CHICAGO — Kara Chlebek takes a deep breath before describing the ordeal she and her husband, Tom, endured in their attempt to adopt a child internationally.
The three-year process included multiple interviews, a forest of paperwork, months-long delays, referrals for children in Poland and China, and several lengthy airline flights.
“Tom is from Poland and speaks Polish, so adopting from there made sense,” said Chlebek, a stay-at-home mom in Chicago. “We were assigned a little boy from Poland, but then he was adopted by a family in Poland. So finally, in December, we brought home our son, Benjamin, from China. It was so hard, but in the end, we wouldn’t change a thing because it all led to him.”
Such is the saga of intercountry adoptions, which are typically fraught with obstacles, said agency and support group directors who guide prospective parents through the maze.
Ever since Harry and Bertha Holt (founders of Holt International) institutionalized intercountry adoptions after the Korean War in the 1950s, the number of these adoptions by Americans has fluctuated. They peaked in 1984 at 22,991, then declined to 9,319 in 2011.
Although Russia recently made headlines by closing adoptions by Americans, many of the countries on the U.S. State Department’s list of “birth countries” have had on-again, off-again relationships with the U.S., said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York, N.Y.
“It happens with many countries; adoptions stop or slow down because of international dynamics, wars, economics, politics, changing children’s needs, new rules. It’s hard to even sort out the ‘whys,’ ” Pertman said.
Even the media can have an impact. Stories critical of South Korea’s adoption system in 1988, the year it hosted the Olympics, led to a temporary suspension of adoptions.
Or, Americans are their own worst enemies, said Jan Wondra, chair of FRUA INC., or Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption Including Neighboring Countries.
“Some Americans go (to another country) making demands, saying things that offend them and viewing adoption as their right, not a privilege,” she said.
Unfortunately, parents and children sometimes get caught in legal entanglements over adoption rules. Recently, an Evanston, Ill., couple accused of circumventing South Korean adoption laws by not going through a licensed agency were ordered by the courts to a return a girl they had brought into the U.S., even though the girl had spent most of her first nine months here.
It is hard for some prospective parents to understand that a developing country with national pride may not consider an American adoption better than institutionalizing the child in his birth country, Wondra said.
“They work to improve their child welfare systems, but it’s common for Americans to be caught in the middle while changes are made,” she said.
An international adoption is “like a high-risk pregnancy that lasts longer than nine months,” said Judy Stigger, adoption therapist and clinical director at Evanston-based Cradle, which did the Chlebeks’ home studies.
“You can follow adoptions from another country to see how long it’s taking, but then you’re at the mercy of every possible scandal that occurs,” Stigger said. “If only all the adults could play well together, the thousands of children who need homes could be adopted sooner. But they don’t always do that.”
“Stay the course,” advised Traci Heim, a stay-at-home mom from Tinley Park, Ill., who adopted 10 children from Ethiopia, Russia and Ukraine with her husband, Scott, a police officer.
“Two of our adoptions went quickly but the others included delays, more home studies, passport problems and so much paperwork that it fills boxes in my attic,” Heim said. “You get used to the word ‘wait’ and learn that it doesn’t necessarily mean ‘stop.’ ”
The more flexible the parents, the quicker the adoption, the experts said.
“The current wait for a healthy baby from China is five to six years,” said Bill Blacquiere, president of Bethany Christian Services, which facilitates 330 to 500 intercountry adoptions a year through its 100 offices. The need is greater, so the wait can be shorter, he said, for older children, children with special needs and sibling groups.
The Chlebeks’ son had a repaired cleft lip, requiring additional surgery and dental work. The Heims’ four most recent adoptions are birth siblings, and most of their children arrived needing medical care.
“Be realistic,” Stigger tells prospective adoptive parents. “You’re going to have to accept a child with challenges, and you can expect delays. But during that time, you can take advantage of the many resources and learn about your child’s birth country and culture.”
The State Department keeps families abreast of politics on its website, adoption.state.gov. It also explains the Hague Adoption Convention, an international agreement that, ironically, slowed adoptions in countries that are struggling to comply with its standards.
Support groups are the adoptive parents’ lifeline.
“Join groups like FRUA that have volunteers to help you,” Wondra said. “We’re used to middle-of-the-night calls.”
Been-there-done-that parents help you post-adoption too, Heim added.
“When the kids arrive, your work has only begun!” she said. “They may have come from poverty, but it was their poverty and they gave up everything they had to come here. They’re scared, and they have to learn to trust you.”
“People tell me, ‘But we have lots of love to give’ and I tell them it’s going to take a whole lot more than love,” Wondra said. “Add patience and perseverance. This is not the ‘easy way’ to make a family. But in the end you provide a home for a child who is already on Earth.”
The families who succeed are those who view adoption as “making a family for the child, not getting a child to make a family,” Blacquiere said.
The best testimonials come from the families themselves, who often return overseas to adopt again.
“I hope a few years from now, we will have another boy from China,” Chlebek said. “Things change, but now that’s our goal.”
They might be able to squeeze another bed into their bungalow, Heim said. “Every time we’ve thought about adopting again, the kids have encouraged us,” she said. “They tell us, ‘Mom and Dad, they need a home.’ How can we say no?”