ADOPTING A BABY: One couple's journey for a child

Date: 2004-06-21

Courier News (Bridgewater, NJ)

Long road ahead to unite family
Thousands of dollars, heaps of paperwork separate couple from new baby.

This is the second of five parts.

By GREG MARANO
Staff Writer

Adopting the cat was easy.

The Maine coon showed up on Lea and David Williamson's doorstep five years ago. They fed her, they named her Scully and she never left.

"She recognized a couple of suckers and said, `I'm moving in,' " Lea said.

But adopting a baby isn't so simple.

Before bringing home the son they would adopt, Lea and David will have gone through an extensive background check, a home study, an adoption-information class, a barrage of forms, more than $32,000 in expenses and spent more than a month out of the country.

There were decisions to be made: Did they want an open adoption? Did they want to adopt a child from the United States or from overseas? Did they have a preference on the baby's sex? Race? Did they want to take on the added challenge of a baby with a disability or health problem?

These were all choices they'd have to make throughout the course of the adoption process.

But like any major undertaking, they had to start somewhere.

On the first day of National Adoption Awareness Month, Nov. 1, 2003, David and Lea went to an informational adoption meeting at Rutgers University, sponsored by Concerned Parents For Adoption, a nonprofit group formed by adoptive parents to help educate others who are considering adoption. They had learned about the meeting after attending another in Trenton a week earlier, hosted by the Children's Home Society.

People they met at the Rutgers session included adoption agents, families who had adopted and pediatricians who specialize in working with adopted children.

It's also where they met Marlene Seamans-Conn, the New Jersey administrator for Families Thru International Adoption, a nonprofit adoption agency based in Evansville, Ind.

"We really liked Marlene," Lea said, "and there was another agency we liked as well."

There were a number of things they liked about Families Thru International Adoption, Lea said. For one, it was already accredited to operate in Russia, whereas the other one - Reaching Out - was only in the process of getting accredited.

"I just had such a good feeling about Marlene," Lea said. "I found her to be very personable, very upfront. They didn't really sugar-coat anything.

"Dave and I both felt they weren't trying to tell us things that they thought we wanted to hear."

David also said they did not want an open adoption, where the birth mother maintains contact with the family as the child grows up.

"With an open adoption, the birth mother or the birth parents can stipulate the amount of involvement that they want to have in their child's life," Lea said. "I felt like you'd almost be like a caretaker versus you would be the parent."

Lea also said they didn't want to risk the birth mother changing her mind and deciding she wanted the baby back.

And because most domestic adoptions are open, international adoption became even more ideal.

But what sent Lea and David halfway around the world for a baby was time.

"We did not want to spend another three to five years trying to finalize this," David said.

For American couples such as the Williamsons, the desire to bring a baby home in less time is one of the biggest reasons to look across an ocean for a child.

"The main reason why it takes so long in America is because of supply and demand," said Lee Allen, director of communications of the National Council for Adoption and the adoptive father of two boys from Russia. "The demand for infants - healthy infants in America - far exceeds the supply. So when a couple ... want to adopt an infant, many times the path of least resistance is internationally."

For international adoptions, the wait varies depending on country. Parents adopting children from China, Vietnam and Guatemala may be forced to wait a year after sending their dossier - a collection of various applications and documents - before they get a referral for a child.

For Russian children, the referral typically comes two to four months after the agency receives the dossier.

"That pushed us toward Eastern Europe," David said.

Adoption agents suggested to David and Lea that when deciding where to adopt a baby from, they consider culture and history of a country and decide which country they could best teach the child about.

That steered David and Lea away from small Eastern European countries such as Estonia or Latvia, of which they knew little.

Little by little, their thoughts were turning toward Russia.

"I think that really sealed it for me," Lea said. "Everybody knows about the czars and Anastasia and the Faberge eggs."

American parents don't need to go halfway around the world to find a baby to adopt; there are plenty of them within U.S. borders.

In 2002, the U.S. State Department issued 20,099 visas to children adopted from other countries - less than half the number of children adopted from foster care.

"The largest need is for children in foster care," Allen said. "Maybe even children that are older, maybe children with special needs, maybe children that are disabled, maybe children that have been removed from unsafe conditions - children with some baggage."

Though the goal is to reunite children with their original families when possible, many are placed for adoption. Of the 532,000 children in foster care in 2002, 129,000 were available for adoption, and 53,000 were actually adopted, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families.

Nationwide, 45 percent, or 246,084 children, stay in foster care for more than two years, including 17 percent, or 91,828 children, who stay in foster care for more than five years. Those who are not adopted by the time they are 18 will age out of the system.

If time is one major reason parents often look internationally, race is the other. Allen said the most common adoption scenario is a white couple looking for a healthy white baby.

"They go out and look for somebody who looks like them," Allen said. "They look for somebody who looks like who they would produce naturally if they could."

In 2000, black children represented the largest group of children in foster care, at 41 percent; white children were next, at 40 percent, followed by Hispanic children at 15 percent, according to a report released last month by the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care.

"It becomes a personal issue. Decisions are based on what those individuals and couples need and desire," Allen said.

For a growing number of adoptive parents, those needs and desires bring them across an ocean.

"It's (adopting internationally) just become much more accepted, much more commonplace, and something that a lot of people have taken advantage (of)," Allen said.

In China, a country where boys are valued over girls and the government allows each couple to have only one child, the overwhelming majority of babies available in China are girls. Most mothers leave notes with the babies but don't identify themselves, for fear of prosecution for abandoning a child.

In Russia, an estimated 600,000 babies are in orphanages, ready to be adopted, the vast majority driven there by economics.

"Children are being born to families who simply cannot afford additional children, pure and simple," Allen said. "A child is an economic burden that can't be absorbed."

And in Russia, boys are the ones who are valued less, given up for adoption far more often.

"In Russian culture, it's believed that a little girl is easier to raise, less expensive to raise, less trouble. Therefore, fewer of them are placed for adoption," Allen said. "They think little boys are trouble, they're harder to raise, they require more attention, they require more parental involvement."

Allen said the waiting period for boys is shorter - there are also more of them, and they tend to be very healthy.

"It's really hard to explain, and it's a phenomenon," Allen said. "It's strange, but it is what it is."

Because so many children being adopted from China are abandoned, adoptive parents usually know nothing about their baby's birth mother. In Russia, adoptive parents learn about where their baby came from, who thebirth mother is, where the mother came from and what circumstances led her to place the baby for adoption.

Though parents adopting from Russia may have the benefit of knowing the birth mother's medical history, no parent can fully know what it will mean for the child's future.

Before David and Lea could be approved for a baby, there was paperwork.

Lots of paperwork.

"It was very daunting at first," David said of the list of forms he and Lea needed to complete. "Some of it was very clear what to do; some of it wasn't."

Lea and David would have to submit a dossier - a collection of 22 documents, detail required, before they could get a referral for a child.

Seamans-Conn said most families complete the dossier in about three months, but for others, it can take anywhere from two months to a year.

"We dove right into it and by Christmas had a majority of our documents," David said.

They needed photos: pictures of the house, the kitchen, the back yard, the living room, the baby's room.

They needed a letter from their doctors, confirming that they were both in good health. These letters had to be on the doctors' official stationery, which Lea's doctor didn't have, so he had to create a letterhead on the computer just for them.

Lea went to the Bridgewater tax office to get a letter confirming home ownership and said it took some time for the office to figure out exactly how to provide such a letter.

"It's probably not something they do all the time," Lea said.

Once those documents were taken care of, David and Lea still had to face the most intimidating part of the dossier preparation process: the home study.

"We just didn't really know what to expect," David said.

David and Lea's home study took place on Dec. 22, when a social worker came to the house to meet them and inspect the house. She took a walk through the house to see the baby's room and the overall atmosphere of the house, but spent most of the time talking to David and Lea, asking questions about them, their pasts, why they wanted to adopt.

"She had specific questions about our backgrounds, how we were disciplined," David said.

Seamans-Conn said a home study reads like a book.

"The home study really is the story of you," Seamans-Conn said. "When you see a completed home study, it really does read like a story."

Parents are told what to expect from the home study in a guide from Families Thru International Adoption.

"The home study is not to see if you are good enough to adopt, it is to ensure that you are prepared to adopt, that you have proper accommodations and financial arrangements to care for a child," the guide reads. "Naturally, part of the home study will be a background check, including a criminal history check, for which you can certainly understand the need in today's society."

Last month, a jury convicted Robert and Brenda Matthey of Union Township of endangering the welfare of Viktor, the 7-year-old son they adopted from Russia who died in October 2000 from cardiac arrest brought on by hypothermia. The jury could not reach a verdict on charges of aggravated and reckless manslaughter.

At the end of the home study, when the social worker gave her approval, David and Lea had to fill out yet more forms.

"This was really reminiscent on closing of our house," Lea said of the number of documents they had to sign.

When all the documents were finally compiled, they weighed 4 pounds, and shipping them overnight to Families Thru International Adoption headquarters in Indiana cost $47.

"There's nothing cheap about adoption," David said.

David and Lea were having their visa photos taken Feb. 6 when Lea called Seamans-Conn. All she was looking for from the agent was an answer to a simple question about the photos they needed, but instead learned something much more exciting: Seamans-Conn had been trying to contact them to let them know they should start making travel arrangements.

There was a baby for them to meet.

"We weren't expecting one so soon," Lea said. "It was happy, but we were still in a state of shock."

It had already been a busy day. They started the morning at the federal building in Newark, where they had to get their fingerprints taken as part of the criminal background check. Then they had lunch at Applebee's and went to Home Depot in the Bridgewater Promenade for closet shelves for the baby's room.

On the way there, they heard the news about a bomb that tore through a Moscow subway train earlier that day, killing 40 people.

"Oh, lovely," Lea said to herself, making a mental note not to take any trains while in Russia.

But that slipped her mind after the news from Seamans-Conn.

"I didn't think about it too much after I heard the news about the referral," Lea said. She said they were "burning up the phone lines," calling family members with the news of their referral.

Not that there were a lot of details to tell them. All Dave and Lea were told was that he was a baby boy in excellent health.

But it wasn't that simple, as they would soon learn.

Greg Marano can be reached at (908) 707-3148 or gmarano@c-n.com.

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