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‘I Had Ethiopia Stolen from Me’—Adoptions of African Children Are Often a Cruel Money-Making Scam

Tarikuwa Lemma

Adoption agencies paint international adoptions through rose-colored glasses: A child from an impoverished home in a Third World country gets the opportunity to become a part of a more well-off family and all is well.

At least that’s what’s on the brochure.

For Tarikuwa Lemma, like so many other African children, the story is drastically different. Lemma grew up in Ethiopia and was 13 when she was, as she puts it, “sold.” Her adoptive parents had been told that Lemma’s parents died of AIDS.

“The truth was that our mother had died as a result of complications during childbirth, and our father was alive and well,” said Lemma in an interview with

Lemma’s father was tricked into believing that his daughters were being sent to the United States on a study program. Shortly after they arrived, the girls realized they had been deceived.

“I wanted to escape from the people I felt had kidnapped us from our homeland, our culture and our family,” said Lemma. “My sisters and I had a father, a brother and older sisters, plus a large extended family that cared for us and loved us. We were middle class by Ethiopian standards, not poor.”

In many cases, the poor, foreign child that parents think they are getting is not poor or orphaned at all, just a child who fell victim to a scam.

To combat this, huge organizations like UNICEF and the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption are saying that people should adopt children from abroad as a last option and try to focus on keeping children in their home countries with domestic adoptions.

In an effort to completely stop the abuse of its children, Guatemala shut down its US adoption programs in 2007. This may have been good for the Guatemalan children but as fewer adoptions were possible from Guatemala, adoptions of Ethiopian children to American families exploded. The number of Ethiopian adoptions went from less than 900 in 2003 to 4,564 in 2009, according to CNN.

“Adoption is a business, there is no question, sadly,” Susan Soonkeum Cox, vice president of policy and external affairs at Holt International, a nonprofit Christian adoption agency based in the US, told CNN. “Many people got into this because it’s an opportunity to help (orphans), but for other people it was a lucrative business opportunity. You could see this in the explosion of adoption agencies and practitioners.”

And it seems that African children are on the losing end of this business.

“Adoption didn’t help me; it helped the adoption business,” Lemma said. “Adoption didn’t ‘save’ me; it served the American view of adoption. Adoption didn’t find families for me; it found me for families that wanted to look like heroes in their community and their churches. I wasn’t saved from Ethiopia; I had Ethiopia stolen from me.”

What people are saying

9 thoughts on “‘I Had Ethiopia Stolen from Me’—Adoptions of African Children Are Often a Cruel Money-Making Scam

  1. Peter Dodds says:

    International adoption is a system filled with documented and on-going patterns of adoption agency corruption, re-homing, baby stealing, child trafficking, coercion of the biological parents and legal violations. Corruption and abuse are so vast that nearly half the 40 countries listed by the U.S. State Department as the top sources for international adoption from 1995-2008 temporarily halted adoptions or were prevented from sending children to the United States.

    I was adopted from a German orphanage by an American couple and collaborated with other "foreign" adoptees to create this video about international adoption with much discussion of Africa.

  2. Bwire Vincent says:

    Child trafficking of the highest order.

  3. John Lindsay says:

    What…was the outcome of Lemma's story?

  4. Painful. They are similar stories where the adopted child was basically treated as a house slave and adopting parents justify it because the children may be living in a mansion. But that's the worse part, because the children are cleaning large houses all day while the parents used adoptions to boost their image in politics and religious organizations. Everyone in USA is seen as property of the USA every since the slave trade. Perilous times are now and we need God to intervene.

  5. Adoption Q&A says:

    how is this different from the slave trading days?

  6. Joyce Ramer says:

    Hi Peter: All adoptions are Traumatizing to
    both the Mother and their babies or older children torn from their Mothers/Fathers/Families.

  7. Shanna Canon says:

    Excellent video, shared.

  8. Theodora Anagor says:

    I was doing the Portobello market one Sunday and there was a young white couple who had adopted an Ethipioan baby, she looked like a hostage, everytime I would walk past or stood near her she looked at me, put her hand out to me, you know when you recognise yourself. It made me so sad, I always think of her.

  9. Debra Ba says:

    No wonder they like portraying Africa as needy ALWAYS just so that they look good! Mtscheeew…..

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