A World of Possibilities: International Adoption

By Leslie Granston '88

Lilia Hutchinson, 6, is missing two of her bottom teeth and wears Harry Potter-esque wire-rimmed glasses. The glasses can be a bit of a problem, because Lilia — who is already an avid gymnast and, as her mother describes her, “a perfect little sprite” — keeps accidentally breaking them. Lilia’s lovable feistiness isn’t limited to the gym. When she gets angry at her parents, she reminds them, “I’m Chinese and you’re not!” Lilia is the daughter of Susan Thomas ’75 and Steve Hutchinson ’71. The couple adopted Lilia and her younger sister Jenna, 2, from rural provinces west of Shanghai, China. “This experience has made my life full and wonderful,” said Susan, “and probably more interesting than if I had biological children.”


Before Lilia and Jenna came into her life, Susan had spent 20 years working as a happy, hard-charging professional in the marketing and financial services industries. In 1995 she married Steve, who had two children from his previous marriage (Grant, now 19, will be a sophomore at Vassar in the fall, and Anne is now 15). Conceiving and raising a baby wasn’t even a concern for Susan until she reached her 40s. “I, like many women of my age, worked like crazy,” she said. “I had my Harvard M.B.A., I made money, and I was doing well. I didn’t focus on having a baby, and when I did think of it, I thought that medical science was so good that I wasn’t going to be slowed down in any way.”


But she was. And after a couple of years of unsuccessful fertility treatments, Susan and Steve decided to investigate international adoption. As is true of many people who adopt, they began the process with mixed feelings. “For me, it was hard to give up on the idea of a child who would have my blue eyes, which are my best physical attribute,” said Susan. “When we began thinking about adoption, I was in a sad mode.” Despite these and other reservations, the couple decided to follow their hearts to China, where their new daughters were waiting.


Susan and Steve are representative of a growing demographic: The number of Americans who adopt children from overseas has increased steadily since the Korean War. More recently, the number of immigrant visas issued by the U.S. government to orphans entering the United States (the measure by which the number of international adoptions is gauged) has jumped dramatically. In 1989, just over 8,000 such visas were issued to orphans; in 2001, that number rose to more than 19,000. China, Russia, South Korea, and Guatemala are among the countries from which Americans most frequently adopt children.


Although the number of international adoptions has been on an upswing, several factors are slowing down the trend, according to Jill Cole, director of international adoption for Spence-Chapin Services, a nonprofit adoption agency in New York City. “Many countries prefer to have children stay with family. The next choice is domestic adoption in the country of origin. And the last choice is placement out of the country,” she said. “In the last several years, international adoptions have become quite volatile given certain political changes, issues within a particular country, and the willingness of families to travel. This past year has been characterized by a number of solid international programs slowing down, going on hold, and then re-opening.”


Even when a country is open to international adoption, prospective American parents must meet the criteria set by that country. For instance, the majority of countries prefer adoptive parents under age 50, several countries have recently closed to singles, and none will knowingly place children with same-sex couples. (“Adoption by same-sex couples is rarely a problem these days in domestic adoption. Most all agencies have gay and lesbian couples in their domestic home study groups,” Cole noted.)


Although gay and lesbian couples have adopted internationally, there is a growing concern that publicizing these cases could make the situation even more tenuous. In a recent Miami Herald article on domestic and international adoptions by gay and lesbian couples, a gay man who adopted from outside of the United States (but deliberately withheld the name of the country), commented on the state of international adoption. “It’s always changing. You cannot be out in any foreign country.... The more some of these countries find out about gay adoption, the more they are closing the doors.” (The VQ spoke to two gay and lesbian members of the Vassar community who have adopted internationally. While one was more than willing to share, the other did not want to be interviewed so as not to bring additional attention to this sensitive matter. The VQ chose not to include either story because of this concern.)


Another hot-button issue is the lack of centralized international adoption regulations in the United States. Right now, each state follows its own set of regulations. However, the country is nearing participation in the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, whose aim is to implement an internationally agreed-upon set of adoption standards to protect the rights of children. One of the Convention’s requirements is that each participating country must have a centralized authority on international adoption; in the United States, that authority will be the State Department.


According to Sharon Kaufman, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Joint Council on International Children’s Services, the U.S. centralization is still in progress, with an anticipated completion date of 2003 or 2004.


In addition to satisfying the criteria of the foreign country from which they adopt, prospective parents must also meet the regulations of their state and the requirements of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, whose role in international adoption is to review home studies — an exhaustive background report on an adoptive family compiled by a social worker or agency licensed to perform home studies — as well as FBI fingerprint checks and other security measures to ensure that children are not brought into the United States for immoral or illegal purposes. Regarding INS policy on gay and lesbian adoption, author Lee Varon writes in Adopting on Your Own: The Complete Guide to Adopting as a Single Parent (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), that the INS “does not expressly prohibit gays and lesbians from adopting children.”

All of the parents interviewed by the VQ concur that to adopt internationally is to master a mountain of paperwork. Financial statements, criminal background checks, and the home study are just some of the commonly required documents for the dossier that parents must send to the child’s country of origin for approval. And even when the paperwork is done, hopeful parents can’t always obtain a thorough health profile of their children from thousands of miles away. The entire process can take more than a year, and parents can expect to pay average adoption costs (including agency fees and travel) of $20,000 to $25,000 per child. (The good news is that the U.S. government has recently implemented an adoption tax credit of up to $10,000 for eligible completed adoptions.)


With all the potential roadblocks in store for those who want to adopt a child from overseas, why choose this type of adoption over a domestic one? There are as many reasons as there are adoptive parents. However, Spence-Chapin’s Jill Cole believes that people who feel drawn to international adoption tend to share a few key characteristics. “International adopters are often adventurous,” she said. “They tend to enjoy traveling and learning about other cultures.” Susan Thomas is candid about her reasons: “It’s just less emotionally complicated than a domestic adoption, where a birth mother can change her mind,” she said. “Plus, I couldn’t stand going through another woman’s pregnancy when I so recently wasn’t able to have a baby.”

For Susan and her husband Steve, no mountain of paperwork was too high to overcome. After they sent their dossier to China, they had to cool their heels for six months. Finally, they were sent Lilia’s medical report — and her photograph. “Of course we fell in love,” said Susan. In August 1996, the couple flew to Beijing with nine other families who were also adopting through their New York City-based agency. “We had a chance to see the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and the Temple of Heaven,” said Susan. “Our agency had a liaison there who helped us through everything.” Then they flew to Hefei, where they stayed in a hotel for a week, waiting for six-month-old Lilia to be brought to them from the orphanage where she lived. Finally, the moment of truth arrived. “We had been told to be in our rooms at 8:30 a.m. one morning,” Susan recounted. “On the appointed day, the phone rang. We were told that the baby was on her way. There was a knock on our door, and the caregiver handed her over and said, ‘She’s been fed, and she needs a diaper change.’ Suddenly we had this baby. We were blown away.”

Four-and-a-half years later, Susan and Steve went back to China (with daughters Anne and Lilia in tow) to adopt Jenna. Now the family eats home-cooked Chinese food every Sunday and celebrates the Chinese New Year. Susan, Steve, and Lilia are studying Mandarin. And they are all committed to continuing family traditions that nurture the girls’ Chinese heritage. “This experience has been even better than my expectations,” reflected Susan. “It’s just the greatest thing.”


July 15 is Family Day for the Longenbaugh/Sherwood household. On that summer day in 1995, Leslie Longenbaugh ’80 returned to the United States from Moscow with her newly adopted four-year-old son, Dmitri John Longenbaugh Sherwood (now affectionately known as Jack). On that day, Jack met his father — Leslie’s husband, Jon Sherwood — and his big sister Jane. And ever since that day, the foursome celebrates July 15 with a dinner out, savoring the story of Jack’s adoption along with the meal.


Jack’s long road to his family began when Leslie and Jon had trouble conceiving a second child. “We had always considered adoption a very likely alternative,” said Leslie. “It was important to us to give a home to someone who would likely otherwise have spent childhood without enough to eat, without adequate medical care, and without an education. So when Jane was four we stopped trying to conceive and started exploring adoption.”


Leslie and Jon found a nonprofit agency with an international program in Vladivostok, Russia, which is the sister city of Juneau, Alaska, where they live. “Having had a baby in the house once, we were open to older, harder-to-place children,” said Leslie, “and most adoptions in the United States seemed focused on babies.” They had no preference about the gender of the child, either, but they did want a child younger than Jane, who was almost five years old at the time. “Our agency sent us photos of a half-dozen children, but they were all older than our daughter. It wouldn’t have worked for any of us to force Jane into a younger-sister role,” Leslie said. Finally, the agency sent Leslie and Jon a photo of a three-year-old boy with straight brown hair, brown eyes, and a wide mouth. “When I saw Jack’s picture, I knew he was my son just as surely as I knew that Jane was mine when she was born,” recalled Leslie.


Then came the wait, the canyon between first seeing the picture of the child and bringing him or her home that most parents who adopt internationally must endure. For Leslie and Jon, the wait lasted seven months, with a high-wire moment when they were given alarming news by Russian authorities. “They realized that the birth mother’s signature had not been notarized or was otherwise faulty, and they thought they would have to try to find her and obtain another one,” said Leslie. “Finally, the Russian government decided that it could proceed without the new signature.”


With the required paperwork signed, sealed, and delivered, Leslie brought Jack home for his first Family Day, and now he is an athletic, social, and affectionate 11-year-old. “He still holds my hand sometimes when we walk down the street,” she said, “and then he remembers he’s cool and stops.”


Adopting a child can be a Herculean feat; becoming a family is an even nobler task. According to Margaret Hellie Huyck ’61, a professor at the Institute of Psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, this is a complex process for everyone involved. “An essential assumption about parenting is that we parent our own — ‘bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh,’” she said. “Anything that conveys clearly that this has not happened is regarded as deviance by many in our culture.” Children face their own set of challenges, especially as they approach adolescence, when issues of identity are paramount. “They can become aware that some in their social world regard them as not possibly belonging to the person(s) they regard as parents and family,” Huyck said. “This has to be jarring and hurtful.” Huyck believes that acknowledging and nurturing a child’s original heritage — as the families the VQ interviewed are doing — is key. “Parents have to be prepared to become advocates for social justice on behalf of their children and all others,” said Huyck, “and they can look forward to surprise and delight, and a shared journey of discovery.”

Even when an ending is happy, adoption often involves a loss of some kind. Adoptive parents may have lost their idealized images of a biological family with two parents, two kids who look just like them, and one white picket fence. Children may have lost a link to the past. But if the families the VQ has interviewed are any indication, it’s true that the essential ingredient in a family is love. And although their journey may not follow a prescribed path, Leslie and Jon and Susan and Steve seem to have discovered that life can be even richer on the road less traveled.

Interested in international adoption?


Adoption advocates, experts, and parents alike all say that doing your homework before proceeding with an international adoption is crucial. "The Internet is a good place for information, but not always the best place for the adoption," said Spence-Chapin's Jill Cole. "Parents should always check to see that an agency is licensed to work in their state, is a member of Joint Council on International Children's Services and has accreditation from COA (the Council on Accreditations). They should also ask for the names of families who have adopted (successfully and unsuccessfully) from that agency." The following resources are good places to start your research on international adoption.


Leslie Granston ’88 is a freelance writer and editor in New York City and a member of the VQ’s advisory committee.