In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the third annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.
It Will Eventually All Make Sense
By Emily Roper
Marrying at the age of 36 (41 for my husband) comes with a societal expectation that one will start to have a family immediately. We did happen to want a child – one to be specific – and started the process of trying to have a biological child. I say biological on purpose because adoption was always on the table; but knowing the process and costs associated, we decided to “try” biologically first. After a year and a half of multiple miscarriages and basic fertility treatments (with no real diagnosis), we made the decision to pursue adoption.
My husband, Kevin, and I made the decision to adopt domestically in early spring of 2012. Five days after completing our home study, our adoption agency forwarded us two photographs and a short bio of an almost 13-month old girl named Svetlana available for adoption from Serbia.
Although we were in the domestic program, we were considered “home study ready” and eligible to proceed with this particular adoption. While Kevin and I had discussed domestic adoption at length, oddly, we had never discussed adopting internationally. In hindsight, I think it seemed more challenging and less familiar, despite the fact that we had both travelled extensively and lived overseas at various stages throughout our lives. Domestic adoption was also already a part of our family with the recent domestic adoption of our niece, Sophia.
Upon receiving the information about Svetlana, I forwarded the email to Kevin. Kevin was in London on business and after several lengthy telephone conversations over the course of three days, we made the decision to adopt Svetlana.
We were told we would be eligible to bring her home by the end of the year – after only eight months of waiting. After several weeks of gathering and notarizing personal documents, completing necessary medical evaluations and tests, and organizing paperwork for our background checks and fingerprinting, our complete dossier was mailed to our adoption agency representative who would then forward it to the facilitator who worked for her.
Her facilitator was a man who lived in Bucharest, Romania, someone she had known and worked with for almost twenty years. He was responsible for traveling back and forth to Belgrade, Serbia, to submit paperwork and meet with Serbian Adoption Ministry officials on behalf of the U.S. families adopting through our agency.
Through our adoption agency, we were incredibly fortunate to connect with several other families adopting from Serbia, all at various stages in the process. We were, of our small group, the newest family to the international program.
During the months of waiting, we got together regularly, shared pictures of our soon-to-be daughters (we were all adopting girls), answered each other’s questions, generated packing lists, helped each other with travel arrangements, and celebrated holidays together. We became a strong support system for one another; we knew exactly what each other was going through.
Like other expectant parents, Kevin and I began to prepare for a child; we bought the necessary, and some not so necessary items, prepared Svetlana’s room, and started a blog to document the process for our family and close friends.
Because Svetlana would be approximately twenty months when we returned home, we also had to toddler-proof our home and find a pediatrician familiar with international adoptees. We also spent considerable time reading books devoted to international adoption and attachment.
In late August - only a month after our dossier was submitted to the Serbian Adoption Ministry - we received news that we had been granted travel dates, an unexpected surprise as we were the newest family to the program. In fact, all eleven families had been granted travel dates and would travel in groups of three between early October and late November of 2012. We would be the fourth group to travel and were scheduled to leave on November 22 -- Thanksgiving Thursday.
For the next month, our planning and preparations intensified. We bought plane tickets, attended international adoption workshops, planned maternity/paternity leave, organized immigration paperwork, and began the daunting task of packing for a three-week international trip that required at least two weeks of necessities for a toddler.
In early October, the first sets of families were scheduled to depart. Driving home from the university, I called Kevin to say goodbye as he was boarding a plane to Frankfurt for business. Coincidentally, he was scheduled to be on the same flight as one of the adoptive families in the first group. Kevin texted the family to inquire their whereabouts in the terminal – their response – “our trip has been cancelled.” The reason for the cancellation/postponement was two missing documents from each adoptive family’s file. We were told it was a paperwork error by a “low-level clerk” at the Serbian Ministry.
This information was devastating as I knew we (group #4 to travel) would also be postponed. As Kevin boarded his long flight to Frankfurt, we only knew that we would most likely be delayed - for how long we did not yet know.
We again began the arduous process of waiting for new dates from the Serbian Ministry. This time we were waiting for the Ministry to obtain the two missing documents from each family’s file and reissue travel dates. These documents, proof from two regions in the country that each of our children was available for adoption, were required for the adoptions to proceed. We waited.
As we continued to wait, our skepticism and uncertainty grew as a “Tuesday update” from our agency representative would indicate more news in the “Friday update,” only to be told “next Tuesday.” We anxiously waited for two months of updates which rarely contained content of substance. One of the adoptive family members began to refer to our updates as the “Tuesday – Friday curse.”
Thanksgiving was especially difficult as we were not only scheduled to depart, but the entire day we were preoccupied with the update we were scheduled to receive, only to be disappointed with an update that indicated we would travel sometime in mid-January 2013. While tentative dates was positive, it was not what we had anticipated as we had been assured we would travel in early December and return by the end of the year. Confirmation of our January travel dates did not come until early December, but at least we had new dates.
Although cautious, we were excited and began the process of preparing to leave (again) – reorganizing maternity/paternity leave, toddler-proofing the house, and packing for the 3+ weeks of travel.
Three weeks prior to our departure date my mother came over to help us wash and pack Svetlana’s clothes. Since receiving travel dates, we had been purchasing clothing here and there, but I refused to remove the tags or wash the clothes. I simply placed them in her closet and drawers and continued to add to the stock. With adoption there is always that feeling of uncertainty – it is very difficult to ever feel comfortable. As strange as it sounds, I was always nervous to wash her clothes.
Finally, only eighteen days out from our departure date, I felt ready. My mom and I removed tags, sorted, washed, and folded clothes…laundry was never so much fun.
One week later, on January 14, 2013, I was at lunch with a colleague and friend. My phone rang, it was our agency representative. I literally felt a pit in my stomach - she never called me, I always called her. I knew it was bad news as it was also twenty-four hours prior to when the first group of families was scheduled to depart. Our agency representative proceeded to inform me that all travel dates were again postponed.
We were told that the Serbian Ministry was placing a moratorium on international adoptions due to pressure they were receiving from American families whose adoptions had been terminated as a result of the Russian ban on U.S. families adopting from Russia. Of all the thoughts that went through my head during that conversation, the most prevalent was "this can't be happening again."
It was surreal. As I was the one that fielded most of the calls from our representative, I was also responsible for sharing any updates and news with Kevin. At the end of the conversation, much of which I don't think I retained, I told our representative that she had to call Kevin to share the latest cancellation. I did not want to deliver this type of news to him again.
About a week after our travel had been postponed for the second time, Kevin and I made the agonizing decision to discontinue the adoption of Svetlana. This was the most difficult decision either of us had ever made up until this point, but we felt strongly that it was the right decision for our family.
Our decision was based upon a number of unanswered questions and growing concerns regarding the legitimacy of the adoption. While a few families left the program, other families stayed. Our decision, while incredibly difficult, felt like the right decision at the time. There was, however, always that nagging feeling of wonder – did we do the right thing?
Approximately two weeks after leaving the program. I decided late one night to send a detailed email to the Serbian Adoption Ministry. Our agency representative had highly discouraged contact with the Ministry. For close to nine months we operated from a place of fear and despite growing concerns, we did not want to disrupt the adoption program or provide any reason for why our adoption should not proceed.
I have found this to be a common feeling among adoptive families that I have spoken with - fear of disrupting the process. With my growing concerns about the legitimacy of the program, I hit “send” on an email to the Ministry. In the email, I inquired about the whereabouts of our dossier, their current relationship with our facilitator and agency representative, and for confirmation that Svetlana was eligible for adoption by an American family.
By the time I woke up in the morning, an English-speaking representative at the Serbian Ministry had responded, indicating that our dossier was never on file at the Ministry, our facilitator and agency representative did not have a current relationship with the Ministry, and Svetlana had never been available for adoption. They also indicated that they were unaware of her whereabouts or existence.
As I suspected, we were involved in an international adoption scam.
Upon receiving the Ministry’s response, I followed up with an email to the United States (US) Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia. The officials at the US Embassy indicated that they had been alerted to our case because of the email I had sent the Ministry. Embassy officials were then called to a meeting with Ministry officials. After that meeting, the US Embassy confirmed the information that the Ministry had provided to me.
Learning this information was in some ways validating in that it confirmed the apprehension, unanswered questions and nagging feeling of distrust that we had throughout the latter part of the adoption program.
Grieving the loss of a child that was never available for adoption felt especially difficult.
I threw myself into understanding what happened and making certain that no other families were victimized. For several weeks, I provided information to the US Embassy and State Department officials regarding our case and when sufficient information was gathered and other families came forward to speak with officials, an adoption alert was eventually posted on the US State Department’s Intercountry Adoption website.
In some ways this felt like a positive step toward closure, but I knew that there were still families in the program that were hopeful to bring their children home, families still holding on to the chance that this may all be a misunderstanding.
I will never question why a family would stay in such a program; the intense desire for a child can sometimes mask the reality of the situation. And, in these situations there are often people telling you exactly what you want and need to hear in order to maintain your commitment to such a program.
In addition to the US State Department’s alert, I also filed an official Hague complaint against our US-based adoption agency. I was told that the investigation could take up to a year to complete.
Almost five months after we left the program, we were notified that our adoption agency representative traveled to Serbia with the expectation of meeting with Ministry officials. We were told this meeting never occurred. What transpired during that trip, I am not certain, but families that remained hopeful to adopt their matched children were finally notified that the program was not legitimate and was officially terminated.
At this point, we do not know all of the pieces of information; we have no idea who “Svetlana” is, and we do not know the involvement of the Ministry, our agency, or the facilitator. There are so many questions that are left unanswered.
The critical question that will remain with me - and I suspect I will never know - is the whereabouts and identity of the child we came to know as “Svetlana.”
Those reading or hearing our story often react with surprise and shock; most people can’t believe we were involved in such an elaborate international scam. Most days I can’t believe it either. To some, it may validate stereotypical assumptions surrounding adoption and international adoption in particular. And while there have been adoption scams over the years, which is one of the reasons for the development of Hague accreditation policies, there are many international adoptions that are legal, legitimate and for the good of the child.
After leaving the program, we knew we still wanted a family and that we wanted to adopt. We also knew that adoption requires time and therefore we began the domestic process with a different agency.
Approximately four months after being with our new agency, we were matched with a birthmother. We received the call that she was due in only four weeks, but would have a scheduled C-section in 3 weeks. We spent the next three weeks preparing for a newborn, attending doctor’s appointments, and trying to develop as much a relationship as possible with our expectant birthmother. I was fortunate to be able to visit our birthmother regularly as the spring semester had just ended. We went to lunch, dinner, the movies, and coffee shops; we talked and got to know one another. I genuinely grew to care deeply for our birthmother. As we sat in the theatre one afternoon waiting for our movie to begin, she grabbed my hand and while placing it on her stomach asked, “do you want to feel our baby kick?”
She invited me into the delivery room, an experience I have never had, am so grateful for, and will never forget. In the state of Texas, birthmothers have forty-eight hours after the birth of their child before they are legally allowed to relinquish their parental rights. The first night after the birth I stayed in a “family room” with the baby, waking every couple of hours to change, feed, and/or hold.
This too was a first for me – I was nervous not only about the impending placement - but also the experience of caring for a newborn for her first night. I think I called my mother and sister at least twenty times during that twelve-hour period. Thankfully the nursing staff made regular “check-ins” to confirm we were doing alright.
Throughout the first twenty-four hours post-birth, our concerns continued to grow about whether our birthmother would place her baby. We were told this feeling was normal. Late in the afternoon of the second day our birthmother asked to speak with me. In this five-minute conversation she indicated that she had chosen to parent her child, a decision that was clearly difficult for her. Her mother, who had not previously known about her pregnancy, was now expressing a desire to support and help her.
After I left her room, I walked down the hall to share the news with Kevin. As we gathered all of our belongings, as well as those for the baby that we had brought, I broke into tears. It was excruciating for us, but it was always something we knew was possible – you have to know this going into adoption.
We walked out of that hospital almost thirty hours after the delivery without a baby. Adoption is unique in that someone always experiences a loss. Placing a child for adoption can cause a sense of loss for a birthmother. In this situation, we were grieving the loss of a child we had hoped would become part of our family. Our loss, however, was short-term, as she was not our child. Despite the difficultly of walking out of that hospital, I knew the sadness would eventually pass.
We were again back to waiting – one of the difficult side effects of adoption.
Three months later, in early September 2013, we received a call from our agency that a birth family had again selected us. The birthmother was due in mid-January, 2014. Receiving this call was exciting, but also incredibly terrifying – we had been here before. We have celebrated travel dates and being matched, attended doctor’s appointments with an expectant birthmother, received our first sonogram, witnessed the birth of a child, and shared news with family and friends that we are expecting – we have also had the experience of having to tell people the unfortunate news. It truly is excruciating to have to repeatedly tell people that the adoption was not successful; it is for this reason why we now share so little with people.
While excited about receiving a potential match, after careful consideration, Kevin and I felt that the match was not the best fit for our family. We are again back to waiting.
I explain all of the obstacles, the scam, and losses we have experienced throughout our journey to grow our family, not for pity or sympathy, but to explain that sometimes the journey to grow one’s family is difficult - you don’t get what you want, or at least not on the timeframe you want it.
Sometimes I feel self-pity and question why it seems so much easier for everyone else to have a baby. And when you are trying to grow your family, it does seem that everyone else is having a baby. Most days I tell myself that I know it will happen, but there have been moments, especially more recently, that I have questioned if it will. I truly want to be a mother and am on a path that feels right for our family. We hope that eventually the hurdles we have faced along the way will make more sense when we finally meet our child.
Emily Roper, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Health and Kinesiology at Sam Houston State University. Her research focuses on gender, sexual identity and physical activity. She and her husband, Kevin Rottinghaus, live in The Woodlands, Texas with their bernese mountain dog, Ruthie. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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