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A World of Hope

The search for babies to adopt has become a global quest, but not an easy one. Prospective parents face exorbitant fees, changing regulations--and charges of exploitation.

June 18, 1996|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's not much to do in Fort Smith, Ark., the locals say, but it's a great place to raise kids.

When they married two years ago, Cindi and Jerry Glidewell, both 39, had already raised four in previous marriages. The Glidewells--he is a youth director, she is a nurse--could not have any more children of their own and wanted to adopt. But like thousands of other infertile couples, they faced intense competition for healthy, white babies. What's more, recent court cases had made them afraid a remorseful birth parent might someday come knocking on their door.

"I was more than willing to raise another child or two," Cindi said, "but the idea of someone deciding to take him or her back in a few years would break my heart."

Eventually, they found just what they wanted: a healthy boy who, according to the videotapes sent from the orphanage and medical records, is developing properly and actually looks something like them. This summer, they will be bringing him home to Fort Smith--from Vidin, Bulgaria.

Their global quest has given them a bird's-eye view of the turmoil surrounding inter-country adoption--an option that is becoming increasingly attractive among those who can afford it, experts say. Some infertile couples, wary of high-tech medical interventions, are driven to seek adoptable children overseas by trends in domestic adoption, such as a "sellers market" created by decreasing numbers of infants placed for adoption and high-profile cases upholding birth parents' rights.

While the unquestioned neediness of abandoned children in poorer countries has made the practice admirable, even politically correct, in some quarters, some wonder if the prospective parents' needs and substantial pocketbooks are the overriding force behind some of the thousands of foreign adoptions carried out every year in the U.S. "When you're talking about infants, you're talking about a marketplace and not child welfare," said Kate Burke, president of the American Adoption Congress, a birth parents' rights group.

Baby-selling scandals, rumor and suspicion continue to haunt international adoption. While an international treaty three years ago aimed to impose some uniformity on the practice, the United States--which, few realize, also sends children to adoptive parents in other countries--has yet to sign it.

Meanwhile, prospective adoptive parents, unsure of what to expect, rely on one another's experiences. Adoption expert Joan Heifetz Hollinger, a UC Berkeley law professor, said, "You'll hear at least two kinds of stories from people who have adopted children in other countries in the last three years: One, it cost a lot of money but it went through without a hitch. And two, it was a nightmare, we didn't know if we were in Peru, Paraguay or Brazil. We didn't know if we were going to end up in jail."

Inter-country adoption began in earnest after the Korean War with the abandoned children of foreign servicemen, and grew rapidly after the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion made fewer white infants available for adoption. Over the past 10 years, Americans have adopted between 6,000 and 10,000 foreign children every year--half the estimated inter-country adoptions worldwide.

In the current fiscal year ending in September, State Department officials predict that that number will be close to 11,000 due in part to a surge of nearly 4,000 infants, almost all girls, coming from China. "China has replaced Romania in the early '90s and subsequently Russia as a country from which most children come from adoption," said Peter Pfund, a legal consultant with the department.

Skeptics wonder why prospective parents can't accept older, "special needs" children from the U.S. or perhaps contribute to poor families overseas to enable them to raise their own children. But many adoptive parents have been motivated by altruism, for instance, after hearing dramatic reports of "dying rooms" in orphanages, where Chinese parents reportedly have taken their infant daughters, under government edicts to limit their families and cultural practices that favor males.

At the same time, adoptive parents are also attracted by reports of healthier children and shorter waiting periods in other countries. In China, unlike most other countries, adoptive parents are not required to be married and must be older than 35. "So a great number of Chinese adoptions have been completed by single people," Hollinger said.

But governments are sensitive to outside criticism and prospective parents worried that the controversy might cause China to shut down its adoption program, as it did for a year in 1993 after charges of poor conditions and baby selling in some institutions.

In Beijing in March, security officials stormed a fund-raiser for Chinese orphanages featuring a speech by Chinese American author Amy Tan and ripped down posters that said "Love Children," despite protests from the attending U.S. ambassador. But adoptions have proceeded relatively smoothly.

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