With too few infants, adoptive couples go to great lengths
August 24, 2008
By Joanne Kimberlin
There aren't enough babies to go around. April and Brian Christensen are desperate. Unable to conceive a child of their own, the Portsmouth couple has been trying to adopt, and the shortage has driven them to new tactics.
For months, the Christensens have run classified ads in the newspaper asking for a baby. They've tacked up fliers in hospitals. Passed out business-style cards. Placed an ad on Craigslist. Secured an extra cell phone number for their "baby hot line." Produced a 12-page resume - complete with vacation photos - that makes their lives an open book.
"I keep saying how awful this sounds, but you've got to do it like a business," April said. "If you want a baby, you've got to sell yourself."
Gone is the quiet that once surrounded adoption. In the age of "the Pill," abortion and a greater acceptance of unwed motherhood, discretion won't fill an empty crib. In 1971, a survey said, 90,000 U.S. newborns went home with adoptive parents. Last year's number: 22,000.
The smaller pool has led to longer waiting lists - anywhere from two to seven years. Birth mothers can now afford to be choosy, thumbing through stacks of scrapbooks and heartfelt letters prepared by competing couples.
Aside from legitimate fees, which can reach $30,000, laws are strict about the money and gifts allowed to change hands. After all, selling a child is illegal. But as a bargaining chip, a birth mother can strike a deal for an "open adoption" - a once-unheard of arrangement that can include a lifetime of contact with her child.
"Every infant being considered for adoption right now in the U.S. has a waiting family," said Chuck Johnson, vice president of the Alexandria-based National Council For Adoption.
More than a decade ago, the council estimated that as many as 2 million Americans were actively trying to adopt. In a more recent survey, roughly 10 million couples said they would go through the process if they had higher hopes of getting a child.
Johnson points out that the scarcity only applies to babies. Plenty of older kids still are available for adoption. Few can compete, however, with the appeal of a just-born bundle.
Demand is so strong that frustrated couples everywhere are trying to bypass the lines at adoption agencies by beating the bushes themselves. The hope is to negotiate a "parental placement," where both sides pick each other up front.
"I heard about a family the other day who left a business card for their waitress, who was pregnant," Johnson said. "It offended her because she was married."
More and more aspiring parents are willing to take that chance, especially in the face of a new international crackdown. Countries such as Russia, China and Romania - once reliable adoption pipelines - have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the unchecked flow of children from their homelands. Stories of babies being stolen from mothers in places such as Guatemala and turning up for adoption in the United States have sealed the borders of some countries almost entirely.
"When something is this emotional and this competitive," Johnson said, "it can bring out the worst caliber of people who will take advantage of others."
The Christensens have tried to be smart. They've heard of other couples being milked for expenses by women who falsely claim to be pregnant and by shady operators who promise the same child to more than one family. They've had to cut short several callers who wanted to talk money. And then there are the crank calls - a cruel annoyance.
"We knew we were opening ourselves up for that kind of thing," Brian said. "But this is not just a want. It's a need - for a family. I've always wanted a child... someone to call me Dad."
So far, the Christensens figure they've spent about $12,000 on agency and attorney fees, plus their own marketing efforts. The money hasn't come easy for the middle-class couple. April, 33, works in real estate. Brian, 44, works at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. Their Simonsdale neighborhood is lined with modest homes. Their own is small and neat. One of its two bedrooms is now a bright yellow nursery-in-waiting.
"They say you should be ready," April said as she lifted tiny clothes from a drawer. "See, we've got outfits for a girl and a boy. You never know..."
A complete hysterectomy at age 24 ended April's ability to have biological children. Brian, a longtime bachelor, had simply given up on the idea. They met on a blind date, married a year-and-a-half ago and began their quest for kids.
They signed up with an agency, filled out all the paperwork and paid all the fees. They trekked to the police station to submit fingerprints and passed their criminal background checks. They've had their psyches poked by social workers and their health eyeballed by doctors. Their home has been inspected for cleanliness and safety, including smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, fire extinguishers and a family escape plan. Their dogs - three rescue mutts - were scrutinized for friendliness.
"Boy, if they asked this stuff of everyone before they had a baby," April said, "all kids would be a lot better off."
Once they were officially approved to adopt, the Christensens launched what has become the standard two-prong strategy: work with their
agency plus hunt for a baby themselves.
Either can pay off at any time. Nancy Pitts is an adoption paralegal who works with Gary Allison, a Virginia Beach lawyer specializing in adoption.
"Seventy percent of our clients are connected with a birth mom through newspaper ads or word of mouth," Pitts said. "Or what I call the 'instant baby' - where the call just comes from the hospital."
"Instant babies" materialize when a woman shows up at the emergency room in labor with no intention of keeping her baby and no arrangements to do anything else. The hospital contacts social services, and the mother is presented with a list of adoption agencies.
Shore Adoption with Hope, based in Virginia Beach, is one of them. According to Jenny Gregoire, a Shore adoption supervisor, "instant babies" come from a variety of sources - teenagers whose parents don't know they're pregnant, college girls who aren't ready to raise a baby, older women involved in extramarital affairs.
"The last few have been drug situations," Gregoire said. "That's always really tough."
Babies of drug abusers often are born with heroin or cocaine in their systems and must go through detox. The long-term effects are unpredictable - and a gamble for adoptive parents.
"It's all such a leap of faith," Pitts said. "Even with our own children, we're not sure what they're going to grow up to be. But with adoption, you really have no idea."
The Christensens learned that the hard way. This spring, they were considering adopting an 11-year-old boy who was born addicted to crack cocaine.
"We realized the first night we had him in our home that it wasn't going to work," April said. "He was very troubled - violent to the point where I was afraid to be alone with him. We had to make a very difficult decision. It was heartbreaking."
Despite that experience, the Christensens say, they refuse to completely rule out any child. What they really yearn for, though, is a healthy newborn or toddler. Like the majority of couples trying to adopt today, the Christensens are white, but they don't care about skin color.
"We do get asked the race question," April said. "The phone rings, and it's 'Are you just looking for a white baby?' We tell them we're open. I don't think it really matters. I think a child just needs love."
An open adoption would be OK, too. Johnson, with the national council, thinks open adoptions are a good thing all around. Adoptions used to be full of secrets. Records were sealed, children weren't told, and birth mothers had no way of knowing what became of their child.
"Generations of women were told to go home and forget about it," Johnson said. "They were told that no one had to know and they should be happy their reputations were saved. It was extremely inadequate for them."
In an open adoption, nothing is hidden. With written agreements, birth mothers are promised holiday photos, e-mail updates, perhaps even a visit now and then. In most states, however - including Virginia - such agreements aren't legally binding. Adoptive parents can cut off contact whenever they wish.
When open adoption works, though, it works well. Children get their questions answered and wind up with more people in their lives to love them, instead of fewer.
Johnson thinks that if more women knew about open adoption, those who aren't equipped to be parents might be more willing to find those who are. A few years back, Congress set aside funding to start spreading the word.
So far, that hasn't helped the Christensens. For them, there have been only disappointments. Women who don't call back. Babies who go to someone else. That meeting in a restaurant where no one shows up but them.
"The end result of adoption is wonderful," April said, "but the in-between is not so pretty. You keep asking yourself, 'Didn't they like me? Did I say something wrong?' The second-guessing never ends."
The Christensens don't intend to give up. Their baby hot line is never far from April's reach. She holds her breath every time it rings. The little clothes in the nursery have been washed more than once.
"My husband keeps telling me, 'Don't do this to yourself,' but I can't help it. I'm busting at the seams. And when it doesn't work out, I cry for a few days. But then I'm all right."
At this point, April says, "I t's all a waiting game. It's hard, but we have to turn it over to God. When he has a child for us, we'll get our baby. We just have to hang in there long enough."
Joanne Kimberlin, (757) 446-2338, email@example.com