By MIRIAM JORDAN reporting from Stillwater, Minn., and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Seated in plastic chairs in a grade-school cafeteria in Minnesota, Sandra and Alan Roth admired their 7-year-old daughter, Melesech, making her stage debut last month in "Peter Pan" as one of the "lost kids"—the children who find themselves spirited away to a magical place called Neverland. Four years earlier, to the day, the Roths had brought Mel home from Ethiopia, where they had adopted her.
"Oh, Wendy, we thought you were going to be our mother!" said Mel on stage, speaking her only line and wearing a rust-colored tunic and fuzzy Ugg-style boots.
"She is very special," said Mrs. Roth, 49 years old. For children like her in Ethiopia, she added, "There is no future."
Ethiopia has become one of the busiest adoption destinations in the world, thanks in part to loose controls that make it one of the fastest places to adopt a child. Nearly one out of five children adopted by Americans hailed from Ethiopia the past two years, second only to China.
Many youngsters, like Melesech, are thriving in loving homes. Still, the U.S. State Department has cautioned that Ethiopia's lax oversight, mixed with poverty and the perils of cross-cultural misunderstanding, leaves room for abuse.
"Ethiopia is a classic example of the next boom country where there are warning signs," said Karen Smith Rotabi, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies global adoption. While there is no proof of widespread fraud, the State Department says, in recent months it began requiring DNA tests and interviews of Ethiopians who have relinquished children, to ensure they are related.
Ethiopian officials say they are cracking down on abuses. Intercountry adoption is now "our last choice. We don't promote it," said Zaid Tesfay, deputy chief of the women's affairs office in Addis Ababa that oversees adoption.
The U.S. State Department said the pace of approvals by Ethiopian authorities seems to be picking up again after a decline. "We expect the numbers will bounce back this year," said Susan Jacobs, the U.S. State Department's chief adoption official.
The experience recounted by Mel's biological father, Mathewos Delebo, shows many of the complexities. Mr. Delebo, a 38-year-old farmer, acknowledges freely giving up his youngest child for adoption. Earlier this year, in the mud-hut village of Le-barfeta in southeastern Ethiopia where he lives, he described why he did it.
Four years ago, he claimed, a stranger—a middleman in the adoption trade—came to his village and persuaded him to give up a child with the promise that she would grow up and send money to support him. "White people are taking children of the poor and helping them get a better life," Mr. Delebo said he was told. "It will be good for you."
Mr. Delebo claimed he didn't understand that he was giving up Mel for good, and thought that she would send money home. Mr. Delebo doesn't recall the middleman's name and hasn't seen him for years.
U.S. government officials say middlemen are often employed by orphanages to find adoption candidates. Mr. Delebo's middleman can't be found so there is no way to know his motives.
The middleman's alleged pitch had its appeal. Mr. Delebo's first wife, Mel's biological mother, died of malaria when Mel was a baby. Today Mr. Delebo, his second wife, and his six remaining children live on the 60 cents a day he earns building huts. Drought has ravaged his crops. The family subsists on maize flour, beans and wild bananas, which grow in abundance.
Mr. Delebo said he now suffers from malaria himself—the disease that killed Mel's birth mother. "I have the same illness," he said. "Sometimes I feel very hot and sometimes I feel very cold."
Despite mixed feelings over Mel's adoption, recently he wondered aloud if it might be a good idea to give up some of his other children. "When I see pictures of Melesech and how happy she looks," he said, referring to snapshots the Roths have given him, "I wish I could send my other children, too." Since the local middleman disappeared, he's not sure how to make that happen.
In 2010, some 4,400 children left Ethiopia via adoption, nearly three times more than 2004, according to the latest available global figures. The U.S. adopts more foreign-born children than any other country.
China became a go-to source in the 1980s due to its one-child policy. All told, adoption to the U.S. tripled between 1990 and 2004, to a record 22,991. In 2005, Angelina Jolie famously brought home a daughter from Ethiopia.
Then, global adoption began to sputter. Russia and South Korea restricted adoptions; China started steering mainly special-needs children with mental or physical handicaps overseas. To adopt a healthy child, a five-year wait is typical. Washington halted adoption from Cambodia, Guatemala and Vietnam on evidence of baby peddling and document fraud.
"Waiting lists grew, and people got desperate," said Peter Selman, a British adoption scholar.
Ethiopia stood out with a wait time for a healthy child of only about 12 months. Western adoption agencies flocked to the capital, Addis Ababa. Across Ethiopia, local orphanages sprang up to meet demand.
Ethiopia isn't a signatory to The Hague Convention, a treaty to guarantee intercountry adoption is transparent and in a child's best interest. The country lacks infrastructure and personnel to regulate a process that usually begins deep in the countryside. Some of the largest and most reputable U.S. agencies adopt from Ethiopia.
A U.S. investigation of Ethiopian adoptions in 2009 and 2010 found inaccurate adoptee paperwork and orphanages using financial incentives to recruit children. The U.S. embassy found anecdotal evidence that scouts purporting to be state health workers weighed infants, then took them away from their parents on the pretext that the children weren't receiving adequate care. Ethiopian families often are solicited with promises that a relinquished child will become affluent and provide for the family left behind, said Ms. Jacobs, the U.S. adoption chief.
Ethiopia last year began strengthening its oversight and for a few months slashed the number of adoptions processed. As of late October 2011, it had closed about two dozen orphanages suspected of irregularities. Two orphanages that Mel passed through have been shut by the government, although it is unclear when or why the shutdowns occurred. A Unicef grant is helping the country build a foster-care system.
The adoption model works like this. Agencies in the U.S. typically charge about $25,000 to adopt an Ethiopian child, generally less than for other countries. Ethiopian orphanages that supply children to these agencies depend on funding from them to operate—providing an incentive to procure adoptable children.
Children's Home Society & Family Services, a large adoption agency based in St. Paul, Minn., that handled Melesech's case, said it pays Ethiopian orphanages "a flat, non-variable monthly amount not linked to the number of children referred. Orphanage assistance is used for diapers, food, formula, items to care for kids."
Melesech was born May 25, 2004, the fifth child of Mathewos Delebo and Abaynesh Heliso. Within months, her mother died of cerebral malaria. In October 2007, Mr. Delebo said, he received a visit from the adoption middleman.
First, Mr. Delebo said, he offered two of his sons, who were then about eight and nine. But the orphanage said it needed children younger than five. So he came back with Melesech. As required, Mr. Delebo said he obtained a letter in support of the adoption from his kebele, a council that oversees five local villages.
According to documents provided by Children's Home to the Roths and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, on Nov. 6, 2007, Mr. Delebo dropped off Melesech at an orphanage in the city of Hosanna, 45 miles from his village. "Because I am poor, I gave her away," said Mr. Delebo, recalling that father and daughter both cried when they said goodbye.
It was the furthest Mr. Delebo ever had traveled from home. It was also the last time he saw Melesech.
Ten days later, Mel was transferred to a center in Addis Ababa run by Children's Home Society. A video shot by the agency at that time shows a quiet, compliant child with almond eyes and short, curly hair undergoing a physical exam, attending bible class and riding a merry-go-round.
In Minnesota, back in early 2007, Sandra Roth was at church one Sunday when a missionary made a case for adopting overseas. "I had always wanted to adopt," said Mrs. Roth, a real-estate agent and mother of five biological children.
The Roths moved quickly. Within days, they met with Children's Home and settled on trying for an Ethiopia adoption. As part of the screening, the agency looked at the Roths' tax and financial statements, visited their home and interviewed their kids.
At first, the Roths were told they were likely to get two boys. But in early December 2007 they learned of Mel. The adoption agency provided an information packet. Her name means "give back," the packet said. The family lived "hand to mouth."
Mrs. Roth says she decided that "getting one little girl was the best plan." In a big Ziploc bag she stuffed a children's book, some clothes and photos of the Roth family for the agency to give to Mel.
Paperwork took several months. Consent was required from an Ethiopian federal-court judge and from Ethiopia's Ministry of Women's Affairs. The U.S. embassy in Ethiopia also needed to review the case before issuing Mel a passport.
In late February 2008, less than a year after the Roths' first meeting with the adoption agency, everything was in order. The Roths flew to Addis Ababa.
Their first meeting with Melesech, captured on video, didn't go very well. Mel recoiled at the sight of her new parents, whom she appeared to recognize, and screamed and cried. Within a few days, however, she was laughing and playing with them.
As part of the adoption process, the Roths and other adoptive parents traveled to Hosanna for an "entrustment ceremony," a ritual in which a birth relative symbolically transfers the parental role to the adoptive parents. The Roths stood across from Mr. Delebo in a circle and everyone chanted prayers.
The Roths also held a private meeting with Mr. Delebo. They unfurled a map of the world to show him Minnesota. He was "absolutely astonished," Mrs. Roth said. The Roths say they promised him to bring Melesech to Ethiopia when she was older.
On March 7, 2008, Melesech arrived in Stillwater, Minn., to a 6,500-square-foot, three-story Victorian home overlooking the St. Croix River, where her new family lived at the time: two older sisters, three older brothers, Grady the caramel-colored rescue dog and a black-and-brown cat called Kitty.
Mrs. Roth said Melesech "fit right in" and that she never imagined it would be "this easy." Mel's new siblings helped teach her English and introduced her to cartoon characters like SpongeBob SquarePants. In 2009, Mel started kindergarten at St. Croix Preparatory Academy. She speaks English perfectly but needs extra help with math, her teachers say.
The Roths talk openly to Melesech about her past, and it can be hard to discern whether her descriptions of life in Ethiopia are drawn from her own memories or from these discussions and various photos and videos from her early life. "My mother died from a mosquito bite," Mel said as she dug into vegetables piled on flat bread at an Ethiopian restaurant in St. Paul, her hair freshly braided at an Ethiopian salon.
Her bedroom looks out on a pond where the kids ice-skate in winter. On her desk, under the glass top, a picture of her Ethiopian family sits beside a photo of her American family.
Asked if she likes her room, Melesech giggled. "I only wish I had my own bathroom," she said, instead of sharing with one of her brothers.
With Melesech settled in Stillwater, Mrs. Roth said that in late 2009 she decided to see "exactly" where her daughter had come from. So the Roths traveled to her home village of Le-barfeta, eight hours outside Addis Ababa by four-wheel drive.
Melesech's relatives kissed photos of the girl that the Roths were carrying, Mrs. Roth recalls, and divvied up clothes and toys that they had brought as gifts. The Roths also gave Mr. Delebo about $100. Still, they felt Mr. Delebo was disappointed. "He asked if there wasn't anything else we had for him," Mrs. Roth said.
This past February in Le-barfeta, Mr. Delebo described his own recollections of the Roths' 2009 visit. Of all the families in his village who have given up children for adoption, he's the only one to receive a visit from the adoptive family—something he said he appreciates greatly. "I'm the only one in the village lucky enough to get that," he said.
But in one sign of the potential for miscommunication, he also said he had understood the Roths would help him buy a grinding mill to start a business.
"Something could be lost in translation," Mrs. Roth allows, but she said neither she nor her husband promised Mr. Delebo anything except that they would take good care of Melesech and send her to college. "He seemed very thankful she was going to be educated," Mrs. Roth said.
In Mr. Delebo's village, the nearest school is a 90-minute walk away. Three of his children are in the first grade, he said, including his 15-year-old daughter, Genete, and two sons, 13 and 12.
But during the visit to Le-barfeta earlier this year, the children weren't in class. They were doing chores—fetching water and chopping banana leaves to feed the cow and calf.
One recent Thursday in Stillwater, Melesech took center stage as her dance class practiced one of its routines. Reminded that she also had one final Peter Pan performance as a "lost child," Mel protested in classic 7-year-old form: "What the heck!" she said.
Mrs. Roth said she plans someday to take Melesech back to Ethiopia to meet her relatives, maybe when she's 10. "I want her to understand, and be familiar with her other family," she said.
But then, reflecting on Mr. Delebo's second thoughts about giving up Mel for adoption, she wondered aloud, "Will they try to take her back?"
Some 8,000 miles away in the village of Le-barfeta, her biological father awaits the day of Mel's return. "Whenever we see a plane fly by, we say, 'Melesech could be coming.' "—Simegnish Yekoye contributed to this article.
Write to Miriam Jordan at firstname.lastname@example.org
A version of this article appeared April 28, 2012, on page A1 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Inside Ethiopia's Adoption Boom.