History of Adoption Advocates International (AAI)
Adoption Advocates International was first licensed in 1983, in an office that was previously a garage behind the home of Merrily and Ted Ripley in Port Angeles.
Initially the building was heated with a wood stove and it was the duty of the Ripley children to build a fire in the office before school each day. There were three on the staff with a social worker supervisor who worked on a contract. No salaries were paid for several months. The first children came from India and Taiwan.
The goals included finding families for children who needed them most and were not being served by other agencies, those with disabilities, those who were older, and those needed placement with siblings. We also wanted to provide services for vulnerable children who will not be adopted. Each adoptive family was asked to make a commitment to do something to help children without families. These goals made AAI unique and are stated well in the AAI mission statement: A Humanitarian Organization serving orphan and vulnerable children to improve their quality of life through adoption and other services.
Adoption Counselors were hired to work on a contract basis to do homestudies for Washington State families. Three of these workers, Marilyn Weaver and Mary Kimsey, and Gay Knutson, remain to this day, still working with adoptive families.
One of AAI's initial projects was in response to a request from an organization working in Mexico. A reception center was needed to care for children in emergency situations. AAI started Familias Para Ninos to provide emergency care while working to reunite families or to place the children for adoption. This center operated for eight years and was eventually taken over by the government.
In 1990 as the Iron Curtain came down, many adoptive families were asking to adopt Romanian children. Merrily went to Romania but was concerned about corruption occurring there surrounding the adoption of children, as well as the poor care being provided to children in orphanages. She traveled on to Bulgaria where only a few adoptions to Americans had occurred, and where orphanage care was much better. AAI established an adoption program as the first agency to work in Bulgaria. The focus again was to find families for orphan children who were older making adoption less likely for them, or who had disabilities, some of which could be corrected in the U.S. Some of the first placements from Bulgaria were of racially mixed children. Work in Bulgaria spanned 10 years and included humanitarian aid to orphanages and sponsorships for older Bulgarian orphans to enable them to get a better education. Two of the sponsored children have become Ph.D. graduates.
AAI pioneered the adoption of children with special needs in Taiwan. Working with Cathwel and Kathy Olsen who had lived in Taiwan, many children were placed. Cathwel explained that children with disabilities were left in the hospitals where they were born, basically to die. Cathwel went to the hospitals, identified such children, and AAI found adoptive parents for them. These included children who were deaf, dwarf, limb deficient and otherwise disabled. After several years, however, the difficulty in getting visas to the U.S. for the children ended the work there.
AAI found families for children from India and Vietnam working with the International Mission of Hope. Older children and children from Thailand with special needs have been placed since 1983. AAI began to place children from China in 1991 and continues to place both healthy children and those with special needs from both China and Thailand.
In 1997 Merrily traveled to Ethiopia at the request of an Ethiopian who said there was a need for an agency like AAI. A few children were being placed for adoption with European agencies, but only babies. AAI was welcomed by the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Ministry in charge of children's issues at that time. Of the first three children offered for placement, two were suffering from the effects of polio and one was born with missing legs. One child died but the other two were successfully placed. Early placements from Ethiopia included a set of older twin boys, a deaf boy, and a girl with severe asthma. These children had been considered "too hard to place." AAI continues to place a large number of children from Ethiopia. Orphanages often refer children to AAI who other adoption programs have refused. AAI has provided humanitarian support in Ethiopia and currently has over 200 orphan children receiving sponsorships to remain in school. AAI provided funding to actually build a school in Dessie, a rural and isolated area of Ethiopia, so that children could attend school locally rather than having to travel impossible distances to attend the closest school available. AAI has sponsored feeding projects and participated in micro financing projects to assist vulnerable families with children. Hundreds of text books have been provided for high school students. Currently funds are being raised to build latrines in Addis Ababa to help improve the city's sanitation and halt the spread of disease in heavily populated areas.
A number of the children being referred to AAI-Ethiopia for adoptive placement were found to be HIV+. It was not possible to place them for adoption and what to do with them became an issue. In 2000 AAI raised funds and established a hospice for the children in a separate facility, called AHOPE for Children. The goal was to provide a quality life experience for the children for as long as they lived. In those days the life expectancy after diagnosis was usually short. Organizations providing services to parents dying of AIDS began to refer children to AHOPE. Not all of the children where HIV+ and those who were HIV- could be placed for adoption. To avoid a potential conflict of interest a separate NGO was formed to care for the HIV+ children. AHOPE for children continues its work with HIV+ children in Ethiopia. Fortunately, in part due to the vision of AAI and modern medical developments, most HIV+ children referred to AHOPE for Children are now placed for adoption.
AAI is a pioneer in placing HIV+ children for adoption. We have a remotely located staff person who has expertise in caring for children who are HIV+ and she provides information and discusses the reality of having an HIV+ child in the home with interested prospective parents. In 2010 AAI placed 39 children who are HIV+, likely the most of any agency.
AAI also pioneered a program working cooperatively with the State of Washington to place children from the local foster care system. Some of these children had languished in the foster care system for years as priorities other than adoption were the focus of the state agency. However, AAI was able to identify families for them and, in some cases, place them on a "foster care to adoption" basis so that the children could be with their permanent families while the legal process of freeing them for adoption could occur. This program continues and AAI has an excellent reputation for not only finding families but providing counseling and support to help during the adjustment.
In 2005 the AAI office moved into a new building with a staff of 9 people, 5 of whom had been with the organization almost from the beginning. Merelene and Janelle have since retired and Gay now serves as director of social services, Susan as director of adoptions, and Kathy as office manager. Merrily has also recently retired as executive director.
Over 4000 children have been placed. Many thousands of dollars in aid and support have been given, and countless hours have been spent counseling families struggling with adjustment issues. Almost daily reports come from families who adopted 5, 10, 15 or more years ago, telling of the challenges, but mostly of the successes of their adoption experiences. Each adoption involves a loss, loss of birth family and culture for the child, but a new opportunity for a productive life within a family.