International Adoption: The Possibilities and Pitfalls
Part Two of a Two-Part Series | See Part One


By Barry Abrams


At 4:45 p.m. Russia time (8:45am EST) on July 6, 2004 at a municipal children’s hospital 40 minutes southeast of downtown Moscow, my wife, Lisa, walks down two flights of grime-covered stairs carrying a little boy. She scuttles through a lobby littered with adults and children fidgeting aimlessly, the walls held up only by gouged plaster. Across the concrete courtyard she walks, avoiding the fissures and weeds poking up through the slabs. She stands there holding the child for a few minutes while the driver/translator readies the car seat reserved only for babies of American parents, the only parents that ever ask to use such a cumbersome contraption.


Deciding to Adopt Internationally

Why do people decide to form or build a family through international adoption?

“The reasons are as varied as there are families doing adoption,” says Debbie Schwartz, co-president of the Hudson Region chapter of the Adoptive Parents Committee and an adoptive parent of two. Some people believe that domestic adoption is impossible or more costly, she says, and with international adoption you know the costs up front, more so than domestic, so there are less unknowns. “If you’re determined to have an infant, you’re going to do domestic adoption because you can’t get infants internationally,” explains Schwartz. ”If you have a job where you can’t be reached in the middle of the day by birth parents, you’ll do international adoption where you won’t be getting phone calls all day.”

Our impetus for adopting our son from Russia
springs mainly from our ancestry. Lisa and I have roots in what is now the Ukraine, which was part of Russia when our ancestors lived there in the early 20th century. Children may be adopted at younger ages in Russia than in the Ukraine. We expected to come home with a child who was approximately 1 year old. Spencer was one week past his first birthday when we arrived at Kennedy Airport this July.

Some people prefer to adopt from abroad because, unlike the United States where you will virtually always know the identity and contact information for at least one birth parent, foreign children are often times left at a hospital’s proverbial doorstep. “International adoptions are closed, families do not have to deal with biological parents,” says Helen Ryzy, international program director for Cold Spring-based Happy Families. “Some people believe that international adoption is much more predictable and information is kept confidential.”

Though the international component makes the process exponentially more complex, you can also feel more relatively assured that if you follow each step properly, you will be successful in adopting a child.


Selecting An Agency

People who have experience with adoption will likely tell you that the process is a leap of faith. However, before you make that leap, you must be confident that the people and their operations are in line with your expectations rather than the other way around. “Don’t feel insecure, that if I’m not good, they won’t give me a child,” says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoptive Revolution Is Transforming America (Basic Books, 2000). “You’re paying for services so you want someone you’re compatible with,“ he says. ”Do some Web searching, read a book, become an educated consumer.”

Initially, we wanted third-party information on the way these agencies worked. Most agencies have information sessions where you can meet families who have successfully used their services. Ask yourself – exactly how many of these representative families do you think had any problems with the agency?

We took another approach. Since we knew we wanted to go to Eastern Europe, we visited to read people’s stories and then contact them. Surely, there are other such Web sites depending on your situation and goals. You should also go through the state licensing board or even the State Department to check for complaints against the lawyer or agency you choose.

“Look for [an agency with] a program that has support in place before and after [the adoption],“ says Schwartz. “The process is nothing compared to your being a parent forever. At least for the next 18 years, you’re responsible.“



For us, one of the unique thrills of this process was the opportunity to experience not just a foreign culture, but also the general region from which our ancestors came.

If you are not a savvy leisure or business traveler, you will likely have apprehensions about the unknown – the workings of a foreign country, particularly one where you cannot even read the language (ex: China, Russia) much less understand or speak it. We had a marvelous driver/translator for the entire duration of our two trips. You will need to tip this person in addition to the standard day rate the agency charges on their behalf. With all of your concerns, leaving the logistics to a competent national is well worth the expense.

Make sure you have received the immunizations your doctor recommends for your travel plans. Also, bring enough cash for places that do not accept American credit cards. Naturally, you will also need electrical adaptors for the differing voltage standards in these countries, as well as other such sundries.

We took 14 bottles of water in our checked luggage, since the international pediatrician consulting on our son’s condition told us to avoid cold salads and drinking water. They did not last us the entire week, so we had to purchase more, which were expensive. It’s advisable to have a mobile phone that works in your destination. Our camera phone worked in Russia and allowed us to transmit pictures back to a Web site to our friends and families while we were abroad.

Make sure you have a place on your person for the important documents you bring from home. That includes your tax return copy, as well as other documents and those you receive abroad. Do not trust that it will remain in your hotel room even while you are out for the day.

Immerse yourself in the new culture as much as possible so you can tell your experiences to your child. It’s not necessary to become an expert, but if you can recount the good times you had taking in the surroundings, your child is bound to feel proud of his nationality.


Living with Adoption

Having your child form a positive attachment is the overwhelming issue about which most parents obsess once the mechanics of the adoption are underway. One tool we used was a tape player, which we sent to Spencer at the municipal children’s hospital where he was staying. We recorded songs, book readings and asked the staff to play it for him over and over again in the time between visits so he could continually hear our voices. We also sent several 8”x10” pictures that he could look at daily – pictures of us and of our two cats, so he could develop a mental image of his new family.

Having members of your community accept your child is another factor in living with adoption. Ryzy of Happy Families says in the New York area there are a lot of people from different cultures, and communities are generally welcoming to kids. “It’s more open,” says Ryzy. “It’s simply a larger population.”

Schwartz says, “As the numbers [of international adoptions] grow, it makes it easier to be not so different.” That is happening; the State Department recorded a 7.55 percent increase in visas issued for international adoption from 2002 to 2003 as compared with 4.79 percent growth the year prior.

Naming your child becomes a more significant step in the process than you might think. Since internationally adopted children are not newborns, they have lived with a name for a considerable amount of time. “Keeping the given name acknowledges that the child had a life before you, which can be difficult,” says Bronxville-based Susan Glazer, LCSW, who specializes in working with adoptive and birth families. In a way, it is a slight loss of control of the situation, but in our case, we feel it is too important for Spencer to retain, in a significant way, his foreign heritage. We have decided to keep Spencer’s given name, Anatoli, as his middle name.

Part of living with international adoption requires sensitivity to the child’s native culture. Just because the child will grow up in the United States, you still need to acknowledge your child’s birth home on a regular, if not effusive, basis. “You are becoming a multi-ethnic or multi-racial family … it’s now part of your life. What you look like, how you connect with your culture is who you are,” says Pertman. “It’s not a one-shot deal,” he adds. You don’t have to know everything about the culture, but you should keep the interest going over time.”

The child’s initial life experiences and birth culture – for better or worse – are parts of a child’s psyche that new parents tend to ignore. “Even though the child won’t have verbal memories, there’s still an experience,“ says Glazer. “They become part of him, even if it’s pre-verbal.” Glazer has seen evidence of this in therapy sessions. “Their memories, lack of trust, a traumatic experience, these might be acted out in play therapy,” she says.

We wonder if our Russian-born son internalized that he lived without a mommy and daddy for the first year of his life? As we go forward, we hope to give more thought to learning about the influences of his Russian culture to help us build an intimate and fulfilling cross-cultural bond with Spencer.

Legally Executing Adoption

To legally adopt, you need to become comfortable with opening up your private lives and private dealings with a number of strangers who are part of the process. The paperwork process for foreign adoption can be very long and extremely tedious. The Federal Bureau of Investigation will require your fingerprints. Your home study social worker will ask very intimate questions and examine your home. You will have to gather letters of employment, home ownership, as well as birth certificates and your marriage license. A copy of your most recent tax return should accompany you on your trip. Know that all of this is necessary and is just part of the routine process.


How Healthy?

One common misperception about the international process involves having to prove that the adoptive child is very sick in order for the adoption to go through. Debbie Schwartz, co-president of the Hudson Region chapter of the Adoptive Parents Committee and an adoptive parent of two, points out that not all countries take that view. In Korea, for example, unwed mothers bearing children become the native equivalent of Hester Prynne. Their children will be placed for adoption regardless of the baby’s health.

My wife and I, and our agency, were honest about what our child has – anemia, rickets (vitamin D deficiency), psycho-motor developmental delays and perionatal encephalopathy (which is a medical term for developmental delays). "Some countries do not allow international adoption of perfectly healthy kids," says Ryzy. Not to worry, most medical examinations "will have something in them,” says Ryzy, that can qualify a child for adoption. Consult a doctor, social worker or adoption agency representative for further information.




>Support Groups

>Adoptive Parents Committee, Inc. (APC) – 997-7859, – Hudson Region chapter of the nonprofit, volunteer parents support group. Monthly meetings, guest speakers, family events and workshops are available to members. Meetings held in Westchester and Connecticut.

Westchester Foster and Adoptive Parents Association, Inc.
– 667-0899 – Provides information, referrals and support to foster and adoptive parents. Services include a buddy system, bimonthly meetings and social events.

Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute
212-269-5080, An organization devoted to reforming and improving adoption. Newsletters, publications and research.

Happy Families – 845-265-9272, – A licensed international adoption agency based in Cold Spring.

International Assistance Group
– 800-720-7384,  – A licensed international adoption agency.


Legal Counsel

American Academy of Adoption  – The four A’s, as they are known, is a membership organization providing information on adoption attorneys. Search available by state.

  On the Web

National Adoption Clearinghouse

Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS)

This is Part Two of a Two-Part Series | See Part One: Domestic Adoption in Westchester: The Possibilities and Pitfalls

Barry Abrams is a television producer living in Danbury, Conn. He and his wife Lisa welcomed home their son, Spencer Anatoli, on July 10, 2004.