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Love Without Borders

More and more East Bay couples are adopting children from overseas.


Nancy and Don Crowe spent a decade trying to conceive a baby naturally and playing the lottery of infertility drugs and in vitro fertilization. Each attempt ended in one thing: disappointment.

They had love, successful careers, two dogs, a wooded Orinda home, and an emptiness where their child should be.

"I had a wave of sadness," recalls Nancy, a graphic designer. "It was something I had wanted my whole life."

The couple thought about adopting a child from the United States but feared falling in love with a baby who could be reclaimed by a birth mother who changed her mind. Unsuccessful infertility treatments had left them emotionally raw, and they couldn’t handle another loss.

So, like an increasing number of hopeful parents thwarted by biology, the Crowes looked for a baby abroad. Val Free, director of Orinda’s Heartsent Adoptions, gave the Crowes the same line she’s delivered to many disheartened, would-be parents: "There is a baby at the end of this for you. I will stick with you until there is a baby."

And here—in all her four-year-old loveliness—is Rose Marie Sumner Crowe. She cuddles in her mom’s lap clutching her flamingo, Pinkie, and giggles when Dad reaches in with a tickle. Born in Guatemala and adopted at four months old, she is every ounce the Crowe’s love child.

"She is so close to us," gushes Don, a clinical psychologist.

Rose Marie is among more than 23,000 children adopted from outside the United States each year, according to 2004 statistics—a number that’s up from 7,000 in 1990. The surge started in diverse states throughout the country where women work longer, marry later, and hit a wall of infertility. And it has became hip and high profile in the past few years after actress Angelina Jolie adopted a son from Cambodia and a daughter from Ethiopia.

Now, playgroups of adopted Guatemalan kids populate East Bay parks, and Yahoo groups buzz with hundreds of postings asking tentative questions or dishing out authoritative answers about Chinese adoptions. Suddenly, the Bay Area family with an adopted Asian child is more normal than novelty.

And the trend goes beyond those who need to adopt to those who simply want to adopt—even those with one, two, or three biological kids at home. Take the Sandbergs.

A family portrait taken in 2003 hangs in the great room of the Sandbergs’ home in Concord. To an outsider, the photo seems complete: Mom and Dad with three boys in white dress shirts sporting sweet smiles, spaced a neat two and three years apart.

For Stephanie Sandberg, that family portrait was missing one thing: a girl.

The couple toyed with the idea of spinning sperm to ditch the Y chromosome, a technique called sperm separation, but ultimately felt uncomfortable about messing with Mother Nature.

Instead, in 2004, they adopted a little girl with big eyes who had been dressed in a woolen cap and red sweater suit when she was found at the gates of the Social Welfare Institute in Hunan Province. She was a product of China’s one-child policy that leads some to abandon girl infants and try for boys, who are traditionally expected to take care of the family in old age. But, as Stephanie explains, the little girl was obviously loved, as she was left in a public place with two bottles of formula tucked into her bundle.

Emily was among more than 7,000 babies from China to be adopted by American families in 2004. "I felt like we had a lot of love to give, and there was a baby girl waiting for us in China," says Stephanie.

The Sandbergs renamed Yin Ying Chun, which means greeting the spring, Emily Mei Yingchun Sandberg. She even has a Jewish name: Shulamit Aviv, which also means greeting the spring. (Michael Sandberg, a history teacher, jokes that he’s already putting away money for Emily’s therapy to deal with her cross-cultural identity.)

Now two-and-a-half, Emily wears French braids, sundresses, and tiny sandals adorned with ladybugs—a sign of good luck in China—and toddles after the Sandbergs’ 13-year-old dog, Buddy. She dresses up like a princess and enjoys tea parties with her middle brother, Benjamin.

"We are complete with this precious thing," says Stephanie as Emily grabs for the shiny ladybug pendant hanging around her mom’s neck.

Most internationally adopted children now come from China, Eastern Europe, and Guatemala, although the list of countries sending children is always in flux. Korea used to be the main source of U.S. adoptions abroad until the country pulled back, embarrassed that "babies" had become a primary export. Three years ago, Russia slowed down adoptions because of horror stories about several Russian children dying in American homes due to abuse and neglect.

Experts say international adoption shifted in the early 1990s, when China closed its system to clamp down on corruption and then re-opened with a state-run vengeance to find homes for the thousands of girls abandoned each year.

Val Free of Orinda was there in the "pioneer days" of Chinese adoptions, not as the director of Heartsent but as a prospective parent. For her it began with a video called Girl in the Polka Dot Dress, sent in 1991 from one of China’s state-run adoption agencies and featuring two adorable toddlers and a five-year-old with a shaved head, terrified expression, and a polka-dot dress.

Free, a therapist who had already adopted a son named Tanawan from Thailand, watched and rewound the video for a solid two weeks to pick up clues about whether to bring this child home. She called the adoption agency several times to say no, but the words wouldn’t come out.

With her husband’s blessing, Free flew alone to Guangzhou, near Hong Kong, in 1992 to pick up the girl in the polka-dot dress, named Li.

During her family’s first two adoptions, Free felt frustrated with the process that kept her in the dark about the status of her applications. She decided to start an agency that was kind and open with parents as they maneuver through the emotional and bureaucratic process. She started Heartsent Adoptions in 1995 and now has a staff of 23 in three offices in California. It has placed some 1,000 children from Asia, Russia, and Latin America into U.S. homes. Free herself has four adopted children, now ranging in age from six to 20.

Today, more than 10 years after Free’s first Chinese adoption, the process is updated and utterly, if not eerily, predictable. After receiving (and cherishing) a photo of baby Emily a month beforehand, the Sandbergs left two-year-old Max, five-year-old Benjamin, and seven-year-old Zachary at home with grandparents and joined a delegation of six other families picking up babies in China. They were veteran parents among many nervous newbies at the Dolton Hotel in Hunan Province, a major destination for adopting families from the United States and Europe.

"Oh, this was a vacation!" recalls Michael, who managed to edit a video about the big event while in China. "We’re staying at a five-star hotel, eating out, not doing laundry, and only have one kid!"

The process was formulaic to an extreme. Adoption officials delivered the babies—all clad in tiny yellow snowsuits—simultaneously to the seven families at the Civil Affairs Office in Hunan. A week later, the families left en masse for the White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou, where they stayed with more adopting foreign families and finalized paperwork in about one week. A team of notaries stood by as parents signed papers. The families arranged the traditional photo of the babies propped up on a red couch. The White Swan presented the parting gift: a Caucasian Barbie holding a Chinese baby.

Well before families arrive, adoption officials pore over dossiers that include photos, birth dates, and details that may produce some fortuitous fit for a baby. It might be that the date the baby was abandoned matches the adoptive dad’s birth date or that her eyes resemble her new mother’s. So, it might not be a coincidence that Emily’s big eyes seem to mirror those of her brothers and mother. "People tell us all the time that she looks like our family," says Stephanie, her face beaming.

All in all, the Sandbergs felt the process was smooth (if at times surreal), even though Emily developed an ear infection on the journey and cried for much of her first few days in America.

Stephanie and Michael say they aren’t worried by the cultural or racial differences related to Emily’s adoption. They are integrating Chinese traditions and culture into their lives—even if it’s as simple as eating dim sum, celebrating Chinese New Year, or organizing playgroups with other adopted Chinese girls. They are open about discussing Emily’s birth home, and her brothers often say, "Oh yeah, we got her from China!"

Jeanifer and Ken Grullon adopted Julia, five, from China after experiencing infertility following the birth of their son Dylan, 10. Jeanifer’s ancestry is Filipino, and Ken’s is Puerto Rican/Dominican.

Few can pinpoint their son’s race and would never guess that their daughter is adopted. But Jeanifer makes a point of telling people about Julia’s adoption because she’s proud.

"Even though she doesn’t look adopted, we celebrate it," Jeanifer says. "We embrace it."

On the Autumn Moon, a Chinese celebration of ancestors, the Grullons let Julia light and blow out two candles. The smoke, they explain, flies to China to let her birth parents know she is well loved.

Elaine Barakos and her husband, Tom Balk, have two adopted daughters from China. Elaine says her Emily started to ask questions about the adoption around age three.

"I explained that she has two mommies and that she grew in my heart," says Barakos. Elaine asked Emily if she had any more questions. " ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘Can you turn the radio back on?’ "

Like the Crowes, Elaine and Tom had been married for more than a decade when they finally opted for adoption. Both successful in the mortgage industry, Elaine was approaching 40 when she realized that she wouldn’t be able to have a baby biologically.

She knew from the get-go that in vitro or other infertility treatments were not for her, and after much investigation, she didn’t feel comfortable with domestic adoption either.

Like many, Elaine worried that it might take years to adopt an infant, feared that the birth mother could reclaim the child, and disliked the "open adoption" concept that allows contact by the birth mother.

Although domestic adoption comes in many forms—through private mediators, private agencies, and the county—it tends to favor the rights of the birth mother. Even in cases in which parents have given their child up for adoption voluntarily, there is a brief period of time (which varies by state) during which the mother can change her mind. In California, the mother’s decision becomes irrevocable on the 31st day after giving consent but can still be legally challenged beyond that date.

In private adoptions, birth parents select adoptive families by reading elaborate applications that include photos and essays. Couples in their forties or fifties, gays and lesbians, and single people fear they won’t be chosen by birth parents because of bias or that it may just take too long for them to be selected.

Domestic adoption advocates, however, say the process is not as difficult as people think. They are concerned that fears are pushing families to adopt overseas.

Lois Rutten, division manager of adoption and home-finding for the Contra Costa County Employment and Human Services Department, says that 10 years ago, it did take years for a family to adopt a child from the county—too long for many couples to wait for a baby. But the process has sped up, and parents licensed to adopt can quickly become foster parents en route to adoption.

"I am happy that any child is finding a permanent home," says Rutten about international adoptions, "but we do have children in our own community. Open your mind and heart and make an accurate decision about if it will work for you."

Under international and U.S. law, foreign children must be legal orphans before they can be considered for adoption. For some parents, this feels like a huge plus because it means the birth parents cannot contact the family or attempt to reverse the adoption.

"By the time you’ve been through infertility, you’ve been traumatized," says Nancy Crowe. "The thought of having a child in my arms and then having it yanked away seemed unbearable."

But even in an international adoption, the process can vary from country to country, with pros and cons for everyone.

The Crowes first pursued international adoption from China in 2000. But rules changed midstream, and Nancy and Don were pushed into a category of older parents, which enabled them to adopt a toddler from China but not an infant. After switching to Guatemala, they adopted Rose Marie in less than a year.

"When a family wants to adopt, they need to begin by doing their homework," says Diana Revutsky, founder of Adoptions and Aid International, a Walnut Creek–based agency that specializes in Eastern European adoptions nationwide. "Each family is unique and has their own needs and knows what they want."

For example, she says couples should consider the waiting period for a child, the age restrictions placed on parents, and the amount of time needed on the ground in the foreign country to adopt, especially if there are other children at home.

Revutsky says many families also look for a connection—any connection—with the home country, be it a grandfather’s birthplace, a shared language, or a cultural interest.

Families who are certain they want to adopt girls often look to China first because of its one-child policy. Caucasian families sometimes go to Eastern Europe to avoid racial differences. Others refuse to consider Eastern Europe because of a perceived preponderance of fetal alcohol syndrome in orphans. Guatemala draws families that want to adopt infants, but some say the system there can be unpredictable.

The financial costs vary, too, and can range from $15,000 to upwards of $30,000 depending on in-country fees and legal and travel expenses.

Like any life-changing experience, nothing is rote. Even families who adopt from abroad more than once say the process isn’t always the same.

The Barakos-Balk family adopted Emily from China six years ago, when she was 10 months old, and were overwhelmed by the support they felt from Chinese people who met and talked with them on the street. They adopted Sara at 17 months in 2003, and it wasn’t so smooth. She had been living with a foster family for 11 months, something that is unusual in China, where most abandoned children live in orphanages. She had bonded with her foster mother and cried a lot when Elaine and Tom took her home.

Elaine’s blue eyes well up with tears at the memory. She didn’t have second thoughts about adopting the child, whom she would adore and soon wrap up like a burrito in a pool towel at the family’s sprawling Danville home. But she was sad that Sara was sad.

The grueling separation was a good sign in retrospect. Many adopted children come from bed-lined orphanages where they don’t bond with an adult until they are adopted. In extreme cases, the situation leads to a problem called attachment disorder.

When Free, of Orinda’s Heartsent, had this problem with her then five-year-old daughter Li in 1992, she didn’t know it had a name. As a therapist, Free knew and tried all kinds of tricks to build the mother-daughter bond, and those methods worked. Unfortunately, that made Li even more upset because the attachment provoked a greater fear of loss. As Li grew up, Free says she and Li communicated by writing each other notes in a red binder. When Li left home for college last year, she took the red binder with her.

"I think some people think adoption is like ordering from a catalog," says Anita Dale, the single mom of a nine-year-old girl and six-year-old boy from Russia. "[But] every child is going to have an issue."

Dale, a Walnut Creek resident, is the director of business development for Valent USA, an agricultural company. Without a partner or spouse, she adopted Katie Lu from Russia in 2000, when she was two years and nine months old, and Cody from Kaliningrad (in Poland) in 2003, when he was three years and nine months old.

She turned to Eastern Europe through Adoptions and Aid International. Before adopting, she sent photos of Katie Lu and Cody to a doctor who specializes in spotting diseases and other developmental problems by simply analyzing a photograph and reviewing any available medical records—it’s a medical practice born of the upswing in international adoptions. Both of Dale’s children checked out fine in that test, although she was made aware of potential issues.

Many who adopt internationally simply won’t know the exact circumstances of their child’s life before adoption. They won’t be privy to medical histories or past traumas. Despite all that, they are willing to adopt.

Dale says she believes Katie Lu was essentially warehoused for three years, during which time she didn’t develop much language and, now in fourth grade, has trouble reading. Her son, who is doing fine in school, was in a loving orphanage where the caregivers seemed truly concerned about his welfare.

"Where would my beautiful daughter be?" asks Dale. "She’d be on the street. Hopefully, one of my contributions to the world will be that in this case, that won’t happen. [Katie Lu and Cody] have one parent, and that’s better than none."

The Crowes express the same sentiment. They learned that Rose Marie was the youngest of four children born to a mom who lived on the street. No doubt their daughter’s life took a sharp turn from the trajectory set in Guatemala.

Rose Marie has a newly remodeled bedroom with a big bay window that looks out on lush trees and to a nest where a robin fed her baby this spring. On her bookshelf is a hardbound book made by her parents that tells the story of her birth and adoption.

With photos, drawings, and words, the Crowes tell Rose Marie how they looked for her in her mommy’s tummy, but she wasn’t there. It tells how they missed her even though they’d never seen her.

It reads: "Many children come to their families by adoption. It’s like following a map on a treasure hunt to the end of the rainbow, with our greatest treasure, you, our child, at the end."

by the numbers

adoption stats

127,000 Estimated number of children adopted annually in the United States

23,000 Number of international adoptions nationwide in 2004

53,000 Number of children adopted annually through private, domestic adoptions (includes kinship adoptions and stepchildren)

51,000 Number of children adopted from foster care nationwide in 2004

$15,000–$30,000 Cost of an international adoption

$5,000–$40,000 Cost of a domestic, private-agency adoption

$0–$2,500 Cost of a domestic, public-agency adoption. Some state programs will pay adoptive parents monthly for ongoing child-care costs.

8 months to 2 years Average wait for an international adoption after paperwork is completed

SOURCES: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of State, Child Welfare Information Gateway, and local agency estimates

Interested in adopting? These websites will get you started.


This site offers an extensive index of adoption resources on the Internet.


This site provides general information about adoption and includes specifics on California laws.


The website for Adoptive Families magazine, a bimonthly print publication, is designed for families before, during, and after adoption. You can find local support groups through a searchable database.


The Child Welfare Information Gateway is a service of the Children’s Bureau, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It offers comprehensive resources on child welfare. Click on the "adoption" section of the site for information on types of adoption, costs, and more resources.


The Families of Russian and Ukrainian Adoption site is for people who have adopted from Russia or Ukraine.


The Guatemala Adoptive Families Network is a resource for families that have adopted from or are considering adoption from Guatemala.


Adoptive Parents China is a Yahoo membership support group that connects families interested in adopting from the country.

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