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The International Adoption Option

Adopting a child from another country can be a powerful way to share God's love. And it's easier than you think.

June 18 is a special day for 3-year-old Thomas Schoedel. That's his "Gotcha' Day," the day he became part of the Schoedel family. This year, in celebration of his Gotcha' Day, Thomas opened two presents: a set of Matchbox cars and a hand-made Mayan belt his parents bought when they traveled to Guatemala to pick him up three years ago.

"Right now, the Matchbox cars mean more to him," says his mom, Heidi. "But someday, I think the gifts from Guatemala are going to be really special because they are part of his heritage."

The Schoedels have two biological daughters, Kathryn, 11, and Rebekah, 8. They adopted Thomas, who is now almost 4 years old, from Guatemala when he was only six months old. And just last year, Joshua joined the family. Joshua, an African-American baby from Chicago, is now 14 months old.

Thomas is in good company. Since the early 1990s, the number of babies adopted from overseas?Russia, China, South Korea, Guatemala, Vietnam, Romania?has increased dramatically. In 1992, the total number of immigrant visas issued to orphans coming to the United States was 6,472; in 1998, it was 15,774.

A Call from Scripture

It's not surprising that many of those adopted children are joining Christian families. Adoption is a biblical concept that dates as far back as Moses, who was adopted by the pharaoh's daughter. The New Testament frequently refers to believers as "adopted heirs." For many Christians, adoption is a form of ministry.

"I think caring for orphans is a call from Scripture," says Sue Eitemiller, whose adopted daughter, Joelle, is from China. "A desire to adopt reflects the heart of God."

When the Zacharias family of Alamo, California, adopted OnNi, a Chinese toddler with special needs, Debi Zacharias says it made a deep impact on her relationship with God. "Adopting OnNi has given us all an increased sense of purpose and meaning as we look at who she is and how she's become part of our family," says Debi. "OnNi makes us so aware of our status as adopted children of God."

Why International?

On the surface, overseas adoption can seem like a more problematic option than adopting a child from the United States. There are so many unknowns and so many details to deal with?language differences, passports, shots, travel arrangements. But in truth, overseas adoptions lack many of the legal hurdles that cause domestic adoptions to drag on for months, sometimes years. Domestic adoptions also carry the risk of the adoption being challenged by a birth parent or other family member. In most overseas adoptions, the adoption is final before you leave the country. Most of the children have been abandoned, thus there are no concerns of birth parent rights.

While there are many children available for adoption in the U.S., there are even more babies and children overseas who need homes. Children in orphanages in developing nations are in the greatest need. In Russia, 330,000 orphans are currently waiting to be adopted. In China, more than 500,000 babies and children have been abandoned.

Sadly, it's also true that in certain countries, adoption actually makes life possible for that child. "In China," explains Sue Eitemiller, "you may literally be saving a child's life." Sue and her husband, Dave, traveled to an orphanage in China to pick up their two-month-old daughter Joelle. "The orphanage smelled so bad you wanted to vomit," she remembers. "There were two to three children in a crib. Cement floors, wooden chairs and a TV in the corner. One little premature baby lay in an incubator in the corner, a blanket covering the entire crib, completely neglected. I knew he was left to die."

A Challenging Call

While many couples choose adoption as a way of reaching out to one of God's children, the desire to "rescue" a child needs to be balanced with a dose of realism.

"Christians really should be open to this," insists Sue Eitemiller, "but you have to know yourself and your limits."

Raising a child from a developing nation certainly brings its own set of complications. Background information is practically non-existent and health records are often inaccurate. Institutional care typically creates huge deficits to overcome, such as a lag in large-and fine-motor skills, slower speech acquisition and delayed social skills. There is also the possibility of attachment disorder, a psychological problem that can deeply impact a child's ability to adjust to a new family. Because of these possible problems, institutionalized children are considered a high-risk group. If you're considering adoption, learn all you can about these issues to make sure you're prepared to raise a child who may present these unique challenges.

There is good news, however. Dr. Tina Gabby has studied attachment disorder extensively at the University of California in San Francisco. Through her work, Gabby has found that despite early institutionalization, most adopted children acclimate very well, both emotionally and developmentally. "Of those in orphanages for a long time, a third will be okay, a third will do well and a third will be super successful," she says.

It will take time, effort and understanding on your part to help your child adjust to life in your home. "It's a richly rewarding experience, but it is harder. Don't underestimate that," says adoptive mom Deanna Sutherland. "You need to re member to extend grace to your child and to yourself during this time."

Getting Started

If you're interested in pursuing adoption, start by doing your homework. Talk to people who've already been through the process. Research books and articles in order to get a realistic picture of adoption. Get involved in the adoption community: attend work shops, seminars and support groups. The Internet is packed with adoption sites. The more prepared you are to become an adoptive parent, the better.

Be especially certain that you and your spouse are both willing to make the commitment to adopt. "If one of you is resistant, you shouldn't do it," advises Deanna Sutherland, whose daughter Corrie is adopted from China. "Adoption stretches a couple's relationship. And bonding with a child is a process that will occur at a different rate for each parent. You need the support of each other to get through that process smoothly. You can't decide halfway through that it isn't going to work. It has to work."

Which Country?

With the overwhelming need for adoptive parents, it might seem like it doesn't matter much where a child comes from. But the country in which your child is born will forever be part of your life so it's important that you consider your choice carefully.

Ramona Tucker, former editor of Today's Christian Woman magazine, and her husband, Jeff, adopted a baby girl from China. "We were always intrigued by China," she explains. "We knew we wanted to adopt when we married, and China was a pull to us. We always felt 'sure' about a Chinese baby."

In some countries, adoption is an easier process than in others. Andy and Geri Boyden from South Bend, Indiana, chose to adopt a baby from Russia primarily because "Russia was a country known for quick 'turn-around' time when we adopted," says Andy.

For the Boydens, the adoption has been a great way to broaden their knowledge of other cultures. "I like the history of Russia," says Andy. "When it comes to the arts, painting, theater, richness of culture, I just love it. And now our other kids know where Tula, Russia, is and are even learning a few words in Russian."

The Schoedels chose Guatemala because they wanted to be able to return to the country when Thomas was older. "We knew that this country would come to play a major role in Thomas's life and the life of our family. We wanted to be able to go back as a family to visit and we knew that it would be very expensive to return to someplace like China," says Heidi.

Choosing an Agency

Once you've decided to adopt, the next step is to find a good adoption agency. You'll rely heavily on the agency in up coming months, so it's crucial to find one where you feel comfortable. Agency workers will help you with endless paperwork, the nerve-wracking home study, the long waiting period, the travel, and the adjustment period of becoming a new family, as well as provide answers to the many questions you'll have along the way.

Before choosing an agency, do some research. Don't be afraid to ask questions: Are you fully licensed? How long have you been in business? How many children have you placed? Ask for lists of references. Check with the Better Business Bureau for any consumer complaints. Get recommendations from other adoptive families. Attend fund raisers and informational meetings for various agencies within your region.

Baby? Toddler? Or Older Child?

Understandably, most couples want to adopt an infant. There's something really wonderful about holding a tiny bundle of life, knowing that you'll be able to guide him through many of life's "firsts." Studies also have found that when babies are adopted before the age of 2, they're less likely to suffer from long-term nutritional or psychological problems. But it's important to consider all options before adding a new child to your family. Many older children are readily available for adoption and often countries will expedite the processing if you request a child over 2 years old.

However, adopting an older child does have its drawbacks. Bonding and attachment may take longer?for both parents and child. "Adopting a baby allows a more natural attachment," shares Deanna Sutherland, who adopted Corrie when Corrie was 4. "An older child already has her own personality and has a past that influences behavior." Still, parents who are willing to acceptan older child usually find that the rewards outweigh the difficulties.

If you already have children, get their input and consider what age child would fit best with your family.

Special Needs

Just as health isn't always guaranteed with biological children, parents should also be prepared to accept an adopted child with problems. Any adoption means you're taking a chance the child could have significant medical or emotional problems.

A child labeled as "special needs" usually means he has minor or correctable medical conditions, such as malnutrition, rickets, or chronic ear infections. Ironically, when a child has a major special need?a missing limb or a serious disease?families are actually better off because health information is more accurate and obvious.

Debi and Mike Zacharias adopted OnNi because of physical imperfections. "It has been a tremendous blessing and joy to care for a little one who was abandoned because of her special needs," says Debi, who also has four other children. "I would encourage prospective parents to consider adopting a child with special needs because of all the resources available to help them. It'san extra special blessing to realize where this child would have been had the Lord not put her into our family."

Before you agree to adopt a child with special needs, ask your physician to review all available medical information on that child. Be aware, however, that you'll probably never have all the information you need.

When considering a child with special needs, be prepared to say no to a potential adoption if you recognize that his needs exceed your capabilities. It's better for everyone involved to call off an adoption before it's taken place than to realize you're in too deep after the child has already joined your family.

At the same time, Deanna notes, "Maybe it's just as well parents don't know what they're really getting themselves into; that's when love takes over. By the time Corrie's challenges were well identified, we were hopelessly in love with her."

Joining the Family

"Often, people will ask me if our girls act like real sisters, and I have to laugh. I tell them 'Oh yes, they fight all the time,'" says Sue Eitemiller.

Geri Boyden feels that the adjustment period is a necessary part of family bonding. "We did have some adjusting with Seth, our youngest," she remembers. "Once he asked if we could take his sister back to Russia and pick her up the next week. But I would've been more concerned if there were no wrinkles in adjusting. Now they all act like siblings and Anya joins right in with Leigh and Seth when it comes to arguing at the dinner table!"

You can help make the adjustment smoother through proper preparation and prayer. The Eitemillers prepared their daughter Jessica for the addition of an adopted sibling early in the process by praying every night for their future baby.

For the most part, blended families find that adoption pro vides as many benefits for their biological children as it does for the new sibling.

While adopting a child, particularly a child from another country, isn't for every one, it's worth asking God to help you determine if it's right for your family. It's a ministry that can truly change the world, one child at a time.

Suzanne Woods Fisher is a writer and a member of the Christian Parenting Today advisory board. She lives with her husband and four children in Hong Kong.

NOTE: For your convenience, the following products, which were mentioned above, are available for purchase from the ChristianityToday.com Shopping Channel:

? Is Adoption for You?, by Christine A. Adamec
? A Passage to the Heart, edited by Amy Klatzkin
? How to Adopt Internationally, by Jean Nelsen-Erichsen and Heino R. Erichsen

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