Transcript

International Adoptions: Celebrities vs. Real People

Vicki Peterson
Executive Director, Wide Horizons for Children Inc.
Thursday, October 26, 2006; 2:00 PM

Vicki Peterson , executive director of Wide Horizons for Children , a private, non-profit child welfare agency which specializes in international adoptions, was online Thursday, Oct. 26, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the celebrity adoptions of Madonna and Angelina Jolie vs. those of regular people: the process and the regulations, the controversy over "privilege" and the impact on the families at home and abroad.

More: Father Frets Madonna May Renege Adoption ( Associated Press, Oct. 26 )

"Each year, more than 22,000 Americans adopt a child from another country -- but those who get all the attention regarding an adoption are celebrities. In fact, very few famous people adopt children from other countries, but when they do, the spotlight is put on them. Adoptions by stars like Angelina Jolie and Madonna seem to cause a frenzy in the media, although they are adopting with many of the same motivations that bring others to adoption -- to help a child in need," said Peterson in an e-mailed interview with washingtonpost.com.

Peterson worked with Jolie on the adoption of her Ethiopian-born daughter Zahara, and has just returned from a conference regarding adoptions from Uganda.

A transcript follows.

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Vicki Peterson: Hi everyone,

I'm happy to have an opportunity to try answering your questions regarding international adoptions.

As you know, this is a topic that's in the spotlight right now because of the adoption by a celebrity. Be assured, however - more than 22,000 people from the U.S. do an international adoption each year and only a very few of these people are well known. The process of adopting a child from abroad varies somewhat from country to country but is the same for everyone, regardless of whether you are a celebrity or a "civilian." Everyone who adopts has to have gone through a home study, which is a process involving several meetings with a social worker who will look at different aspects of your life to make sure that you are capable of parenting a child who will be coming from another country - and possibly of a different racial background from you.

Vicki Peterson: I look forward to chatting with you....

Vicki Peterson

Executive Director of External Affairs

Wide Horizons For Children

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Are there age cut-offs for adopting children? I am 44 and my fiance is 52 and we are thinking about adopting a child after we marry next year. Also, are there any problems in adopting children from the Ukraine and Russia. I had heard that there had been some issues. Thanks!

Vicki Peterson: All countries have age requirements. Depending on the country, there may be some flexibility in the stated requirements. In some cases the requirements may be slightly different or more strict in a bit different from region to region in It is usually helpful to discuss the specifics of this with the agency that will be helping you in the placement of a child.

Vicki Peterson: To continue:

At the current time in Russia, there is supposed to be no more than a 45 year age difference between the youngest spouse and the child. The Ukraine is currently closed to adoptions but expected to reopen early next year.

Keep checking...things can change.

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Washington, D.C.: I am single, 35, and realizing that I probably will not ever marry, at least not in time to have a biological child. If I choose to consider international adoption in the next few years, I realize that being single might make things more difficult. At the same time, surely a single mom is better than no mom at all. Which countries are easiest for single women to adopt from?

Vicki Peterson: Things can change so frequently with international adoptions that it is not possible to predict what will be happening in a few years...sometimes even in a year. Currently, there are several countries where single women can adopt. The ones I know of are Guatemala, China, Russia, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, India and both Philippines and Colombia for older children. Remember - things can always change.

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Millersville, Md.: There are loads of rumors in the China adoption community about China curtailing the number of international adoptions or even ending adoption from that country. Some pertain to a recent rash (or seemingly so) of rejections for health-related reasons. Others pertain to the 2008 Olympics and the scrutiny Korea experienced during the Seoul Olympics. Others pertain to the baby-buying rings that the government has recently busted. What's your take on China's future?

Vicki Peterson: I believe that adoptions from China will continue - at least into the near future and possibly beyond. They have definitely slowed down, but it is still an excellent option for those who want to adopt from China.

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Raleigh, N.C.: So you are saying that both Madonna and Angelina went through this Home Study?

Vicki Peterson: Yes...they both went through a home study.

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Washington, D.C.: Did you see Madonna on Oprah yesterday or have you read about it? What is your reaction?

Vicki Peterson: Yes, I watched a tape of the program and I was impressed with her answers. As someone who has also been to Africa, I totally agree with her feelings that it is impossible to be there and not have it impact your life. Seeing children who have so little, is extraordinarily painful and motivates one to want to do something to help. I really don't know very much about Madonna but I think she is quite genuine in her desire to help the children of Milawi.

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Alexandria, Va.: Kinda don't want to cut to the chase -- but can you give a ballpark figure for someone (non-celebrity) interested in adopting a child? Thanks!

Vicki Peterson: In general, most adoptions will end up costing in the range of $15-25,000. That's a very big range because it depends on where you are adopting from and the fees where you live. In some parts of the country, home study fees are higher than other areas. Also, travel expenses are quite different in one country from another. Some countries require two trips there and others, only one.

Also, depending on your income, you may be eligible for a $10,000 federal tax credit...as well as possible financial assistance from your agency.

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Hillsdale, N.J.: If I'm interested in adopting internationally, how do I make sure I am working with a "good" agency? Are there many people out there that claim to be adoption professionals and simply aren't?

Vicki Peterson: Such a good question! First of all, do your homework...this is a VERY important decision, so talk to lots of people, go into Web sites of various agencies, request information packets, attend free information meetings, and don't be afraid to ask questions. You can learn a lot by asking questions of people who have already done an adoption or are in the process of adopting. Another thing you can ask for are references...agencies should be able to give you names of people who have adopted through them.

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Bowie, Md.: I've heard that domestic adoptions are not as popular as international adoptions. Is this actually true? What are the statistics? I also heard that one of the reasons domestic adoptions are not popular because American parents have the right to contest an adoption up to a year after the adoption takes place. This being a disincentive for potential parents who would hate giving up a child after they've adopted them. Is this also true?

Vicki Peterson: There are more than 100,000 adoptions in the U.S. every year and only about 22,000 of these are adoptions from other countries. So, actually, it may seem that there are more international adoptions because these placements are more obvious - but actually domestic adoptions are still far greater in the U.S. When I say "obvious," I mean that it's very clear when you see a Chinese child with Caucasian parents, that this child is adopted. It is usually not as clear with a U.S. adoption that a child is not a biological son or daughter.

Regarding contesting an adoption - the regulations vary from state to state but are generally not as long as you have heard. For example, in Massachusetts, birth parents can sign a full and final relinquishment of parental rights four days after the birth of a child. In other states it might be somewhat longer.

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Baltimore, Md.: Having lived overseas, I am aware that cross-cultural issues can be far more overwhelming than many Americans imagine. What help is available for people who adopt internationally concerning such issues? What preparations do you think prospective parents should make so they can be better prepared to deal with cross-cultural issues?

Vicki Peterson: Another great question !

If possible, try to work with an agency that has cultural programs for parents and children after placement.

For example, here at Wide Horizons, we offer one day culture camps for children from several different countries. At the same time that children are meeting with "counselors," parents are offered workshops on cultural issues and issues of parenting a child who comes from that country. If you can't find an agency in your area that offers something like this, try to join an adoptive parent organization. Most states have such organizations and many of them offer wonderful opportunities for adoptive families to network. You can also start your own group! Keep in contact with people you meet during the adoption process...

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Burke, Va.: What has bothered me about the current focus on international adoption is the judgmental attitudes towards people who adopt. My younger brother and sister were adopted from South Korea and my husband and I have started the process for ourselves so I've certainly heard my share of interesting comments. Some have been ignorant, some flat out rude (a woman once asked my mother in front of the kids how much did they cost you?) but there seems to be some viciousness coming out now. Do you have suggestions on how to respond to these types of judgmental comments?

Vicki Peterson: The things you always have to keep in mind more than anything else is what your child is hearing and the response from you that they hear in return. You want to be a good role model so it's not a good idea to get angry or defensive, but you can let someone know that their question is inappropriate - sometimes just by a look or saying something like "Why would you ask that?" Take the opportunity to talk to your child about it when something like this happens because chances are, your child will be faced with similar things. He (or she) can learn a lot from watching how you handle things. Be sure that your child knows that he/she is not obligated to answer someone's questions. They should know that they have the right to say - "That's personal and I prefer not to discuss it."

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Washington, D.C.: Can you clarify something for me (if possible)? One of the fallouts from Madonna's adoption seems to be that people think that there are millions of children here in the U.S. that need adoptive parents, and that people should adopt those first before going outside this country to adopt.

I have always been under the impression that there is a long waiting list for U.S. children (more people looking to adopt than children available to adopt). Without getting into the motivations for adopting children from other countries vs. from the U.S., can you address whether there are lots of U.S. children needing to be adopted? I hate to talk about humans as commodities, but does the demand outpace the supply in this country? Thanks.

Vicki Peterson: There are certainly many children in the U.S. that need a family - no doubt about that. Most of these children are at least 5 years old, or older. The reality is that ALL children need a family. One of the major differences for the children living in orphanages abroad from children here waiting for a family is that many children from other countries simply won't make it to adulthood if they stay in institutional care. There is little medical care in many facilities and the nutrition is often very poor. Also, most children in orphanages will never have an opportunity for an education - even a minimal one.

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Alexandria, Va.: Do you think the controversy over Madonna's adoption helps or harms the image of international adoption?

Vicki Peterson: My feeling is that anything that helps to bring awareness of the needs of children who are living in orphanages is a good thing. On the other hand, the fact that the only way this seems to happen is through controversy, is unfortunate.

The reality is that newspapers generally don't gain readers through happy stories...things need to be problematic, sad or controversial in order for attention to be brought to something.

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Baltimore, Md.: I thought it said in the intro that you were recently in Uganda. Does/will Uganda have an international adoption program?

Vicki Peterson: I need to clarify this. I was at an adoption conference on the west coast where many countries were represented. There was a delegation there from Uganda. They came to learn about international adoption since it is not something that is currently being done there. They are interested in opening international adoptions in their country but want to make sure that they are well versed in the issues before doing so. I was very impressed by their thoughtfulness.

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Washington, D.C.: I've done a little research on international adoption and am interested in adopting a child from an African country but there appears not be many countries in Africa where this is possible and I didn't think Malawi was on that list. Can you let us know which countries allow adoptions from Africa? Thanks.

Vicki Peterson: Our agency and a few others are doing adoptions from Ethiopia. This year, we expect to place between 100 - 140 children from Ethiopia. There is a great need for families who will adopt a child over the age of 3 years.

There are a few other countries where some adoptions are being done, but in very small numbers. You might be best off doing a Google search of a specific country to see if adoptions are being done there.

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Washington, D.C.: As an international adoptee (myself placed through WHFC), what are your thoughts on interracial adoptions? I have been fortunate throughout my life to have a support network in place and consider myself fairly well-adjusted, but many of my friends in the adoptee community have not responded as well. It's hard enough being adopted; do you think that the race/ethnicity issue compounds the problem? Thanks.

Vicki Peterson: Certainly there are challenges to be met when growing up in a family where you are racially different from most people in your home and community. I do think that awareness of these issues and ways to deal with them have improved greatly in the past 10-15 years as international adoptions have greatly increased. Children who are being placed now have the advantage of being raised by parents who have had more preparation for some of the more challenging issues and the importance of keeping a child's birth culture alive.

Also, there are now so many wonderful books for adopted children at almost every stage of their life.

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Silver Spring, Md.: My husband and I are currently in the process of adopting a baby from Guatemala. Is there any way to find out how the birth mother has been helped? How much support -- financial, health care, etc., does she get from the entire process? We've been asked so many questions like these, and we're concerned ourselves for the birth mother.

Thanks so much.

Vicki Peterson: Don't be afraid to ask your agency! There is no reason that they shouldn't be able to find out the answer to this.

Each agency works with different people in Guatemala, so you need to find out what is done there by the people your agency works with.

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Vienna, Va.: How much does religious preference really matter? We're looking seriously into adoption and have narrowed it down to Ethiopia (which has strong Christian ties), but we really don't go to church. The agency says that's okay, but I hear the actual orphanages may not like that.

Vicki Peterson: Most orphanages are much more concerned that they are placing a child with loving, moral parents than anything else. I would not be concerned about whether you are attending church, but about leading a good life where you will raise a child accordingly.

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Hyattsville, Md.: Why are there not more adoptions from Africa considering the need?

Vicki Peterson: It is true that adoptions from Africa are only slowing gaining momentum in the U.S. and other western countries.

There is a "snowballing" effect that happens where people start seeing and hearing about others who have adopted from Africa and it becomes a more comfortable idea. I think that in the past, Africa has just seemed to be such an unknown to so many Americans. We are finally starting to recognize that the needs are great and that many parts of Africa are not only beautiful but also very welcoming to Americans.

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Mt Airy, Md.: Everybody talks about adopting babies. What is the story with adopting toddlers? Is there a greater fear of developmental issues or health problems?

Vicki Peterson: Many people who have not parented before feel more comfortable with the idea of starting out with a baby.

A word of caution here - the younger a child is, the less you actually know about possible medical problems. The other side of the coin is that the older a child is, the less input you have in a child's early development. In general I would advise those who are very concerned about possible long-term health problems to consider adopting a child who is at least one year old or possibly a bit older.

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Washington, D.C.: Do adoption rules stipulate whether the adopted child should or should not be told that he/she is in fact adopted? And what rights do the birth parents have to the child? Is there a period of time when some kind of statue of limitations runs out?

Vicki Peterson: Nowadays, adoption professionals feel that it is best to talk about adoption very early in a child's life so that they grow up knowing that they are adopted and it is never a secret that they learn at an older age. Of course, you need to talk about adoption differently at different stages in a child's development according to their ability to understand things.

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Springfield, Va.: My husband and I are interested in adopting a child internationally. I am concerned at how our families would react to a grandchild of a different race though. What do you recommend adoptive parents do to prepare the extended family?

Vicki Peterson: It's a great idea to involve grandparents in discussions about adoption. Even consider bringing them to adoption meetings and/or sharing some of the literature you are gathering with them. In my experience, most grandparents quickly bond with their grandchild, regardless of the child's background. Even those who may be a bit slow in accepting the idea become attached as soon as there is a child to hold and hug !

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Vicki Peterson: I've really enjoyed talking with you and I hope that I have the opportunity to do it again. You've asked so many good questions! I'm sorry that I haven't been able to get to all of them...but feel free to contact me if you have something that you really want to talk about. I will try my best to respond - but it may take a while if I get a lot of questions: vpeterson@whfc.org

My very best wishes in your adoption journey !

Vicki

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