Face of the Future

Date: 2001-06-03

Carters finally have a name for the object of their affection

Sacramento Bee

Long way home Fourth in an occasional
series Bee staff writer Don Bosley and
photographer Hector Amezcua are following Noreen and Colin Carter
through the international adoption process toward the
precious prize - a baby from Kazakhstan.

HEADLINE: Face of the future? After false starts and frustrations, the
Carters finally have a name for the object of their affection

BYLINE: Don Bosley Bee Staff Writer

Whisper her name.

Form the syllables clumsily, uncertainly. But not too loudly. Not yet.

She's got gorgeous blue peepers, don't you think? Even on videotape,
they sparkle like tiny, mischievous diamonds. And that blond
hair, done up in tiny clips of lime and yellow and ... oh, look, look,
look! Shaking her head like that, to say "no"! How adorable!

Lean in closer. Strain to hear the Kazakh caregivers calling to her.
Command your lips and tongue to mimic them.

Whisper her name.

She is 20 months old. Twenty-four pounds. A child with an adoption
number and little else, ambling suddenly into your living
room, straight through your realm of possibility and full speed into
your heart. Ambling, by the way, with the cutest, bowlegged
little gait.

She is such a treasure, such a stunning discovery, that you wouldn't
dare use her real first name in the newspaper, for fear that
another adoption agency will go find her and skirt her off to a home
that isn't yours.

But you can whisper her name to yourself. Over and over, again and
again, until the syllables comply and fit, as if you've said them
all your life.

We will call her little "Olga." Noreen and Colin Carter, God willing,
will call her "daughter."

"People who are struggling with the adoption process, I can relate to
them," Colin says. "But that's all behind us now. We've
forgotten about it already."

* * *

Two weeks earlier.

"It is such a frustrating process," Noreen Carter is saying with equal
parts venom and despair. "Everybody says that, no matter
what you read, you should prepare to be frustrated. And you think you
know what they mean."

But you can't know. You can't know the adoption experience until the
experience comes to know you, until it moves in and starts
tossing pieces of your life around like so many flapjacks. Which way
things will land, nobody seems completely certain, and your
gut clenches while it's all up in the air.

You just can't know. It's a lot like adding a child biologically, when
you get right down to it.

Four months after setting out to adopt a baby daughter from Kazakhstan,
the Carters felt as though they were taking heavy flak
and gaining no ground. They were tired, confused and growing more
embittered by the day. They hadn't seen a single videotape of a
prospective child yet, and it didn't look as if they would see one
anytime soon.

They had dreamt of taking 10-year-old son Dakota to Kazakhstan with them
to pick up the baby; that plan was now meeting
with blunt discouragement from World Partners Adoptions. They had hoped
to have the baby back home by August, before Colin
returned to his professor's job at the University of California, Davis,
for the fall semester; that script was now being torpedoed by
all manner of delays, meaning the family would likely have to wait until
January to travel for the child.

The processing of the home study was taking longer than they'd expected.
For one week in April, Kazakhstan's government put
international adoptions on hold; the Carters could never figure out
whether the whole country was shut down, or just some regions,
or just specific adoption agencies. In any event, it forced World
Partners to cancel trips for several adoptive parents and pushed the
whole process further back for everybody.

It was maddening - and visibly draining on Colin and Noreen. They were
good people, trying to provide a good home to an orphan
who had none, and prepared to shell out $25,000 or so to do it. Common
sense told them that this shouldn't be that complicated.

"Part of you wants to say, just grin and bear it. This is a small part
of the process," Noreen said. "But then ... well, let's just say
that there's a heck of a lot that seems like it could be simpler.

"You know, our neighbors adopted a child, and they didn't have to go any
farther than Woodland. Maybe we should think about

For weeks, things had been getting increasingly tense between the
Carters and World Partners. Noreen and Colin had grown
exasperated with what they felt were vague answers and a heavy-handed,
authoritarian tone from the Georgia-based agency; WPA
was plainly growing weary of clients who refused to trust it or yield to
its expertise.

Clearly, the biggest irritant for both sides was the issue of Dakota in

From the start, the Carters had wanted their boy along for the three- or
four-week adventure. When they began working with WPA
in January, they believed the agency was open to the idea. They had
asked WPA for references from other adoptive families, and a
woman named Candace in Florida reported that her 8-year-old daughter had gone with her to Kazakhstan and had had a fabulous
experience, being openly welcomed at the Baby House (orphanage) for one visit each day.

Right then, Colin and Noreen had begun to imagine the most awesome,
month long family outing they had ever dreamed of.

"My first vision of this was the three of us going over as a family and
bonding with this child as a family, and it being this
wonderful month that we would spend together," Noreen said.

"Now, at every turn, it's turning out not to be that. They're saying
there's a chance that we'll get over there, and Dakota never steps
inside the orphanage. He stays with my sister all day long in an

WPA officials were not in the mood to deliver this news gently. One
memo, in particular, laid out the agency's protests in a sea of
italicized fonts, capitalized phrases and exclamation points. It listed
a half-dozen reasons why bringing a child to Kazakhstan was
a horrible idea, and it didn't exactly invite further discussion on the

"Kazakhstan is just a difficult trip," says Cindy Harding, executive
director of WPA, which placed more than 100 children from
Kazakhstan last year.

"We worry about medical conditions there if a child gets sick. If a
child gets sick, we don't want that to distract the parents from
what they're there to do. And our facilitators are so busy working on
the adoptions, they don't want the families to be distracted by

"We're not saying that families can't bring their children. We're just
trying to give them the facts."

The Carters didn't take it that way. In their household, the
exclamatory, italicized memo immediately had its own name: the

"It was so negative. I was really upset," Noreen said on April 10.

Added Colin: "We were really thinking about changing agencies."

Added Noreen: "We still are."

* * *

Eighty miles down the road, Ed Taylor and Peri Fletcher are whispering
the name of another Kazakh baby.

Ed and Peri were the reason the Carters embarked on this adoption
adventure in the first place. The Berkeley couple, with
biological children ages 5 and 9, made the decision last fall to add to
their family by adoption.

Ed is a colleague of Colin's at UC Davis, and in November he had steered
his friend to a Web site picture of Lara - the beautiful
toddler daughter that he and Peri were adopting from Kazakhstan. The
Carters were astonished and hooked. They followed Ed
and Peri right to WPA's door.

"The thing I like about international adoption," Peri said in March, "is
that the child is unequivocally yours."

But little Lara never came home to Ed and Peri. She never will. Ed and
Peri found themselves in a increasingly frustrating,
deteriorating relationship with WPA. The trip to Kazakhstan was
postponed several times, once by the governmental delay.
Relatives put vacation plans on hold so they could watch Ed and Peri's
children while they were in Kazakhstan, but each time
their schedule-juggling was for naught.

The situation seemed to grow worse and worse. Resigned, weary and
feeling their confidence in WPA eroding, Ed and Peri finally
did what was once unthinkable. In May, they cut their ties to WPA and
forfeited their claim on Lara.

They were out about $3,700 in various fees, all nonrefundable. But the
emotional total was far greater. After more than six months
of watching Lara on video, of preparing a room and a life for her, the
family grieves now over a child it never met.

"It's not an abstract thing," Peri said this week. "You've seen her on
video, you've heard her laugh. I don't want to trivialize what
other people's experiences have been. But it does feel to me like losing
a child."

There was a momentary thought of trying another agency, another country.
Guatemala, maybe.

But their hearts are no longer in it. They need a breather. Maybe a very
long one.

"To be honest with you," Peri says, "I don't have high hopes of adopting
another child now."

* * *

Back in Davis, the Carters considered the disturbing odyssey of their
friends, considered their own growing angst and began to

Following WPA procedure, they had asked the agency for videos of five
children in Kazakhstan. They were told that some videos
were already being viewed by other families. In other cases, the
children in question were in regions of Kazakhstan that Dakota
would not be allowed to visit.

(WPA and other agencies insist that accompanying children be taken only to the safer regions of the country.)

All the while, a watershed document lingered on the Carters' kitchen
counter. It was a formal contract with World Partners that
would bind the couple to the agency and require a down payment of

Noreen and Colin stared and stared at it. They just couldn't sign it.

Slowly at first, then with increasing purpose, Colin began checking out
other agencies that offered adoption services to
Kazakhstan. He found several, each with strong and weak points.

One of the most intriguing was Tree of Life, a 3-year-old outfit out of
Portland, Ore. Tree of Life placed 113 children last year,
which made the agency medium-size in terms of volume. Most of those
children had come from Romania or Russia, but now Tree
of Life was making inroads into Kazakhstan as well.

What caught the Carters' attention, however, was the agency's embrace of the Dakota issue.

"We've had a lot of families who have taken their children with them on
the trip," says Aviva Cohen, founder and executive director
of Tree of Life. "I think it's definitely more work for the adoptive
parents, unless the kids are over 8 or 9 years old.

"But it really makes it feel like a family experience. We personally
think it's a good idea for as many people as possible to be a part
of it."

Colin was stunned when, on his first phone call, a Tree of Life worker
asked if he wanted to view some videos of prospective
children. He was more stunned yet when three videos arrived the next
day, by overnight express.

But the real stunner was still coming. It showed up in the Carter
mailbox on May 4, four months after the family had launched its
bid for a daughter.


* * *

"She's not starving, is she?" cracks Colin as Olga stands on an
examination table, showing off the rolls of baby fat around her thighs.

The video is 20 minutes long, and it allows Olga ample time to display
her cordial personality, her formidable motor skills and the
deep hue of her baby blues. Noreen and Colin have seen this show many
times, but they are locked in anyway, each grinning with
the unmistakable amusement and expectation of ... well, a parent.

"We loved it the minute we saw it," Noreen said. "She's really active.
She's very pretty. I have to say that, physically, she really
appealed to me. She's just the age that I wanted; some of those other
girls are little people already, but she still looks babyish. And
I like the fact that she doesn't have a language yet."

At the Carters' request, Tree of Life sent a copy of Olga's video to Dr.
Julia Bledsoe, a Seattle pediatrician who specializes in
scanning adoption videos for hints of serious medical problems. On a
frequent basis, Bledsoe has had to shatter the glee of adoptive
parents with some heartbreaking news.

But not this time. That bowlegged gait isn't rickets. Those motor skills
are indeed above average. Olga's social skills, including her
awareness of the camera, were all thumbs-up.

"I've got to tell you," Bledsoe said upon phoning the Carters, "this is
a great referral."

Noreen and Colin were overjoyed. On Mother's Day, their own mothers were treated to something special: a copy of Olga's video.
At her home in Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada, Colin's mom drove the
video around town and insisted that all of her family
members sit down to watch it.

Still, the Carters were strangely hesitant. Something about Ed and
Peri's experience, about their own rocky path to this moment,
made it difficult to take the plunge. Tree of Life was asking for $9,000
up front (WPA had opted for installments), but that wasn't
the problem.

The Carters slowly realized that they were looking for guarantees that
no one could give them. Guarantees that there wouldn't be a
paperwork screw-up, that Kazakhstan wouldn't shut down adoptions, that
Dakota would indeed be able to travel with them. A
guarantee that Olga would, in the end, wind up as part of their family.

For days, they weighed and contemplated. All the while, Olga's picture
stared back at them from the refrigerator door. Finally, on
May 17 - nearly two weeks after receiving Olga's video - they took a
deep breath, wrote out the check and mailed the contract.

If all goes well, their paperwork from the Immigration and
Naturalization Service will be back soon. Then a travel call will come.
The little girl on the fridge could be walking bowlegged through their
living room by August, before the fall semester begins.

"I'd say, yes, we're hugely relieved," Noreen said, days before the
couple signed the contract. "There's still some questions about
Tree of Life. But really, in the end, they're an agency. We've talked to
people who have used them. They do Kazakhstan. People
do come home with children. We found a child that we're extremely,
extremely interested in. I don't think we're going to continue
worrying about our relationship with the agency.

"I think we're going to dive in."

* * *

The Bee's Don Bosley can be reached at (916) 321-1101 or


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