(Photo: Becky Gerig)
In an attempt to crack down on fraudulent adoptions in Ethiopia, the U.S. Embassy apparently became overzealous. This past fall, adoptive parents of Ethiopian children believe that officials there had badgered witnesses and falsified information in the case files used to obtain visas for their adopted children.
Concerns about adoptions in Ethiopia increased in the spring of 2010 after several pieces of investigative journalism, including a Dutch documentary and CBS News report, found cases of child trafficking.
Ethiopian parents were being misled into giving up their children. They were promised money, or led to believe that their child was going to the United States to receive an education and would return to them, according to these reports.
The U.S. government is, understandably, acting to prevent these serious crimes. Christian Post interviews with adoptive parents of Ethiopian children suggest, however, that the U.S. embassy in Ethiopia made mistakes that cost the children important developmental time with their new parents, and much heartache and legal fees for the parents.
To adopt a child from another nation, a child is first adopted through an adoption agency in the host country. The adoptive parents then obtain a visa from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), which gives the adopted child permission to enter the country. USCIS requires a host of documentation, such as police reports and interviews. These documents must show that the child is an orphan and other options, such as adoption by a relative in the home country, is not available to them. USCIS often relies upon other agencies, such as government agencies in the child's home country or the U.S. embassy in the home country, to process some of the paperwork.
The U.S. embassy in Ethiopia processes the visa applications for adopted Ethiopian children. It approves the easy cases and sends the difficult ones to USCIS. This past October, the embassy slowed down the process dramatically when it designated 65 cases as "not clearly approvable." USCIS sent a team to the embassy in Ethiopia to try to process the sudden backlog quickly.
As the adoptive parents received notification that their applications were under further review, they became confused and upset. Many of them found each other and formed a private Facebook group in order to share information.
"Everything that you could possibly want and need in an orphan's file, we had it. It was consistent, it was organized," Becky Gerig told The Christian Post in a Jan. 5 interview.
Gerig tried contacting the embassy to find out why her file was flagged. Initially, those she spoke with were rude and unprofessional. With some persistence and the involvement of her congressman and senators, Gerig finally got through to an embassy official, Vice Consular Esther Bell, on Nov. 1, 2011 via email. Gerig asked to find out what was wrong with her file and they set a phone appointment for two days later, Nov. 3. Bell informed Gerig that her file was "full of inconsistencies," but did not specify what those inconsistencies were.
The USCIS team arrived on Nov. 7 to process the files. Out of the 65 original files, 15 were issued an RFE (request for evidence) while the rest were approved. The Gerigs were one of those 15.
An RFE meant that there was something wrong or incomplete with the application. After the Gerigs read their RFE and did some investigation, they were astounded at what they found.
The RFE stated that someone who was listed as a witness had told the embassy that she was not a witness. This witness was called, though, by Esther Bell on Nov. 1, the same day Gerig had called her to find out why her file was flagged, and several weeks after her file was designated "not clearly approvable." Furthermore, when the witness was re-interviewed by the adoption agency, she said she never told Bell that. Rather, she confirmed what she had said about the Gerigs' adopted child in the court and police reports.
Through the Facebook group, the Gerigs found out their case was not unique. There were other examples of where embassy officials had tampered with evidence, falsified information and badgered witnesses in apparent attempts to justify not approving an adopted child's visa application.
The Christian Post spoke with two other sets of adoptive parents who were among the 15 who received an RFE, and another set of parents who are currently trying to get their adopted child's visa approved.
Stacy and Aaron Reeves received an RFE because their adopted child had a last name but their file said that the birth father was unknown.
In Ethiopia, a child's last name is typically the father's first name. So, when the embassy saw that Reeves' child had a last name, they assumed that the birth father was known. There is also a tradition, however, of giving an abandoned child the name of the town where they were found as their last name, which is what happened in the case of the Reeves' baby.
The Reeves' RFE also said that the testimony of a police officer that the embassy contacted did not match the rest of the testimonies in the file. When the Reeves' adoption agency tried to find that police officer, they discovered that there was no police officer by that name in the jurisdiction where their child was found.
Dan and Vivian Carroll received an RFE because they were told to look for the birth father. The embassy claimed that the birth mother identified the birth father in an embassy interview. The birth mother, though, explicitly denied this. She did not know who the birth father was. The mother had testified to this in separate interviews with the embassy, adoption agency and an Ethiopian court. Six others who knew the birth mother personally had also testified to her circumstances. When asked to provide a tape or transcript of the embassy interview, the embassy refused.
"That was kinda silly," Dan Carroll said in a Dec. 28, 2011 interview with The Christian Post. "Even within the law you don't have to look for a birth father if he is unknown."
In another case, discussed on the adoptive parents Facebook page, an embassy official was interviewing a birth father who had relinquished his child for adoption. The father was told that his child was being sent to the United States to have his organs donated. The father, of course, told the embassy official at that point that he changed his mind and it would be better for his child to die on the street in Ethiopia.
After speaking to the adoption agency and discovering that the embassy had lied to him, the birth father returned to the embassy and asked to be re-interviewed.
The adopted children of the Gerigs, Reeveses and Carrolls all received their visas and are now home with their parents. No cases of fraudulent adoption were discovered among the 15 RFEs.
The Christian Post is aware, through an anonymous source, that some of these problems are currently being addressed. Several members of Congress have become involved and there will be a private meeting among congressional staffers, USCIS, and the State Department (which oversees the embassies) sometime mid-February.
All the parents who received RFEs had to bear the cost of hiring a lawyer and another investigation to get their children home. In addition to the financial cost, though, there was a tremendous amount of stress.
By the time their cases were held up by the embassy, they were the legal parents of their adopted children under Ethiopian law. For several months, they did not know if they would be able to bring their children home with them.
"It was very difficult," Gerig said. "We had to get into Scripture, and remember, He has a plan for us, and it's a good plan, and that God is good all the time. He is taking care of her. He actually loves her more than we do and He's going to take care of her. We learned a lot in this process. It's the most difficult thing that we've done in our married life."
"I never have heard God speak that clearly before in my life," Stacy Reeves said when asked, in a Feb. 2 interview with The Christian Post, why she wanted to adopt a child. "He just completely overwhelmed my heart for orphans. Just out of nowhere."
"And then the stress of it all was awful, it was the most stressful thing that we've ever walked through ever," Reeves said as her voice started to break. "It's the hardest thing that I've ever walked through in my life."
Part one of this series on international adoptions looked at the case of Becky Morlock, a missionary in India who has been waiting four years to get a visa for her adopted son. In part three, The Christian Post has interviewed several experts on the topic and will attempt to answer the question that the Carrolls, Gerigs and Reeveses want to know: Why is this happening?