exposing the dark side of adoption
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Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)

Author: Inga Saffron, Inquirer Staff Writer

Motherhood didn't come easy for Joanne Nichols. The process took more than two years, required a trip to the overcrowded slums of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and nearly exhausted her savings.

In 1985, the single woman from Northeast Philadelphia adopted a 2 1/2-year- old Honduran girl with thick, black hair, a pointy chin and an uncertain past. Nichols found her daughter, Kendy, languishing in a dirty city orphanage. Kept in a crib and covered with flies, she was so underdeveloped that she could not walk, talk or roll over, said Nichols.

Like the growing legions of Americans who leave the country each year to adopt foreign children, Nichols found that becoming a parent was a lengthy, anguishing and costly experience.

She spent nine weeks in Honduras dueling with the country's adoption bureaucracy, the last five waiting for a perfunctory signature from the president's wife. As the days dragged, Nichols began to despair that Kendy might die before she legally became her daughter. A Honduran doctor was unable to bring down her fever. While changing a diaper one day, Nichols extracted a 10-inch worm from her rectum.

"I wanted kids," said Nichols, 34, a computer science professor. "But I was very naive about it. I thought I could walk into an agency and find a child who would say, 'Here I am. Take me.' And that would be it."


The number of foreign-born children adopted in the United States last year passed 10,000 - one-fifth of all the children adopted in this country. For most of the two million Americans seeking to adopt, the Third World now offers the only chance of having a family. A trip abroad has become a rite of passage into parenthood; the kind of ordeal Nichols endured is becoming more and more common.

The number of U.S. adoptions of foreign-born children doubled in the last five years for simple reasons: Legalized abortion and a greater tolerance for unwed mothers drastically reduced the supply of unwanted American babies.

"It's mostly because of - to speak crassly - supply and demand," said Jeffrey Rosenberg, a spokesman for the National Committee for Adoption. "A foreign adoption is no more expensive and often faster than adopting domestically."

It can take five to 10 years to complete a domestic adoption for those people lucky enough to qualify. Sheila Cosminsky, 47, and her husband, Herb Ershkowitz, 50, of Haddonfield, said they were unable to find an agency that would consider them for parenthood two years ago because of their ages. Agencies handling domestic adoptions automatically refuse couples over 40.

Once the couple decided to leave the country to adopt, they were able to wrap up the adoption of their daughter, Anna, from Peru in a little more than a year. The cost typically ranges from $4,000 for a straightforward Korean adoption to $15,000 for the most complicated Latin American adoption.

But adopting a foreign-born child can have its drawbacks: malnourished or sickly children, decrepit orphanages, unscrupulous lawyers, corrupt bureaucrats and long, unexplained delays.

Adoptive parents say the rules seem to change overnight. Gayle Wiggins of Yardley recalled that on the day she and her husband left Bolivia in 1986 with their infant daughter, Nicole, they were stopped at the airport by armed guards who announced that they had to pay a $200 exit tax.

It was not a lot of money, given they had already spent $10,000 on the adoption, but the request angered Wiggins more than any other fee. "Our papers were legal. We had our exit visa and still we had to pay money to leave the country," she said.

By the time parents embark on an adoption, they have usually endured years of stress and disappointment trying to have a child, said

Hannah Wallace

, administrative director of

Adoptions International

in Philadelphia, one of dozens of agencies around the country that specialize in arranging foreign adoptions. "They're going to be pretty frazzled," she said.

Rosemary and Bob Hughes of Swarthmore, now parents of two Korean girls, said their fertility doctor "kept saying, 'Just wait, you'll have kids.' "

She and her husband were still making the rounds to specialists when Catholic Social Services announced in 1981 that their application for a Korean child had been approved and that a 5-year-old girl was on her way to the United States.

Originally established to deal with the huge number of Korean War orphans, South Korea's adoption agencies operate with corporate efficiency. In 1986, they sent more than 6,100 children to the United States.

As a region, Latin America was second, with 1,520; more than a third came from Colombia, and another third were born in either Chile, Guatemala or Honduras. The Philippines sent 634, and India, 588, according to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Although South Korea imposes weight and age limits on prospective parents, those who qualify are guaranteed a relatively trouble-free adoption, with babies delivered to the United States, directly into their arms. The Philippines and India also deliver the children to the United States, but the process is slower.

In contrast, every Latin American country except El Salvador requires parents to appear in person. Most agree that these adoptions are the most grueling, requiring parents to spend weeks or months abroad.


Almost as soon as Joanne Nichols returned from Honduras to her three- bedroom townhouse in the Northeast, where she also cares for a Vietnamese foster child, Thihoang Yen Nguyen, she started making plans to find Kendy a sister. She called

Diana Zimnoch

, who worked at

Adoptions International

, a Philadelphia agency that had helped in her adoption of Kendy.

"Anywhere but Honduras," Nichols said.

For several years, Zimnoch tried to help Nichols adopt a child who had spent its life in a Brazilian orphanage. The adoption had become tangled in red tape, because the mother never relinquished her parental rights.

While giving Nichols an update one day in 1986, Zimnoch casually mentioned a toddler in Honduras who needed a home.

Nichols' mind said no, but her heart said yes.

Her name was Jessica. She was 2 years old and similar in appearance to Kendy, Zimnoch said. She was also malnourished and withdrawn.

A few months later, she and Kendy - now a plump, lively child whose only remaining health problem was a minor speech defect - boarded a plane for Honduras, telling herself that this trip could be no worse than the last one. Indeed, the adoption progressed briskly. Jessica was allowed to stay with Nichols and Kendy at their hotel. Within days, the shy child seemed to come out of her shell.

A week later, Nichols' attorney,

Maria Victoria Navarrette

, was arrested for kidnapping another child, Nichols said. Desperate to make bail, Navarrette pressured her for the $3,000 fee, she said.

Nichols felt torn. She believed that politics was the real reason that Navarrette was in jail. She was reluctant to hire a new attorney midway through the adoption.

Figuring it was only a matter of time before Navarrette bought her way out of jail, Nichols decided to pay her fee. The Honduran Welfare Department retaliated by moving Jessica to a foster home and refusing to allow Nichols to adopt her, she said.

Before catching a flight back to Philadelphia, Nichols stopped to say goodbye to Jessica. In just a few days, it seemed, the child had turned away from her.

Back in Philadelphia, she could do little else but worry about Jessica.

Six months after Nichols left the girl behind in a Honduran foster home, the off-again, on-again adoption was on again. She learned from the adoption agency that her attorney had been released from jail, never charged with a crime.

Nichols flew back to Honduras, this time with Zimnoch, who speaks fluent Spanish. Nichols let it be known that "I will pay whomever I need to pay to get my child out of the country."

The paper work flew, and in time for Christmas, Kendy was curling up in bed with her new sister, Jessica.


The poor and destitute of Latin America - where birth control and abortion are either illegal or unaffordable - have become a major source of children for infertile, white American couples.

War, famine, rapid industrialization and development of the jungles have all contributed to the soaring number of homeless children in the region, according to Marilyn Rocky, North American director of Childhope, a nonprofit agency that works with homeless children in Latin America.

Thousands of rural poor have fled their villages for squalid, urban shantytowns. With the upheaval has come a weakening of the family, with many single mothers supporting their families as domestics, factory workers or prostitutes.

In places such as Guatemala, said Rocky, nearly 60 percent of the children are born to unmarried women. She estimates that there are 40 million to 50 million homeless children in Latin America.

Throughout most of the region, mothers must appear in court to relinquish their babies for adoption. But in places such as Honduras, Colombia or Paraguay, poor women rarely bother with such formalities, said Zimnoch, who now runs the

Adoption Alliance

, an agency specializing in foreign adoptions, from her home in Warrington.

New mothers commonly slip out of the hospital hours after birth, leaving their babies behind and hoping for the best, she said.

These women often have little other choice, said Zimnoch, who was raised in Venezuela. The employers of those who work as live-in domestics might tolerate one or two children. Another child means choosing between job and baby.

But giving up a child is rarely an easy decision. Some mothers place their children in orphanages but never formally abrogate their parental rights, unwilling to take the final step that would send the child out of the country forever.


Marie Spinelli has been able to learn more than most other adoptive parents about the circumstances of her child's birth. The Wallingford resident and her husband flew to Honduras four years ago to adopt their daughter Marisa.

During the weeks they spent shuttling between various government offices, the courts, social workers and the country's one government psychologist, Spinelli, 38, became friendly with a woman who knew Marisa's mother.

She was unusually tall - 5-foot-8 - and slender, much different from the typical Honduran's stocky build. She lived in a poor, mountain village, about 40 miles from the nearest city. The woman gave birth to her first child at home. But after the delivery, the pain became more intense, and the next day, she boarded a bus for the city hospital. She delivered a second child along the way. At the hospital, she gave birth to a third.

The doctor suggested that the woman give up two of the infants for adoption. The woman refused. She wanted to keep her babies. The doctors tried to convince her that "a multiple birth is a death sentence in Honduras," Spinelli said. "The mother tries to nurse them all and can't. Either they die or she does."

Reluctantly, the woman agreed to give up one of the triplets. It was the third and smallest child, Marisa, the one who was having trouble suckling. With the two others swathed in hospital blankets, the mother boarded the bus for her mountain village.

A few days before Spinelli completed Marisa's adoption, she learned that her daughter's two siblings had died.


With each planeload of hopeful Americans and Europeans arriving in Latin America to complete an adoption, the reception grows cooler. Adoption has become a political issue throughout Latin America, as well as in Korea, India and the Philippines. Many feel a sense of shame that the children of their countries are being exported.

In Korea, the main supplier of babies to the United States, adoption has become more difficult, said

Susan Cox

, director of development for

Holt International Children's Services

in Eugene, Ore., one of the biggest U.S. agencies. As the country has prospered, the old taboos against adoption have been breached. Childless Korean couples are starting to adopt. The Korean government reported that the number of children sent to the United States last year fell by about 400.

Adoption is becoming more difficult in Latin America, too. Several countries have suspended adoptions for periods of several months in response to kidnapping scandals. Unscrupulous adoption lawyers, eager for payment, may falsify the signature of the biological mother to speed up the adoptions.

And there are always rumors: One story circulating in India is that the children brought to the United States work as servants. In El Salvador, some say the children are wanted for porn films. Many Mexicans believe the children are sought for organ transplants.

Whether these scandals are real or manufactured, they have made Latin American adoption officials more discerning.

Even though Diana Zimnoch and her husband adopted two of their five children and she now runs an adoption agency, Zimnoch still wrestles with the moral ambiguities of foreign adoptions. She wonders how a mother comes to terms with the decision to relinquish a child.

For every abandoned infant given a chance in the United States, she knows there are thousands left behind to grow up on the streets. "You save one life," Zimnoch argued, "and you've done something. You can either do one discrete act, or you can look at the tremendous problem and say, 'I don't know what to do about it.' I think each life is of extreme value."

Zimnoch turns to her daughter for help in explaining her feelings. Clare, 13, a bubbly teenager with permed hair and rock posters on her bedroom walls, was the seventh and only surviving child of a poor couple in a rural village in the Dominican Republic. When she became sick with an eye infection, Zimnoch said, the couple sought out a local priest and pleaded with him to find a rich family to care for their daughter.

Clare said she always understood that her life could have been different. But she did not realize to what extent until she and Zimnoch returned to the island last year to visit the shack where she was born.

At the moment she was introduced to her biological father, she was overcome with the feeling that "I've seen this man before." An image of a man standing over a crib, blessing a baby, passed through her mind.

"It's because of what they (her biological parents) did that I got this chance," Clare said, looking around the living room of her family's comfortable suburban home. She thought about the infection that might have left her blind, or dead.

"My life was saved because of adoption. This is what my mother does. She saves lives."



1. At the Nichols home are (from left) Jessica, Nichols, Kendy and Thihoang Yen Nguyen, 17, Nichols' foster daughter. (The Philadelphia Inquirer / J. KYLE KEENER)

2. Ershkowitz and Cosminsky with their newly adopted daughter, Anna Sophia Ershkowitz.

1988 Jun 5