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The parent trap - International adoption becomes more complicated


Star-Ledger, The (Newark, NJ)


As the plane descended to Newark Liberty International Airport, Mary English breathed a sigh of relief. She and her new daughter, 13-month-old Jasmin, were safely back home after a successful adoption in Guatemala. Next year sometime, Kim Trojak hopes to be flying to China to bring home a baby girl whose identity she has yet to find out.

The two New Jersey women count themselves fortunate: New and potential changes in adoption programs in the two countries, which now supply most of the children adopted overseas by Americans, will soon close the the door to thousands of other prospective parents.

"There's been many, many sleepless nights," said English, of Sayreville, who plans to rename the baby Grace Jasmin English. She brought her daughter home on April 28. "But she's wonderful."

At the same time as celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Madonna seem to swoop into a country and leave with a child - not a true picture, adoption advocates insist - parents like English seeking to adopt abroad experience a roller coaster of emotional ups and downs as countries change their rules, close their systems or reopen them.

"The only thing that's consistent is the inconsistency," said Marie Shukaitis, executive director of Home Studies and Adoption Placement Services in Teaneck.

The changes in China and Guatemala have created the most concern because in 2006 they ranked No. 1 and 2 in the number of children adopted by Americans: 6,493 visas to Chinese orphans, 4,315 children from Guatemala.

Adoption officials said the changes are typical of the adoption landscape, in which standards of living, politics, cultural and ethical concerns play a role.

As of May 1, China prohibits adoption to singles, those over 50, obese, in bad health or who have ever been treated for depression or anxiety. China has been a major destination of singles and same-sex couples seeking to adopt.

Two months ago, the U.S. State Department began advising citizens to avoid Guatemalan adoptions because of allegations of fraud and extortion by private lawyers, cases of tricking women into giving up babies for adoption, and evidence of smuggling babies into the U.S. Some experts fear the country will close its adoption programs until reforms take place, as has occurred elsewhere.

In the meantime, agencies and prospective parents are now looking at countries in Africa, as well as Vietnam and Ukraine, which both recently reopened their programs after reforms. Ukraine's new rules will also bar single foreigners from adopting.

The changes in China reflect several trends, according to Carole Stiles, vice president of programs and services for Holt International Children's Services, one of the largest and oldest overseas adoption agencies in the United States.

First is simple supply and demand: Even with its one-child-per-family policy that has caused parents to abandon thousands of baby girls each year, the applicants far outstrip the number of children available, she said.

China is also becoming "much more sophisticated," creating a foster care system and encouraging domestic adoption, she said.

It's a similar situation to what Korea went through earlier. Korea, the No. 1 country for international adoptions in 1990, focused on domestic adoptions as its standard of living rose. By 2006, the number of children adopted from Korea had fallen by half.

Adoptions from Russia, which is now the No. 3 destination for adoptive parents, are also declining as the country tries to place children domestically.

Another reason some countries are clamping down on adoptions is publicity about adoptive families who abuse or even kill a child, such as the case of Russian-born Viktor Matthey, who died in 2000 in Hunterdon County. The boy's adoptive parents, Robert and Brenda Matthey, have been convicted of manslaughter. They will be sentenced tomorrow in Flemington.

Sensitive to changes, Holt notified its single clients, including Trojak, of the expected restrictions before they were announced. The nurse-anesthesiologist from Marlton, who already has a 2-year-old daughter from China, got her dossier together. Because she is in the pipeline, her adoption is expected to be completed next spring.

Still, the 45-year-old said it's an anxiety-provoking experience and she's sorry for others who will be shut out.

"I feel so sad for other people in my circumstances," she said. "But this is the way of the world."

Despite the changes, Stiles said China is still one of the best countries to adopt from because of its regulated, "transparent" process, and because the children are abandoned or orphaned, not legally relinquished by parents.

In contrast, Guatemala has been rocked by scandals in which notaries, or private attorneys, who do much of the work carried out by government agencies elsewhere, are accused of fraud and profiteering.

The U.S. "does not believe that the notaries, given these multiple roles, can truly act objectively and in the best interests of the various parties," according to the State Department.


n February, U.S. officials arrested an American adoption facilitator, Mary Bonn, and charged her with bringing a Guatemalan baby into the country illegally.

Bonn's attorney said she took the child after the adoptive parents hesitated to bring her home and she feared the child would end up in a poor orphanage.

Despite alleged irregularities, adoptive parents worry that closing the program down would prevent many babies and young children living in dire poverty from a better life in the United States.

After similar scandal rocked the program in Paraguay, adoptions there were suspended, and the system is still closed. Cambodia, also responding to concerns about its practices, also closed down - just after Jolie adopted her first child, Maddox, from that country.

"I think there's some validity to the statements they're making, but as an adoptive father with two children who knows his children's birth mother, I do not believe it's of epic proportions," said Kevin Kreutner, who writes a column for the Web site Guadadopt.com.

Some agencies, like Holt, only accept children who have been abandoned, to avoid any semblance of irregularity.

English, a 42-year-old single assistant director of a child care center, is confident her adoption is above-board. She used Adoptions from the Heart, which is licensed in the state and has an office in Hazlet, and said her adoptive daughter was in foster care. A required DNA test confirmed her identity as a child legally given up by the birth parent, she said.

Adoption advocates believe that many of the discrepancies and irregularities among various countries will be resolved somewhat by widespread enactment of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, an international agreement that sets standards for international adoption and requires participating agencies to be accredited.

The U.S. is expected to ratify the convention at the end of this year, according to the State Department, and American agencies are just beginning to seek accreditation. Once Congress ratifies the agreement, the U.S. can no longer recognize adoptions from Guatemala, since that country has yet to ratify the agreement, according to convention rules.

But it may open up adoption programs in countries that excluded the U.S. for its failure to fully implement the agreement until now, including Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela and Costa Rica.

For now, adoption advocates expect the ebb and flow to continue, along with sometimes harrowing experiences for adoptive parents.

"I think the roller coaster will continue as it is," said Tom DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children's Services.

To some extent, that's as it should be, he said.

"Intercountry adoption should not be an easy, smooth process. You're creating a family, and I don't think anyone would say there aren't risks involved, just like with a pregnancy," he said. "The approach needs to be about finding families for children. It's not like you're shopping and when Target runs out of the product you run over to Wal-Mart."

2007 May 9