 5 or 6 years old.

If you decide you're prepared to make the trip, you can help Tich build this sort of emotional resilience. I would start by asking Tich if they wanted to go (sounds like the answer will be yes), to make it clear that they have some say in what's happening. It can be helpful to describe the people, places, and things you'll see there, just like you've been doing. It will likely be helpful to explain that the adults and Tich's other family members might have big emotions about seeing Tich again, like being really happy they're there but maybe also really sad when they leave, and that it's normal to have big emotions like that. It will likely also be helpful to explain that Tich might have really big emotions like that, too, and maybe even different emotions at the same time (like being happy and sad all at once), and that it's ok to be sad sometimes.

An exercise that can be helpful with kids that you can start well before the trip is drawing a gingerbread person outline on a piece of paper, and then asking the child to color in their emotions on the gingerbread person. Maybe their heart is really happy, so draw that in, or their heart is really sad. Maybe part of them is angry, and green seems like an angry color, so the hands and feet get colored with green. If "color your feelings" doesn't resonate, sometimes "color your day" does. Give the child space to do the coloring, but try to ask non-directively about the end result. (e.g., "I see that the hands are really dark green. What's happening there?" and don't try to fix or solve any emotions brought up, just accept them and let them exist, unless the child asks you for help with them.)

It might also be helpful to brainstorm with Tich some sort of transitional object they can give their relatives, like purchasing small toys that represent Tich's favorite animal(s) or something else small but meaningful, and to look for a transitional object Tich can bring back from Ethiopia, even just a small pretty rock or interesting twig from on or near the family's land (or the family might give Tich something, too). Having a physical reminder of the relationship that Tich can keep in their pocket or under their pillow might be nice.

Given the amount of love and thought you've put into this situation, and the amount of love and support you're obviously showing toward both Tich and Tich's birth family, and especially given the eagerness Tich is showing to visit Ethiopia now, I wouldn't let fear of Tich's response to the trip drive your decision-making, if logistical and ethical considerations can be overcome (they may not be, I realize). Kids often deal better with seeing things in person -- research is showing that kids who attend parents' funerals often deal much better with the parent's death, for instance. Certainly double-check all of it with your child's therapist, but I strongly suspect that the emotional part of it, while difficult, would help Tich overall.
posted by jaguar at 7:24 AM on November 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

I should have been clearer: The gingerbread person exercise is a way of teaching children how to identify their emotions as well as giving them a way to express them, both in the sense of sharing them with another person and of making sense of them themselves.
posted by jaguar at 7:26 AM on November 2, 2014

I can't find the link, but I vividly remember reading a long article about a problematic adoption from the Philippines. The adoptive couple discovered the problem and established a relationship with the birth family. They made trips over several years. Eventually the adoptive parents divorced and the birth family decided the girl should remain with them in the Philippines. I hope you can find it and that it is helpful.

I also think that if you can reach out to your local Ethiopian community they may be able to help you in many ways. From providing some cultural context to your child up to possibly providing other ideas for helping her first family.
posted by bq at 9:15 AM on November 2, 2014

Hannah Pool, British/Eritrean, has written a memoir about going back to Eritrea to meet her birth family at the age of 29. She is very very honest about the difficulties of coping with confusing ambivalent feelings to do with heritage and family. It's something that may perhaps be useful to you, and to your family going forward, to read how she navigated these feelings and what accommodation she has now with them. She says in one interview "I wrote the book that I wish had been around when I was tracing myself," she says. "There are a lot of books about adoption but usually it's from the point of view of the parents, there's very little from the point of view of the adoptees ... and I think it's important to get the debate they're in from their perspective."

Her book is My Father's Daughter.
Ted talk, 2011, 16.20.
One woman's journey to trace her unknown family, CNN African Voices.
An Interview with Hannah Pool, Dehai News 2008.

Thank you for doing this work and supporting your child.
posted by glasseyes at 10:04 AM on November 2, 2014 [3 favorites]

I wouldn't necessarily believe what you were told by the adoption agency about the birth mother dying. We found out about a decade post-adoption that the birth mother of my supposedly "orphaned" adopted Russian sisters was actually still alive.
posted by Jacqueline at 11:04 AM on November 2, 2014

You might be interested in this article, if you haven't seen it already. Might be worth it to contact the author?
posted by foxjacket at 10:39 AM on November 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

Wow foxjacket that article should be a FPP
posted by Melismata at 11:23 AM on November 3, 2014

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