A journey of 19 months and 15,480 miles
Sunday, September 25, 2005
Truth be told, most adoption stories do not start out with two people sipping neon-orange-colored rum drinks by a pool in the Dominican Republic.
My agenda on our no-kids-allowed, four-day vacation included rest, relaxation and plowing through a stack of magazines. But everything seemed to stop when I read a story about a 4-year-old girl adopted from China and her quest to find other orphans a home. It gave me goose bumps. I read it over and over. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced: Adoption was the right decision for my family.
It did not seem right to let Rachel, our 5-year-old biological daughter, grow up an only child. She is a kind "old soul" with lots of untapped love. She wanted to be, and would be, a great big sister. I loved having siblings and I wanted our daughter to grow up knowing she had a soul mate, someone to turn to long after her father, Michael, and I depart for that big beach resort in the sky. I knew Rachel would be more than on board.
I was convinced, too. Just a little more than 7,000 children were adopted from China by U.S. families in 2004, according to adoption.com. Most of those available for adoption are girls ages birth to 6 years old who are living in orphanages.
Biological parenting was an option, but adoption appealed to my sense of mission and the need to chip away at the problems of this world. Michael was slow to warm up to the idea. He felt that adoption was more of a gamble than biological parenting. I was sure he got his information from an episode of "The Three Stooges." And how do you rationalize with a man who considers Larry, Moe and Curly movies to be scientific documentaries?
I countered with National Geographic’s "China’s Lost Girls," a documentary about American families who adopted girls as well as the Chinese parents forced to give up their daughters. It was a sad story with happy endings for adoptive parents as well as their new daughters.
It was a good choice; Michael was sold.
So, with our family ready, I realized my relaxing drink by the pool was the beginning of a 19-month, 15,480-mile, life- changing journey to find our daughter, Lisa Mei-Lin.
The adoption process
The journey started with a host of decisions to make and things to consider: open vs. closed adoption; domestic vs. international.
If it’s domestic, private agency vs. state. If it’s international, what country? Can we choose the sex of our child? Do we want a young infant or an older child? Does it matter if the child is a different race? Is there an age limit for parents? Do we get information about the family’s medical history or the birth mother’s prenatal care? How do you choose an agency? Who does the home study? What are the costs and how do they differ by agency and by country? Do we need to travel or can we pay an agency to escort our child back to the United States?
The list goes on and on and required some soul searching to determine how we, as a family, honestly felt about these issues.
Each family must choose the best fit. It is a personal decision and there is no one answer that is "right" for everyone.
We made a grid and narrowed it down. We considered that domestic and private adoptions can be a long and frustrating with no guarantees. Being older parents, we did not like that uncertainty and did not feel we could wait it out. For us, international adoption from China was the best choice.
The paper chase
With international adoption, once you finish the paperwork and get approval, there is always a baby waiting for you somewhere in the world. Sounds simple, right? There is just one thing—finishing the paperwork.
In my line of work, I am required to have a high-level federal security clearance. That process was not nearly as extensive as our adoption background checks. The paperwork involved in adoption—especially international adoption—is intrusive and at times overwhelming. It doesn’t matter if you are adopting, pregnant or taking infertility treatments; the pre-parenting gods sprinkle you with heavy doses of frustration.
The adoption agencies tell you they want two years of tax returns. But I couldn’t just copy the returns. To meet the requirements, the agency has to make a formal request to the IRS for the returns. You must be fingerprinted by the federal immigration service and you need an FBI background check. You also need a background check from local law enforcement and from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. All of these separate steps are good things for a prospective parent. But taken together, it’s a lot.
Fortunately, our adoption agency, Harrah’s Family Services in Spring, Texas, provided us with great resources and pushed me when I wanted to give up.
From beginning to end, the paperwork took about nine months. (And the total price tag, from passports to airplane tickets to presents to fees, was $28,000.) A more organized person could have probably done the paperwork in five months, but then we would have gotten a different daughter. As Rachel likes to say, "The judge in China that picked Lisa found the perfect baby for us."
It was meant to be. Procrastination finally paid off.
Our paperwork went to our agency, which sent it to the Chinese Consulate of Adoption Affairs, a government agency, on April 23, 2004. It was beginning to feel real.
Then, we waited. This part of the process is similar to pregnancy but without the weight gain.
Our agency would not give us any more information, because, I imagine, they do not want to commit to dates and disappoint soon-to-be parents.
So, left to their own devices, adoptive parents from around the world talk to one another via listservs. It is a connected, worldwide community.
Periodically, (OK, everyday) I checked the Internet to see if China had sent out a batch of referrals. ("Referrals," sent out by the government, match you with a child. And while they go methodically in order of when the applications were received, the government sends out a bunch of these referrals at one time. It is a big internal queue and you have a good sense of where you are in line.) Families from across the globe were all checking these sites and communicating any and all information, rumors and hunches. Antonio from Spain and Julia from Australia were our best sources as to when the Chinese government would send the next batch. They would not say where they got the information, but soon-to-adopted parents from around the globe hung on their every word.
It is a strange situation. You know you have a child living halfway across the globe but you know nothing about her. You just hope and pray that people treat her kindly and do their very best to take care of her.
Every night, Rachel and I would pray and ask God to keep our baby and all the other babies living in orphanages safe until their mommies and daddies come to get them. We had decided to name her Lisa, so we would end our prayer with "Keep Lisa safe … wherever she is."
On Oct. 13, 2004, it finally happened. Terry from the adoption agency called and said, "Congratulations, Mom." It was a very emotional moment. Terry gave me all the important details about our little Lisa: She is beautiful; from the Hunan province; 13 months old; 17 pounds; light sleeper. Then I waited for what seemed like years for the agency to e-mail her picture. It was wonderful to see her little face and to finally put a face on a dream.
She seemed very serious, with a concerned look on her face and clenched fists. I walked down State Street to meet Michael and he proclaimed her to be a "cute little bunny."
When we walked into our house, I told Rachel and gave her the picture and she was actually stunned for a moment. "Mommy, is this my baby sister? I finally have a baby sister!" I am sure I will have many wonderful memories of my girls but no matter what else happens in life, this will always stand out as one of my favorites.
Preparation and purchases
We had six weeks before we picked up Lisa but we needed every minute of it to prepare.
There was more paperwork. We needed visas, we needed travel arrangements. We also had a lot of shopping to do. We finally knew Lisa’s size and could buy clothes and diapers.
Also, we needed to bring gifts for the orphanage: the nannies, the executive director, the children left behind and one large gift from all the families. This is all voluntary but it is the right thing to do.
We carried four suitcases on the plane and shipped a 30-pound box.
The hardest part of our 16-day trip was leaving our 5-year-old Rachel behind. Despite our best planning, it was tough for her to say goodbye and tough for us as well.
Once we left, we faced two plane rides for a total of 17½ hours. From Chicago to Los Angeles, and Los Angeles to Guangzhou, which was near Lisa’s home province. (The city is bigger than New York City. China has the biggest cities you have never heard of.)
The plane was filled with 30 to 40 families from all over the world going to pick up children.
Dec. 6, 2004, was the day we finally met Lisa. (This initial meeting is known in adoption circles as "gotcha day.") We arrived at the Civil Affairs Office in the Hunan Province. The office was next door to a grade school. As we stepped off the bus, children were hanging out the school windows saying "hello" in English. Most were boys.
As we left our bus, new families were leaving the office with their new, mostly crying daughters. What must be going through the minds of the watching school children? I needed to do a gut check as I watched the families streaming out of that building. It was clear that these children were terrified and traumatized. Were we doing the right thing?
We did not wait long. It was a well-oiled machine. Our appointment was at 9:30 a.m.; the children got there at 9:30 a.m. We were one of 11 families waiting in a room when our daughters and their nannies streamed in. I recognized Lisa, and my first impression was that she looked worried. Other babies seemed oblivious, some slept, but Lisa looked around the room with clenched fists, hunting for clues.
When they called our name, I took Lisa from her nanny and thanked her for Lisa’s care. That is when the crying —correction, wailing—began. She was inconsolable and looked at me as if I were from Pluto.
I wondered again if we were doing the right thing. Gone was my confidence about a decision I knew was right. And gone was my fantasy about a little girl who melts right into your neck at the first meeting.
The first 24 hours were rough. She just wailed. When we got to the hotel, I peeled off her four layers of clothing (it was 70 degrees). She wailed.
She had a rash all over her body, long, dirty fingernails and a thong-like diaper that was held up by a bungee cord around her waist. I also noticed that her head was flat in the back (too much lying on her back in the crib?) and that she could not sit by herself. She wobbled like a bobble-head doll and could not crawl. All of this was not surprising and consistent with institutionalized children.
Thankfully, we were prepared. We bathed her (very traumatic), clipped her nails (torture for all of us) and layered on the medication (the straw that broke the camel’s back). The first smile came unexpectedly, when Michael, who had to leave, said "Bye bye" and waved. Two great big, beautiful dimples appeared. But that was brief. Otherwise, she was inconsolable.
The next day, she laughed, not a baby giggle, but a belly laugh. The kind of laugh that makes other people laugh. She slept a lot those first two or three days. She was exhausted. She took four-hour naps and slept 12 hours each night. By day three, she leaned in and gently touch her forehead to Michael’s or she rubbed her mouth all over my face and gave me baby kisses. The dark clouds had lifted. Yes, I could finally say, we’d done the right thing. But the tears were not yet over.
Back to the USA
The flights home, another 17½ hours, were awful. I think people wanted to throw us out at 35,000 feet. Lisa cried for nine hours on the first 13-hour flight.
She finally stopped crying when we landed in Los Angeles on Dec. 16, 2004. She never slept and we were ending a 36-hour day of travel.
When we exited the plane, I put Lisa’s feet on the ground and said, "Welcome to America. You are now an American."
The flight to Chicago was more crying, until we arrived home at 6:30 a.m.
Rachel, who awakened when she heard us come in, walked down the stairs. It was a lovely moment. Rachel was so excited she just showered Lisa with kisses. Lisa was not into this, nor was she into sharing the person she had come to accept as Mom.
I knew it would take time and it did. But within three days, Lisa was very attached to all of us. Lisa has grown to love her big sister as much as Rachel loves her. When Lisa touched her forehead to Rachel, I knew it would be fine. Rachel wanted to make sure that I wrote about how much she loves Lisa and how she thinks that Lisa "is the best baby in the universe and the city."
The two keep each other amused for hours. Lisa does not yet speak English, (but understands it) and Rachel does not speak Mandarin. But together they speak the language of sisters.
Rachel periodically asks me why we cannot adopt all the babies in the orphanage. It is a hard question to answer, but I try to tell her that we all need to do our part. When asked about our adoption story, I always tell people that if everyone would just take one child, the world would be a better place.
Road map for our adoption journey
These are things we considered when selecting our adoption agency:
- Decide if you are adopting domestically or internationally.
- Ask family, friends and coworkers who have adopted about their experiences and recommendations.
- Make sure the agency is licensed by the state where it is located.
- If you chose international, use the State Department’s Web site (http://travel.state.gov/family/adoption/ adoption_485.html) to narrow your choices. Once you select a country, it is easier to search for agencies, since they specialize in countries. Two other good Web sites are Rainbowkids.com and Adoptivefamilies.com.
- Delete any agency if it: has typos on its Web site or literature (if the agency is sloppy with its literature, it may be sloppy in its work); has religious references you are not comfortable with; lacks experience in international adoption; lacks staff working in the country you selected (this is a big help when you are traveling); or waits months before sending out your completed application or dossier. Some smaller agencies batch their applications until they have enough to make it worth their while. This can add weeks or months to your wait time.
- Get literature and an application from your finalists and compare costs line by line.
- Check your finalists with the Better Business Bureau to see if anyone has filed complaints against them.
Adoption reforms make state a national model
by Julie Tye
The Illinois Adoption Reform Act, signed into law by Gov. Rod Blagojevich this summer, makes Illinois the model for children’s rights as well as those of birth parents and adoptive parents.
The bill does a number of things. Key among them is the elimination of profiteering among agencies placing children with adoptive families and the regulation of out-of-state placement agencies and facilitators.
Out-of-state agencies will no longer be allowed to advertise in Illinois without aligning themselves with a licensed, Illinois-based, nonprofit agency. The law was passed in the wake of the Baby Tamia case.
In that case, Tamia’s mother, Carmen McDonald, was suffering from postpartum depression when she was pressured to place her infant daughter for adoption with a Utah-based agency doing business in Illinois.
After a bitterly contested struggle with prospective adoptive parents who had a history of drug abuse, Tamia was returned to her mother and grandmother in Illinois.
Specific provisions of the new law include:
- Requiring all private adoption agencies to be tax exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code by August 2007, which eliminates opportunities for profiteering.
- Requiring adoption service providers to be licensed as child welfare agencies.
- Establishing a statewide adoption complaint registry and a toll-free number for the public to help families find out whether the agency they are considering has a history of licensing violations.
- Requiring adoption service providers to disclose policies, fees and any circumstances relevant to a child’s placement (such as his health) to prospective adoptive parents before adoption proceedings.
- Banning unlicensed organizations or individuals from advertising adoption services in Illinois and establishing penalties for deceptive advertising by adoption agencies.
- Establishing a Bill of Rights for both birth parents and adoptive parents.
Julie Tye is the president and chief executive officer of The Cradle, a nonprofit, licensed and accredited adoption agency in Evanston founded in 1923. For more information, call (847) 475-5800 or visit www.cradle.org.