Long Journey, Happy Ending: Adopting A Foreign Child

It was midnight, July 1, 1994, when our son, Luan, stepped off the plane at Newark International Airport. For Luan, this was the end of a long journey from Vietnam. For my husband, Steve, and me, it was the joyous end of our own journey, which began 12 months earlier, when we decided to adopt a child.

When the time came to have a family, we found out that at ages 42 and 37 it

wasn't going to be as easy--or as natural--as we had hoped. We started treatments for infertility but knew we wouldn't try for long. We preferred to spend our time and money building our family through adoption instead of pursuing costly, often invasive, medical treatment. For us, adoption was never a second-best way to have a child--simply a different route to parenthood.

From the beginning, two things were certain: We wanted an agency adoption rather than an independent one, in which a couple makes arrangements directly with the birth mother. And as long as the child was mentally healthy, we were flexible as to sex, race, and nationality.

RESEARCH. I started collecting information from numerous organizations and reading piles of books. I made dozens of phone calls and followed every lead. Speaking with adoptive parents was helpful. We explored adopting through the N.Y. State Social Services Dept. but kept running into dead ends. Some programs were closed to us because of our age or religion. I was interested in adopting from China, but at that time, the Chinese had temporarily closed their doors to outside adoption. (They were reopened at the end of 1993.) Because of obligations at home and work, we were unenthusiastic about spending weeks or months overseas. So we narrowed our focus to countries, such as Korea and India, that allow children to be escorted to the U.S. to complete the adoption.

One of the organizations I contacted was the International Concerns Committee for Children (ICCC) in Boulder, Colo. (303 494-8333). It publishes a monthly photo book with pictures of adoptable children from around the world. The first issue I received contained a photo of a beautiful girl from Vietnam--8 years old, according to the book. There was something in her eyes that drew me. Contacting the agency handling her case, International Mission of Hope (IMH), in Thornton, Colo., I learned that I would need to work through a licensed New York agency, but that IMH could handle the logistics and paperwork at the Vietnamese end. I immediately called Steve at work to let him know I'd found the adoption program for us.

The domestic agency we chose was Americans for International Aid & Adoption (AIAA) in Birmingham, Mich. (810 645-2211), which is licensed and has an office in New York. On Nov. 1, 1993, we sent our completed application--the first formal step.

While our application was being processed, we filed forms with the Immigration & Naturalization Service authorizing an FBI check of our fingerprints, which would speed getting a U.S. visa once a child was selected. We also met the caseworker who would do the home study and the post-placement follow-up. The home study assesses the suitability and commitment of the applicants. I was nervous meeting the caseworker for the first time, thinking that if I said a wrong word, we'd be turned down. But he quickly put us at ease, allowing us to speak openly about our marriage and our vision for our family.

WAITING. It was then time to pick a child. After learning that the girl in the photo was older than we thought, probably closer to 11, we did some soul-searching and decided we were ready to adopt an older child. We assembled the dossier of financial and medical statements, personal photos, and other documents to be filed with government agencies in Vietnam. Then we waited. A month later, in February, 1994, we received devastating news. The orphaned girl's extended family had decided to take her in, and she agreed. I was angry that we didn't know sooner. But the most frustrating thing was trying to deal with a process going on thousands of miles away, over which we really had no control.

IMH promised to refer another child, and we continued to wait. In April, we got a fax with a blurry photo and sketchy details about a 31/2-year-old boy. Named Pham Thanh Luan, he was healthy and adoptable. Soon we received more photos. He was cute, but looked angry and sad. We knew that, given the chance, we could bring a smile to his face. We started to fix up a bedroom.

The Vietnamese officials processed his paperwork in only weeks. Because there were no diplomatic relations between Vietnam and the U.S., Luan waited a month to travel with an escort to Thailand to get his U.S. visa there. Once the Bangkok embassy processed his visa, he was on a plane within hours. So we had a mere 24 hours notice of his arrival. It was eight months from the day Steve and I filed our formal application. Our total cost: around $15,000.

I realized on the way to Newark Airport that, until Luan came off that plane, nothing was for sure for me. Waiting beside the jetway, my legs were like rubber; I felt as if I was going to throw up. But Moti Irani, our contact at AIAA, had given me wise advice. She told me to keep remembering Luan's experience--that after all the unfamiliar people speaking strange languages and the hours of travel, the world must seem scary to him. Thinking about him kept me strong.

Moti's words guided us through those first days, as we worked to deal with Luan's fear, homesickness, and inability to speak our language, as well as his medical problems: He arrived with intestinal parasites and bad skin sores. Luan screamed nightly for his mother; it was weeks before he slept for more than an hour at a stretch. But even through the roughest times, it was clear we had become parents of a strong, sensitive, exceptional son with a sense of humor.

That was 10 months ago. Today, Luan is a healthy, bright little boy who loves his computer, playing Nintendo, eating pizza, and having his mom and dad read to him at bedtime. He understood English words quickly but still struggles to speak the language.

ROOTS. We believe it's important to help Luan maintain a connection to his Vietnamese culture. Against the advice of many, we opted to keep his Vietnamese name. Since he already knew it, I thought it wouldn't be fair to start calling him Henry or John. We read him Vietnamese stories, play Vietnamese music, and have made friends with several Vietnamese. A few months ago, we took him to a celebration of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Luan is quickly becoming an American, but we want him to be proud of where he was born.

Our biggest lesson: Adoptive parents must be flexible. If you have always had your heart set on a girl, think again about a boy. And don't restrict yourself to adopting an infant. One of the great things about Luan was that he arrived with a more-

developed personality than an infant; part of the experience was getting to know him.

Sure, the adoption process is often filled with anxiety, frustration, and disappointment. But if you persevere, there can be a happy ending. Luan is our son, and Steve and I are his parents. It just doesn't get any better than that.

Finding a Child Overseas

Adoption rules vary depending on age, marital status, and the child's nationality


Childless couples or singles aged 35-50 may adopt healthy infants; families with children or those under 35 or over 50 are eligible for infants with minor health conditions, such as eczema, or older children; takes 5-7 months for referral; expect to spend less than 2 weeks in the country; cost: $13,000 plus travel.


Childless couples up to their mid-40s for infants; older couples and families with kids can adopt children 2 1/2 and up; singles can adopt children of the same sex age 5 and up; 9 months for referral; 3-4 weeks in country; cost: $10,000 plus travel


Couples under 42 for infants; single women may adopt special-needs infants or children age 5 and up; 8-12 months for referral; escorts available; cost: $9,000 plus travel.


Couples must have been married at least three years, be no more than 40 years older than the adopted child, or age 45; 6-12 months for referral; escorts available; cost: $12,000 plus travel.


Couples or single women to age 55 can adopt children 6 months and older; 6-12 months for referral; escorts available; cost: $9,000 plus travel.


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