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Health Horizons : SOCIETY : Daniel's Story : Adopting an infant from a foreign country takes time and money. And when you finally meet the child, it may be at the junction of your greatest joys and your worst fears.

March 21, 1993|BRUCE BOWER | Bruce Bower is behavioral science editor of Science News magazine in Washington, D.C

For 18 months, my wife Elizabeth and I had gathered reams of documents, discussed our lives with a social worker and waited anxiously. And now the big day had arrived--June 29, 1991. Bleary-eyed after taking the overnight flight from Miami to Asuncion, Paraguay, we stood in the doorway of our small hotel room waiting for a local lawyer to appear with an 8-month-old baby--our adopted son, Daniel.

Unfortunately, we were about to learn that the world of international adoption is fraught with perils we could never have imagined.

Our lawyer, whom I shall call Hector, soon arrived, flanked by his college-age son, who served as his interpreter. Behind them stood a woman described by our lawyer as "my associate." In her arms she held Daniel.

Elizabeth sat on the bed and took Daniel on her lap. Choked with emotion, we gazed at him as Hector's "associate" filled us in on our child's daily routine.

"He takes four ounces of formula every two hours," she said, showing a clear command of English. "The foster mother says he has a good temperament and sleeps through the night."

Yet we looked at the boy and sensed something was wrong. His tiny body sagged limply against Elizabeth; he made no sounds, and no expressions crossed his face. Hector, who often seemed to know more English than he let on, announced that he would pick us up on Tuesday morning for a trip to the courthouse and the signing of our adoption decree by a judge. He smiled and departed, son and associate in tow.

We now took a close, frightening look at Daniel. He resembled not so much a baby as a rag doll. Under layers of clothes and swaddling we found a tiny, pale body. Impassive brown eyes stared blankly, rarely blinking. A circular bald spot spread across the back of his head. Above his forehead, where cranial bones had not yet fused, a quarter-sized piece of flesh sagged, indicating dehydration of his brain tissue. We lay our son carefully on the bed and realized he could not move. With great effort, Daniel managed to roll his head from side to side. He remained eerily silent--no gurgles, no coos, nothing.

Cases such as ours are not unusual. International adoptions have increased greatly over the past few decades. In the United States, about 10,000 children a year now enter the country from abroad as adoptees and make up more than 10% of all adoptions. A decline in the number of healthy domestic infants available for adoption--both black and white--has fueled this trend.

These days, virtually all domestic adoptions of healthy white babies are for those who can afford private lawyers, rather than public adoption agencies, and usually cost at least $20,000. International adoption, with costs usually ranging from $5,000 to $12,000, proves appealing to prospective parents willing to raise a child of a different race or ethnic background.

As we were to learn later, international adoptions overwhelmingly involve children of poverty who often have undisclosed health problems. These ailments, such as malnutrition, ear infections and intestinal viruses, usually vanish with proper nutrition and medical care.

A sense of anguish and confusion set in as I recalled our meetings over the past four months with the case worker at our adoption agency in Washington, D.C. She had recommended an adoption in Paraguay after our two tries at adopting through orphanages in Colombia had failed. "Hector handles one adoption at a time, and his sister-in-law is the foster mother for each baby," she said proudly. For that security, we gladly paid $1,000 for four months of foster care while Hector handled the preliminary legal intricacies of our adoption.

To top it off, several babies previously adopted by American couples through Hector had all arrived healthy.

Now, in the hotel, which served as an adoption center for many couples like us, Elizabeth looked over the frail, non-responsive infant and voiced a concern I could barely acknowledge. "Do you think he's brain-damaged?" she asked. "Can we raise a brain-damaged child?"

A jagged burst of air suddenly drew our attention. It came from Daniel, who we now realized had functioning bowels and a raging case of diarrhea. We soon filled the bathtub with hot water to soak his clothes.

We lay sleepless that night, getting up periodically to hold and give Daniel his formula.He finally found his lungs and bleated--he lacked the strength to cry--into the morning.

After a bleary-eyed breakfast, we met several American couples staying in the same hotel with newly adopted infants. Some youngsters seemed in good shape, others looked malnourished, but none displayed evidence of the type of neglect Daniel had suffered.

Daniel's scrawny state of suspended animation raised immediate concern for his well-being. To our dismay, the local pediatrician sanctioned by the U.S. Embassy to examine babies undergoing international adoption could not see Daniel until Monday.

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