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February 07, 2006

Chapter Three - Adoption Options 1

Once we had made the decision to pursue adoption, it opened up a whole new pandora's box of options and considerations. Conceptually, it seems as though it should be a pretty straightforward process to match a child in need of a home with suitable parents. One would anticipate a detailed amount of paperwork would be required in order to protect the child from being matched with an unsuitable home. But beyond that, there doesn't appear to be much need for any complexity.

Unfortunately, things are not as they should be. For example, there is no reason why there should ever be debate over whether a child is adoptable. It seems relatively simple to determine. Did his birthparents give him up? Was she abandoned? Are his birthparents deceased? Is there a family member that wants the child? By answering these few simple questions anyone could intuitively determine whether an adoption would be appropriate. Yet in our world, there is rarely black and white. Even questions as simple as these don’t always have direct answers.

There is no one place to lay blame for what has occurred in adoptions. It has happened because governments, professionals, and the families have all influenced what are today’s adoption systems. Because of the self-interest that has infected all stakeholders in adoption, the systems have slowly evolved into what they are today.

The harsh reality is that the sacred institution of adoption has been transformed like so many other truly important institutions essential to our society. A philosophy of mine will be introduced now that will become a consistent theme used throughout much of this book as it continues. It is one of the foundational values on which all things surrounding adoption must begin. The philosophy is rather simple and just states that the very nature of the function of adoption, providing families for children who need one, makes it one of the elite “functional areas” in society that has to be judged and evolved from a non-economic or self-interest perspective.

While this seems a no brainer, it actually just joins adoption in with other things like education, health care, religion and charitable work. These are all integral services to society. While the individuals working in these industries have every right to try to secure their own economic stability and career goals, they must do so with an overriding understanding of the importance to the common good of the role they serve. As soon as personal drive and motivation take precedence over this understanding and dedication to it, the organic nature of it becomes susceptible to a myriad of problems. It causes wheels to start spinning and suddenly you are where we are today.

Let’s just look at one example from one of these other industries. In health care everyone would agree that the priority is to give people the medical care they need to be healthy. Doctors should earn a good living as a reward for the years of education they endured and the pressures and expertise of the job. That goes for pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and hospitals. But we have a world where the corporatization of all these segments of the industry have made them more focused on profitability than health care. After all, the stockholders aren’t investing to save the world. They are doing it to make money. So you have HMOs making decisions about whom and what to test based on minimizing their total costs. They have to weigh the average cost of being proactive and diagnosing something early against the odds that not doing so will lead to more expensive treatment later. There are sue-happy patients who have driven the cost of malpractice insurance through the roof. Doctors must now consider the potential for litigation into how they go about serving their patients’ needs. The drug companies face heavy competition and have had a recent tendency to focus on developing “life enhancing” drugs like Viagra instead ones that may end some rare fatal diseases. This is a simple decision for the corporation because there is a larger potential market for the life enhancing drugs. In the quest for profits, they also spend at least as much money on marketing as they do on research. The combination of these things has caused us to have a system where the self-interest of each stakeholder group prevents maximization of the overarching goal – providing people the best possible care. This is not to say that people do not get good care or the medications they need, it is just a realization of the maze one must go through to be confident it is what they are receiving.

Adoption is much the same way. None of the stakeholders is evil or trying to damage the institution. Each of these stakeholders will be examined in detail later in the book. For the time being, the point to keep in mind is that each of the different adoption options has a slightly different set of stakeholders. As such, each has evolved differently and poses different risks and considerations. So in order to weigh the options, one must take this stakeholder approach to reach an informed decision on which is best for any prospective adoptive parent.

It is sad to admit that the best way to really dig into the intricacies of the options is by looking at the self-interest that is able to influence it. Because no other form of research will provide one with this kind of understanding of the potential flaws that could come into the system, this is the route we must take. Stakeholders in any of the options have a vested self-interest in trying to promote the positive things about their option and minimize or hide the negative. I do not wish to imply that this is all done out financial self-interest because that is not the case.

As an example, people in government jobs aren’t going to make any more money by instituting some policy. But they may be able to influence some sort of statistic on which they are judged by their superiors, special interests and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and ultimately the voting taxpayer. This new policy may or may not be beneficial to the objective of adoption. Whichever the case, the policy could be put in place because someone was using self-interest as their primary motivation.

The lesson of the day for anyone about to go through this process is to be skeptical of everyone and play the devil’s advocate in your own mind. This even holds true when talking to people that have been through one of the processes. Every adoption story is unique and people deal with adversity in different ways. Unless it is someone you know very well, it is hard to understand how another person’s circumstances would have impacted you. In addition, you are only getting the story through their eyes, often there is much that can be left out and things that sound like facts are really more opinion. A natural bias is also going to be inherent. I have a beautiful, sweet daughter who I love more than words can say. We adopted her from Guatemala. With very few exceptions from people who have gone through horrendous situations, who is going to be pessimistic about the process that brought them their Isabel?

Be very objective and be astoundingly self-aware. As hard as it may be, you have to leave your emotions at the door. This is not to say that emotions don’t have their place, but emotional considerations have to be judged objectively. If someone’s emotions make them uncomfortable with the prospect of the birthmother playing a role in the child’s life, it is obviously an important factor in examining the options. My point is that it needs to be taken as a hard objective fact rather than something that you just let eat you up inside and try to talk yourself out of.

We did go through this exercise. I can’t say that it was done in this rigid or formal a manner. Much of this is coming back to me in hindsight. One great thing about graduate level studies is that you are forced to really think about things in an academic sense and that requires objectivity. I believe that type of thinking helped us to slip into examining the options well. Another benefit is that we are both quite frankly cynical. Sheila’s natural draw to the half-empty glass was a real asset because she could pretty easily come up with the worst-case scenario and reasons not to choose a particular option. This is probably more valuable than seeing the reason to choose an option. My natural drift was to the latter.

There is no best adoption option. Each has its own challenges, intricacies, benefits, and drawbacks. It is really a function of which is the best fit for you. You have to know yourself and not be ashamed of anything that may mean because ultimately you must be comfortable with the option you choose and prepared for what it entails. We picked the option that was best for us as a couple based on who we are. That should not imply to anyone that they should feel the same way. I think the questions we asked could be of use to any couple, but the answers, interpretations, and decisions may not. Everyone must see these options through their own eyes and I do not wish to imply that our way was the best way.

Where to begin

It goes without saying that you will either adopt your child from your home country or abroad. There are no other options until the Martians open up their planet for interplanetary adoption. In the pages to come, I’ll get into many of the differences between the two. We’ll explore how children are relinquished and adopted, interracial families, and as Gov. Schwarzenegger would say, “all those things”.

There is something else that strikes to the core of deciding between domestic and intercountry adoption (ICA). It is something worth discovering about oneself very early in this process. It is a fundamental part of who we are and how we view the world. And while it won’t necessarily rule out domestic or ICA, it’s a good starting point for where your decision may go.

An exact name for this does not come to mind. For lack of a better term, I’ll refer to it as “national pride”. It is how you view yourself and your role in relation to the grandiose world we live in. I will try to not to be overly USAcentic as I believe this must hold true for others making the domestic versus ICA decision. I don’t imagine there is a huge difference between the psyche of the American and people of other wealthy, developed, and westernized nations. Almost without exception, these are the other countries providing the parents interested in ICA.

Whether one takes an active opinion in political issues is not important. As human beings, we all feel a certain responsibility to the rest of the human race. Can you imagine anyone saying that we shouldn’t try to help fight the AIDS epidemic in South Africa or the starving children in Ethiopia? Of course not! No one would say that we shouldn’t care what happens to those people and just chalk it up to survival of the fittest. At least I hope not. The fact is that we realize we come from the countries with the power, finances, and infrastructure to make a difference for those less fortunate. We’re aware that we have at least some responsibility to do so. How one goes about that and with what level of support may be things for debate, but the responsibility itself is universal.

In the same light, we all are impacted by our sense of self and this impacts an underlying psychology for adoption, especially where it relates to the domestic versus ICA decision. This isn’t about adopting someone from a different ethnicity. We could have adopted a Ladina domestically and we could have adopted Caucasian though ICA. That is another topic. This is about the role you are serving by providing a child a family and how it relates to your perceptions regarding your national pride. There are two schools of thought involving interpretations of what it is to be proud of and loyal to your national identity and your role within it.

There is one school of thought that believes we have a responsibility first to help our own and then worry about others. This makes logical sense and rationally leads one toward domestic adoption. It goes to believe that if you are providing one child a home, why not help make your country a little better off. After all, there are many children in this country who need and deserve families. There are new ones being born every day. There are teenagers getting pregnant as you read this that do not have the ability or maturity to raise a child. There are children whose parent is a drug addict and the state has decided to pull parental rights. There are many thousands of children stuck in group homes and questionable foster homes.

This school of thought can be especially strong for those who do not believe in legalized abortion. They understand that there needs to be other options. They realize that there will be children born who just can’t remain with their biological families. More so than anyone else, they believe a child should not be punished for who gave birth to them. This is clear to see if one looks at all the things done by Catholic Charities. Within this chain of thought is the fact that in order to minimize the need for and ramifications of ending legal abortion, there needs to be a good flow of families adopting children domestically. It does not invalidate this school of thought to point to the fact that there are huge waiting lists of people trying to adopt infants domestically. Quite to the contrary, the fact that there are huge waits points to the popularity of this school of thought.

The second school of thought takes a very different approach. It takes a stance of national pride that focuses on recognizing how minimal the problems are domestically in relation to the rest of the world. While there are children domestically deserving homes, with a few exceptional situations they are receiving much better care than children elsewhere. The child living in a group home or uncaring foster home domestically still fares better than a child living in an orphanage like those that became so notorious in Romania years ago. So while it does not condone denying the children domestically, it finds that the greater good may be found elsewhere.

If we agree that all children deserve a loving family but realize that some may not get one, it is rational to say that it’s best to give the home to the child in the direst of situations. If it were possible to create an evolution of improvements where one could adopt the domestic child and then the child in another country could move to the U.S. foster home this might be another story. This is, of course, a moot point because no such thing is possible.

The realization that we are blessed and fortunate leads this school of thought to find that the opportunity to be able to offer “The American Dream” to another is testament to how ones views one’s role in the world. This is not only in a humanitarian sense but also out of a belief that it is things like this that make our nation great and give it the ability to continue to have the responsibility to the rest of the world. In other words, if the realization of the American Dream fails to continue, that being the dream of immigrants to come to this country, assimilate, and succeed, then America loses the elements of that dream. It is the fact that we are the country that can offer children homes and do so that gives us the ability in the first place.

Understanding which school of thought you prescribe to surprisingly does not make the domestic versus ICA decision a done deal. While it does impact how we view things in the macro sense, there are many other considerations. On the micro scale, we all realize that we are just looking to adopt one or two of the hundreds of thousands of children worldwide who need a home and family. Just as no single person’s SUV is going to impact our dependence on foreign oil; no one adoption is going to save the plight of children. Very few of us are adopting primarily for humanitarian purposes, further making the school of thought not the deal breaker. The school of thought is just a reference point to know where you may have a natural bias.

It also is something to keep under consideration as you try to imagine the long-term commitment you are about to make. By the time infertile couples get to the point of adoption, they are so eager to have a child that it is easy to overlook anything other than achieving that goal as fast as possible. It is in this respect that one should be cognizant of their school of thought to avoid making the wrong decision.

Why buy milk from the store when you’ve got the cow at home

For most people just starting to explore adoption, I think there is a natural tendency to gravitate toward some form of domestic adoption. ICA has a sense of excitement about it, but also seems like something great that other people do. At least this was the case for us. All other things held constant, it seemed to be more sensible to stay domestic. For one, we are exposed to so much information and experience in domestic adoption. Virtually everyone knows a family who adopted domestically, and they all can’t speak highly enough about their experience.

All of these families of course adopted at least twenty years ago when it was a much different environment. Today, domestic adoption is no longer as simple as going to an orphanage and picking up a child as depicted in John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. That may be an exaggeration of how things have changed but I did quickly come to see that listening to the stories of people who had adopted any more than five to ten years ago was not of value in learning about the process.

As we started to look into domestic adoption, it seemed as though there were basically two ways to go. One was to do an adoption through the county’s Social Services Department. The other was through the private adoption system. A disclaimer is in order at this time. I do not purport that we looked into every imaginable domestic adoption available. Nor do I claim we learned all the intricacies of each option. This book is about what we learned and how we digested it to make our decision. In no way should this be implying that reading this will give anyone all the information they need to make their own decision.

Adopting from the man

If we were going to adopt domestically, why not help take a burden off the taxpayers at the same time? We decided to sign up and attend an informational presentation about adopting through Social Services. While we waited for it, we started doing some research on our own about it.

We knew already that there were increased risks of things like crack babies and children diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome. From everything we could tell, it looked like most of the children end up okay and the problems that manifest are mostly behavioral like ADHD. Up front, we are both people who believe that a lot of things that used to just be considered someone’s persona are now being diagnosed as behavior problems. One of our dogs is absolutely nuts and can at times be an incredible nuisance. But he is also the sweetest doggie in the world and part of the family. So while who he is does make our lives more difficult, it’s just who he is and something we have to live with. He’s not something we regret. All in all, we were not prepared to abandon the idea based on this concern alone, it would be something to better understand if we became more serious about pursuing this kind of adoption.

I realize that I have set myself up for some serious criticism here. So let me reiterate that this is just where my mind was. I fully realize now and also did then that a child is much more difficult in this regard than a dog. You can’t just put a child in the backyard or lock him in his crate when he’s gone too far. I also realize that it is and was impossible to really give full weight to how difficult it must be to parent a child with significant behavior problems if you haven’t done so.

The Social Services presentation came and we learned a lot about the process. Basically, you go into it as a foster parent with the intent to adopt. The children have almost always been seized by the state as opposed to having been voluntarily relinquished. This has generally been due to consistent drug abuse, alcoholism, neglect and abuse. It was not rare to have a child placed with you very soon after birth. They were upfront about the fact that the primary goal of the state is family reunification. But they also went on to describe how the process goes for the state removing legal parental rights and explained that for couples who are serious about adopting versus fostering, they do their best to place children with you that they do not believe will be returned to the biological family. One thing they really seemed to downplay was the children’s potential health and behavioral issues. They didn’t ignore or deny it, but they definitely did not raise it as an important consideration or cause for caution. The whole presentation definitely had the feel of a timeshare pitch.

One very interesting thing about this path was the financial one. This is because it is by and large free. In fact, you automatically receive foster family payments until the adoption is finalized. In addition, you can actually file some forms and receive this compensation until the child is no longer a minor. Maybe this shouldn’t matter but Notre Dame isn’t cheap! It was a positive thing to think that college could be paid for by the state just for adopting a child through them. This factor never played a role in our decision, though I have to admit I couldn’t keep it out of the back of my mind.

We felt okay following the presentation and it was time to digest it all. Some concerns quickly came to light. First of all, there was something not right about how they seemed to try to keep off of the health issues. We had heard stories about how these Social Services departments are overloaded and overcapacity. This has caused the problems of the foster care system that have been all over the headlines. Florida, for example, had been losing track of kids. How possible was it that they were not being completely transparent because quite frankly they need someone to take these kids to get them off of their desks? While this does reek of the self-interest dilemma described earlier, it may be one where it still does contribute to the common good.

The fact is that if they were focused on selling us on the idea and were not really concerned about how well it fit into our desires, it is with good reason. If they focused on the negatives, their challenges would only grow greater and the system would be more strained. This would have a negative impact on children. But if they find a family and get adoption papers signed, that child has a family who will love him. So even if the parents are faced dealing with something they were not prepared for, they will deal with it because they will love this child and have no other choice. It could be defended in the same manner as the military draft. If there are not enough people volunteering for a needed service, than some of the people should be forced to step up to the plate. Obviously they can’t force anyone to adopt, but I think this does make a good example of how the preservation of self-interest and common good are not necessarily at odds, even if self-preservation is the driving force.

This selling us on the idea by minimizing the health risks also has more to it. In their pitch, they eluded a few times to the fact that you get to test drive the car before buying and this was almost always attached to the health risks questions. Because you serve as foster parents for quite a while before you can adopt the child, you have the opportunity to change your mind. The implication was that if the child’s behavior or health needs were too much for you, there was a way out. I didn’t realize at the time how this could be fitting into an overall motivation of getting parents to commit. In my experiences with ICA, I have seen how parents become attached to a child with nothing more than a photo and name. They love that child and nothing could keep them from him. Surely the same must hold true and be even more the case if the child is living in your home and you are essentially the parent. Even if you knew the child was the next Hitler you wouldn’t be able to turn away. The Social Services people must recognize this fact, making their test drive nothing more than a red herring. Besides, many of the problems do not present themselves for years. So they likely would not be apparent until long after the adoption was final.

There was one more thing that came to mind in regard to the health risks. It stemmed purely from that sense of academic thinking that at times borders on paranoia or conspiracy theory. Nonetheless, I analyze things like life is a game of chess where you have to be pondering all the impacts of any move for many rounds to come. I was remembering how they had said that if you want to adopt they would try to place you with a child least likely to be reclaimed by the biological family. Then I remembered the process the state goes through to remove parental rights and that the primary goal of the state is family reunification. Combining all those things together made me wonder how f*cked up the biological mother would have to be for it to be deemed a case where reunification is doubtful. It seemed to me that if you go into the process planning to adopt, you are that much more likely to bring home a child with more serious issues. This is not to say that some birthmothers don’t decide it is in the child’s best interest to be adopted because she realizes the severity of her own problems. But if you go back to how we were analyzing things, this was a logical way of looking at things.

The goal of the state to reunify the family was really the final nail in the coffin for us. In general, it would take an estimated eight months with the child in your home before you could begin formal adoption proceedings. During this time, if the birthmother showed any interest in the child, a plan would be developed to facilitate reunification. In that case, it was likely that she would have visitation rights. If the birthmother seemed to be making progress, the process could take longer and of course, she could have the child returned to her. We were not sure if were prepared to go through this. It’s not the same as open adoption where you maintain contact with the birthmother. This could very easily be a situation where you have to have that contact knowing full well that she wants the child back. In our position, we would have to be hoping the worst for the biological mother of a child we love. And of course, the possibility was always there that we would lose the child and have to send him back to a situation we considered unsafe and unsuitable. This just did not seem like a viable option.

Writing about this in such an honest and cutthroat manner is not easy to do and brings about a great deal of guilt. While I feel no shame for how we thought, it is hard to digest when put down on paper. These are the real feelings that go into the decision. It must be remembered that we did not decide to adopt for humanitarian reasons. We decided to adopt because of our own infertility. We wanted to adopt a normal, healthy child and we did not want to have to worry about the government giving that child back to someone who may or may not be capable of providing for that child. It is very easy to look down upon us for this when you view it from ten thousand feet in the air. At that level you see that we were scared off because of our selfishness and as a result some child may not be adopted. But when you look at it from ground level and try to walk a mile in our moccasins, you see that these are normal thoughts and valid considerations. It’s true that it serves to commoditizing the child in the process, but it’s also true that there is no child adoption mandatory draft. Until there is such a thing, parents have the right to choose the option most appealing to them and hopefully there is enough diversity of opinion in that choice that no subset of children are given a larger burden than others. It’s sad, but it’s reality.

Pick me! Pick me!

The private adoption industry in the United States is flourishing. There are many good reasons for this. First of all, people are starting families at much older ages and thus face increased odds of infertility. The rise in dual-income families also contributes in the same way. These things not only increase the number of people looking to adopt, but also means that they have more financial resources to devote to adoption. Finally, as women’s family planning options have been expanded and made more socially acceptable, fewer women face unwanted pregnancies and those that do are less likely to choose placing the child for adoption. The net result is an open market that in some ways can mirror many commercial ventures.

As always, this is not all financial and it is not to create the impression that it is to the detriment of any children. The fact is that there are many more families looking to adopt infants than there are people relinquishing children for adoption. While the costs associated with it can be excessive, effectively removing the option for many families, until there are children going without homes because families can’t afford to adopt, the costs cannot be deemed a detriment to the children. All other things held constant, there is an argument that it is to the benefit of the child as financial security does improve standard of living, level of health care, and educational opportunities in the United States. That does not mean that poor people don’t deserve to adopt. It just means that unless we believe that wealthy people make inferior parents, the argument could be made that the child’s life and future may be better served with more financial security and the high cost of domestic private adoption help ensure it.

The bottom line is that there is a tremendous sense of competition in the private adoption system. The birthmother gets to choose who the parents will be. There are no geographic limitations domestically, so she has a pretty large field of candidates. I believe that most birthmothers take this responsibility very seriously and do pick based solely on who she believes will be the best parent(s). While it is not legal to pay a birthmother, it is legal to reimburse her for various costs and lost wages. At it’s worst, this can be quite considerable and different prospective parents may have different limitations in this arena. So it is foolish to believe that the money never rears its ugly head into the decision. After all, the birthmother has many seemingly perfect families to choose from. Why not pick the one willing to throw a few more bones?

Despite my seemingly negative description of this system, it was one we seriously considered. So far as we could tell, we should fare pretty well. We were a young couple but not too young. We’re both decent looking people. We have a good stable income. Sheila was going to be a stay at home mom. We’re both well educated. We have a beautiful nursery ready for the child. We live in one of the greatest parts of the country. While it was very hard to get a good idea on what the actual cost would be, we were confident we could handle it. There was no reason why we shouldn’t get picked.

There was also a sense of optimism about this because it was possible to have a child in the home very quickly. Many birthmothers don’t decide to place the child for adoption until late in their pregnancy. How long a particular family has been waiting for a family is not important most of the time. With a little bit of luck and karma in the bank, that nursery could be occupied in no time. With private adoption there are no guarantees or real frames of reference for how long it will take to be matched. It could be one day. It could take years.

I had a really difficult time grappling with one aspect of the competitiveness. I discovered this while I was looking at some websites parents had to put together to try to attract birthmothers. Then I read about service providers who initiate direct mail and e-mail campaigns to get your profile into the hands of more agencies that represent birthmothers. It dawned upon me that this was a bona fide marketing campaign not any different than the ones I’ve done professionally for pepperoni, lemon juice, and instant mashed potatoes. The product was our ability to be good parents and the customer was ultimately either the birthmother if it was a consumer campaign or the agencies if it was a trade campaign.

Some people tell me that this should have been enticing. With all of my education and experience in marketing, I should have a competitive advantage. Maybe I have some inner fear that I’m not as talented a marketer as I believe but this marketing of myself was quite honestly repulsive to me. It’s very hard to put to words why this is. It’s not based on some higher moral imperative. There is some truth to being afraid of how I’d feel if it was taking too long to get matched, though it is not based on professional pride. I tend to be a control freak so I think I could grow unbearably focused on getting this done. I think it could blur the clear sense of definition between my private life and my career that I maintain for my own sanity. It would be like the worst of infertility all over again but worse, because I’m supposed to have expertise on what it takes to make it better.

There is enough material to write a book solely on the topic of how open an adoption one is comfortable with. An adoption can be completely closed where once the child is adopted, the birthmother has no further involvement in the child’s life; at least not for quite some time. On the other end of the spectrum is what many people had their eyes opened to when 20/20 did a show on open adoptions. This is where the birthmother almost serves as a co-parent in many ways with an ongoing, active role in the child’s life. I believe there is enough psychological evidence showing both ends of the spectrum are better for the child to conclude that no one really knows. Most likely, if all parties are comfortable with the situation, wherever it lies on the spectrum, then that is the best thing for the child.

On the surface, Sheila and I were pretty open to most open adoption arrangements. We like to believe we’re pretty new age thinkers. We’re close enough to enlightenment to see the beauty in the idea of the birthmother having an active involvement. What better way could there be to show a child that they were not placed for adoption out of a lack of love? There would obviously need to be some caution in it because you have to be confident the birthmother is responsible and serious enough about the arrangement that she won’t bail out at an age when it could be traumatic for the child.

When we gave this more serious thought we realized that we’re not quite as enlightened as we’d like to be. We really weren’t secure enough ourselves to be comfortable with an everyday type role for the birthmother in the child’s life. We never tried to develop an exact definition of how much contact we’d be open to but we realized that it would have be within some bounds. It’s good that we didn’t end up just following our initial instincts on this one, because it could have had a bad outcome. It just goes to show how essential being honest about yourselves can be in making adoption choices.

There are many advantages to private adoption. One is that there is the best opportunity to learn about the biological family. This is not only likely positive for the child psychologically, but also for things like health risks. Secondly, I believe it has the best access to information about where you stand in the process of any of the options. Because we have a pretty developed legal system, once the match is made the lawyers make it as simple as a few signatures. If you choose not to take an active role in marketing yourself, I believe it can be a relatively stress-free process outside of the wait. This would be better written by someone who has been through it, so these are only my perceptions.

While there still are risks of things like fetal alcohol syndrome, they are not too great because of the active involvement the adoptive parents can have in monitoring the pregnancy. I suppose it is also a testament to the birthmothers who tend to relinquish their children in private adoption.

I should also add that there are many private adoptions that do not mirror the system I’ve been describing. There are many private adoptions where the match occurs not through adoption professionals and intermediaries but through other sources like doctors, clergy, and friends. These can basically happen anytime someone has some connection to both a birthmother and a prospective adoptive parent. If you believe the six degrees of separation philosophy, it’s easy to see how these matches can happen. These often are the smoothest and simplest of adoptions that occur and are more likely to be free of any sort of corruption or commercialization. We did not want to count on this technique because it seemed like all luck. We were not active in any sort of community groups, were new to the area so we had a limited sphere of acquaintances, and did not have other established relationships to rely upon. So while we would certainly keep our eyes open if we had chosen private domestic adoption, it was not what we were going to base our game plan on. The marketer in me did come out on this one. There was already a plan for trying to get on the air on the predominant progressive radio station in our area to try to reach out to some hippie-chick who had been knocked up.

While we were far from experts on domestic adoption we felt confident that we had enough information to understand the options and make an informed decision. We were pretty sure that the Social Services choice was not for us at the time, though we had an interest in maybe doing so later in life. Private adoption still seemed a viable option. It had some drawbacks and concerns, but we also knew that there was not going to be any perfect choice. The question was which was the best choice for us.

Viva la revolución

I believe we can all take great pride in the fact that people are increasingly able to look beyond national boundaries in so many ways. With the advent of the information age, people became more aware of the rest of the world. Globalization has also opened the doors to many types of relationships between countries that would not have been possible in the past. Adoption is just one example. Not too many years ago ICA was virtually unheard of.

Following the attack on Iraq, the United States State Department received a flood of inquiries interested in adopting Iraqi children who may have lost their families. Without getting into the reasons for why none of them would be able to adopt an Iraqi orphan, it shows how people are thinking and the impact the media and information can have on people’s mindset. As such, it should be of no great surprise than many families are interested in ICA.

The increases in the numbers of families adopting internationally can also be attributed to the fact that there are huge waits to adopt domestically, yet we know there are many children internationally who likely will never have a family. Some would break this down in commercial terms as simply being Keynesian economics at work. There is an increase in the demand from Americans for children to adopt. There is a decrease in the supply of children available domestically. Outside of the laws effectively prohibiting ICA in most of the world, there is a near endless supply of children who could benefit from being adopted.

For us, it really didn’t mean anything one way or another if our child was born an American. Our decision would come down to what it would take to complete the adoption and what it would mean for the long term. Adopting internationally does bring with it many considerations beyond the country seal on the child’s original birth certificate.

When you embark on ICA, you have to leave your American flag at the door. You are now dealing with a new culture and society. They have different ways of doing things and operate under a completely different paradigm. I remember going to a concert in Tijuana as a teenager. It was a pretty large festival type show headlined by Oingo Boingo, my favorite band. As you crossed the border into Mexico you were handed a little pamphlet. The nuts and bolts of the pamphlet were to let you know that you are now in another country where different rules apply and you had officially lost many of the rights you take for granted. It went on to give some examples of things you couldn’t do and things that could be done to you for doing them. Needless to say, I wasn’t prepared to wait up to two years in jail waiting for a trial on a public intoxication charge!

Because we are dealing with a different culture, we have to be prepared for all that may entail. Laws can change at any time. Foreign bureaucrats can make new arbitrary policies or just plain decide to make things take longer. It is possible that the status quo way things are done may border on illegal under U.S. law. By choosing ICA, you are signing up for this. There is really no way to prepare for this because it seems to vary all the time. The adoption environment in a foreign country is very dynamic, having the potential to change as fast as you can get that last document ready. In short, with ICA you are almost guaranteed of some kind of adventure sifting your way through a foreign government’s process.

For some reason, there is an air of secrecy that surrounds ICA. It’s nothing sinister but it seems to make the processes very hurry up and wait. Because you are dealing with foreign intermediaries and a foreign government, it is often hard to get answers about where you are or what you are waiting for. You find out when you find out and move on from there. Compared to domestic options, ICA success seemed to be much more based on who you work with and who they know.

There is another kind of information that is often missing in ICA. This is information about the child. Depending on the country, you may or may not even know the child’s real name at birth. Finding out things like medical histories of the family are virtually impossible. Even in a country like Guatemala where it is possible to locate the birthmother, the odds of her being able to tell you that the men in the family tend to have high cholesterol and the women are prone to ovarian cancer are virtually nonexistent. After all, poor indigenous people in Guatemala don’t get to have doctors diagnose them very often. The most they would be likely is that someone was approximately forty years old, he got sick for a while and wouldn’t eat, and then he died. This is something to consider because there will be questions your child will ask you in the future that you will not be able to answer. There will most likely be many holes in the child’s personal story.

Another factor to consider with ICA has to do with various health factors. Because you will know very little about where the child came from, there is no way to be confident of things like whether the birthmother had proper nutrition during her pregnancy. While this may be true to some extent for domestic adoptions as well, one can’t ignore the fact that things like malnutrition and disease are more prevalent elsewhere. Maybe this concern stems from American arrogance; nonetheless, there is a little bit of a wild card sense when it comes ICA, especially on your first adoption.

One thing that hugely separates ICA from domestic is that the possibility does not exist for you have a newborn child in your home. The average age of children coming home varies from country to country but you can be certain what you won’t have them home until months after they are born. There are a few things that this means. One is obviously that you will miss the first days of your child’s life. But because of the uncertainty in the level of care, the longer it takes for the child to come home the greater the risk becomes of things like it having a permanent developmental impact on the child.

The fear of getting caught up in some kind of scandal also crossed our minds. We are guilty of having watched the news and learned about the horrible baby smuggling rings here or there and the families who paid all kinds of money to adopt a child who had never even been born. I know a lot more about these areas now than I did when we were deciding to adopt. At that time, this was a real consideration to me as I had heard some horror stories.

When one adopts internationally it also does bring about some responsibilities. These will be discussed completely later, for the time being I can say that this was something that we had to consider. A child’s nationality stays with them and unless parents don’t plan to tell their kids they were born abroad, which would be horrible to do, then the child’s heritage is something you have an obligation to keep in tact as much as possible.

Have I got a deal for you

There are many positive aspects about ICA that ultimately brought us to it. And while this is trying to separate ICA overall from domestic adoption, there was already some investigation of potential countries to choose underway. The decision to pursue ICA was not done in a vacuum.

The single greatest reason for us was that with ICA we knew that once the child was home with us that was the end of it. In ICA, there are no birthmothers changing their mind after you have the child. In all domestic adoption options, this was not as certain. Just as the possibility of in vitro resulting in a miscarriage turned us away from it, the possibility of losing a child in domestic adoption had the same effect. We were not prepared to think we were parents only to have it ripped away from us. It just wasn’t an option.

Not having to compete for a child was also another consideration for us. The ICA programs had more of a defined system in place to get you matched. Some of them were complex and could take some time, but they all had a clear road to being referred a child. In domestic adoption, it just seemed like more of a game of craps.

When you put these two primary reasons together, you can see that we chose ICA because it seemed like the clearest path to be assured that we’d have a child home within some defined timeframe. And this would be a child that we knew wasn’t going anywhere. I imagine that if we had been diagnosed as infertile early on and had skipped all the time and stress of the treatments, we may have chosen a different route. We had had enough of leaving things to luck and what should happen. We also were not ready for huge emotional risks.

By going through the exercise we did, it helped us to be able to make the best decision on where to adopt from. We now had learned a little bit about the different programs; more so, we knew more about our concerns, our priorities, and ourselves. We had developed a decent mental schematic for how to judge the different countries available on how well they fit into our plans.

Colors

Before we could really give serious thought to which country to choose we had to do some soul searching regarding the implications of being an interracial family. The same discussion would have been necessary if we had chosen the domestic route. And as I have tried to point out before, all of these decisions were not entirely happening chronologically in the order that they are being written. I would rather suggest that this might be an appropriate order for someone just starting to research options. “If I knew then what I knew now” certainly can be used to describe the differences between this book and some of the minutia of our story.

I wrote earlier that adoption in itself is a brand or stigma that does differentiate our families from the norm. Creating an interracial family through adoption makes this all the more so. The decision does not come down to whether or not you would be able to love a child of another ethnicity. I think that this would be apparent to most people who would have this problem and thus it would never need to be put under the microscope. In fact, this was one of the largest complaints I had about the John Sayles movie, Casa de los Babies. In it, one of the women adopting a child from a Latin-American country shows a clear belief in racial superiority, believing that her future child’s genetics were going to be something to be wary of. I found this personally offensive because this woman would have never chosen to create an interracial family and it misrepresents those of us that do.

The real question in creating an interracial family is the stigma attached to it and whether you are prepared to contend with that stigma. The fact is that you will get noticed and you will get asked questions. People will view your family differently and it will create some basis on which they form all other perceptions of you. Your child will likely be harassed about it as they grow up. Like it or not, you will be a representative of society moving beyond traditional barriers and you will be a revolutionary in that movement.

There are concerns for the child beyond just a little teasing from peers. It can be difficult for the children to find a comfortable place in which they consider their own identity. As much as we may try, we will not be able raise our child in a Latino, Chinese, or African-American household if we are Caucasian. We can try to teach them about their heritage and make a go at observing traditions, but we are whom we are and that will still be the primary culture the child is raised with. So imagine when the child suddenly enters high school. Despite the fact that it is a good, racially diverse community, the children seem to segregate themselves. It’s not racism or bigotry; it’s just the phenomenon of animals seeking out their own kind. Where does your child fit in? They have the behaviors and mindset of the Caucasian kids and yet they are not Caucasian. They don’t really connect well with the kids of their ethnicity and yet experiencing the segregation makes them feel as though they should. Every child has a hard enough time going through adolescence and discovering himself, this can be made all the more complicated in an interracial family.

Creating an interracial family requires a different kind of dedication and honesty on the part of the adoptive parent. Discussions on and openness about the fact that the child is adopted will need to happen sooner and the timing may not be under your control. It is likely going to have to be something that is brought to the surface at a very young age. Parents will need to be in enough control of their own insecurities so as not to make the child feel like a second choice or booby prize. As you can see, these are the same as overall adoption related issues for the most part but they become far more relevant for the interracial family.

There is one unfortunate consideration that still does exist to this day – the racists. While I have yet to meet anyone who was not supportive of our interracial family, I know many others who have. This can come from friends and family as well as strangers who may stare at you with a clear disdain and even come up to you and make derogatory remarks. If you live in an area where your child’s race is a small minority of the population, they are likely to face this type of abuse more from their peers. For example, if your child is Latino in an all white community where the only Latinos are landscapers and dishwashers, this is going to be projected on to your child.

Much of the racism and lack of support interracial families face comes not from people believing in any sort of racial hierarchy or segregation but rather from some deeply held conviction that it is wrong. In some cases they genuinely believe that it is not in the best interests of the child. You can’t argue with these people and you can’t really allow yourself to be too annoyed by them. But you have to be ready for that to happen.

As we talked about the interracial family question we realized that none of the issues associated with it were of a concern to us. Speaking for myself, I kind of looked forward to it. It wasn’t going to be a critical criterion in country selection, but I think I already knew where my mind was going. For Sheila, I think it just really wasn’t an issue one way or the other. She was impartial. We were prepared to stand proud in a family obviously formed through adoption. We were prepared to show that people do look beyond racial barriers. We were ready for all the special treatment, good and bad, forming an interracial family could bring.

While I spent only a small space discussing the implications of forming an interracial family, it is an area that should be given far more focus when actually making the decision. There are inevitably many more factors to it that I have yet to understand. The ones I have mentioned may be fairly simple to comprehend; however, they take quite a while to digest and analyze. It’s not easy to know how you will handle the looks and questions from strangers. I enjoy it myself but there are many others who become offended because it is none of the other person’s business. It’s another shining example of how important it is not to try to fool your self when making these important decisions. These are things that will become a part of your daily lives. You don’t want to make a mistake.

Sometimes I come across people who are not sure if they are prepared to start an interracial adoption. They usually have some important family member like a mother or father who they know will not be accepting. Then they continue to express the concern they have for whether it is what’s best for the child. In these cases, the person tries to fool herself into believing that she is prepared for the interracial family. She does this out of the best of intentions because she knows she is not racist and so she feels guilty that she’s uncomfortable with the idea. It does not make one racist to believe that an interracial family is not the best option. Until we can figure out how to shut ourselves away from the outside world, valid external forces that we cannot control are enough of a reason not to pursue an interracial family. It is nothing to be ashamed of. We felt differently, but that was only given our own situations. If we had different families or lived in a vastly different environment, we may have felt otherwise.

Time to get a passport

There’s a television commercial where a couple envisions themselves at a variety of vacation locales as they are researching vacations on-line. That is very much the initial process in deciding which international program to choose. At the time, while we knew which countries were the most popular, we really didn’t realize that so few were realistically options. So once we had decided to go international and had open minds so far as ethnicity was concerned, it was kind of like taking a spin around the globe imagining what it would be like to adopt from various places based on the natural stereotypes we have of the country. While it was a fun game, it wasn’t doing much to help us make a decision.

The U.S. State Department has a website that lists a plethora of countries and has basic information about their ICA systems and the number of adoptions completed each year. After having gone through almost every country on the list, I wonder why they don’t just delete the ones where it is completely illegal. For example, Islamic Law does not recognize adoption. The Koran clearly speaks to the obligation of the populace to care for orphans, but your bloodline is your family and there’s no getting around it. Another thing you come to find is that a whole shitload of countries have joined some Hague thing and there’s not many adoptions coming from those countries anymore. Some of them will only allow it for a biological family member of the child; others require that you reside in the other countries for six months or more. One after one of these Hague countries didn’t want us adopting their kids - that was for sure.

We were disappointed to see that we could not adopt from El Salvador. We have a friend from El Salvador who had been telling us all about the country, about how his sister had been a Senator and had connections, the children are so beautiful, and he could give us places to stay. (As a disclaimer, he was merely saying he’s got family out there who’d be there to help if we needed them. His sister is not involved with adoptions in any way and the statement about her connections should be taken in context, it was not meant to be sinister.) It seemed like a decent idea until we learned that they have a requirement that you had to be married for at least five years. It also appeared as though they really don’t match children to international families very often, part of that Hague thing I guess.

Once you’ve gone through the list you see why there are only a few popular programs. It’s because they are the only ones that are feasible. As I recall, that list at the time consisted of Russia, China, Korea, Guatemala, and Kazakhstan. There were a few others that were somewhat plausible, though they appeared to be very slow processes. So all we had to do was compare these few countries and at last we’d be able to get this adoption thing going.

The Land of Eternal Spring

Rather than go through each of the countries and how we debated them, it makes more sense to just move right in to why we chose Guatemala. For one, I’m not sure I remember all the details of each of them. Secondly, it would get tedious, boring, and redundant. We had our reasons for choosing Guatemala and it certainly was destined to be our choice. We can tell because Isabel was meant to be with us.

One of main reasons we chose Guatemala is a very common and controversial one. It has to do with the age of the child. In Guatemala, children can be referred for adoption virtually at birth. In most of the other countries the children are older. The time for serious commentary for the critics of ICA from Guatemala about this is later in this book. For the time being, I will just state that I take no shame in preferring to have my child home at as young an age as possible. It is not wrong to want to experience your child’s earliest days and to minimize the stress of adapting to a new environment.

Another interesting thing that differentiated Guatemala from other countries was the fact that you are matched with a child at the beginning of the international part of the process. In most of the other countries you go through some sort of approval process or delay and only get matched with a child at the very end. Most of the programs take approximately the same amount of time, but with Guatemala you are charting your child’s development from birth. You are also allowed to visit the child during the process. So you have the ability to spend time with them along the way if you desire.

There was even the possibility of being able to serve as the foster parent during the process. This was something that we were very interested in. There was no way I would to be able to stay for months but Sheila thought she might like to. We figured that maybe she could do it midway through the process so that we wouldn’t be separated for too long. Since we planned to visit anyway, it was not as if we’d be apart for months at a time. Fostering did present the possibility of heartache if the adoption falls through; which can happen for a variety of reasons. The most important being that the birthmother has the right to reclaim the child anytime until the very end of the process. So while you don’t have to worry about that once the child is home, if you act as the foster parent you could face it while staying in Guatemala.

Guatemala’s system seemed to be the most straightforward and easy to understand. The coming pages will show this not to necessarily be the case, but we could understand what the actual stages were along the way. It had the most transparent system in that it is actually a private legal agreement between you and the birthmother. It is facilitated by private lawyers just like the domestic private system. As a result, you get to have some basic information on the birthmother, what part of the country she is from, and her age. In fact, you even can get a copy of her cedula, or state identification, which also has a picture.

One of the things we were very concerned with was the health of the child and standard of care. In both of these arenas, Guatemala’s system seemed to be the best. First off, drug addiction and alcoholism are quite rare among the birthmothers. This is not the case with all of the countries. Secondly, most of the children live in private foster homes until the adoption is final. They do not spend time in overcrowded institutions where they get little to no individual attention. Obviously, this puts much faith in the quality of the foster homes. Since I believe that most people could not do anything but love an infant child, I was confident that this was safe. It is a pretty standardized policy that you receive regular, generally monthly, doctor’s updates so you know the child is growing well and being well nourished.

There was something else that had quite honestly been creating a bias in me along the decision trail. My experiences with the U.S. Latino population had an impact on me. I had a deep respect for the people, their history, and their ambition. They came from a strong sense of family devotion with a work ethic beyond normal bounds. I was able to speak the language fairly well. My understanding of past U.S. foreign policy in the region and how it directly impacted the struggles faced today also drew me toward a Latin American country.

The importance of this went far beyond the fact that I think Latino children are the most adorable in the world. When you adopt through ICA, especially in an interracial situation, you have an obligation to teach the child about their biological culture and country. You have to bring them back to the country to visit through life. In the case of Guatemala, this was something I would look forward and enjoy. It was not difficult for me to imagine the different ways to incorporate her Guatemalan heritage into our daily lives. Even in areas as simple as what we have for dinner.

There are people I know who adopted from other countries and realize as their children age that they do need to return for a visit. Most of them are not looking forward to it. They are distant places and not necessarily the most suitable for a family vacation. Language barriers can be enormous when you’re visiting a place where not many westerners go. To take a Russian child from Siberia to Moscow does not necessarily bring them close enough to the nest. In the case of Guatemala, these are not major issues. Most of the children live in the capital city during the process. In many ways, it is really the connection to their time before coming to the United States. I had traveled to Mexico more times than I could remember. I know that Guatemala had a general cultural environment I was comfortable with. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect when we visited.

In my ever self-conscious fear of being offensive, I wish to admit to certain stereotypes and generalities I have made. The first is in repeatedly using the term Latino because it does not necessarily represent the children of Guatemala. However, the term is commonly understood and serves its purpose. If I used “Mestizo” instead, many readers would be lost. I also wish to point out that I have implied that Mexico and Guatemala are one in the same. To address this would entail a history lesson I am not prepared to provide. The truth is that, as the countries do share a common border, in some areas of Mexico, the people are closer to the majority indigenous population of Guatemala. Mexico has tremendous ethnic diversity within its population. I felt comfortable that my experiences in urban, developed Mexican cities would not differ too much from those in Guatemala. This does not imply that the two are not distinctly different places. After all, in Guatemala they use black beans, not pintos, in their refried beans.

To finsh this chapter, see Adoption Option Part 2

Posted by Kevin at February 7, 2006 08:51 AM
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