Local couples hoping to welcome children from countries around the world into their homes are met with myriad challenges
By RACHEL RASKIN-ZRIHEN / Times-Herald staff writer
It was a protracted nightmare that ended happily only recently when Ally Griffith and her new daughter McKenna landed at San Francisco International Airport.
Ally and her husband, Robert, of Benicia, spent more than a year struggling through the red tape of adopting a child from Uzbekistan.
"It was a difficult adoption," Ally Griffith said in an interview just days after bringing 4-year-old McKenna home. "We went to Uzbekistan and got an adoption decree, and we had McKenna for five weeks, when the U.S. embassy told us they wouldn't issue her an exit visa. They had a problem with the paperwork."
Experts warn that bureaucratic blunders are among the potential pitfalls of international adoptions.
While the Griffiths have completed their adoption of McKenna, Brian and Veronica Peladeau of Vallejo are just starting their efforts to adopt an Ethiopian orphan.
And what they are likely to discover is what many prospective American couples learn about international adoptions - the only predictable thing about them is their unpredictability.
Adoption.com notes that in most cases, international adoptions are finalized in the country of origin, so once adoptive parents come home with a child, he or she is already legally theirs. Many countries work with U.S. couples hoping to adopt, so identifying which country works best for your family is usually the first step in the process, according to the site.
In the United States, there are two basic international options - agency adoptions and independent adoptions - experts say. Agency adoptions are conducted through licensed private agencies. They provide the greatest assurance of monitoring and oversight because agencies are required to adhere to licensing and procedural standards.
Independent adoptions use adoption facilitators or allow applicants to do the work with in-country assistance.
But international adoptions may be getting more difficult.
New York Times writer Dan Frosch wrote this month that because of tightening federal regulations governing foreign adoptions and a downturn in business, international adoption agencies in the U. S. are struggling financially. Many are closing.
In some cases, he wrote, the closures come without warning, leaving people without the thousands of dollars in fees they paid an agency, or the child they had expected to adopt.
International adoptions in the United States fell to 19,613 children in the last fiscal year, from 22,884 in 2004. One factor is red tape in countries like Russia and China, Frosch wrote.
On April 25, the Vietnamese government announced it would stop processing new adoption applications from Americans after July 1. That followed a report by the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi accusing the adoption system there of widespread corruption. The Vietnamese government has denied the charges.
And the Guatemalan government has placed a temporary hold on pending adoptions as each case is reviewed because the system there has been plagued with corruption.
The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, which went into effect in the U. S. on April 1, is also having an impact, Frosch wrote. The treaty hopes to ensure ethical adoption practices.
These were the types of considerations making U.S. authorities leery in the Griffiths' case, Ally Griffith said.
Making matters worse once the family was told they couldn't leave Uzbekistan with their new daughter, the Griffiths' visas were expiring and they couldn't get them renewed, Ally Griffith said.
"So, we had to leave, but the adoption had already gone through, so she was no longer an orphan and couldn't go back to the orphanage, Ally Griffith said. "We didn't know what we were going to do with her, or what the authorities would do if we stayed or couldn't find some place for her."
At the 11th hour, the couple found an ex-patriate Canadian family willing to care for McKenna while the Griffiths worked things out, she said.
"I left my engagement ring with her, so she'd know I was coming back," Ally Griffith said. "We spoke to her every day (on the computer)."
It took more than two months to straighten things out, she said.
"First they told us that the adoption was illegal and would be nullified and we'd have to start over," Ally Griffith said. "Then it was determined that this would take too long, and wouldn't be in the best interest of the child.
"We just had to produce documentation proving no one had searched for her for a year. It was a nightmare. We're still recovering from it."
The child now known as McKenna Griffith was found abandoned about a year and a half ago at an Uzbek bus stop with another toddler, a little boy, Ally Griffith said.
"There was no parent around, so police took them to the children's home and gave them names and birthdays," she said. Of the more than 100 children in that orphanage, only McKenna and the little boy, who authorities called Viktor, were considered eligible for adoption, Ally Griffith said. Authorities place Viktor's age at about 3, Griffith said.
"To be adoptable, the child must be considered an orphan, and if anyone visits the child in the first year they're in the orphanage, they're not considered an orphan," she said. It is unknown if McKenna and Viktor are related, she added.
"We really want to help that little boy get out of there," she said.
Ally Griffith, 38, who, coincidentally works for an international adoption agency, said she and husband Rob, a 49-year-old U.S. Forest Service employee, decided to adopt internationally for several reasons.
"This was really important to me," she said. "I can't have kids, and I work in the field, so that's why we decided to go the international route."
Rob Griffith said the couple chose to go outside the U.S. for a child because the circumstances of many foreign orphans is far more dire than most such children here.
"In the U.S. we no longer have the big warehouse orphanages, but in some other countries, there are 300 or 400 children and three or four caregivers in these places," he said.
McKenna Griffith, who orphanage workers named Saida, came home to Benicia just four days before the May 11 birthday the orphanage workers assigned to her. When asked what she liked about her new home and family, McKenna said, "I'm 4. I like being 4. I got cupcakes."
As they settle in to their new life as a family, the Griffiths say they'd still recommend international adoption for those seeking to enlarge their family by that means. But maybe, she said, from a country with clearer international adoption regulations.
"We're not the best ambassadors for Uzbekistan right now," she said. "They don't really have the system in place and in some cases, they don't really want to let their kids go (to foreign adoptive parents). But was it worth it? Yes."
Ally Griffith offers the following advice to prospective international adoptive parents:
"Keep an open mind, and keep your head in it for the long haul," she said. "Remember you're dealing with another culture. And expect the unexpected."
It's advice the Peladeau family of Vallejo may need as they work to adopt a child from Ethiopia, said Veronica Peladeau.
Peladeau, 37, is a stay at home mom while her husband Brian, 37, is a computer consultant. Both are Vallejo High School grads. The couple has three natural children - Breana, 8, Branden, 5, and Caleb, 3 - but they felt compelled to provide a better life to a child in need, they said.
"It's something I've always wanted to do as long as I can remember, to adopt and help out a child," Veronica Peladeau said.
"My husband wasn't into it at first, but a couple of years ago, he came to me and said this felt like something he needed to do," she said.
The Peladeaus said they chose to wait until their youngest child was 2 before beginning the process.
"There is terrible poverty in Ethiopia and that's one reason we picked there," Veronica Peladeau said. "We thought of China, but they've made it really hard there. We did research and Ethiopia seemed like the country that needed it most."
They applied for an adoption and a recent home study session went well, she said.
The family held a garage sale recently to raise money for the trip to Ethiopia.
"A lot of people came out to support us and we did really well," Veronica Peladeau said. "We raised a little over $3,000."
She anticipates the adoption process will cost about $30,000.
The next step is to finish their home study and compile the required dossier to be sent to Ethiopia, she said.
"It's not cheap. We went into this knowing that. We're using some of our home equity to do it. The money is for the agency for lawyers, and mostly for travel to and from the country," she said.
Veronica and her brother or cousin will go to Ethiopia, while Brian stays home with the couple's children, so they don't feel like the new sibling is more important than they are, she said.
"The agency will collect all our paperwork and match us up with a child. We're asking for a girl under 12," she said.
The process should take about eight months, shaving a month off the more common family growing procedure, barring any complications.
While the Peladeaus don't know anyone personally who's adopted internationally, Brian Peladeau's brother and sister are adopted.
"We felt the adoptable children here are not in the same dire straits as those overseas," Veronica Peladeau said. "We read that many orphans there die before the age of 6 or 8, the poverty there is so bad."
That's one reason why a cross-racial adoption such as this one, beats the alternative, said J. Scott Brown, executive vice president of the Texas-based Gladney Center for Adoption, through which the Peladeaus are working. Brown said he recognizes that some believe cross-racial adoptions are bad psychologically for the child.
"It's not the optimum option, which would be placement with a child's biological family," Brown said. "The second best option would be placement within the child's own culture. But is it better to have parents that are white or no parents at all and live in an orphanage? Most social workers today say having a home is better."
The issue is addressed in classes the agency offers, spokeswoman Jennifer Lanter said.
"We discuss the importance of educating the child about his or her culture, to keep it alive. And we recommend living in a racially diverse community, so the child doesn't feel totally out of place," she said.
For their part, the Peladeaus don't anticipate a problem, Veronica Peladeau said.
"We'll tell her her history and where she comes from. There may be people with a problem with that, and we'll just have to deal with it if it happens," she said. "Besides, mixed-race families are not as uncommon as they were 20 years ago."
The idea is to help a child have a better chance at life, she said. And, her husband added, to create their idea of the perfect family despite medical problems making the usual method too dangerous, Brian Peladeau said.
"We wanted to have another child, but my wife had problems in her last pregnancy and the doctors told her not to have any more. We have two boys and a girl and wanted another girl," Brian Peladeau said. "There's a greater need overseas for adopting orphans and the number of visas being granted to Americans to China, Russia and Guatemala were much more than to Ethiopia, so the need there is greater."
Brian Peladeau, who said he has "a huge family living nearby. Lots of nieces and nephews, so we have lots of support," said the couple's daughter Breana, "loves the idea. She's wanted a sister forever."
A Wardlaw Elementary School third-grader, Breana said she's excited about the plan.
"I feel nice about it. I want a sister, and it's good that she's coming from another country. I'm going to get a sister from a different country, and most people don't get that," Breana said.