Families Without Borders
By Jacqueline Marino
OCTOBER 6, 1997: When Anna Belle Illien adopted a 2-month-old baby from Calcutta, India, 17 years ago, she became both a trailblazer and an oddity. As a white, single mother, Illien became accustomed to strange looks and prodding questions about her darker-complected Indian baby. The curious stares often gave way to a deluge of questions from other people interested in adopting children from foreign countries.
Before her baby's second birthday, Illien left her sales job at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and started her own adoption agency, Illien Adoptions International, in Atlanta. In 1992 she moved to Memphis, where she started Williams-Illien Adoptions with longtime colleague Christine Williams.
Illien, an earthy, middle-aged woman who often wears a salwar kamiz, a colorful Indian dress with matching pants, during the muggy Memphis summers, figures she's facilitated more than 1,200 adoptions over the last 15 years. For her, coordinating international adoptions is not a business, but a calling.
"I've seen the miracles that happen when that family comes together," says Illien, who now has three adopted children. "The family invariably says at some point and time, `This is my child.' They know they have connected with the child they were meant to parent."
Prospective adoptive families who work with Williams-Illien receive a pink folder with a label that reads "We believe in the power of one. One child at a time ... One family at a time." Inside they will read about all the children they may be able to adopt, including infants from the Ukraine, girls in India, and newborns from Venezuela. They will also peruse the list of "waiting children," such as Madhuri, a 17-month-old Indian girl with hydrocephalus; Vova, a healthy 10-year-old boy from Russia, and Olga, his younger sister; and Oscar, an affectionate, 11-year-old Venezuelan boy who cannot hear or speak and was found wandering the streets alone.
Illien says she tries to match
prospective adoptive parents with "the child in their
mind." But often the child they envision becomes the child
that needs them the most. It did for these three Memphis couples,
who crossed cultures and continents to find their children.
On a Bitterly cold February day, Janan Heisig climbed the rickety stairs of a czar's old summer home in Kungur, Russia, filled with nervous anticipation. After all the paperwork, the many months of waiting, the unexpected moratorium on foreign adoptions, and all the other setbacks she couldn't control, Janan knew her son was in one of these rooms waiting for her. She only worried she wouldn't recognize him.
He was no longer the cranky 15-month-old on the videotape sent to Janan and her husband Luke seven months earlier. He had surely grown, though she had no idea how much. She wanted to pick him out right away. She memorized his eyes, the color of his hair, the shape of his eyebrows. Again and again on the video, the Heisigs watched a woman they couldn't understand dress Misha in clothes too large for his thin frame. The caretaker spoke gently to him in the universal way that people speak to babies to make them smile, but Misha seemed withdrawn and uninterested. He clung to her reluctantly as she carried him.
The Heisigs tried to gather as much information about Misha's personality and medical condition as they possibly could from the two-minute video. Although the Heisigs provided Russian adoption officials with a wealth of documentation about themselves, including medical records and private information about their marriage, the couple knew very little about the child they wanted to adopt.
What they did know was typed on a single sheet of paper. Misha was born one month premature. His birth mother, who already had five children, abandoned him, probably because she couldn't afford to care for him. One Russian who helps coordinate adoptions with Williams-Illien likens the economic conditions in Russia to those of the late 1920s in the United States. Orphanages are packed with children abandoned by poor families.
"The situation is so difficult," says Pavel Egovtsev. "There are places for 50 kids [in the orphanage], but in reality they have more than 100. And the government provides support only for 50 kids."
Until recently, Russians did not want foreigners adopting healthy orphans. To convince officials to let children leave the country, fake diagnoses were often made on medical forms sent to prospective adoptive parents overseas. Misha's reported medical problems included rickets and an acute respiratory infection.
The Heisigs knew adopting Misha was risky, but once they saw the video there was no turning back.
"It's based on instinct, on feeling," says Janan, who initially wanted to adopt a girl under a year old. "You can't be logical about it. We believe God gave us Misha. I would never want there to be a book with all these children's pictures in it where I could say, `I want her. She's cute.'"
When the Heisigs arrived at the orphanage, it was nap time. The toys were locked away in cabinets. Dolls sat at tea tables. Everything looked worn and old, but clean. It's probably one of the better ones, Janan says. But even there, they don't have diapers. In the only picture she received of her son, his pants were soaked with urine. It bothered her to no end.
As the Heisigs waited, several other boys were brought out to the other couples. Janan looked past them, into the large room where the children were sleeping. Finally she spotted a woman carrying Misha, trying to wake him up. He hung out of the caretaker's arms "like a limp rag doll," she says. Janan noticed his skin smelled of harsh, medicinal soap and he was covered in eczema.
"I called him by his name and tried to touch him. He was terrified. They hadn't shown him our pictures and he had no language," Janan remembers. "He was very withdrawn, more so than the other boys. We thought he was deaf. Really, we had to be ready for anything."
As it turns out, Misha, now 3 years old, has no serious health problems. His eczema cleared up shortly after the Heisigs brought him home. Janan believes Misha developed an attachment disorder because he did not get enough love and attention in the orphanage. But now, after much effort, that problem is fading too. Janan remembers well the first small breakthrough shortly after the family returned from Russia.
It was just a laugh following a tickle. But it was the first sign that they could, in time, make this sad, stonefaced boy happy.
"He's the most outgoing, playful,
talkative child," Janan says. "He's not the same child
he was when we got him."
Almost everything Thomas and Sharon Goforth know about the Romanian orphanage where their daughter spent the first two years of her life they learned from a report that aired on ABC's Turning Point shortly after they adopted her. Like the other babies and toddlers filmed in Bucharest Orphanage, Number 1, Abby spent all day and night in a crib alone. A few months earlier, she could have been one of those neglected children on their television set staring blankly at the bare walls without a cry or a smile in the world.
Experts interviewed on the show said adopted children from Romania often have attachment disorders, developmental delays, and a host of other problems caused by neglect. Adoptive parents may find the children don't form emotional bonds or know how to play with toys and other children.
Sharon recognized some of that behavior immediately. Abby seemed baffled by toys and terrified of other children her age. When she arrived, she was 22 months old. But she acted like a 4- or 5-month-old. She couldn't hold up her head. She couldn't talk. At all times, she clenched her little right hand in a fist. And whenever someone held her, she drew her legs up to her chest, assuming a fetal position.
A neurologist told the Goforths that Abby's development has been stunted, but couldn't say how long it would take her to catch up, or if she ever would.
"No one can predict what she will do in the next three or four years," Sharon says. "We're just getting her as much therapy as we can right now."
Whatever challenges await her, thanks to the Goforths, Abby has come a long way from where she started.
In the seven months the Goforths waited for their paperwork to clear, Abby caught pneumonia twice. They were told she also had ear infections and a "dystrophy," which the couple learned later was a mild form of cerebral palsy.
Sharon and Thomas, who were 49 and 56 respectively when they decided to adopt Abby, were well into the adoption process when they received the phone call every prospective adoptive parent fears. They were told Abby was very sick. Adoption coordinators at the Romanian orphanage thought the Goforths might want to consider adopting another child.
"They told me she was a special-needs baby and my heart dropped," Sharon recalls.
To get Abby out of Romania, the Goforths sponsored her trip to the U.S. with the understanding that they would be able to change their minds about the adoption later. The foster family picked Abby up at the airport October 24th.
"She was so pitiful-looking," Sharon says. "The expression in her eyes was so sad." The Goforths decided to adopt her a few days later.
At two and a half, Abby still doesn't form many words. But she has developed other ways of expressing herself. Lovable and alert, the little girl doesn't like to sit still. She will lock her brown-eyed gaze on you for just a moment before breaking out into a huge, face-scrunching grin. Having only learned to walk three weeks ago, Abby has no fear of the floor. She'll run as many steps as her tiny legs will carry her, fall to the ground, laugh, and then get back up and start running again.
Abby stops fidgeting when Sharon plays the video taken of her in the Romanian orphanage. She cocks her ponytailed head to the side, mesmerized by the small, thin baby wrapped in blankets on the screen -- as if she still remembers.
Christopher, Tonya, and Natasha
One September day last year, Tonya awoke before her younger sister Natasha at 6 a.m. and sat by a window at the orphanage to wait for her new mother. Tonya knew the blond American woman from the photographs would take them to a big house in Millington, Tennessee, where they would be reunited with an older boy, Christopher, whom Christy and Ernest Fiveash adopted from the same orphanage almost two years earlier.
Christy doesn't know much about the two girls' backgrounds, except that they were left at the orphanage four years before she came for them. Christopher, an intelligent, self-assured boy who was a "favorite" at the orphanage, had been there since he was a year old.
As young as they are -- Christopher is 10, Tonya 9, and Natasha 7 -- the children know they're lucky to have been adopted. Most adoptive families want babies or young children. The older a child gets, the less likely he or she will be adopted. Christy also wanted a baby. But when she saw the girls in a picture book of "waiting children," she wanted them too.
Just as adoption agencies ask orphanages to look for children, representatives from foreign orphanages ask adoption agencies to look for families to adopt "waiting children." Older children, siblings, and children with medical problems often become waiting children.
Fiveash struggled with the decision. She didn't know if she was ready to go from a family of three to a family of five so quickly. When the Fiveashes asked Christopher whether he wanted two younger sisters or a baby, Christopher gave a characteristically mature, insightful answer that people have been repeating all the back to the orphanage: He told his parents to adopt the girls because the baby would be adopted by someone, but the girls probably would not.
Five months later, Christy found herself traveling into the Perm region on a flight from Moscow that had been delayed for many hours. When she finally reached the orphanage at 5 p.m., Tonya was still at the window watching for her.
"From the minute I came in the door, they were calling me `mama,'" Christy recalls.
With their long, curly blond hair and quick smiles, the girls could easily be Christy's natural daughters. Dressed alike in blue and white summer dresses, Tonya and Natasha don't let Christy leave their sight. They play with her hair, sit on her lap, and compete with each other for her attention.
Affectionate and quiet, all three children have no physical or behavioral problems. In fact, they've excelled both socially and intellectually in the short time they've been in the United States. Christopher has appeared in several Theatre Memphis productions, including A Christmas Carol. Before Tonya could speak English fluently, she scored in the 90th percentile on a standardized math test.
Christy describes Natasha and Christopher as "happy-go-lucky" and Tonya as "very sensitive." Although she's adjusted well to her new home and family, she hasn't forgotten the other children who are still waiting.
"Tonya seems a lot older than 9," Christy says. "She feels badly she left the orphanage. She told me she had a dream that she could fly, so she flew there and all the kids were hanging on to her feet. She flew them all back so they could all live with us. I can tell she kind of feels guilty."
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