Frustrated with lengthy waiting lists at home, Canadians— both married and single—are combing the globe for needy children to adopt

E. KAYE FULTON August 21 1995


Frustrated with lengthy waiting lists at home, Canadians— both married and single—are combing the globe for needy children to adopt

E. KAYE FULTON August 21 1995



Frustrated with lengthy waiting lists at home, Canadians— both married and single—are combing the globe for needy children to adopt


In their dingy hotel room in a remote corner of Romania, Mervyn and Teresa Hern stared at the Canadian quarter that was about to change their lives. It was February, 1991, and a fruitless nine-year domestic search for an adoptive child had lured the couple from their quiet farm near London, Ont., to the town of Resita, 350 km west of Bucharest on the Yugoslav border. The Herns were not the only Canadians on a quest to find a child to call their own. At the Resita Hotel, they shared a floor with another Ontario couple. Between them, the two couples agreed to a serendipitous toss of a coin to determine who would get the first pick at a local orphanage. “I’ve never won anything,” Teresa Hern laughed as she picked heads. The quarter hovered for a maddening moment before it fell, glinting, heads up.

Within the international adoption community, such extraordinary experiences are the ordinary price of building a family. The fateful coin flip led the Herns to Eric, a laughing eight-month-old Romanian orphan for whom the couple spent a total of $20,000 to adopt. By 1995, their fourth-generation farming family included two more children, Courtney, 3, and Alex, 2, both from Guatemala; this fall, they expect their fourth, a Romanian baby girl. “We already have invested $60,000 in our children, just to bring them home,” says Teresa Hern, now 36. Like many adoptive parents, the Herns consider the issue of money to be relatively minor. ‘Your first time out,” says Hern, “you are so desperate that you’ll do just about anything anybody tells you. A lot of us do get burned. But to me, it’s worth every penny.”

Despite the often crushing frustrations, little seems to stem the

determined sweep of prospective Canadian parents and their agents who comb the globe for children. In 1970, less than 10 intercountry adoptions were recorded with immigration officials in Ottawa. Since 1991, more than 2,000 children a year have entered Canada from as many as 42 different countries. Private and public adoption agencies track wars, famine, overpopulation and economic misery with the market-driven fervor of stockbrokers. Countries-of-the-month open and close their borders with ever-changing laws and often questionable adoption practices, while Third World nations try to balance the desire to find homes for their children with their embarrassment— sometimes anger—over their inability to look after their own.

In Canada, as in other western countries, the overseas quest for kids has been fuelled by legalized abortion and declining birth rates. And as social mores have changed, more single mothers are keeping their children rather than giving them up for adoption. The result: between 1981 and 1990, domestic adoptions declined by a staggering 47 per cent; current waiting lists stand at seven years or more for healthy infants. Faced with those numbers, a mixed bag of baby boomers—married or single, most infertile, some mainly idealistic—have helped to create the booming baby search overseas and willingly pay anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 or more to get their child, often in about a year.

In the process, they have also ventured onto provocative ground: the fragile line between helping those in need and exploiting them. In most Canadian provinces, less expensive domestic adoptions— usually around $5,000—are rigorously scrutinized to protect both the child and the birth mother; in Ontario, for instance, the birth

mother is given the choice of at least three adoptive applicants. In contrast, international adoption circles are rife with rumors of babybuying rings, overpaid and unscrupulous middle echelons and government officials who cooly look the other way. “People are prepared to pay money for children—that fact alone raises moral issues,” says Sandra Scarth, executive director of the Child Welfare League of Canada, a national childrights group. “Some say that you pay $25,000 for a car, so why wouldn’t you pay money to have a child? The problem is, in poor countries $25,000 would go a long way to helping support those children in their own families.” Tliere are no shortage of horror stories. The 1989 fall of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania led to a rush of people to adopt children from the country’s orphanages. But it also produced a spate of baby buying directly from Romanian families—and caused the country to call a halt to its international adoptions. Several countries, including Canada, are keeping a close eye on John Davies, a British-born minister who has been accused of baby trafficking in Eastern Europe— charges he denies (page 40). Elsewhere, El Salvador suspended its adoption programs in 1994 after incidents of fraud and corruption among lawyers involved in the process. A baby-snatching scandal in Guatemala last g year came to a head when a mob attacked 1 two American women, accusing them of buy| ing babies for their body parts; in response, Canadian adoption agencies have added an optional $1,000 fee for a DNA test of the birth mother and the baby to ensure that the child was not stolen from the hospital.

Guileless parents are most often the targets rather than the perpetrators. At present Canada has no national standards and few common provincial regulations to protect adoptive parents. But government officials predict—perhaps optimistically—that the practice of price gouging by private agents will be all but eliminated with the enforcement of a multinational treaty, The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, drawn up in May, 1993, by 66 nations. If ratified—Canada is expected to do so as soon as this fall—the treaty would forbid “improper financial or other gain” in connection with adoptions.

But Beryl Mercer, a lawyer in Stratford, Ont., complains that the treaty may cast too wide a net. Since 1987, Mercer and her husband, Kenneth Plotnick, a former Roman Catholic priest, have found homes for 250 Guatemalan children in Canada. Mercer charges $6,800 as a personal fee and collects a further $14,300 to distribute among Guatemalan adoption officials. According to Mercer, office expenses, salaries for three employees and a hefty telephone bill whittles her net profit to a mere $925 per case. “There certainly isn’t much money at this end,” she says.

Whether they are adopting at home or abroad, prospective parents must survive a storm of red tape. The key piece of paperwork is a home study, a report by a social worker confirming an applicant’s suitability to become a parent. Other required documents include police clearance, financial statements, a marriage certificate, proof of citizenship, medical histories and letters of reference. And that is just the beginning. For an overseas adoption, the would-be parents can work through an agency or orphanage or directly with a local lawyer, and they may spend anywhere from a couple of weeks to many months in the child’s country to complete the process.

Along the way, they may encounter language and cultural differences, intransigent bureaucracies and unscrupulous intermediaries. “I couldn’t understand why, everywhere I turned, there were so many

barriers for what I thought was a win-win situation,” says John Bowen, a Vancouver market researcher who adopted a baby girl from China four years ago and has since written A Canadian Guide to International Adoptions, which is designed to ease the way for adoptive parents. “It can be a bewildering and sometimes threatening predicament, to be in a strange country facing an adoptive arrangement proposal. But if it works out, there is nothing more rewarding in the world.”

There are certainly plenty of children needing a good home. The primary reasons are war and poverty-two of this century’s bountiful contributions. The Vietnamese boat-lift of 1971 unleashed the largest wave of international adoptions since the Korean War in the 1950s. A second round was stirred in 1974 by a liberalization in Canadian immigration laws, in part a response to the impoverished plight of India, Bangladesh and several South American countries. More recently, overpopulation has led some nations to encourage adoption. In China, the restrictive one-child-perfamily law, imposed in 1980, has driven many couples to give up girls while waiting for a boy who will carry on the family name; that has left thousands of girls available for adoption and made China the current hot spot for would-be Canadian parents, replacing Romania and South American countries in 1994.

Ironically, natural disasters and manmade predicaments

ing scandal in May, 1992, the Chinese government shut down its adoption program for two years to streamline its parochial system. According to Linda Welsh, an Ottawabased Chinese adoption facilitator with Children’s Bridge, a $15,000 adoption, which includes a $4,000 donation to a Chinese orphanage or senior citizen’s home, is among the better adoption deals. Since forming her nonprofit Ottawa group in 1991, Welsh has placed 75 Chinese children with Canadian parents; 85 more cases are in progress. “China has the best attitude about adoption,” says Welsh, who has a fouryear-old daughter from China. “It’s like, do the paperwork, stand on the right spot, sign the papers and get your baby. Everybody wins.”

At times, the bureacratic wheels have turned all too slowly. Diane Loranger and Thomas Schultze of Richmond, B.C., then living in Bulgaria, first saw tiny, sickly twin girls in an orphanage in Sofia in October, 1993, when they were six months old. The couple soon began the adoption process— and the waiting. Authorities even refused to accept their mar-

riage certificate because it was not on embassy paper. “You can argue until you are blue in the face and they won’t listen,” says Loranger. “And nothing happens if you don’t comply. So what do you do?” Fortunately, Loranger knew an understanding Canadian diplomat in Belgrade who offered to put official-looking embassy stamps on their marriage certificate. “It came back with all sorts of stamps and it worked,” says Loranger. The couple returned to Canada last summer and the twins, Emmanuelle and Jacqueline, finally joined them in January-more than a year after the adoption procedures began.

In the world of adoption, Canadian officials have their own problems.

Provincial governments are the jurisdictional caretakers of adoption, and the boom in the international field

caught many of them off guard. Some—including Nova Scotia and Manitoba—still have no specific laws to license adoption agencies. On the other hand, Quebec—with Canada’s lowest birth rate and an undisguised desire to increase its French-speaking population—has encouraged international adoption since 1991. Three years later, Quebec accepted 672 international adoptions, 93 more than Ontario and 656 more than Saskatchewan. ‘The first time I tried to get an application [in Ottawa], I was told you couldn’t adopt from China, it was a communist country,” says Welsh. “Meanwhile, there were hundreds of Chinese children in Quebec.”

In January, 1994, a federally funded report on intercountry adoption in Canada warned of the legislative void created by the dramatic shift to international adoptions. Six of the report’s 12 recommendations urged an increased policy role of the federal National Adoption Desk, the official link between provincial governments and 13 countries or agencies. Despite an active case file of 726 applications (almost half from parents wishing to adopt relatives overseas), the tiny adjunct to the human resources development department with its annual budget of $684,000 and staff of nine, is little more than a goodwill adoption ambassador. But private-sector experts balk at increased federal involvement. “Governments should certainly be regulating and monitoring,” says Katherin Jones, editor of the Toronto-based magazine Adoption Helper. “But they should leave the adoptions to professional social workers and agencies.”

It was that political ambivalence that spawned a close-knit com-

munity of self-taught international adoption experts. To an overwhelmed outsider, the network of lobbyists, support groups and private agents is an invaluable resource. Nearly all are adoptive parents—and speak with the enthusiasm of true believers. “Adoption is like a cabbage,” says Alison Pentland-Folk, co-founder of the Toronto-based Support for Parents Adopting and Raising World Kids (SPARK). “In the centre is the sweetest piece, the child and the family. To get to it, you have to peel back all the layers.”

Reports of “good countries” ripple through the network. Novices are quickly introduced to the code words of the trade. Linda Spiteri, who owns a Calgary travel agency and runs her lobby and support group, International Adoption Families Group, from her home, says: “When you’re talking to a family in Lethbridge who ask what ‘power of attorney’ is, you know they ain’t going to make it without help.” The network, in fact, brims with inside information and helpful tips. China, the members of Children’s Bridge are told, will only deal with groups of adoptive parents, not individuals. There is little use travelling to Romania in August; no judge is willing to sit through the sweltering courtroom heat. In Colombia, photographs of abandoned children are displayed in daily newspapers; if no one claims them after six months, the child is declared available for adoption. War-torn former Yugoslavia is off-limits; Muslims do not believe in adoption and the Serbs refuse to even consider it.

The joy in this subculture is almost palpable. The four annual issues of Adoption Helper, at $30 a subscription, bubble with sunny tales of new families. And the children keep on coming: Canadian Airlines Flight 902, the Saturday night shuttle from Beijing to Ottawa, via Vancouver and Calgary, is routinely awash in tears and cheers for the new arrivals. “We have captains who go on the public address system as soon as they hit Canadian airspace and welcome these new babies to Canada,” says Welsh. “Flight crews come right down to the baggage area and celebrate with the families.”

On Aug. 5, Welsh’s group, Children’s Bridge, held a picnic in Ottawa. Seventy families who had adopted from China— or are trying to—gathered in a church dining hall to avoid the heavy rains, playing games, snapping pictures and eating cakes shaped like the Canadian and Chinese flags. “It’s essential that the children see families that are like each other,” said Jennifer Dawson-Bent, vice-president of Children’s Bridge. “They are not going to be the same as the family next door. And because they are never going to meet their birth parents, we need to give them as many ties to their community and to their background as we can.” In fact, says Dawson-Bent with a laugh, her own adoptive daughter, three-year-old Jasmine, has learned so much about her background that “she just witnessed her first pregnant mom and the baby afterward and she still thought the baby was from China.” For all the politics and pitfalls surrounding international adoption—for all the undeniable dangers—there are happy endings aplenty.