When The Unforseen Happens in Intercountry Adoption


by Helen Mark
Focus on Adoption magazine

We were waiting for the call to pick up our child. One day the phone rang. “There’s been a terrible plane accident at Ton Son Nhut airport outside of Saigon. The back doors of a Lockheed C5A transport plane carrying children bound for the US and Canada were not properly secured. About 15 minutes after take-off, the Galaxy reached cruising level and the rear cargo door blew out. The plane smashed down in a rice paddy a short distance from the airport. Several children and their escorts, who were on the lower deck of the plane, have perished. We think the child assigned to you may have died in the accident.” For two weeks I did little but cry. We listened to every newscast hoping to get more information about the accident, the 230 children and their escorts, and the little boy whose picture was glued to our fridge door.

We had been warned. A myriad of things can go wrong with an international adoption, but this was the worst imaginable. Then the next call came, two weeks after the first. “Your child was not on the plane that crashed after all. He was held back because of medical problems. He’s now in San Francisco. Go and get him immediately. He’s in a private home and cannot stay there, not even one night.” One neighbour went to the bank while I packed, another took our other children, and a third drove me to the airport. I was in Seattle before I was able to contact my husband. A pounding headache had set in. What mixed emotions I had. Our son was spared but so many other children and their escorts lost their lives or were deprived of oxygen from decompression in the body of the huge transport plane that lost its cargo door on April 4, 1975.

While tragedies like this are thankfully rare, after 20 years in international adoption, I can cite many unforeseen things that can go wrong with international adoptions. The good news is that much grief can be avoided with excellent preparation and planning.

Countries make up their own rules. A point often misunderstood in intercountry adoption is that countries of origin (where children come from) make up the rules. Canada does not tell countries how to run their intercountry adoption programs: they tell us. They decide who is eligible and who is not, what types of children are available, what documents to submit, how long it will take and how much it will cost. Many countries have a selection board that reviews the prospective adoptive parent’s file. These boards look for the best family for a particular child, not the other way around.

Selection boards and other officials can be offended by adoptive parents or agencies who disregard their policies. For example, if a country says prospective adoptive parents must be under 50 and a file arrives with one parent 45 and the other 55, they wonder if anyone has read their fact sheets. Korea states applicants must be in good mental and physical health, that they cannot have a disease or handicap that would interfere with one’s life expectancy and cannot be more than 30 percent over normal body weight. Disregarding these or other requirements would be insulting and would likely result in the applicants being turned down —not a good start to any adoption.

Adoption Programs Closed

Countries can change the rules or cancel an adoption program at the drop of a hat. Canada had what seemed to be a solid adoption program with Korea in the 70s and 80s. Bad publicity about plane loads of children leaving the country around the time of the Seoul Olympics, and the fact that Canadians had a reputation for taking children but doing little or nothing for those children left behind in the orphanages, ended our Korean program. (Programs have once again resumed with a mandatory donation included in the cost). Since the 1950s Holt International Children’s Services in Oregon has contributed huge sums of money to Korean children’s institutions, particularly those housing children with special needs, and their adoption program has been running for over 40 years. Unethical people and/or agencies abusing adoption procedures can shut down an adoption program. Even rumors can close a program. Tales of baby buying, coercing birth mothers to sign a consent to adoption without understanding the consequences of what she is signing, and stories that children adopted from poor countries are used for organ transplants, provide plenty of ammunition for countries to halt adoptions.

Haiti has gone through multiple coups d’etat over the past 10-15 years and one could happen again. When a coup occurs adoptions stop, at least for awhile. The good news about Haiti is that adoptions always seem to start again. However, if your file is sitting on the desk of the Haitian Minister of Social Services at the time of a coup, and her signature is required on your documents, your file may be held up for months, or at least until she has determined that she is still the Minister. Inevitably, the political climate of any country affects the adoption process.

High Expectations

Things can go awry when a child’s needs don’t match the prospective adoptive parents’ resources, abilities and dreams. The ability of parents to tolerate differences is crucial, according to Toronto adoption researcher and former university professor, Joyce Cohen. She says, “If you can’t tolerate differences, how are you going to help this child with his/her different race, culture, and language? How are the parents going to tolerate this child if he/she doesn’t turn out like them? For example, how would a highly intellectual couple tolerate a child who has a tough time getting beyond grade 9? And, how are parents going to cope with an undiagnosed or missed medical problem?” Cohen goes on to say that parents must be clear about their expectations, their hopes and dreams for this child, and need to value whatever their child is able to do, which can be hard if the child is very different from the parents.

Taking Control

From the start of any intercountry adoption, there is a lot parents can control. If they are given information on adoption research, current data collected by pediatricians working in adoption medicine, and the opportunity to talk to experienced adoptive parents and young adults born overseas, parents can assess their suitability to adopt, country of choice, and the age and special needs of the child they might consider. Once their file is complete, parents can follow their dossier. One AFABC family discovered they were able to track their file daily until it reached China. They kept track of their way-bill number, making certain their file moved along. Big courier companies put information about packages on their web page, including individual way-bill numbers, hence the tracking.

They also participated in a discussion group on Yahoo! with other waiting parents and were able to determine the approximate date a child might be proposed. Everything moved along as anticipated. If parents have concerns about the child at the time of the proposal, they can consult a pediatrician familiar with the medical and behavioral issues of kids from overseas institutions. Pediatricians who review medical information at the time of proposal may not be able to ensure a healthy child, but may be able to pick up signs of fetal alcohol syndrome, odd behavior (with the help of a video) or worrisome laboratory or other test results.

Dr. Dana Johnson, from the University of Minnesota, who runs one of the biggest adoption medical clinics in the US, says all parents should prepare for the worst and hope for the best. It may sound depressing but, without a doubt, good preparation increases the likelihood of a smooth process and a positive outcome in all matters relating to international adoption.

by Helen Mark