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Obesity Is Weighty, Aging Adds Wrinkles to Foreign Adoptions : Culture: One man's battle to retain custody of Korean child after his wife died demonstrates how difficult the process can become.


DOYLESTOWN, Pa. — Obesity is disdained, advanced age scorned. And single parents might as well forget even trying.

These are the rules for an American who hopes to adopt a Korean infant, and they're not unusual: In a growing number of cases, would-be American parents are coming up against cultural differences that complicate foreign adoptions.

The potential for pitfalls was driven home when Keith Lussier, a potato chip salesman from Cheektowaga, N.Y., fought an unusual legal battle in August for the fatherhood of the 11-month-old girl he named Brittany.

Lussier's wife, Kimberly, 27, had died of uterine cancer July 17 and turned him into something their agency didn't want: a single parent rearing a Korean child. The baby was confiscated and relocated three days after the funeral, and Lussier fought back.

"This is something no parent should have to go through," said Lussier, 28, after a county judge ruled the child belonged with him.

The agency, Love the Children, has appealed the decision, arguing that rules and common sense dictated Brittany's relocation. Lussier and Brittany were reunited Aug. 30, but the appeal is pending in state Superior Court. Arguments are scheduled for early October.

Adoption experts consider the Lussier case a fluke of circumstance. But in a changing global landscape where adoption often involves international maneuverings and bureaucratic entanglement, many think such issues could arise again.

For example: In China, foreign adoptive parents should be at least 35 years old and childless; in Korea, 40 is the maximum age. Poland typically seeks and prefers Catholic families and prefers some Polish ethnicity in the adoptive families. India's government requires agencies to place two children with Indian families for every one placed overseas.

"The requirements generally reflect the culture. Most countries are looking for what they consider the ideal family," said Susan Freivalds, executive director of Adoptive Families of America, a Minneapolis support organization.

"But what is an ideal family? It's different in every culture," she said. "It's like a little patchwork you have to get through. You kind of plug yourself into the country where you fit."

And Americans have. They adopted 7,348 babies from more than three dozen countries last year, and Korea topped the list with 1,765 foreign adoptions, according to Freivalds' organization. The former Soviet Union was second with 1,107 adoptions.

Russia, Eastern Europe, China and many Latin American countries have encouraged more adoptions in the last five years, making more babies available and shifting focus from Korea. But as adoptions increase, the countries' operations become more elaborate. And that's not always productive.

"You're talking about whole new world regions that are involved in the process," said Clyde R. Tolley, executive director of Families Adopting Children Everywhere, an international adoption group.

He doesn't believe that foreign adoptions are becoming more difficult but says nations' moves to centralize procedures could lead to stricter standards.

"If you're going to see restrictions appear, they're going to be universal and there won't be exceptions," Tolley said.

Modern international adoption began after World War II when large numbers of European and Asian children were adopted by Americans. With the Korean War, attention turned to Korean orphans, and today more than 100,000 Korean children have come to the United States through adoptions.

The number of international adoptions peaked at 10,097 in 1987--in part, many say, because the flow from Korea has slowed and policies have tightened. It dipped after that and has stabilized at between 6,000 and 8,000 annually.

Today, most international adoptions are not pegged to war or other crises as they once were.

"I think the reason for some of these countries' restrictions was that they perceived that American families were exploiting their country by taking their children away," said Kenneth Watson, assistant director of the Chicago Child Care Society, a nonprofit children's agency.

Mary Graves, Love the Children's executive director, testified at Lussier's hearing that Korea tightened its policies after 1985 and made suggestions into demands.

"That is the Korean way," she said. "They mention it, they recommend it, then they come down and say, 'This is it.' "

An international attempt to standardize, called the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, would provide a system of safeguards and processes to protect the rights of all parties. It is still in the drafting stage.

Until then, adoption agencies must operate in a very complicated world.

"Just the fact that we're keeping two federal governments happy for every little muffin that comes in is miraculous," said AnnaMarie Merrill of the International Concerns Committee for Children in Boulder, Colo.

Bucks County Judge Leonard B. Sokolove, who ruled on the Lussier case, said in reading his decision that adoptions--especially international adoptions--may not always end perfectly but usually are better than no adoption at all.

"We could always find someplace that is better for our children," Sokolove said. "We have to recognize that we're playing the odds."

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