Online investigation into overseas adoptions

Suzanne Smith reported this story on Sunday, March 21, 2010 08:20:00

ELIZABETH JACKSON: A couple of weeks ago we featured an interview with Mary Ann Jolley from ABC TV’s Foreign Correspondent program.

Mary Ann had an alarming story to tell about the largely unregulated inter-country adoption industry in the US.

There were allegations that both children and adoptive parents were lied to by one particular adoption agency in Ethiopia, and as a result one young girl said she felt like she’d been sold.

Journee Bradshaw was told she would go to school in America, and would visit her family in Ethiopia often. Her adoptive family were told that Journee’s father was dying from AIDS and that she would most likely become a prostitute. All lies.

Lots of money was exchanged during the adoption process and at the end of it many people felt cheated.

The ABC’s online investigative unit followed up the story with Australian families who’d adopted children from Ethiopia and what it found was chilling.

Suzanne Smith is the ABC’s news online investigations editor. I asked her what she’d discovered.

SUZANNE SMITH: At the end of the Foreign Correspondent program we did a call out to the Australian audience because we’d already heard that there’d been problems with the Australian Ethiopian adoption program.

Now what we got back was a lot of information from families who had travelled to Ethiopia – Australian families – and some pretty heart breaking stories about what they saw, what they went through.

The process, whether you want to call it child trafficking, there are certainly serious issues about the process. Some families witnessed Ethiopian mothers falling to the ground screaming when they couldn’t find their children; their children had already been taken away and been adopted.

They talked about having to pay donations to the Australian Government representative to fast track their adoptions.

They talked about the fact that the… in Ethiopia the Australian Government sponsors a place which is like a hostel where the children come from the families and then they wait in this hostel before they’re given to Australian families to come home; it’s called Koala House.

Now, some of those families reported to us that they thought those children were only being fed one meal a day.

So you know, this raises serious questions about whether these children are being treated properly, and clearly in the evidence we got from Australian families was very similar things were happening to what was discovered by Foreign Correspondent in America.

Some families found the children hadn’t been abandoned; so they had parents; they weren’t orphans. They found the ages were wrong. Just very similar circumstances to the American situation.

And of concern as well, kids are coming from the same pool.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: So, there’s serious issues to be raised here about whether the Australian Government, given the situation in Ethiopia – how difficult the poverty, the dysfunction, the systemic corruption – whether the Australian Government can be sure that were not adopting children that are in fact kidnapped from families or families have had pressure put on them.

SUZANNE SMITH: Look, the fact is whatever’s happening there, it’s not acceptable. It’s not up to Australian standards and there needs to be more transparency.

And I understand that the Attorney-General’s department is sending more staff over there to investigate further. They did suspend the program after the first Foreign Correspondent program went to air last year. They are saying it will resume in early April.

But in 2005 the former government looked into the program and found 44 serious issues and that involved the same Australian representative that is there now.

So the fact… the issue now for the Attorney-General is that Australian Government representative is still there; he’s still operating; he’s still our conduit with the families and there are people within the adoption industry who are concerned that perhaps he and his operation hasn’t been investigated seriously enough.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: So if there were 44 negative outcomes from an investigation carried out by the Australian government back in 2005, what was done about that?

SUZANNE SMITH: Roelie Post from Against Child Trafficking in Europe actually sent the Australian Government in 2008 a pile of documents about the same Australian Government representative, that he had been arrested for allegedly being involved in child trafficking children to Austria in 2008.

Now, the Australian Government has investigated that and they’ve come back to us to say no, that was just a case of mistaken identity – Austria, Australia.

However, we’ve got the statement from the biological mother who was involved in that case – it’s on the website – which says she identifies the Australian Government representative as being involved.

And Roelie Post from Against Child Trafficking, which is a respected NGO, says the Australian Government has not investigated that issue seriously enough.

They can’t find in any of the Ethiopian Government documents any reference to the fact it was a case of mistaken identity.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Have you spoken to anyone else Suzie apart from Roelie Post, who you’ve just mentioned, who… from someone in a position of authority who corroborates these allegations?

SUZANNE SMITH: Lots of people have corroborated these allegations outside of Australia and inside.

Many of the families that we’ve talked to don’t want to be named because there’s still legal issue spending on their children, and they’re concerned about the effect on their children.

ELIZABETH JACKSON: Suzanne Smith, the ABC’s News Online investigations editor.