I sometimes sense apprehension from a segment of the adoptive parent community when it comes to contact with their children’s birth families. Some of this is due to not knowing how it works in the long term, realistically what the options are and where to start. I’d like to address here some of the biggest stumbling blocks to making that initial independent contact.

There are a multitude of reasons an adoptive parent may be anxious about opening up contact with the natural parents of their child. Some of these are myths with little basis in reality, but of course it’s hard to know what you haven’t experienced. The most commonly expressed anxiety inducing ideas fall into the category of opening the proverbial can of worms: the what ifs and buts. Some adoptive families simply believe there is no one to be found.

Let’s go through these one by one.

But, isn’t searching for birth family in Ethiopia illegal? This one is easy: no. See the Revised Family Code, Chapter 10, Article 183 for details on this.

But my agency said I have to go through them for contact. Another easy one: that’s not true. Again, see the Revised Family Code, Chapter 10, Article 183 for details on this.

Dagim age 3 and Martha age 9
Adopted and Searching, Dagim age 3 and Martha age 9

But my child’s parents are both deceased, there is no one to contact. This one is also easy: search anyway. There are numerous (too many to count) cases of deceased parents being found alive.

But my child was abandoned and I was told there was no way to find anyone. Another easy one: search anyway. There are numerous (too many to count) cases of birth parents of abandoned children being found. Often times, the “finder” (the person who took the child to the orphanage) knows the child’s family or is a family member.

I already send yearly post placement reports through my agency. These don’t always filter down to birth families. Agencies don’t have the manpower to ensure every family receives them, and many agencies are closing their regional offices in Ethiopia, preventing families from retrieving them personally. Some agencies have shut down permanently and don’t even have offices in Addis anymore.

But it’s so expensive! Yes, it is. But we owe it to our kids to support them, and it can be done on a budget. If travel is out of the question, sending photos and updates through the mail is a great way to keep the door open. Your child can build on that as an adult.

Isn’t it up to my child to decide when to search and contact his parents? Some people feel this way, and for some adoptees it is extremely important that they be able to do this on their own. Yet with all of the ethical problems surrounding Ethiopian adoptions the last few years, and considering the fact that many people have little to no information to provide their children when they are old enough to search themselves, it’s my opinion that it’s justified to at least gather information and hold it for our children, for when they are older.

What if my child’s Ethiopian family ask me for money? Most adoptive parents who maintain contact with their children’s birth families report that no one ever asks them for money. If it happens, it’s probably not because they are trying to scam you. For Ethiopians living abroad, it is common to send money back home to their families. If you are asked for financial assistance, the most likely scenario is that they consider you family and they simply need some help. Another possibility is that they were promised help at some point during the adoption process, in which case they need to know that someone was not truthful with them.

What if I help them and it encourages others to place their children for adoption? Isn’t that unethical? Adoptive families who help their child’s family financially generally do not give so much aid as to make a significant change in the family’s social standing in their village.

If you want to help but do not feel comfortable doing it directly – maybe it feels too close to exchanging money for a child – there are numerous NGOs through which you can give to a community as a whole. There are actually some ethical issues with regard to this as well, such as the multitude of NGOs created by adoptive parents in areas that were harvested for adoptable children; but that is a topic for another day. Some adoptive families like to give to organizations with a mission to keep families together so that others will not have to face the despair of being separated from their children.

Are there some bad people in Ethiopia who just want your money? Sure there are. There are bad people everywhere. But most people are just average, complex people with day to day ups and downs, just like you and me.

What if I put my child’s mother in danger because she was an unwed mother or she is remarried and her husband doesn’t know about her adopted child? To be honest, I have never heard of this situation occurring, though people worry a lot about it. That is not to say it couldn’t happen. Because of this, it is extremely important to use an experienced searcher/tracer you trust who will contact your child’s family discreetly. Tell them your fears for the mother’s safety and make sure they will act in her best interest.

What if I find out my adoption was unethical? Unfortunately, this happens. If this is the case, it is even more important to have contact so you can figure out what happened. It is upsetting and you will lose sleep over it. But you will know. And your child’s family will finally have some peace knowing what happened to their child. It is an incredible gift you can give.

What if they want our child back? Adoption is a legal procedure that makes adoptive parents the sole legal parents of a child. There is virtually no way for birth family to get a child back. In cases where an unethical adoption occurred and adoptive parents have wanted to assist the child in returning to its family, it has been a legal quagmire and extremely difficult to accomplish.

My child doesn’t think about her birth family. Adopted children may feel uncomfortable talking with their adoptive parents about their birth parents. They may fear hurting feelings or causing anxiety. Bringing up the subject may make an adoptee feel disloyal to the family raising them. Whether they talk about it or not, it is guaranteed they think about them.

What if my child loves them more than me? You know how we tell our kids that there is enough love to go around, and that loves grows exponentially when there are more people to love? It’s like that for kids and all their parents, too! Try not to worry. They will still love you.

What if my child isn’t ready? I assume this applies most often to those parenting children with emotional issues, the idea being that it’s better not to add to problems the family is already dealing with. If a child is having emotional problems, it may actually help to communicate with their original family. Some children worry a lot about their relatives in Ethiopia even if they were too young to remember them. For an older child who remembers their family positively, I can’t imagine that they would not be ready for contact with their own family.

It can be complicated, and the simplest scenario is to make contact when the child is young so they grow up with it. On the other end of the spectrum, an adoptive parent may make contact on their child’s behalf and hang on to it until he or she asks.

I don’t mind communicating with them, but should I have to? No one has to do anything. You can do as much or as little as you feel comfortable doing. With adoption, adoptive parents have the right to decide how much contact to have with birth family and when/what to tell a child about their adoption. My personal feeling is that it is my responsibility to support my child in all aspects of their personhood, and that includes their lives before adoption. That said, there are many ways to handle contact, and it is fine to proceed slowly.

One last thought. This is something that breaks my heart. It makes me dizzy and a little queasy if I ponder it too long. Natural, first, original, birth families in adoption are going to be as kind and accommodating as possible with you. They want to know their children, or at least know how they are doing, and you are the gatekeeper. They are not likely to ask too much of you or treat you or their child badly. They are more afraid than we are.

What are some ideas you have about the myths and misunderstandings around natural/birth family contact? Feel free to comment. I’d love to hear others’ experiences and get a discussion going.

16 thoughts on “Birth Family Contact in Ethiopia: Myths Debunked

  1. Nice comprehensive work here. Thanks! Also, our yearly private update gets delivered for about $250 USD because we are in a group that was formed via Facebook and our kids are from same region and agency. It’s basically a group discount and saves us a lot of money. We mail our updates to one group member and she does the mailing. We all receive video-taped updates. Money well spent.

  2. I have so much to say in response to this post, but I’ll try to keep it short. We have had contact with one of our kid’s Ethiopian family since soon after their adoption (about 3 years now). We are still searching for our other kid’s family. The relationship with birth family has given our child and each of us so much. We have watched this child transform from a child that never wanted to return to Ethiopia to a child that could not wait to play soccer with their siblings when we returned for a visit about a month ago. It has made this child so much more confident in their own skin and their place in the world. I urge anyone that is on the fence to make contact. It is so worth it. (Sorry for the improper use of pronouns, trying to keep things more private for my opposite sex kiddos).

    I would also like to speak to the point about post-placement reports. Regional offices HAVE shut down all over Ethiopia. While in the Yirgalem area of Sidama about a month ago, we were approached by many families hoping for even a sliver of information about their children. Many of them had the first few PPR’s but then nothing since 2010 or 2011. They were so eager to make contact and just know that their children were healthy and happy. There are currently many rumors about bad things that happen to adopted kids in America and families are worried. We met one family that was just so relieved to see our kids happy and healthy because it gave them hope that their kids were too. We have since connected 7 or 8 Ethiopian families with adoptive families in America. I wish we could have done more.

    1. Hi, so how did you make contact? I have been looking at the Facebook page but am not sure how to proceed. We would love contact with birth family. Thanks

  3. Question: What if they love them more than me?
    Answer: So what if they do? That is their right. I have a child who was adopted who absolutely looks on our family as a step family at best. She loves her first family first. There is nothing wrong with that. Adoptive parents should deal the fact that they are not number one and that their child should have never had to have an plan B.

    We have a VERY open adoption with birth family in Ethiopia. Regular phone calls a few times a month, pictures, letters, visits. Neighbors consistently come around asking my kid’s family not “so how are your kids doing in the US?” but “so, are they giving you money?” This Rich American thing is a HUGE sticky problem and I would very much underscore that giving in a way that is at all find-out-able by family and friends is a pretty big problem. There are spouses and family that would be supporting your child’s birth family that if they catch a whiff that an adoptive family is involved, will quit their jobs and wait for a windfall. After spending a lot of time in this open adoption situation, finding ways to help that even the family cannot find out it is you helping should be a priority. The social ramifications can be disastrous and send the wrong message, so I would urge big caution in this regard.

    I wish that it were possible for children who were adopted unethically could be reunited legally with family. There is a clause on the Ethiopian government website that talks about a “yellow card” where adoptees and other Ethiopians born in Ethiopia but now with other citizenship can be recognized as such and can travel freely, own property in Ethiopia, etc. This can be obtained when the kids are 18. And also, adoptees who wish to renounce US citizenship and get back Ethiopian citizenship can do so until they are 19, since they lost citizenship as minors and had no say. If a child is determined to go back to Ethiopia, it will be tricky and not without cost, but it is possible to hang onto those roots.”

    Older children who were abused and abandoned by family sometimes are “not ready” because of PTSD from violence and abuse they experienced. Sadly, I know plenty of kids who distance themselves carefully from their pasts because it is so painful. But I think parents can give their children a big gift of knowing all they can for when/if a child wants the information.

    Thanks for this site. So needed. It was time! There is not one agency that doesn’t facilitate unethical fraudulent adoptions, and I hope everyone who hasn’t gone back to open up the channels of communication does so immediately. It is incredibly rewarding even when it’s hard and expensive. Open international adoption: it’s the new version of blended family.

  4. First, thank you for all this information. It is overwhelming trying to navigate through everything and find your child’s story and confirm that you have the real one.

    I am curious if anyone has searched and discovered that the family member whoever it may be, does not want to be found? I ask because it has been suggested to me that perhaps I should just let things be and think about if I were in “said person’s” shoes would I want to be found or would I want to move on with my life. And as I wonder about this, I found out that a friend’s family member was adopted and they searched and found their biological father – after they were able to finally meet, the father killed himself and the son never really forgave himself. My friend only shared the story because she was explaining why she would never adopt. This hit me like a ton of bricks and struggling with what is the right thing to do.

    All I know is that I need more answers and my kids deserve this. They have questions and more will be coming and they are entitled to know their own “true” story.

  5. Great insights. We are in touch with my daughter’s family. The updates we sent for 3 years to our agency NEVER made it to them, they though their daughter had died. I am so happy we found another way to get in touch with them (friend in Ethiopia) and we were able to get them oxen and help the eldest get some schooling. It doesn’t take my money or effort to make these connections happen! I encourage people to reach out and try…..

  6. Marianne, what a tragic story. As awful as it is, I don’t think it’s common. There is a book you might like to read called The Girls Who Went Away. It’s about women who lost children to adoption in the Baby Scoop Era (the 50’s through the 80’s approximately). It’s a really good book, and in many ways these stories mirror the current situation in international adoption. There are some people who don’t want to be found, but it is a very small number compared to those who do want to be found. http://thegirlswhowentaway.com/

    This is a really good resource too: http://www.adoptionbirthmothers.com/. There are a few articles on the topic of mothers who don’t want to be found. Look in the statistics section.

  7. Scoopy, can you be more specific about ways that you can support or help the first family that avoid them being pressured by their community? This will likely be our situation very soon and I want to navigate this carefully. It was very obvious to us that our child’s first family was one of the poorest in their community, with housing and situation MUCH more depressed than the surrounding neighbors. I worry about them a lot.

  8. Very well written-I hope that it reaches many adoptive parents no matter where their child
    Is from. Thanks

  9. I like this article, but I didn’t like the references to “natural” family. I’m sure you mean well, but I don’t think there is anything unnatural about being a Mother through adoption. It suggests a value judgment that isn’t fair to anyone involved.

    I tried three times to locate my child’s birth parents in Ethiopia, without any success. But I am glad that I can tell my child that I did try immediately after the adoption to find the birth family. My child would like to know more about the birth family and to know the story of why they were unable to continue parenting. While many others have discovered that their adoptions were unscrupulous, I confirmed the facts of my adoption and at least have that peace of mind.

    I know families who placed children for adoption and later regretted it. And others feel it was the right decision for them. Neither reaction is a “bad” reaction. I just don’t think it’s fair to represent all Ethiopian birth families as being worried about the children placed for adoption or regretful of their decision. It may have been the best decision under the circumstances.

    I’ll continue to search for the birth family because I believe that is the right and loving thing to do and that doing so will help to free my child from the burden of not knowing.

    1. Thanks for your comment. The term “natural families” is a backlash to the use of “birth family,” which some dislike because it can imply that first/original/biological families are only significant at the birth and not after. It’s not so much to say that adoptive families are un-natural. We use all these terms in this website.

      EAC’s work is not a judgement about whether adoption is good or bad for individuals. That would be impossible because it varies so much from case to case. Our goal is simply to provide a means to reconnect for those who want it.

      I, personally, agree completely with your statement, “I’ll continue to search for the birth family because I believe that is the right and loving thing to do and that doing so will help to free my child from the burden of not knowing.” Thank you.

      Apologies for taking a while to get this approved! Thanks for writing.


  10. Does anyone have any reliable ways to try to find birth parents? We tried initially about 2 months after our adoption, but we were unsuccessful. I wish to try again, but really don’t know where to begin. Any advice or comments will be most welcome.

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