Bringing Back Baby

FIVE-YEAR-OLD SYDNEY ZELINKA ALready puts a baby brother into her drawings of her family. Sydney's parents have already furnished his nursery in their house in Newton, Mass. But the child, an 11-month-old boy adopted from Romania, may never see his new home. A Romanian court granted parental rights to the Zelinkas in September, but the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has suddenly changed its fine-toothed regulations for getting an "orphan visa." Little Jack is stranded in Bucharest. "I'm responsible for a child who's thousands of miles away in a country I know very little about," says Richard Zelinka, a 43-year-old lawyer. He spent several frantic days in a Bucharest apartment last month, juggling the sickly infant and the telephone. Finally, he left Jack in foster care and came home to lobby the INS for a "humanitarian parole." Says Zelinka: "It's pretty terrifying to explain to a 5-year-old that her brother's been abandoned."

Adopting a child from overseas has never been easy. Foreign kids still make up less than 15 percent of all U.S. adoptions, or about 8,000 a year. But 10 years ago most kids came from just a few countries -- South Korea alone accounted for about 60 percent. As iron curtains started parting around the globe, there were suddenly new sources of adoptable children: China, Romania, Russia, Vietnam. These countries often scrambled to regulate a chaotic "baby trade." even slamming the door shut to foreign parents. Which countries are "hot" and exactly what they require of adoptive parents can change overnight. To top it all off, America's own visa regulations are now creating new heartaches. Nancy Skerritt of Seattle completed a visa application for Gabi, an 11-month-old from Romania, before Oct. 1, when the rules for getting a visa changed to require the birthfather's termination of rights to the child as well as the mother's. But she still can't get her daughter out of that country. "After all we'd been through on the Romanian side, our own government pulled the rug out from under us," Skerritt says.

Compared with adopting in the United States, adopting abroad may take longer, cost more (usually more than $10,000) and run a greater risk that the child will have health problems. But for many would-be parents, it's the only solution, especially if they're approaching 40 or single or homosexual, and therefore ineligible for most U.S. adoptions. Some parents worry that an American adoption could end in battles with birthparents who reappear to seek custody. (The adoptive parents of "Baby Richard" lost one round of just such a battle last week in Chicago.) "Adoptions overseas seem more secure to people," says Susan Freivalds, executive director of Adoptive Families of America.

"Secure" is not. the word for Adrian and Bernadette Mooney, convicted of trying to smuggle a baby girl out of Romama in a cardboard box on the floor of their car. The British couple say they didn't understand the new Romanian law on privately arranged adoptions. Out on bail, the Mooneys are hoping to be pardoned from their 28-month sentence and allowed to go home to their first child, also adopted in Romania. "All we wanted was a sister for Grace," Adrian Mooney told NEWSWEEK.

Sleazy operators abound in the baby trade. In some countries in Latin America, entire subeconomies have sprung up to service gringo parents: hotels, restaurants, lawyers, facilitators, judges (sometimes corrupt), nannies and spotters who cruise the shantytowns looking for pregnant teen-agers. Russia doesn't allow private adoption, but a "contribution" to an orphanage can persuade the director to declare a healthy child medically impaired--and therefore eligible for foreign adoption. The Hague Convention, a new treaty on international adoption, may help stem abuses, but it will take years to be ratified.

Political vicissitudes can change the whole landscape overnight. The "self-coup" led by President Alberto Fujimori in April 1992 effectively shut down Peru's legal system for months. In China, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Civil Affairs compete bruisingly for hefty foreign-adoption fees. In Russia, the conservative Parliament is considering a law effectively banning foreign adoptions altogether. "Our children should be kept here, in their own culture," says Natalya Volkova, the state prosecutor for juvenile crimes. "These foreign [adoption agencies] are making a fortune."

America's new regulations for orphan visas may choke off even perfectly legal private adoption. Children from orphanages are not affected, but others may now need signed consent from both parents, including fathers who are sometimes nowhere to be found. The birthfather of Fred and Sandy Cane's 2-year-old son is not listed on his Panamanian birth certificate, and the family is running out of time: Fred, a sergeant in the air force, is due to be transferred out of Panama later this month. "There is no way we're leaving without Cameron," says Fred. Cases like that have adoption agencies up in arms. "The U.S. is imposing its dislike of private adoptions on foreign countries," says Linda Perilstein, the executive director of Cradle of Hope Adoption Center in Washington, D.C. "It's a horrific policy to force children into institutions."

Health problems are another pitfall in the baby game, Studies show that children adopted abroad are 1,000 times more likely than American kids to carry tuberculosis. Fetal alcohol syndrome is showing up among children adopted from Russia. Kids from Romania are 40 to 50 times more likely to have hepatitis B. Then there are the "attachment disorders." Thais Tepper's son may never have been picked up or spoken to in the 16 months he spent in a Romanian orphanage. When Tepper got home to Pittsburgh, Drue wouldn't let her cuddle him, didn't like to wear clothes, pushed other children away and couldn't speak by the age of 3. The experts call it "sensory integrative disorder," a malady Dr. Dana Johnson, codirector of the International Adoption Clinic in Minnesota, likens to "emerging from a sensory-deprivation tank into a noisy bar." Tepper's quit her job to devote herself to the multiple therapies for his many disorders. Says Tepper: "These children are not butterflies who can just shed their past."

Yet even parents who suffer the most horrendous woes often end up pleased as punch. Alison Toscano had $25 in the bank when she finally returned to Toronto from Peru in September with two kids. The adoption had taken 18 months and $60,000; her husband had lost his job, partly due to his long absences in Lima; Alison had dropped 25 pounds and suffered bouts of salmonella and asthma. At least she'd learned Spanish while living with her children in a hotel room and doing daily battle with the bureaucracy. Does she regret any part of it? "It was worth it," she beams. "I wouldn't change my kids for the world." Does she have any advice for other adoptive parents? "Go to the library. Learn as much about the country as you can." And be prepared for anything.

Sources of adoptable children change overnight. A guide to the top five:

COUNTRY ADOPTIONS IN FISCAL 1994[a] SOUTH KOREA 1,795 First since 1956. Prefer parents to be under 40. Relatively cheap (about $10,000). Mostly through orphanages. RUSSIA 1,530 Law restricting foreign adoption under discussion. Children may have health problems. Only through orphanages. PARAGUAY 483 Relatively expensive (about $20,000). Requires two court appearances. Usually arranged through private lawyer. GUATEMALA 436 Rumors of baby-buying for transplantable organs have scared locals. Usually arranged through private lawyer.