04/18/2012 05:04 pm ET Updated Jun 18, 2012

We Begin With Love

On April 4, 2011, a healthy baby girl was born in Ethiopia's Southern Nations Nationalities of Peoples Region (SNNPR) in the Kembata Tembaro Zone. At the same time that this new life emerged, another life ended; the girl's mother died while giving birth. The baby girl was now considered a half orphan, left in the care of her young father, who would do whatever he could to ensure that she continued to thrive.

This beautiful child is the man's second; his five-year-old son lives with the mother of his now deceased wife because he is too poor to care for the boy himself. Though the man sleeps inside a small hut, he has no income. He eats the small amount of corn he somehow grows in the small plot of infertile land that rests behind his hut.

Just one month into the baby girl's tender life, the man's dire living situation became too obvious to ignore. The man finally had to accept that he was unable to care for his daughter and made the decision to relinquish her. He would rather not have the joy of raising her than live with the pain of watching her die.


On June 9, 2011, a couple living on the East Coast in the United States of America accepted the referral of this baby girl. Tara and John* were ecstatic, knowing that soon their four-year-old adopted daughter who was born in Ethiopia, and their two-year-old birth son, would have a baby sister. Because they did not endure delays or setbacks during their 2008 adoption of their first daughter, they had no reason to believe this time it would be any different. They were quite wrong.

Though Tara and John hired the same agency to facilitate their second adoption, and it began with the same, familiar in-country staff they had come to know and love, soon after they accepted this referral, new staff appeared. Communication with the new in-country director was difficult at best. They felt disappointed and confused. Then, without explanation, their potential daughter's file was "accidentally misplaced." The rainy season would soon arrive in Ethiopia, the courts would recess for perhaps as long as six weeks, and the prospective parents grew nervous. The baby girl was being cared for at Place of Love*, a transition house where she lived until her new parents could come and get her.

By September 2011, because Tara and John had not received a court date before court closed, the baby girl was still residing at Place of Love. One day, paperwork-toting government officials appeared to inform the staff that because the orphanage that had custody of three of their children had been shut down by the government for poor standards, the baby and two others had to be removed. Because these three children had been processed through an orphanage that now had no license, the officials transferred the children to another orphanage in the southern region. Until a viable solution arose, this facility would be responsible for their care.

When trouble comes, sometimes it pounds like a hurricane. Tara and John were told that because their potential daughter was brought to an orphanage other than the one from where she had originated, their paperwork was invalid. This child, along with the two others who were removed with her, was now "paperless," stuck in limbo with no place to call home. Their new orphanage did not have legal custody, so nobody could adopt them, no matter how committed they might be.

Months passed without knowing if or how their adoption would proceed. Though they did finally find out where the baby girl had been taken, Tara and John were far from knowing if or when they would be allowed to complete the adoption and bring her home. Most frustrating perhaps was the simple fact that this baby girl was still an orphan; she was still in need of a family.


On Thanksgiving Day 2011, a meeting took place between government officials and the in-country representative for the agency. An agency staff member told Tara and John that because the officials had asked for the rep to bring their file, they should feel hopeful. For the first time in many months, the couple felt excited.

At the meeting, however, the in-country rep was told that the government, known to be funded in part by UNICEF, had decided on reunification; they were going to return the baby girl to her birth father. (Reunification is meant for anybody, as long as it is in the best interest of the child, and as long as the birth family wants the child back. (Click here for more on UNICEF's role in reunification.)

Tara went into a form of shock; she simply didn't believe it. She was convinced that she needed to hire an outside professional to verify that what her agency told her was true. As any expectant mother would feel, she needed to know that she was doing everything within her power to ensure the health and safety of her (once) future baby. If Tara knew without a doubt that it were in the best interest of the baby for her to remain with her birth father, Tara would be at peace.

At Christmastime, the couple did find and hire somebody who could get a team in Ethiopia to go out and locate the birth father for an interview. On Dec. 28, 2011, the father told the helpers who came to interview him that he had recently been approached by officials from the regional government. They had asked him to raise his daughter in exchange for financial support. When he replied that he couldn't, they told him that he did not have an option. The father said that if that were the case, and if they were willing to give him financial support, he would raise her. They made him sign a document stating he would accept her back.

On Jan. 18, 2012, the father, now remarried, accepted his daughter back, along with 1,000 birr, or about $52. One month later, he tells, he was given another 900 birr. In a March 2012 visit, one of the helpers reported that the baby appeared to have lost a significant amount of weight, and while the baby cried inside the hut, the man and his new wife were seen outside working. The baby, it is reported, was soaked in urine and feces.

The father explained that since her return, his daughter had not been well. Though he fed her a mixture of oatmeal and white flour, her system rejected it. He had tried a while back to take the baby to his deceased wife's mother, where his son also lived, but the police and officials from Women Children and Youth Affairs Bureau ordered him to take his daughter back. If he did not do so, he was told he would go to jail. He did what he was told to do, signed a document, and brought his daughter home.

During this March visit, with an obviously failing-to-thrive child, the father expressed a desire to return his daughter to an orphanage. However, he would only do so if he could be sure he would not be sent to jail; he would rather keep her and watch her die than be sent to jail. He felt he was given no other option but to raise his daughter, and could not understand how he had been given the right to relinquish her in the first place.

It appears that this father and daughter are victims of an ill-planned reunification program. No permanent or viable solution was given to the father that would empower him to raise her. In the end, he didn't keep his daughter because he wanted to or was capable of doing so; he had been threatened.


In an April 2012 telephone interview, Tara said, "We weren't going to give up hope. We didn't want her to fall through the cracks. ... We wanted to know where she was physically going to be so that we could try to ensure a future for her."

If this meant that Tara would not be able to mother this baby girl, at least she would be able to provide her with money for medical care and food. Her love had grown that big by now.

In an email written to the individual she had hired to help her, Tara pleaded: "I would greatly appreciate if someone in your team could purchase formula and water and explain to the father how to mix it. We [will] pay for the formula. ... I just can't bare [sic] thinking of her suffering. We want to do whatever we can to help her."

It is now mid-April 2012, and the father has given up. Because he has been so bullied by local government, he is no longer able to trust the helpers who assured him that his country's constitution provides fathers in his situation with basic rights. Though Ethiopian family law clearly states that it is legal for him to relinquish his daughter, the father still does not believe this.

*All names, both people and organizations, have been changed.

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