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A Taste of U.S. Family Life, but Adoption in Limbo

January 15, 2007, 0:00 5645 Author: Jane Gross The New York Times During the two weeks that Marino and Debbie Prozzo welcomed a Ukrainian orphan in their home, they fell head over heels for a 7-year-old child they may never be able to adopt

TERRYVILLE, Conn. — During the two weeks that Marino and Debbie Prozzo welcomed a Ukrainian orphan in their home, they fell head over heels for a 7-year-old child they may never be able to adopt.

Marino and Debbie Prozzo with a Ukrainian orphan who visited them as part of a program showcasing children available for adoption.

While the Prozzos were giving Alona Malyovana her first bubble bath, teaching her to use the remote control, and buying her a pink velvet dress trimmed in bunny fur, the chaotic system of adoption in Ukraine was growing more chaotic.

The director of Ukraine’s new Department for Adoptions resigned, leaving the fate of the nation’s 90,000 orphans in limbo. A new application process required foreign families to quickly update security clearances and other time-sensitive information. Prospective parents anxiously scanned the State Department’s Web site and bulletins from the embassy in Kiev for clarification of rules and rumors.

The Prozzos Meet Alona

Hosting programs, like the one that brought Alona to an American family this Christmas, showcase older children, generally from orphanages in former Soviet bloc nations. The programs have long been hailed as an effective marketing tool by adoption experts, who say 8 of 10 families would not adopt these children without a trial run.

In the largely unregulated world of international adoptions, these programs often lead to happily-ever-after, but sometimes end painfully. Ukraine and Russia place formidable obstacles in the path of parents, among them inaccurate information about children’s availability and health status. Multiple families can wind up competing for the same child. And children themselves know they are auditioning for what the industry calls their “forever families.” Then there is an entrenched system of favors — requests for cash or gifts from facilitators, translators, judges and others who handle the mechanics of adoption overseas.

Fewer Orphans Adopted From Overseas

Conditions in both countries have grown so unsettled, some agencies have suspended hosting programs, and the debate is growing about the ratio of risk to reward. Do the many success stories for older orphans make up for the heartbreak when adoption is thwarted?

The Prozzos had been deceived before by an intermediary who showed them a photograph of an adorable child they later learned was not available. So their guard was up before Alona’s visit in December.

“We won’t let this child call us ‘mama’ or ‘papa’ because we aren’t,” Mr. Prozzo said. But Alona’s visit had barely begun when she jumped into his outstretched arms and called him “papa.”

“Now what?” Mr. Prozzo said, melting. “Now what?”

The quandary for agencies in the United States these days is how to balance optimism and pessimism when the prospect of a successful adoption is anyone’s guess. “In an ideal world we wouldn’t be doing it this way,” said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research organization. “But we haven’t come up with a better solution.”

The fee for the two-week hosting visits, organized by adoption agencies and humanitarian organizations, is $2,500 per child, which includes travel, bilingual escorts and a sizable donation back to the orphanages (subsequent adoption costs average $25,000).

Often, the formal disclaimers and informal predictions by program directors seem at odds. Frontier Horizon, the humanitarian agency that last month brought over 50 orphans, Alona among them, states unambiguously in its printed materials that it is “a travel program not an adoption program.”

But Vincent Rosini, president of the organization, says that his group has been host to 300 Ukrainian orphans since 2000 and that only five families have been unable to adopt the children they wanted. One hundred of Frontier Horizon’s children have been successfully adopted, Mr. Rosini said.

“Is there a good chance?” Mr. Rosini asked. “Yes. Is it 100 percent? No.”

Adoption experts on both sides of the hosting debate agree that the children know they are auditioning for adoption, and that the families quickly grow attached.

“The child has raised expectations, regardless of what they’re told,” said Judy Stigger, director of international adoption for the Cradle, an agency in Evanston, Ill. “And the parents become more emotionally invested than they appreciated because when you hold a specific child in your arms, your whole body feels it, responds and remembers. That child quickly becomes yours.”

In countries like Ukraine, it is all but impossible to manage expectations. Adoption authorities insist that families cannot request children who spent time in their homes, but rather must come to Kiev, by invitation, look at pictures and go to orphanages to meet the children offered to them.

Both the Cradle and Maine Adoption Placement Services, an agency that suspended its Russian hosting program in 2004, are known for their excellent connections in former Soviet bloc nations and are sometimes hired as “fixers” by families who went through other agencies when the children visited only to find they could not adopt them.

At MAPS, Betsy Bewsey, the director of international adoption, said that “right now things are as volatile as I’ve ever seen them.” She cited stringent regulations in China, announced last month, which will complicate adoption in the country, long considered the “fail-safe” because of an efficient bureaucracy and healthy infants. The volatility in these countries, and especially the suspension of several hosting programs from Ukraine and Russia, has contributed to a dip in overall international adoptions by Americans, according to Thomas DiFilipo, the president of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services.

The high-water mark came in 2004, when 22,884 immigrant visas were issued to orphans in the process of formal adoption — more than triple the number in 1990. In 2006, visas fell to 20,679. In that two-year span, visas to children from Ukraine fell to 460, from 723. Russia’s visas dropped to 3,706, from 5,865.

Families like the Prozzos can be easy marks for scoundrels. Agencies that do international adoptions need not be accredited, although that will change if the United States ratifies a treaty to regulate intercountry adoption, expected sometime this year. More than 300 agencies have applied. By all accounts, only one international adoption facilitator in America has been shut down, Yunona USA of Napa, Calif., in 2005. Yunona allegedly defrauded at least 100 would-be adoptive parents of more than $1.1 million by posting photos of Russian and Ukrainian children on its Web site, taking deposits from families and later saying the children were not available. The Prozzos chose a child from the Yunona Web site but had not yet paid a deposit when they learned she was unavailable.

Yunona’s president, Ivan Jerdev, faces a $386,000 default civil judgment. He is believed to have fled to his native Russia after the police raided his office in December 2005, law enforcement officials said. The Yunona case, which did not involve hosting programs, led California to pass the nation’s strictest law regulating adoption facilitators, which went into effect on Jan. 1.

In a complaint against Adopt-A-Miracle, in Evergreen, Colo., investigated by the Denver Better Business Bureau, Lourdes Blanco of Miami said she had selected a Ukrainian infant off the agency’s Web site, learned the baby girl had already been adopted but was assured she would find a comparable child if she traveled to Kiev. Ms. Blanco made two trips, she said, only to be told there were no healthy children. The case was settled when the agency refunded $10,000 of more than $20,000 in fees and travel expenses.

In responding to the bureau, Adopt-A-Miracle’s executive director, Charlotte Allen, described the process as “enormously challenging” because simple information about a child’s status is often unavailable. “It may seem incredible,” Ms. Allen wrote. “But this is the way it is.”

Faya Fromm, 13, formerly of Siberia, knows well how expectations can be dashed in an orphanage. Twice, she was told “we’re sending you to a family in America who might want to adopt you.” The first time she was not chosen for the hosting trip. The second time she wound up with Linda Fromm, 56, of Ridgewood, N.J., who had three grown children from an early marriage.

When a summer hosting program ended, Ms. Fromm “skated around” what to tell Faya, saying she would “fly like the birds and swim like the fish to come visit you.” It took her nine months to assemble her dossier and take a second mortgage on her home to pay for the 2003 adoption. During that time, Ms. Fromm could not call the orphanage. But she sent Faya notes and photo albums, with $5 bills tucked between the pages.

It was a long, uncertain wait for the girl, who described another disappointment: She was shown to an Italian family, then told they would be back for her the next day. Faya was kept out of school, dressed in her best clothes and waited in the director’s office. The family never returned.

Siberia at that time encouraged families to adopt children after a home visit. Not so Ukraine today. At Faya’s urging, Ms. Fromm invited Ira and Olga Chyrkova, 9-year-old twin girls, to spend the holiday as a trial run for adoption.

It was Faya who told the twins her mother’s plans “She will try to bring you back next summer,” Faya told them. “And she’s going to try to adopt you.”

Then midway through, Ms. Fromm was crushed to learn that Olga and Ira were not cleared for adoption yet. Their mother had been murdered, but her death certificate was missing and necessary to prove the girls’ status as orphans.

Mr. Rosini did not directly reassure Ms. Fromm he could pull strings at the orphanage, but mentioned, in passing, that the director had recently asked for a new coat.

Such requests, Mr. Rosini said, are common. One orphanage director threatened to cancel a hosting trip unless he helped her raise money for a new health clinic. A Frontier Horizon family who donated $25,000 is now scheduled to adopt a child who visited four times. Families might be asked by an orphanage director for $400 for a new meat slicer, Mr. Rosini said, or a facilitator will tell them that two weeks’ worth of paperwork could be expedited in two days if he had a fax machine. “We’re used to it,” Mr. Rosini said.

The children come off the plane with the clothes on their backs and a small knapsack. Some, veterans of hosting programs who had never been chosen, also arrive with their defenses up. Twelve-year-old Lesya Otya was slow to warm to Jeannie Fillatti, 49, of Avon, Conn., until it was nearly time to go.

But, in the car headed to the airport — with newly pierced ears, her first brassiere and a ski tag on her parka from a weekend in Vermont — the girl buried her head in Ms. Fillatti’s lap, unconsolable.

A promise from Ms. Fillatti that Lesya could return for next summer’s hosting program was unpersuasive. “They don’t know what to think, how to hope, whether to hope,” said Ms. Fillatti, who had tried before to bring back a child and been rebuffed.

When the time came to pass through the security doors, Lesya wailed her protest, in the English she had recently learned: “No! No! Not yet!”

This was Alona’s first visit, and with no history of disappointment, her departure, with her Christmas bounty of designer jeans and cowboy boots, was composed. Mrs. Prozzo, without eye makeup because she was prepared for a tearful parting, sent her off with a kiss and a murmured “I love you.” She and her husband had plenty to talk about when they got home.

The couple — he is a 53-year-old engineer and she is a 48-year-old librarian, re-examining in middle age their decision not to have children — knew from the start that Alona might not be available for adoption or that she might be snapped up by another family while they prepared their dossier.

They vowed that they understood the long odds. “But that was two weeks ago,” Mr. Prozzo said after Alona returned to rural Zaporozhye. “Now it’s a different story. I love this child.”

And so he hatched a plan. The Prozzos would ready themselves to travel to Ukraine and consider the children offered. Only then, with great deference, would he beg officials to match them with Alona.

“When I’m sitting in front of the guy, man-to-man,” Mr. Prozzo said, “I’ll say, ‘Sir, can you understand this?’ ”

Meanwhile, Mr. Prozzo said he had made a donation to a charity in Zaporozhye that was raising money for hospital equipment. Maybe the donation will improve his adoption chances. If not, Mr. Prozzo said, at least it will improve medical care for the orphans left behind.

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