- The Washington Times - Monday, December 30, 2002

First-time parents Catherine and John Suttora of Potomac were preparing in August to travel to the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan to start a family. They planned to adopt two unrelated children: 2-year-old Misha, who had claimed their hearts via his adoption agency video, and a young baby.

The couple had been using the services of a reputable adoption agency and had booked their journey through a travel company out of Atlanta that regularly schedules adoption trips.

A few weeks before they were due to go, the Suttoras were told about an intractable "problem" with their adoption. Misha actually was part of a firm package deal of three.

The Suttoras thought long and hard and fast deciding nearly overnight that they would change their plans and bring back all three siblings, instead: Misha; his 4-year-old brother, Max; and their 6-year-old sister, Victoria. The very day the couple contacted the travel company to inform employees of the change in plans, new tickets were delivered.

Welcome to the world of adoption travel, in which adoptive parents say flexibility is key and preparation is just about everything else. Preparation in any language means doing your homework: choosing scrupulous agencies, sharpening skills of consumerism, learning as much as possible about host countries and listening to the words of wisdom of those who have gone before.

The number of foreign adoptions last year was more than 20,000, according to State Department figures. That is roughly triple the number of just a decade ago, says Susan Cox, vice president of Holt International Children's Services, an Oregon-based agency dedicated to intercountry adoption.

"International adoption continues to be a growing opportunity for families," she says. "It's really quite ordinary. People are coming to adoption now internationally and assuming that travel is part of the deal because with few exceptions, countries require that people finalize the adoptions in-country."

Indeed, many children are waiting overseas, says Bill Strassberger, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which processes visas for incoming orphans.

"And if an individual is working with a legitimate and honest international-adoption agency, they'll find the process generally will go well," he says. "But they have to be aware that they're dealing with two sets of laws. Although there are great opportunities, it's just as important to know who you're working with."

A good adoption agency and a travel company that routinely books adoption trips are critical to the process, Mrs. Suttora says.

"Every family needs those two things," she says. "They will make or break the entire experience."

The Suttoras conducted an exhaustive and methodical search for the right agency. They contacted the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan and the Better Business Bureau stateside, analyzed Web sites, and pored over information packets before choosing World Partners Adoption, based in Atlanta.

"But the number one reason we picked them was their references," Mrs. Suttora says. "They sent me an e-mail, which contained over 100 families' names, where they lived and a way to contact them. Every WPA family was extremely forthcoming about their experience, both the pros and the cons, but more important when asked if they would use WPA again, they said yes without hesitating."

When Antonia and Stephen Siebert of Arlington decided to adopt from Guatemala, they signed on with a New Jersey-based agency. The couple were introduced to the agency via an Internet bulletin board called a listserv, which contained specific information about adopting from that Latin American country.

"They sounded like they had a philosophy that matched ours," Mrs. Siebert says. "But we came to find out they really didn't follow up. There's really no way to know. And if you discover the agency isn't exactly what you thought, you don't want to change after you've been referred to a specific child, because if you lose the agency you lose the child."

The Sieberts' son, Sam, now 20 months old, was referred to the couple in July 2001. They visited the child in-country in November 2001, again in March 2002, and brought him to his new home in July 2002.

"It took so long, we think, because our agency wasn't so good," Mrs. Siebert says. "The Guatemalan attorney we were matched up with was having problems, and there was incredibly poor communication.

"In fact, … the attorney had been 'blacklisted' by the U.S. State Department and was not allowed to process adoptions. Maybe the agency didn't know, but if they did they didn't tell us in a timely fashion and refer our case to another attorney instead."

On the home front, however, the Sieberts had planned steadily for their trips abroad. They began their course of vaccinations early on in the process. They took intensive Spanish-language courses. They read guidebooks about their home base, Guatemala City, so they would know what to expect there. They researched the country's climate so they could pack appropriately.

"We ended up handling our own travel arrangements because we figured out [the agency officials] were boobs," Mrs. Siebert says. "The only thing they did which we appreciated is that they have a long-standing relationship with a Guatemalan family the father is a pediatrician and the wife takes in foster children. They also take in adoptive families, sort of like a bed-and-breakfast. That was the best thing [the agency] did for us."

On their own, the Sieberts made careful notes about the medical considerations specific to Guatemala.

"For example, with a child from Guatemala, you want to check for lead because of the air pollution," Mrs. Siebert says. "There's no such thing as unleaded gas."

Once back in the United States with Sam, the couple brought their son to Inova Fairfax Hospital's International Adoption Center, which evaluates children adopted from abroad.

"They focus on particular issues, and they verify vaccinations, doing blood work to check for the antibodies," she says. "Particularly if you're a new parent, how do you know if the child is on target developmentally, or what you should focus on?"

When Kathy Rafferty, also of Arlington, traveled to Cambodia in May to adopt her second child, daughter Grace, now 14 months old, she went with medical prescriptions in hand.

"My pediatrician was willing to prescribe the medicines for an ear infection and medication for scabies, a condition that sometimes occurs with babies in Cambodia, with the understanding that before I used either, I'd get the baby diagnosed with that condition," Ms. Rafferty says. "There, the medicine could be outdated or watered down. By taking your own, at least you know you have medication that's not expired and that is the full dosage that you can administer if your baby is sick. I learned this from the listserv."

The listserv offered her firsthand experience from those who recently had traveled to Cambodia.

"They were able to tell me if diapers were available there, how to carry formula in 100-degree heat all day, and how to find an English-speaking doctor if your baby is sick. Now I, in turn, do that for others," she says.

Oakton parents Bonnie and Howard Horowitz relied heavily on a listserv as they gathered information before their April trip to Guatemala to bring home adopted daughter Nina, now 1.

They learned about the airport fees needed (in cash) for the flight home; which traveler's checks were easiest to use; and which restaurants were best, with authentic cuisine. They got the scoop on which baby gear to bring, where to travel within Guatemala to get a real feel for the culture, and what to bring and not bring to the U.S. Embassy.

"While our agency provided us with general travel information, it was through the listserv that we educated ourselves with details," Mrs. Horowitz says. "Without the listserv, we would definitely not have felt as confident in our travel decisions. Not only did we research travel information using the list archives, we e-mailed list families who had recently traveled so we knew our information was current."

Cathy Adams of St. Mary's City, Md., is relying on in-house experience husband David Adams to pave the way for her February trip to Russia. She and Mr. Adams are adopting a 3-year-old girl residing in a foster home within a region that is an hour and a half by air from Moscow.

Mr. Adams made a required first trip to the country several months ago, and Mrs. Adams says she believes she is better prepared to make the trip because her husband already knows the drill.

She is anxious, however, about leaving their 6-year-old son, Dylan, at home while they are in Russia. Their adoption trip will last about 10 days total and include obtaining a visa in Moscow for their adopted daughter and visiting the immigration office there, as well.

"I'm trying to prepare myself emotionally to leave my son," Mrs. Adams says. "My mother will come stay in our home with him to keep him in his natural environment, which will be good for him. This is going to be really hard on me and on him, as well. And I'm afraid of flying right now, so that makes it worse."

The adoption trip can be a scary time, acknowledges David Palakanis, vice president of Project Oz, the Dunkirk, Md., adoption agency the Adams family is using.

"You're leaving what you know," he says. "It's such a stark difference. Be prepared for lots of differentness."

When wife Kerry, president of Project Oz, interviews families about international adoption, travel is a major consideration, she says.

"If they're not 100 percent committed to adopting from a specific country, I ask them how long they can afford to be away from work and their other children and how long they're interested in combining the travel with the post-adoption time off they're planning anyway. Also, since September 11, a lot of families are not interested in going to places they consider to be high-risk."

Unlike regular travel, adoption travel can be fluid. Winter travel may be delayed because of bad weather. The embassies can close for various reasons sometimes with no notice.

"Ninety-eight percent of my clients leave on the day they're supposed to leave and there are no surprises," says Mrs. Palakanis, who has adopted four children from Eastern Europe. "But you don't want to be in the 2 percent when you've spent a lot of money for adoption … you want to avoid any extra expenses you can."

It all gets back to the notion of educating oneself, says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Institute, a nonprofit adoption-policy think tank based in New York City.

"Be empowered and secure," Mr. Pertman says. "Believe that ethics and professionalism are important. Don't get discouraged because there are bumps in the road. A country can close its borders. A birth mother can change her mind. But if you persevere, you're going to have your family, and those bumps will be but distant memories."

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