All you need is love -- and a marriage license

If Jesse Helms has his way, new legislation could limit international adoptions for everyone but married straight couples.

Published July 9, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When I returned from Russia in October 1996, bringing with me my newly adopted daughter, Anya, friends asked, was it horrible there? Actually no, I'd tell them: The dom rebyonka, or baby house, was certainly spartan, but it was loving. What do you remember most? they'd next ask. Did you feel a maternal surge as soon as they put the baby on your lap? Well, no again, I'd say. My most vivid memories are of my wanderings around the orphanage while Anya was napping and my facilitator and translator were out doing paperwork. Shyly at first, then more boldly, I peeked into rooms where women, staffers with braided hair, wearing surgical caps and gowns, expertly spooned yogurt into babies' mouths as fast as they could swallow. I chuckled at how skillfully the staffers changed the diapers of multiple, cooing babies all at once. I admired the wall murals of fanciful little animals and pine trees, a magnificent carved wood door, the colorful mobiles that danced over playpens. But when I happened upon a room that held perhaps a dozen wicker cribs, each with a baby to match, my heart just about stopped.

These infants and toddlers weren't abused. They weren't ill-fed -- their diet was simple, though not meager. They weren't wet or soiled or poorly clothed. No, these kids were just plain lonely. Staffers were too busy to do much more than attend to the children's most basic daily needs. So babies stood in their cribs with arms outstretched, begging to be held. Or they rocked on their knees endlessly, looking for love and unable to find it.

With this the central image of my Russian adoption, is it any surprise that I feel fiercely toward any threat to deny these children homes and loving parents? Yet a threat to these and many other adoptable children is exactly what is on the horizon, in the form of an easily overlooked provision in Senate Bill 682, which is the enabling legislation for the widely applauded Hague Convention on Inter-country Adoption. The bill is jointly sponsored by senators Jesse Helms, R-N.C., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., both adoptive parents who have been passionate advocates on adoption issues. Hearings for S.B. 682 are expected later this summer; ratification could take two to three years. Despite its generally good intentions and drawn-out approval process, S.B. 682 carries with it an electric charge. This legislation, if passed, could severely curtail most international adoptions by unmarried persons.

The Hague Convention, an international treaty, has been heavily supported as a protective measure for adoptive children and parents. Ten years in process and already ratified by 32 countries, it aims to set worldwide standards for inter-country adoptions. The convention's primary requirement is that each member country add to its current adoption overseers a "central authority" to accredit adoption providers and mandate accounting procedures. Controls such as those the Hague imposes would help curb the money-gouging "facilitators" and bribery endemic to inter-country adoptions, particularly in Latin America and Eastern Europe. (I have in mind the $11,000 cash I handed over to a facilitator in Russia, and the order I was expressly given not to ask where the money was going.)

Even more important, the treaty could put a real dent in the tragic, sordid business of baby trafficking, evidenced recently by the baby-smuggling ring that federal prosecutors have charged brought Mexican infants to New York. It might also curtail incidents of impoverished women worldwide -- this is a big problem in Russia -- selling their newborns to the highest Western bidders. Corruption of this sort gives "sending" countries the jitters and slows, rather than hastens, the pace of adoptions and of the numbers of orphans released to Westerners.

The Hague is undoubtedly a great leap forward for international adoptions, but now here's the problem: While S.B. 682 carries with it numerous important controls, a provision in the bill specifies that children adopted out of the United States be placed only with "a married man and woman." This wouldn't be such a blow if it affected only the 300 or so American-born children adopted by Canadians and Western Europeans each year. But recent diplomatic sensitivities with China and Russia have reminded Americans of our history of fragile relations with these countries, and the fear, among adoption organizations and advocates, is of reciprocity. In short, if the United States limits adoptions to married, heterosexual couples, it's reasonable for us to expect the Russians -- who gave us 4,491 children last year -- and the Chinese -- who gave us 4,206 of the total 15,774 inter-country adoptions by Americans in 1998 -- to do the same in return.

The United States would not be the first country to impose restrictions on adoptive
parents: South Korea has limited adoptions to married couples for years. Guatemala is also now considering such a provision for its Hague legislation. And China prohibits adoption of its children by foreigners who are homosexual. But should Russia and China, the two biggest sending countries -- and, not coincidentally, the touchiest -- follow suit, two things happen: One, single people like me, who often have little chance of adopting
domestic infants of any race, and who are typically considered only for
difficult adoptions involving older and disabled children, will find the odds against their ability to adopt suddenly increased dramatically. Two, some portion of those children overseas who would have found homes with single parents won't find homes at all, ever. And that's especially troubling when you've seen these children in the flesh.

I have a recurring dream about what I saw at Anya's orphanage. In
my dream I take one look at all those kids and bellow cheerfully to the staff: "Pack 'em up! I'm taking them all home!" The staffers comply. Then I lumber off
into a Russian winter wonderland of snowy birch trees and colorful dachas,
laden with kids and toys, all clinging to me in one happy-go-lucky clump.

In reality, of course, I left the orphanage that day three years ago with just one skinny little 5-month-old, who shortly became the love of my life. She didn't do badly for herself, either, despite my singlehood. By immigrating to the United States as the daughter of a middle-class professional, she locked up a future of Fisher-Price and "Sesame Street," excellent medical care, college and a bevy of friends and family to spoil her. Had she remained in the orphanage, she'd have most likely faced years of inadequate nutrition, the possibility of emotional attachment disorders and an inadequate technical education. "Graduation" would have come at age 18 -- with her release on to the street and, thereafter, a high probability of prostitution and prison (a not dissimilar statistical prognosis from that of U.S. children stuck in this country's foster care system until their federal assistance is cut off, whether they're ready or not, at 18).

As the beneficiary of one aspect of the current, if flawed, system's
largesse, I admit to bias. But even without a bias, it's hard to rationalize
the philosophy that underlies the single-parent prohibition in the
Helms-Landrieu bill. Regardless of one's opinion of "alternative
families," aren't children -- whether they're raised by single adults or unmarried couples,
heterosexual or homosexual -- better off in some kind of family than with no family at all?

I'm hardly alone in my assessment. "I think there could be a very
detrimental, drawn-out battle over this issue," says Maureen Evans, director
of the Joint Council for International Children's Services, an adoption
agency coalition based in Cheverly, Md. Argues Evans: "The criteria for
eligibility to adopt ought to be maintained on a state level, not federal
policy." Until now, adoption has always been regulated by state governments
in the United States. Furthermore, says Evans, the Hague treaty on its own says
nothing about eligibility criteria; an accompanying report actually states that the writers of the treaty chose not to make recommendations about parental eligibility. Concludes Evans: "This is an issue that could potentially bring
down the entire Hague treaty." A number of key adoption advocates, including Maureen Hogan of Adopt America and Elizabeth Meitner of the Child Welfare League of America, have echoed Evans' concerns.

On June 14, Evans, Meitner and the principals of other nationwide
adoption organizations -- 11 in all, organized as an ad hoc "Hague Alliance" --
fired off a protest letter to U.S. Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass. Delahunt's staff is part of the bipartisan legislative effort drafting a more liberal House version of the treaty enactment bill. The letter said: "The requirement that parents adopting U.S.-born children be a married man and woman should be deleted. There is a concern that other countries may
reciprocate by creating such a requirement for U.S. citizens, and that this
provision does not serve the interests of children needing permanency."

The coalition was preaching to the choir. Delahunt is the father of a
Vietnamese daughter, now in her 20s, adopted during the fall of Saigon. And
Delahunt has no desire to add to the original language of the Hague
Convention, says his legislative director, Mark Agrast. Accordingly, Delahunt's bill will contain neither the single-parent prohibition nor another
controversial item: a 12-month waiting period for foreign applicants to
adopt U.S. kids. (This House bill also champions accreditation of adoption
agencies by the Department of Health and Human Services, not the State
Department, which the Senate version advocates.) Said Agrast: "No one who
cares about children would advocate that it is better for a child not to
have a home."

Curiously, it turns out that Landrieu, the Democratic
co-sponsor of the married-couple language, does not support the provision to
which she has attached her name. In a telephone interview, an aide to Landrieu acknowledged, "We think that the provision needs to be
restructured, but we thought it was more important to be part of the effort
to ratify the Hague."

There's no mistaking, then, the genesis of this provision; the only question
is whether Helms intended to target his restrictions on would-be
adoptive parents against singles in general or gays in particular. Here, a source at the Capitol opined, "It's homosexuals they're trying to get to, and not single parent adoptions." Another source I spoke with thought all "alternative" families were the target. And multiple sources viewed the provision as a "bargaining chip," so Helms can win what he really wants -- State Department control of accreditation.

Unlike most liberals, I respect Helms; I used to report on agriculture in North Carolina, and I watched this master politician save small farmers again and again. As the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms is throwing his considerable weight behind this little-known treaty, an action I find laudable. And within the context of a pro-family stance, the Helms camp's
position on the married couples provision makes some sense. In answer to my questions about the wording of S.B. 682, a member of Helms'
staff responded: "It's interesting how this has turned into a political issue. Most people would be surprised to learn that our American kids [who
are adopted by foreigners] have no protections at all. They leave and we
don't know where they go.

"So we said in this portion [of the Senate bill], 'Since we don't know
where they go, we want to define their environment, we want to increase the
chances of stability.'" The bill, the aide said, does not target any
"special interest group," and her boss remains open to hearing concerns
about reciprocity and other issues at the hearings this summer. The bottom
line, however, the aide said, was that the bill in its final form should "look out
for the best interests of American kids."

Well, I don't think those interests are being well served by the current form of S.B. 682. I'm also not so easily convinced that the provision is a mere bargaining chip. As
another Helms staffer with the Foreign Relations Committee said: "The
substance of the bill is the bill we want to see; there weren't things
thrown in where we were thinking, 'Oh, we can take that out later.'" And from
Agrast on the Democratic side: "If there is language in one of the competing
versions of the legislation, it would be a mistake not to take it seriously."

After speaking with the various supporters and decriers of S.B. 682, I
decided to take a closer look at one American kid whose best interests the
Senate bill is presumably looking out for. She's Miranda, age 2. Miranda was
adopted from China 11 months ago by two women, Margaret and Camilla, a
lesbian couple in my New York neighborhood who have been together 10 years
now. Just like everyone else with small children, Miranda's parents are busily engaged in reading their child "Make Way for Ducklings" and stockpiling juice boxes and diapers. Assuming that increasing the chances for stability is as important a goal for kids adopted into the United States as for kids adopted out, I asked Camilla how the couple accomplishes this for their daughter. "We make breakfast," Camilla answered. "We brush our teeth. We do laundry. We do the things families do. The thing we do different is teach our child about recognizing and embracing the fact that 'there are different kinds of families.'"

Another thing Margaret and Camilla have had to do differently is the adoption itself: On paper, for the Chinese, they pretended that Camilla was a single heterosexual and Margaret her tenant, a subterfuge necessary to make Miranda's adoption happen at all.

But it's not only officials in Beijing who just don't get it about kids and their need for permanency. Some officials inside the Beltway just don't get it either.

Miranda gets it every day, though. Camilla told me that when she first
heard "Make Way for Ducklings," her daughter asked a completely logical question about the departure of a key character, "Mr. Mallard." Miranda's question? "Where did the other mother go?"

I'm sure Margaret and Camilla gave her just as good an explanation
as they gave me. Says Camilla: "Her world is that there are two moms, and we
celebrate that." Well, I celebrate it too. Because two moms, or even one for
that matter, are ever so much better than none.

By Joan Oleck

Joan Oleck writes for Business Week, the New York Times, Newsday and other publications. She lives in New York.

MORE FROM Joan Oleck

Related Topics ------------------------------------------