Melissa Harris Perry
updated 4/28/2013 1:47:43 PM ET 2013-04-28T17:47:43

Tarikuwa Lemma talks about being adopted as a 13-year-old in what she thought was an educational exchange program.

What would you do if you arrived in a foreign country ready to study on an educational exchange and only to discover you had been “adopted” by a family that thought you were an orphan?

It may sound like a nightmare, but it happened to Tarikuwa Lemma, who told her story on Sunday’s Melissa Harris-Perry. Lemma came to the United States from Ethiopia for what she and her family thought was an educational exchange program when she was 13-years-old; after she arrived, she was told she had been adopted.

Once she learned what her adoption meant for her future, Lemma felt “a lot of grief and anger.”

“I didn’t want a new family because I had a family in Ethiopia,” said Lemma, who will start her freshman year at college in the fall. The family that tried to adopt Lemma and her two younger sisters changed their names and even stopped them from speaking their native language.

Adoption is a multi-billion dollar industry, rife with corruption and dissemblance, and in recent years it has morphed into an evangelical movement.

“There is so much emphasis on and enthusiasm for adoption in the United States,” said journalist Kathryn Joyce, author of “The Child Catchers.” “When adoption agencies prey on families’ desire to ‘help’ children they believe to be in need, there have been lies and misinformation seeded in from the very beginning” of the adoption process.

How can the adoption process be reformed? Is it even possible to do so? Watch the full discussion on and watch the show every Saturday and Sunday at 10:00 AM ET.

Video: Woman shares story of being adopted from Ethiopia against her will

  1. Closed captioning of: Woman shares story of being adopted from Ethiopia against her will

    >>> we've been discussing the evangelical mission for trans national adoption which has become a movement among some did he voit christian families. a movement of hundreds of individual families, parents and children in this country each with their own individual and particular stories. joining my table are two people who have been involved in the trans national adoption process. karen moline is a mother who adopted her son from vietnam in 2001 and is a board member for the parents for ethical adoption reform and tyreke was adopted at age 13 from theethiopia. the struggle with two failed adoptions. university of connecticut historian jelani could be. when i say failed adoption , what does that mean? what is your story?

    >> when i was 13, my two younger sister and i came to america to adoption . they told us that we were going to america for educational exchange program and once we got to america, we found out that we were adopted. we didn't know what that meant. so our family told us that american family told us that they are our forever family and i reacted with a lot of grief and anger because i didn't want a new family. i have family in ethiopia.

    >> how do they respond to your reasonable grief and anger?

    >> i think they didn't really react that well because they wanted to adopt a child who was an orphan and that adoption agency told them false information. and it was kind of my word against the adoption agency and plus they just spent all this money. they're like we can't take you back because like you're our kid by law. so my sister and i just lived there for a while and later on i found out that they changed our names too, that's one of the reasons why the adoption fell i think. i was angry and i grieve over my name changed because i didn't want a new name. we already have ethiopian given name. they stopped us from speaking our native languages .

    >> and you at this point were 13. you weren't an infant who someone changed their name. you were a young woman .

    >> yeah.

    >> your story is the kind of story you tell in the book that is so hard for me to even comprehend how such a thing happens. how the set of public policies or individual decisions allow a child who has a family, a community, even a name to be ripped out of that around a sort of missionary notion of it being better in the united states .

    >> absolutely. i think what happens in a lot of cases, as in her case, there is so much emphasis and there is so much enthusiasm for adoption in the united states and especially in the description of the adoption movement, a lot of people are deeply moved by the idea that there are hundreds of millions of orphans in need and so if agencies are going out there and saying, sometimes they're taking videos of children and presenting these children sometimes in your case, giving false fact stories saying these children are destitute, these children are about to be completely orphaned, they might end up in a terrible circumstance and prostitution or something like that, this sort of misinformation can start at the very local level. then it comes across the ocean and parents here, prospective parents here are seeing that and are deeply moved. they move forward with an adoption and there have been lies and misinformation kind of seeded in from the very beginning.

    >> then what is a parent, someone who does feel moved, maybe even has a sense of purpose as is part of the language often around the evangelical part of the movement, how do you find an ethical way to be engaged in adoption ?

    >> i think what you have to do first is examine your motives of going internationally. you know, what i say often if you're dealing with a corrupt country with corrupt practices in every aspect of its business, why would you assume that the adoption business is exempt from the same sort of practices that taint other industries? and when you have a very emotional process, which is the need and the want to be a parent, coupled with a business model that doesn't work, you have in clash of not knowing what to do. i think because the stories that like we've just heard are not the -- isolated examples. if anything, i've learned over my years since i adopted in 2001 , corrupt stories are more commonplace than the noncorrupt ones. it's very, very difficult for honest, ethical well-meaning people to believe the depth of depravity that take place in this business bringing these children to this country. so the root of it, as it says in the bible, of all evil is money. there are staggering sums of money paid to these countries, and it's not that the money shouldn't -- some form of sum shouldn't be paid for child care , for bureaucratic processing. but there is absolutely no transparency where the funds are going. if you're paying tens of thousands of dollars to a country, you should see something for your money. you should see orphanages with decent care and schooling and nannies, you should see just people taking care of these children and you don't. you have starving babies and starving children. so getting back to your question, i personally would not recommend adopting internationally now because you have no control over the process. i would recommend foster to adopt in this country. the problem is there aren't babies. there are very few young children as katherine said. there aren't -- most children in the foster care system in this country are older children, four and older. i'm not sure what the actual statistic of the average age is. so when you also have a religious fervor driving your intentions and some of the worst abuses unfortunately, have come from faith-based agencies, i think in part because the parishioners, are not morally capable of believing that somebody who was a godly person, a prayerful good person is not just lying, but is stealing children, is harming innocent victims like the one sitting right here. they cannot believe it so they won't believe it.

    >> stay right here. i want to talk a bit more about how it does happen in our own country across a different kind of international line. that's the international line of the u.s. state and other questions. when we come back. i'm sorry. it's a


Discussion comments