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New Lives on Hold as SARS Delays Adoptions

May 17, 2003|Li Fellers and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers

Kamryn's first party dress is hanging in the closet of her room, in a house in the San Fernando Valley. Four pink and lavender ladybugs are painted on the walls. All that's missing is Kamryn, the name that will belong to a not-yet-identified girl who is in a Chinese orphanage, her homecoming to America indefinitely delayed by the SARS epidemic.

"Every day we wait is another day of her life that I miss," her mother-to-be, Michelle Short-Nagel, lamented on Friday.

The day before, China had announced that it was suspending all new international adoptions because of concerns about severe acute respiratory syndrome, which has traced a path of anxiety and sorrow from Guangzhou Province to points throughout the world.

Few aspects of the effort to stop the spread of SARS have been as heart-wrenching. Americans every year adopt more than 5,000 Chinese children, mostly girls, each one representing a life-altering commitment on the part of the adoptive parents.

The wait for a child can be well over a year. Now, for hundreds of families, the waiting time has become open-ended.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 30, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Adoption delays -- An article in Section A on May 17 about China suspending foreign adoptions because of the SARS outbreak incorrectly referred to Guangzhou province in China. The name of the province is Guangdong; its capital is Guangzhou.

"You've waited almost a year and a half and something like this happens right when you're ready to go. It's heartbreaking," said Andi Bergman, a prospective mother in Hancock Park. "The little babies are there and we can't get to them as soon as we would like to. It's very hard, very hard to deal with."

The Chinese decision, announced on the Web site of the government's China Center for Adoption Affairs, does not apply to parents who have already received final approval, which includes a photograph of their child and travel dates. Adoption agencies say parents who have received dates for the next several weeks are going ahead with their plans. But others, including those like Bergman and Short-Nagel who have completed all their paperwork and are awaiting documents and their babies' photos, have been thrown into limbo.

"We're telling everyone, please be patient, as difficult as it might be for them," said Dawn Dean, a spokeswoman for Bethany Christian Services, a large adoption agency based in Grand Rapids, Mich. Dean said Bethany placed 150 children from China in American homes last year, and has numerous parents "in the pipeline" to adopt Chinese children now. She said the agency has no sense of how long the suspension might last.

There have been no reports of SARS outbreaks in Chinese orphanages, and no verified reports of SARS among adoptive children or parents who have returned to the United States from China, although a spokeswoman for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said she is aware of no central reporting system that would track such cases.

Ed Strassberger, a spokesman for the new federal Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly Immigration and Naturalization Services) said he doubts that adoption poses a grave risk of spreading SARS, because the children are required to undergo a medical examination before being issued a U.S. visa. But the incubation period for SARS is 10 days, and CDC spokeswoman Karen Hunter noted that the disease can be identified only by its symptoms, not by a blood test or other lab procedure. So a child could return to the United States with the disease without having been previously diagnosed.

For weeks now, agencies that deal with Chinese adoption have been reacting to the epidemic by altering the travel programs for parents going to pick up children. Sightseeing trips have been canceled, and many parents have spent the bulk of their time in China -- typically, a week to 10 days -- holed up in hotel rooms.

One large agency, Children's Hope International of St. Louis, has stopped flying into Beijing, instead going directly to Guangzhou, where its adoptions are processed.

Although that is the province where the disease originated, Children's International spokesman Cory Barron said the agency believes the epidemic is largely controlled there. Prospective parents are discouraged from mingling with local people, he said.

"You miss out on some of the fun of going to China, but with SARS around you just have to be cautious," Barron said.

So far, China is the only country to suspend adoptions because of SARS.

The other Asian countries that have significant numbers of adoptions by Americans are South Korea, Vietnam, India and the Philippines, none of which are among the places that SARS has hit the hardest.

Of them, Vietnam has had the largest number of confirmed SARS deaths: five. But it recently suspended international adoptions for bureaucratic reasons having nothing to do with the epidemic.

For now, the impact rests solely on Chinese children and those who want to adopt them.

"It's difficult on a number of levels," said Parvaze Bashir, a prospective father in Orange. He and his wife, Cheryl, were in the final stages of their second Chinese adoption and don't know what will happen now. Their first daughter, Lauren, will be 4 in August and has been looking forward to getting a baby sister.

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