ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA
To watch the tiny triplets named Poulos, Petros, and Fekerte as they gurgle, wiggle, and smile on the playground of a spartan foster home here, it doesn't seem possible that they've already survived serious hardships - or that they're about to join some of the world's most privileged children.
Nine months ago, in a remote and dusty town, their mother died during childbirth, along with a fourth newborn. Weak and ill, the three survivors were brought to a teeming orphanage and then to a warm-hearted nurse, who stayed up three nights straight, to ensure none of them passed away.
Now, like growing numbers of African orphans, they'll soon be transported by adoptive American parents into a world of minivans, Macy's stores, and play dates. Their new home: a five-bedroom colonial in New York's wooded suburbs.
Their story hints at how the explosion in international adoptions by US parents is now reaching the globe's remotest regions. While US foreign adoptions have long centered on Russia and the Far East, Africa has seen a small but steady increase over the past few years, making for record numbers of adoptions from countries like Ethiopia and Liberia.
"There's a clear and growing will- ingness to form multiracial and multinational families, and that's teaching us all new things about what families look like," says Adam Pertman, head of New York's Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.
Here in Ethiopia, Americans adopted 114 orphans during the US government's 2002 fiscal year. In fiscal 2003, 190 were adopted. In 2004, some 400 to 500 adoptions are expected. That could put Ethiopia in the top 10 countries from which Americans adopt.
In 2001, Liberia became the second sub-Saharan African country to be in the top 20 US adoption spots, with 51 adoptions. One agency alone has placed about 140 Liberian kids in the US and Canada since 1996. Sierra Leone is the only other African country that allows American agencies to facilitate adoptions. (Others allow them on a case-by-case basis.)
Africa's numbers are just a fraction of the total. Most adoptees come from China (5,053 in 2001) and Russia (4,939 in 2001). Overall, 20,099 orphans got US visas in 2002. That's up from 6,472 in 1992, according to the State Department. In fact, Americans adopt more children from abroad than all other parents in the world combined.
Michael and Gina Stephenson, who tried unsuccessfully to have their own children, are about to join the ranks of American adoptive families. They're headed to Ethiopia in nine days to pick up the triplets. It will be the first time they will see the threesome. In the meantime, Michael has been trying to assemble a new triple stroller. Gina's been getting comfortable in their new Toyota minivan. "It's my mommy-mobile," she says in a telephone interview, laughing. "It means we're really suburbanites now."
The African-American couple will bring their kids into a high-powered world. He's a Citigroup asset-finance director in New York. She's a medical researcher with a PhD.
Like many others, they chose international adoption for several reasons. One was cost. US adoptions can run $15,000 to $50,000. Overseas fees are typically $10,000 to $25,000. The Stephensons figure they'll spend $25,000 to adopt the triplets.
Also, many adoptive parents see domestic adoptions as too complicated. Many states allow biological mothers to reclaim their infant for several months after birth, leading to rare but wrenching battles. And the trend is to keep in relatively close contact with the biological family.
"We're interested in adopting children, not the adults who bore them," says Michael. His sentiment is a reality that's boosting international adoption.
But adopting from Africa - after Ethiopian friends suggested it - surprised even them. Indeed, spiking interest in African adoptions may stem from the continent's higher profile of late. For one thing, it's more often in the news, with AIDS, Liberia's war, and President Bush's recent visit. And the Internet has made it easier to connect to the world's remotest places.
The four most common types of adopters are white couples, white single mothers, African-American couples, and African expatriates. Adoption workers say the race of the adopting parents is not an issue.
As for triplets, the Stephensons had no desire for more than one child - at first. But when their agency, Americans for African Adoption, based in Indianapolis, presented them with the trio, they couldn't refuse. "It seemed like the right thing to do," says Michael.
Indeed, the humanitarian impulse is often strong in international adoptions. Many parents adopting in Africa are Christians. In 2001, Tim and Christine Gilman from near McMinnville, Ore., visited Liberia with no intention of adopting. "But if, as Christians, we really are taking care of orphans and widows, I just couldn't say no" to adopting a toddler named Ama, says Mrs. Gilman by telephone.
Those wanting to adopt from overseas face a new regulatory climate. New US regulations based on an international treaty may require adoption agencies to have up to $1 million in insurance per adoption and social workers with advanced degrees. Critics worry it will make international adoptions too costly and cumbersome. Supporters say it will prevent trafficking in children and adoption bribes - and may encourage more countries to open up to adoption. The full results of the treaty aren't likely to be known for several years.
Meanwhile, the Stephensons are more connected to Africa than ever. "In school you learn about lions and jungles," says Michael. But he's been researching Ethiopia and is moving beyond stereotypes. He's even starting to sound like a booster. "There's potential for ecotourism there, just like in Costa Rica," he says. "It's a country with big potential." This, even before he's met the triplets.