SOLVING THE EQUATION: THE TRIALS AND TRIUMPHS OF INTERNATIONAL ADOPTION
BY NICOLE DEPONTBRIAND
The walls of Barbara and Jeff Forsythe's home display the typical family photographs of a smiling mother, father, daughter, and two sons. These pictures capture moments at the beach, trips to Disneyworld, and graduations. Yet upon closer inspection, the observer notices something slightly different. While most of the family boasts blond hair and blue eyes, eldest son Dana's tan complexion and dark hair hint at his Hispanic descent. This is because the Forsythes decided to adopt Dana at two months old from Bogota, Colombia.
"You forget that Dana is adopted at all," said Barbara of their unique family composition. "He's ours in every sense of the word."
Yet for hundreds of thousands of children awaiting adoption worldwide, a family to call their own is merely an elusive dream. Their reality consists of living in orphanages and foster homes with dozens of other hopeful adoptees, where they may receive the bare minimum of nurture from overtaxed caregivers. These children fall asleep not to softly sung lullabies, but to the cacophony of their numerous roommates. While staff members do the best they can with overcrowding and lack of funds, permanent adoption is the only promise of a better life for many of these children.
"As long as there are children who need homes, adoption makes the most sense," said Paula Wisnewski, Director of Adoptions at The Home for Little Wanderers, a licensed child welfare agency in Boston. "No matter where they're from, a child deserves a loving home."
There is definitely no shortage of children in need. Approximately 18,537 adolescents arrived in the United States from overseas last year, yet this number is only a fraction of the children awaiting permanent placement. In China alone, the government reported 20,000 orphans, but experts say that number is probably five times as high.
Yet with so many children languishing in state and foster care, only about 2% of families choose to adopt. This is partly due to the often- unpredictable challenges of international adoption.
"Adoption is like problem solving. There is no set formula, and every case is different," said adoption facilitator Anne Bowie. The components of this equation are as varied as the cultures and countries the children come from. Variables such as a child's unexpected illness, stalled visa attempts, and political turmoil can turn a time of expectant joy into added anxiety.
The Tackacs family recently experienced the difficulties of the process when they adopted their son, Jake, from Guatemala. "In order to adopt from South America, both the birthmother and the baby need a DNA test to finalize the process," explained wife Jill. "The lawyer in Guatemala somehow lost track of the mother, and as a result, they couldn't get the DNA tests. They finally located her two weeks before we would have lost the adoption. After waiting for so many months, the thought of losing Jake was horrible. But fortunately, it all worked out."
The majority of adoptions occur with no dramatic tales, though the average wait, according to social worker Erin Macdonald of Wide Horizons for Children, is twelve to eighteen months. This encompasses the time between the initial inquiry to the final meeting with the child.
For June and David Keleher, the adoption process went much faster than expected. "We thought we were going to have to wait at least another few months, so we went on a vacation," said June. "When we got back a week later, we found our referral in the mail with a picture of [our son] Dan.
Before even reaching that stage, though, prospective parents must confront the initial cost of adoption. Clients can expect to pay anywhere from $12,000 to $25,000 by the time they finally take their child home. What most adoptive families fail to realize at first is that this money goes to many different organizations. Parents pay for a home study, immigration visas, travel and translation expenses, and placement, country, and orphanage fees. "Nobody's getting rich from this process," said Wisnewski. "We tell people to think about it as $20,000 split thirty ways."
To provide relief from this financial burden, some agencies offer loan programs and special assistance. Macdonald said that Wide Horizons has developed a subsidy fund for lower income families. "Past clients may donate money to our organization, letting us in turn pay between one and five thousand dollars towards another adoption. This may not seem like much, but it sometimes makes the difference between being able to adopt or not."
"Sure, adoption was an expensive venture, but I think it's the best investment we ever made," said the Kelehers, who also adopted a daughter named Laura. "As soon as you hold your child in your arms, you don't even remember what it took to get to that point."
After initiating the adoption process, months of preparation and paperwork await prospective parents. Clients must complete hundred-page dossiers, arrange travel plans, and undergo home study visits conducted by the agency. "Each country wants something different," said Wisnewski. "China requires a letter from an employer, while Russia wants five years of financial background."
For many eager parents, the home study causes the most stress. An agency makes numerous visits to the family to observe their lifestyle and ask questions about parenting techniques. The Forsythes agreed that the home study elicited added anxiety."Your ability to be a parent is questioned and scrutinized. We could rationalize the importance of this inquiry, but it was emotionally draining."
"You keep wondering if you're meeting their approval," said June Keleher of the agency visits. "They ask you questions about your marriage, family history, attitudes towards children and discipline, education, interracial experience. All you can think about is, 'Did I say something wrong? Do I sound like a good parent?'"
"During the waiting period, clients learn the virtue of patience," joked Wisnewski. Unlike a pregnancy, parents have little way of knowing what kind of life their child is leading. Agencies try to provide families with photographs, basic medical histories, and some background information, but in countries where medical and technological advances are decades behind industrialized nations, these facts can be painfully few.
With children from orphanages, conditions such as hepatitis B, malnutrition, and an array of developmental disorders are common afflictions.
"I've had kids come over with unreported problems, simply because of the medical system in countries like Russia," reported Macdonald. "The people we work with in these orphanages aren't trying to trick anybody by sending over children with problems. They don't even realize they exist."
In countries with high adoption rates, social, cultural, and political factors play a powerful role in family structure. Extreme poverty due to the recent economic crisis in Russia is a primary reason that parents place their children in foster care. The one-child limit in some areas of China forces parents to give up other children to orphanage care. In South America, the Catholic Church's disapproval of abortion causes women to give birth to babies they cannot support. "In most cases, these mothers have to hide their pregnancies in order not to shame their families in the eyes of society," said Wisnewski.
This need for anonymity affords scant knowledge of an adoptee's background in many international adoptions. A birth certificate may contain minimum information, and occasionally not even the exact date of birth. "It's a hard subject," said Anne Bowie, a social worker at The Home for Little Wanderers. "Kids go to their parents with questions, and as a parent, you struggle with not knowing the answer to inquiries like 'Did I cry when I was born?'"
With other adoptions, families learn a much more complete history. The Kelehers can tell Laura, now 19, current information about her birth family. A family friend visited her birth town in Korea and inquired at the orphanage about her background. To
the family's surprise, the director of the home provided them with the name and address of Laura's birthmother and three biological sisters. "The news was totally unexpected," said June. "Laura has written to them a few times now, and she even has their phone number should she want to call them in the future."
With the barriers of oceans and continents separating adoptees from their birth countries, keeping a child's original culture alive becomes an issue. To that extent, agencies like Wide Horizons offer country events and culture camps for children and their families. "These programs give adoptive families a chance to meet other people who are going through the same things they are," said Macdonald. "We have hundreds of families who meet each other and maintain contact for life."
In order for parents to learn about their child's culture beforehand, adoption agencies encourage parents to travel to the country instead of using an escort. According to Bowie, some countries, like Vietnam, require families to make two separate trips, while Korea offers to bring adoptees over.
Wisnewski reports that most families enjoy experiencing their child's culture. "It may feel like an inconvenience at first, but we highly recommend parents take the opportunity to visit their child's birth country." This provides them with a look at the lifestyle and living conditions their child is used to, and helps to minimize culture shock.
When the Forsythes went to Colombia to pick up Dana, they returned with positive comments. "It was interesting to see where our son was coming from," remembers Barbara. "As we drove through the city of Bogota, we saw groups of children of all ages just hanging out on the sidewalks and in the alleys. The driver told us that these were abandoned children who grow up on the streets and take care of each other. I was holding Dana in my arms and thinking, 'Thank God he doesn't have to live this way.' It really opens up your eyes."
The Kelehers had their two children escorted from South Korea, but regret not visiting the country. "For the longest time, we couldn't figure out why Danny wouldn't sleep in his crib," said June. "We finally realized that he had spent the first year of his life sleeping on the floor surrounded by the noise and companionship of other children. We put a mattress next to our bed, and he slept perfectly. If we had seen the orphanage, we could have remedied the situation sooner."
Historically, the last official hurdle in the adoption process deals with gaining citizenship approval from the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, which on average takes at least two years. Two recent legislative advances promise to drastically reduce the wait and streamline international adoption, though.
The Child Citizenship Act, which went into effect in February of this year, grants automatic entry into the United States for any international adoptee under the age of 18. According to an article in the St. Petersburg Times, the law affects at least 75,000 children.
The second adoption advancement is the US ratification of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, a treaty which aims to better regulate the adoption process. Approved by 41 countries worldwide, it requires countries to centrally oversee international adoptions in order to avoid bureaucratic red tape and illegal infant trade. Massachusetts Representative William Delahunt (D) said in an article in the Boston
Globe that, "Implementing the Convention is the biggest step in decades toward making sure adopted kids reach our shores safely."
While international adoption still carries challenges and risks, the strong support system of agencies, new legislation, and other adoptive families combine to guide hopeful clients. "Kids deserve parents who will jump through at least a few hoops for them," said Bowie.
The Forsythes chose to tackle these obstacles, and created a family. Barbara recalls when Dana, now 21, would bang through the kitchen door after school like a typical teenager and yell, "Mom, I'm home!" before dashing to the refrigerator for a snack.
"As I watched him come in, I remember thinking how true his words really are, he truly is home."