We Four in Egypt

Now back in the US!

Update from US Consul in Addis

After a day and a half of wild speculation and rumor-mongering on the part of adoptive parents (guilty!), CHSFS, our adoption agency, sent an update to families about the reasons behind cutting off contact between first families and adoptive families.

The issue seems to revolve around the definition of orphan, according to US Immigration laws, and how a legal orphan can have two living birth parents, which is possible, if the child has been abandoned, also defined by US law. The issues becomes particularly complicated if the birth parents who “abandoned” the child meet with the adoptive family, which demonstrates “ongoing parental interest in the child” (I’m quoting the Consul here).

Anyway, I’ll let the Consul speak for itself. Here’s the letter from the US Consul in Addis, as shared with us by CHSFS:

US Consulate Notice

TO: Adoption Agencies in Ethiopia

FROM: Consular Section Chief Paul Cantrell

RE: Ensuring that adoptive children qualify as orphans

The staff of our Consular Section appreciates your effort and cooperation in making inter-country adoptions possible for American citizen parents. I am writing to bring to your attention an issue that is of the greatest importance to successfully concluding inter-country adoptions for American parents. I want to make sure that you and your staff members are fully aware of the requirements that adoptive children truly qualify as orphans.

American citizens coming to Ethiopia to adopt children will in most cases come to the Embassy to apply for an IR-3 or IR-4 immigrant visa for the child. In order for a child to qualify for either an IR-3 or IR-4 immigrant visa, the child must qualify as an “orphan” as defined by section 101(b)(1)(F) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).

As part of the inter-country adoption process, it is the responsibility of the consular officer to review the circumstances by which the child became available for adoption and to confirm that the child qualifies as an “orphan” as defined by section 101(b)(1)(F). This step in the process is accomplished when the consular officer approves the I-600 Petition to Classify Orphan as an Immediate Relative and is confirmed through the officer’s completion of Form I-604, Request for and Report on Overseas Orphan Investigation.

If the child does not qualify as an “orphan” as defined in the INA, the officer cannot approve the I-600 petition and an immigrant visa for the child cannot be approved.

For this reason it is absolutely essential that all adoption agencies that are coordinating adoptions for American citizen parents be fully aware of the definition of “orphan” as stipulated in the INA. Agencies must be absolutely certain that a child qualifies as an “orphan” according to the INA before matching that child with American adoptive parents. If agencies are unsure whether a child qualifies as an “orphan” as defined by the INA, they should not assign that child to American adoptive parents until it can be confirmed that the child does qualify. A consular officer does not have the authority to approve an IR-3 or IR-4 immigrant visa for an adopted child unless the child qualifies as an “orphan,” as defined by the INA. If agencies have questions about this concept or about an individual case, they are welcome to contact the Consular Section for assistance.

Agencies are urged to review the following information, which is provided as clarification of how a child may qualify as an “orphan” according to the INA.

According to U.S. immigration law, a child may qualify as an orphan because either:

(a) The child has no parents because of the death or disappearance, abandonment, or desertion by, or separation from or loss of both parents (9 FAM 42.21 N13.2-4 and 9 FAM 42.21 N13.2-5); or

(b) The child’s sole or surviving parent is incapable of providing proper care and has, in writing, irrevocably released the child for emigration and adoption (9 FAM 42.21 N13.2-4 and 9 FAM 42.21 N13.2-6).

Of particular interest here is (a): “the child has no parents.” U.S. immigration law recognizes six ways in which a child might lose his/her parents and qualify as an “orphan.” An orphan may have no parents due to any combination of the following six reasons: death, disappearance, abandonment, desertion, separation or loss.

Of these six reasons, the one that appears to cause the most confusion among adoptions in Ethiopia is “abandonment.” According to U.S. immigration law, “abandonment” means that the parents have willfully forsaken all parental rights, obligations, and claims to the child, as well as all control over and possession of the child, without intending to transfer, or without transferring, these rights to any specific person(s).

Abandonment must include not only the intention to surrender all parental rights, obligations, and claims to the child, and control over and possession of the child, but also the actual act of surrendering such rights, obligations, claims, control, and possession. A child who is placed temporarily in an orphanage should not be considered to be abandoned if the parents express an intention to retrieve the child, are contributing or attempting to contribute to the support of the child, or otherwise exhibit ongoing parental interest in the child.

Further, U.S. immigration law clarifies that a relinquishment or release by the parent(s) to the prospective adoptive parents or for a specific adoption does not constitute “abandonment.” Similarly, the relinquishment or release of the child by the parent to a third party for custodial care in anticipation of, or preparation for, adoption does not constitute “abandonment” unless the third party (such as a governmental agency, a court of competent jurisdiction, an adoption agency, or an orphanage) is authorized under the child welfare laws of the foreign-sending country to act in such a capacity. A child released to a government-authorized third party, however, could be considered to have been abandoned even if the parent(s) knew at the time that the child would probably be adopted by a specific person or persons, so long as the relinquishment was not contingent upon adoption by a specific person or persons.

I have emphasized the items above in italics to remind agencies that the Embassy cannot approve IR-3 and IR-4 immigrant visas for children adopted from intact families who have given up their children because of, or contingent upon, some expectation that:

the adoptive parents will provide some financial support to the natural parents
the adoptive parents will be willing to provide information about the child to the natural parents
the child will be of some benefits to the natural parents at some point in the future
Recently, some agencies have indicated that they routinely attempt to arrange meetings between adoptive parents and a child’s natural parents. While such meetings might provide certain advantages, agencies should be aware that meetings with the natural parents may in some cases be interpreted as evidence of the natural parents’ “ongoing parental interest in the child,” and as such may invite additional scrutiny by consular officers when reviewing the I-600 petition on behalf of such a child.

To avoid confusion and ensure that agencies are fully aware of all requirements of U.S. immigration law, consular officers will be arranging to meet individually with adoption agencies in the coming weeks. We are most interested in learning how agencies acquire the children who are matched with American adoptive parents and in helping agencies avoid matching any children who would not qualify as “orphans” according to the INA.

I appreciate your cooperation in the endeavor and invite your questions, comments, and suggestions about how we can work together to improve the integrity of the inter-country adoptions process.


Paul Cantrell

Consular Section Chief

U.S. Embassy, Addis Ababa


Scott Driskel

Vice Consul

U.S. Embassy Addis Ababa

(For the record, my kids were both legal orphans.)

So the issue at hand seems not to be contact between families, but specifically contact between families if the first family has two living parents.

When we first started looking into adoption, less than three years ago, I was in la-la land. Ethiopia had a huge orphan crisis, with millions of kids without parents, and we wanted to raise a child. It seemed perfectly simple and simply perfect.

Of course, the reality of adoption is not pretty or simple or easy, for anyone.

25 January 2008 - Posted by | adoption, ethiopia


  1. ok… I take it back. Seeing the full letter, it now appears to be more of a genuine concern about the possibility of birth family being unduly influenced to relinquish a child than an immigration issue. And much as I support contact with birth family, it’s certainly true that they shouldn’t be promised the expectation of it, since there’s no way to make anyone follow through. However, it seems extreme to cut off all contact with birth family members based on this letter.

    The ‘two living parents’ issue is certainly interesting. None of the families I know who are (or were) in contact with birth family, including my own, are in that category. I was actually under the impression that children with two living parents whose whereabouts were known would not even be legally free for adoption.

    Comment by June | 25 January 2008

  2. June, thanks for chiming in again. I agree the two-parent issue is surprising, but it seems that many children placed by CHSFS come from intact first families (I feel like I should say not my kids, which is true, but it shouldn’t be relevant). In fact, this issue has been a cause for some concern amongst some adoptive families I know, since many other agencies don’t seem to be referring kids with two living, known birth parents.

    I also agree that cutting off all contact is extreme. For example, there are adoptive families who are in touch (through the agency) with a grandmother, the only surviving birth relative. That doesn’t seem problematic under any of these definitions.

    Comment by Ms. Four | 25 January 2008

  3. i don’t see how the communications we’ve received apply any more to two parent birth families then to single parent relinguishments. . i mean it seems to be saying that the relinquishing parent(s) need to abandon meaning they have no intent to have any rights, responsibilities etc to the child(ren) they are placing. I see how it is more difficult to become legally defined as orphaned if there are two living parents BUT it happens, it happens in Korea a lot that there are two living parents. I think that a single surviving parent who shows interest in meeting with and ongoing contact with ap’s might also fall under question as to whethere they relinguished with full knowledge (and whethere the child is really abandoned/orphaned). I also don’t know many chsfs kids with known two parent families. This seems to be implied by some people (that chsfs has more then other agencies, but i don’t actually see it). I also remember that chsfs released a FAQ with some numbers that sort of addressed this issue and it didn’t seem like 2 p arent relinguishments were that common. I have been wrong before …

    Comment by Stacy | 25 January 2008

  4. Stacy, in regards to kids from intact families: I think this is becoming more common. Certainly when I was in Hosanna last summer, it was pretty clear that some adoptive parents were meeting two parents (conversations confirmed as much). Other recent travelers have said the same.

    The definition for orphan for a child with one parent is quite simple: “The child’s sole or surviving parent is incapable of providing proper care and has, in writing, irrevocably released the child for emigration and adoption.” This doesn’t preclude later contact, not as I read it, and has nothing to do with abandonment.

    The definition for a child with two living parents is more complex: “The child has no parents because of the death or disappearance, abandonment, or desertion by, or separation from or loss of both parents.” Basically, it’s not possible for an orphan (legally defined) to have living parents who are keeping in touch somehow. Later contact means that the child does indeed have parents.

    I read these as being very different situations. Basically, an orphan has one parent or no parents. The law doesn’t recognize anything else.

    Comment by Ms. Four | 25 January 2008

  5. Perhaps I am not reading this correctly, but I read it as saying that they are discouraging all contact between the child and biological family, whether one parent, two or grandparent or whatever. I don’t read anything that says that it’s okay for the child to have contact with one parent, but not with two.

    I do see that the requirements for a child to be an “orphan” are more stringent with two living parents, which I guess makes sense. It doesn’t actually say that the parents can’t have contact with the child, but just that they shouldn’t expect to, and that having contact could possibly be an indication of ongoing interest. Am I reading this wrong

    How much of this is because of all the problems in Guatemala in the last few years?

    Comment by Confused, perhaps | 25 January 2008

  6. As an Ethiopian now living in America, who was informally adopted by relatives growing up, and now an adoptive parents of a truly orphaned child. I like to share my thoughts on the general perception (mentality) to adoption by MOST fellow Ethiopians.

    Until recently most Ethiopian’s didn’t experience formal adoption, therefore; the practice, mind set and acceptance of adoption are very, very different from what one would see in the west.

    Most Ethiopians consider adoption a loan-in situation of a child, not really life changing event (may be a shocking concept to a westerner). Even though, the child may never have a single contact with his/her birth parents. The child is considered, and expected to be part of its birth parents life at any moment in time.

    These birth parents just give up their babies to these orphanages, probably thinking, once they have given birth to a child expect them always be theirs. However, they will allow them him/her temporally to go have a better life in another part of the world in turn one day they too will have a better life.

    Well, that isn’t such a bad thought considering Ethiopia is one of the poorest in the world. What bothers me the most is when my fellow Ethiopian’s dismiss all the years and life a child has had with his/her adoptive parents. This has happened to me in my own growing up in Addis. Always a visitor in my own house. The sad part is, even with all western exposure and experience our Diaspora Ethiopians has had most considers my adopted child not quite part of my family.

    What my advice to adoptive parent, who are trying to keep contact with birth parents, is to be very cautious. Be wary of the motive of these birth parents. Even though your may be pouring your heart and soul into your adopted child these birth parents along with majority of Ethiopian society may not consider you as a true parent. Just a keeper until…things get better.

    Making sure your child is a true orphan will save you and your child a lot of complication and grief later on in life.

    Comment by Addis | 25 January 2008

  7. Interesting insights on a complicated situation. I’m trying to determine how this contact could/would affect the child – is it a “push me, pull me” atmosphere?

    My concerns are that some children will not have the emotional skills and ability to fully establish a unity with their adoptive parents if the birth parents remain involved (sporadic or constant) in their lives.

    I do agree that the true orphan presents fewer complications, but even that child needs life long support regarding his/her birth circumstances.

    Comment by js | 26 January 2008

  8. Thanks for posting this. It was an important read.

    Comment by Nicole | 27 January 2008

  9. Thanks for sharing this. Our daughter was abandoned, so no contact with any part of her first family, but the idea that many people might have both the opportunity and the willingness to meet with a first family, and now it is no longer possible seems like such a tragedy. I really hope this directive will be reconsidered–our children gain so much when information can be shared. I also hope that another agency like EAR might begin work on behalf of Ethiopia’s adopted children. We’d give anything to be able to add to Astrid’s life story.

    Comment by doris day | 29 January 2008

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