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Adoption has touched many of us in some way. You may know a family member, neighbor, colleague or friend who has adopted a child, was adopted, or has relinquished a child for adoption. Or perhaps you are one of the 1.7 million U.S. households with a child who is adopted.

There are various paths to adoption—domestic or international, public or private, infant or older child, trans-racial or trans-cultural—and each situation is truly unique. Three Orange County families share their personal stories of how this family-building method of choice has enriched their lives.

From Russia With Love

The Amy household in Laguna Hills just got busier. Barbara and Todd Amy brought home their new son, Joshua, in February. Older brother Nathan wasn't so sure about his little brother at first. The three-year-old felt some jealousy, as one might expect.

“Nathan isn't the center of the universe anymore,” chuckles Barbara, 44. “He has to deal with a new kid on the scene. Plus, he's got the ‘terrible threes.’”

It sounds like a typical situation for any family with a new addition, except that Joshua is not a newborn—he's 19 months old and was adopted from St. Petersburg, Russia (so was Nathan, at 12 months old.)
“You can't imagine the joy of adopting. It's just amazing the love you can feel for a child. We couldn't love these children more,” says Barbara.

The Amys chose to build their family through international adoption. The couple suffered through infertility and had ruled out in vitro fertilization (IVF). For them, IVP presented a religious and ethical dilemma of “creating life that won't make it” when remaining embryos not used for implantation are allowed to perish in the laboratory. Another factor included a diminishing IVF success rate for women in their late 30s and the stress and expense that go along with that.

“We wanted to be sure that we had children, and adoption is a guaranteed path if you meet all the criteria," says Barbara.

The predictability of international adoption appealed to the couple. They wanted to avoid both the competitive selection process of domestic adoptions and the complication of birth parents who have not voluntarily relinquished their parental rights.

“Internationally, the babies were waiting for us,” she says. “While there can be hiccups along the way, we felt more in control.”

For Nathan’s adoption, the Amys requested a boy from Russia between 9 to 18 months (newborns are considered first for in-country adoptions) with the best health possible. They received Nathan’s referral about three months into the adoption process. Todd and Barbara soon were on a plane to meet the nine-month old at his baby home in St. Petersburg.

As they entered the room to meet their future son, Barbara felt overwhelmed and in awe of the moment. The nervousness quickly faded as the couple found themselves on the floor playing with Nathan, a social and outgoing child with curly dark blond hair and golden eyes. Todd eventually laid his head down as they played, exhausted from the 22-hour overseas trip the day before. Nathan took his queue: he climbed onto Todd's chest and napped there for the next 45 minutes.

After spending seven hours with Nathan over two days, they signed in-country paperwork committing to the adoption. The Amys brought their son home three months later.

Meeting Joshua for the first time was equally awe inspiring. The blue-eyed, tow-headed then 14-month old was timid and shy. The Amys tread carefully to put him at ease. As Barbara approached, she was amazed to see him reach for her. Her heart melted. Joshua clung tightly to her, and she held him for the next two hours.
Parents and child bonded quickly in both instances. Today, Joshua still finds security in Barbara's arms. She says he's getting braver each day. Nathan, on the other hand, has always been very active and extroverted. He's the leader on the playground who loves dressing up in costumes and performing in front of a crowd.

Both boys lived in clean yet sparse baby homes in Russia. Built over a century ago, these baby homes resembled an old hospital crossed with an old house. Each institution cared for 100 children under the age of four. In Joshua's room, only three caregivers provided for the needs of 16 infants.

“It's not a preferable situation,” says Barbara. However, “(Nathan and Joshua) were cared for and truly loved. Their caregivers were attached to them and cried when both boys left. They do the best they can in the situation they have.”

Finalized adoption gave both Nathan and Joshua U.S. citizenship the moment they touched U.S. soil. The Amys are passionate about providing a better life through adoption. However, they caution not to view adoption as a rescue mission or philanthropic act.

“We use a phrase called 'eyes wide open' in adoption. You need to go into it with a real perspective, and not say that everything is going to be perfect. It's a lot of hard work. Parenthood is very much the same way,” says Barbara.

Nathan's adoption took six months to complete. The couple specified that the second child also come from St. Petersburg because they wanted their children to share a common heritage. This lengthened Joshua's adoption to nine months from start to finish. Recent Russian restrictions have extended the process to about one year.

Both adoptions were “closed,” in which the records of the birth parents are sealed and there is no future contact. The Amys chose closed adoptions as the best way for them to build their family without a constant reminder of the adoptions.

Still, Barbara and Todd wish they could give their boys a window into their pasts by sharing stories and information about their birth family heritages. Barbara says, "I feel the loss of not being able to tell my sons who their birth mothers were, what they looked like, their personalities, and their interests."

International adoption agencies charge fees between $7,000 and $30,000, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway. This excludes travel-related expenses and in-country fees. The Amys used Ohio-based European Adoption Consultants, an agency accredited by the Russian government. An in-state agency was also hired to conduct a home study on their personal backgrounds and home environment. This intense scrutiny was the most uncomfortable aspect of the process.

The most frustrating part? Lots of paperwork, says Barbara. Aside from copious in-agency application paperwork, Joshua's adoption required 60 to 70 legal documents, each requiring State of California authentication at $20 a piece. She estimates that international adoptions require twice the paperwork of domestic ones, since more government agencies are involved. It was all worth it, though.

“Adoption is a tremendous gift,” says Barbara. “I pray that (the birth mothers) know in their hearts how well these boys are being cared for and how well they're loved, and that they know the gift that they've given to us.”

The Transforming Power of a Family’s Love

Adoptive families come from all walks of life. Even so, Donna Carter of San Clemente explains that hers is outside the norm of adoptive foster care families.

“My husband and I don't fit the stereotype,” Donna says. “We live in South County near the beach. We're an older couple, and we are both working professionals.”

Donna, 49, and her husband Art, 57, waited 10 years after marrying before growing their family. She was 39 years old when she gave birth to son Teddy, now 10. They tried to conceive another child, but suffered miscarriages and unsuccessful infertility treatment.

“I thought, 'We can't be done.' I come from a family of four kids. I insisted that Teddy needed a sibling,” Donna says.

They soon contemplated foster care adoption.

"At my age, I didn't think I was physically up for parenting a newborn," she says.
Many families want to adopt a newborn, but the Carters were considering older children, sibling sets, and children of a different race from their own. What they were looking for could be found in the Orange County social services system.

The Carters were concerned that a child adopted from another country would have difficulty learning about the birth family. They were also unwilling to undertake the expense of private adoption after their costly infertility treatments (the county covers all adoption expenses and even provides a monthly assistance payment to foster and adoptive families).

Donna and Art spent the following year completing 100 hours of training through the County of Orange Social Services Agency. Classes explained the complications in children exposed to drugs, gangs, abuse and neglect. They also learned that children in the foster care system are removed from homes in every economic strata—from the poorest to the wealthiest—and from all ethnicities.

To become a certified foster family, they completed a home study that required a huge amount of paperwork documenting financial stability, their biographical and medical histories, and reasons for adopting. This was all compiled in a three-inch-thick adoption dossier.

The Carters were asked to state on the application their tolerance for medically fragile, drug-exposed and sexually abused children. “We were not equipped to handle that, so we indicated a 'low tolerance' on our application,” says Donna.

It was not long until their adoption worker found “the perfect child” for them in August of 2003. Hannah seemed like a natural fit for the family. Donna was amazed that the blond-haired, blue-eyed 18-month old looked “exactly like me.” They found Hannah to be resilient and strong, much like Donna.
Donna often uses the word “more” to describe Hannah now.

“She's more exuberant, more vivacious, more sensitive, more loving, more demonstrative,” says Donna. “I can always tell which artwork is Hannah's: it has more glue, more glitter, more beads and more crayon.”
The Carters met with her twice. Teddy got along immediately with his sister-to-be. So did Art.

“Art came home and she yelled, ‘Daddy!’ That sealed the deal for my husband," says Donna. Hannah moved in a few days later, coming with very little—a couple of dresses, some shoes, a few stuffed animals, and a blanket. The Carters also signed a letter of intent to adopt.

Hannah had been removed from her home at 14 months old because her birth mother was unable to care for her. The court had to decide that reunification was “incredibly unlikely” before terminating parental rights. This took an arduous 18 months. Hearings were scheduled, then repeatedly re-scheduled, when the birth mother failed to appear. The judge finally terminated her rights, but she appealed. The Carters waited another year until the appeal was denied.

“It was absolutely horrible,” Donna says. “We were in a state of limbo not knowing what the court would do. It was an incredibly stressful time for our family.”

The Carters had raised Hannah for two years by the time the adoption was finalized in September of 2005. Prior to that, she had lived in four other homes.

“When she first came, she didn't really like to be held. Now she's the biggest snuggler on the planet," Donna says of Hannah, now 6. "Even though she'd had this chaotic life, she was able to overcome that without any lasting scars. It's the love of the family that is the transforming object of the adoption process. She gets along beautifully with Teddy and they love each other so much. Our family right now could not be more normal.”

Donna adds, “Hannah (has) all the qualities we admire in adults, but in a kid. She's persistent, a leader, a thinker. She is busy all the time. She’s one of these kids who will make a mark on this world,” says Donna.
According to Donna, county adoptions are not for the faint of heart. Families need resolve to persevere. The long time frame and lack of guidance through the system were her toughest challenges. On the flip side, Donna says that families should not be afraid of the foster care system.

Would they do it all over again? Donna says she would.

“It's a different way of building a family, and for us it was a great way," she says. “People say Hannah is so lucky, but it’s the other way around. Our family is enriched with her."

The Gift of Open Adoption

Parents love to share their birthing stories, and adoptive couple Kimber and James Smith of Mission Viejo are no different. Kimber describes the 5 a.m. phone call four years ago from the birth mother saying “It's time.”

The Smiths scrambled and rushed to the hospital, and Kimber was there in the delivery room when son Corbin entered the world.

“It was an amazing gift to see my son being born," says Kimber, 36.

The couple went through four years of infertility. They had already decided that having biological children would be either "both of us or neither of us," ruling out sperm and egg donation. Meanwhile, adoption had always been a possibility.

“When we were dating, my husband had mentioned that he was open to adoption. I knew he was the man for me," Kimber recalls.

The Smiths attended a large adoption symposium where they spoke with experts and read literature about the different options available. Later, they interviewed every local agency and attorney they could. Kimber also gathered information from peers and professionals at the Orange County affiliate of RESOLVE: The National Infertility Organization.

In the end, the couple chose domestic independent adoption because James wanted to adopt a newborn. They believed that agencies provided more support services to birth and adoptive parents. Open communication between child and biological mother was also important to the Smiths, and they found this more common in private adoptions.

“If Corbin ever says, ‘Tell me about my birth mom,’ we can have her talk with him," Kimber says.
The Smiths chose Independent Adoption Center in Los Angeles because it allows birth mothers to screen adoptive families online. The couple liked that the Center helped parents adopt from any state in the country, ran an adoptive parents support group nearby, and charged mid-range fees of $13,000 when the Smiths adopted Corbin in 2003. The Child Welfare Information Gateway estimates that licensed private adoption agencies today charge fees between $5,000 and $40,000, exclusive of other expenses that may include travel and room and board.

James and Kimber quickly completed the extensive paperwork in just three months. The most difficult aspect was drafting the birth parent letter, which the Smiths wrote and re-wrote nine times. In their letter to prospective birth parents, James and Kimber wrote:

We believe that considering open adoption as a choice for you and your baby is one of the most generous and courageous things you can do.

We would want to include you in our child's future, and will ALWAYS let our child know what special people his/her birth parents are.

Our neighborhood is full of families and children who play in the grassy park near our home. We enjoy spending family time by going to Disneyland, dancing and singing, traveling, and playing in the backyard.
The values we base our marriage on, such as love, communication, compromise, and trust, are the same ones we intend to pass down to our children.

Family is, and always will be our number one priority.

“It's hard for anyone to play themselves up,” Kimber says. “We were going back to that ‘Pick me! Pick me!' stage. We felt we were so boring that no one was going to pick us.”

Then the wait began. Within nine months, two other birth mothers had interviewed the Smiths before Corbin’s birth mother contacted them. The call lasted 11 minutes.

“She said, ‘I just called to let you know that I picked you. I'm due in two weeks. See you in the delivery room!’” Kimber recalls.

The baby would be born in Nevada. The Smiths arrived a few days before the due date and met with the young, single birth mother to get acquainted. Later, in the delivery room, the biological mother decided not to hold the baby. Kimber waited to hold Corbin in the newborn nursery “out of respect for her.” It was only after the birth mother had signed her relinquishment papers a week later that she first held Corbin. The Smiths have photographs from this moment to share with him.

Corbin's adoption took 13 months from start to finish.

“It went rather smoothly and quickly,” she says. “We give a lot of credit to our agency for staying on the ball. It was so important to have someone right there for us and take us through every step.”

Kimber and James also have discovered some quirky connections between the birth mother and Corbin. For example, Corbin has a deep love for music; as it turns out, so does his birth mother. Corbin loves to suck his thumb, and the Smiths have traced this trait back to his birth mother, who also sucked her thumb as a child.

The bond between the Smiths and Corbin has been strong since day one.
“He is no different from any child who was born to me,” Kimber says. “I would do absolutely anything for him.”

Janet Otsuki is a freelance writer and stay-at-home mom. She lives in Laguna Niguel with her husband and daughter.

Adopting Attitudes: Shed Expectations To Ease Adjustment
Adoptive families and children may feel an instantaneous connection. For others, it can take weeks or months to bond. Whatever the case, an open and accepting approach can help ease the transition, according to experts.

The biggest pitfall is unrealistic expectations, says Suzette Spence, a Tustin-based Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.

“Some adoptive families think that they will be one big, happy family right away,” Spence says.
An adjustment period is crucial. While some adjust quickly, it may be extensive for others. Relieve the pressure for all family members, says Dr. Heather Browne, a Garden Grove-based Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist.

“Get rid of any game plan of what should happen,” says Browne. “Take away the judgment and expectation.”
Bonding may take a while in some cases. How bonding takes place depends on the child’s age and experiences, as well as the parent's experiences and expectations.

“Every child comes with his or her own history,” says Spence. “The more severe the neglect, the harder the attachment. It’s important to respect, understand and honor that history.”

To nurture self worth, Spence recommends that parents foster openness about the child’s adoption and heritage in a way that respects the birth parents. They can also create a “life book" for the child that includes a chronology of the child’s history, documents, letters, and photographs of the child and birth family.
Finally, embrace differences in trans-racial and trans-cultural adoptions.

“Celebrate where the child was born,” Browne says. “Let the child be your guide about continuing language and culture. Let that door be open.”

It’s ideal to work with a therapist prior to an adoption to help determine if all family members are in agreement about the adoption. Therapists also can help them develop realistic expectations about adjustment and acceptance. —Janet Otsuki



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