Date: 1998-02-01

Washington Post
Author: Jennifer Ordonez; Washington Post Staff Writer

Sabell Nevrie Carstens gives her parents not a moment's rest.

It isn't her fault. The pretty child with probing eyes is healthy, eats heartily, sleeps soundly through the night and doesn't fuss much during the day.

Still, Eric and Sue Carstens are always watching. None of Sabell's movements go unnoticed, no expressions unanalyzed. Like all new parents, they wonder who their child will become. But having missed the first two years of her life, they are faced with another question: Who is she now?

On Dec. 21, they traveled 5,000 miles from their home in Markham -- on a total of six airplanes -- and became parents. They adopted Sabell from the crowded government orphanage in Dobrich, Bulgaria, where she spent her days in a crib. Each day, the Carstenses look for signs that they are making up for lost time.

Sabell meanders over to a camera lying on the floor of her new, toy-lined room. "Maybe she'll be a photographer!" announces Sue, 39, a graphic designer who works at home.

Sabell sways in time to the country music her father plays on his guitar. "Maybe she's going to be a drummer!" exclaims Eric, 41, who runs a remodeling business.

Intellectually, they know it is too soon for answers. Right now, they yearn only for intimacy with this child who was a stranger six weeks ago. "She's still not too concerned about people around her," Eric said, "but she is coming around with us. She's still partially in her own little world."

The Carstenses moved to Fauquier County from Sterling soon after they married 12 years ago because they wanted open space and a place for Sue's horses. They bought five acres of mountainside land, and Eric built a house he designed himself. They each had their own business. Life was almost good.

"You know, we had all of these animals to fill the void of not having a child -- horses, birds, dogs, cats. But when it's all said and done, a part of you is still missing," Eric said.

They tried to conceive. They tried to adopt in the United States. Meanwhile, Sue began browsing international adoption sites on the Internet. Last February, a year into her search, an agency she had found online sent her Sabell's picture.

Sue thought the little girl looked lonely, lost and adorable. The agency knew almost nothing about her, except that she was born two months premature, was given up for adoption soon after birth and suffered from recurring respiratory problems and ear infections.

Because of her Turkish heritage, advancing age and diminutive size -- she weighed less than 17 pounds when they brought her home, about half the normal weight -- Sabell was unlikely to be placed with a Bulgarian family, said Debbie Price, director of Utah-based Children's House International, the 23-year-old private nonprofit agency that handled the adoption.

Sue had a long talk with Eric and notified the agency that they were interested. "At that point, I wasn't even thinking about any other kids," she said.

A battery of medical tests, including a CAT scan, was done, turning up no hidden ailments. According to doctor's reports, Sabell -- who celebrated her second birthday with her new parents on New Year's Eve -- is at least a year behind most children her age. She responds to her name but hardly speaks. She rarely makes eye contact or focuses on anything for more than a few seconds.

But her parents' initial concerns that the impairments might be permanent diminish each day. "Every day, she learns something new," Eric said, beaming. "Every time she does something -- like last week when she stood up -- I'm like, Sue! Come over here!' . . . At first she would space out a lot, but she's already making eye contact with us. When I come home from work now, she'll smile at me."

Other things, like Sabell's preoccupation with her hands, are still a guessing game. "Babies, if they are not given toys, end up playing with their hands mostly. They may have been like little friends to her," he speculated.

They think Sabell's tendency to hold her left arm over her eyes when she is lying down might have been her way of shielding her eyes from harsh overhead lights at the orphanage. She sometimes cries when she is picked up, and they wonder if she's afraid of being taken away from these two new people. At first, she wasn't a big fan of baths.

In Bulgaria "they probably used cold water," Sue said.

The Carstenses were told that the orphanage often placed mirrors in babies' cribs for entertainment -- and Sabell is consumed with her own image. She is drawn to anything shiny -- the lacquer finish of Eric's guitar or even a polished kitchen knob -- in which she can see her reflection. She is fascinated by her shadow. On the adoption agency's advice, mirrors are kept out of Sabell's room so that she will learn to turn her attention outward.

"Sometimes she does things and we're like, Is that typical?' We don't know," Sue said.

But Sabell's delayed development gave them unexpected gifts. In the month they've been a family, Sue and Eric have seen Sabell take her first steps, utter her first word ("da-da"), wear her first pair of shoes, feed herself solid food for the first time and give her first kiss.

"I'll never forget it. Boop-bud-a-boop-bud-a-boop. When I sang that, that's the first time I made her laugh -- it works every time," Eric said, holding the giggling toddler in his arms.

This is their reward after reams of paperwork, miles of legal red tape and long waits typical of such adoptions.

"Foreign adoption is work, and I always tell people, Don't expect a child any sooner than it would take to make one yourselves,' " Price said. "You have to go through our {country's} system, and you have to go through theirs. There are cultural differences to deal with. Immigration can lose fingerprints or documents. Sometimes the embassies never receive petitions, and you've got the child, but you can't get out of the country."

Despite the obstacles and the hefty cost of adopting internationally -- $11,000 to $20,000, depending on the country -- it is becoming more popular, Price said.

"People have been through the infertility process, and they're completely wiped out financially and emotionally, and they want something that is guaranteed," Price said. "Domestically, there is a huge waiting list, and a lot of times here, parents are afraid that the birth mother will come back and change their mind."

In 1997, 13,620 foreign children were adopted in the United States, an increase of more than 20 percent from 1996, according to the State Department. With thousands of adoption Web sites, Price said the Internet is increasingly responsible for the boom.

"We have had our site for a year, and so far we've placed 100 children, double the year before," Price said.

Sue Carstens said she can't count the hours she spent on the Internet, looking through Web sites or chatting with other prospective parents. Being able to communicate across the country and overseas via e-mail helped keep costs down, she said.

"It cost us about $20,000 total," Eric said. "We just put it on our credit card and did some creative financing with balance transfers. . . . That's how a lot of people do it."

During a layover in New York on their way to Bulgaria, the Carstenses were met by a woman Sue had met on the Internet. She had recently adopted a child from Russia and came to cheer them on. Neither Eric nor Sue had been out of the country or were quite sure exactly what they should do once their daughter was in their hands.

Like typical rookie parents, however, they bought a video camera for their first family trip.

The tape shows a sterile, colorless room where Sue fidgets nervously while she waits to see her daughter for the first time. Both parents overflow with nervous laughter and tears when she is handed to them. Someday, they hope, Sabell will treasure that scene.

"It was like being reborn," Eric said. "The first night we had her, she slept right between us. We were so exhausted, but I woke up about 12 a.m., and I started touching her head, and it lasted until 3 a.m."

Before she arrived, conversation at the Carstens house was about work, the horses, daily schedules. Twelve years of marriage, Eric said, had bred quiet comfort. But when they realized that Sabell was on her way, when they began buying baby clothes and decorating her room with tiles Sue made by hand, things began to change.

"Sometimes you lack in ambition," Eric said. "But I know right now that I just have that feeling to go all out for her." Their conversation now is all about possibilities.

"Look!" exclaims Sue, as Sabell picks up a small doll and puts her lips to its cheek. "She likes kissing babies. Maybe she'll be president."

Sabell Carstens, who turned 2 years old on New Year's Eve,gets a hand with walking from her new father, Eric Carstens, who traveled to Bulgaria late last year with his wife, Sue, to adopt the girl from a government orphanage.
The Carstenses -- Eric, Sue and Jasper, the Siamese cat -- help put Sabell to bed. While Sue, top, and Eric, bottom, are fascinated by their new daughter, 2-year-old Sabell is fascinated by her own reflection. The Bulgarian orphanage often placed mirrors in babies' cribs for entertainment, and Sabell is drawn to anything shiny, such as the lacquer finish of Eric's guitar. Sabell's ability to walk, above, was stunted by spending so much of her first years lying in a crib, and Bulgarian officials were not optimistic of her adoptability because she weighed much less than other children her age. But, the Carstenses were taken by the photo they received of the girl, left, among several items the couple have saved: Sabell's birth certificate, a bookmark and an in-flight map. Eric, below, checks his daughter's weight


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