With eye on Ethiopia's orphans, adoption firm expands horizons

Date: 2003-01-07

Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)

In Depth: A stricken nation's young


Ethiopia is not a good place to be a child right now.

Many families live in abject poverty, crammed into huts with no running water. Half the nation's workers have no jobs. Drought has turned fertile fields into wastelands, and famine could kill millions of people within months.

Then there's AIDS, which has ravaged sub-Saharan Africa. More than 1.5 million Ethiopian children are orphans, largely because of AIDS.

Ethiopians love and cherish their children, said Vicki Peterson, executive director of Wide Horizons for Children, an international adoption agency based in Waltham, Mass. They do their best to support the orphans, to protect and care for them.

But they want to give their young people a fighting chance, and in Ethiopia, the outlook is grim. So Ethiopians are welcoming a new interest from Americans in adopting their children.

Two U.S. adoption agencies, one in the Pacific Northwest, the other in Indiana, have been arranging Ethiopian children's adoptions for years, with great success, Peterson said. Now Wide Horizons - which has offices throughout the U.S. Northeast, including in New Jersey - is starting its own Ethiopia program.

The nonprofit agency has placed more than 7,000 children from 56 countries since its founding in 1974, focusing in recent years on South Korea, China, the Philippines, Russia and Guatemala.

But this is "a whole new part of the world" for the agency to go into, Peterson said. "We have never worked in Africa before."

The project was inspired by an inquiry from a man who had worked in child protection in Ethiopia for 30 years and, nearing retirement, wanted to help find homes for some of the orphans, Peterson said.

The more Wide Horizons looked into the idea, the more convinced it was that Ethiopia was the right place to go.

"I can't think of any place in the world where children are in more desperate need of homes and of care than in Ethiopia," Peterson said.

To ensure that their efforts would succeed, Peterson and Sarah Mraz, director of international programs for Wide Horizons, recently traveled to Ethiopia to visit orphanages, hospitals and villages where orphans live.

What they found, Peterson said, was both devastating and heartening.

In the villages, families lived in misery, and in many households, 13- and 14-year-old orphans were raising their younger siblings. In the orphanages, children were treated kindly and cared for; many were even learning English. But to make ends meet, the orphanages had to close seasonally and send the children to their native villages - something the orphans seemed to dread, so "horrendous" were the conditions there, she said.

Already, through other agencies, Ethiopian adoptions are on the rise. In the last year, 105 children were adopted by U.S. families, according to the State Department. Over the last 10 years, Americans have adopted 653 Ethiopian children.

The first step for Wide Horizons is to set up an adoption home in the capital, Addis Ababa, where all adoptions must take place under Ethiopian law. The children will come from all over the country and spend six months to a year at the home, being cared for and prepared for their new lives while the adoptions go through.

Parents wishing to adopt an Ethiopian child will be able to choose from infants to adolescents, Peterson said, though most will likely be 1 to 6 years old.

Older children are generally harder to place. And while there will surely be orphaned babies, too, Peterson said, the need to test them for HIV - neither Ethiopia nor the United States will allow HIV-positive children to participate - will likely delay the adoptions until the babies are about 1.

The children will be the strongest survivors in a place where the sick and weak, tragically, do not live long enough to find adoptive homes. And unlike the emotionally wounded children who so often come out of orphanages in other parts of the world - and in the United States - these youngsters have the advantage of having grown up in a culture that values them highly.

"The children in Ethiopia are really, truly loved," Peterson said. "That's not to say that an orphanage is a good place for a child to be. However, they are treated with kindness. . . . These are children who have known love."

For More Information

For information about the Ethiopia adoption program, call Mary Moo at Wide Horizons' Waltham, Mass., office, 781-894-5330. The agency's Plainfield, N.J., office is at 908-756-3000.

GREG GILBERT / Seattle Times

Scott and Christy Douglas of Washington state adopted children from Ethiopia. They are (clockwise from top) Sam, 6; Maria, 13; Meg, 11; and Kate, 6, Sam's twin. An adoption agency in the Northwest and one in Indiana have worked in Ethiopia for years. Another, with a New Jersey office, has started a program there.


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