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Tucson firm's closing slows process for hundreds
Tucson Citizen, 08.25.2008
Tucsonans Tom and Liliana Stevens dreamed of opening their hearts and home to an orphan from an impoverished country.
They didn't realize that dream would become a nightmare.
Since 2005, the couple have been through two adoption agencies, one lawsuit, two different country selections and thousands of dollars.
The end is in sight. They will fly to Ethiopia by the end of September to pick up three girls, 6 through 12, who grew up in an orphanage.
Not every adoption is as harrowing as the Stevenses' but many, especially the international ones, involve lots of waiting, wondering and money.
The closing of Commonwealth Adoptions International Inc. in Tucson leaves people interested in international adoption with one less option.
Those in the process with Commonwealth face more delays and probably more expenses.
"Parents looking to adopt can expect a roller coaster kind of life," said Lenore Grabel, director of Adoption Journeys of Arizona, a private agency that helps with the international process. "Things may be a certain way at the beginning, but it may take longer if things change."
Overall, international adoptions have gotten more difficult.
Some countries including Vietnam and Guatemala closed their doors, if only temporarily, Grabel said.
Others, such as the wildly popular China, increased restrictions.
Grabel said the wait time for an adoption from China has increased from as few as eight months to as many as four years.
The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions, designed to prevent illegal trafficking of children, began April 1. It has set higher standards that translate into hurdles for agencies and prospective parents.
Under the convention, accreditation was denied to 15 agencies across the nation, including Commonwealth, which operated out of Tucson and three other locations, the U.S. State Department said.
Commonwealth's closure leaves 340 families, including 44 from Tucson, in the midst of the international adoption process with no immediate end in sight, said the Arizona Department of Economic Security, which handles adoption agency licensing.
Commonwealth President Marina Mayhew said Commonwealth will transfer open cases to other agencies. Commonwealth has also submitted a transition plan to the state agency.
Meanwhile, some families are left with frustration and fear.
"This is the money we saved, our adoption money," said Amanda Peppers, 31. She and her husband, Jerry Peppers, 29, who live in Alabama and were dealing with Commonwealth's Florida office, invested thousands and received a partial refund when news of the closure hit. It's not enough to start the adoption process over with another agency, the family said.
This is after the couple spent nearly $20,000 on fertility treatments.
"We're just a common family," Amanda Peppers said. "Adoption is just not affordable."
The Stevenses said they had a problem with Commonwealth in 2006, well before the Hague accreditation became an issue.
They wanted to adopt a child from Colombia, which requires an extensive psychological evaluation.
Tom Stevens said the evaluation came back with statements that were not true, and he brought it to his caseworker at Commonwealth with the hopes of talking it over to see how the evaluation could be refuted or redone.
Instead, he said, the caseworker submitted it to Colombia, and the adoption was denied.
Stevens, 64, took the agency to court in 2006 and was awarded $1,100 in a partial refund of Commonwealth fees, records show.
He took his business to Adoptions Avenues, a private agency he found online, and began to explore adopting from Ethiopia after reading an article about widespread starvation in the country in Time magazine.
"I just think these children are in worse shape than the American children," he said of his decision to adopt internationally.
In addition to difficulties in China, Guatemala and Vietnam, local agencies said, once-popular Russia is rife with delays, as is the Ukraine.
Countries gaining in popularity include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Ethiopia.
Domestic adoptions remain an option, but more single mothers are opting to keep their babies rather than automatically relinquishing them, as the stigma of the unwed mother has largely been erased.
Domestic adoptions are more open to the less traditional family unit, with more single parents and same-sex couples granted custody in recent years.
Catholic Community Services of Southern Arizona, which runs the St. Nicholas of Myra Adoption Center, places about 400 foster children in permanent homes annually.
With most foster children adoptions, the fees are subsidized by the state and usually cost tens of thousands less than private agencies or lawyers. Private adoptions can easily cost $25,000 to $30,000, experts said.
All the children placed through St. Nicholas come out of the state's foster system, so the babies are usually taken by relatives before they are available to strangers.
Short waits are in store for parents willing to take adolescents or sibling groups.
"When families first come to us, they have this vision of those little girls about 2 years old who don't have lots of issues," said Nancy Larison, associate director at Catholic Community Services. "When children are a little older, they have endured a little more trauma and have behavior that reflects that trauma."
"A lot of people go into adoptions with the 'Gerber Baby' as their initial expectation," said Tucson lawyer Scott Myers of the desire for the blond, blue-eyed infant. "There's not enough of them to go around."
Myers handles about 200 domestic adoptions a year.
Jackie Semar, director of the International Child Foundation, a private agency that offers adoption services and support, went through the foster care system to adopt her son 23 years ago.
"Like so many other single women," she said, "I gave up waiting for Mr. Right. Going internationally didn't even cross my mind."
Semar first requested a preschool-age daughter. She ended up with a 9-year-old son.
"That was a pretty big detour from my fantasy," she said. But she knew the minute she saw the boy she wanted him as her son.
Whatever the choice, those in the field strongly urge families to do research before making decisions.
They recommend carefully weighing all the options, finding out what countries offer adoptions, what the requirements are and talking with a number of agencies.
Before signing a contract, they advise prospective parents to talk to others who have used a particular agency.
Such diligence paid off for Connie and Mark Nickerson, who completed an adoption from Guatemala since it had begun before the country shut its doors.
The Tucsonans are the proud parents of 13-month-old Marco, who was raised by foster parents in his native country. The adoption process took about one year for the Nickersons, and they spent the year before that exploring the options.
"We probably put far too much research and thought into it," said Connie Nickerson, 43, "more than a lot of people do."
The Nickersons, who met with a lawyer, two private agencies and one social service agency before making a final decision, said they couldn't be happier with their choice. They opted for Adoption Journeys of Arizona after reading a business review of the agency.
"Lenore (the Adoption Journeys of Arizona director) is just a gem," Connie Nickerson said of Grabel. "We consider her part of our family now."
Source: Pima County Superior Court Source: U.S. State Department