International Adoptions: A New Route For Gays

January 1, 1998

Some say they were moved by their concern for the vast number of children who live as orphans in foreign countries. Some believed they would avoid problems in other countries that they might have faced in this country. Others say that they were interested in having their families be multicultural.

Whatever the reason, more gay people are seeking to adopt children through a once-rare route -international adoption.

Going that route is far from easy. Most foreign countries are homophobic, and none would approve an openly gay single or couple applicant. Gay people most often must file for adoption as single parents and sometimes have to hide their partners while a "home study" is done. And along with the other already-substantial costs of adopting, there is the need to travel overseas to bring the child home.

But despite the difficulties, an increasing number of gay people are applying to adopt internationally and succeeding.

"Every year, we get a few more inquiries than the previous year," says Robert Braun, president of Philadelphia-based International Families Adoption Agency, named as a gay-friendly agency by the Gay and Lesbian Parents Coalition International.

Nancy Des Rault, an openly lesbian clinical social worker who is director of FIA International, a Burlington, Vt.-based gay-friendly adoption agency, says the application process for gays is sensitive, difficult, and "not the same as working with your heterosexual couples."

Gay applicants, Des Rault says, "can be open with me" but need to be careful what they say on their overseas applications.

"If people want to stand up in a courtroom in Russia or Guatemala and come out of the closet," says Des Rault, "their likelihood of adopting in that country is never good. People just really have to think about how they can do an adoption [successfully]."

Although social workers and others report that many gays have considered the issues carefully by the time they apply, Terry Boggis, director of CenterKids, a program of the New York City Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, says the process is still emotionally trying.

"You can be closeted and a parent, or be out and not have a child," says Boggis. "That's the choice. It's a pretty lousy choice, but most Gay parents look at it as a short-term sacrifice for a long-term goal."

All adoptive parents interviewed for this article said that despite the difficulties, they had no regrets about adopting internationally.

"I can say it's the best thing I ever did in my life," said Sally Susman, who decided to adopt a Asian girl after reading that many girls there are given up to orphanages by their parents.

The overriding factor, said Susman, "is the joy of creating a family. ... It has surpassed even my own expectations for how it would enrich my life - not to mention how tired I am." And international adoption, Susman said, "has an even added dimension: It's kind of nice to have this other culture in the home."


Nevertheless, for many international adoptive parents, fears linger. Only two - Susman and Jon and Robert Cooper (who have two children adopted from Central America) - agreed to be identified for this article. Others expressed fears that their parental rights might be jeopardized, that publicity might backfire on future gay applicants, that they might be seen as people who hadn't been totally honest, or that their child's privacy might be compromised.

The fear of losing parental rights has even led some couples to put off second-parent adoptions, which are allowed in the District of Columbia and some states and which could convey legal status to both partners as parents.

"You wonder whether, in some way you can't imagine, your legal rights to your child will be challenged," explained one lesbian parent of a Romanian-born child. "You read about people who take children away from gay parents."

For that fear, Suzanne Goldberg, an attorney with Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national gay legal organization, offers reassurance.

"I have not heard of a case of a parent's adoptive rights being voided," Goldberg says. At the same time, she adds, "The stakes are very high, and people's fears are understandable."

The State Department reports that the China Center for Adoption Affairs, a government agency, states that "applications from homosexual families are unwelcome," and China reportedly has occasionally been asking for affidavits from agencies or individuals that an applicant is not homosexual.

In 1993, Lambda won an action involving a gay male couple that set a precedent that helped pave the way for more gays to adopt internationally.

People who adopt from foreign countries must obtain an "orphan's visa" from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In the case of an unmarried man in New York who sought a visa to bring an Eastern European child into the United States, the INS district office in New York noted that the "home study" indicated another man in the household would share in the parenting. The INS asserted that the law did not contemplate a single-parent adoption with another unrelated single adult in the house.

But an INS appeals unit overturned that decision, saying the relationship a prospective adoptive parent has with another adult in the household is not a reason to deny an orphan's visa petition. The appeals unit noted that the home study had demonstrated the applicant's "financial and emotional ability to furnish proper care" to the child. Although the fact that the two men were a gay couple was never stated, Goldberg says the ruling had "tremendous impact."

"It made clear," she says, "that unmarried adults, including lesbians and gay men, could obtain orphan's visas without hiding their sexual orientation [from the INS]. It made clear [they] did not face a legal bar from the U.S. in international adoptions."


Like anyone who wants to adopt internationally, a gay applicant works in varying degrees with an adoption agency here. Robert Braun of the Philadelphia-based agency helps applicants adopt children from Eastern Europe.

Braun says lesbians have an easier time than gay men, because foreign countries are used to single women applicants. Governments are more suspicious that single men are not trustworthy when it comes to child care and parenting.

Braun, who does home studies that are read by both the INS and the foreign country, says, "We don't bullshit about anything, we don't leave out any material facts" in the home study sent to the INS. If, for example, a same-sex couple will do the parenting, Braun states that fact.

Occasionally, Braun says, an INS staffer will raise a question "that would never occur if it were a heterosexual married couple." For example, he said, INS might ask, "'Well, what does [the couple] plan to tell the child if they ever split up?'" INS has challenged the qualifications of some gay applicants, Braun says, but "we have won every challenge."

But the home study report that goes abroad is another issue, Braun says. He does not feel ethically bound to include the fact that a same-sex companion lives in the house.

"If we did it any other way," he says, "it guarantees the applicant will be turned down overseas."

Braun says his caution does not apply to gays only. With Jewish applicants, too, he says, "We neuter them religiously so they don't face anti-Semitism among decision-makers [overseas]. What's the point of taking someone's money knowing they're going to be turned down?"

Braun advises gay applicants not to get discouraged and to follow through once they take the first steps toward applying.

"Everybody who starts the adoption process and perseveres succeeds," he says.

Kim McAllister, an openly lesbian clinical social worker who works part-time for an international adoption agency in San Diego, says there is no question great prejudice exists in most foreign countries toward homosexuality. At the same time, she believes there are social welfare officials overseas who "want kids to have better lives" and would say, "'We don't care'" even if they think an applicant is gay.

"You are going to have a range of reactions and responses to the official party line [on homosexuality]," McAllister says.


Gay people report a variety of motivations for applying to adopt internationally. One lesbian attorney in Washington said she sought a Chinese baby because she wanted a child "as young as possible ... and it would be virtually impossible for me as a single woman to get a child in this country who was very young and not disabled."

The attorney estimated the cost of her adoption, including travel expenses, were between $15,000 and $20,000. Subsequently, she and her partner jointly adopted the baby, a process which is allowed in the D.C.

One lesbian and her partner said they decided to adopt an Asian child both "to enrich our life and save her from a very difficult existence." But it was hard, said this mother, for only one of them to apply as a single parent and not as a couple.

"It went against the grain of who we are as people," she said. "It was a rare instance when we believe the end justified the means."

A social worker hired by their adoption agency to do the home study asked no intrusive questions during a one-hour home visit and two meetings in restaurants, she said.

"The agencies are making a lot of money off the clients," says this mother, "so it's kind of in everybody's interest that this go smoothly. They don't really come to it with a suspicious approach."

The applicant spent two weeks in the Asian country, calling that "one of the most important two weeks of my life."

"I thought it was very important to see where she was from, and ... what her life was like."

As part of the adoption, the orphanage where the child was living asked for a $3,000 contribution.

"That's the happiest money you spend in the whole process," said the mother. "It's going to people trying to take care of other children."

Jon Cooper, 43, president of a family-owned business on Long Island, and his spouse, Rob Cooper, 40 (who legally took Jon's last name), decided to adopt internationally in the mid-1980s after their initial attempts to adopt an infant in the United States were fruitless. They retained an attorney in a Central American country. Over the next several months, there were a couple of false starts: One possible child died, another child's mother changed her mind about giving her baby up for adoption. But soon, the lawyer found their first child, Daniel, now 12.

"We had a very good experience," says Rob. "It worked like Walt Disney World. Our lawyer was very humanitarian. She really wanted to place the children with good families and good homes. She wasn't only in it for the money."

Knowing that the foreign country would not approve an openly gay adoptive parent, Rob arranged to be gone when the social worker for a New York agency did the home study.

"They didn't ask my sexual orientation, and I didn't offer it," recalls Jon.

Four years later, the Coopers again went the same route to adopt a second child with the same country: This time they adopted a baby girl, Jessica, now 9. And subsequently, they succeeded in adopting three children from within the United States.

Rob, the full-time homemaker since the couple adopted their first child, is now planning to become a legal parent for all five children through second-parent adoptions, which are allowed in New York state. Both Rob and Jon say that will bring them great satisfaction. "It was hard for me not to be listed," says Rob. "It does make you feel bad."

The couple hasn't noticed any differences in parenting the two foreign-born children compared to the three born here.

"It didn't matter, because all were infants," says Rob. They have helped the older children learn about their native country, says Jon, but Daniel and Jessica are "100 percent American."


The extent to which adoptive parents discuss the culture from which the foreign-born child comes varies.

"You have to use your own common sense," says one lesbian mother. "I don't think you have an obligation to the country of origin. There was a time when my daughter took a lot of pleasure in the fact that she comes from Romania. But at this particular time, she's more interested in the Spice Girls."

Lately, the media have carried some stories about parents who have adopted children from foreign countries facing severe problems, such as the special needs of children who have been institutionalized or who were not infants when they were adopted.

But Michele Zavos, a lesbian attorney in the District who has advised many gay adoptive parents, says, "I have yet to hear an instance in which the kids have been abusive or the kids have not responded to the love these people have given them."

Referring to one Asian-born child now in a lesbian home, Zavos says, "When they brought her home, she wasn't even trying to stand up. Now, she's getting ready to walk, and that happened in about three weeks."

Peter Freiberg
© Washington Blade Inc.
July 20, 1998


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