THE PARENT TRAP
The week of November 30, 2014
Issue-17-Adoption-2500px

The promises and pitfalls of modern adoption

By Allen Weiner

A handful of heart-stopping moments live etched in your soul forever.

We left Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport on Saturday, Dec. 5, 1992, on a 24-hour trip with stopovers in Dallas, Miami, and Sao Paulo. Arriving at Brazil’s largest airport, we encountered a sensory overload of colors, sounds, and tropical aromas that signaled we were in another world, with one leg of our journey remaining.

My wife and I were facing the culmination of a nine-month international adoption process that began by spotting an ad in a Philadelphia newspaper for an attorney who facilitated adoptions from South America. What followed was a costly, and frustrating, timeline without definitive milestones: a home study, FBI background checks, the construction of a child-safe pool fence, and deeply personal conversations with a social worker. But it was mostly waiting, wondering when, or even if, the next step would ever come. For my wife and me, it was a lonely and often isolating trimester.

Our process led me to wonder, some decades later, if the Internet and social media—with vast global information and human resources just clicks away—had made the adoption process easier, simpler, and one in which social communities could lend their comfort, support, and money. I know we could have used it in some capacity.

After a two-hour connecting flight from San Paulo, dazed and bleary-eyed, my wife and I walked through customs at the Silvio Pettirossi International Airport in Asuncion, Paraguay. There we were met with a big smile by our attorney, Carlos, and his wife. There was no need to carry a sign—we stood out.

We gathered up our outsized suitcases, stroller, and personal belongings and crammed them into a subcompact car as we attempted to get our bearings. In somewhat broken English, Carlos said we were not going directly to our hotel; we were going to pick up our daughter. After a 10-month process, those words did not compute as we scanned the landscape from the airport to the child care center, some 20 minutes away.

Our child didn’t even come with the clothes on her back.

Twenty-two years ago, almost to the day, the next part of that fateful day is as vivid as if it occurred an hour ago. Once we reached the child care center (guardaria, in Spanish), we were told to wait in a small lobby for a few minutes. An older, gentle woman took us into a room filled with cribs, and there to the right was the crib with our daughter. She lay there smiling, wiggling her tiny toes. I reached down, picked her up and handed her to my wife. I remember the flowered shirt my wife was wearing as she looked with wonder at our small bundle, which she then handed to me. I walked over to the window, looked out into the sun and thought of my mother who had died 10 years earlier and whose name we were giving our daughter. Ceara.

As we left the guardaria, we were told something that was seriocomedic at the time, something we later realized was an indication as to the level of poverty in this landlocked South American nation. We were asked, when we arrived at our hotel, to return the outfit Ceara was wearing. Our child didn’t even come with the clothes on her back.

A mountain of misinformation

As our daughter emerges from the milestone of her college years and heads into the work world, my wife and I lately have spent a lot of time looking back at our rugged, roller coaster adoption process. We remember 1992 as a year filled with meetings, phone calls at all hours, faxes, and slow-moving exchanges through the U.S. Mail. Clearing one hurdle led to another. Things moved in perennial slow motion, leading to anxiety, sleepless nights, and feelings of frustration.

Back then, adoption was far from what we now think of as a social experience. Because of the potential fits and starts, such as a birth mother changing her mind at the last minute or necessary funds drying up, many prospective parents lacking a network of friends and family kept things to themselves. The days could become dark and depressing, even living in an area that boasts more than 360 days of sunshine.

The Internet has created a partial pivot in the world of adoption. Endless amounts of empirical information has been digitized on topics that range from detailed explanations about the complications brought about by the Hague Adoption Convention (for international adoptions) to state-by-state laws regarding birth mother visitation rights. After speaking with agencies and recent adoptive parents, far and away the biggest impact of our social Web appears to be the ability to connect with others for support, funding, and even finding that special child to bring into your life.

Rhode Island author Samantha Hines recounts the journey she and her husband took in adopting three boys over the period of a decade on her popular blog, My Three Sons. An English teacher by trade, Hines has gained a following due to the eloquent way in which is presents an unvarnished view of the adoption process. According to Hines, no matter how streamlined digital resources empower all parties in adopting, such input must be tempered by working with respected agencies and lawyers, and due diligence is necessary to sift through the mountain of misinformation online.

The most painful parts of the process are made easier but not eliminated in today’s digital world.

“This is a perennial struggle because there is plenty of good information that has not undergone a formal vetting process and plenty of misleading information wrapped in the guise of authority,” Hines told the Kernel. “Adoption and impending parenthood render us all vulnerable, and there is nothing on the Internet to protect us the way another human being schooled in the intricacies of the process can.”

Because Hines and her husband adopted their first child a decade ago, the number of resources online were still fairly nascent at the time, which forced them to gather much of their information through direct contact with social agencies. Those dual inputs of Web and practical face-to-face lessons proved to be extremely beneficial.

“I am grateful that my husband and I began our journey more than a decade ago,” Hines added. “I know myself well enough to know that if I were starting today, I would be up late at night at my computer reading anything and everything I could. For us, training with a nonprofit agency and having a skilled and empathic social worker ready to talk to us at any moment was ideal. “

Adoptions From the Heart is an East Coast-based full-service adoption agency that provides prospective parents with a full range of services, including home studies and assistance with individual state legal requirements. More than anything, Heidi Gonzalez, the assistant director for Adoptions From the Heart, believes her agency offers its clients a degree of grounding during an emotionally fragile time. This guidance is especially important in helping people separate fact from fiction in the wealth of online resources.

“You have to be really careful about these sources,” Gonzalez told the Kernel. “There is a lot of info but a lot of it is not correct.”

Gonzalez pointed to sites such as Adoptimist, which acts as a matchmaking service that brings together hopeful parents with birth mothers. Likewise, as a service to those wanting to become new parents, Adoptions From the Heart adds rigor to the matchmaking process. “We create (adoption profile) videos for families and we have a YouTube channel, as well as the ability to put those profiles on our Facebook page,” Gonzalez explained. “That allows us to monitor the interaction so we can weed out those looking to take advantage of our clients.”

In addition to false and often misleading information, there are circumstances that come about with the use of sites like Facebook that are a sign of our time. As Gonzalez explained, there are times when a prospective family has connected with a birth mother only later to find she has put up a post the hopeful parents find inappropriate. As intermediaries working for the benefit of all parties, there are times no one knows where to draw the line.

Things moved in perennial slow motion, leading to anxiety, sleepless nights, and feelings of frustration.

“With the introduction of these new services that provide people to ability to post a profile on the Internet,” Gonzalez said, “It opens them up to heartache and failure. They need to be savvied or working with an attorney or agency to act as a go-between.”

Building a social profile

In January, Emily and Michael (last name withheld) were going through the rigorous process of home studies and meeting the legal requirements of their home state. Now 10 months later, the couple has a 6-month-old baby boy. Emily’s credits her mastery of various online and social media tools for their success.

As prospective parents, the two focused on Adoptimist because, as Emily said at the time, “they have the most streamlined and savvied presence” of the sites that bring together birth mothers and prospective couples. But as she explained, it took more than just posting a warm profile with some cute photos to grab the attention of the right birth mother.

Emily made it her job to continually add to their online profile. With each additional photo or post, update messages were sent out to the community that she believes showed her and Michael’s sincerity, and their willingness to be open and vulnerable. She recounted their daily activities of getting their home ready for their hopeful new addition, adding visual reminders to cap her effort.

“I wanted people to know we were not perfect,” Emily said with a chuckle. “I enjoyed putting up a post telling everyone how Michael put regular gas in his diesel truck.”

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Photo via E & M Adopting

It was that willingness to put their personalities out there that clicked with one birth mother and led to their successful adoption. Emily began to speak with the birth mother over the phone, and even used Facetime to accompany her to a doctor’s appointment where Emily was able to see the baby’s heartbeat—the wonders of modern technology.

Emily’s father, a minister, made the event even more memorable by conducting an entrustment ceremony, which represents the bond between the birth mother, child, and new parents.

“We feel it is important for the voices of moms to be more present and visible and better understood,” Emily said of her desire to hold the ceremony. “I cannot image what is like to be in her shoes, so this was a way to provide a more personal way of marking a transition.”

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Crowdfunding adoption

Adoptions are expensive. Take it from me. In our case, if you add up legal expenses, the cost of a home study, background checks, photos, faxes, mailing, and travel, you are well over $25,000. In our situation, we spent two weeks in a hotel in Paraguay—just two inept, new parents attempting to take care of our newborn without a crib and a staff that barely spoke English.

Every day was a challenge, as we struggle to find the special formula we were told to feed our daughter, not to mention food for ourselves. The thousand or so dollars we brought for daily expenses could evaporate in a matter of days.

What made our situation challenging was the fact my wife and I were flat broke. It was my father who stepped forward to help us—for which we are eternally thankful. In the digital age, however, even those tight on finances are able to meet the costs of adoption.

“Adoption and impending parenthood render us all vulnerable.” —Samantha Hines

The Web offers many options for fundraising to accomplish this special mission. In Emily and Michael’s case, her sister put up a website to raise the money to over expenses. In lieu of shower gifts, people were asked to donate money to their cause, and the couple was able to cover their costs.

Others go wider in their approach to raising money for their adoption process by using crowdfunding. While Kickstarter, the dominant crowdfunding platform, prohibits personal financial assistance campaigns, leading competitors Indiegogo and GoFundMe have a large number of such efforts underway or completed.

Adoptions From the Heart’s Gonzalez, however, points out the need to have a thick skin if you take to the crowdfunding route for adoption financing. Not everyone is ready to a part of your experience, or have the financial bandwidth to be to contribute.

“It is a new step in the whole process,” Gonzalez said. “Depending on how you build your campaign, some people are offended so be prepared for some backlash.”

Some things never change

My wife reminded me recently that in the months leading up to our December 1992 departure for South America, we were subscribers to America Online, screeching modem and all. I have a vague memory of chatting with someone while playing Backgammon online, telling them my wife and I were soon off on our adoption adventure. Beyond that exchange, digital media in the form of nascent online services offered little help.

What if we had had high-speed access and an Intel box with an i7 chip? What if we were able to connect with other couples whose timeframes coincided with ours? What if we were able to look at the blogs, journals, and other resources to become experts on the people and culture of Paraguay? What if we built a Indiegogo site and asked for donations? And, what if we could have seen our new bundle of joy via Facetime or Skype before we left home?

Adoptions are expensive. Take it from me.

I’ll be honest—it wouldn’t have made a dime’s worth of difference. The most painful parts of the process are made easier but not eliminated in today’s digital world. We still would have gone to the local FBI office for fingerprinting. We still would have needed a lawyer in the U.S. and in South America. And no resource on the Web can take the place of fate or whatever spiritual force you belive in to bring the right child in your life.

If we had to do it again with modern tools at hand, we would have brought with a smartphone with international service to call our families rather than visit the local phone shop, which was both expensive and inconvenient. That’s really about it.

Yes, we could have blogged, shot video, and taken photos of our daughter’s every step, but we found the process personal and one that built memories so precious that sharing them would have somehow taken away some of the magic. Call us selfish, but each adoptive parents’ journey is their own.

Editor’s note: Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those mentioned.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Adoptimist.com and Adoptions From the Heart, as well as the name of the organization’s assistant director, Heidi Gonzalez.

 

Illustration by J. Longo