February 14, 2006

Chapter Four - The Paper Trail

Despite having previously made the decision to continue our IUI treatments until the end of the year, once we had gone through the "what next" process and landed on Guatemala we opted to end infertility treatment a few months early. We did not feel comfortable going down the two paths at the same time and worried that we could end up in a situation where we were committed to an adoption only to find out we were pregnant. In reality, that could not have happened because of the time required to get to the point of accepting the referral of a child. But we were new to the process, still learning, and if nothing else, while it may take some time for a referral, the adoption costs start to incur very early in the process.

We realized that the first thing we needed to do was hire an agency to conduct a home study, essentially showing that we are fit parents. The larger decision of who would handle the Guatemalan side of the equation did not need to be made yet. Since your home study agency has to be licensed by your state, you generally have only a few choices of agencies that operate in your local area. So we attended an introductory meeting at one local agency to learn a little bit more about it. They seemed nice, honest, and capable so we went ahead and hired them.

I could be a good daddy, really

The home study process is when you first start to realize the frantic and paranoid mindset that will guide you through the entire adoption process. While the home study is actually a very simple process, it is hard to believe this to be the case while you are going through it.

First of all, all of the forms and explanations seem to have been written by someone whose last job was writing the instructions for how to install a new dishwasher. They are very vague and don’t seem to make sense given some unique thing about your situation. What you don’t realize at the time is that you don’t need to think about it so much. There’s no need to try to analyze exactly what they mean by something. We could really just answer off the top of our minds based on a first read of the question and be safe. But because of the mindset you are in, you study every question as if you were trying to understand the federal income tax code.

We gave deep thought to who our personal references would be. We had to make sure that these references would show what good, well-adjusted people we are. How many of them needed to be local? How long do we need to have known them? How closed-knit should they be? Yeah, let’s throw in a pastor. That would be impressive! Wait, we better have people with kids. What about an employer to show we’re responsible and hard working?

How were we supposed to be able to pick three people or couples that represent all the wonderful reasons why we deserve to be parents?

Pure frustration! Unnecessary, pure frustration!

There are also a variety of medical tests you have to go through. There were two issues with this. The first was the fact that our HMO (Kaiser Permanente) may have been great for IUI, but they are not supportive of adoption. You can’t just march on down there with a letter from the home study agency and have them give you the tests you need. It is really a shame. It took us a bit of creative maneuvering to accomplish, and would take much more later on, but we got them to do the tests. The other issue was once again the ambiguity in the forms. It wasn’t clear what exactly they were supposed to be testing in some cases and calling the agency didn’t make it any clearer.

One example was the urine analysis. I’ll admit, the Deadhead in me heeds caution to piss tests. Maybe it is just a scar from my youth. Maybe I had spent so much time trying to cover up things I was doing that there was a Pavlov’s Dog reaction. Even when I have had to take drug screens for employment, knowing darn well that I’m clean, I get nervous. Whether it is the fear of a false positive, a nested psychological reaction, or the feeling of an infringement on my civil liberties, these things make me nervous. The medical form didn’t say what they needed to test for. Did I need to avoid going to a concert or other place where someone might be smoking a joint? I’ll admit it, I live in the Bay Area and I come in contact with marijuana. Heck, using the restroom at PacBell Park during the World Series probably put enough ambient THC in me to trigger a positive! There are many questions you can get answered by asking someone who has been through it already. But it is extremely uncomfortable to ask someone you don’t know well if the urine test includes a drug screen. It turns out, no drug screen. I guess we can place civil liberties in the win column on this one.

The last major part of the home study is the home visit. This was one where we really had no idea what to expect. We had gotten the scoop of what was required if you are being approved by Social Services, but this was entirely different. We didn’t know if we had to put covers over all the outlets and kid-proof the cabinets. We decided that we probably didn’t need to go those lengths now but did make sure we had more important things like a lock on our Jacuzzi cover. How spotless did the house need to be? How much of our clutter should we hide? We don’t want to appear disorganized. Yikes, do I need to take down the American peace flag from the kitchen wall? Maybe they think pacifists make bad parents!

Physical inspection aside, we really didn’t know what kinds of questions we’d be asked by the Social Worker. This could get very personal and while we had nothing to hide, there were things from both of our pasts that we’d rather not get in to. The adoption mindset made it so that I was unsure what a proper response to some of my teenage indiscretions would be. We of course wanted to appear perfect in every way. What if she somehow asks us both the same question and we answer differently? What if she finds things where we don’t see eye-to-eye? Do we need to act cuddly and cutesie to show we’re happily married?

As it turns out, the home study is not something to fear. It really seems to serve the purpose for which it is intended. In reality, the home study process seems more like a driver’s license or gun permit. You have to give them good reason to reject you. The argument can be made that there should be more to it. A few months ago there was a tragedy that occurred when a father killed his recently adopted child from Guatemala. Apparently the child had a bout of diarrhea and the father freaked out after having to repeatedly clean and diaper the child. The father dropped the infant boy into the bathtub three times, fracturing his skull and killing the child. I read one account where it said that this couple had actually been rejected in the past but somehow they got one agency to approve their home study. Maybe there was some signal that this man, who had no record of violence, had the potential to crack? Maybe they should have dug deeper to see the potential that lurked within him? Most likely, there was nothing to clue them in. But because of the adoption brand, this instance will be judged in that regard separate from all of the other fathers who do the same thing.

We were asked some very personal questions. There were things that came to light that we were glad to have discussed with the Social Worker. Those things are too personal and not necessarily my own so I can’t go into detail. But we had one situation caused by one of our references who stupidly put something down he shouldn’t have. It wasn’t anything that would impact our ability to parent, but it was something that had to be carefully crafted into the home study report so that it would not be misunderstood when translated into Spanish.

It was just about Christmas now and we had a notarized copy of a home study report conducted by a licensed social worker recommending us to be approved to adopt up to two children up to two years of age from Guatemala. (Even though we were only planning on adopting one child who was much younger than two years old, it’s best to widen your approval just in case. You never know what will happen along the way.)

Now all we needed was the approval of the federal government.

The Feds

The Home Study basically clears you with the state and tells the US Department of State that they’re cool with us being able to adopt. Ultimately, the feds have to grant you that approval. We had actually filed the federal application, the I600A form, a few months prior, just as we began the home study. It goes without saying that this INS approval did not come quickly. No one knows exactly what they look for to approve you, but it can take about six months for them to do it.

We know there are background checks. Standard procedure was to have two fingerprint and background tests conducted. One is for the state to see if you are wanted for any crimes as well as to be sure you are not a registered sex offender. This one is actually conducted for the home study. The other is for the federal approval process and is used by what was at the time called the INS. In our case, because we had lived in California less than two years, we also had to have an FBI background check conducted. This concerned me a bit.

This is one of the instances where the reader has to really try to think with my brain. It’s pretty clear to you by now I tend be a little left leaning politically. At the time that this was going on, the peace movement was in full swing. The government had used the Patriot Act to prevent peace activists from boarding airplanes. While I wasn’t actively involved outside of attending some peace rallies, how did I know what they might have on me? I was a card-carrying member of the ACLU. I gave money to Pacifica Radio. I signed petitions. I had even worked on starting a Green Party local when I lived in New York. I remember my mom warning me to be careful about what I put in e-mail, just in case. And my mom is not the political radical than I am. Sad as it may seem, I had genuine concern that the feds might try to block me.

While they took their sweet old time doing it, we eventually received what is called an I171H, an approval to adopt.

Stepping back to a paramount leap of faith

We need to jump back in time a few months. We received our I171H in early March as I recall. In order to receive the I171H approval, you had to specify the name of who you would be hiring to handle the foreign side of the process. This can be the same agency that conducted the home study, but does not have to be. In fact, this does not even need to be someone licensed in any way if adopting from Guatemala. The foreign government, not the USA, institutes any such requirements. So we are now stepping back to the time that we started the home study and had to make this agency/facilitator decision.

It is impossible to stress the importance of picking the right people to work with. There will be a full section on this later in the book that will be written from the “what I know now” perspective. For now, as I tell our story, I’ll do my best to keep it from the angle of “what I knew then”. We got pretty lucky and fared amazingly well given how we went about it. Had we known more, it would have been a much more exhaustive exercise.

The internet was once again the place to go. The topic of adoption and the internet is deserving of and will receive a full section later on. First off, there are websites that list available children with links to the agencies representing them. These are commonly referred to as “photolistings”. There are upteenth different agency sites, all of which proclaim their deep love of the children, respect for the families, ethical responsibility, communication skills, knowledge, and experience. I’m not sure exactly how we determined this, but somehow it was clear that all of them do not live up to these standards in practical application.

There are also a variety of other wonderful adoption related resources specializing on individual countries. Every adoptive family in the process should fully utilize these. So what we did was sort of combine all three of these types of websites and e-resources to get the full picture. We also kept the option of working with our home study agency for the foreign side open. There was some feeling of reassurance in having the agency close by and having the opportunity to meet face-to-face with those would be working on our case.

At the time, we imagined that Sheila would be the one managing the process. As such, I felt it was her right to make the final decision of which agency to choose since she would be the one interacting with it on a regular basis. My job was going to be to narrow the field to a few choices, all of which had my seal of approval.

After doing much poking around, reading internet lists, and asking some questions of others in the community, I had narrowed it down to a few. The things that seemed to be the most important were how involved they were in Guatemala, which in turn reflected their relationship with the lawyers who hold the real power in the process, their level of experience, and then just a plain ole gut feeling on their level of integrity. Unlike many families at this stage, we did not try to focus on things like who was known to be fastest or who had long lists of waiting families in queue.

It’s worth noting that there tends to be a longer wait for girls in Guatemala than for boys. I have many theories about why this may be. Most of them seem to center around the kind of males that are enthusiastic about an interracial and intercountry adoption. In our case, gender was not abundantly important. We knew that Sheila would prefer a girl. I really had no preference. The machisimo in me did favor a boy, but somehow I pictured us with a girl and that picture was beautiful. Gender was something that was going to be a matter of chance. Although not specifying a gender usually meant it would be a boy since there were longer waits for girls. As an example, if the smoking section of a restaurant only has three tables and you specify no preference, the odds are there is a long list of people waiting for smoking so you’re going to sit in non-smoking.

Now it was Sheila’s time to choose an agency. We had pretty much decided against the local agency because they did very few adoptions from Guatemala and we were not confident they had the experience we wanted. Sheila started calling the agencies I had found and requested their informational packages. It was very hard for her to choose as each had its own best areas and it was very hard to judge people’s integrity based on a phone call and printed claims. As I did when describing how we picked Guatemala, I’ll just go into how we chose the agency we did.

Our agency pick was not really an agency but a law office. And it wasn’t really a law office, it was just someone who facilitates adoptions that happened to be a lawyer. She was working on becoming a licensed agency, which would also allow her to conduct home studies, but had not yet completed that process. Carol Anne had two children that she had adopted from Guatemala. She was well revered in the internet community for knowing how to maneuver the system. She had a reputation for having stepped in to help families in trouble even though they were not her clients. In fact, she hadn’t even been facilitating adoptions for very long. So she had the weird contradiction of being new to the business and experienced in it at the same time.

***author’s note: the name of our adoption facilitator has been changed in this book. That should in no way be construed as meaning anything. She was not comfortable with my using her name if she couldn’t read the book first and I didn’t want anyone feeling they had editorial control over the book. As you’ll read, we had an overall positive experience in our adoption. Having her true name in the book wasn’t important to the story, so I agreed to change it with no animosity. In fact, I at times recommend her agency to prospective parents.

Sheila and Carol Anne hit it off very well on the phone. Carol Anne has a wonderful personality with a sweet southern accent that makes her very hard to dislike. We were assured with the fact that she had been through the process herself since that should make her understanding of our needs. She seemed to be very buttoned up about her business and confident. She did not come across like she was trying to sell you. She had the correct attitude of seeing if she was a fit for us rather than trying to prove she was.

Carol Anne also impressed us in some other ways. She really seemed to be all about the kids and concerned about the country as a whole. She was involved in a humanitarian project to help care for children who can’t be adopted. She worked with a hogar (orphanage) that focused on special needs and handicapped children who are hard to place with families. Her website was the only one that offered a history of Guatemala and its people. It was the only that told the plain truth about the CIA’s involvement in the devastating thirty-six year civil war that left an estimated two hundred thousand civilians dead. Despite the fact that President Clinton had formally apologized to the Guatemalan people for the US’s involvement, no other agencies felt the need to teach parents this basic of a knowledge about the country. Carol Anne also supported contact between the adoptive parents and the birthmother. This was something that we felt strongly about as well. We did want the birthmother to know good people adopted her child.

When push came to shove, we were confident with our decision to work with Carol Anne. We knew that there were no guarantees, yet she just seemed like the type of person that would understand us and meet our needs. So we signed a long contract that proved to us she was in fact a lawyer, mailed a deposit, and we had made it over one more hurdle.

Killing more trees
We were quickly overwhelmed with the array of documents that would come to be known as our “dossier”. With the exception of our money, this was basically everything we need to provide the Guatemalan side. There are a few things that made putting together our dossier a real bitch. And they are much the same as those that made the home study a challenge.

First off is trying to figure out exactly what they want and how you are supposed to get it. For example, all of the documents need to ultimately be “authenticated” by a Guatemalan Consulate in the United States. Which location of the Consulate is not a function of where you live but rather where that document originated. In addition, at the time, the list of states under the jurisdiction of any given Consulate seemed to be in flux. Even more confusing was trying to determine what you had to do to any document before it could go to the Consulate. The worst example was my birth certificate. It was issued by the City of New York. Before going to the Consulate in New York it had to first be certified by the state. In order to be certified by the state, it had to first go to the county so that they could certify that the person who signed it for the city was in fact legitimate. And this was of course after I had to order three copies of my birth certificate just in case we might need them.

The stream of documents was extensive. It included basic things birth certificates, marriage license, passport copies, employment verification, and new letters of reference (we got to weed out the idiot from the home study). There were also some interesting ones.

My favorite document was the name affidavit that has to list every name that could ever possibly be used to represent you. While I did not have to include “asshole” in the list, it was an exercise to try to come up with every possible combination of initials, abbreviations, and name combinations possible. See how you well you do on a first try. Start by taking your full legal name. Now imagine that for your middle name you use an initial. Now for your first name and your middle name you use an initial. Now for the first name you use an initial but you use the full middle name. Now what if you don’t use the middle name. Don’t forget with and without a surname. This was especially difficult for Sheila who has a maiden name, had a prior married name, and was not consistent with her use of being a hyphenated women like Hillary Rodham-Clinton.

The medical documents were a challenge this time as well. The ones for the home study of course would not work. This time the requirement was just a very simple letter from your doctor saying that you are generally healthy, HIV-free, sane, and capable of parenting a child. The kicker was that it had to be on the doctor’s stationary, signed, and notarized. This raised a variety of problems with Kaiser Permanente. As I mentioned before, they are not supportive of adoption and shame on them for that. Problem number one is that the doctors are not allowed to sign any letters of this sort. They first have to be approved by some mysterious office that can be quite elusive. This means it will inevitably have to be presented to a panel of lawyers to cover the corporation’s ass and make sure that they aren’t accepting liability if I go nuts and drop the child in a bathtub or something. Please let my sick humor represent the level of frustration I had with these people.

The next problem was that I had to somehow get them to put my words on their stationary. This would not be an easy task with a department that is very hard to reach on the phone and doesn’t have an open office in the medical facility. To solve this one, I actually doctored up a piece of letterhead by using stuff we had received in the mail from Kaiser. The third problem was that it had to be notarized. Unlike virtually every hospital in the United States from what I am told, Kaiser did not have a notary on staff. So I had to somehow get this office to contact me so that I could arrange an exact time for them to deliver the blessed little one paragraph letter to the doctor and hire a traveling notary to be there.

It is no joke that I know people whose insurance has been through Kaiser that just went to another doctor and paid full fees so that they could complete their dossier. The activist in me was not going to let that happen. I had made the decision that my HMO was going to provide this stuff and I was not going to pay them a penny to do it. I accomplished this goal with much perseverance. Without incriminating anyone I’ll just reveal that the mystery office did not come through and that while the folks that take the Hippocratic Oath may work for the evil corporation, they are human.

Only those that have been through the dossier collection process can understand what it is like. I’m sure those people have had a few laughs while reading this. You have to understand the mindset of the parent at this point. Very few agencies will refer a child to you until the dossier is completed. Even though you may still be waiting for your home study to be completed or your INS approval, you are on a mission to get these things done. It’s understandable because some of them can take some time. Realize that each of these documents has to go through the authentication process. Each time you have to send it off to some government office, it is out of your hands for an undetermined amount of time. There is always the risk of them getting lost. At times, there is also some doubt about whether you are sending it to the right place or if you’ve told them the exact thing you need done to it. In order to save time and feel protected that they won’t be lost, you use Federal Express or UPS to send them and have them returned to you.

The rush to have it done can make us not manage the process intelligently. For example, if there are five documents that all need to go the same Consulate, we send them one at a time as we have them rather than in one shot. It’s not stupidity at play. It is sanity! For once you have some bit of control in growing your family. You have things that YOU need to do to get it done. That is empowering as much as it can be frustrating. So while some of the things we do may not make logical sense and may cost us some money, they keep us sane as well.

The cost of putting this dossier together should not be overlooked. Notaries generally charge ten dollars per signature and significantly more if they are traveling somewhere to get it. Every city, state, and Consulate certification costs you another ten to twenty dollars. And for anyone not used to using overnight shippers, they are not cheap. So by the time you are done with the dossier, you have spent more than you thought.

There is a great feeling that comes from getting that last document back from a Consulate. Remember that in adoptions from Guatemala, you are matched with a child at the beginning of the process that essentially starts with an INS authorization and a completed dossier. So as soon as you have the dossier completed, you start to realize that your child may be alive already. At a minimum, the birthmother is in her third trimester. This is one of many of the feelings and emotions of adoption that is hard to put words to. But after all the waiting, knowing that your child is out there is very powerful. It’s also exciting because very soon you will have a face and name to connect to that dream known as your child.

Around this time, Sheila started spending a lot of time searching the photolisting websites. I’d joke with her that she was shopping for babies again. She knew that none of these kids would be ours because that’s not how the process works. But she knew we were so close to having a picture of our own, that it excited her to see all these other little Guatemalan angels.

Even though we had our dossier completed, we had not yet received our approval from INS. This was quite frustrating but unfortunately there was not much we could do about it. Their official “how long you should expect” was four months from the date they registered our application and cashed our check. It had been just about that amount of time so we knew we just had to be patient.

Patience was, of course, at its end.

Posted by Kevin at February 14, 2006 09:00 AM

I thought I would never get a laugh out of memories of assembling the dossier!!! Thanks for several. (We had to ask our agency about inclusion of my husband's more creative nicknames for the name affidavit!)I found the home study process to be more bothersome than what you describe. Of course, we had agency issues from the start, but I think a lot depends on the individuals doing the home study, the state's requirements, etc. Great chapter.

Posted by: malynn at February 14, 2006 03:47 PM

Thanks for the memories that thankfully are over!! My memory was that my first doctor's letter had to be done 4, yes four, times. The first two were the notary's fault. The third was a wonderful letter but had none of the information I needed. All's well that ends well.

Posted by: Cathy Stresing at February 14, 2006 04:56 PM

Oh my gosh that was funny - but sadly very true! I think the dossier process is a test. If you can complete it without killing someone (which I came close to doing to someone) then you are a good candidate for parenthood.

Posted by: karen at February 21, 2006 02:00 PM

We ARE one of those Kaiser families who paid full price to another doctor in order to complete our dossier. This way, we were able to stop listening to the excuses about not being able to sign stuff AND we were seen in 1 day, instead of the 2 months Kaiser quoted us!!!! After spending $30,000 on adoption fees, what was another $300??? :)

Posted by: brook at March 1, 2006 12:17 AM
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