Manogue found a pamphlet advertising an Ethiopian adoption program and saw a picture of a 3-year-old boy who had been waiting in the Ethiopian orphanage for almost a year. She hung the photo on her refrigerator and, after seeing the boy’s face every day, she and Toomey knew that he was going to be their son.
The West Hartford couple adopted Dawit two years ago through Wide Horizons for Children, an agency based in Massachusetts with a regional office in West Hartford. When Vicki Peterson, the executive director of external affairs, helped start the program in 2003, she didn’t expect more than 10 to 20 placements per year of Ethiopian children in the U.S.
She didn’t set her expectations high enough. Although there were only three Ethiopian children placed in its first year, 41 were placed in its second. And five years after the program’s inception the agency has placed more than 500 Ethiopian kids in homes throughout the United States.
"I can’t even begin to describe how wonderful it feels," she said. "… It’s a faster program growth than we ever anticipated and faster than we have experienced in almost any other country, except maybe China."
She attributes its popularity to people becoming comfortable with the idea of adopting from a country once they see someone they know go through a successful adoption. Also, adopting from Ethiopia is more flexible than from other countries, with lower fees and a shorter application process, she said. And then there’s the celebrity attention that Angelina Jolie brought to the country when she went through Wide Horizons more than two years ago to adopt her daughter Zahara.
Most of the families have formed bonds based on their similar experiences, including one very emotional one. When American parents go to Ethiopia, Wide Horizons asks them to bring photos that document their homes and their lives to share with the biological families.
"The belief is that they’re creating one family now, the American family and the Ethiopian family. It’s so powerful," said Mary Fournier, the regional manager for Wide Horizons.
"We prepare families early on that this is an aspect of this program and if you want to adopt from Ethiopia you have to be comfortable with that aspect," she said. "It’s really a different way of looking at birth families — here’s a new aunt and uncle and new cousins and new siblings we’ve added to our families, and they happen to live in Ethiopia."
Toomey, who also has a 7-year-old biological daughter, said that though they were aware Dawit’s father had made peace with his decision, Toomey didn’t know exactly how to feel in that moment. "I was already a father and I just tried to put myself in his situation and it was heart-wrenching," he recalled.
Damen Polance of Tolland took a deep breath and shook his head as he thought about the weight of that moment. He and his wife, Catherine, adopted their first child, Elijah, from Ethiopia two years ago when he was 5 months old. Both Elijah’s parents are dead and the Polances met a couple of his siblings and his aunt and uncle.
"How do you thank somebody for giving you a child?" Catherine Polance said.
The family returned to Ethiopia this year to adopt their second child, Nevaeh, a baby girl who has recovered from undernourishment. They brought Elijah along to reconnect with his family.
Sheila Turner and Robert Cleary of Manchester also plan on returning to Ethiopia with their twin daughters, Aoife and Niamh, whom they adopted in November. The girls’ biological mother died of malaria, leaving the father and five siblings to care for twins they couldn’t afford.
"They’ve lost as much as they’ve gained by coming here," Turner said about her daughters, who have left a large family.
The couple shared photos of themselves, their home and their life and took mementos of Ethiopia back to Manchester.
"We’d like to be able to go back and bring them back and show them where they’re from," Cleary said.
As the program has grown, so has the close network the adoptive families have built for each other. This has included throwing holiday parties and meeting for dinner at Ethiopian restaurants in Hartford and New Haven.
Having that friendship among families "makes it a lot easier," Polance said, especially when they need to discuss the experience of raising an interracial family. Like the majority of parents who adopt through Wide Horizons, Catherine and Damen Polance are white.
The couple wanted to have more than one child, which is the reason they returned to Ethiopia to adopt Nevaeh. But the second adoption also served a purpose for Elijah, too: "to have somebody else in the family who looks like him," Catherine Polance said.
The interracial aspect of their family has had an effect, if not on the couple, then on other people.
"We used to live in Southington. We used to get more looks," she said. "But when we moved [to Tolland], we had no issues."
Turner belongs to an online chat group for Connecticut parents who have adopted from Ethiopia and frequently e-mails other parents who have adopted Ethiopian twins. She said she believes the network that has been formed will be integral as the children grow older.
"They need to know that there are other kids out there like them," Turner said.