Adoption is certainly not a new thing, but like everything else in our society, it has undergone changes in the last couple of decades. Babies are no longer adopted under an ironclad cloak of secrecy, international placements are common, and singles have joined the ranks of adoptive parents. Below are the heartwarming stories of four families who found happiness through adoption, each in its own way.

DETERMINED TO BE A MOM

When you walk into Michael and Debbie Leal’s house in northwest San Antonio, you know right away that a child reigns over this household. Toys have pretty much invaded the living room, and there’s also a separate playroom complete with a wide train track and a child-size engine to ride on. All that belongs to the Leals’ 2-year-old adopted daughter, Sarah, who on this particular day is eager to tell her visitor that “Sea World is closed today” and that she’s not happy about it. Not all words come out perfectly clear, but for her age, she is expressing herself remarkably well.

Her parents are understandably proud. Sarah has not only changed their lives, but she has quite simply become the center of it. “I needed to be a mom somehow,” says Debbie, 40, an information systems analyst at USAA. “I was determined about that.”

Like many couples today, the newlywed Leals let a few years pass before they started thinking about starting a family. When they did, they were surprised to discover that nature was not exactly cooperating. They subsequently sought help from infertility specialists and underwent treatments, including artificial insemination, with little success.

“The next thing to try was in vitro fertilization, but that’s an expensive procedure that still might not have worked,” explains Debbie. “I was already 35 or 36, and Mike is eight years older. That’s when I first asked Mike if he would consider adoption.”

He wouldn’t at the time, but soon came around because he saw how much his wife yearned for motherhood. Though they visited an orphanage south of the border, the couple essentially “sat on it” for another year before calling Adoption Affiliates (AA), an agency they had already checked out a year earlier. Before long, they found themselves in a seminar with other prospective parents, listening to birth mothers and adoptive parents talk about their experiences. Still a bit “leery” about the whole thing, Michael was eventually convinced by the testimony of two couples who had also undergone several failed inseminations and told the group that adoption was “the more sure thing.”

“After the meeting, I started to think that this was indeed the opportunity we were looking for,” says Michael, a math teacher. The Leals chose AA partly because it specializes in domestic adoption of infants and partly because “they seemed so nice and supportive.”

Foreign adoption never crossed their minds, says Debbie. The couple submitted their formal application package, which included a sort of scrapbook about themselves, describing their family in words and pictures. Such books are shown to birth mothers, who get to choose their babies’ adoptive homes.

And then came the waiting. “We tried not to bug Janus (from the agency) for a while, but it was hard,” says Debbie. After one false start, the agency finally called 12 months later to inform them that a 22- year-old woman who was about to deliver in Austin had picked them from among all others. The moment they had been anticipating for so long had arrived! Debbie met the birth mother only once. As it turned out, she had other children with her boyfriend and felt she could not take care of yet another one.

Following the birth, the infant spent 30 days with a temporary foster mother until legal proceedings for termination of parental rights were completed. When little Sarah finally made it to her new home, Debbie couldn’t quite believe that she was actually hers to keep. “I would look at her in the crib and go ‘Are you sure she’s mine?'” she recalls. “But after about a week, I relaxed. OK, she is mine!”

Still, another six months had to pass before the legal adoption process could be finalized. (See box). During that period, their household was investigated by a social worker, and they had to file reports every time they took Sarah to the doctor.

Today, the little girl, who is of Hispanic parentage, like Mike and Debbie, is looked after by her grandparents while Mom and Dad are at work. Her framed pictures alone and with various family members adorn the walls of the Leals’ house. As the only child in their extended family, Sarah is hardly lacking attention. Even during our visit, the moment she started whimpering, Michael left the conversation to play with her on the floor.

Despite the initial contact with the birth mother, the family no longer communicates with her beyond sending periodic pictures through AA. She looks at them but returns them. So, essentially, theirs is a closed adoption of the more traditional kind, which clearly suits everyone involved.

The Leals had to tighten their belts for a while to pay for AA’s $25,000 service fee— a high figure, to be sure — but what people often don’t know, they say, is that this amount includes expenses agencies incur in providing counseling as well as medical and sometimes housing needs for birth mothers during pregnancy,

in addition to legal fees to free the child for adoption.

But cost be damned! Sarah is such a joy to them that the couple is ready to embark on a second adoption journey. Meanwhile, every day, they find themselves looking forward to coming home to spend time with her. “It’s the greatest thing,” says Debbie.

THE LEBANESE CONNECTION

When Maureen Arnow first enrolled her adopted son in day care, the teacher there made an offhand remark implying that adoption was “the easy way to have a kid.”

Oh no, it isn’t, thought Maureen. Lady, you don’t know what you are talking about!

Like the Leals, Maureen and her husband, Tom, did not immediately rush to have kids after they were married. Life was busy, and on top of that, Tom had a philosophical objection to bringing a child into”this violent, ugly world.” By the time Maureen’s maternal drive had overcome all other considerations, her biological clock was unfortunately winding down. Again, like the Leals, they spent several years in infertility treatment before considering adoption. But unlike the Leals, they chose to get a child from abroad through private channels.

“We knew we were on the edge of being too old to go through an adoption agency (which often rules that parents must be under 45), so we looked into other possibilities,” says Maureen, a nurse. Both she and Tom, a computer engineer, were over 40 at the time.

Then it took another year or so of uncertainty, hope, overseas travel and thousands of dollars before a baby was placed in their arms. The first hopeful attempt did not pan out when the birth mother decided to keep her child. But then, through her doctor, Maureen heard that the pastor of the St. George Maronite Catholic Church had announced during a service that there would be a baby available for adoption in Lebanon. The pastor himself was Lebanese-born and had learned of the baby-to-be-born from the church’s archbishop in Beirut.

The Arnows rushed to submit their application, complete with a home study and all the relevant documents. While they waited for the church to approve their request, the couple also petitioned the Immigration and Naturalization Service to permit them to bring their future son into the United States. It was a learn-asyou- go experience with a little guidance from two other couples who had followed a similar route. The most nerveracking part, though, was dealing with the INS bureaucracy.

“After months of waiting, we finally received a picture of the baby,” says Maureen, handing us the said photo of a newborn wrapped in “swaddling clothes.” “My mother took one look at it and said, ‘You must feed him!’ The picture made it all the more real. Up to that point, it just seemed like a big fight with the U.S. government.”

A month or so later, the Arnows flew to Cyprus to meet their future son. But again, it wasn’t smooth sailing. Hotel expenses mounted as weeks went by without word from the Lebanese orphanage. When Tom contacted a priest in Beirut, the man told him to go back to America. Upset, they placed frantic calls to a Lebanese San Antonian who had helped them with the initial contact. It eventually transpired that in order to protect the birth mother’s identity, the nuns who ran the orphanage claimed to have “found” an abandoned infant, a situation that required a police report. Because there was none, the boy’s trip was delayed.

One day, the long-expected call came, and suddenly they were face to face with a nun holding a baby. In the red passport issued by Lebanon, the child’s assumed name was Georges Hanna Luca. He was four months old.

Today, the Arnows’ teenage son is a lanky, good-looking youth, a freshman at Central Catholic High School. He has been renamed David and brought up with a lot of love. He has also been brought up in a faith different from his parents’. As a condition of adoption, Father Abdullah, the former pastor of St. George, made the Arnows promise that they would rear the child in the Maronite Catholic tradition. Even though nothing to that effect was signed, Tom and Maureen have kept their word. Maureen was raised a Presbyterian, while Tom describes himself as “half- Jewish, half-Baptist.”

“I felt that as long as we raised him with moral principles, in whichever church, he could later make up his own mind about such things,” explains Maureen. “We went to his church with him, but we kept a certain distance. Nevertheless, we have supported the educational programs there in many ways. Now that he is older, David goes to church with a friend’s family.”

But mother and son occasionally find themselves on opposite sides of certain issues, such as birth control, for instance. One time David even told his mom that her religion “is not Christian.” And a few close friends of the family were upset about the arrangement, which they felt was unfair to the parents. Tom and Maureen, however, worried more about David’s school behavior. While academically gifted, he was diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and has had his share of run-ins with unhappy teachers and principals. “He liked being the class clown,” says Maureen, “and he had trouble keeping his mouth shut in class.”

Asked about his interest in his native country, David is a little vague, saying he wanted to go visit, but Mom and Dad wouldn’t let him. The parents explain that this was during last summer’s war between Israel and Hezbollah, not a good time to wander around as a tourist. But the family as a whole has developed an emotional connection to the Near Eastern country that at one time was one of the most prosperous and pleasant places in that part of the world. The Israel- Hezbollah war that victimized the Lebanese civilian population was quite upsetting to them.

One thing that continues to worry the Arnows is that they don’t have David’s biological family’s medical records. So far he’s been healthy, however, not counting allergies that the entire family suffers from.”And he is more affectionate than we are. He would say to me, ‘I could use a hug now,'” says Maureen with a laugh.

FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE

Love brought Olga Prochazka to San Antonio, but a different kind of love propelled her more than a decade later to go to Russia in search of a child.

The Czech-born Prochazka grew up in Canada and later moved to the United States, where she graduated from college and eventually got a job with Bausch & Lomb in Rochester, N.Y. In one of those odd serendipities of life, she was sent at one point to visit the company’s San Antonio branch, where she met and fell in love with a fellow employee. It was goodbye Northeast and hello Alamo City, for soon she was a married woman enjoying the warmth of South Texas. Unfortunately, she eventually discovered that her husband, already the father of a couple of youngsters, had no interest in additional offspring.

“That’s one of the reasons we divorced five years later,” says the vivacious blonde, who could easily be mistaken for a Russian. “I stayed in San Antonio, but I just never found the right man to have children with.”

So, a few years later, she started exploring the adoption process. As a single woman, Prochazka thought it would be easier for her to get a child from abroad, since local agencies “are really biased against singles.” Working with the nonprofit International Family Services (IFS) that has offices in several states, she set her sights on Russia. On its Web site, IFS does its best to warn people about the “emotional roller coaster” that foreign adoptions can be, but that did not deter Prochazka. She filled out and notarized 70 different documents and waited — not always patiently — a year and a half before she became a mom. Among the required papers were medical reports, proof of income, pictures of her house and friends’ testimonials about her character and lifestyle. “It seemed endless,” she admits.

For her part, Prochazka made only one request — that the child be healthy. Eventually, short videos of available kids started arriving in the mail, but each child had obvious developmental problems. She had everyone evaluated by a U.S. doctor, using the video and the sketchy health records sent from Russia. Just as she was getting a bit discouraged, the eighth video arrived, featuring a little girl named Zukhra.

“She looked OK, she was walking and running. So, I said, this must be it. I sent the video to my parents, and they liked her, too,” recalls Prochazka.

Of mixed Russian and Uzbek parentage, the 2-year-old Eurasian girl lived in an orphanage in the southern Russian city of Astrakhan on the Volga River. Full of expectations, Prochazka set out for Russia. She now refers to this trip, as well as a second one a few months later, as”an adventure,” her tone implying quotation marks around the word. But it is certainly an experience she will never forget. To begin with, the Moscow hotel where she spent a night looked like”Adoption Central,” crowded as it was with Americans who had come to meet their prospective kids. An overnight stay in the capital was required by the Russian agency even though it was never explained why. Once in Astrakhan, she was in for a few surprises.

“They don’t really tell you the truth about the child before you get there. The documents said that she could talk and sing – not exactly true. She wasn’t even toilet-trained,” says Prochazka, still a bit angry about this lack of honesty.”Then I met with the doctor, who gave me her medical history that she summarized in a single page while I saw her read from a thick book that she wouldn’t let me have. Back at the hotel, I called the doctor in the United States. I was a bit hysterical, I have to say. Then the next day I got to meet Zuki. She was very shy, and she couldn’t talk much but otherwise seemed fine. She was the cutest little thing, all eyelashes. I was very torn. After seven days, I said I would come for a second visit. I left it all to God after that. If it’s meant to happen, it’s meant to happen.”

And sure enough, a couple of months later, she was back in Russia to collect Zuki, whom she later officially named Olga Mia Zukhra. The “adventure” cost her close to $25,000, including hotels, supplies, gifts and various fees. Luckily, she was also able to deduct $10,000 from her taxes that year. While delighted to have her daughter, Prochazka is critical of the way the Russian agency handled things. Gifts for the orphanage were expected both times, and there were expenses every step of the way, some of them totally arbitrary, in her opinion. When she hesitated to offer gifts the second time around, her paperwork was delayed until she caved in. Complaining to the American agency would not have done any good because, she explains, “it’s a seller’s market. There are so many people who want these children. The agency here is totally dependent on its Russian counterpart.”

Yet she found ordinary Russians very kind, especially to a woman with a child. On the way back through Moscow, they were surprised by chilly weather, so Prochazka took off her own jacket to wrap the toddler. People stopped to help her with the luggage and offered her their own coats. And unlike the Arnows some 12 years earlier, she encountered only cooperative representatives of the U.S. government. The embassy in Moscow promptly issued all the necessary documents for Zuki to get her American citizenship upon her arrival on U.S. soil.

Now all of that is behind them, both the good and the bad. “Zuki is a fighter, she has a strong constitution,” says the proud mom, “but she is still speech delayed at 5. Next week I am taking her to a developmental pediatrician to be better evaluated. I had to wait nine months to get an appointment with this doctor. There are so few in San Antonio. Though she can say simple sentences, she gets frustrated because she can’t quite communicate. But it’s getting better.”

Gregarious and cheerful, Zuki is popular among her peers in kindergarten, where she gets a little assist from the special ed people. She loves movies and swimming, says Mom.

On a recent vacation to Minneapolis, where mother and daughter visited the Minnesota State Fair and attended a taping of Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, they snuggled up one night to watch a movie together. Little Zuki looked to her mother and chirped, “I love you, Mommy!”

Prochazka laughs in retelling this little anecdote, but rare is the parent whose heart doesn’t melt upon hearing such words. Hers certainly did.

“I am truly blessed,” she adds, summing up her experience.

OPEN AND FRIENDLY

Sharon Loree also considers herself blessed. She and her husband, Robert, knew from the day they married that children would be a blessing to them,”however they came.” But because Robert had had testicular cancer as a young man, they also knew that realizing their parental dreams would be more challenging for them than for the average couple. Like others interviewed for this article, they first tried artificial insemination— in this case with Robert’s frozen sperm — but when that failed, other options had to be considered.

Out of the blue, while she was still pondering these options, a friend called one day to ask her to lunch. He wanted to know if she would be willing to adopt his niece’s soon-to-be-born baby. Her response was prompt: “Oh, yes!” The girl was staying at the Methodist Mission Home while awaiting delivery, and a meeting was soon arranged.

“She liked us, and I started taking Lamaze classes with her,” recalls Sharon, a svelte blonde, who until recently worked in marketing. “We even had a baby shower. But it turned out in the end that she wasn’t ready to give up her baby. It broke my heart . . . she felt guilty about changing her mind, so she found another mother and baby for us, another girl she had met at the home. Both girls had come for a slumber party at our house while pregnant, and we took them out to dinner. Both were comfortable with us. Frankly, I

was ready to adopt both babies.”

That other girl was Misty, a 20-year-old from McAllen who already had a son by her then boyfriend but was still living with her parents. While Sharon was ordering a cookie bouquet for the new mom in San Antonio, an emergency call came through, informing her that Misty had gone into labor in McAllen seven weeks prematurely. It was all a bit surreal for Sharon, who after a good cry caught a plane to the Valley that same day. The newborn, to be named Trevis, was in ICU, where he would eventually spend 17 days. Sharon spent her days in the hospital as well, watching the infant and changing his diapers when needed. The situation took an unexpected turn, however, when Misty’s mother became emotional about letting the baby go, suggesting that she would be willing to rear him. That was hard on the Lorees.

“He was already my child in my mind. I had already named him,” says Sharon.”My husband, too, had already established a bond with him. The most touching moment for me was when Bob looked inside the incubator, and his eyes welled up and he looked at me and said,’My son!'”

Indeed he was. A few weeks later, Sharon flew back home with the still tiny infant, who officially became Trevis Robert Loree less than two months later. (Normally, a six-month period must pass before an adoption is finalized.) Still, the parting wasn’t easy for Misty, who promised not to interfere with the adoptive parents if she could somehow stay in her son’s life. Thus was born an open, friendly relationship between the two families that to this day includes visits back and forth, pictures and e-mails, as well as a lot of generous help that over the years the Lorees have given Misty and her family.

As Misty married and had other kids, the visits grew less frequent, but she still stays with the Lorees when she comes to San Antonio. Sharon produces photo albums full of pictures of Trevis’ biological relatives and printouts of e-mails she’s recently exchanged with Misty. “We are still very close, but there have been times when I wished it hadn’t been that close,” she admits. “There have been trials and tribulations along the way The problem was that she wanted me to fix her life’s problems. Well, I love her and I tried to help, but she kept getting into messes. She has a job now, and things are better.” As for Trevis, now 14, he thinks of the Lorees — and the Lorees’ younger son, Kendall — as his family and of Misty’s clan as friends. However, he is close to his older full brother, who frequently comes to visit. Ever the generous souls, the Lorees have promised to pay for the older boy’s college education, too. They also continue to send Christmas presents to Misty’s other children.

A high school freshman, Trevis shares with his lawyer dad a passion for golf and is, in fact, “a phenomenal golfer” himself. The family often travels with him to the various tournaments he plays in. Kendall, on the other hand, prefers fishing, so Mom has bought a little boat to go fishing with him while the other two golf. But when both kids returned home from school the day of our visit, they chatted a bit with us, then plunked themselves on the living room couch to watch TV — a familiar domestic scene. Though their mother describes them as temperamentally quite different, at this moment they are a picture of brotherly harmony.

Does he consider himself lucky to have been adopted? we ask Trevis. “Very! I am one of the luckiest boys in the world to have been adopted into this family,” he replies seriously.

THE ADOPTION PROCESS

If you are thinking about adopting a child, you can choose to go through an adoption agency or make private arrangements with someone who wants to place her child for adoption. The main advantage of the former is that an agency will help locate an available child for you. In either case you will need an attorney.

“You need a lawyer because you have to file a lawsuit in district court,” says attorney Margaret Priesmeyer-Masinter, who handles adoption cases as part of her family law practice. “There are essentially two parts to it: the termination of parental rights of the birth parents and the application for adoption by the adoptive parents.”

Birth parents must sign Affidavits for Voluntary Relinquishment of Parental Rights and provide a medical history, but it’s up to you as the adoptive parent to file the petition for the termination of rights. A judge approves the final Order of Termination. If you are working with an agency, this step is often handled by its staff and included in the overall cost charged to the adoptive family.

For the second part, however, you need to retain a lawyer whether you are working through an agency or not. At that point, the adoptive parents are designated as conservators of the child, who is transferred to their home for a period of six months before the process can be finalized. During that time a social worker will conduct “a social study” — also known as “a home study” — to make sure that the environment is safe and healthy for the child.

Prospective parents must fulfill a plethora of other requirements, as well. But that’s where the law and the agencies differ somewhat. For instance, legally, any adult can adopt, regardless of age. Agencies, however, usually have age limits that make it harder for older people to fulfill their parental dreams. “Birth mothers select older couples less often,” explains Janus Couve, the executive director of Adoption Affiliates (AA), a respected nonprofit agency that specializes in the domestic adoption of infants.

Furthermore, an agency such as Couve’s may have additional requirements beyond the medical and criminal history reports demanded by the law. AA expects prospective parents to participate in educational sessions, for example, and to compile a booklet about themselves — complete with photos — that the birth mothers can peruse before they choose the family they would like their baby to go to.

Most adoptions today are at least somewhat “open,” says Couve, meaning the birth and adoptive parents know of each other and often meet at least a few times.

Interstate adoptions, special circumstances or contested cases are more complicated, says Priesmeyer-Masinter, and usually call for additional legal measures. If everything checks out, the lawyer will file the final papers for a court hearing.

“I like to do adoptions,” says Priesmeyer-Masinter. “Most are happy occasions when everyone, including the judge, is excited and smiling.”

Author: Jasmina Wellinghoff

Photographer: Liz Garza Williams