Babies from Abroad

Staffers Adopt Children from Russia and China

by Julia Sommer

Over the past few years, there's been an upsurge in Berkeley staff and faculty adopting children, especially from abroad. Three staff members-all working in Sproul Hall-have recently taken the adoptive parenthood plunge and love it.

Richard Barth, Hutto Patterson Professor of Child and Family Studies and a national expert on adoption, points out that adoptions from China and Eastern Europe have become popular in the '90s since the fall of the Berlin Wall, glasnost and the opening of China. Before that, he notes, Korea and Central America were the biggest sources of foreign adoptions, but public policy changes in those countries have slowed adoptions.

One reason adoptions from China have become popular, he says, is that the Chinese have a great respect for age and are happy to have older parents adopt. Until quite recently, domestic adoption agencies preferred adoptive parents under 40. "These days, people often aren't ready to adopt until they're in their 40s," Barth points out.

Another reason for the increase in foreign adoptions is that until recent national legislation signed into law by President Clinton (the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 and its subsequent Interethnic Adoption Provisions), domestic agencies discouraged transracial adoptions. Because most adopting parents are Caucasian and most foster children available for adoption in the Bay Area are African-American, Caucasian parents were routinely discouraged from pursuing adoption through local public agencies.

Also, says Barth, people tend to be more comfortable adopting children who look like them. "Yet we also know from our research that many parents will adopt transracially if simply allowed to do so," he says. "Once the word gets out about the new adoption policies in this country, which prohibit public agencies from emphasizing racial matching so much and offer major tax incentives for public agency adoptions, adopting from Eastern Europe may decrease," he says.

Barth also points out that as abortion becomes less accessible, and welfare benefits become more complicated, more young women can be expected to place children for adoption. "And there may come a day," he says, "when reproductive technology will greatly decrease the demand for adoption."

Barbara Buchanan, UCPD Sergeant, adopted not one but three children, now ages 8, 8, and 9. Two are from Russia; one was a domestic adoption. She and her husband, Bob Nelson, a Berkeley police officer, schedule their four 10-hour workdays so that Charlie, Robby and Amanda only need childcare one afternoon a week. Their work schedules mean that Barbara and Bob never share a day off. And Barbara is on call for UCPD's bomb unit.

"Children need direction, supervision and guidance," says Barbara. "Childcare is more than everyone being alive when you get home."

Robby was adopted at birth and keeps in touch with his American birth mother.

After several failed attempts at additional domestic adoptions (birth mothers twice changed their minds), the Buchanans were directed to the Russian Liaison, a private adoption agency based in Walnut Creek. With its help, the Buchanans adopted Charlie and Amanda, who came from Russia at age 4.

When Charlie and Amanda arrived within two months of each other, Robby was delighted and insisted they share his room. "I cherish my brothers and sisters and didn't want Robby left alone in the world," says Buchanan.

Charlie and Amanda came from orphanages in Kaliningrad, where they faced a bleak future. Both have minor medical problems.

For the past three years, Barbara has hosted bi-weekly meetings for a group of adopted Russian children and their parents. The meetings include coaching in the Russian language, customs and traditions. She's also had Russian tourists visit their home. Buchanan's interpreter while she was in Russia, and now Amanda's godmother, spent three months with the family at their Concord home last summer.

"We've gained a country, a culture and a bunch of new friends," says Barbara.

For the first time this year, all three children attend the same school. "They all have strong personalities," says Buchanan. "We have no wallflowers."

"International adoption is not for the faint of heart," notes Buchanan. "It's a leap of faith. The university was more than understanding in giving me time off."

As for adopting later in life, Buchanan, 55, laughs, "I don't know whether it keeps you young or old, but you sure don't have time to worry about what's hurting!"

Gretchen Kell, Senior Public Information Representative, had always wanted a family-in fact lots of kids-but as she reached her mid- and late 30s as a single woman, she realized that she might have to parent on her own.

"As a trained reporter, I called around and asked a lot of questions," she recalls of her two-year odyssey in search of motherhood.

Encountering too many obstacles to adopting in this country, she turned to a private international adoption agency for help. Kell narrowed her quest to a healthy infant girl from Russia who would share her European roots.

After a disheartening experience with one international adoption agency, Kell turned to the Russian Adoption Facilitation Service in San Francisco, which eventually presented her with three polaroids of a baby girl in a Siberian orphanage.

"I knew right away this was going to be my kid," Kell recalls. "There was something familiar about her-she looked like some of my relatives when they were babies. As a journalist, I'm very skeptical. I've never believed that things 'are meant to be.' Now that the adoption is over, I know that can happen-it's happened to me."

Being practical and careful, Kell faxed the baby's Russian medical report to the International Adoption Clinic at the University of Minnesota for a free evaluation. Within a day she had her answer: "This is one of the healthiest babies we've seen out of Russia this month."

With that reassurance, Kell set to work on the arduous paperwork of adoption and plans for the long trip to Siberia. Starting with the child's birth name of Natalya, she christened her baby-to-be Anna Willa Natalya Kell. A requested video of Anna was "icing on the cake," Kell says.

In September she set out alone for Siberia via Moscow, learning quickly that the former USSR is immense-the entire United States could fit comfortably in Siberia alone. All arrangements (drivers, host families, interpreters, guides) had been made by the agency, and Kell was comforted to link up with two American couples traveling to the same orphanage near Krasnoyarsk.

Arriving at the orphanage, "Anna was put right in my arms," recalls Kell with wonder. Well-fed and very blond, she had just turned one.

The next day, after going to court and being questioned by a judge, especially on her status as a single parent, Kell was given permission to pick up Anna.

"The staff told her, 'There's your Mama,' and handed her to me naked. I dressed her with the clothes I had brought. It was very emotional. The women were crying, saying, 'We've raised her, now it's your turn.' Anna looked shell-shocked. One woman followed us all the way to the gate, crying."

Back in Krasnoyarsk, waiting for more paperwork to clear, Kell and Anna, in a stroller supplied by Karen Kenney, director of Student Activities, enjoyed long walks on cross-country ski trails in gorgeous Siberian fall foliage. Kell wondered if Anna would ever be able to know the beauty of her homeland. Then it was a long flight home to Berkeley via Moscow and New York.

Kell took a three-month leave to adopt Anna, "but it was no vacation," she exclaims. The time flew by, what with doctors' visits, more paperwork (U.S. birth certificate, citizenship and readoption applications for Anna), meeting family and friends ("my parents couldn't keep their hands off her"), tending colds, setting up house together and finding childcare for Kell's return to work Dec. 1. A flexible work schedule allows her to spend precious afternoon time with Anna. Loans from family and friends have made the whole undertaking possible.

"Money's tight, but this is so much better than what Anna had," says Kell. "She'll have all the things she needs. You adopt when the time is right-you can't dwell on the cost."

How has Kell's life changed since becoming a mother? "It's much more fun, noisier in a good way. I don't mind tripping over toys, poop in the bathtub, wet crackers on my clothes. It's so nice to have a child in the house, a little companion to share my life with. There's not much time for the things I used to do-books, movies, socializing-but it doesn't seem to matter because this is something I've always wanted."

The day before this interview, Anna called Kell "Ma" for the first time. "It was pretty cool," says Kell. "She also says 'No' very distinctly. She's strong-willed, which probably helped her during her first year of life. She's independent, sweet, loving. It's a good match."


Karen Kenney, Director of Student Activities and Services, and her husband, Steve Choy, became the proud parents of Annie, a 13-month-old Chinese girl, on May 13, 1997. She'd been abandoned at 14 days-a common occurrence in China, where the one-child-per-family policy favors boys.

Kenney and her husband married for the first time at age 40. Kenney had talked about adopting for years, but after looking into domestic adoptions, the couple decided that international adoption was best for them.

For advice, Kenney turned to Edith Ng, campus director of Staff Affirmative Action, and others on campus about their experiences adopting daughters from China. Kenney and Choy decided on a child from China because Choy is Chinese-American. A girl was a given, since virtually every orphan in China is female.

They began adoption proceedings in February 1996 through Adopt International in Redwood City. The 14-month-long process included AIDS tests and local police clearance required by China, as well as U.S.-mandated health and home clearances, an essay on why they wanted to adopt, income information and FBI background checks. Everything had to be notarized. Total cost of the adoption and trip to China for two was about $15,000 -- typical for an international adoption.

In December 1996 Kenney and Choy received their first information on their daughter-to-be: Yang Yang Guo. Then a tiny photo of her was faxed to Kenney at her Sproul Hall office. "We waited around that fax machine like we were awaiting the birth of a child," recalls Kenney of the precious moment she shared with her staff. Kenney and Choy picked the name "Anne Helen Yang Choy" for the four-month-old.

In May they left for China, along with Kenney's mother and sister. Annie was brought to them at their hotel in Huazhou in Guandong Province at the southern tip of China. At 13 months she was healthy except for scabies, which cleared up quickly.

"I felt giddy and overwhelmed," recalls Kenney. "It was almost surreal. My sister videotaped the whole event. All I'd ever seen of Annie before was a one-inch photo of her at four months. She didn't cry and seemed perfectly comfortable with us from Day One."

Kenney took six weeks off from work for the trip to China and settling in with Annie, while her husband took off the full 12 weeks allowed by the Family and Medical Leave Act. The "Guide for Working Parents" explains university policies on childbirth and adoption. See "How To Juggle Work and Family," page 1.

Now Annie is happy in childcare. Initially somewhat delayed in motor skills and speech due to her time in the orphanage, she has caught up quickly, says Kenney. Like Kell, Kenney is going through naturalization and readoption procedures for her new daughter.

How has motherhood changed Kenney's life at age 43?

"I have very little free time for myself and spend more time with my husband," she notes. "We'll go to the zoo instead of a Cal basketball game. It's made me ask, 'How can I do the job in a more balanced way?' Having Annie has given me a totally different perspective on what's important in life, and that's family, good health and love."

Says Barth: "The desire to love and be loved is profound and most frequently met in the depth of family relationships. Adopting helps fulfill this desire by providing permanent, loving links that cross continents, cultures and races."


Copyright 1998, The Regents of the University of California.
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