A young girl, only 13, leaves her home in Ethiopia with the hopes of the educational opportunity of a lifetime. She says goodbye to her loving family, knowing she will see them in the summers on her breaks from school, and jumps on a plane to America. She arrives in this country, the supposed land of dreams, to find that her nightmare is only beginning. She and two of her younger sisters have been adopted. They didn’t want a new family; they wanted a better education. Forced to change their names, live with a strange family and speak a language that wasn’t their own, Tarikuwa Lemma was rightfully frustrated.
Despite her justified anger, Tarikuwa was chastised for it and eventually separated from her sisters and sent to live with yet another family states away. Even in the new home, Tarikuwa was not loved and rather shamed for her culture and her desperate longing for home, and her family. When Tarikuwa found a loving family and wanted to re-home herself, both of her previous families tried to thwart the adoption by verbally degrading Tarikuwa’s character.
Finally having escaped her second troublesome home, Tarikuwa is an advocate for other children in her situation: re-homing. Rhode Island was lucky enough to have Tarikuwa as well as Liya Floust, another victim of re-homing, to bravely speak at Congressman Jim Langevin’s roundtable discussion on solutions to re-homing on Tuesday at the Rhode Island State Police Scituate Barracks.
Although a re-homing is a happy term used when an animal finds a home, when it concerns children it can have a more horrifying definition. It is a method through which guardians of adopted children illegally and immorally change the guardianship of a child. There exists an online community in which children in unwanted adoptive homes are advertised and adults advertise themselves to be the new “guardian” for unwanted children.
These children can be sold to pedophiles, into sex trafficking, to people who have lost their own biological children or are denied adoption privileges due to abuses mental, physical and sexual, or existing criminal records.
An investigation led by Reuters brought to light the travesty that is “re-homing.”
“The Reuters investigative series was a clear call to action. I was shocked and saddened to learn just how common re-homing is, and I know that it is going to take the collaboration of law enforcement, legislators and experienced child advocates to figure out a solution. I am so grateful to the panel participants for sharing their experiences and expertise,” Langevin said Tuesday.
Along with himself and the Ethiopian victims Tarikuwa and Liya, the panel consisted of Attorney General Peter Kilmartin; RI DCYF Director Dr. Janice DeFrances; Darleen Allen, executive director of Adoption Rhode Island; Maureen Flatley, a national expert in adoption reform and oversight; and State Police Commissioner Steven O’Donnell.
Liya, Tarikuwa and Flatley agreed that one of the biggest problems that allows re-homing to continue is the lack of post-adoption services for children and parents. This leads to more disrupted adoptions because families are not receiving the services needed for a smoother transition for new parents to acclimate to a new child and vice versa.
Flatley said, “When foreign governments are refusing to allow adoptions through your country, you need to up your game.”
Flatley mentioned that the most at-risk groups for re-homing and illegal adoptions are internationally adopted children who are slightly older in age who may come from a traumatic history in their home country.
Tarikuwa and Liya both mentioned that there needs to be a hotline for internationally adopted kids, whether that is an agency or advocates they can reach out to with problems. Tarikuwa specifically mentioned translators are a desperate necessity for internationally adopted kids. Coming to America, she didn’t know any English and even though a social worker made a few attempts at follow-up visits, Tarikuwa had no way of explaining the issues she was having to anyone because of the language barrier.
“It is psychologically damaging to anyone, but especially a child, when the people who are supposed to be able to trust and love you, don’t. That is going to follow you in some way throughout your life,” she said.
The entire panel mentioned at some point that the reason adoption agencies are so unregulated is because adoption is seen as a good thing. Most of the time, agencies say tougher restriction would hurt the kids.
Flatley said, “This can happen even with reputable agencies. The system is just out of control. Agencies have evaded regulation for 150 years because ‘you’ll hurt the kids.’ Our existing laws need to be prosecuted and enforced. It won’t hurt adoption but benefit it.”
She said if it is illegal to abandon a biological child, why should adopting a child to create the semblance of true parentage then abandoning be exempt from that same law and tolerated in our society?
“If Wal-Mart can keep track of a pair of shoes as it’s being made in China until they end up on my grandchild’s feet, then we should be able to, as a country, keep track of these kids,” Flatley passionately said.
Besides the obvious issue in post-adoptive regulations services and follow-up visits, the Internet is playing a large role in helping these kids disappear from the system. People can hide behind fake faces, lives and falsified documents.
“We need to find a way to regulate, handle, and prosecute these websites promoting re-homing. Websites hide under the Communication Act,” Kilmartin said. “The Internet today only helps to facilitate the problem.”
Kilmartin has pledged to work alongside Langevin to fight against the issue of re-homing.
Commissioner O’Donnell said, “We need to protect our greatest resource, our children.”
There is already a motion for the Government Accountability Office to look into methods through which this form of human trafficking and child exploitation can be reigned in. Children cannot continue to be shuffled around like dogs through homes and programs that only hurt those children who have no power to actually help themselves when thrown into these horrifying situations.
Tarikuwa was lucky she eventually found a good home in Maine, a luxury many children are never afforded. They are trapped in a cycle of re-homing under the guardianship of unfit parents and predators. Many of these children have no means through which they can reach out for help.
Tarikuwa was able to keep herself educated throughout the tragedy and has just finished her first year of college. After eight years trapped in an American adoptive nightmare, Tarikuwa is finally having a dream come true. This week she will finally be returning to Ethiopia and the loving family that has been awaiting her return.