From my Inbox: Adopting multiple unrelated children from Ethiopia
Here is the first official “From my inbox”- post.
Surely, there is a lot to be discussed here. I expect a lot of people will be, just like me, torn right in the middle, with two conflicting ideas: The first being “Wow, what a woman!” , the second being “Well, this is a lot responsibility to bear, for one person alone.”
This, of course, from the position of an adoptive parent only; obviously, other viewpoints will differ, depending on the background.
I assume everyone will agree on one thing: The practice of having children in a transit home and telling them who will be their adoptive parents before a court decree was issued is not the best way of handling adoptions in the best interest of the children, and the wish to put an end to this practice can obviously be seen as one of the arguments for the closure of transit homes in Ethiopia.
From Ethiopia, with love: PSU professor takes on role as single mom to 6 adopted children
(March 11, 2012)
One usually expects chaos in a home where a dozen children’s shoes are piled at the door.
Yet all six of Susan Strauss’s recently adopted Ethiopian children can be found quietly reading and doing homework on a Friday afternoon, sitting in a circle in the cozy living room of her home in Lemont.
Strauss adopted the two groups of siblings — four girls: Tenaye, 13, Adanech, 11, Mihret, 11, and Terefetch, 6; and two boys, Bereket, 9, and Biniyam, 9 — in two separate adoptions, returning home with the first group in January 2010 and the second last December.
A small woman with black, curly hair — Tenaye and Adanech are taller than she is — Strauss paces between the adjacent kitchen and living room to check on each child’s progress.
“School’s hard,” she said. “I insist on them working through the reading and math to catch up.”
Strauss, who said she didn’t consider herself “college material” in high school, is an associate professor of applied linguistics at Penn State, having earned her doctorate in the field at the University of California Los Angeles. She knows English, Spanish, French, Japanese, Korean, some Persian, German, Amharic and Sidaama. The latter two are the native tongues of her children.
But unlike their daily schedule, the story of how the seven became a family is messy.
Strauss initially applied in 2008 to adopt a single girl from Ethiopia because it was one of the few countries that allow single parents to adopt.
She received a referral — the child’s basic profile and medical information, along with a picture — in March 2009 for a 3-year-old girl named Terefetch from a village in Sidama, a six-to eight-hour drive south from Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
Two months later, Strauss’s adoption agency, America World Adoption, asked if she also would adopt Terefetch’s older siblings, Biniyam and Adanech. The agency tries to keep siblings together, said Anna Graham, its senior director of programs.
Strauss agreed and began studying the children’s native language, Sidaama.
But in July 2009, a cultural misunderstanding caused complications more unusual than in any adoption case Graham had dealt with before.
In Ethiopian court, the oldest sibling, Adanech, had referred to her uncle as her biological father, because in her culture it is considered disrespectful to refer to caregivers as anything but parents.
Despite documented evidence proving she was an orphan, the judge ruled that Adanech was not adoptable and threw her uncle, who insisted he was not her biological father, in jail for perjury.
Days later, America World Adoption told Strauss that the three children may never become adoptable or, if they did, it would take at least a year.
With the situation seemingly hopeless, Strauss applied for another sibling group, receiving a referral for three children from Addis Ababa in August 2009. Within hours of seeing the photos of Tenaye, Mihret and Bereket, Strauss said, she knew she wanted to adopt them. The adoption cleared Ethiopian court on Dec. 10, 2009.
Strauss traveled to Ethiopia to pick up the three in January 2010 at America World Adoption’s transition home in Addis Ababa, where orphans await their adopting parents.
Meanwhile, Adanech, Biniyam and Terefetch, also living at the transition home, had seen pictures of Strauss and her house before their adoption fell through.
The agency told them about the legal complications, Graham said. But after seeing the pictures, the siblings believed Strauss was supposed to be “their mom,” Strauss said.
Strauss said she felt torn when picking up Tenaye, Mihret and Bereket. “While it was the happiest day of my life, it was also the saddest because I had to leave the other kids behind,” she said.
“Even my own children were, like, ‘How could you leave them there?’ ” she said.
Strauss reapplied for the group as soon as she returned home. After Ethiopian court approval in November 2010, Adanech, Biniyam and Terefetch legally became Strauss’s children in Ethiopia.
“And then we had some trouble,” Strauss said.
A turnover in embassy officials coincided with news of adoption fraud and child trafficking in Ethiopia in the spring of 2011. The U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa questioned the case, suspicious of Adanech’s testimony in 2009, Graham said.
In August, Strauss received an email from the vice consul of the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa, saying that because of Adanech’s testimony and her uncle’s refusal to take a DNA test, Adanech likely had living birth parents and was not “clearly approvable as an orphan.”
The case was sent to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service office in Nairobi, Kenya, for a final decision. Strauss contacted the office of Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., to expedite the process of approving Adanech’s orphan status.
On Oct. 19, Strauss received a request for evidence from the customs service in Kenya. At the suggestion of America World Adoption, she hired Lynda Zengerle, a partner in the Washington office of Steptoe and Johnson LLP, to help with the investigation.
“It’s not the kind of thing someone would try to do on their own,” Zengerle said. “Getting factual information from the siblings and cultural information from anthropologists is really what won the day.”
Evidence included interviews from family members of the siblings and others in their village in Sidama on videotape saying their parents were dead, Graham said.
In late November, the customs service approved the case and on Dec. 15 Strauss traveled to Ethiopia to bring home her additional three children.
During her eight-day stay, Strauss visited the children’s village, where Biniyam was received like a “celebrity,” having been gone for 2 1/ 2 years.
The adoption agency also helped Strauss track down the mother of Tenaye, Mihret and Bereket. She was living in government housing and had relinquished her rights to her children after becoming too ill and poor to care for them.
“I thought it was important to let their mother know (they) missed her,” Strauss said.
On Dec. 23, almost four years after Strauss initially applied for them, she returned home with Adanech, Biniyam and Terefetch, forming her family of seven.
Strauss said she was inspired to adopt abroad by the story of Josephine Baker, the famous performer and activist who died in 1975. Baker adopted and reared 12 children she deemed the “Rainbow Tribe,” all of them having come from a mixture of ethnic backgrounds.
“I always knew I wanted to adopt, and during the mid-’90s the idea came back to me strongly as a grad student at (the University of California Los Angeles) at the time,” Strauss said.
When her first three children arrived in 2010, Strauss said she had to rely on neighbors to help her assert her authority. One day when the children refused to go to school, Strauss recalled, a neighbor helping her get the children into the car.
“They were testing their limits … in extreme ways,” Strauss said.
The first few nights after bedtime, Strauss recalled, she was sitting outside Tenaye, Mihret and Bereket’s room, reminding them to be quiet. Each time she turned the light off, the children would get up and flip it back on.
After several repetitions, Strauss got her ladder and took the light bulb out. “It was hard for them to give up that control; it was a major trust issue,” she said.