Families can experience growing pains when confronted with the challenges of adopting a child. The first step in successfully navigating the process is knowing what to expect.
After months of trying to get pregnant without success, Stephanie Sareeram can remember the exact moment she began thinking about adoption. It was a Saturday night Mass at her parish, Queen of Apostles in Alexandria, Virginia, and she was lost in thought. “I was staring out the window and the first thing I heard the priest say during the homily was, ‘We are all the adopted children of God,’ ” Sareeram says. “I sat there thinking, ‘Are you trying to tell me something?’ ”
That one moment at Mass sparked a year-and-a-half-long discussion with her husband, Steve Fraser, about whether they should pursue adoption. They finally decided to attend an information session at their local Catholic Charities agency in November 2012.
From there, the entire adoption process took just over a year. Together with a Catholic Charities social worker, they began working through the home-study process, an extensive background check required for all adoptive families. The study involves one-on-one interviews and home visits, as well as paperwork to verify medical records, bank statements, and personal histories. Sareeram and Fraser were also required to write a book about themselves.
“You have 20 pages of a Shutterfly photo book to say who you are. No pressure,” Sareeram says. “I’m a writing professor, and you’d think that I would understand drafting because that’s what I teach, but I had to do it four different times.”
Sareeram and Fraser also had to make some decisions about the child they wanted to adopt, taking age, ethnic background, and medical and mental health history into consideration. Although they knew they’d be open to a child from a different background than their own, some scenarios gave them pause. “There’s a lot of soul-searching involved,” Sareeram says. “You have to accept that you have limitations, and we had different ones at times.”
Sareeram and Fraser are just one of the hundreds of thousands of couples across the United States who have pursued adoption in recent years. Just as couples before and after them, they learned a memorable lesson: While adoption can be a life-changing opportunity for families and children in need, it is far from simple.
As the senior vice president for programs and services at Catholic Charities USA, Jean Beil sees that lesson learned all the time. “Prospective parents need to understand that adoption is a complex legal and emotional process,” she says. “If you’re timid about sharing the intricacies of your life, it’s probably not a good choice. But in all of that, the goal is to assist the family in identifying the kind of child that would be best for them and the type of adoption to which they are best suited.”
Although the process is tough, the outcome can be great, Beil says. It’s just a matter of determining whether a prospective family can handle it. “You have to think about whether you are ready to welcome an adopted child because they don’t all come wrapped up pretty with no problems,” she says. “How do you accept that this is God’s gift for you?”
A changing field
Although the informal practice of adoption goes back to the earliest days of humankind, American adoption as we know it today has its roots in the 18th century. The state of Massachusetts passed the first U.S. adoption law, which set the precedent that adoptions should be court approved and should fall under the jurisdictions of the states rather than the federal government.
Because an overarching organization that tracks domestic adoptions does not exist, it is difficult to determine exactly how many children are adopted in the United States each year. But a 2011 report from the Child Welfare Information Gateway estimates that 136,000 children were adopted annually in the United States in 2007 and 2008, including adoptions from foster care and other countries. According to Beil, Catholic Charities has approximately 90 agencies around the country offering adoption services. In 2013, those agencies served 32,000 adults and children with adoption services and helped to facilitate 2,364 adoptions.
Of those adoptions, the majority—about 67 percent, or 1,600 children—were done through the foster care system. Thirty-eight percent—about 902 adoptions—were of children with special needs; 462 adoptions were of infants; and 248 were international.
In addition to facilitating adoptions, Catholic Charities agencies work with birth mothers to help them make plans and determine whether adoption is right for them. The agencies help prospective parents with home studies and parenting classes. And after an adoption, Catholic Charities provides counseling and support groups for birth moms, adoptive parents, and adopted children for as long as needed. “This is definitely not something where we help you for a year and that’s it,” Beil says. “We try to grow with the families and help them as they ask questions.”
After prospective families complete the home study—a process Beil says can take anywhere from six weeks to six months—they are placed on various lists to be matched with birth mothers or children. Since the selection often comes down to the birth mother’s preference, wait times can be hard to predict. If a family adopts internationally, they might have to wait significantly longer due to government and immigration restrictions.
“In domestic adoptions, an infant could be in your arms within a week of their birth,” says Beil. “For international adoptions, a child could spend several years in an orphanage before coming home.”
The length of time parents wait is also affected by their selectivity, says Kim Harrell, director of adoptions for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia. If families are very specific about what kind of child they’d like—say, an infant from a certain ethnic background—they may wait longer than a family who is less particular. For that reason, Harrell always tries to help couples open their hearts and minds as much as they can. “The more closed people are, the longer they will wait and the harder it will be for them to be placed,” she says. “It’s a hard balance to find. We never push people into something they can’t handle, but we try to help them explore the possibilities as much as we can.”
Hurry up and wait
Waiting for an adoption is a situation Jennifer Dunlap and her husband, Bob, of Clearwater, Florida know well. Since 2001, the pair has adopted six children internationally with the help of three different adoption agencies. Their eldest sons are from Russia, their daughters are from Korea, and their two most recent adoptions are a biological brother and sister pair from the Caribbean country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Dunlap writes about her experience as a home-schooling adoptive parent on her blog, foreverforalwaysnomatterwhat.com.
“I know a lot of people struggle with deciding whether or not they want to adopt, but it was a very easy decision for us,” Dunlap says. “I remember praying at Mass to have a family and praying for Mary’s intercession. Somewhere along the line my prayer changed from me being pregnant to me having a child. The switch kind of flipped, and I think that was when the seed was planted that adoption was the path for our family.”
International adoption can be especially complicated, and Dunlap and her husband have spent a lot of time traveling to visit with agencies and orphanages. She considers herself lucky because all of her adoptions had relatively short wait times. “It was always our hope to get them as young as possible, so that was what we hoped for with our oldest,” she says. “He was 6 months when he got home and the others were right around 9 months to a year old.”
After four adoptions, Dunlap says she and her husband felt confident enough to adopt older children. Their most recent adoptions, in 2009, were of children ages 5 and 2, respectively.
After knowing a child was going to be in her family, Dunlap says it was sometimes hard having to wait for his or her arrival. For comfort, she turned to prayer. “When we found out about our oldest son, we would pray a rosary for him every night,” she says. “I would also think about Mary caring for our children because when you get a picture and you know that’s your child, it becomes very hard to imagine him or her in an orphanage or foster care where you can’t do anything about it.”
When it came time to start their family, Heidi Schlumpf and her husband, Edmund Butler, of Chicago, also chose to adopt internationally. “I had done a lot of traveling as a journalist and my husband had lived in Japan for two years and had connections to Asia,” says Schlumpf, a former U.S. Catholic editor. “We were not only up for the challenges of being a conspicuous or biracial family, but we saw that as an exciting thing.”
After doing some research, Schlumpf and her husband decided to adopt from China, a country known for having an ethical adoption system and being less expensive than some other countries. They filed their paperwork in 2005 and were told it would take between six and nine months to be matched with a child. Because of tightened restrictions from the Chinese government, the adoption process ultimately took about five years. While they waited for their first adoption, the Schlumpfs began—and completed—a second adoption in Vietnam in 2008. Their daughter from China came home in 2010.
The waiting was not easy. As months and years passed, Schlumpf says she found support through her parish, St. Gertrude in Chicago, and her coworkers. She also found support online through adoption message boards, where she would spend hours a day researching.
What helped Schlumpf was learning to live in the present and practice gratitude for what she had. She also turned to spiritual reading, including the writings of Henri Nouwen. Although her adoptions eventually came through, Schlumpf still remembers how painful her experience was. In 2009, she wrote a book about it: While We Wait: Spiritual and Practical Advice for Those Trying to Adopt (ACTA). In it she wrote, “Just as God has been with me through all the other small and large tragedies in my life—hardships that eventually helped me become that stronger person I am today—I trusted that God was with me in this painful part of my life, too. I saw God’s presence in so many different ways: in my husband’s strength, in the distraction of beauty in the world, and in the mere fact that I’m still here, ready to love these two children for whom we have waited so long.”
The other mothers
One of the major changes in adoptions over the past few decades is the growing trend toward open adoptions. According to the 2013 book, The Open-Hearted Way to Open Adoption (Rowman & Littlefeld), fewer than 5 percent of domestic adoptions were open prior to 1990. Today, open adoptions are recommended by 90 percent of all adoption agencies.
But the idea of an open adoption can be a frightening one. Harrell of Catholic Charities in Arlington often encounters prospective parents who are worried about birth parents and what kind of presence they may have in an adopted child’s life. “There are a lot of misconceptions of who birth parents are,” Harrell says. “People think that they’re teenagers, or that they’re on drugs. That may be true for some, but for many they are kind of the girl next door. Some could be in their 30s or 40s. It’s all different.”
When she’s working with prospective families, Harrell tries to put emphasis on the birth mother and the sacrifices she makes by choosing an adoption plan for her child. “It’s often the hardest thing these women will ever have to do. We work with adoptive parents so they have an accurate idea of birth parents,” she says. “It’s really important because whatever perception they have will carry onto their children when they talk about who their parents are.”
The emphasis on the mother is one of the reasons Rebecca and Jesse Czarniecki of McLean, Virginia chose to adopt through Catholic Charities in 2009, after interviewing with six other adoption agencies. Their son, Simon, is now 3-and-a-half years old.
“The experience, the knowledge, and the approach [the agency] had was just really great,” Rebecca Czarniecki says. “The idea that the child is the first client, the birth parent is the second, and the adoptive parent is the third—that has created such a healthy approach for us to grow with Simon and his birth parents and their parents. When you put the child first, it’s not about he’s mine or he’s yours, it’s about him and being with all the people who love him.”
When it comes to a relationship with birth parents, Jesse Czarniecki says the most important thing is to remain flexible. “Have broad expectations and be willing to work with whatever the situation presents,” he says. “We’ve gone through phases when both his birth mom and his birth dad wanted some time to themselves and later they wanted to come back and see Simon, and that’s great. So you just need to be flexible working with that and with whatever is best for their situations.”
Today Rebecca Czarniecki says the relationship they’ve formed with their son’s birth parents has been one of the most positive parts of their adoption process. The family enjoys regular visits with Simon’s birth parents and biological grandparents, and Simon has photos of his birth parents in his bedroom. “We’ve gone to each of their houses and visited with extended families,” she says.
Although the process is not always easy, she is happy that her son will grow up with a solid knowledge of where he came from. “I love that open adoption is so different from what it used to be,” she says. “Adoption should never be a surprise. It should be something children grow up with and know and never question, a solid foundation instead of something that throws them off.”
For some families, the relationship between the birth parents and adoptive parents is not as smooth. Adoption can be painful—especially for birth parents—and sometimes boundaries can be pushed or promises can be broken. In those cases, Catholic Charities provides post-adoptive counseling for all members of the family, Harrell says.
“After placement, the ongoing relationship between the adoptive family and the birth parent is a wonderful thing,” she says. “At times they may experience some bumps, like any other relationship. So it’s important for them to have access to their adoption agency or an adoption-competent therapist to help them navigate this important relationship.”
A joy that starts with loss
In their 2004 book, The Post-Adoption Blues (Rodale), Karen J. Foli and John R. Thompson explain how unmet expectations during the adoption process can sometimes lead to anxiety or sorrow in new adoptive parents, especially mothers. The expectations can be anything from a lack of control during the adoption process, remaining disappointment over the reasons they had to adopt in the first place, or a lack of confidence in one’s own parenting skills.
“These emotions can be intense, difficult to understand, and may take her completely by surprise,” the authors write. “It is their suddenness that makes the emotions especially challenging.”
Sareeram remembers clearly how she felt after her daughter, Anna, came home in January 2014, only nine days after the couple first heard about her existence. The week of Anna’s arrival was the same week a severe winter storm hit Virginia, leaving Sareeram and her husband with little heat and five frozen pipes. As friends and families supported them by bringing fresh water, groceries, and suitcases filled with baby clothes, Sareeram struggled to feel like Anna’s mother.
“In the portrait in my head of how this was going to go, everything went completely backward,” she says. “I’m the emotional one and Steve is not, but he instantly felt this connection with Anna and I had trouble. It was something I didn’t expect. I’m looking at this beautiful child thinking, ‘OK, I’ll look after her, but I don’t know how to feel about her yet.’ ”
Experiences like this are another reason agencies such as Catholic Charities offer post-adoption counseling services for adoptive parents. “We work with families so they know they’re OK and that it’s OK if they feel that way,” Harrell says. “We try to prep them ahead of time that if this happens, let us know. We’re not going to take the baby away, but we’ll work with you to help.”
As Schlumpf puts it, the truth about adoption is this: No adoption is pain free. Every adoption begins with loss. Schlumpf has felt two sides of the loss herself. When she was 19 years old and in college, she placed her own daughter into adoption. Then, in her 40s, she realized she could no longer have a child naturally.
“The real loss around adoption is for the birth family and the adopted child, and later adopted person,” Schlumpf says. “The family loses their birth child and the adopted person always has that loss, too, that they were not raised by their birth family or sometimes even in their birth culture. . . .I’m pretty sensitive to the fact that my children have significant loss in their life from the get-go. We’ve had to learn about how to deal with that challenge and be sensitive to it, mostly by being open and honest.”
What eventually helped Sareeram overcome her confused feelings after the adoption was talking about her experiences with other mothers. “Once I started feeling normal about how I was feeling, the clouds started to part,” she says. “A couple of months ago, there was this one morning where I looked at Anna and thought, ‘I could not be more in love with you if I tried.’ And ever since then she’s got me.”
In the months since Anna’s arrival, Sareeram and Fraser have developed a positive relationship with Anna’s birth mother, with whom they correspond through letters and photos. And even though Anna is of a different ethnic background, Sareeram swears she sometimes resembles her father.
Now, just as she and Steve had to write their own life stories at the beginning of the adoption process, Sareeram is putting together a book for Anna, who is now 1. She’s currently in the process of having it illustrated by a former student.
“The story is focused on how Anna came to us, and it’s not just for Anna but also for our families and her friends to know how to talk about her birth mother,” Sareeram says. “I want people to know that this is a wanted child and that this child is loved so far beyond her front door . . . And that she comes with a history.”
Couples hoping to adopt can expect a rocky road filled with complex choices and plenty of waiting. Building a happy family begins with knowing how to navigate the process.
“We were not only up for the challenges of being a conspicuous or biracial family, but we saw that as an exciting thing.”
“When you put the child first, it’s not about he’s mine or he’s yours, it’s about him and being with all the people who love him.”
The changing world of international adoption
Although it is often depicted in movies and media as being a common practice, international adoption into the United States has actually been in a sharp decline for the past decade. According to numbers from the U.S. Department of State, international adoption hit its highest point in 2004 when 22,884 children were brought into the United States. In 2011, the total was 9,320.
The decline in international adoption can be attributed to many things, but it usually has to do with politics and government regulations. China, for example, has in recent years made significant changes to its adoption policies. According to a 2013 CNN article, adoptions from China first became popular in the 1990s after the media realized the full impact of China’s one-child policy, which left orphanages filled with abandoned infants, mostly girls. Since then, China has been one of the most popular destinations for American families looking to adopt.
That changed in 2007 when China introduced stricter regulations for adoptive families. Now, adoptive parents must be under the age of 50 and couples must have been married for at least two years. There are also rules prohibiting adoptive parents who are obese, who have facial deformities, or who have taken antidepressants for serious mental disorders in the past two years.
Russia, which was for many years the second most popular country for international adoptions, has passed legislation to outlaw adoption into the United States. Widely seen as a political move, the policy came after a 2010 incident in which a Tennessee family tried to return its 7-year-old adopted son to his Moscow orphanage. Other countries such as Vietnam, Guatemala, and Nepal have suspended international adoptions because of concerns about fraud and corruption.
This was something Heidi Schlumpf of Chicago learned firsthand as she waited to adopt her son from Vietnam in 2008. Schlumpf, a journalist, spent hours a day researching international adoptions online and read about cases where children were placed for adoption after being bought or even kidnapped from their parents.
For those reasons, Schlumpf started to get nervous when her son’s adoption seemed to be moving too quickly. “They were promising me a baby way too fast and cutting corners,” she says. “Things weren’t on the up and up, and it was the reporter in me who couldn’t ignore the fact that things were going too fast and who wondered whether we should be concerned.”
Although it was painful to start the process again, Schlumpf and her husband didn’t feel like they could live with themselves if they went through with the first adoption. They switched to another agency well known for its ethical standards. After his adoption, her son’s case was reinvestigated by the American government. “Even with that, I don’t have 100 percent certainty that either of my children were placed in the adoption system ethically,” Schlumpf says.
Although she is still a believer in adoption, Schlumpf believes that adoptive families need to think seriously about where their children are coming from. “As an infertile couple who really wanted to be parents, we wanted a child. It is very easy when you’re adopting in that mindset to think of a child as a thing you want, a commodity, and to conveniently look the other way when things aren’t looking right,” she says. “I did take a number of steps to do the best we could to adopt ethically, but it’s a very unregulated thing, and there’s this huge power differential between the receiving country and the home country.”
This article also appears in the January 2015 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 80, No. 1, pages 12-17). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash/Ricky Turner