Saturday, June 09, 2007

Time for a little South African Safari!

Ok, so here's the big update on our upcoming trip. Joe and I are finally using the trip given to use as a gift as the fundraiser we attended last October! About a week ago, we decided on a time to go, I got tickets, and we leave on June 26th for South Africa! What an exciting time it'll be! I can't believe it's less than 20 days away at this point! We'll only be going on the safari, and not doing extra side stuff like flying down to Cape Town, and then driving up to Gaansbai for diving with the Great White sharks, but that's ok. Another time, another trip. I am so thrilled we're going to be able to get away at all for that one big trip before kids!! Our main reason for waiting a couple of years after getting married before having kids was to get some good traveling in. Well... due to busy schedules and all our money going into remodeling our house, we haven't done that yet! So, South Africa, here we come!

We'll be flying through London, with an 8 hour layover, so we should even have a chance to leave the airport and see an old family friend that was like an uncle to me when I was young! I haven't seen him since I was probably 10 years old, so it's very exciting! He's now married and has kids of his own that we'll get to meet! Plus, it'll be a great break from the airport and airplanes during our long trip.

Once we arrive in Johannesburg, we'll have about an hour and a half to get our bags, get through customs, and check in, go back through security, and board our flight to Richard's Bay. I'm worried that connection is way too tight, but if we took the next later flight, we'd have to wait 5.5 hours for it. And, that's our first day at our safari destination, so I wanted us to get to the lodge before dark! Once we arrive in Richard's Bay, someone will pick us up and drive us about 2 hours to the Heritage Safari Lodge. It looks really gorgeous from the pictures! We'll be on safari in the area where the Kim Bassinger movie, "I Dream of Africa" was filmed! Yes, it's that cool! But, thinking of that movie makes me think of the poisonous snakes her son had caught in the area and the mamba that bit him and killed him. Yikes! What a sad movie!

Enough said, Joe and I are headed off on a fantastic adventure. One more thing to stretch our already suffocatingly tight budget, but it's the perfect thing for the two of us to celebrate 2 years of marriage (on June 18th!) and be alone together before becoming first time parents!!!

Sunday, June 03, 2007

NYT Article

A good article published in the New York Times on Ethiopian Adoptions, copied in its entirety:

"In Ethiopia, Open Doors for Foreign Adoptions
Published: June 4, 2007

ST. PAUL — Ethiopia was not on Mark and Vera Westrum-Ostrom’s list when they first visited Children’s Home Society & Family Services here to explore an international adoption.

From Ethiopia to Minnesota Ukraine was first, because of their family heritage, until the couple discovered that the adoption system there was chaotic, with inaccurate information about orphans’ health and availability.

Vietnam was second, after they saw videos of well-run orphanages. But the wait would be at least a year and a half.

Then they learned about Ethiopia’s model centers for orphans, run by American agencies, with an efficient adoption system that made it possible for them to file paperwork on Labor Day and claim 2-year-old Tariku, a boy with almond eyes and a halo of ringlets, at Christmas.

From Addis Ababa, the capital city, they traveled to the countryside to meet the boy’s birth mother, an opportunity rare in international adoption. And at roughly $20,000, the process was affordable compared with other foreign adoptions, and free of the bribes that are common in some countries.

It is no wonder, given these advantages, that Ethiopia, a country more often associated by Americans with drought, famine and conflict, has become a hot spot for international adoption. Even before the actress Angelina Jolie put adoption in Ethiopia on the cover of People magazine in 2005, the number of adoptions there by Americans was growing. The total is still small — 732 children in 2006, out of a total of 20,632 foreign adoptions, but it is a steep increase, up from 82 children adopted in 1997.

Ethiopia now ranks 5th among countries for adoption by Americans, up from 16th in 2000. In the same period, the number of American agencies licensed to operate there has grown from one to 22.

The increasing interest in Ethiopia comes at a time when the leading countries for international adoption, China, Guatemala and Russia are, respectively, tightening eligibility requirements, under scrutiny for adoption corruption and closing borders to American agencies.

Ethiopia’s sudden popularity also comes with risks, say government officials there and in America.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to handle it,” said Haddush Halefom, an official at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which oversees adoption. “We don’t have the capacity to handle all these new agencies, and we have to monitor the quality, not just the quantity.”

Capping the number of agencies is one solution. And that is what some international adoption officials in the United States are now urging the Ethiopian government to do.

Of concern is the ability of agencies to handle the rising demand, which may have contributed to a recent mix-up involving two families sent home with the wrong children by Christian World Adoption, an established agency, although relatively new to Ethiopia. That case prompted inquiries by the State Department and the nonprofit Joint Council on International Children’s Services in Virginia, a child welfare and advocacy organization, and the adoption agency itself, said Thomas DiFilipo, president of the joint council.

Officials at Christian World Adoption did not reply to e-mail messages or telephone calls. But Mr. DiFilipo said the agency was reviewing its procedures and has hired immigration lawyers to resolve the mix-up.

The consensus, Mr. DiFilipo said, is that the mix-up was “an honest mistake.” But, he added, “This could be the byproduct of a staff handling 35 placements when they’re used to handling 20.”

Children’s Home Society & Family Services, founded in 1889, began working in Ethiopia in 2004. The agency completed about 300 adoptions in its first three years in Ethiopia, and expects to complete that many in 2007 alone. Along with Wide Horizons For Children in Waltham, Mass., the society is credited with helping Ethiopia create a model for international adoption.

Ethiopia, with a population of 76 million, has an estimated 5 million children who have lost one or both parents, according to aid organizations. Many African nations have outlawed or impeded the adoption of their children by foreigners. Ethiopia has welcomed American and European families who are willing to provide homes for children who have lost both parents to AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis or starvation, or who come from families too destitute to feed and clothe them. (The adoption process includes routine screening for HIV infection.)

Two elements distinguish Ethiopia’s adoption system, according to dozens of experts. One is the existence of transitional homes for orphans, in the countryside and in the capital, with services and staffing that are rare in the developing world — paid for by American agencies.

Not long ago, Sandra Iverson, a nurse practitioner from the University of Minnesota’s international adoption health clinic, the first of its kind in the United States, was invited to visit the Children’s Home Society’s Ethiopian centers.

She arrived with a neonatal otoscope, to diagnose ear infections; the Red Book, the bible of pediatrics; and scarce antibiotics. She left confident that Ethiopia’s orphans enjoyed unusual care.

“You don’t hear crying babies,” Ms. Iverson said. “They are picked up immediately.”

The other signature of the Ethiopian system is that adopting families are encouraged to meet birth families and visit the villages where the children were raised, a cutting-edge practice in adoptions. Some agencies provide DVDs or photographs that document the children’s past.

Russ and Ann Couwenhoven, in Ham Lake, Minn., recently showed one such video to 6-year-old Tariku, one of three children they have adopted from Ethiopia. The boy seemed proud of the beautifully painted house he had lived in, they said, and the uncle who had sheltered him for as long as he could.

Linda Zwicky brought 2-year-old Amale home five days before the Memorial Day weekend, with a letter from the child’s grandmother that described holding the motherless infant at her breast even though she had no milk. Sometimes such vividness is too much. Melanie Danke and her husband, of Minneapolis, adopted 6-year-old twins and a 3-year-old, all siblings. One of the twins “would work herself up until she was inconsolable” looking at photos of the aunt and grandmother who raised her, Ms. Danke said. So she has tucked the photos away for now.

David Pilgrim, vice president of adoption services at the Children’s Home Society, said the agency spends $2 million a year on its Ethiopian facilities.

At the main transitional home, on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, a staff of 170 care for about 120 children, ensuring that the children have consistent contact with adults, which experts say mitigates the most damaging psychological effects of institutionalization.

During a reporter’s recent visit, the two terra-cotta buildings where the children live, usually for no more than a few months, were spotless, with staff members scurrying to pick up toys and food spills as they hit the floor.

The transitional home has a primary school, open also to local students, where the children begin learning English. There is a medical clinic with two full-time doctors and 10 nurses. Down the road is a guest house for adoptive parents, who also can stay in a sleek hotel.

The children also enjoy the services of a “laugh therapist,” Belachu Girma.

“These kids come here and are very depressed at first, all with their heads down and not talking,” Mr. Girma said. “I come in and try to help them relax.”

There was laughter also at the nearby guest house, more of the nervous kind, as American parents waited to take their children back to St. Paul from the Horn of Africa.

Araminta and Jason Montague, from Atlanta, who picked up 17-month-old Natan last week, compared their experience in Ethiopia to an earlier adoption of a girl from China (where Americans adopted 6,493 children in 2006).

“Our daughter was in an orphanage with about 300 children and she was very dehydrated,” Ms. Montague said. “We were never told her origins. Her sheet just said ‘Status: Abandoned.’ ”

Some parents anguished, as did Karla Suomala of Decorah, Iowa, when she arrived in Addis Ababa to adopt 5-year-old Dawit and his 21-month-old sister Meheret.

“It’s hard to know what the right thing is to do,” Ms. Suomala said. “Should we just give all the money we’re spending on this to the children’s mother?” Ms. Suomala and her husband, David Vasquez, had already spent time with her.

“It was obvious the birth mother loved her children,” Mr. Vasquez said. “She said to us, ‘Thank you for sharing my burden.’ ”

Alessandro Conticini, the head of child protection at Unicef Ethiopia, is one of many who believe that international adoption is a good thing but must be “part of a larger strategy” that focuses on keeping children in their families or communities, with the help of humanitarian organizations.

Indeed, the Ethiopian government has taken the unusual step of requiring foreign agencies to provide social services and document the results. As a result, agencies like Children’s Home Society and Wide Horizons have built schools and medical facilities — including one for HIV-infected children.

But Mr. Conticini, of Unicef, worries about the mushrooming number of private adoption companies that “are not properly regulated by the government” because two different ministries are involved and working at cross purposes.

At the State Department, visa applications for children adopted from Ethiopia are getting extra attention, said Catherine M. Barry, deputy assistant secretary for overseas citizens services. “We will very quickly see if patterns are emerging,” she said, “and we will intervene in a timely fashion with anyone doing less than quality work.”

While the governments collaborate to protect a delicate adoption system from the perils of growth, adoptive families arrive each week in Addis Ababa to ease their children into new lives.

Last week, these included Mr. Vasquez and Ms. Suomala. While she had no trouble escorting Meheret from the orphanage, Dawit refused to budge, so Mr. Vasquez carried him toward the gate.

There, the child grabbed the bars and would not let go. Mr. Vasquez considered prying his hands loose and thought better of it. Instead he told Dawit that it was O.K. to cry.

Jane Gross reported from St. Paul, and Will Connors from Addis Ababa. "

Homestudy visit #1, another potluck, & twin time!

Wow, what a weekend it's been! I barely know where to start. Well... here it goes:

I got the call I've been waiting for on Wednesday! Our social worker, Cara, called Wednesday evening to set up a time to meet. I was so thrilled she called so quickly, and better yet, she was able to meet with us that Friday (June 1st!). So, we agreed to meet with her at 4:00pm on Friday. As soon as I got off the phone the real nerves set in for me! I mean, just think about it. This is the woman that will approve us (hopefully!) to adopt our children. Our adoption's fate is currently in her hands. And, to make me even MORE nervous, rather than just coming to our house once for a single "home visit," she was going to come to our house for all 3 of the interviews! Yikes, I sure hoped Chloe (and Cooper) would behave themselves more quietly and calmly than normal!

Somehow, I anxiously made my way through the week (Joe, of course, was my beacon of calm, cool, and collected). Friday afternoon came, and I found myself rushing towards home from doing a little bit of house hunting with my mom (JUST in case we get our house sold!), in order to get home in time to meet with Cara! We put the dogs in the garage, tidied up, and sat on the couch and waited. When the doorbell finally rang, I think I jumped about a foot off the couch and into the air... this was it. I hoped she liked us. Would she feel we were fit to be parents? Let alone, adoptive parents?

The meeting lasted all of 40-45 minutes and wasn't bad at all. Other than chatting more than I needed to (always do that when I'm nervous and excited!) and answering almost all of the questions for her before Joe had a chance to speak up (boy, he sure does pause a long time before answering sometimes!), I think it went really well. She seemed very nice, laid back, and overall very encouraging. I also decided to push a bit for timing details... as I've mentioned, my goal is to have this homestudy wrapped up and a completed report in my hands by the end of the month. Well, she was very supportive of that and agreed to come again two weeks to the day for our next visit. The Department of Homeland Security doesn't like to see the 1st and 2nd visits less than two weeks apart, so we'll do it at exactly two weeks! Then, after meeting with her at 4:00pm on June 15th, we'll have her back the following morning at 10:00am for the final visit! That's the visit where she'll do the actual house walk-through. She didn't go around the house at all this time... all that prepping the house for nothing. Oh well. Our next visit we have to do our individual interviews... one of us is interviewed and the other has to leave the house during the interview. Yep, nervous about that too. Surprise, surprise!

Once she completes the interviews, she says she'll write up the report the next day and submit a draft to everyone that needs to review it. Then, she'll make any changes necessary based upon those reviewing it, and get it signed and notarized. I should have it in hand and ready to drive up to the immigration office before June 26th... our departure day for our trip (I'll go into the trip later). So, all in all, it's great news so far! Woohoo! Yippee!! (Imagine hearing me whoop and holler cause it's exactly what I've been doing since our first visit! Dancing, talking a mile a minute, and shouting the good news to anyone that'll listen!)

On Saturday, (the day after our first home visit), we were scheduled to go to the Temecula area for our monthly Southern California Ethiopia Adopt family potluck. But, while we were at the gym working out that morning, we got a call from our realtor letting us know an offer was being faxed to him for our house! WOW! Talk about surprise... I was not expecting that call right then! So, we had to delay going to the potluck and meet with him to review the offer. Long story short, the offer was a total low-ball and probably won't materialize into anything exciting. We've countered twice now, and I'm not thinking it'll go anywhere. Oh well. So, we headed off to the potluck after writing up a counter offer, and began the fun! The family hosting the potluck has a great place with an awesome pool and Joe enjoyed splashing around and playing with all the kids. Will and Blaine (the hosts) have an amazing family with fantastic kids, and it was so wonderful of them to host for the group. As usual, I cooed at and played with the babies and toddlers while Joe transformed into the "big kid" and played for hours on end. There's just no leaving the potlucks without expending all of your energy!

And finally... we got to have some "twin time" today!!! It was SOOOOO great! One of Joe's friends at work has four and a half month old identical twin boys. Geoff (his friend) mentioned recently that since we were planning on requesting twins, that maybe we should come over to their house and spend some time changing diapers and seeing the "chaos" that can come with multiples. So, without hesitation, I jumped at the offer! We spent most of the day with Geoff, his fabulous wife, Valerie, and their absolutely adorable boys, Wesley and Harrison. It was amazing to see how great they're all doing at four and a half months. It sounds like sleep schedules are really tough right now (or should I say... a LACK of sleep & schedules! ;-) ) but the boys are really such happy babies and are quite mellow. They are total charmers and I personally just couldn't get enough of them. We all went to the Tustin Chili Cookoff together and I even got to practice maneuvering the big twin stroller... which is much tougher than it looks! The best part of the day is that Joe and I had such a great time with them and I think we all hit it off so well! I still don't have any really close girlfriends out here in SoCal, so finding I have so much in common with Valerie (including that I'll soon be a twin mom too... probably!), was so exciting. She's promised to take us up on our offer to come lend a hand, and that we'll start going to the gym together, and that's so awesome! Plus, she's got so many great tips on things that have helped them with managing two, and referrals for things like a pediatrician that they love, twin discounts, a local Moms with multiples club, a multiples nanny share, and all kinds of great books! Whew, I am so lucky to have met them! Thank you Geoff and Valerie!

So, in a nutshell (a BIG nutshell), that was our weekend! See, lots happened! And, tomorrow I have to get on a plane and head to Atlanta for 3 days for training. Ugh. I hate to be leaving town right now, but at least it's only 3 days. I'll post again soon with the details/update on our upcoming trip! It's just another exciting revelation in our ever crazy and exciting world!

**Yep, I'm all smiles right now! What a great weekend!