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

Author: Lini S. Kadaba, Inquirer Staff Writer

Just outside the cozy lobby of the Hotel Palace in the Miraflores section of Lima, Peru, Cathy Gibbons stood inside a small circle of mothers and trembled.

It was 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 7 and someone handed Gibbons, a large woman with long, thick auburn hair, a tiny, swaddled bundle. She shook and she wept. She was filled with joy, she says.

Finally, after nearly 15 years of hoping and 1 1/2 years of filing applications, collecting documents, undergoing interviews and traveling several thousand miles, Gibbons, 39 and single, clutched her day-old baby - a black-haired beauty, 7 pounds and 1 ounce, 19 3/4 inches.

A few minutes later, Gibbons carried baby Sarah upstairs to her hotel room.

"She was totally sound asleep," Gibbons, a nurse in Philadelphia, said recently. "She was so tiny . . . totally wrapped up. You couldn't see her, just this little face sticking out of the blankets. I stripped her off, counted her fingers, counted her toes, just looked her over, every inch, her little dimples. . . . her (umbilical) cord, the nails."

That was nine months ago. Now, Gibbons lives with Sarah in Rhawnhurst, and the new mother has become one of a growing number of single, professional women across the country who adopt babies and raise a family without a spouse.

In most cases, these singles turn to foreign countries, particularly Latin America and India, for their children because of few restrictions on the marital status or age of adopters.

According to a 1989 study by the National Committee for Adoption (NCA), the number of foreign infants adopted each year in the United States has passed the 10,000 mark - nearly double the number 15 years ago.

Adoptions International Inc

., a Philadelphia agency that arranges foreign adoptions mostly in Latin America, said 20 percent of its clients are single people.

The Committee for Single Adoptive Parents in Chevy Chase, Md., estimates that single parents account for about 10 percent of adopters in this country. About 110,000 adoptions take place in the United States each year, according to the NCA study. Adoption is so popular that this month has been declared National Adoption Month.

"We're finding that the more mature, often professional woman who has been successful in her professional life is deciding to put into her life whatever part of family she can . . . and the decision to adopt is part of that process," said Sandra B. Cohen, co-director of Adoptions International.

In many ways, Gibbons is typical of those single professionals who choose to adopt - most often middle-class, white women in their 30s or 40s working in ''helping" careers such as nursing or teaching, according to the

International Concerns Committee for Children

in Boulder, Colo.

"They are usually so committed and so single-minded on this," said

AnnaMarie Merrill

, a spokeswoman for the group. "The single parent doesn't have to juggle a mate."

Gibbons' path to Sarah was not without disappointments and rough times, and even now, single parenting makes for difficult moments, she said.

But, said Gibbons, "I could not be happier."


Gibbons, a Northeast Philadelphia native, considered the notion of adoption in her mid-20s.

"I looked into that then, and it was totally impossible," she said. Gibbons, working in Florida then, was only 24; she was single, and she was struggling with finances.

So she dismissed the idea until a few years ago. "It was just idle chatter at work," said Gibbons, now a nurse anesthetist at Pennsylvania Hospital at Eighth and Spruce Streets.

She got a name of an agency through a friend of a friend. That group offered Gibbons, then 38 and still single, an older child with a handicap, but she decided against that. She contacted other agencies. She wrote to lots of people. She considered private adoption.

The message was loud and clear: For the single woman, agencies offered only older or handicapped children, those considered harder to place. And for the limited number of white infants available for adoption, agencies usually prefer younger couples.

Then one day, Gibbons attended an orientation program for Adoptions International, an agency that works with single parents.

She liked what she heard. The agency would treat her the same as a couple. It would consider her for a healthy infant.

Gibbons decided to adopt two children at once - an infant and a toddler.

Right away, her family and some of her co-workers considered her plans with skepticism, she said.

Of her mother, sister and brother, she said: "They were reserved. They weren't sure if I knew what I was getting into."

Consider this: Gibbons had a great job. She owned a comfortable, two- bedroom rowhouse. She loved to travel. She had her freedom, doing what she pleased, when she pleased.

"Why," she said her parents wondered, "do you want to tie yourself down with a child?"

"I want a baby," she answered.


For as long as Gibbons could remember, she had yearned for a child in her life.

"Funny thing is when I was a little girl, I never played with dolls," she said. "I was a book reader, a game player, a role player - nurse, doctor, house."

But always - always - she imagined her life with a child. "Whenever I made my career plans - I'm going to grow up to be this or that and a mother."

Gibbons said marriage was part of those girlish dreams. She simply never met anyone she wanted to spend her life with. Instead, she focused on her career and her travels, including a tour of Europe.

By age 38, she said, "it became quite apparent that Mr. Right was not going to come along."

That never squelched her desire for a child.

She gave Adoptions International her name and address. The agency sent her a packet of information, brochures on its philosophy, its fees, its programs in various countries. Gibbons filled out a preliminary application, used by the agency to screen adopters.

Then she attended a meeting with Cohen and

Hannah Wallac

e, also co-director of Adoptions International. They talked about all sorts of issues. Waiting periods. The process. Support services.

Gibbons went home with a contract and two weeks to decide.

She returned the contract right away - establishing her spot on the waiting list. It would take 1 1/2 to 2 years to get her children. Now, the agency estimates the time at at least 9 months.

She also started paying out fees that eventually totaled more than $10,000. Travel and living expenses in the foreign country added on more costs.

A social worker was assigned to Gibbons. Then began the home study, a lengthy process to assess Gibbons' ability to parent and raise a foreign child.

Through a series of interviews in her home, Gibbons discussed her family, her education, moral beliefs, ethical standards, child-rearing theories, opinions on corporal punishment, theories on sibling rivalry and more. She wrote an autobiography and underwent numerous checks - Interpol, FBI, state police.

She collected references, bank statements, employment records, tax files - all part of her dossier. She was fingerprinted time and again.

While she waited and waited for a baby to become available, Gibbons attended a support group of other single parents - some with newly arrived babies and others just like her, waiting.

Gibbons also received counseling on Latin American culture.

She studied a book of baby names and picked Sarah for her girl's name. At one point, she even experienced some of the symptoms of pregnancy.

In October 1988, two children in Peru, a 2-year-old boy and an infant girl, became available. Before Gibbons left for there, the boy's mother showed up and claimed him. Because of agency policy, she was unable to adopt the single child.

In November, two sisters in Honduras came up. "I knew better than to get too excited about this one," she said.

Again, the mother returned for the children. And it, too, fell through.

At that point, Gibbons decided to try for a single child. A 4-year-old girl was found, and in January, Gibbons flew to Peru.

She met the child and found the child had some health problems. Still, she pursued the adoption. When she had practically signed the papers, the mother came to the hospital and accused Gibbons of stealing her child.

"I was distraught," she said. "I didn't feel good about the child. It didn't feel like mine."

She decided not to fight for custody.

Four days later, a baby was born at a Lima hospital. The baby was the fifth child of a mother who washed clothes for poor families and lived in terrible poverty. She was struggling to raise her two boys and had already placed two girls in the state orphanage.

The mother placed her newborn for adoption. Gibbons got the child within 32 hours. It was Sarah.

"Everything happened because Sarah had not been born yet," Gibbons says now. "I was waiting for Sarah's birth. She's my child and that was what was meant to be.

"I could not have birthed a child and loved her anymore than I love Sarah."


At her home, Gibbons swings Sarah high into the air. Sarah gurgles.

"Days are too short," Gibbons says. "On weekends, I get nothing accomplished because of the simple fact I want to spend every minute with her, from the time she gets up 'til I put her down at night."

Gibbons laughs and says she never wants to go to work these days. She still has thank-you notes to write from Sarah's christening four months ago. She chooses to have no social life of her own.

Gibbons says she now works with the goal of providing for Sarah's college education, her daughter's marriage and their future together. She says she fears for her own mortality.

"I just want to be here for everything for her," she said.

"When I'm tired and irritable, and Sarah smiles at me, I just melt," she says, looking at her toothless cutie.

She has bought books on Peruvian culture and wants to teach Sarah about her heritage. "I want her to be proud of being Peruvian."

Gibbons knows that some still wonder about all this. "Some people think I've done the wrong thing," she says. They say Sarah is not American and Gibbons knows little about her background.

"She's going to be my daughter," Gibbons returns with conviction.

Her family dotes on the chubby, wide-eyed little girl. Her mother, Catherine Gibbons, who lives nearby, looks after Sarah during the double shifts that Gibbons sometimes works. Gibbons' sister, Nancy Keenan, has five children. The cousins all love Sarah, Gibbons says.

Her own neighbors admire Sarah's "exotic looks."

But Gibbons knows that some day, most likely, Sarah will face a nasty, racist remark. She knows, too, that adopted children often resent that their birthparents gave them away. Some children begrudge their adopted parents.

"But all kids have problems," Gibbons says. "They have to find out who they are."



1. A MIRACLE from Peru, 10-month-old Sarah Gibbons gets a hug from her mother, Cathy Gibbons of Rhawnhurst. Gibbons, a 39-year-old single woman who was rebuffed by several adoption agencies, kept at it until she found success - and Sarah. (The Philadelphia Inquirer / MICHAEL S. WIRTZ) (N01)

2. Sarah Gibbons, in her home in Northeast Philadelphia, gets a an exhilarating ride in the arms of her mother, Cathy. (The Philadelphia Inquirer / MICHAEL S. WIRTZ)

3. Cathy Gibbons helps Sarah break a cookie into pieces small enough to eat.

4. Cousin Beth Ann Keenan holds Sarah as cousin Katie Keenan gives her a bottle. (The Philadelphia Inquirer / AMY HUNTOON)

5. A number of agencies proved a dead end for a single woman seeking to adopt a healthy infant. But Cathy Gibbons persisted.

6. Gibbons arrives at a day-care center in Northeast Philadelphia to pick up  Sarah.

1989 Nov 5