Families without borders: International adoption

By Blake Eligh on September 30, 2010
Also: Read about another Winnipeg family that went to China to welcome their second adopted child.

In their first seven months, twin brothers Mackenson and Wilson lived a lifetime’s worth of adventure. Born into a slum in Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, the six-week-old boys were left at an orphanage by their overwhelmed mother. That was just the beginning. The coming months would bring an earthquake, near-death for Wilson, appearances on news broadcasts around the world, and then a flight to a new life in Canada.

Before the twins arrived, Jackie and Greg Reimche were like many couples. Married for 13 years, the Saskatoon couple was ready to have children. But after enduring inconclusive fertility tests, they looked to adoption to build their family.

Jackie says that making the decision was a big step. “If you get pregnant, you have to deal with it,” she says. “But we had to make that decision to ‘get kids.’” They decided on international adoption, choosing Haiti based on the experiences of friends who had also adopted from that country.

Despite a process that is often long, frustrating and expensive, Canadian families like the Reimches welcome about 1,700 children from abroad every year. The kids come mainly from China, Ethiopia, Haiti, Russia and the United States, along with about 20 other countries.

Domestic adoption can take up to five years, with few young children available. By comparison, international adoptions average a two-year wait, with increased chances of adopting a child younger than four.

The international adoption process is just the beginning of a family’s journey. Adopted children bring their own culture, language and often skin colour, and adoptive parents need to be prepared. Decades ago, all traces of an adoptee’s past life were usually suppressed. But as adults, many adoptees crave a culture they never got the chance to know.

Nineteen years ago, Leceta Chisholm Guilbault and husband Jean welcomed five-month-old daughter Kahleah from Guatemala into their Nova Scotia home. Three years later, four-month-old Tristan was adopted from Colombia. Leceta and Jean have worked hard to ensure that Kahleah and Tristan, now 19 and 15, know where they come from.

“We need to help our children integrate into their adoptive cultures, but we must also help them embrace, accept and navigate their birth cultures and ethnic backgrounds,” Leceta says. “If not, the possibility is that our international adoptees will never feel truly at home in either culture. Adopt the country along with the child. Just as our children became part of our Maritime and Quebec heritage, we have become part of their Latin heritage.”

While many adoptions are not open, it’s the wrong attitude for parents to assume they can leave a child’s past behind, says Adoption Council of Canada president Sandra Scarth. “We know from adult adoptees that they want as much information as possible about their backgrounds. It’s normal for adoptees to have questions about their identity. The more information families have and the more open they the healthier it is.

“It’s hard when you’re mourning the loss of not having your own child. Some parents really want to ‘own’ their child,” Sandra says. “But there’s always that phantom family out there, lurking in the background. This is really an important issue. It’s nothing to be worried about – it’s part of being adopted.”

Leceta has taken that advice to heart. Tristan, who met his biological mother five years ago, knows who he looks like, Leceta says. “This is particularly important to Tristan, who is a transracial adoptee.” The family has also nurtured a connection with the foster family who cared for Kahleah as a baby.

“Her foster family has given her an important and loving link to her past,” Leceta says. Immersing herself in her birth country’s culture makes her feel like she finally “fits in”.

The long and winding road

Prospective parents start by signing with an accredited Canadian adoption agency. Most work exclusively with one country. This is an advantage, because workers know the system and what to expect in their particular country. Consider that with Ethiopian applications, 270 different people will touch each file, and that number doesn’t include Canadian counterparts. An agency will scale the mountain of paperwork and lead parents through a dizzying array of laws, requirements, and fees set by Canadian provincial and federal governments, as well as those of the child’s birth country.

Parents need to choose a single country from which to adopt – a decision that’s a gamble of waiting lists and politics. Programs can open and close – this means that Canadian immigration officials have found problems with the home country’s practices, and have halted approval of adoptions there. There might be concerns about human trafficking or shoddy paperwork.

A natural or civil disruption, such as the Haitian earthquake or Asian tsunami, can also shut a program down until bureaucracy is restored. While the setbacks can be frustrating to waiting parents, the rules are there to ensure that the rights of the child are protected, and that biological parents are not coerced into giving up their children.

Paperwork and red tape

International adoption requires patience, fortitude and a thick skin. Parents prepare a dossier, a thick file that delves into every aspect of an adoptive family’s life – from bank balances and health information to psychological assessments and criminal background checks. Documents like letters from family and employers go into the file, along with land titles and all manner of bureaucratic minutiae.

Preparing the dossier was an intrusive and frustrating experience, Jackie says. And, unlike a pregnancy announcement, no one celebrates the completion of paperwork. “You’re stepping forward – it’s scary and a huge decision, but it’s not anything solid yet. Nobody understands what that symbolizes – all the stress, and frustration, and hope.”

Big decisions

Early in the application process, parents must make decisions about what their prospective family might look like. Jackie and Greg left their options open. “We said one or two kids, under the age of two, boy or girl,” Jackie says. “We weren’t looking for twins, but we wanted to leave the door open.”

Being open to children of either sex, any race, or special needs might mean a quicker match, but it’s important to consider what you’re willing to do as a parent and how you’ll cope. Are you ready for a special needs child? What about twins? What are you willing to do to integrate a child of a different race (transracial) into your family and community?

Adoption officials are making similar considerations. Foreign countries keep their own checklist of requirements designed to match kids with healthy, prosperous parents. Programs might turn down applicants based on marital status, age, income, or even weight.

Money, money, money

Costs vary, depending on the child’s home country, but adoptive parents should budget for $20,000 to $50,000, with the average adoption costing $25,000. Adoptive parents cover agency costs, application fees, and travel, along with fees for foster care and court expenses. Expenses are paid in installments as the application crawls through the system. However, American adoptions, which run closer to $50,000, are often completed within a month of the child’s birth, which means adoptive parents must come up with a lot of money fast.

The waiting game

Long delays and bureaucratic hurdles can make the wait for a match seem interminable. The dossier takes about a year to prepare, then goes to the child’s home country where officials review the file and find a match – which can take another year or two. Even if things go smoothly – barring program closures, natural disasters, or civil wars – parents may wait another two years to bring their child home.

The Reimches wait was short. Within a few weeks of submitting their dossier, the agency called with a match in early December 2009. “We weren’t expecting to hear anything until May 2010,” Jackie says. Greg called Jackie at work, and together, over the phone, they opened the agency’s email to see their first glimpse of their tiny sons, twin boys nestled together in front of a Christmas backdrop.

Travel and more waiting

Many countries require parents visit the child twice – once at the beginning for a court appearance and to meet the child, and then again at the end to bring the child home.

A lot can happen during this time. A child can become ill and die, relatives may be found, a mother may change her mind.

“We were so excited, yet pessimistic at the same time,” Jackie says. “You have to expect the worst, because it happens all the time. You have to protect yourself from the disappointment that it might not happen.

”For Jackie and Greg, the unthinkable did happen. After they accepted the proposal, the couple settled in for the wait until the adoption was finalized and the boys could come home. That two-year period was to include a visit in February 2010 to meet the boys and appear in court, followed by more waiting in Canada, then another trip to collect their children.

But just weeks after that first email, Haiti was rocked by a massive earthquake. Miraculously, the orphanage was safe, but all 200 children were sleeping outdoors, and Wilson fell ill with a gastrointestinal infection.

Jackie and Greg were beside themselves. “We watched the news, totally helpless,” Jackie says. “We became parents when we got the proposal, but we had no right to save our kids. They were running out of water, and food, and the country was in chaos. It was terrifying.” The press picked up the story, and the Reimches saw their tiny sons on the nightly news.

The following weeks were a blur of press interviews and phone calls as the Reimches and other adoptive parents petitioned to get their kids out of Haiti. “Until we had them in our arms, we couldn’t allow ourselves to believe that this was actually going to happen.”

Soon enough, the Reimches and their boys were reunited in Ottawa. Eight months later, they are still absorbing the experience. Jackie is amazed and grateful that the boys’ mother chose an orphanage for her children, instead of any number of heartbreaking alternatives.

The boys have come a long way from their start in the slums of Port-au-Prince. Wilson and Mackenson, now 15 months old, are happy and healthy. Wilson is an active, gregarious climber, while Mackenson is a determined little guy who loves to make his brother laugh. For them, the adventure is just beginning.



Published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2010.

By Blake Eligh| September 30, 2010

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