The first step is to penetrate the clouds of deceit and distortion and learn the truth about the world,
then to organize and act to change it. That's never been impossible and never been easy. ~Noam Chomsky

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Birthmother: The thin line between relinquishment and abandonment

The story I'm about to tell is already 40 days old.
It took place during my search for Ariam's birthmother in a town about 40 minutes outside of Addis Ababa.
My van, filled with key players related to Ariam's story that I had gathered for the day, stopped at the small office of the local ministry of women's affairs. As things generally play out when I'm in Ethiopia (or anywhere in east Africa), I didn't have a clue what was going on.

Maybe I wish I had said no. Maybe I wish I had stayed in the van. But I don't have the option of going back and changing anything about that day.


I watched a mother try to relinquish her son today. I watched him reach up a small hand and hold it to the back of her neck. I watched her reach back reflexively to cover his little fingers, accustomed to their pattern of touch. She didn't realize that while her words said "I need to give him up" her actions said "but I love him, I do."

I watched a mother come to the end of her road, no longer able to walk the path of caring for a son with such obvious challenges ahead.

She stood outside the office door, summoned for her consultation. For an hour the women around her discussed, analyzed, negotiated. Sometimes they would close their circle of voices and leave her on the outside and other times the circle would open and she'd be called back in.

Would some money for medicine help? What about sponsorship? Could the orphanage director take him?

When the final pronouncement was made it was a no. Nobody would take the little boy with Down Syndrome because there would only be a life in an orphanage - no family would want to adopt him.

I watched a mother crack wide open. For just a minute the flood of fear burst through her composed exterior. She bent over double and I recognized that reflex our body does before it gets sick. Wracking sobs, the cries of a heartbroken widow, a scared and tired young mother who has carried her love on her back for two years but who can't walk a step further with him.

I wonder silently if she has seen other children adopted and has a daydream for Dani - that he will go to another country where she could imagine that he was living and thriving. Or if she has not thought about adoption at all and just needs to say a final goodbye, no matter what happens after.

She begs. I watch a mother beg. She's unwrapped him from her back and shifts him from arm to arm while she cries and alternates between holding him out and holding him close. After an hour of discussion, she stands straight, she closes her expression. She wraps him back onto her back and readies herself to leave.

It is clear to all from her words (they say she said "I just want to leave him here, go far far away and never look back") that he will be left. Maybe tonight, maybe a week, or maybe a year from now. But he will be left and he doesn't even know it. With innocence he has giggled through this soul altering crisis today. He doesn't know he will be left, but we do.

Pardon her expression - she was sniffing back tears. She wasn't trying to look so angry as far as I could tell.


This little boy's name is Dani (Daniel.) He was born with Down Syndrome to a mother who has a 6 year old daughter and who recently lost her husband. She is very obviously depressed. The ministry officials say she is "disturbed" but I think they mean depressed. Or maybe they do mean mentally disturbed. I think I would be if I were in her position.

Her husband died, she ran out of money and medicine and brought Dani to relinquish him. The orphanage director I was with was asked to bring her two social workers to the ministry's office to discuss the situation. Her pronouncement was that "there are no adoptive parents who would want this child." They are seeking a sponsor for the family. If you are reading this and feel so moved please leave me a comment. I think sponsorship is about $35/month. The orphanage director is funding the sponsorship for now but her funding is limited. Long term support will be needed if the mother does not abandon Dani.

I asked if sponsorship would make the difference between family preservation and abandonment in this case and they are unsure. Efforts will be made. But the consensus was that most likely the child will be left.

It is one of the biggest tragedies in international adoption - that the children who could most benefit from an adoptive family in a resource rich country like the U.S. will most likely not be the ones who get adopted. When I told the orphanage director that I thought some families in the U.S. might be interested in adopting a child with Down Syndrome she looked shocked and skeptical. That has not been her experience. Our daughter was the only child she's ever seen adopted after being diagnosed with a medical need. She could not take Dani and risk having to raise him in her orphanage for 18+ years.

So he will be left at the doors of the ministry most likely. Because apparently that is what happens in cases like this. And I have no idea what will happen to him then.  I assume he will disappear over time. Or he will remain with his birth mother and disappear over time unless she gets a lot more support to keep him and care for him.

I'm asked often how I feel about Ethiopian adoptions. I really have no answers, only complicated stories.

*It was agreed by all that I would take photos and post them online. The photos above don't quite capture the situation but I could not bring myself to photograph some of the more intense moments.


  1. I re-posted this to my Facebook.

  2. i am wrecked by this. wrecked. we would absolutely consider a down syndrome adoption and i others who would too... please please please tell me if there is anything we can do, email me about sponsorship or any other possibilities. haleyballast (at) gmail (dot) com.

  3. ...yet another discussion to be had in NM. sigh.

  4. Oh this just breaks my heart. I also would like to hear more about sponsorship, email me details.

  5. UGH.

    As someone in the process of adopting TWO children with Down syndrome from Ethiopia, this is devastating to read. I want to tell the social worker and orphanage director that they are WRONG. I want to tell them that there are people who WILL adopt precious Dani.

    But would that even be true?

    Because as sad as I am to read this, I am just as sad (maybe moreso) that most people wanting to adopt from Ethiopia DON'T want a baby with Down syndrome, or any other medical need for that matter.

    Honestly I want this mama to be able to keep her son. If that is not possible, I want that sweet boy to find an adoptive family. My heart hurts so much for Dani. And for his mother. And I hate what inernational adoption has become in so many cases.

    Thank you for sharing this difficult story. AAI has placed, including our girls, three children with Down syndrome in the last several months. I hope that if Dani must be relinquished or abandoned, that he finds his way to an orphanage/agency who won't give up on him so that he can have a family.

  6. thanks for sharing...I agree with Brianna...there are many people who would adopt this little boy and it frustrates me that we haven't done a good enough job in Ethiopia to make the orphanages aware of the fact...praying for Dani....and his family....

  7. So - sponsorship or promote adoption? What if by promoting adoption we are encouraging the mother to not even give the sponsorship a try? What if by sponsoring the mother ends up abandoning him with someone/somewhere where he will never have a chance to be raised in a family? What is the answer?

  8. This was heartbreaking to read. That poor mother.

    That director is wrong, there ARE people who would adopt him. We asked specifically about DS Ethiopian kids. And it baffled our SW that none of us had even seen any available for adoption. We naively thought that maybe there just weren't that many. Now I understand why. If only they could understand that there are families who would not only be open to but SEEK OUT those kids with DS or HIV.

  9. Sponsorship first. Always. We, as Americans, have to give these women what they need in order to even be able to MAKE a choice. We need to honor their choices like we would want ours to be. But, true choices can't be made where she is now at. My mother's heart screams and cries against the unjustice this woman faces. Honor her enough to offer sponsorship first. Let her make the best choice for a son she loves.

  10. Do you still need a sponsor for Dani? I know he would have a family here, there are families that would want him. I am interested in sponsoring him if they still need someone. E-mail me at
    Deanne Broscious

  11. I came across this blogpost after my friend Jaymi posted it on Facebook. Cried throughout. I advocate for children like little Daniel, the ones with 'special needs', the discarded, the ones blessed to see the world with an extra chromosome, the ones with hydrocephalus dying in an orphanage. Two couples at our church have combined adopted 7 children with Down Syndrome from Ukraine, another 2 with HIV. Through my advocacy efforts I know of hundreds of families here in the US who have, are in the process of, or desperately want to adopt children with Down Syndrome, HIV or severe medical needs. In fact, it is hard to adopt a child with DS in the US, firstly because most are aborted :( :( before they are even born, secondly because those that do end up put in foster/adoption care end up being adopted. The children I advocate for are listed by a Christian organization (not an adoption agency) called Reece's Rainbow. Please check it out: I will also post your blog (this post) on the forum. - Ethiopia however is not one of the countries they currently work with. There is a great video on YouTube called Depraved Indifference (Erik Ludy I think his name his), it will pierce your heart. Thanks for advocating for this little one! Leanne

  12. Such a sad post. Just heartbreaking in every way. Thank you for sharing.

  13. This post. Oh, how it makes every part of me ache. Absolutely ACHE. I want to huddle on the ground and just cry. Oh....

    It sounds like there are so many who have already asked about sponsorship, but if I can help in any way?

  14. i'm with il panettiere in every way.

    you rock for posting this though, btw.

  15. Please add us to the list of of people interested in sponsoring. We have (almost) decided to donate our adoption fee to family care and preservation. This woman needs respite, and her son needs family. If money is all that's missing to make that happen, well, that's what money is for.

  16. if you're still making a list, please add us too. I want to say more about this post, but there are no words, are there?

  17. It's so hard to read things like this. I am coming back after reading it so long ago. I ache, too. And I agree, no words. None.

  18. Please add our family to the sponsorship list as well. For Dani or for others in the same situation. We want to help.

  19. Thank you for this post. I've been sick about it for days. I am ashamed that my first thought (after wanting to hug that poor woman and her sweet boy) was "We are adopting a child with DS or CP or HIV+ next so help me God." Then I read the comments and realized my mistake. Adoption. Isn't.The.Answer. I thought I knew that already but then that is where I jumped. Offering sponsorship first. Try to keep the families together first. OF COURSE.

    But what if they are already apart?

    It's terrible. We learn so much about justice and injustice and life when we tie ourselves to Ethiopia.

    Thank you for sharing. It has truly taught me.

  20. Equally disturbing is just how willing the local officials and orphanage would have been to accept the child into their care if she was a healthy baby girl. Bet they would not have given it a second thought -- knowing how easy it is to place a healthy baby girl in an overseas family. Family preservation and sponsorship would have been immediately bypassed. The system has been inadvertently corrupted and the most vulnerable remain the most vulnerable.

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  22. I wanted you to know that this post is being discussed on our UG groups as well. Very important for all African PAP's and AP's
    Rachael- a lady on one of the Yahoo boards wrote that the directors of the orphanages would go choose the most adoptable children from the police who had particular days that families could go relinquish their children.
    Where is family preservation happening in this scenario?

  23. Overwhelmed with sadness. You have witnessed with your own eyes what many of us believed has been happening. Shattered.

  24. Family preservation of course if the best option, but it cannot always happen. If a child is relinquished, family preservation is discussed by the social workers as well as kebele. You have to respect that many birth moms dont want to be sponsored, they know what opportunities are available for their child once their child gets older, the know the path the child will have to take...they live in poverty and die in poverty, even with schooling because once out of school do you know what a sad, huge percentage never find jobs bec its just not available. So they want to get their child an opportunity that ET does not offer at this time. I saw this first hand when living in ET, and have sat in on many BM meetings as they beg the kebele to allow them to relinquish their child. Just another perspective from someone who has been there. Its not as simple as our American mindset would believe, you need to study ET politics, laws, CULTURE, etc to truly understand what these families are facing.


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