There are no reliable statistics on why Americans choose to adopt, but fertility issues play a role in the majority of adoptions, particularly among prospective first-time parents in their late thirties. “There are risks with the adoption route, too,” Paul says quietly. Indeed, there are risks of delays and of health and development problems in the adoptive child, but these are minor in comparison to the one unacceptable risk to which Laurel keeps recurring, the one that ends in childlessness. So, shortly after Laurel’s diagnosis, the Stuebers set out to investigate local adoption agencies.
Children’s Home Society and Family Services, like most larger agencies, provides parents with informational meetings that expose them to all adoption options, including American adoption and a menu of international programs. The reasons for choosing one type of program over another range from the intensely personal to the financial. American adoption is often preferred because detailed health records typically exist in regard to birth parents; conversely, international adoption is sometimes chosen precisely because there is little information on birth parents, and thus little to no risk of that birth parent contacting the child. Cost, too, plays a role: Fees for adopting in Guatemala can exceed twenty thousand dollars while China costs less than half as much.
From the start, China was the right fit for the Stuebers. Partly, this was because Laurel has taught so many Asian children as a primary school teacher. But the predictability of China adoption relative to other options was also appealing. “China is a pretty stable program,” Laurel says. “And that’s important, because when you start the adoption process with the international program, you know things could change, there could be some delays, but they always told us that in the end, you will have your child, even if there are bumps along the way.” U.S. State Department officials involved in international adoption cite China’s adoption programs as the most honest, transparent, and fair in the world. Of course, these programs are made possible by a large and uncountable population of Chinese orphans, most of whom are girls.
The reasons for China’s orphan girls are many, including China’s restrictive “One Child” population control policy, cultural preferences for male children, and simple economics. Whatever the reason, in legal terms, for a Chinese child to be eligible for adoption, that child must have literally been abandoned. That is, the child must be found in a public space and the birth parents must be untraceable. No figures exist on the number of children abandoned annually in China, nor on the number of orphans in China’s orphanages, nor on the number of orphans outside of those orphanages. What is certain is that the orphans far outnumber the thousands of foreign parents seeking to adopt in China every year.
For American families, the adoption process starts in earnest with a pre-adoptive counseling class, followed by an adoption home study in which parents write up what amounts to a study of their life, including reflections on family of origin and current relationships, as well as child-rearing philosophies and “cross-cultural ideas.” The exercise is intended to be self-reflective and is replete with family history and personal strengths and weaknesses. For example, according to the Stuebers’ homework, Laurel believes that she lacks organizational skills, and Paul would like to express thoughts and feelings without being urged. The paperwork is copious, intrusive, and serious: It is reviewed by a lawyer who specializes in Chinese adoptions, and then forwarded to Beijing for approval, translation, and “matching” in the China Center for Adoption Affairs “matching room.” Long a source of mystery and apprehension for adoptive families, the matching room and the matching process is mostly about scheduling available adoption groups with available orphanages. Typically, nine months pass from the time parents enter the China program to the time they receive a referral call from Children’s Home Society and Family Services. “That was Wednesday, and you were actually home,” Laurel reminds Paul. “Wednesday is your day off.”
“Yeah, I remember picking up the call,” says Paul, “and the social worker said, ‘We have some news for you. We’ve got your referral.’ It was real brief. I was just trying to write down the pertinent details. I was mostly thinking of Laurel, and then the social worker said she could email us a picture,” Paul recalls. “So then the picture came, and a couple days later we got to go to the office to pick up the actual packet with all the real information, the photos, the medical report, everything they know about her.”
“We miss her,” says Laurel. “We worry about her.” She is crying again. “It’s just so hard to wait. We just want to get on a plane right now.”