Many aspiring parents in Hudson County have arrived at adoption after heartbreaking run-ins with in vitro fertilization, unforeseen health impediments, or other roadblocks to biological parenting. For others, adoption is the first stop on the baby chase. Either way, it can be an arduous road paved with delays, obstacles, and red tape. But the destination can bring a lifetime of rewards.
Adoption fees can run as high as $25,000 for an international agency adoption. Americans can adopt only from countries that have signed on to the 1993 Hague Adoption Convention, which protects children and families involved in international adoptions.
“There are so many kids already here in the world who need a loving family.” – Amanda Grant
The adoption community
On a rainy morning last February, a group of about 80 people interested in all aspects of adoption gathered at the W Hotel, filling a room to capacity. That forum was sponsored by the Hoboken law offices of Kimberly K. Glatt. Though an all-purpose firm, family law is a major focus.
Over the years, a few things have changed about adoption.
One is an increase in open adoptions that involve the birth mother. The biological parents of adopted children can make an agreement to visit the child a number of times per year, or to be very involved in the process of choosing the child’s adoptive parents.
Another change is the definition of family. All candidates are in the running to adopt these days – single, gay, straight, young, older, married, unmarried, with kids, childless, it runs the gamut. Certain agencies do have an age limit.
According to Conlin, diminished secrecy over the past 20 years has led to more “nontraditional” adoptive parents.
She said there is “less judgment of one’s gender, marital status, sexual orientation, or even age as an indicator to ‘successful’ parenting.”
A third change is the number of people wanting to adopt. There were 50,000 adoptions in the United States in 1944, and in 1992, the last year for which reliable numbers were available, there were almost 127,000.
A variety of factors, including increased access to birth control, the legalization of abortion, and changed social attitudes about unmarried parenting, have caused the number of white infants placed for adoption in the U.S. to decline dramatically. Between 1989 and 1995, only 1.7 percent of children born to never-married white women were placed for adoption, compared to 19.3 percent before 1973. Among never-married black women, relinquishment rates have ranged from .2 percent to 1.5 percent.
Adopting a two-day-old
Amanda Grant, a Hoboken resident who spoke at the last forum, had been thinking about adoption for a very long time before adopting.
“Since I was a teenager, I always thought about adoption,” she said in a later interview. “Even if I had children by birth, I felt pretty passionately that there are so many kids already here in the world who need a loving family, and I would be one of those people who took them in.”
She waited around awhile to see if marriage was in the cards. It wasn’t. She is in her early forties and has a 2 year-old boy. She adopted him when he was 2 days old.
She submitted the initial application with an agency in July of 2008.
“There are certain things you have to do on their schedule,” she said. The paperwork includes background checks, criminal background checks, home visits, history of child abuse, and an autobiography designed to elicit your philosophy of childrearing.
Applicants are asked if they will accept a child that is the result of incest or of a drug-addicted or alcoholic parent. They’re also asked if they’ll accept a child with special needs, accept siblings, or accept twins.
For some men whom Grant dated, adoption was a deal-breaker. “Most thought it was too risky,” she said, “and the child might have a health problem.”
Grant said it’s an untrue stereotype that adopted children often have some kind of problem.
Grant was open to both international and domestic adoption, but chose to go the domestic route. She said she had no preference when it came to gender or race.
Grant describes her baby, named Isaac, as having “caramel” skin. Hers was an open adoption so she has contact with the birth mother.
“The birth mother identifies herself as African-American,” Grant said. “Based on the features and color, he is likely West Indian. I care about race only to the extent that I didn’t want to make the child’s life harder because of my being a white Jewish single parent.”
She advises prospective adopters to educate themselves on the child’s culture, “acknowledge the differences, focus on the similarities, and keep a sense of humor.”
She tells the story of a black man in the supermarket who commented, “Cute kid. What country did you get him from?” Grant observed that if her baby were white, that question would never have been asked. She said it is important to “respond with a kind heart.”
She answered, “New Jersey.”
Before adopting, Grant talked to many adopted children in transracial families. “Some go with the flow and are proud of who they are and their families,” she said, “and some struggle with identity more than others.”
The international option
Some parents opt to adopt from other countries, sometimes because certain nations offer a less laborious process or have broader age limits. However, situations can change quickly in other countries; for instance, the earthquake in Haiti reportedly made it difficult to adopt there for a time.
Between 1971 and 2001, U.S. citizens adopted 265,677 children from other countries. In descending order, they came from Asia, followed by Europe, South America, North America, Africa, Australia and the Pacific Islands.
Lorraine Kolankowski, executive director of Homestudies & Adoption Placement Services in Teaneck, said that China, Ethiopia, and Russia are among the top three countries from which Americans adopt children.
Four years ago, the wait for a child from China was about 18 months. Now it’s about five years. Kolankowski said it’s unclear exactly why.
“They’re looking at applications more closely, and promoting adoptions of special needs and older children,” she said.
However, for adoptive parents who want to adopt older or special needs kids, the wait drops to about six months.
Ethiopia is popular, Kolankowski said, because the children tend to be younger and healthier.
Currently, however, there is a deluge of requests. “The system gets on overload, and the process takes longer,” Kolankowski said.
Most notably, writer Joyce Maynard, a divorced mother in her fifties, was able to adopt two girls from Ethiopia in the past few years.
After Haiti’s earthquake, lots of children became orphans, but that didn’t make it easier for those wanting to adopt. Kolankowski said that family members or someone with a connection to the child had to be sought out first.
From Russia with love
Prospective parents choose Russia for a couple of reasons. “It’s always had a fairly stable adoption process,” Kolankowski said, “and it’s a good program for families looking for Caucasian toddlers.”
Lynn Danzker chose the Russian route.
She knew from day one that she wanted to go the international route. In the United States, she said, it is common for the birth mother to have input into the choice, and she was afraid that the birth mother would choose a couple.
“I was single at the time,” Danzker said, “and adopting internationally, I thought I would receive a child whether I was single or married.”
She also wanted a closed adoption. “I felt personally very strongly that I did not want someone to come knocking when he was 5 years-old and want the child back, or want a relationship with the child. It was up to the child to decide, not the mother.”
“It is a country that allows single women to adopt, and my background is eastern European, and I wanted a connection with a child who had the same ancestry as I did,” she said.
She went online to find accredited agencies that had experience in Russia. She was referred to an agency with offices in Moscow and St. Petersburg that had a good 10-year track record in the business.
The entire process cost about $45,000.
In 2006, at the age of 44, Danzker came home with Cole, a 21-month-old Russian boy who turned 6 years-old last winter.
Danzker has since married. Cole was re-adopted in the United States by Danzker’s husband Joe, who is now Cole’s father legally.
“There are so many reasons for not adopting,” Danzker says, “so many naysayers, but if it is in your heart, take the leap of faith and embrace the journey.”
If she were younger, she said, she would adopt another child “in a heartbeat.”
Open adoptions are increasingly popular. The adopting parents and the birth mother (and sometimes the birth father) have some form of contact, directly or through an agency or lawyer. Some exchange letters and pictures but never meet, while others socialize on a regular basis.
Amanda Grant had an open adoption. “It gives the birth parent a sense of choosing the destiny of the child,” she said.
Adoptive parents learn a lot about the birth mother, such as whether she was on drugs or alcohol, was the victim of incest, did jail time, and so on. In an open adoption, Grant said, “birth parents are at liberty to make the same choice. Do they want a single person, a couple? They’re making decisions about the child’s future.”
The birth mother of Grant’s child picked her from a notebook full of prospects. “She read my letter and just knew I was the one,” Grant said. “I was single, but she picked me before a number of couples.”
Grant suspects that the birth mother’s also being single might have been a factor.
Grant met the birth mother when she was seven months pregnant. “The birth parents had to go through as much due diligence as I did,” she said. This, she said, gave her confidence that their intentions were good.
Said Grant, “My son is a Jersey boy, born and bred. After he was born, I communicated with the birth mother through the agency that paired us. She’s chosen at the moment not to see him, but I’m open to them having a relationship if she changes her mind.”
Grant said they exchange letters and photos through the agency, but neither the adoptive or birth mother knows where the other lives.
The domestic option
Grant partly chose to adopt a child from the United States because of the open adoption option. Current estimates of the annual number of infants adopted domestically range from 25,000 to 30,000, more than all international adoptions combined.
This happens despite the common myth that newborns are not available in the U.S.
Grant contacted 20 agencies in New Jersey that did domestic adoptions. Of the five that responded, she spoke to the directors of each, got references, and then relied on her “good gut feeling.”
As to the child’s age, “I wanted to have the experience of raising a child from birth,” she said.
Whether the child has special needs is also a consideration.
“When people hear special needs they automatically assume that the child has a severe mental disability or drug addiction,” Grant said. “But it could be something easily corrected like a hairlip.”
The foster care option
In 1999, the latest year for which totals have been finalized, 127,000 kids in foster care were waiting to be adopted. Almost 60 percent of the “waiting” children were black or Hispanic, and 26 percent were over 10 years old.
“In our area people are having biological children later in life,” Conlin said, “and they have an altruistic wish to adopt third or fourth children. It’s an interesting dynamic.”
And one that can often be addressed by the foster care system, especially when an adoptive parent is willing to take on an older child.
“It’s a misconception that you have to become a foster parent [before adopting a child],” Conlin said. “It used to be that you had to go to the Division of Youth and Family Services, the state welfare office.”
Beth Schaefer and Stewart Rosen became foster parents with the aim of becoming adoptive parents. Schaefer said that by going to a private agency instead of DYFS, they were able to have a bigger say in selecting the children they wanted to adopt.
DFYS, Schaefer said, will give kids to anyone who takes and graduates from foster-care classes, has been fingerprinted, and passes a home study.
“A home study is done by a licensed social worker,” Schaefer said. “This entails being interviewed, making follow-up calls to friends and other references, as well as receiving letters from neighbors, and coming to the home.” The home visit is to ensure that the environment is safe for children.
The average waiting time working through a private agency is six months to two years.
“If you go straight through DYFS and don’t use an agency as advocate, there isn’t much of a wait,” Schaefer said.
Schaefer and Rosen knew they wanted two children, at least one girl, and they did not care about race or ethnicity.
They are now the very happy parents of Monica, who was 16 last winter, and Fernando, who was 11, Mexican-American children from Texas. They adopted the kids when they were 14 and 10.
Though Schaefer describes the experience as “challenging,” she said, “I highly recommend it. Things are going really, really well.”
A passionate voice
At first blush, Conlin may seem like an unlikely advocate for adoption. She and her husband have four biological kids.
She thinks that parenting should be readily available.
“No one should be denied help in augmenting a family through adoption,” she said.
She is also a founder of the Hoboken Family Alliance. “I have an inner calling to form families,” she said. “As a mom, I understand the innate nurturing quality of wanting a family and to love a child.
“From the caves of Afghanistan to the streets of Manhattan,” she added, “it’s a primal desire.”
To register for Colin’s seminar this week, e-mail Heidi@adoptionoptionsnj.com and check out www.adoptionoptionsnj.com.
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