The Ebola epidemic has put adoptions in impacted west African countries at a standstill for obvious reasons.
Tessa and Joel Sanborn understand. The arrival of their 5-year-old adopted son Devine, who is in an orphanage in Liberia, is on hold, indefinitely, as the state of emergency continues there.
“We love Liberia, and we want what’s best for the country as a whole,” says Tessa Sanborn, who lives with her husband and their six other children in Maple Valley, Washington, just outside Seattle.
But the waiting is still difficult, as it is for other parents in a similar predicament. And even as some families keep their commitment to adopt, despite the Ebola threat, the numbers of children in west African orphanages who’ve lost parents is only increasing because of the deadly virus.
Some aid workers also say a shortage of food and supplies is making it difficult to care for those of children, and that fear is hampering efforts to place those who’ve lost parents to Ebola, even within their home countries.
It is just the latest crisis in Liberia, a country that was attempting to overcome the ravages of war before Ebola hit, says Patricia Anglin, executive director and founder of Acres of Hope, a children’s aid organization in Liberia that houses many orphans, including Devine.
“Long after Ebola is even eradicated, we will have the devastation and challenges left behind of these orphans who need to be cared for,” Anglin says.
Anglin, who is American but based in Liberia, is in the United States for a month, trying to raise emergency funds for food and supplies, and to keep her organization going.
Adoptions, while a relatively small part of the organization’s services, help fund it, she says. So with those on hold, she and her staff have stopped taking a salary and are focusing on relief efforts.
“We can’t do it alone,” Anglin tells the philanthropy and school groups she’s been addressing across the Midwest in recent weeks.
Already, the Sanborns have adopted twin daughters from Acres of Hope — 2-year-old Faith and Favor. Faith had a stroke at birth and, with the help of her new parents, is getting therapy to strengthen use of her right hand and foot.
The couple was able to adopt the girls because of Faith’s medical needs. Favor was allowed to come with her. But, though they met him when they went to Liberia last December, Devine had to wait.
Then Ebola hit.
Tessa Sanborn tears up when recalling having to leave him. “It’s never a place a parent wants to be,” she says, sitting with husband Joel at their dining room table.
While they wait, they and other families have organized a food and supply drive for Devine’s orphanage at local restaurant.
It’s difficult, because of the scale of the Ebola outbreak, to calculate the number of children in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea who’ve lost one or both parents to the disease. The current estimate is about 7,000, according to Anglin and other aid workers.
Guinea has never been a significant source of children adopted by Americans, while the number of children from Sierra Leone adopted by U.S. families has ranged from 33 in 2013 to six in 2009.
Liberia used to be a major partner with U.S. adoption agencies, but the situation has changed recently due to complications unrelated to Ebola. According to State Department figures, there were only 12 adoptions from Liberia by Americans in 2013, down from a high of 353 in 2006.
Experts on international adoptions caution that disasters and emergencies, such as the Ebola crisis, should not be occasions to hastily encourage adoptions.
“The first priority is to reunite children with their close relatives or other community members willing to look after them,” says Najwa Mekki, a communications officer with UNICEF. “Children are never more vulnerable than in the contexts of large-scale emergencies… Making permanent decisions about children’s long-term care should be kept to an absolute minimum during this period.”
The Joint Council on International Children’s Services, a Virginia-based child-advocacy organization whose partners include many U.S. adoption agencies, has taken a similar stance, as has the State Department.
“We want to avoid the situation where adoptive parents go through the process and then are disappointed,” says Niles Cole, a State Department spokesman.
Anglin, of Acres Hope, fully supports family reunification, but says that has been challenging when a child has been exposed to the virus, even if they haven’t contracted it.
“Those that have extended families, some of those extended families are afraid to reach out to them,” she says. “Often times, the traditional thinking is that those children will always be contagious.”
The nature of this crisis — and fear that people who go to help will get sick — also makes it much more difficult to send aid workers to help reunify families, says Stephanie Francois, the director of international programs at Adoption Link, an adoption agency in Oak Park, Illinois.
Her organization sent a social worker to Haiti, as did others, after the 2010 earthquake there to help children find their families.
But that has not as possible in this crisis.
So Francois says fundraising efforts like Anglin’s are especially important — and give people a way to help “without the fear factor.”
Anglin, meanwhile, continues to track the status of orphans such as Devine, so she can update his parents. The impact of Ebola can be difficult to explain to a young child, she says.
“He’s, I guess, doing as well as can be expected, but every day, asks, ‘When do I get to go? When do I get to go to America and be with my family?'” Anglin says.
On the Internet:
Acres of Hope: http://acresofhope.org
David Crary in New York City and Ted S. Warren in Seattle contributed to this report.
Martha Irvine is an AP national writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at http://twitter.com/irvineap
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