From Russia (or China or Peru or Bucharest) with love
by Geraldine Sherman

(Toronto Life November, 1995)

ALISON PENTLAND-FOLK labours tirelessly in the bizarre, looking-glass world of international adoption, trying to unite babies from foreign countries with Canadians desperate to become parents. The people she sees, mostly couples in their early forties, have endured years of marriage-straining infertility. Many delayed having children until they established their careers, then found it was too late. A generation ago, these couples would have had little trouble adopting in Toronto. Today, the demand for babies far outstrips the local supply. About 22,000 couples, and hundreds of single people, sit on adoption agency waiting lists for an average of six years. More than half the babies and toddlers Canadians adopt, about 2,500 a year, come from outside the country.

Alison's two children, Colin and Madeleine, born in Romania in the early 1990s, became part of her family through complex transactions involving social workers, lawyers, governments on two continents, and substantial sums of money. "We're all survivors," Alison says. "It makes for an incredible family." As a member of SPARK -- Support for Parents Adopting & Raising World Kids -- she regularly invites prospective parents to her west end home for a crash course in how the system works.

She sits on a low stool in her living room, within reach of several boxes of reference material. Surrounding her are six couples. The women settle in, but several men perch on the arms of their chairs, as if ready to bolt. "Be honest," she begins, "how many of you fought with your spouse on the way here?" Everyone giggles. She assures them conflict is normal. There's usually one partner who still dreams of a biological family.

Alison's husband, David, an investment banker, pops in to introduce five-year-old Colin and four-year-old Madeleine, two blond imps who seem to enjoy the attention. Everyone looks at them with curiosity and envy. When they leave, Alison talks about her years trying to conceive and the surgery that rebuilt her fallopian tubes but failed to produce a child. When she'd had enough, she told her husband it was time to adopt.

She asks everyone in the room to describe their efforts to adopt domestically. They speak of discouraging conversations with public Children's Aid Societies, and unsuccessful private attempts to find a pregnant woman willing to consider adoption. In Canada, despite sex education, birth control, and abortion, more unmarried women under twenty-five are having babies than ever before. But in the 1990s, single mothers, encouraged by social tolerance and an array of public assistance, usually try to raise their babies themselves. Only 4 per cent put their newborns up for adoption.

If their babies are healthy, they often work through private adoption agencies or individuals, usually provincially licensed lawyers or social workers, who offer a mother the choice of at least three eligible couples. Increasingly, birth mothers insist on some continuing contact with their children, a system called "openness in adoption." For prospective parents, the private route is faster (the average wait is two years) though it's often fruitless and expensive: at least $3,500, occasionally as much as $20,000, to cover adoption services. Ontario law forbids direct payment, even gifts, to a birth mother, but would-be parents must find a willing pregnant woman and pay for her counselling. If she consents to adoption when the child is seven days old, she's given three more weeks to change her mind and reclaim her child -- which she often does.

There are plenty of mixed-race babies, special-needs babies, and older children, all available at little or no cost. But most adopting parents want healthy newborns and search the world for surplus babies who come close to their ideal. It's time then, Alison tells her six couples, to widen their adoption horizon, a prospect both exciting and terrifying. They've seen pictures of elated parents arriving home from Russia or China with babes in arms, and they want the same for themselves. They worry, though, about the horror stories: excessive costs, graft, outright baby-buying.

With forty-two countries open for adoption, all with different rules and ethics, would-be parents must rely on a mix of official and unofficial information, a grapevine that hums with rumours. Russia is closing because Boris Yeltsin wants to amend the laws; Russia is not closing because Yeltsin is sick. Romania, once wide open, was suddenly closed but is now re-opening. Guatemala, formerly a great country for adoption, became tough after Guatemalan lawyers were caught peddling babies without their mothers' consent; the once-speedy Guatemalan process now runs slowly while mothers and babies are DNA-tested. Today, after several false starts, the hot adoption country is China.

It's hard to keep up. The only real experts are successful adoptive parents who run volunteer groups and spread the word through newsletters and conferences. LAAF -- Latin American Adoptive Families in Canada -- is one such group. SPARK is another. Alison Pentland-Folk warns her audience they may have to abandon their desire for a perfect, blue-eyed baby. She tells them that if they're flexible and willing to compromise, she'll help them become parents. "Rather than take two years, like I did, to find out what you're looking for and who will accept you, I'm here to show you how to take control." This living room, she tells them, is where they launch their careers in international adoption.

EXPERTS LIKE ALISON see December, 1989 as the start of the current boom in international adoption. The fall of Nicolae Ceausescu led to TV images of abandoned children in overcrowded Romanian orphanages -- 100,000 victims of a state-directed population explosion. Before 1989, parents occasionally expanded their families for humanitarian reasons, rescuing a few children from Korea, Vietnam, and Latin America. But as Communism collapsed across Europe, large numbers of caucasian children were available for adoption for the first time since the Second World War. Many Canadians who were reluctant to adopt across racial lines jumped at the chance to relieve suffering and at the same time become parents.

In 1990, a friend of Alison and David adopted a Romanian child. She told them about her Bucharest lawyer, and after months of long-distance negotiations, he flew to Toronto with Colin, then four-and-a-half months. That cost $18,000 U.S.. (In international adoption, the currency is American.) The next year, David went to Bucharest and returned in four days with six-month-old Madeleine. This cost far less, $8,000 U.S., which Alison attributes to experience.

By the middle of 1991, 465 Romanian babies had come to Ontario, many through contacts established by local adoption counselors such as Michaele-Sue Goldblatt. A self-employed social worker, she dealt with about 150 families and their Romanian-born children. She's quick to defend her clients who were called racist for preferring to adopt within their own race. "I find that attitude crazy. Why shouldn't a person of a particular race wish to adopt a child of the same race?" A delicate issue in this delicate field.

What angers her more are Canadians who know it's illegal to buy a human being but, "suspend their normal judgement once they're in a foreign jurisdiction." She's seen many would-be parents eager to hand over thousands of dollars, no questions asked, to lawbreaking middlemen. Romanian doctors, lawyers, and even taxi drivers started as interpreters and guides but wound up as dealers. At first, they used their contacts in orphanages and hospitals to find children of the age and sex their clients desired, with no attempt to identify parents equipped to cope with the children's special problems. Then, because of the deplorable condition of these institutionalized children, middlemen started to negotiate directly with birth parents. Fees escalated to several thousand dollars a transaction, most going to the dealmakers. What began as a rescue mission quickly became a bonanza for the unscrupulous.

About half the babies Canadians adopted in Romania were purchased directly from their biological families. People who were unable to travel delegated the job to intermediaries and paid them to deliver the babies. "Some of my clients," Goldblatt reports, "laughingly said that they'd paid $25,000 U.S. to have their baby FedExed to them." In eighteen months, about 10,000 Romanian children were adopted world-wide, 1,200 by Canadians.

Then rumours began circulating on the streets of Bucharest about children bought to be servants or prostitutes and babies dismembered for body parts. The Romanian government halted foreign adoptions and passed stringent laws. In the last four years there have been virtually no adoptions from Romania.

The process is complicated by the fact that adoption is a provincial matter in most of Canada while dealing with foreign countries is Ottawa's job. In the early 1980s, international adoptions in Ontario were so rare they weren't even covered in the new Child and Family Services Act. As a result, the Ministry of Community and Social Services at Queen's Park can do little more than gather unofficial information on international facilitators, distribute the rules of countries that have agreements with Canada, and decide whether applicants are suitable parents.

The idea of exchanging money for children may be disturbing, but anyone adopting privately, at home or abroad, begins by paying about $1,000 to a government-approved private social worker -- there are about thirty in the Toronto area -- to prepare a home study. During this extremely invasive process, clients are interviewed several times and questioned about income, family background, living accommodations, and the sort of child they are willing and able to accept. They must provide letters of recommendation and reveal criminal and health records. If they plan to adopt a child of a different race, the probe goes deeper, exploring issues that could arise with family and neighbours. The social worker assesses a client's ability to provide for a particular type of child and forwards a recommendation to the Ministry which makes the final decision.

Pat Fenton, whose two daughters were adopted in Canada, is president of the Adoption Council of Ontario, a non-profit information organization. "As an applicant," she says, "you feel as though everybody else has the power to decide whether you're going to be a parent. It's particularly grating to people who are successful in other areas of life." But those who survive admit that a good social worker can inject realism into the process, alerting parents to the frustrations and risks they face in adopting from another culture.

The number of home studies for international adoptions in Ontario has risen to 600 a year. If the Ministry gives its approval, it informs the child's birth country and Employment and Immigration Canada, which issues a letter of no objection. What the Ministry can't do is tell applicants whether an individual or agency they intend to work with in Canada can be trusted to charge reasonable fees and obey foreign laws. Their literature says, "independent facilitators in international adoption are NOT licensed, monitored, or regulated by the Ontario government;" the Ministry isn't responsible "for any mistakes which are made in the adoption process if the adoption is completed abroad," which is usually the case.

IN 1989, WHEN JOAN Lomus [her name and identifying details have been changed] saw the horrific television images of Romanian orphans, she immediately decided to adopt. "I thought, this is ridiculous. I've always wanted children. I'm surprised I don't have four children, but life didn't work out like that." She understood, in a general way, the sort of child she might adopt -- country, race, and colour didn't matter, but health did. "Because I was single, I decided I couldn't take a child with terrible medical problems. That ruled out Romania. But I was willing to take a child with a treatable problem." While working with Michaele-Sue Goldblatt, the social worker she hired, Joan refined her thinking on international adoption and the monetary and ethical price she would pay to be a mother.

People warned her it would cost twice as much as any facilitator quoted. That seemed bad enough. Then she spoke with a single woman who had flown to Peru, spent twelve months in Lima, lost her job, and handed over $43,000 U.S. to get her child. When Joan last spoke to her, she was planning to go back for another. Parents with similar stories described them as part of the adventure, "sort of like labour pains."

Three years later, after several almost-completed local private adoptions, Joan heard from an adoption referral service that a little boy was available in Peru. The agency had a shaky reputation. They gave her eight days to decide.

She found she couldn't do it. "My heart told me it was wrong, that I shouldn't go on this journey." She had become disillusioned with the idea of making huge under-the-counter payments to clerks and judges. She didn't want to help escalate costs and discourage potential parents with less money. She couldn't bear knowing that if she acquired her child through graft, "the child lying next to mine probably won't be adopted." Joan decided to wait.

NINE ONTARIO ORGANIZATIONS, five of them in Toronto, facilitate international adoptions. They reflect a variety of forces -- humanitarian relief, religious fervour, and entrepreneurship. Several were started by adopting parents who converted their experience into non-profit agencies, some with volunteer boards and professional social workers. Alison Pentland-Folk sits on the board of Partners in Inter-Country Adoptions, an off-shoot of SPARK, which works toward "ethical, affordable" adoptions from Romania. The Partners program costs parents $10,000, with an additional $5,000 for other services such as home study and travel costs. Some other agencies are religiously motivated. The Children's Institute, or Instituto de Ninos, is run by Dr. Kenneth Plotnik, a Catholic theologian, and his wife, Beryl Mercer, a Stratford lawyer who have adopted five Latin American children. They see adoption as part of God's plan for redemption and world unification. Their agency charges $5,000 U.S. -- not including the cost of obtaining and translating documents, home study, and travel expenses -- plus $10,000 U.S. "for the foreign office." The children they place are of mixed Mayan and Spanish descent, up to age two. Another group, Canadian Homes for Russian Children, states that its "aim is to promote acts of goodness and kindness in preparation for the coming of the Messiah." Located in a rundown industrial plaza on Finch Avenue, CHRC was founded in 1993 by Arnie Gotfryd, a follower of the late Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Schneerson of Brooklyn. A healthy child costs about $22,000 ($15,600 for a handicapped child), including travel and an unspecified tax receipt "worth several thousands of dollars."

Gotfryd entered international adoption by chance. A small, bearded man with a doctorate in environmental science, he was working with Russian-Jewish immigrants when he heard that a professor in Moscow had arranged thirty-five intercountry adoptions. A friend approached Gotfryd about expanding this work through a non-profit organization. At first, he was wary. "Criminal activities go on, preying on vulnerable children as well as applicants," he says. He checked the credentials of the Russians involved, found them satisfactory, and wrote his rabbi for approval. Even though 90 per cent of the children and adopting parents would be non-Jews, Gotfryd didn't want to harm the Lubavitcher image. In the fall of 1993, Schneerson blessed the enterprise. Since then, Gotfryd's group has completed dozens of Russian adoptions, mostly of children older than two.

Not everyone takes a benign view of international adoption. Uniting poor children with rich foreigners for unregulated profit makes many people uneasy. Some leaders in poor nations see intercountry adoption as an example of exploitation by the rich. They argue that if the world's wealth were distributed equitably, the Third World could look after its own. Some are angry that so few needy children actually find homes; others complain that foreign adoption is a stop-gap measure that actually makes it more difficult for agencies and opposition parties to improve the lives of women and children.

Predictably, the most vocal supporters are successful adoptive parents who believe that their children would have died of malnutrition, disease, or violence if adoption had been impossible. War and poverty are not likely to disappear. Nor is infertility. International adoption seems to offer prosperous Canadians the chance to become parents and feel good about what they've done. Responsible activists wonder if the system can become fairer and still fulfil the needs of parents and children.

Many believe that Canadian facilitators should be provincially licensed and monitored, as social workers and domestic adoption licensees are now. This would force them to charge reasonable fees and comply with local and foreign laws. When adopting parents in Ontario want to know whether they can trust a particular facilitator, they call the Ministry of Community and Social Services. All they can be told is that complaints have or have not been received about an individual or organization. Grievances that arise in clusters, as they often do, are taken more seriously, but there's no way to know for certain if laws are being violated.

The Hague Convention on International Adoption was passed in 1993 to encourage governments to deal with illegalities in international adoption and to ensure that adoption is in the child's best interest. Twenty-two countries have signed, including Canada, but we are not among the six nations that have put a formal plan into action. Nor has Ontario passed legislation regulating international adoption. Opening the provincial Act will mean discussing thorny domestic questions such as public versus private adoption, and the sensitive issue of "openness."

The National Adoption Desk in the federal Department of Health and Welfare was established in 1975 to send information on Canadian laws abroad and gather information about other countries. With a staff of eight, it reviews applications approved provincially and forwards them to the thirteen countries, including Romania and China, with whom Canada has adoption arrangements.

According to Katherin Jones, an adoptive parent and editor of a magazine, Adoption Helper, rules designed to prevent "bad adoptions" may end up curtailing all international adoptions. "If adoptions are so regulated that very few are completed, no one benefits, least of all the children." Once again, Romania offers the most blatant example of system breakdown. It implemented the Hague Convention rules favouring centralized control, but the Romanian Committee for Adoption lacks the money to make the laws work. Incredibly, Romania now has about 130,000 children in institutions, more than in 1989, with a death rate as high as 50 per cent. This summer, after intense federal and provincial lobbying, SPARK won permission to negotiate directly with Romania, re-opening adoptions to Ontario.

IN 1993, WITH the help of her social worker, Joan Lomus finally found someone with a track record who shared her ethical views on international adoption -- Sonya Paterson of Langley, B.C., who had worked out of Romania before it closed and then established Russian contacts. Sonya called Joan from Vancouver to say that a girl, five months old, was available. "Something went through my body," says Joan, "and I knew, This child is mine. I'd had the opportunity to feel this way eight other times in three years. This time the feeling was different."

Sonya passed on what little she knew of the child's family and faxed a photograph she'd received from a contact at Orphanage 67 in Moscow. Joan cherishes the blurry picture with the comment, "The girl is very good!" That's all she saw of her daughter until she went to the Toronto airport to meet Sonya returning from Russia with Susan Elena. Apart from the airfare, the cost of translating documents, and a $1,500 tax-deductible donation, the adoption cost what it would have within Canada.

The medical report Joan received said that Susan Elena's birth mother had not taken drugs or alcohol, but there was no way to know for sure. In Russia, one of the most active countries for international adoption, some 400,000 children live in miserable orphanages, and issues of health have become as important as questions of money. As a result of environmental degradation, sexually transmitted diseases, and alcoholism, only 9 per cent of the 1 million babies born in Russia in 1993 can be described as completely healthy; about 10 per cent were born with serious deformities, while others suffered more minor birth defects such as crossed eyes, hepatitis B, asthma, and cleft palates. According to recent Russian law, foreigners can adopt only children judged "defective," which could mean anything from "tainted heredity" -- prostitution or political dissent -- to severe mental and physical handicaps.

A doctor friend warned Joan not to proceed with the adoption. "What if her parents were from Chernobyl?" he asked. "Who knows what else has yet to be diagnosed?" But Joan fought back with mother-bear ferocity: "In every family there are surprises, good and bad. This child might surpass anything in my genetic makeup. She might fall below my expectations, but the same could be said about any child I had by birth. You have to say, 'Give me the cards, and I'll deal with them.'" That's what she did.

Susan Elena's medical report was confusing. Her weight was predictably low, but other information seemed contradictory -- an abnormality associated with the heart was noted but assigned to another organ. The woman doctor at the orphanage wrote that, while she could not recommend surgery, she thought the alleged heart condition could improve "with a mother's care." Canadian embassy officials in Moscow understood: they know that Russian doctors often overstate a medical disability to get relatively healthy children to good homes out of the country. The embassy issued Susan Elena's passport. "Someday," Joan says, "I'd like to meet this woman doctor in the orphanage who saved my daughter and put us together."

Susan Elena had been in Canada only a day and a half when Joan, with translated medical report in hand, took her to a pediatrician. He read the report and said, "Did you say you'd take just anybody?" Joan felt as if she'd been kicked in the stomach. "I told him that I said I'd take a child who had a treatable problem, and I hoped that he and I together would find a way to deal with anything she has. I asked him, 'Are you with me?' He looked up and said, 'I understand.'" At two-and-a-half, Susan Elena is a confident, loving child, whose weight and height are well above average -- and there was no heart problem. Despite her slow start, she has shown remarkable progress.

THREE YEARS AGO, a medical team led by Dr. Sharon Marcovitch at the Hospital for Sick Children tested fifty-six Romanian-born children, aged three to five. About two-thirds had been adopted directly from birth parents or had spent less then six months in institutions. When they arrived in Canada in 1990 and 1991, many slept poorly and had frequent temper tantrums, but recent tests showed them functioning in the normal range. Not surprisingly, those with the highest developmental scores were adopted before they were six months and had spent the least time in orphanages. "But even kids from institutions," Dr. Marcovitch reports, "were within the low end of average and not significantly impaired."

The participants in the study included parents who knew their kids were doing well and those with problems who wanted help. While all parents were interested in questions of health and development, researchers identified one troubling problem: "indiscriminately friendly behaviour." To survive, children in institutions learned to compete for attention by being friendly to everyone. Dr. Marcovitch doesn't think this means that they won't be able to form permanent attachments, but it's something parents should watch.

"Before the study," Dr. Marcovitch says, "I would have been very cautious about adopting an older institution child -- and by 'older' I mean over six months. Now I would be less cautious but still tell parents to be prepared for a one-year adjustment phase and possible learning problems related to language skills, especially in the orphanage group." She's not sure how much improvement is possible for those with the lowest scores.

The thrill of a new baby and the rewards of a loving child should not blind adopting parents to future difficulties. Children grow up. There are new rewards. There are also new problems.

While all teenagers struggle to define themselves in relation to parents and peers, adolescents adopted from distant countries face additional problems -- most know little about their birth families or their culture of origin, and many are racially different from their adoptive parents. In a much-quoted recent study, two Ontario social workers, Anne Westhues and Joyce Cohen, found the 126 adolescents they interviewed "no less well-adjusted" than Canadian-born adolescents. At the same time, they warned that concern is warranted "with respect to ethnic and racial identity, and racial identity in particular."

Each parent must balance cultural distinction and assimilation. Alison Pentland-Folk considers her children Romanian-Canadian. "I think they'll be as Romanian as they want to be," but she's not sure what that will mean. She takes them to SPARK social events, such as a joint holiday party for Christmas and Chanukah where they have a menorah-lighting ceremony, Santa Claus, and Romanian dancers doing the hora. "We have some Romanian books, occasionally cook Romanian meals, talk to the children about Nadia Comaneci. Little snippets of culture."

Where race is concerned, differences are immediate and intensely complicated. At a recent conference on international adoption, Arnie Gotfryd was surprised by the feelings young people expressed about racial issues. One seventeen-year-old black girl said, "You know, I love my parents and they love me. But every day when I look at myself in the mirror and look at them, I say, 'I don't belong here.'"

Because many Russian children are part-oriental, Gotfryd frequently confronts the race issue. While he supports mixed-race adoption, he wonders what he should say when he has a new oriental applicant and long-standing white applicant who both want the same mixed-race child? "First come, first served? Or do I recognize ethnicity, place the child with the oriental applicant, and run the risk of being called a racist?" What he hears from the children convinces him that he should try to match by race.

Of the countries with which Canada has adoption agreements, all but one, Romania, have mainly non-white populations. "We have parents who have this idealistic view of the global village, how we're all one," says Pat Fenton of the Adoption Council of Ontario. "They won't acknowledge that we live in a racial society, whether we like it or not."

FOUR YEARS AGO, during their soul-searching home study, Bonnie and Wayne Maddever confronted their own prejudices in a way most of us can avoid. Bonnie was willing to consider a black child; her husband was not. Encouraged by the arrival of a friend's adorable Chinese daughter, they signed up with a Quebec agency; three months later they were told their daughter was waiting for them in Guangzhou.

China has about a million abandoned babies, mostly girls, as a result of the one-baby-per-couple law and the cultural preference for males. The waiting period, only three to six months, almost guarantees that the child will be under a year. The cost, between $15,000 and $18,000, including a substantial gift to a charity in China, is considered reasonable. Adopting parents travel in groups and stay in China up to four weeks. When they've settled in a hotel, the orphanage staff brings their baby to the parents' room. Bonnie asked an orphanage director how he selected their first baby for them. "It was easy," he answered. "I looked at your husband's picture. He's a big, fat man and I gave you a big, fat baby!" Although she's gone through this process twice and acted as the Toronto representative for a Quebec agency, she's never once heard a couple say that another baby is the one they would have preferred. "It's uncanny," she says. "I can't explain it."

Bonnie provides China-bound adopting parents with nine pages of advice, including a list of books about Chinese women, health tips (Don't drink the water!), and facts for new parents (Chinese babies need lactose-free formula and on their bottoms have a dark blue mark, a "Mongolian Patch," that fades away in the late teens). She also warns that a baby picked up in March or April may have underdeveloped muscles, having spent the winter swaddled in five layers of clothing. "They aren't as strong as babies you pick up in September, October, or November."

In a large sunny kitchen on a residential cul-de-sac near the Don Valley, Bonnie's daughter, Katherine, a toddler, drools and shrieks to let everyone know she's teething. Bonnie, who came from a large family, adopted Elizabeth first, then wanted a second child -- a second Chinese child. "Somebody else phrased it well: 'Wouldn't it be nice if Elizabeth could look across the table and see eyes like hers?'"

Now, a 44-year-old mother, Bonnie copes with two quite different young children. "Katherine's a Hunan baby, hot and spicy like their food. All my friends with Hunan babies are tearing their hair out." She describes Elizabeth, now at nursery school, as typical of Guangzhou women, "tall and willowy, refined. And Katherine? She's going to head for the rice fields."

Pat Fenton tries to imagine what life will be like for the hundreds of Chinese baby girls who have become Canadians. She speculates that, "our view of the Chinese as bright and hard working will probably help them." Bonnie also believes that positive stereotyping will be good for her daughters, but she anticipates that when they're older they may want more information about their birth families than she can provide. All she can do is keep in touch with the orphanage staff so that one day her children can visit them. Elizabeth, already familiar with the word adoption, cherishes a small personal history book. On the front is a map of China, with Guangzhou circled. "I'm from Guangzhou," she recites, "Katherine's from Shaoyang, Mommy's from Kingston, and Daddy's from Toronto."

ALISON ASKS the couples in her living room if they are considering a child from China or Latin America. No one says yes. They're all looking to Eastern Europe, for a baby of their own race. Alison tells them about a couple she helped. The husband was vehemently opposed to adopting a Latin American. "I showed him pictures I'd taken of adopted children and asked him to choose the children that most appealed to him. Every one he chose was from Colombia." He had never met a Colombian.

"I want to pound this idea into you," Alison continues. "You should consider at least three countries, and make a graph of everything you know about each one. It's your responsibility," she tells them, "to be informed in this fast changing environment."

Twice in the last five years, after negative press coverage in the West, the Chinese government closed down foreign adoptions, halting the best regulated supply of healthy babies. It could easily happen again. Prospective parents should also remember that, because of safeguards in the Hague Convention and sluggish bureaucracies, the age of adoptable children outside China keeps rising. Many families are already returning from abroad with older children very like those who wait to be adopted in Canada, many of them racially-mixed, many with special needs.

The world of international adoption is so volatile that Michaele-Sue Goldblatt no longer sends clients looking for Russian children to Sonya Paterson. "If they get a Russian child," Goldblatt says, "they do it on their own." She's not dissatisfied with Paterson's scrupulous accounting. The problem is that the Russian Bureau of Children hasn't placed a child through Paterson in more than a year. "In my opinion," says Goldblatt, "that's because she's not paying anybody under the table."

Alison warns her prospective parents that, despite tighter regulations, most poor countries still permit some form of baby-buying. "Just because you come from a nice, clean place like Canada doesn't mean you can be above it all." Parents must determine their own moral position. It's illegal to pay birth parents, but Alison admits "this gives some advocates, including myself, real problems. According to the UN, if you leave a pig with the family, that's considered payment. If you leave a box of clothes for the fifteen children left behind, that's considered payment. You have to think long and hard about how to do it." Alison and David directed their Bucharest lawyer to administer a trust account for one of their birth mothers. "We wanted her life to be better. She had touched our lives. We just couldn't walk away." But she says that what's appropriate for one person isn't necessarily appropriate for another. When the meeting ends, the six couples sift through Alison's research boxes and leave clutching photocopied pamphlets. They've had a glimpse into the maze.

Pat Fenton thinks all adopting parents must realize that nothing in life "just drops out of the sky." There will be pain, there will be anxiety, and there will be uncertainty -- as with any birth. She discourages anyone from proceeding too quickly, from thinking of adoption "as a fast-food operation where you lay your money down and get what you want right away." And like almost everyone who's been through the uncertainties and elation of adoption, she describes the process as a giant leap of faith.

At one time, Joan Lomus thought that giving birth was the greatest of all miracles, one she was cruelly denied. International adoption expanded her vision. "Susan Elena's birth was a miracle, no doubt, but I don't think it was greater than how we found each other. That somebody, somewhere said 'This child, in Moscow, Orphanage 67, and this woman, Canada, Toronto' -- that this happened is truly amazing to me."

(Some names and identifying details have been changed.)

Copyright Geraldine Sherman, 1995

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