Date: 1994-07-10

St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Author: By Patrick E. Gauen Of the Post-Dispatch Staff

Alex Henn toddled up the paths of Grant's Farm on Saturday without paying any particular attention to Hanna Totman, bouncing along right ahead of him. Just a year ago, they were close neighbors.

They were hand-holding close, in fact, comforting each other through the slats of adjacent cribs in a Hungarian orphanage, where their futures - and survival - were in question.

Now they have new parents for comfort, and American homes for security. While their beds today are 1,000 miles apart, Alex and Hanna will always keep in touch, if their adoptive mothers and fathers have their way.

That's why the parents of 19 children gathered in St. Louis this weekend for what their T-shirts proclaimed was a "Gotcha Day Celebration." That's as in, "It's been a year since I got you."

These children, among 28 who started their lives in Romania, are 18 months to 4 years old, so they are not likely to remember much about the weekend here. But they may remember the next reunion or the one after that.

"I'd like to do this every year," said Brenda Henn, of Creve Coeur, part of a nucleus of four women who visited the youngsters every day for a month in Szeged, Hungary, as the women and others tore through red tape tangled across three countries.

Failure by them and families to finalize the adoptions would have meant these children would be returned to their homeland of Romania. Henn and others said half the children in orphanages in Romania die.

The adult celebrants were quietly aware of that fact as they watched the wriggling children pose for a group photograph in a red buckboard at Grant's Farm - some laughing, some crying, some struggling to find mom.

"We realize that not only did we fill a need in our families, but we saved lives," Henn said. "The kids were together for a long time and went through a lot. Through their lives, we want to keep them together."

Henn's son Alex, now 2, was born to a Romanian woman whose partner was in jail, Henn said. When he returned to their home, he realized he could not have fathered the baby, so he told the mother he would kill the child if she did not get rid of him.

The woman was among a number of Romanians who went to Hungary in the hope of finding better conditions where they could rear their children or even American homes for the infants they wanted to surrender.

Brenda, 37, already had two children, Ryan, then 13, and Laura, then 10. She and her new husband, Art, 39, a self-employed technical consultant, wanted to adopt a child, but they found domestic adoption agencies were not interested in older couples with children.

So they went to an international agency. Eventually they realized the agency was "in way over its head," Art Henn said.

Indifference by U.S. authorities, hostility by Romania and insistence by Hungary on following Romanian adoption laws combined to delay the Henns and other adoptive parents for months, they said.

U.S. Rep. Jim Talent, R-Chesterfield, became the first U.S. official to lend help. The families thanked him at a dinner Friday at the Doubletree Hotel in Chesterfield.

Loosely united by friendships forged during the frustrating wait, the adoptive parents vowed to rescue every child who had been singled out for U.S. adoption. And, eventually, they did just that. Each family spent $20,000 to $30,000. Most couples took one child; two took twins.

"All these children are getting a real chance at life," said a beaming Allen Evensen, 42, watching over twin daughters Robyn and Rachael, 18 months old. The auto parts distributor from Yorba Linda, Calif., and his wife, Jenifer, now have six daughters, including one by domestic adoption.

Both coasts and lots of places in between were represented at the party. St. Louis was picked as the site, in part, because six of the families live here - more than any other place. That includes Henn and three other women - Jayne Oldenburg, Denise Scott and Rebecca Skrainka, - who spent a long time in Hungary for the final and successful bid to secure their children's release.

For them, especially, the reunion was charged with emotion.

"At the orphanage, we played with all the kids every day. They all knew us every time we walked in. It was like us against the world," recalled Brenda Henn, who has since become an international adoption consultant. "But not now. They didn't know us. It's been too long. It was disappointing."

Said Oldenburg, 36, now Henn's best friend: "I wanted us to go back to the way it used to be for just a minute. But we couldn't."

(1) Color Photo by Wayne Crosslin/Post-Dispatch - These five St. Louis women, who traveled to Hungary to adopt their babies, held a reunion here Saturday with 14 other families. Front row: Brenda Henn, son Alex; Denise Scott, daughter Abby. Back row: Rebecca Skrainka, son Nick; Mary Merkle, daughter Julie; and Jane Oldenburg, son Evan.

(2) Photo by Wayne Crosslin/Post-Dispatch - Anna Ashburn, 19 months, sleeps on the shoulder of her father, Tom, at a reunion here Saturday for 19 Romanian children adopted by American families from across the nation last year.


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