exposing the dark side of adoption
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Mega-families bring 'it takes a village' to life


By Laura Vanderkam, USA TODAY

When David and Margaret Mason of Lovettsville, Va., planned their summer trip to Poland, they encountered an unexpected obstacle: The country's biggest rental van holds only nine passengers. With six children already and an appointment in Poland to adopt four more, their family was about to become too large for one vehicle.

Adoption is never easy, but with international adoption, parents also tiptoe outside the U.S. legal system. Agencies may charge exorbitant rates, and are largely unaccountable for complications, warns adoption activist Mary Lib Mooney (www.theadoptionguide.com). Mooney, for instance, once paid thousands of dollars to adopt a Russian boy, only to see the adoption fall through. Romania officially stopped adoptions in June of 2001, leaving families in limbo. The Immigration and Naturalization Service halted Cambodian adoptions in December, suspecting that kids were stolen and sold.

Another hazard: Children may have medical problems that foreign orphanages paper over. The Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child (PNPIC) warns that heavy pollution often leads to birth defects among Ukrainian kids, and that lead poisoning remains a problem in China. A 1999 report in Adoption/Medical News noted that an alarmingly high percentage of Russian kids suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome.

And though some parents don't mind dealing with physical handicaps, children in orphanages are often abused or neglected. The resulting problems can strain the most loving parents.

"People feel it's God's calling to adopt when they see four kids on TV," Mooney says, "but the truth of the matter is, any kid that comes from an institution has special needs. So you have to ask: Are you prepared to parent a special needs child?"

"Americans can be very poor consumers of adoption services," agrees Thais Tepper of PNPIC. "They don't demand answers to the right questions."

But large families learn to be flexible. The Masons rented a car and a van, met their new children at a Siedlce orphanage and spent July getting to know each other during a two-vehicle tour. "Our American 7-year-old jabbers to his Polish 5-year-old brother in English and the other jabbers back in Polish," says David, who is chairman of the Federal Election Commission in Washington. "Neither seems to mind."

In a country of two-kid families, six children raise eyebrows and 10 garner stares. But the Masons, devout Catholics who always wanted a large family, aren't alone. By adopting Olivia, 6, Sam, 5, Blaise, 3, and Francis, 2, the Masons have joined a supportive, if small, community of U.S. mega-families constructed through birth and adoption. Like the Masons, most mega-families rely on faith to raise more children than their little ones can count. Most speak of being called to the task.

And all have laundry stories only large families could understand.

Bob and Sharon Meyer (26 children) do seven to 10 loads a day, go through six gallons of detergent a month, and refer to the dirty-clothes pile as "Mt. Never Rest."

Richard and Tina Aquino (14 children) hold Sunday-night sock-matching parties.

Paul and Paula Dunham (17 children) have honed an efficient chore chart for everything from laundry to cooking. And as publisher of large-family magazine Joyfull Noise, Paula hears loads of sock tales: "Some people use zipper pouches for each child, others pin pairs together, others use different colored threads, some people have one big laundry basket and when you need a matched pair, you just go find one," she says.

Orlando Magic executive Pat Williams (19 children, mostly grown) sympathizes. "All our laundry was numbered according to the order you came into the family," he says. His kids from South Korea, Romania, the Philippines and Brazil still confused their shoes. One boy played a soccer game in two left cleats. Williams noticed — "I've seen more youth sporting events than any dad in history," he says. "I was a Little League dad from 1980 until 1998."

Many of these mega-families adopt domestically, but a growing number, like Williams and the Masons, look overseas. The INS granted visas for 19,237 international adoptions in 2001, more than double the number from a decade ago. Slick marketing helps find matches for the growing number of available children, including many from former Soviet bloc countries, and adoption agencies tout catalogues of smiling children sure to melt the hearts of those longing to save the world.

Most children, however, are placed with smaller families because of agency and state policies. Oregon, for instance, prefers to create families with no more than eight children. Such rules are prudent, says Susan Soon-Keum Cox, a vice president at Holt International Children's Services.

"You have to be assertive and as diligent as possible in finding homes for children, but it's not in anyone's best interest to put together a family that's incapable of dealing with the everyday stresses that families endure," she says. "The goal is not to create another orphanage environment. The goal is to create a family."

Williams, too, warns families to super-size with care. Despite his high salary, "we literally lived from month to month," he says. "I saw kids and needs, saw the pictures and kept saying yes." As he adopted 14 children, pursued 11 more and expanded his house to hold 13 bedrooms and eight bathrooms, his first marriage fell apart. He was a single dad for two years until he met his wife Ruth.

The Meyers also have seen adoptive-family woes — several of their children joined the household after other families disrupted their adoptions for medical reasons. And two months ago, the Dunhams adopted six siblings who had originally joined a much smaller family. That family collapsed from the stress, and the children faced a group home until the Dunhams appeared. Paula braces for the inevitable conflicts — but with 11 other kids, she says she is better prepared to cope. "A social worker considered one of our children unadoptable," she says. "But it worked beautifully. She said, 'I will never say a child is unadoptable after working with you guys.' "

This is the point mega-families want to make: Despite perilous odds, large adoptive families can be as happy as smaller, "normal" ones. Sharon Meyer credits her sense of humor for helping her raise 26 kids, including some with Down syndrome and cerebral palsy. "The children have a joke about how mom manages to do so much laundry," she says. "It goes, 'How do you eat an elephant? Why, one bite at a time!' "

It's not a lifestyle for everyone, says Tina Aquino. "People need to realize that though they could not or would not care to have a large family, others are thrilled to," she says. "It is what brings us joy."

Knowing the stakes, the Masons did their research. They learned Polish. They chose a sibling group so the new children could support each other. They plan to homeschool to ease the children's adjustment. They soldiered through their own "Mt. Never Rest" of paperwork, a delayed court date and Poland's lack of 15-passenger vans. "There have been frustrating moments, frustrating weeks," David says. But "when you go into the process, your guardian angels take part."

And eventually, they led the eight Masons to a Siedlce orphanage, where they became a dozen.

2002 Jul 29