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U.S. Law Limits Adoption of Foreign Children : Immigration: The newly drafted rule concerns countries that do not recognize a difference between legitimate and illegitimate births. Americans who want to adopt must get permission of both parents--even if one is unknown.


BOSTON — Sgt. Wilfred Cain and his wife had spent 18 months haggling with officials in Panama to adopt a baby boy. They thought bringing their son to the United States would be a breeze by comparison.

They were wrong.

The day the Cains got the adoption papers, Oct. 10, they learned the United States had changed its immigration laws 10 days earlier. Two-year-old Cameron no longer qualified for a visa, and the Cains may not be able to leave Panama with him.

The Cains, who have reared Cameron since he was 6 months old, are tangled in a new rule that adoption agency officials say could affect thousands of adoptions, particularly in Central and South America.

"We thought the nightmare of this red tape was over, but it's just the beginning of another nightmare that continues today," Cain, a native of Brockton, Mass., said in a telephone interview from Panama.

The new rule concerns countries such as Panama and Romania that do not recognize a difference between legitimate and illegitimate births. As of Oct. 1, the United States considers all births in those countries to be legitimate, meaning both parents can be accounted for.

Now, Americans trying to adopt babies from these countries must get the approval of both parents, or the custodial parent must prove the other parent is dead or has abandoned the family. The problem is that often, no one knows who both the parents are.

"In theory, this is to prevent the possibility that the other parent would try to recover the child," said Rick Kenny, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"But, in practice, in cases where the mother is giving up the child and doesn't name the father, this creates a problem for immigration because we can't take the word of one parent."

This is the Cains' story: Cameron's natural mother is a Panamanian Indian living in poverty. She signed a letter of permission for the Cains to adopt her son. She says she does not know where the boy's father is.

The new rules mean the Cains have to wait two years before they can take their son out of his native country, in case his father wants custody. Failing to show up after two years is sufficient proof of abandonment.

But the Cains cannot wait long.

Wilfred Cain's Air Force posting in Panama City ends Nov. 21, and he and his wife and their two biological daughters are being moved to Florida. Cain said he was supposed to move in April, but the military gave him an extension because of the adoption.

The Cains could proceed with the adoption if they go to Florida, but Cameron would have to stay in Panama until the waiting period expires. He would be turned over to the state, left in foster care or returned to his birth mother in the meantime.

Adoption agencies that handle foreign placements say the law is so new that they don't know yet which countries are affected. The State Department is compiling a list of the countries that don't make a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate birth, said Linda Perilstein, executive director of the Cradle of Hope Adoption Center in Washington.

Perilstein criticized the new INS rule as unnecessarily rigid and prejudiced against countries that allow private adoptions.

"Agencies are really worried. In Central and South America, it could affect thousands," she said.

INS and adoption officials said they knew of only one other case like that of the Cains--and it's had a happy ending.

Deborah and Martin Goldstein of Fairfax, Va., had trouble getting their adopted son, Matthew, out of Romania. The Goldsteins had to leave the toddler behind for 10 days in foster care until Oct. 27, when INS granted the boy humanitarian parole status. The boy has since joined the Goldsteins.

The Cains are hoping for humanitarian parole for their son, too, which would allow him to stay with them in the United States during the two-year waiting period. The adoption wouldn't be final until after the two years.

The two years begin from the time the adoption papers are filed in the United States, which the Cains have not yet done.

Julie Macdonald, director of the International Social Service American Branch Inc., said the new ruling is another reason U.S. citizens must be cautious when they try to adopt foreign babies.

"You would be astounded by the number of calls we get. It's heartbreaking," Macdonald said. "Most Americans assume, 'I'm American, this is my kid. What's the big deal?' Then they suddenly discover their baby doesn't qualify as an orphan."

Cain says the Air Force briefed him on all U.S. immigration rules before he took the adoption to the Panamanian courts last spring. But he says no one told him when the rules changed.

"We thought if we were going to bring another life into this world, we would take one who was already here and needed a home," Cain said. "We thought it would be easier."

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