Adopting today: more options, more debate

For Susan and John, this is a time of joy and fulfillment. After seven anxious years of unsuccessfully trying to expand their family, two-month-old Samantha has come into their lives - through adoption.

``She's the greatest thing that has ever happened to us,'' says Susan.

Up until now, this Vermont couple suffered one setback and frustration after another in their quest for a child.

They first sought to grapple with their infertility medically in an effort to correct it. Then they investigated agency adoption - only to find that they would be placed on a six- to eight-year waiting list for a baby.

Adopting an older child or one with a physical or mental handicap was a possibility. But, as do many young couples, Susan and John wanted a baby.

MORE fortunate than most, they found Samantha through Dawn Smith-Pliner and the Vermont-based ``Friends in Adoption.'' (See accompanying story.) This adoption service is one of several now popping up across the nation.

It is a privately run community response to help prospective adoptive parents find babies. It also serves as an aid to pregnant mothers who choose to place their children with families who are able to care for them.

Susan and John became acquainted with Samantha's biological mother. They even witnessed the baby's birth in the hospital.

``I still talk with her by phone and there is some correspondence,'' says Susan. ``But we don't want to stir up her emotions. Yet she must be reassured she did the right thing [by giving up the baby].''

The saga of Susan and John is a success story. Sadly, the quest for children through adoption is not always fruitful. It often involves risks - including the one that the natural mother will later reclaim the baby after initially agreeing to adoption. Then there is heartbreak.

Central to the adoption picture today is the simple fact that there are not enough babies available for qualified childless families who are looking to adopt.

The National Committee for Adoption in Washington, D.C., estimates that there are 2 million couples in the US seeking to adopt a child. Last year, however, only about 50,000 babies were placed for adoption outside their own families. Almost twice this number were adopted by relatives.

These statistics are difficult to confirm since there is no government agency officially keeping them.

This vast supply-and-demand imbalance has resulted in these trends:

A thrust among public agencies to urge childless couples to consider adopting older or special-needs children.

The increased turning by would-be parents to independent adoption groups or private lawyers to find children.

The growth of surrogacy and the birth of children as a result of artificial insemination. These children are then ``adopted'' by one of the natural parents and a spouse.

These trends are often attended by controversies. Among them, the continuing debate on the pros and cons of independent or private adoption and the wisdom of so-called ``open'' adoption (in which natural and adoptive parents get to know each other, and the child is familiar with both families).

Also the question of baby-selling or black-marketeering in the transfer of children is increasingly surfacing.

Where Susan and John were able to adopt for under $7,000 (including maternity costs, lawyers' fees, and adoption services expenses), some couples spend $40,000 to $50,000 in their quest for a baby.

And there have been instances of fraud, broken promises, and final disappointment to both the birth mother and adopting families.

Further debate has resulted from the desire of single men and women to adopt children and, in a few instances, where homosexual couples have sought permanent child placement.

Some of this conflict has grown from the lack of a clear national adoption policy and varying state laws among the 50 states dealing with adoption.

``There is no policy'' flatly states William L. Pierce, president of the National Committee for Adoption (NCA). ``The federal government hasn't even collected data [on adoption] since 1975,'' says Pierce whose nonprofit association represents hundred of adoption agencies and maternity homes across the United States.

``One of our main goals is to cajole - sometimes bully - someone into setting policy,'' adds the NCA president.

Among Mr. Pierce's top priorities now is to get the federal Department of Health and Human Services to collect accurate adoption statistics on an annual, ongoing basis. He is also eager to see family courts, which handle child placement, facilitate the adoption process by more quickly terminating rights of birth mothers. Further, Pierce would ``end the racism that has crept into the child welfare system.''

As to the last, the adoption specialist wants to change present agency policies and those of others which often prevent the placement of a child of one race or color with parents of another.

David Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), an umbrella group for more than 400 child-care agencies nationally, agrees that federal adoption policy is lacking.

He says that what is really needed is ``leadership.''

``It's all part of putting kids on center stage,'' Mr. Liederman says. ``This leadership must come from the White House, governors' mansions, and Congress,'' he adds.

US Rep. George Miller (D) of California, chairman of the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families, adds that the public image of adoption needs to be adjusted to today's society.

``We must get away from the notion that adoption is a kindly couple who takes in a beautiful young child,'' the congressman explains.

``Kids [available for adoption] often come from abuse, bad environment, poor families.''

Representative Miller, a strong advocate of adoption subsidies to aid in the permanent placement of so-called ``special needs'' children, says a high government priority should be to ``increase the pool of families who can afford to adopt [these children].''

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of couples like Susan and John are still seeking infants to adopt - and will often go to great lengths to bring a child into their homes.

Susan and John gave up successful careers as petroleum geologists in Colorado to come to Vermont and run a family-owned telephone company.

``We moved back to have a family. She's [Samantha] top priority for us now,'' says Susan, who shares both business and child-care responsibilities with her husband. The couple will adopt another child if the opportunity presents itself.

``Now we feel relaxed and at peace,'' says Susan. ``With infertility ... there is always a certain edge.''

Of their long quest for a child, she says: ``We were both raised in religious families. Our love for each other, coupled with our faith, gave us the courage to go on.''

Next: Adoption and the new technology.

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