'It's ... an emotional roller coaster'

Date: 1987-06-28

St. Petersburg Times

Problems are delaying families' adoptions

Author: DIANE STEINLE
Dateline: PALM HARBOR

PALM HARBOR - When her telephone rings, Lisa Brown listens expectantly for the crackle of long-distance static on the line.

She races to answer a knock at the door, hoping it will be a Federal Express courier with news from far away.

Every day, with empty arms and aching heart, she gazes at a photograph of a brown-skinned, dark-eyed baby girl perched on the arm of a stranger.

Mrs. Brown and her husband Scott, both 28, call the baby girl Katrina Johanna Brown. They think of her as their daughter.

But they never have held her or heard her cry. They don't know how many teeth she has or if she is walking now or if she is afraid of the dark. They have seen her only in pictures.

And Katrina doesn't know the Browns. Nine-month-old Katrina knows only the people who care for her in the tiny country of El Salvador, on the Pacific coast of Central America.

Last summer, when the Browns decided to adopt a baby girl from El Salvador, they thought only of the joy of having a daughter. But there has been a greater measure of heartache in their experience so far.

The adoption agency told them they would have to wait about three months for a girl, Mrs. Brown said. But it wasn't until November that the agency sent photographs of baby Katrina - she is known as Johanna in El Salvador - and the news that she was the baby chosen for them.

They expected to have her by January.

They are still waiting. A major earthquake, political upheaval, guerrilla warfare, the language barrier, broken promises and countless other problems have stood in the way and frustrated the Browns. Next month it will be a year since they began the adoption process, and they still don't have their daughter.

Mrs. Brown became so upset about the delays that her doctor prescribed medication to help her cope, she said. The Browns' son, Jason, 6, waited every day for his baby sister to arrive. Then he began crying at night. The Browns bought him a dog.

Debbie and Pat Carlisle of Clearwater understand the Browns' torment. They, too, have been waiting for months for a baby girl from El Salvador.

''It's been an emotional roller coaster and at times I've wondered whether I should be going through this,'' said Mrs. Carlisle, 35. ''But I want a daughter. And I'm in love with that little girl.''

After their third son was born four years ago, the Carlisles chose not to have any more children. But Mrs. Carlisle wanted a daughter so badly that they decided to adopt.

Like the Browns, the Carlisles chose an El Salvador adoption because they were told by their adoption agency that it was the fastest way to get a female child and that many children in El Salvador need homes.

Massive amounts of paperwork had to be completed to meet El Salvador's requirements. Both families underwent fingerprinting, FBI checks, psychological analyses, financial studies, complete medical examinations and a home inspection. Every piece of paper had to be notarized, then funneled through Tallahassee, the adoption agency, the El Salvadoran Consulate and an attorney in El Salvador who works for the adoption agency.

Nothing went smoothly. There were power outages and transportation strikes in El Salvador. There was a devastating earthquake last Oct. 10 that halted everything for weeks.

And no one in El Salvador hurried or seemed concerned about the plight of two families in Florida. After frequent telephone calls, Mrs. Brown discovered that a power of attorney required for the adoption to proceed had been buried on an official's desk for three months.

''You go through the crying and the screaming and the stomping of your feet, 'I want my baby now!''' Mrs. Brown said.

There were frequent promises that the babies would arrive next week or next month, according to Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Carlisle. Both families prepared for the babies' arrivals. They added on to their homes, they redecorated, they bought baby clothes. Last December Mrs. Brown quit her job as a preschool teacher so she could stay at home with the baby she thought would arrive in January.

But the deadlines passed. They exchanged the baby clothes for larger sizes, stopped redecorating and closed the nursery door. The Carlisles avoided talking about the baby at home. Frequent inquiries from well-meaning friends became embarrassing to both families.

''I told my neighbors I'll put a pink ribbon on the mailbox when she comes,'' Mrs. Brown said. ''Until then, don't ask.''

The problems encountered by the Carlisles and Browns are not uncommon in Latin American adoptions, said Catalina Christian, Latin America coordinator for the Children's Services International of Atlanta, which is handling both couples' adoptions.

Latin Americans are not comfortable with the idea of adoption, she said, and the wheels of the government bureaucracy grind slowly. Government workers there don't say, ''Come back tomorrow.'' They say, ''Come back next week,'' she said.

Since the October earthquake, government agencies have operated out of metal shacks. There are no computers. Everything must be recorded by hand, and record-keeping ''is terrible,'' she said. When the buses don't run, people just don't go to work.

Also, both El Salvador and the United States have set up elaborate requirements to guard against black-market adoptions, so the paperwork is complicated.

''What can we do?'' Ms. Christian said. ''If we bother them too much, it is worse.''

Even after the Browns and Carlisles got pictures of their babies and began thinking of them as part of the family, they were unable to get more information about the children. Mrs. Brown's persistent digging for details resulted in only two pieces of information: Katrina's birth weight, and the fact that she likes having a bath.

The Carlisles learned about their baby when an interpreter called April 5. The caller said a baby girl had just been born, and asked what name should be given to it. The Carlisles chose Caitlin Rebecca. But since the first pictures of Caitlin Rebecca arrived, there has been no information. Mrs. Carlisle can't find out the baby's weight, who is caring for her, or where she is living in El Salvador.

''You're dealing with human lives, and they treat you like you are calling for a stock report,'' Mrs. Carlisle said.

Recently the Browns were told that their adoption of Katrina Johanna was final, and that someone in El Salvador would bring the baby to Miami. But they weren't given a date.

They can't help hoping that this time, it will happen. All they want is to welcome their daughter home.

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