For many years, Americans wishing to adopt children have often looked abroad, primarily to Asia and Central Europe, where poverty, disease and sometimes governmental policies have resulted in hundreds of thousands of parentless children. But recently, another continent has become a popular place for American couples to look. Africa has seen a steady increase in the number of foreign adoptions over the last couple of years, and if predictions for 2004 pan out, Ethiopia could end up being one of the top-ten countries from which Americans adopt.
"This'll be where the babies start. We'll have them all in one room while they're young, and then we have separate rooms for when they get older," explains Michael Stephenson. It's around 9 p.m. in West Harrison, New York, an exclusive suburb of New York City, and Michael Stephenson is giving me a tour of his large and stately home. He and his wife, Gina, will be traveling to Ethiopia in four days. They're going to pick up their children, who are just ten months old.
"This is the 'jack and jill' bath[shared bathroom]," he said. "We'll probably get some help, and they'll probably stay in the other bedroom, and then maybe later, we'll put two of the boys in one room and the girl in the other."
That's right. Michael and Gina Stephenson are adopting triplets. Actually, the children are quadruplets. Their biological mother died shortly after giving birth to a fourth child, who did not survive. It's not an uncommon story in Ethiopia, where infant and maternal mortality rates are among the world's highest. Gina Stephenson says that's part of the reason she and her husband looked to Africa when they made the decision to adopt.
"Michael, for I guess eight years, had sponsored a child through the Christian Children's Fund," she said. "A boy in Kenya who's around fourteen now, and we were very excited to get his letters, and he's very grateful for the support. So it was logical when we wanted to look to do more that it fit both needs. Humanitarian, but also to help us expand our family."
Last year, Americans adopted 190 children from Ethiopia. This year, it's predicted that between 400 and 500 Ethiopian children will find homes in the United States. Right now, international adoptions are freely permitted in just three African countries - Ethiopia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Kenya recently loosened its adoption laws, making foreign adoptions possible, but prospective parents are required to spend three months living with the children in Kenya before an adoption can be approved, and so many American couples look elsewhere on the continent.
Cheryl Carter-Shotts, founder of the non-profit group, Americans for African Adoptions, says organizations like hers have pushed authorities to legalize foreign adoptions, and as a result, the number of American adoptions from African countries has been steadily growing.
"People who adopt from Africa seem to fall into a couple of different categories," she said. "If they have no children, if they're a young couple, they usually cannot have children, and they're worried about birth families coming back in the United States. The other kind of individual who adopts is usually a much older couple, who already have children, but have decided there are already so many children in the world that they will look for parts of the world where it's neediest, which is in our estimation Africa."
Ms. Carter-Shotts says older couples tend to adopt the older children, or the children who are ill or handicapped. The overwhelming majority of Americans who adopt from Africa are white, as are the majority of Americans who adopt in general. That's because white couples tend to be better off financially. But that's not the case with Michael and Gina Stephenson, both of whom have high-paying jobs, and both of whom are African-American. Gina Stephenson says she and her husband have been reading a lot about the history and culture of Ethiopia, because they want their children to know where they came from. She says it's a privilege they will have that she and her husband, as the descendants of slaves, did not.
"As African-Americans," she said, "we know that our ancestors came from Africa, but we don't know exactly where, and I feel very cut off from that part of our history, our ancestry, whereas other immigrant groups know exactly where their families came from."
And so, too, will Palos, Petros, and Nia Michelle Stephenson, who just celebrated their first Christmas as Ethiopian-Americans.