SPECIAL OFFER: - Limited Time Only!
(The ad below will not display on your printed page)
Renee Rongen was trying on shoes in a department store near her home in northwest Minnesota when a slightly built girl named Tawnya called her name.
In a different era, the two women might have passed each other without a second look, never knowing the link they shared. But Renee knew Tawnya at a glance -- the woman's dark hair and eyes mirrored the characteristics of Renee's adopted son, Alexander. And well they should: Tawnya was Alexander's biological mother. The women hugged, then headed to a restaurant to talk. Renee had not seen Tawnya since Alex's infancy, when they had completed the open adoption -- a process where adoptive parents remain in touch with the child's biological family.
Tawnya asked Renee questions about the toddler she had only seen in pictures. Were Alex's hands soft? Were his legs so chubby that they had wrinkles? Was his hair so curly that your fingers got stuck in it when you stroked it? Then, after a silence, Tawnya spoke again. "Sometimes when it is very late at night, I hear him," she said. It was then that Renee truly understood the depth of Tawnya's love for Alex, and her own love for both of them.
Through an open adoption program, Renee and her husband, Tom, met Tawnya when she was pregnant and have maintained contact through the years.
The story of adoption is as swollen with love and emotion as any natural birth. But perceptions of adoption are changing with each passing year. Although there are no reliable statistics on the annual number of adoptions in the United States, census records indicate there are currently 1.5 million adopted children in the U.S. With roughly 65 percent of the population touched by adoption in some way, and years of aggressive campaigns to increase awareness about all kinds of waiting children other than just newborns, adoption in its many forms has become woven into the fabric of American life.
In the case of open adoption, parents create a cooperative agreement to define the adoption's terms, such as whether the adoptive parents will be present at birth (Renee acted as birth coach, and Tom cut Alex's umbilical cord) or whether the child will still see his or her birth parents (Alex won't, until he's 18). As in most adoptions, the home study -- where a licensed agency visits the future home and family -- settles financial questions.
Sound complicated? Depends on how you look at it, says Renee, who runs a Web site called Adoption Resource Group to assist parents with adoption.
"I've always wanted my kids to know where they came from, who they look like, what their birth parents' talents are," she explains. Each of the Rongen children -- Alex is 10, Elizabeth is 7, Grace is 4 -- came home through open adoption. Each birth mother bought the baptismal gown and made a video for her child to view later.
"I feel like I have three older daughters, almost," Renee says. "Those gals shared their whole life with us."
Anita and Richard Winner would travel to the ends of the earth for their family. They did just that when they brought Rebecca Xiao Bei to their Wallingford, Pennsylvania, home. Like the majority of Americans wanting to adopt, the Winners chose China. According to the Department of State, 19,237 kids were brought into the U.S. through adoption in 2001. Topping the list of countries was China, which allowed the adoption of 4,681 children that year.
Experiencing tragic food shortages in the 1950s and '60s, China began enforcing a one-child policy that remains in effect today. Because of the cultural importance attached to having boys, some Chinese couples give up their girls, leaving them in places where they know the baby will be quickly discovered, such as at a social service agency, and hope for a boy child the next time around. Increased media exposure, as well as expeditious adoptive procedures enacted by the Chinese government, have helped China become the most common choice for U.S. couples looking to adopt, according to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a national organization dedicated to adoption research and policy improvement. Desperate poverty and social upheaval, such as the fall of the Soviet Union and the conflict in Bosnia, have created a tragic increase in orphans and children put up for adoption in such places as Russia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe.
An agency guided the Winners through an adoption dossier, or application for international adoption -- a daunting process in itself.
"One of our biggest fears was that we would miss a vital piece of paperwork that would delay the process and result in more waiting for our little girl," says Anita.
In addition to detailed background checks and studies of the Winners' home, the couple needed approval from the U.S. Department of Immigration and Naturalization, fingerprints, financial information, a complete biography, and health reports. And that was just for starters. There was paperwork to do for the Chinese government, too, an extensive packing list for the overseas trip, plus donations of clothing and money for the orphanage. Many see the exhaustive process as just one more screen to ensure that people are ready for the rigors of parenthood. And sometimes it's determined that they aren't. Agencies can reject potential parents for a number of reasons, such as a serious criminal history, major money troubles, or inadequate resources (not enough space in the home, for example).
"It makes you wonder how the world would be if biological parents were required to go through such a process before having children," muses Rick.
Once their approval, or referral, came through, they had to travel within weeks. This complicated things a bit. Anita had became pregnant and couldn't fly. And so in June of 1999, Rick and his sister, Dee, joined 14 expectant parents for the two-week voyage to bring their children home.
They first met Rebecca in the city of Nanchang, where water buffalo roamed the streets. The 11-month-old had been abandoned on the steps of a social welfare office when she was three days old.
Her head was shaved and covered with scabs, due to the intense heat and humidity. She was physically weak from the confinement of sharing a crib with other children. When a caregiver brought her to Rick, she shook her head "no" over and over. But Rick and the caregiver passed the girl back and forth between them, whispering soothing words. Over the next few days, she learned to play peekaboo with Rick, who became her constant companion in a stream of strangers.
"With no car seats or high chairs in China, I held her almost continually," Rick says. "Rebecca had a hard time going to sleep. I made up a little song for her, and I would sing it as I walked around and around, until she fell asleep in my arms."
In total, the couple spent nearly $21,000 on the process. Costs for international adoption range from $7,000 to $25,000, according to the Adoption Institute.
Since her adoption, baby Rebecca has forged an unbreakable sibling bond with her sister, Caitlin. "They love each other dearly and protect each other," says Anita. Rebecca changes Caitlin's diaper for her and lays out her own clothes and Caitlin's every night before bed. Recently, Rick took Caitlin for a day trip to New York, and Rebecca and Anita met up with them later. Anita says, "When we saw them coming, Caitlin ran with her arms wide open towards me but then she bypassed me and grabbed Rebecca. They stood there hugging and swinging each other, and they were only separated for about nine hours."
Ellie Valdez Honeyman and her husband, Mike, of Arvada, Colorado, were one of 142,000 licensed foster families in the United States. Mike, a Vietnam veteran, was deeply affected by the children devastated by war and vowed, with Ellie, to serve as foster parents back home. In all, 27 kids received their loving care.
But there was always something lacking in the impermanence of foster care, where the typical length of stay can be anywhere from a few months to a few years. Some of the children the Honeymans sadly let go. Others departed to sighs of relief. After seven years, the Honeymans reevaluated their family goals.
"It wasn't our idea of what a family would be like," says Ellie, 52. "The most heartbreaking thing was to take little ones for a visit with their families and not have the parents show up."
Studies show that children who turn 18 in foster care often don't finish high school, or end up in prison or unemployed. Mike and Ellie knew from their own research that adoption solved such troubles. Most foster children who are adopted into stable, loving families turn out the same as any typical child. Plus, foster-care adoptions are the least expensive and can even be free of charge, thanks to government subsidies intended to promote the practice.
So Mike and Ellie were ready when Bob came along. The boy, who had significant learning disabilities, came to the Honeymans as a foster child and became their own. Brenda was adopted into the family next, her Down's syndrome making her even more special. "We kept waiting for Brenda to change our life," Ellie says. "They always say that adopting a kid with special needs is really going to change everything. I assumed that people meant for the worse." Instead, they found a girl always ready with a hug and a smile. So they added to their fold: Laura from Mexico; then two more girls with Down's syndrome, Jami and Sylvie. The toughest part, Ellie says, is getting stares of pity at the grocery store or having to fight to integrate her kids with others in school. When they couldn't find a good job for Bob or Brenda after they graduated, the couple opened a family printing business, Honeyman Envelope and Printing. "Those two have been an anchor of our business from the start," says Ellie. "We're about business, but our business is really about our family."