Do-it-yourself foreign adoption: agony, ecstasy


Cecily E.Hunt / Chicago Sun-Times

All it took was just one look. A photograph of the little girl with those great big, dark eyes captured the hearts of Barbara and Neil Blumenthal. This was the child they wanted to add to their family.

But wanting does not necessarily simplify getting, and 2 1/2 anxious years of hard work passed before the Homewood couple's dream became reality. The Blumenthals are part of the growing number of Americans who are turning to intercountry private adoptions.

Since 1980, when 51 foreign-born infants were approved for adoption in Illinois, the volume has increased dramatically.

In 1986, 431 children were approved for placement, and about one-fifth of those were adopted by parents who chose to tackle by themselves the time-consuming, costly and often frustrating process of intercountry adoption.

The Blumenthals have been married four years. He is a periodonist; she is the part-time manager at his office. She has three children from a previous marriage - ages 20, 18 and 12 - but they wanted to raise a child together. They had tried traditional adoption services, only to be told there would be a five- to 10-year wait for a healthy Caucasian baby.

At ages 38 and 42, they didn't want to wait that long for a child. The Blumenthals decided their best chance was with private, intercountry adoption. Friends of theirs had relatives who had adopted through a private attorney in Bucharest, Romania.

The Blumenthals contacted the attorney and were sent a packet of information and two photographs of infants, one of a boy, the other a girl.

"We decided that Allyson was the little girl for us," says Barbara Blumenthal.

Today the girl in that photograph, like many other local children, spends time playing in pre-school. Quite a change for a child with bleak beginnings. She was born May 16, 1984, in Bucharest. Her father was the son of a high-ranking government official, but he and the child's 17-year-old mother did not marry, and the infant was sent to a state orphanage.

Home to 500 children, the cramped orphanage often was forced to sleep four and five infants in a single crib, while as many as nine toddlers were crammed into one playpen.

Daily meals consisted of water and oatmeal for breakfast, water and bread for lunch, water and rice for dinner. In 1986, the couple flew to Bucharest to meet Allyson and her caretakers. They were shocked at the orphanage's conditions and the country's oppresive surroundings.

Electronic listening devices were uncovered, concealed in their hotel room. They discovered the state's unadopted boys would be trained to be policemen. Unadopted girls faced a life as street sweepers. "I saw women with babushkas pulling wagons with two wheels and handles, actually sweeping with old cornhusk brooms," Barbara Blumenthal recalls.

"I saw the policemen, young boys of 16 and 17, standing on every corner with machineguns ." Upon their return to the United States, the Blumenthals were determined to get Allyson out of the orphanage as quickly as possible.

What followed was a year filled with red tape and a flood of anxious phone calls to the American Embassy in Bucharest to check on progress. To their dismay, they discovered the Romanian officials routinely returned American papers to the bottom of the stack waiting for releasing signatures. A barrage of letters from the United States - written by the Blumenthals and elected officials from the governor on down - eventually ended the bottleneck.

Two-and-a-half years and $12,000 after the initial contact, the Blumenthals in August brought Allyson to Chicago to join her new family. The Blumenthals' situation is not unusual for intercountry adoptions done privately or through a United States-based agency.

Time and costs do differ, depending on the country. The age at which a country will release a child, the amount of time official paperwork will take, and the cost for such in both the country of origin and the United States vary. Working independently brings great risks, says Muriel Shennan, intercountry adoption coordinator for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Shennan oversees the paperwork for every foreign adoption completed in Illinois.

"Anytime you see a large increase in the volume of business, which we've seen over the past six years, it means you've got a hot item. Anytime that occurs, no matter whether you're selling cars or talking about the placement of children, other people want in.

"There can well be people (providing) children independently who are not appropriate sources for doing that who have not got any experience, who are not licensed, and who are really in it for their own gain. It makes it difficult for families to know who to run with unless they have done some homework and gotten some kind of a guideline on reliability." Working privately through a child welfare agency in a foreign country or through a private physician or attorney can have its advantages, Shennan says.

Perhaps the greatest is that someone working independently does not have to deal with volumes of cases and can make faster connections.

For Ken and Linda Vander Weele of Oak Park, parents of "two homemades and two imports," the private route was appealing because it was direct.

"We started working through an organization downtown that a lot of people use to adopt foreign-born children," says Linda Vander Weele, 37, "and I felt there was a lot of information we didn't get.

In fact, that was my primary motivation for going privately." The Vander Weeles had two young sons "and really wanted a girl" when they started looking into adoption. The couple have always appreciated the broadening effects of international contact; she had been an exchange student in Germany and right now their residence is home to young people visiting from France, Colombia and Japan.

"We thought international (adoption) would be kind of a culturally interesting thing for us," says Vander Weele, a part-time graphics designer, whose 34-year-old husband, Ken, is a certified public accountant.

Through friends they contacted a missionary living in Japan who had placed children in Christian homes. A two-year correspondence began.

The Vander Weeles adopted their first daughter, Morgan (now 2), in 1985, and adopted their second - Hilary - through the same source on Mother's Day this year.

"We got our first daughter within five weeks of the day she was born," says Vander Weele, "which for international adoption is almost unheard of.

"I got a chance to meet the birth mother. I write to the birth mother, we met the doctor who delivered our daughter. I have a medical background on both of my daughters. The openness was another advantage, she says. "There was nothing that was hidden. I think that in adoptions that are regulated there tends to be a lot of red tape that prolongs the thing, and I think there is a lot of information that parents could get that would be very helpful that isn't really passed on. Some sort of medical problem, or allergy, you don't really find out about because it could rock the boat, it could take a lot of time.

The parents might get uptight, so they just process them all the same.

"I have really appreciated this personal contact. I have written to the birth mothers of both of our daughters. I think that will be a nice thing for them in the future if they're interested. That contact is still open." Not all couples - or single parents, because adoption from certain countries is an option open to single men and women - adopt to increase an existing family.

Most adopt because they are unable to have children of their own. International adoption can be particularly appealing because the age and religion requirements are not so restrictive as in the United States.

After 20 years of a marriage that produced no children, Chicagoans Nancy and Richard Tomz decided to adopt. To their dismay they found they were considered too old to do so locally. "My husband was over 40 at the time and I was 39," says Nancy Tomz, a free-lance editor.

"We were told that 35 is generally the cut-off, that the agencies had seven- to eight-year waiting lists, and one person even hung up on me." Determined, the couple enrolled in a seminar, "Dimensions in Adoption." Through it, they got in touch with the Latin American Parents Association, which helps prospective parents.

They attended an information meeting, joined the association, and decided to correspond with sources in Colombia, Costa Rica and Chile.

In January, 1986, an attorney in Chile wrote that he was willing to work with them. In March, the Tomzes sent the necessary documents to him. And on July 14, they got a phone call saying a baby boy had been born. They waited about three weeks for the necessary documents to come from Chile, and flew to Chile the day the infant was a month old. The attorney met their plane and took them to his home, where the infant was waiting.

"Everyone told me that it would take a while, not to expect to bond with the child right away," Nancy Tomz says. "For me that was just baloney. "When they put the baby in my arms, that was it. I can't imagine the experience being any better. "We were instant parents," she says, laughing as she recalls that first night together in a Chilean hotel. "Patrick screamed the whole first night. I called my mother three times that night." For the Tomzes, this process cost about $12,000, required eight months from initiation to babe-in-arms, and was finalized two weeks ago.

The red tape and stumbling blocks can be awesome, as Prabhabathi and Michael Fernandes of Lake Forest found when they wanted to increase their family's size by adopting a foreign-born infant.

And other countries' procedures - or lack of them - can add to the difficulty.

A year after the birth of daughter Neena in 1981, 37-year-old Prabhabathi, a microbiologist, and 40-year-old Michael, a physician, began considering adoption. They decided to adopt a child from their native India. Initially they worked through the Bensenville Home Society, an agency in that northwestern suburb that provides placement and service for international adoptions. One early roadblock was that one of them would have to become a U.S. citizen before they were eligible to adopt.

So in October, 1985, Prabhabathi Fernandes became a citizen and received from the agency a list of recognized adoption agencies in India. After that, the adoption process began moving. She recognized the name of a doctor in her hometown, Bangalore, where her mother still lives. Her mother contacted the doctor, who is affiliated with an adoption agency there.

In the meantime, the paperwork required in the United States was staggering.

Several home studies, individual and group interviews, written biographies done individually and jointly, birth certificates, school certificates, physicians' reports, and letters of reference were among the requirements, many of which had to be notarized.

As luck would have it, the Indian physician came to Chicago to attend a conference. She interviewed Fernandes, and eventually showed her the photograph of a month-old girl available for adoption. By Indian law, a child must be 3 months old before he or she is eligible for adoption. No paperwork is begun until then.

So Fernandes spent that time juggling her job and the processing of paperwork in Chicago and India. In October, 1986, she was notified by the U.S.

Immigration and Naturalization Service that all the paperwork had been mailed to the U.S. consulate in Madras, India.

Finally, Prabhabathi Fernandes prepared to leave for India during Thanksgiving week last year to pick up the baby.

"The day before I was to leave, my mother called me and said, `Don't come, nothing is ready, we asked the office in Madras and they said they had not even received the papers from the United States.' " An upset Fernandes immediately telephoned Rep. John E. Porter (R-Ill.) and Sen. Alan J. Dixon (D.-Ill.).

"Porter's office was extremely effective. They immediately telexed Madras explaining the situation and requesting them to expediate my case, that I was only going to be there for 10 days because that was all the vacation time I had. "So I went. The next day I picked up the baby, and that was a very nice thing. The baby, from moment one, never has really cried. She was so happy. I got some beautiful pictures of that time.

Neena, my 6-year-old, said, `This is the most beautiful baby in the whole world,' and Sheila just looked up and smiled at her, and I've got this beautiful picture of their first moment." Even though she legally had no right to the infant because the official papers could not be found, Fernandes left her hometown with Sheila.

The next day she called the U.S. consulate in Madras. "They were exceedingly rude," she says. "The worst thing about the United States is its offices abroad. I told them I had a letter from the U.S. immigration office in Chicago saying everything had been approved. They told me not to bother to come." But Fernandes had not journeyed thousands of miles to be turned away now.

She traveled to Madras, sat waiting from 8 in the morning until midafternoon, and was told to come back the next day to speak with the manager. The next day, shortly after 3 in the afternoon, the manager told her the process required that the baby have a physical. The catch was that no physicals were scheduled after 3, and that if the papers, including the results from the physical, were not filed by 8 the next morning, nothing could be done until the following week.

With no explanation, the necessary documents that had been "missing" miraculously turned up.

It was only because Fernandes had a well-connected uncle in Madras that she was able to see the physician at his home that evening, collected the doctor's report and turned them in at the consulate's office five minutes shy of the deadline. Under Indian law, she and her husband were named guardians.

She, Neena and Sheila returned to Lake Forest and the adoption process, which she estimates cost somewhere between $8,000 and $10,000, was completed in mid-July. Not everyone is so fortunate. Christine and Patrick Crotty of La Grange have been waiting for years to adopt an infant from Poland.

A friend successfully had adopted a child through an attorney from Krakow. The Crottys contacted the attorney more than 3 1/2 years ago. They supplied the large number of documents normally needed for an intercountry adoption.

In addition, 33-year-old Patrick, an attorney, and Christine, 32, formerly a buyer for a retail clothing chain, also have had to meet the requirements of the Polish consulate. "I had to have a birth certificate proving I was of Polish nationality," Christine Crotty says. "I had my grandmother's birth certificate; she was born in Poland. "You have to be Polish and you have to prove that you're Polish to adopt from Poland. They really like you to speak the language, but we practice customs and traditions in our home, so they overlooked the fact that I do not speak the language.

I had to get letters from the head of the Polish Welfare Association and the woman who heads the Copernicus Center saying that my husband and I are active in the Polish community. We had to prove this with documented letters written in Polish. We needed all this for the Consulate's approval." The papers are in Poland in the hands of the attorney, and Christine Crotty says that now it's just a matter of time. "I keep saying the worst is behind us," she confesses, "but my husband keeps saying that we don't really know until it comes time to get the baby.

"I've known people, even with Polish adoptions, who have gone to the country - some attorney they didn't know promised them a baby and told them to bring American dollars, cash only - and have come back without a child. That, to me, would be the worst possible thing. It would be like having a stillbirth.

"But for us, now," she says with optimism, "it's a definite yes. It's just a matter of when."

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