Boom and Bust in the Baby Business

I can’t stop thinking about a post I read earlier today. I follow a Canadian woman who is in the process of adopting, and today she wrote about the agency fees she and her husband are being charged – somewhere in the vicinity of $50,000. Fifty thousand? How can that possibly be? How can an agency justify such costs? Where is all that money going? How many people are making their living out of this work?

It seems clear to me that the eviler forces of free enterprise must be at work here. I don’t blame my blog friend at all – I know how it is when you want to adopt: you will jump through every hoop required – also the financial ones. It is very likely that there are people on the other side of this equation who know that too, and they jack up the price of their services proportionately. That is what I assume is going on and, if so, it makes me sick. Reminds me of that slick young hedge fund manager in the news a week or two back – the one who acquired the rights to a medication used by AIDS and cancer patients and immediately raised the price by 5000%. Supply and demand, my friends. We don’t sell Jaguars for the price of a Honda.

I wrote somewhere in my adoption story blogs that we didn’t have the option of going to an agency 15 years ago and that I came to be glad about that fact. As nerve-wracking as it was at times to be dealing directly with officials and civil servants of three different countries, it at least forced us to come into contact with Ethiopians and learn about them and the country. Years later, Austria signed the Hague Convention and agencies started popping up like mushrooms. With each new arrival, the price of adopting curiously increased. (So much for supply and demand!) Before the entire wave of international adoptions came crashing down in this country, would-be parents here were also paying fees in the vicinity of $40,000.

We paid $1500 to each of our two adoption representatives. The trips to Ethiopia and a slew of official stamp fees made up the rest of the costs. Our adoption course was free as far as I can remember. The social welfare office took care of the screening process, issued the official permission to adopt or foster, and wrote the home study – all as part of their official duties and at no cost to us.

In both cases, our one local Ethiopian representative (rather than an Austrian agency) really had quite a few expenses and a lot of work to do for the fee we paid. I can estimate that they easily invested 100 hours or more of their time, so we are talking about $10 or $12 an hour, tops. Still, relatively speaking, that is a huge amount in a country where half the population lives on less than a dollar a day. It raised eyebrows and suspicions there. Sums of money like that had the potential to corrupt people, we were told. It would only be a matter of time before poor Ethiopian women would be offered some cash for their babies because it was in someone’s financial interest to pass them on (= “resell them”) to hopeful American or European couples. People would start opening private “orphanages” – which often meant that they would take in a handful of street kids and then start soliciting donations from well-meaning first-world charities . . .

We witnessed that last effect with our own eyes.

During our first stay in Addis Ababa, we visited a state-run orphanage managed by a wonderful elderly woman. She was like a mother to the babies and dedicated her whole life to their care. They had very little in terms of funds or supplies, but all the babies there seemed well looked after. Friends of ours had adopted their daughter from there, so when we went back again two years later, they asked us to bring donations, clothes, medicines, etc. to that orphanage.

On arrival, we found out that the former caretaker had retired and that the place had been privatized. We were greeted in the parking lot by a young, fashionably dressed woman in hairdresser hair and high heels standing next to a nice new car. She told us we could look around and then whipped out her new cell phone and started texting. A handful of straggly older kids came our way across the dirt yard in tattered clothes, barefoot, with red eyes and runny noses. They immediately held out their hands, expecting . . . I don’t know what. The whole squalid place was a study in forlorn. We somewhat reluctantly left the boxes of supplies there – boxes that had initially excited the new caretaker until she opened them and looked inside. Her disappointment was apparent and she went back to her cell phone. As we drove away, we wondered how long those boxes would stand there untouched – if and how the supplies would ever be used.

I later asked our second representative, Monty, about the place. (I’ll add here that Monty eventually became a good friend and we are still in contact with her to this day.) She said there were now hundreds of places like that in Addis. That particular one was supported by a charitable organization in Switzerland. Apparently, it was not uncommon for them to use the first funds rolling in to buy cars, computers and cell phones etc. for the caretakers. Monty said there were only two or three orphanages in the entire city that she trusted and would work with – the rest were variations of that one.

Meanwhile, agencies were growing and multiplying here in Austria and they continued working for several years. Hundreds of couples were able to adopt from foreign countries. Many of them simply handed over documents and then started waiting for “The Call”. Then they got on a plane and returned home just three or four days later, having seen or learned very little about their child’s country of origin. Each year the costs increased. Weird stories started to circulate. Then a series of adoption scandals made it all the way into the media and brought down one agency after another until the entire system collapsed. It is now nearly impossible in Austria to adopt from a foreign country and it has been that way for years. I assume that five or ten years from now, some family like the Tyrolean one I wrote about before will have the gumption to do the pioneer work and pull off the first private Ethiopian adoption of the next cycle. Calls will be made and a second one will happen. News will spread and the new wave will begin to form.

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