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Transracial Adoptions: Changing People & Communities

by Sonya Jongsma Knauss

Caramel baby, white momma, black daddy. White father, Latina mother, Asian child. Italian mom, German dad, Guatemalan toddler. The permutations are endless. The colors and variations are beautiful. Blood-related or not, they’re family. “I had a friend in high school whose parents adopted a child from India,” Molly Snyder Edler told me. “The way they handled it was so beautiful — they totally embraced Indian culture.” The family dedicated a room to Indian art and culture and visited their child’s country of origin. It was a simple decision. From age 16, Molly knew she wanted to adopt a child from another culture into the family she would someday have. “The world is overpopulated — how perfect is it if you welcome a child who is already in the world into your family?” But the issue is fraught with complexity, with considerations that vary depending on whether a couple wants to adopt a child from the U.S. or abroad. Additionally, transracial adoption can be a sensitive issue, especially when it comes to white families adopting black children. (Three families approached for this article — white parents who had adopted African American children from the U.S. — declined to be interviewed for publication.) U.S. adoptions also can have a greater degree of uncertainty attached to them. Both couples interviewed for this article chose international adoption because they felt that the process would give them more certainty — i.e., that the birth mother would not try to reclaim the child after giving him or her up for adoption — or demand certain visitation rights. Born just two weeks apart in countries halfway across the world, two toddlers are bringing joy to families here with their exuberant spirits. Here are their stories.

Also in this issue: Bloodlines and Belonging, a review of Jane Jeong Trenka’s The Language of Blood: A Memoir.
Adoption by the Numbers: Results from the 2000 Census

For the first time, questions in the 2000 Census included “adopted son/daughter” as one of the options under the relationship-to-householder question as a separate category from “natural born son/daughter” or “stepson/stepdaughter.” According to the report, published in August 2003, among the 1.7 million U.S. households with adopted children, 82 percent had adopted one child, 15 percent had two adopted children, and three percent had three or more adopted children. The Midwest as a region had a slightly higher percentage of adopted children than other regions. Adopted children also tended to live in households that were economically better off than those of biological children. Other statistics from the report include: – 7 in 10 adopted children under 18 lived with non-Hispanice whites, and 2 in 10 were a different race than the family householder – 13 percent of adopted children of all ages were foreign-born, with nearly half of them born in Asia, about 1/3 in Latin American, and about 1/6 in Europe – Korea was the single largest country source of foreign-born adopted children, accounting for a little more than 1/5 of foreign-born adopted children of all ages. Thomas Atwood, president of the National Council For Adoption, was quoted in USA Today in response to the results: “Clearly, adoption is alive and well in America today… No adopted child should feel alone.”

Kai River William Edler

Kai is lively and passionate, like his parents. Named after the boy in Gary Snyder’s poem “The Bath,” Kai means “sea” in Hawaiian. His second name, River, comes from Molly’s love for her surroundings — “I have lived on the bank of the Milwaukee River my whole life and it’s very special to me.” Molly says. Molly had a plan from early on: make a baby, adopt a baby — in that order. Two children. Just right. But somehow, things didn’t quite go according to plan. She and her husband Jamie had talked about adoption way back, even before they were married. But it was a long time after marrying that they thought about starting to have children. And then it wasn’t happening. “One doctor told me I couldn’t ovulate; another one told me there was no problem at all,” Molly said, expressing frustration with the inability of medical professionals to explain their infertility. The couple tried a few things — “some scientific steps that involve some invasive medical procedures” — but quickly decided it wasn’t for them. “There’s something humiliating about it,” Molly said. “We felt it was an ugly way to start a family.” They went through a process of letting go of their hopes to make a child of their own. But — “we really wanted to be parents,” she said. After traveling to Nicaragua to visit a friend in the Peace Corps, it was clear to Molly that she wanted to adopt a Latin American baby. “The question became, how does Jamie feel about it? It took him a few months,” she said. Then in 2001 Jamie gave Molly a little Guatemalan doll for Christmas. She knew immediately what that meant. “We finished our last infertility treatment and decided very shortly after to start the adoption process,” Jamie said. Though Molly and Jamie appreciated the organization they worked with — Special Beginnings, in Waukesha — they describe the international adoption process as “long, tedious, and stressful.” Special Beginnings worked to help them qualify to be adoptive parents and also offered sessions on blending different races in the same family, dealing with ignorances they would come across, and bridging cultural divides. “They make you see that it’s not helpful to over-focus on the child’s birth country, but at the same time it’s important to celebrate it and help your child be proud of their culture,” Molly said. Molly has been speaking from the comfort of her home, on maternity leave from her job as editor and writer for onmilwaukee.com, with Jamie on a family leave of five weeks from his teaching position at Lincoln Center for the Arts. Their second son, beautiful newborn baby Levi, has been nursing at her breast for most of the interview as Kai, a bundle of energy at 14 months, runs from toy to toy and plays with the dog. Yes, in the midst of the process, something wonderful and completely unexpected happened. Molly became pregnant. “After all those infertility treatments, all it took was a roaring fire and a bottle of wine,” she said. “We feel so blessed… but we feel things happened this way because we were meant to have Kai. If we got pregnant first, we wouldn’t have him.” Kai’s hair is a jumble of curls and he is quick with a smile. Jamie just manages to keep up with him, rescuing Molly’s water glass time and again. While Kai made a great transition from Guatemala to the U.S. — which Molly and Jamie attribute to the loving foster mother who cared for him in Guatemala — they’ve already encountered ignorant and downright rude comments from strangers and acquaintances alike. At a graduation party, when Jamie’s mother was explaining how the adoption process was followed by a pregnancy, someone commented, “Too bad you can’t send him back!” Another woman had this helpful comment to offer about international adoptions: “It’s such a disgrace what they charge for these children!” But to Molly and Jamie, Kai is worth every penny of the almost $25,000, a typical cost for international adoptions, that they paid in various fees and expenses. They sold their Riverwest house to pay for the adoption and relocated to the Rufus King neighborhood. Was it really worth it? “We are so thrilled,” Molly says, and Jamie nods. “The eight-month wait was so emotional and difficult. We kept setting dates and expectations, and then there was something new we had to do. But when we got him, it didn’t matter anymore. We didn’t look at it as time lost, but as the beginning of our family.” Paloma Frances Vogel-Del Valle

Less than a mile away, in another home blessed with a child from abroad, little Paloma sits regally in her high chair, clean white tights with neat Mary Janes and a leopard print dress. She too is free with her smiles and relishes her snacks. She is quite the little empress — from the neat barrette in her hair to the traditional bracelet on her wrist — and in fact that’s what her mother Brenda calls her. You wouldn’t guess from their interactions that she has been with her adoptive parents less than two months. The joy she brings them is obvious. Paloma, which means dove of peace, was born last July in China. Found in a paper box at the Gao Zhou Child Welfare Institute in China, she was wearing a yellow baby outfit, her little body covered with a red blanket, her skin still wet from birth. She was accompanied by a still-attached umbilical cord, a bottle, and one change of clothes. “They named her Pan Zi Qiang because she was so healthy,” Brenda says. Qiang means “health” or “strong.” Brenda Del Valle and Francis Vogel became interested in adoption after first trying infertility treatments. “I told myself after one round I’d take it as it comes — that God has his plan and if I didn’t get pregnant, it wasn’t mean to be,” Brenda said. But after the round of in-vitro fertilizations treatments was unsuccessful, she was not as resigned to the outcome as she had thought. “I was upset and sad,” she says. Initially, she avoided things that reminded her of children. Francis tried to talk with her about adoption, but it wasn’t until she read a July 2001 Marie Claire article about Chinese baby girls being abandoned that she considered it. The photo of a baby girl discarded at the side of the road as a bus drove by and people went about their business struck her heart. They also thought an international adoption would help them avoid what they referred to as the “losing Isaiah syndrome” of U.S. adoptions — i.e. an open adoption where the birth mother has an opportunity to reclaim the baby or maintain regular contact. After extensive research, Brenda and Francis chose to go through Holt International, a reputable adoption agency they have nothing but glowing words for. “Everything they say is what it is — there are no surprises, no hidden costs, no delays.” They knew that once they started the adoption process, their daughter would be with them within two years. With Chinese music playing in the background, numerous cultural artifacts in the house, and Brenda’s seamless Jade bracelet (made around her wrist, a bracelet for life, in the tradition of Chinese mothers), it’s clear the couple has embraced their daughter’s culture. Like the Edlers, Francis and Brenda consider the mix of cultures a benefit, not a barrier. After all, their family already represents more than one culture. Why not a Chinese daughter? “We have friends from all cultures,” Francis said. “The world is truly our family — that’s why we chose to live in Riverwest. The biggest deal is having her here with us. All other concerns are secondary.” When they traveled to China to pick up their daughter to take her home, the experience was one they’ll never forget. “We only had to be there 12 days (to take care of paperwork, etc.),” Brenda said. “We took another three days to go sightseeing and it was amazing to see the co-existence of the past and the future.” They visited the Great Wall and the Houtong District — the historic area of Beijing. They plan to take regular trips to China, and to reunite on a regular basis with the other Chinese girls from Paloma’s orphanage who were adopted through Holt International. “We’ve known all along that we’d raise Paloma to appreciate her ethnic and cultural heritage, and that we’d share that with her,” Francis says. And someday, Paloma might have a sibling to share that with as well. “Unless we are blessed with a child naturally, we’re thinking of returning someday to get a little sister for Paloma.” Both families believe the agencies they dealt with did a good job of preparing them to be adoptive parents of international children. The Edlers encountered numerous frustrations with their international agency, while the Vogel Del Valle family sang the praises of the reputable Holt International, the adoption agency they went through. In the end, being together trumps all other concerns — including the steep costs. “If you really want it to happen, the money will be there, somehow,” Molly said. “I’ve heard of peoples’ churches helping them, family members, fundraisers, etc.” Francis noted that families with lower incomes shouldn’t be scared off by the price tag. Adoptive families are eligible for up to $10,000 of tax credits which can be spread out over the first five years after the adoption. Molly summed it up this way: “Everything we’ve been through — it’s really all been worth it.” To find out more about international adoptions, visit www.holtintl.org. Adoption resources, including loans and grants for adoptions, can be found at www.giftofadoption.org.

Brenda Del Valle and Francis Vogel with Paloma Frances Vogel-Del Valle