Posted on March 19, 2009

Instant Family

Adriana Barton, Globe and Mail (Toronto), March 17, 2009

Barely a month has passed since Mekfira and Kalkidan made the long journey to West Kelowna, B.C., from Ethiopia, and already the two seven-year-old girls have settled into a routine. Each day they splash in the local swimming pool or play in the snow. And each night before bed, they well up with tears as their adoptive parents, Brent and Laura Livingstone, try to soothe their raw grief.

In their short, turbulent lives, Mekfira and Kalkidan have lost their birth parents, their orphan community and their homeland. But the children can rely on one constant from their former lives: each other.

The girls prattle away in their native language, Amharic, dress their dolls together and fight like sisters do. Although they are cousins, they were raised as siblings in Ethiopia.

The Livingstones, in their mid-20s, chose adoption over having biological children after they saw orphans in foreign countries who wanted parents desperately. They started with an African-American brother and sister from Florida, adopted as newborns. But they had wanted to adopt older siblings from Ethiopia “because there’s a need for that,” Mr. Livingstone says. “And siblings can be a very strong support network for one another.”

On the frontiers of international adoption, families who adopt siblings are less rare than they used to be. Although the number of sibling adoptions remains small in Canada, according to adoption agencies, it is part of a broader trend. In the past three years, adoption programs in countries such as Ethiopia, Colombia and Haiti have begun to recognize the importance of the sibling bond, and some parents are returning to North America with two, three or even four brothers and sisters–a full brood at once.

The phenomenon reflects the scarcity of infants from overseas and humanitarian issues involved in adopting them.

International adoption has become an ethical minefield, rife with scandals such as last month’s report of children in India being stolen and sold for adoption to rich countries.

As countries such as China tighten their programs to discourage corruption, the waiting time for infants has stretched into several years or more. As a result, many Canadians are extending the upper age limit in their requests, to shorten the waiting period and make sure they’re adopting true orphans, agencies report.

In developing countries, older orphans are often part of sibling groups whose communities are too poor to feed them, according to Sandra Scarth, president of the Adoption Council of Canada. And because orphaned siblings are less in demand than infants, they are also less likely to be victims of child trafficking, she says. “A lot of those children have been in the orphanages for a long time.”

For Canadians with adequate financial and emotional resources, adopting older siblings from a country with a reputable program, such as Ethiopia, may be among the most ethical forms of international adoption, Ms. Scarth says.

Ethiopia is emerging as a preferred source country for siblings because of its well-run orphanages, low rates of health disorders such as fetal alcohol syndrome compared with Canada, and the number of children orphaned because of poverty and AIDS.

“The need for parents in Ethiopia is quite beyond anything people could fathom in North America,” says Arnica Rowan of Kelowna, B.C. She and her husband, Jason, are in the process of adopting three-year-old Ethiopian twins, whom they hope to bring to Canada by June.

The Rowans requested siblings in part because international adoption programs are unstable, Ms. Rowan says. “If you adopt a single child at a time, you always have the risk that the country will be closed [to adoption],” she says, “and you won’t be able to adopt other children who are of the same heritage.”

In addition to their heritage, the twin girls may also share a history of trauma and emotional scars–a reality the couple considered when they chose to adopt older children. “We didn’t take that decision lightly,” Ms. Rowan says.

Because adoption can be a difficult and expensive process, sibling adoption may offer parents a faster way to build a family, Ms. Scarth says. “But the benefit is mainly for the children.”

A sibling relationship is a lifelong bond, she points out, and siblings give each other the security and intimacy of having a family member as they settle into their adoptive homes.

The hope of easing an adopted child’s loneliness and distress was the reason Debbie and Rod Kurtz of Edmonton decided to adopt sisters from Ethiopia instead of a single child.

After having four boys biologically, Ms. Kurtz says, the couple wanted to add girls to their family. They considered adopting Canadian foster children, but “the red tape [in Canada] is just astronomical,” Ms. Kurtz says, and domestic adoption is full of uncertainties. With international adoption, “we knew that we’d be able to find siblings,” she says, “and we knew that we’d be able to find girls.”

Their daughters, Denaye and Maya, came to Canada in September, 2007. At first Denaye, then 3, was “very clingy” to five-year-old Maya, Ms. Kurtz recalls. And Maya behaved more like a mother than a child; she would feed her younger sister and even lie to protect Denaye if the younger girl did something wrong.

But the children bonded quickly with their new brothers and learned to rely on their adoptive parents, Ms. Kurtz says. Now, she adds, “Maya is enjoying being a little girl.”

In West Kelowna, Mekfira and Kalkidan are still adjusting to their new lives. Nevertheless, the girls already show signs of thriving, Ms. Livingstone says. They reach out to their new parents for affection and support, and they dote on their younger siblings. Within days, she says, “it looked like they’d all been together forever.”