Thursday 22 February 2018

We want to give other children the chance to smile like our Brehan

Irish couples who want to adopt children from Ethiopia are calling on the Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, to lift a ban which has been in place since November 2010. It was imposed because Ethiopia did not sign the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children on Inter-country Adoption.

Independent TD Finian McGrath this week urged the minister to speed up the process. He said: "These children need us and many Irish families need them."

It's mid-afternoon in central Addis Ababa and four young children gather in silence around a bundle of clothes. On a dusty side road they kneel unprotected by shade from the 30 degree heat. Cars pass by just a few feet from where they rest. Their hair is knotted with dirt, their faces weary.

The three youngest boys, ranging in age from one to five, say nothing. As I approach, the fourth child, a girl who's a little older, smiles and manages a half-hearted "hi".

Her word provokes movement beneath the clothes bundle, and a bony hand lifts the material from underneath. I'm shocked to see the frame of a woman looking up at me. She's breast-feeding a tiny baby, though she barely has the strength to hold her head up.

She could be no more than 30, but she looks like an old woman.

Her eyes have lost all colour, her expression lacks any hope, and this could well end up being her last resting place. Although Ethiopia is making great strides in helping to stall the spread of HIV/AIDS, the disease still robs children of their mothers, as I'm sure it will do in this case.

But what will become of the children? Across the country, state-run and private orphanages are packed with vulnerable Ethiopian children.

For Maria Dunne and Hugh Duggan from Ringsend in Dublin, a decision was simple. Maria said: "We wanted to adopt from a developing country and we got to know some people who had adopted a child from Ethiopia. We knew there'd be a support network in Ireland and that we wouldn't be alone."

As she talked, two-year-old son Tariku sprinted around the foyer of a hotel in the Ethiopian capital. He was wearing his Leinster rugby kit and left his poor old dad, Hugh, in his wake.

Tariku's name means "he has a story to tell", and it couldn't be more apt. Born in the south of the country, he was three months old when his adoptive parents first set eyes on him. In April 2010 they brought their new son home.

"We're just an ordinary family. There are lots of different ways to be a family and this is our way," said Maria, who is a doctor with the HSE and on the committee of the Irish Ethiopian Adoption Organisation (IEAO).

Hugh and Maria were in Ethiopia, like me, to take part in the Great Ethiopian 10km road race. They pushed Tariku along in a jogger buggy. They believe that frequent trips to his homeland will be hugely important and have vowed to always teach Tariku about where he's from and his culture.

If Irish law allowed the couple to adopt a second child from Ethiopia they'd do so in a heartbeat.

In Kinsale, Co Cork, Donal Hayes echoes those sentiments. Four years ago he and his wife, Miriam, adopted their son, Brehan, from a state orphanage in Addis.

When I arrived at the family home, Brehan was sitting at the top of the stairs staring down with big beautiful eyes and wearing a sour expression.

He'd just had a run-in with his six-year-old sister, Fionnuala, after a disagreement over table football. Dad sorted out the drama with the help of a few biscuits and calm was restored.

Donal, a restaurant owner, said: "Miriam and I decided to adopt when children weren't coming, but we ended up having two of our own while we were waiting for the adoption process to conclude." Donal recalls the appalling conditions he found in one orphanage in Addis. "They'd run out of nappies. There were 29 children and one had diarrhoea. Before long they all had it.

"They decided to use plastic bags with the corners cut out and the children's legs were coming out through those and they were trying to contain the diarrhoea. It was an emotional wrecking-ball."

Donal contacted some friends at home who had a whipround and sent out $500 which he used to buy nappies. It helped – until they ran out a few days later.

Donal says he quickly realised that what the orphans of Ethiopia need more than anything else is love and support.

"When Brehan woke up at 4am this morning because he's afraid of spiders he came into our bed and felt safe. At four in the morning in an orphanage in Ethiopia there's nobody to go to – the kid is all alone," he said.

"Half of the orphans will die by the age of 10, and still politicians here drag their feet. That has to change.

"Our Government needs to allow adoptions from Ethiopia to resume as soon as possible. These children are not pieces of social furniture, they are vulnerable, they are desperate, they need to be given a chance."

In Ethiopia, orphans find themselves in homes for a huge variety of reasons. A life far from the Horn of Africa awaits many, but for now at least there will be no more Tarikus or Brehans arriving at Dublin Airport.

Between 2001 and 2010, nearly 200 Ethiopian children were adopted by Irish parents. It is believed that at least 100 more couples want to adopt.

There are an estimated 4.6 million orphans in Ethiopia, and would-be parents say that every week the Irish Government prevents adoption from there, children die needlessly.

Why can't Irish couples adopt from Ethiopia? Under the Adoption Act of 2010, inter-country adoptions can only be carried out with countries which have ratified the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children, or with which Ireland has a bilateral agreement.

Ethiopia is not a signatory to the Hague Convention.

A delegation from the Adoption Authority of Ireland (AAI) visited Ethiopia in April. They held exploratory meetings with the authorities there in the hope of forging a bilateral agreement which would enable Irish couples to adopt from the country again.

Eight months on, no such agreement has been arranged, nor does it look likely to emerge soon.

The Department for Children told the Irish Independent: "The AAI is awaiting legal advice . . . and will contact the minister once it has received this. Once the authority's assessment has been received, the minister will be in a position to fully consider the appropriate next steps."

A number of countries which signed up to the Hague Convention continue to adopt from Ethiopia, including the US which has taken more than 10,000 children in the past five years.

Allegations of corruption and the direct recruitment of children from birth parents by adoption service providers in Ethiopia have been raised in recent months by the US State Department, but it is acknowledged that all adoptions by Irish parents over the past two decades have been carried out to the letter of the law.

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