Friday, May 12, 2006
Adopting Maya: the long journey to a very special Mother's Day
Three years ago, Bill and Jane Hamilton of Maple Street decided to adopt a child. This decision involves a daunting series of questions: do we want the baby to look like us? What gender? How old? Are we prepared to adopt a "normal," healthy child or one with special needs? From where? What kind of resources will we need? How long does it take? Tied into these questions is the one that underlies the whole process: what are the risks?
Bill and Jane considered long and hard. Jane was not as concerned about gender as Bill was: "I know what it's like to be a little boy," he said. "I grew up with a brother. I thought it would be more interesting to have a little girl; I think I can impart more to a girl." Jane was more concerned about the child's looks than Bill was, but after a while, she decided that this issue was less important. "Kids are kids. I knew I wanted to be a parent." They agreed on a girl, like many other American adoptive parents, 75% of whom, Jane said, opt for girls. Are girls easier to raise? The Hamiltons say that the prevailing perception is that they are, although that would form the basis of an interesting debate.
Making a start
Next, Bill and Jane attended an adoption fair, sponsored by the Open Door Society, of Holliston. These events are held once or twice a year, and are similar to large trade shows: adoption agencies of all sizes and hundreds of locations, Bill said, have booths and "literally hawk their wares," a rather unsettling concept, showing videos of available children and listing services they can provide to facilitate adoptions. The Hamiltons gathered information from the fair and from several agencies, friends, and other adoptive parents they met, and learned that domestic adoptions can take up to five years; foreign ones, at the time, had speedier systems. They decided to try for a child from Romania.
They connected with an agency specializing in Romanian children and began assembling the necessary paperwork. After they had been with the agency for almost a year with no result, they were told in January of 2004 that they were "in process." In March of that year, they happened to speak to another adoption agent, who told them that Romania had closed its borders to adoption. "We were 'nixed,'" said Bill, "and there was no reimbursement of funds we had already paid to the agency." Prospective parents need to be prepared for a false start or two, he said. Agents have told the Hamiltons that this is "quite typical: the process is not smooth."
Girded for battle by this experience, the Hamiltons began working with World Child International Adoption Agency and Washington, D.C.'s Frank Foundation, which specializes in children from Russia. "The Russian dossier," said Jane, "took us about four months to assemble. It's very complicated and includes every piece of information you can imagine about yourself." Bill added, "Yes, it's a very frustrating process. You have to irritate a lot of people: harass them, really."
"And beg," Jane chimed in. What people?
"You have to get clearance from the Carlisle police, and be fingerprinted."
"That record gets sent to the F.B.I. for clearance."
"The DSS (Department of Social Services) has to do home studies and clear you."
"You have to get complete financials from your bank, and a letter of referral."
"Same thing with your work: your employers have to give you letters of referral."
"And your doctors, and those have to be really specific."
"And more, and all this stuff has to be notarized. [Town Clerk] Charlene Hinton spent hours with us," said Jane, "notarizing our stuff."
"And finally," said Bill, "all of this has to be apostilled by the state, which means that the state has to declare that your notary actually is a notary and has done her job and that everything you have submitted is valid. And it's $5 a document."
They worked through this program from April of 2004 to January of 2005, only to find that the Russian government, listing several objections to some agencies' operations, had stopped granting re-accreditation to agencies in general. It would take up to six months to clear and reaccredit the Hamiltons' agency. By that time, their listing on the Russian adoption registry would expire and they would have to re-file all their paperwork.
"All these governments," Jane said, "are tightening and changing their rules constantly. You have to expect it. But we didn't want to go through all that again and risk not getting a child again."
"When I think about that period," mused Bill, "I was so frustrated. I had to step back and say, 'it's either going to happen or it's not.' It was the only way I could get through. It's like chasing your tail after a while."
Kazakhstan, a developing country, offers hope
World Child recommended trying Kazakhstan, and the Hamiltons shored up their spirits and went to work again. The experience with Russia had at least left them with a large dossier, which they could rewrite for Kazakhstan. They finished the paperwork in about a month, hired a new social worker to do a home study, and began viewing videos of available children.
Kazakhstan is a new country in many ways. Formerly part of the Soviet Union, it is lifting itself out from under years of misrule by that government. There are signs of both progress and stasis. The Hamiltons say that young people, resilient, idealistic and accepting of newer mores and customs, deal successfully with free enterprise and the Internet. Older people, inured to the old Soviet system, are still cautious and slow to change. There are American-style grocery stores in the cities, but it is still possible to see people lining up in Soviet-style breadlines. Kazakhstan sits on a rich oil deposit, but lacks the infrastructure, as yet, to extract it from the ground. There are plenty of cars, but no speed limits, stoplights, or seat belts. A law prohibits healthy children from being adopted out of the country, so health records are falsified to suggest that children have heart or brain problems.
This last was particularly distressing, of course, to a pair of prospective parents, but the Hamiltons were able to find a Russian-speaking doctor here in the U.S. who was able to analyze the videos and health records of the children they saw. He gave a clean bill of health to a little girl, two months old, and the Hamiltons decided to try for her. After waiting until she became eligible for adoption, they made plans to travel to Kazakhstan for the two-and-a-half-week stay they would need to adopt her in a court.
Trials in and out of court
On January 31, they boarded a plane for Kazakhstan, armed with a thick dossier, a suitcase full of token gifts, toys and blankets for the baby, and a lot of cash. The flight was 11 hours, not counting a seven-hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany. They flew into the southern city of Almaty, Kazakhstan's New York City, which boasts the only international airport and where the U.S. Embassy is located. They knew that they would have to stay at the airport hotel in order to catch an internal flight the next morning to the northeast city of Ust-Kamenogorsk and the orphanage. They had been warned that the airport hotel was not up to the standard of other hotels in the country, but, tired and rumpled after a long flight, they were doubly unprepared for its squalor. Bill declared that he slept in his clothes, neither would take a shower because of the condition of the bathroom, and both were shocked by the presence of prostitutes aggressively prowling the halls. Along with an adoptive couple from Virginia and their son, they managed to make it through the night and catch their plane the following morning and meet their "facilitator," Elena. Elena relieved them of the suitcase full of gifts, which were distributed behind the scenes as she saw fit "It is a gift-giving culture," said Bill and much of their cash, which would be needed to advance the process of adoption.
They climbed into a minivan at the airport and were driven to the hotel where they were to remain for the duration of their stay. This hotel was clean and quite adequate. The staff was competent and some of them, as far as language barriers would permit, went out of their way to be friendly to the visitors. They were able to exchange money and purchase bottled water at a modern grocery store across the street, freshen up, and then proceed to the orphanage for their first view of ther prospective daughter.
At the immaculate, well-staffed and orderly orphanage, they were joined by a couple from South Africa who planned to adopt a son. All three couples experienced some anxious and highly-charged moments until at last the caregivers delivered three healthy babies into their arms. Jane said she became immediately attached to the little girl whose name would become Maya Hamilton. Bill was more wary, again stepping back and not allowing himself an emotional release until he was sure the child would be theirs.
The Hamiltons had two days to visit and play with Maya and then were required to give a final answer as to whether they would adopt her. Upon their acceptance, they began the 14-day "attachment" period, during which they visited and got to know the child. In addition, the minister of education interviewed them, asking probing questions about their own childhoods, their habits, and even their clothing. They were then allowed a session with the orphanage director in which they could ask questions about the baby.
All of this was a rehearsal for the adoption hearing, which took place in a primitive courtroom. In a grueling 90-minute session in Russian with translation, the judge and prosecutor questioned the minister of education and the orphanage director on the baby's birth family and health and the Hamiltons' fitness as parents. The Hamiltons, who had come to court with the requisite letter describing their reasons for adoption, their ability to support the child and a petition to the judge to allow the adoption, were grilled about their finances, their backgrounds, their neighborhood, their access to medical facilities and other concerns, creating the legal record of this transaction. The adoption was granted.
Home in time for Mother's Day
Processing it with the government would take another two weeks, so the Hamiltons flew out that day to Almaty, stayed there overnight and then boarded a flight for Frankfurt and home. Jane was at home for 12 days, and then she returned to pick up the baby. By now, it was March 8, Women's Day in Kazakhstan, a national holiday. This meant she had to wait another day before she was finally able to bundle Maya into a snowsuit and fly out to Almaty. A further bureaucratic delay kept them in Almaty for eight more days. Even the homeward leg of the journey was challenging: Maya slept all of two of the 14 hours it took to reach Boston, so mother and daughter arrived exhausted. Still, there is no mistaking the joy on the faces of both parents as they officially became a family. It was a long and arduous odyssey from that first decision three years ago, but strength, determination and perseverance conquered all the obstacles.
'Maya has settled into the Hamiltons' home and into their lives and hearts now. She is a beautiful child, and will celebrate her first birthday on May 20. And Carlisle will, at last, have the chance to wish Jane Hamilton her first Happy Mother's Day.
All photos courtesy of Jane and Bill Hamilton.
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito