exposing the dark side of adoption
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A rare new beginning

3/11/2003 - A rare new beginning:
Philadelphia Inquirer

CHERRY HILL, N.J. - Mia saw her parents killed by rebels. Michaela's mother died of starvation. Mariel's mother developed gangrene from a bullet in her leg. And in war-ravaged Sierra Leone, where they were born, the girls suffered from malaria, food poisoning and malnutrition.

"It was scary," Michaela said of the havoc wreaked by rebels who burned her village, forcing her and others to walk hundreds of miles at night to neighboring Guinea.

Being an orphan is not unusual in parts of Africa, where millions of children have lost their parents to civil war, famine and AIDS.

What is remarkable is that the girls were adopted by a Cherry Hill family four years ago and have started life over as American children, complete with ballet and swim lessons and dreams of a happy future.

"In Africa the girls would not have survived," said their mother, Elaine dePrince, 56, as the chattering sisters dressed their dolls in a book-crammed playroom.

Their story is by far the exception.

Perhaps nowhere in the world are more children in need of homes and care than in Africa. Eleven million children in sub-Saharan Africa have been orphaned by AIDS alone, according to UNICEF.

Yet only 343 African children were adopted in 2001 by American families, compared with 8,642 from Asia, 7,637 from Europe and 1,646 from Central America, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"The need is enormous," said Cheryl Carter-Shotts, who runs Americans for African Adoptions in Indianapolis. But in the hierarchy of orphans, Africans "are at the bottom of the barrel," she said.

Many obstacles stand between African children and homes in America. For countries overwhelmed by civil war, drought, poverty and disease, setting up adoption programs is not a priority, said DeGuerre Blackburn, director of Voice for International Development and Adoption in Hudson, N.Y., which places children from Sierra Leone.

There are cultural differences, too. The vast majority of African orphans are taken in by their extended families, and if the family becomes overwhelmed, the community pitches in, said Nigel Cantwell, a specialist in intercountry adoptions at UNICEF.

"These are informal arrangements," he said. "There is no culture of adoption as such in Africa."

And not every country wants its children raised by foreigners, no matter how dire the circumstances. Currently only three African nations, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Liberia, work with American adoption agencies, though others allow adoptions on a case-by-case basis.

In lands with so much strife, caretakers can be hard to find.

For two decades, Liberia has been roiled by civil war. Neighboring Sierra Leone recently ended a decadelong conflict that left tens of thousands of children without parents, uprooted from their homes, and at heightened risk for disease and malnutrition.

"They've seen their families murdered and people losing limbs. The atrocities are just awful," said Cindy Boody of Maine Adoption Placement Services, whose Sierra Leone orphanage was in the middle of some of the fiercest fighting.

But nothing has created more orphans than the scourge of HIV/AIDS. With one of the largest populations in the world of people with HIV and AIDS, Ethiopia has an estimated one million orphans, many living precariously on the streets or in run-down orphanages.

Three American agencies are permitted by the Ethiopian government to arrange for adoption of healthy Ethiopian orphans to America, and at least a dozen other agencies represent Australia, Canada and European nations. Last year, 105 Ethiopian children were adopted in the United States.

The number of children being adopted is "so small in relation to the need," said Cantwell.

One reason is that only children who test negative for HIV and AIDS are accepted into foreign adoption programs. But many prospective parents worry that the disease will turn up later, said Carter-Shotts, whose agency's flower-fringed orphanage is on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital.

"In 16 years, I've never had that happen," she said.

Carter-Shotts, a former auto-racing publicist, started her agency after adopting a boy she saw on a news show about famine in Mali.

"He said (on the program), `I am hungry all the time. I see many children die every day.' After three days I woke up and said, I know what I'm going to do. That child is my son and I'm going to find him," she said.

She quit her job, borrowed $15,000 and spent months tracking him down. When a Red Cross worker finally found the child, Carter-Shotts' husband traveled 800 miles into the desert to bring him home.

Few others have been so willing to help, which some adoption workers attribute to racism.

"People want as close to a white, blue-eyed baby as they can get," Carter-Shotts said.

African children "are not No. 1 on the list of adoptive parents' desires," said Cantwell, citing the large number of children being adopted from Eastern Europe and Russia. "There's a preference for white, healthy babies."

Virtually all of the parents adopting from Africa are white, possibly because there are so many black and biracial children needing homes in the United States, said Carter-Shotts, who has worked with only four black families in 16 years.

Others say Americans would do more if they knew about the plight of African children. "I don't know if you call it racism or lack of really firsthand exposure," Blackburn said.

That wasn't a problem for Elaine dePrince and her husband, Charles, who owns an international marketing company. They learned about the plight of African orphans from one of their sons, who had AIDS.

The couple, who have two biological sons with hereditary bleeding disorders, adopted three boys, all with hemophilia. In the 1980s, the three adopted boys - Charles, Michael and Teddy - contracted AIDS from blood transfusions.

While Charles, known as "Cubby," became an outspoken advocate for hemophiliacs with AIDS, Michael, who was deaf and disabled after a bus accident, channeled his energies into learning about Africa.

"He knew every single country, even when they changed their names," said Elaine dePrince, who seems to take the work and chaos involved in raising a second family in stride.

When Michael saw a show about African children orphaned by AIDS and civil war, he begged his mother to adopt.

"I didn't have the heart to tell him that I was so overwhelmed taking care of three children with AIDS there would be no way on Earth I could care for another child," dePrince said.

Cubby died in June 1993 at age 11, followed by Michael, 15, nine months later, leaving dePrince in the darkest period of her life. Her third adopted son, Teddy, is 22 and living with AIDS.

"A lot of mornings I just couldn't figure out what the point was in getting up," dePrince said.

After a while it became clear: to give another child a chance at life. It would be a tribute to Michael.

She had planned to adopt one child. But another girl at the orphanage in Sierra Leone couldn't find a home because of a skin disease, so dePrince took her, too. Two years later, when a third girl's adoptive mother could no longer care for her, dePrince adopted her.

Today, as the sisters distance themselves from the tragedy of their early years, dePrince's own grief begins to fade.

Her world revolves around her daughters. Not only does she home-school them, she takes them to ballet lessons up to four times a week, swim team practice, and on camping trips in a motor home.

"It's a better country," says Mia, when asked what she liked about America. Why? "There are no wars," answered Michaela.

This summer, the dePrinces are giving another child a chance: They're adopting a 14-year-old from West Africa. And their oldest son, Adam, and his wife, Melissa, are adopting a girl from the same orphanage.

Watching a video of the hole-in-the-wall orphanage where their sister-to-be lives, Michaela, Mia and Mariel broke into smiles when they saw the shy, thin girl with braids in a yellow dress.

"She's pretty," Mia said.

It's a measure of her love or perseverance that only once has dePrince thought, "Am I insane?" That was when she was in Africa and Michaela spiked a fever of 105 and dePrince feared she would die.

Once that hurdle was passed, "I never said, `Did I make a mistake?' I can't tell you how delightful these girls are."

2003 Nov 3