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As international adoptions rise, some wonder whether U.S. kids in foster system are forgotten

As international adoptions rise, some wonder whether U.S. kids in foster system are forgotten

Angelina Jolie adopted from Cambodia and Ethiopia. Madonna, as most of the planet knows, is adopting from Malawi. And ordinary Americans adopt foreign-born children by the thousands each year _ a rate that has tripled in the last decade.
But with close to 120,000 children waiting in the U.S. foster care system, what is driving the push in overseas adoptions? It's an emotional issue that goes to the heart of what people are seeking when they adopt a child _ and the obstacles they can face in this country.
"I'm happy to see any child adopted anywhere in the world," says Gloria Hochman of the National Adoption Center, based in Philadelphia. "But every time I see a story about a celebrity adopting, I always think, 'Why don't they look here?' It makes me wonder: Do they know there are children waiting here?"
Americans now adopt some 23,000 children overseas every year, according to immigration statistics. Domestically, numbers are difficult to come by. The best estimate is about 13,000-14,000 infant adoptions, and 52,000 child welfare adoptions _ the vast majority of those by foster parents or relatives, according to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. (The numbers do not include adoptions by stepparents, about 40 percent of all adoptions.)
One key factor in rising international adoptions is that the supply of healthy U.S. infants has been dwindling for decades. Birth control and legal abortions have reduced the number of unwanted births. And our values have changed: The stigma attached to unwed mothers has been greatly reduced, so more mothers are keeping their babies.
Supply has diminished, but demand is strong: Mothers are waiting longer to start families, meaning they may find themselves unable to conceive. And the majority of families considering adoption want infants; it is the closest thing to having one's own baby, to make an imprint from the start of life, to experience each stage of childhood.
The rise in foreign adoptions is just one part of what Adam Pertman, executive director of the Donaldson Institute, calls a "revolution" in adoption. "Many kids do not look like their parents," says Pertman, author of "Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America." "New cultures are coming into peoples' homes. People are understanding that families can be formed in different ways." Gay adoptions are another part of this revolution.
As to whether families should focus more on needy children here at home, Pertman says all kids need homes. "Turning it into a competition isn't right for anyone involved," he says.
The top source for Americans is by far China, where there were about 8,000 adoptions (virtually all female) to U.S. families in 2005. Adopting from China "is a more viable option for many people," says Lacee Steigerwald, outreach director for the Great Wall China Adoption agency in Austin, Texas. She says people often come to her agency after frustrating experiences trying to adopt domestically, often when birth parents have changed their minds. "People come to us with horror stories," Steigerwald said. "They've been let down one, two or three times."
In interviews, a number of families echoed that concern about domestic adoption _ that they would become emotionally or financially invested, only to have a birth parent change their mind. (All states have different laws defining how long a birth parent has to change their mind, ranging from 0 to 45 days.)
"One of the things parents want is the finality that this is their child," says Will Ahern of Chanhassen, Minnesota. He and his wife adopted their daughter, Summer, now 8, from China at 15 months, and he says the process has been "perfect" _ "every morning I wake up and celebrate how cool it is."
Kathy Bargar and her husband also chose China when they were ready to adopt. In May, the couple from Danville, California, brought home bright-eyed Gracie, now 2, who had been abandoned at birth in front of an auto parts store in the city of Chengdu _ accompanied only by a note, on which was written her birth date and gender.
"We chose China because it's a stable, predictable program," Bargar said. But also, the couple feared domestic adoption might be difficult _ partly because they already had one biological daughter, and they thought they might be less marketable to a birth mother, who might think they would favor their biological child. Also, she says, "America views the birth mother as having the first right to a child."
Now, thrilled to have Gracie, Bargar says she would consider all options if she adopts again. "I didn't want the involvement of a birth mother, but now I see how it could be helpful and wonderful," she said.
Some parents throw themselves into the culture of the country they have chosen. Allison von Gruenigen, of Knoxville, Tennessee, is awaiting news from China within days. To prepare, the 45-year-old single-mom-to-be has been attending Chinese New Year celebrations, dance festivals, and language classes. She gets huge support from an ever-growing national network of parents who have adopted in China.
"It was a natural choice to go through China," says von Gruenigen, who has a Chinese-born niece. But she is keeping her mind open for the future. "I know how many kids domestically need a home," she says. "If I see that I'm doing a good job, I might adopt here at some point."
Proponents of domestic adoption acknowledge that huge obstacles exist for families willing to adopt older children. In Georgia, Andrea Shoemaker works for the group Wednesday's Child, making three-minute films for local TV about kids waiting to be adopted, most ages 8-18.
"We have a lot of families who are willing to step up to the plate," Shoemaker says. "But they get frustrated. The process is difficult. We're not really doing our job to nurture these families, train them, help them before things get too difficult."
Janice Goldwater can attest to that. Goldwater and her husband decided to add to their family when the first of their three natural children went off to college. They adopted Elyana, then almost 10. The child had been removed from her birth family in Siberia for abuse and neglect, then spent three and a half years in an orphanage there. She then was adopted by a New York family that was ill-prepared and could not keep her.
"There have been lots of challenges helping her heal and teaching her to love and to trust," says Goldwater, of Silver Spring, Maryland, who is a founder of the Adoptions Together agency. "It's been very, very hard and very, very valuable."
In the adoption process, Goldwater said she was "shocked at how many roadblocks we came up against." Workers were overloaded with cases. It was hard to find the kids in the system. They considered one child, but relatives in the military expressed interest, so it fell through. Then, the relatives never followed through.
Goldwater supports foreign adoptions, but worries that some high-profile celebrity adoptions might be for the wrong reasons. "People shouldn't adopt to make a political statement," she says.
One of the most moving moments for her, she says, was the moment she was looking for something to write on a card announcing Elyana's adoption. Elyana said maybe she could help, and she composed a poem on the spot.
"First my heart said never," read the closing lines. "But now we are a family forever."


Updated : 2021-10-22 11:25 GMT+08:00