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International adoptions: slow, expensive, rewarding

On a Saturday afternoon, 5-year-old Lulu gushed to her mom about her aspirations to be “a beautiful ballerina.”

She performed pirouettes around the white-tiled living room while her sister, Lovie, 5, and brothers, Briland, 9, and Brice, 7, colored on a small plastic table in their Coral Gables home. An argument broke out over crayons.

That’s when mom, Jill Black, stepped in as the negotiator – one of the many roles she plays as a single mother of four children she adopted from Guatemala — two girls, two boys, all under 10.

“Let’s try and see how we can share,” said Black, 46.

Black is one of scores of parents in South Florida who’ve looked to foreign lands to find their children. Some, like Black, never had children and would be considered too old for most U.S. adoptions. Others were touched by stories of orphaned children living hard-scrabble lives in impoverished places.

Many potential parents wait years for governments and agencies to allow them to bring home a child. Documents get lost, adoption agencies face roadblocks of red tape and costs can spiral to $50,000 or more.

In the past, international adoptions were perceived as a manageable way of becoming a parent. In 2004, there were 22,991 international adoptions by American parents, according to the State Department. By 2011, that number had dropped 60 percent to 9,319.

The drop-off, in part, stems from tighter adoption laws in countries such as China and Russia, historically among the top locales for international adoptions. Government officials have become increasingly concerned they were giving up their children without sufficient screening and documentation. Politics, too, plays a part.

In December, Russia outlawed all U.S. adoptions, which numbered more than 60,000 over the past two decades. Haiti, another country with many foreign adoptions, recently said it is overhauling its adoption laws, the first time in nearly 40 years.

“Those numbers are not reflective of the lack of adoptive parents, but a lack of programs that are open,” said Candace O’Brien, a Miami adoption lawyer and founder of AdoptInternational, the agency that helped Black find her children. “These kids are there, waiting to be adopted. It’s just that the international community is making it harder.”

For Black, her quest to become a parent began with one child, 9-month-old Briland, who was living in a foster home in Tiquisate, a small town 100 miles outside of Guatemala City. She adopted him in 2004, two years after her divorce. She was 37.

“At first, my parents would ask me what I was thinking and questioned if I could really handle this,” said Black, who works as an administrative assistant in her parents’ business in South Miami .

Her parents fell in love with Briland and supported her decision to go back to Guatemala and adopt 2-year-old Brice in 2005 from Guatemala City.

In 2007, she adopted Lovie from the small town of Antigua in central Guatemala, and Lulu, from Guatemala City. Both were 15 months old.

Black said the most difficult part was the wait between the adoption processes.

“When things don’t go right in an adoption, it’s so difficult for families because you’re dealing with raw emotions,” O’Brien said. “There are so many issues outside of anyone’s control. Days go by when you just want to roll your eyes and say, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ”

The language barrier

Bill Belz was reading a magazine article about a woman who adopted a child from Poland.

Belz , a retired Miami firefighter, is of Eastern European descent, so the thought of adopting an older child from Poland was particularly appealing.

“I casually left the magazine on the side of our bed to see if maybe my wife would notice it that night,” said Belz, 49. “When I came to find her later, she was already looking online for the adoption agency mentioned in the story.”

An agency found a 7-year-old girl named Angelika. She had a 6-year-old sister named Asha. They both lived in a foster home in Jelenia Gora, a town in southwest Poland. Separating the two was not an option.

“We started off expecting one child and then our parameters expanded,” said Jennifer Belz, 54, a freelance court reporter.

It took a year and a half and more than $25,000 to bring the two short-haired girls in plaid dresses to their Miami home. They were 6 and 7 when they arrived on Aug. 3, 2003. The family moved to Key Largo five years later.

The girls initially struggled with learning English. Hand gestures and Belz’s basic Polish skills were the norm for the first months. TV also helped them learn the language.

Today, the girls attend Coral Shores High School in Tavernier. They have a hard time remembering their Polish and like most teens, go out with friends and find little time to clean their rooms, says their mom Jennifer.

“There is no doubt in my mind that these girls are my daughters,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how they came to be, we would’ve found each other one way or another.”

‘He called me mama’

Susan Westfall found her son on a video at a Miami adoption agency.

The 3-year-old was laughing while riding a tricycle in Russia.

“I felt such a strong, emotional connection to him,” said Westfall, 58, a playwright, who later wrote about her experience in a play, The Boy from Russia.

She and her husband, Alan Fein, an attorney, traveled to a Russian orphanage in Smolensk, a port city on the Dnieper River about 250 miles west of Moscow. Their 7-year-old biological son, Jake, and an attorney journeyed with them. They found the toddler — his name was Vladimir Nicolayevich Petrokov — and renamed him Peter.

It took them four months and thousands of dollars to move their son to their Key Biscayne home on Feb. 23, 2000.

His diet in Russia — plain soup and potatoes — made dinnertime a challenge.

“It was awhile before he could adjust to eating anything with flavor,” said Westfall. “Even things like macaroni and cheese took him a long time.”

Today, Peter is 16 and a freshman at MAST Academy. He wants to be a marine biologist.

“My friends at school sometimes ask me if I remember my Russian,” Peter said. “I’ve forgotten a lot of it but it comes back to me sometimes.”

Westfall still remembers the first day she met him. With confidence, the blond boy walked up to her, crawled onto her lap and gave her a hug.

“He called me mama,” she said. “It was as if he already knew who we were. He knew we were taking him home.”

Just seemed right

Candace Brown knew she always wanted children. But when she, a Chicago native, and her husband Luis Amato, a Uruguayan, couldn’t get pregnant, they decided to search for a child.

They began in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

The Miami Beach couple had several friends who lived in Haiti and with whom they had visited over the years.

“We were drawn in by this very beautiful and colorful culture,” said Brown, 56, a nurse anesthetist at the University of Miami Hospital. “There are so many children in that country who needed parents, so Haiti just seemed like the right place.’’

They visited several nurseries for orphans. Some housed several children in homes with dirt floors. Eventually, the couple found a 1-month-old baby girl named Gabrielle, who weighed less than 10 pounds.

Brown remembers holding out her hand to the infant when she first met her.

“She grabbed onto my finger with an incredible strength,” she said. “And I just knew right then that this was my daughter.”

But there were setbacks.

“The government in Haiti lost our entire adoption folder,” said Amato, a real estate agent. “It took us almost nine months to finally bring her home.”

In September 2002, Gabrielle flew home with her parents from Port-au-Prince to Miami. She was 9 months old.

Her parents knew Gabrielle would soon begin questioning them why her skin color was different from theirs.

“Because I’m white and my child is black, it was no secret that we were different kind of family,” Brown said. “We would always explain to her that she was the one who chose us.”

Now 11, Gabrielle is a dancer and fifth-grader North Beach Elementary School. She has traveled to Mexico, France, Costa Rica and Uruguay. One day, they will return to Haiti.

“A child doesn’t have to come out of your body to be yours,” Brown said. “She’s my child, no matter what.”