Babies for Export
By Jill Smolowe;Ann Blackman/Washington, Massimo Calabresi/New York, Wendy Cole/Chicago, Scott Norvell/Atlanta, with bureau reports
At first glance, Stefan and Birgit Wilhelmi's story seems routine. A thirtysomething couple with an infertility problem, the Wilhelmis decided to adopt a child. Certified in 1992 as fit to be parents, they signed with a private Pennsylvania agency called the Option of Adoption. In January 1993 the agency called to say that a nine-month-old baby named Traymont was available. Ten days later, the Wilhelmis took the child home. No heart-searing dramas followed: Traymont's birth parents did not try to reclaim custody; previously unidentified relatives did not surface to contest the adoption. Encouraged by the ease of the process, the Wilhelmis decided to adopt a second child. Last February, 12-day-old Sally joined their family.
What's unusual about this tableau, however, is that the Wilhelmis are German. Home for this white couple and their American-born, black children is Flensburg, a city north of Hamburg and an ocean's divide from U.S. soil. Had the Wilhelmis been Americans from another U.S. state, they could not have removed the children from Pennsylvania without complying first with the terms of the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children. That means a review of their paperwork in both Pennsylvania and their home state, a process that typically takes up to two weeks. Instead the Wilhelmis had only to spend a day obtaining passports for the children.
Most Americans would probably be surprised to learn that children from the U.S. are being placed in foreign homes. According to the National Council for Adoption, between 1 million and 2 million U.S. families would like to adopt. That demand greatly outstrips the approximately 100,000 American infants and children who are available each year for public and private adoption. As a result, prospective parents must either wait on average 2 1/2 years or look abroad, where Americans adopt upwards of 7,000 children a year.
Yet at the same time, adoption experts estimate that 500 U.S. children -- most of them black or biracial -- are being placed in homes in Australia, Canada and Western Europe each year. The number could be even higher: because the U.S. has no exit-visa requirements, the Federal Government does not keep count. Moreover, while all 50 states have procedures for domestic adoptions, the Federal Government neither regulates foreigners' adoptions nor follows up to learn how the children are faring. Though a State Department official says there has been talk among his colleagues of erecting safeguards, as yet nothing has been done. Says Susan Freivalds, executive director of Adoptive Families of America, based in Minneapolis, Minnesota: "It's shameful that we don't know how many there are, much less who they're going to and under what circumstances they're being adopted."
The countries where the children end up may not know much more about the adoptions than the U.S. government. Britain's Department of Health, for instance, lists only one American adoption in the past year. Yet in 1992 the London Observer Magazine ran a cover story stating that "one of the most accessible places for intercountry adoption is, surprisingly, the United States." Craig Bluestein, a Pennsylvania attorney, says he has been receiving "a lot of England calls" lately. And while the Dutch government is aware of such adoptions, the Netherland's largest international adoption agency reports that there were "one or two cases about 10 years ago, but since then nothing." It took TIME just a single week to turn up six such adoptions that took place within the past four years.
While there is nothing illegal or insidious about these adoptions, some experts regard the phenomenon with a mix of incredulity and alarm. "It's bizarre," says Joe Kroll, executive director of the North American Council on Adoptable Children in St. Paul, Minnesota. "We have families of all races who want to adopt children. Why are we going to other countries?" There are two main reasons: some lawyers and agencies find it easier and less time consuming to place black and biracial babies overseas, and some birth parents actually want their infants placed abroad.
Steven Kirsh, a past president of the American Association of Adoption Attorneys who has placed seven biracial babies in homes overseas in the past four years, calculates that there are 80 U.S. families waiting for every available white infant, five for every biracial baby, less than one for every black infant. "It's difficult to find homes in this country for mixed-race infants," he says, "and especially difficult for black infants." His claim is echoed by adoption experts from Atlanta to Beverly Hills, who contend that the number of white couples adopting black children has shriveled since 1972, when the National Association of Black Social Workers denounced transracial adoption as "cultural genocide." These same agencies and lawyers also complain that there is a paucity of black adoptive families.
Others dispute any shortage of willing recipients among African Americans. "I have more families coming to my agency than I can possibly handle," says Zena Oglesby, executive director of the Institute for Black Parenting in Englewood, California. "In my 17 years in adoption, I've never seen a shortage of black families that want children. Never." What Oglesby says he does see is a shortage of families willing to pay adoption fees -- which range from $3,500 to $50,000 for a private adoption. "You're talking about a race of people who were brought here in slavery," he says. "Paying money for a child is akin to slavery." Instead of charging prospective parents a fee, Oglesby handles his expenses with donations from Hollywood entrepreneurs and the $3,000 that the government pays him for each foster child he places.
Even if there were enough families -- black or white -- who wanted to adopt black children, there would still be birth mothers who preferred overseas placement. Some want the child far enough away to avoid any future encounter, either with themselves or with abusive birth fathers who might try to claim custody. Still others are illegal aliens who quietly place their children abroad, fearing that a domestic adoption might draw the scrutiny of immigration officials. Then there are those like 19-year-old Ami of Indiana who thinks that the biracial baby she will bear in September will enjoy an easier life overseas. "Crime and racial tension are not as bad in other countries as they are here," says Ami, a former day-care worker. Ami, who is currently considering two couples, is leaning toward a biracial Dutch couple. "She'll be able to travel and learn and see different cultures," she says of her child.
No less than their counterparts in America, adoptive families in other countries have fought hard to add a child to their life. In Western Europe the pool of adoptable children is tiny because of the availability of abortion as an accepted form of family planning, as well as social-welfare benefits that enable single mothers to keep their babies. Canadian couples like Richard and Jennifer Lewis, who adopted three black American children, looked southward because the waiting time at home can be as long as 10 years.
Last year an Italian couple took home a girl born to Trish, 24, a single black woman who works two jobs to make ends meet. Trish says she chose the couple after Family Partners Worldwide, Inc., of Atlanta persuaded her that she would have a difficult time finding a black American couple. "I can only hope and pray that the parents will allow her access to the resources she needs to discover her true culture," Trish says of her child. Trish has instructed the agency to put her daughter in touch with her if she should come . looking 17 or so years from now. In anticipation of that day, Trish is thinking of learning Italian.