September 30, 2017, was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, and instead of sitting in a synagogue, my husband and I and our infant son found ourselves in a small hospital in the South. We had explained our prayers and fasting to our bewildered nurses, and they eagerly kept us apprised of the hours and minutes left to our fast. Then, during the last minutes of the Day of Atonement, they knocked on our door,
“Congratulations, Mom and Dad! It’s time to meet your baby girl.”
Just one year earlier, my husband and I had decided to make the move from infertility treatments to adoption, after six long years in the world of advanced reproductive technologies. Our Jewish role models in adoption, Rabbi Chaim and Chavie Bruk of Chabad Lubavitch in Montana, inspired us with their miraculous adoption stories, but we had no idea how to begin building our own family.
We confided in close family and friends, and suggestions began to pour in. Russia, because of its ban on American adoptions, was no longer an option, but what about Ukraine? China? Romania? Though we fit most of China’s requirements (we aren’t deaf in both ears or blind in either eye), I was too young for its 30-and-older age minimum.
Delving into research, I learned of The Hague Convention on Adoption, an international treaty formed in 1993 (the United States signed in 2008) in order to fight child trafficking and abduction. Countries party to the treaty agreed to determine whether a child was eligible for international adoption and to make every effort to have the child adopted domestically before allowing an international adoption.
As adoptive father and American Enterprise Institute president Arthur Brooks wrote in a New York Times op-ed in November 2017, “bureaucratic screw-tightening” has left thousands of orphans around the world waiting in state-run orphanages. The number of international adoptions has plummeted.
Only two weeks went by from the time we entered the ‘adoption books’ to the call we received telling us we’d been chosen.
After hitting roadblock after roadblock in the international adoption arena, we began looking at options in the United States. It was August 2016. By February of the following year, we would already be parents. We spent most of that six-month period filling out paperwork, taking out loans, getting fingerprinted, and having our home checked. But only two weeks went by from the time we entered the “adoption books,” when we were declared eligible to be matched with a child, to the call we received telling us we’d been chosen.
Adopting parents can wait months and even years before receiving that call. How could we have been matched so quickly?
In the first moments of working with our American adoption agency, we realized that many decisions lay ahead of us. Would we be open only to a child who looks like us, or would we consider a child of a different race? Would we be open to a child who’d been exposed to alcohol, marijuana, crack, cocaine, heroin, or other drugs? What about openness to the birth parents’ possible mental-health issues, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorders, or schizophrenia?
At the start of our process, I thought we’d wait for a white child (who could blend seamlessly into our Orthodox Jewish community) who’d had no prenatal drug or alcohol exposure of any kind. But my mindset shifted, and I began to question myself: Was this about us as parents or the child in need?
Our agency told us that out of the 150 families waiting to be placed with a child, only 30 were open to a child of another race. If we were willing to accept a child of another race, our wait time would be cut from 18 months or longer to about six months. The shorter wait time until parenthood was appealing, but so was the idea of answering the call to adopt one of the children who needed care the most.
Our agency sent us monthly updates on the adoption matches taking place each month. These taught us that prenatal drug and alcohol exposure is rampant. We learned of other reasons, in addition to addiction, that mothers place their babies for adoption: homelessness, poverty, prostitution, incarceration; the child was conceived in rape; women are afraid of the men who fathered their child. These were the babies waiting and in desperate need of homes.
In February 2017, we received the call about our baby, a biracial boy. If we’d been less open, we would probably still be waiting. Among critics, adoption is painted as baby-buying for the infertile. Prospective adoptive parents wait for the “perfect” child who will fit into their family, as though it were their own biological offspring. But adoption is not surrogacy. For the sake of our country’s most vulnerable children, we cannot afford to look at adoption in that way.
When our son was five months old, we received a call from Rabbi Chaim and Chavie Bruk about a biracial girl due to be born in September, just a few months later. Of course, we couldn’t pursue this adoption, my husband and I said to each other. Who could handle two infants seven months apart? We weren’t crazy. But just two months later, in the hours usually spent preparing for Yom Kippur, we found ourselves on a flight to the city where we’d await the birth of our daughter.
Our baby girl spent the first few days of her life in the neonatal intensive-care unit, owing to minor complications. In the time spent there, I couldn’t help but notice another tiny girl in a bassinet nearby. She shrieked for hours, with a sharp screeching sound I’d never heard before; the nurses were constantly changing her diapers because of diarrhea, and they swung her in a methodical fashion, as if they’d done it many times before. A day into observing the scene, I realized that the baby girl was going through drug withdrawal. We’d prepared ourselves for this when we entered the world of domestic adoption, but we’d never witnessed it before.
Babies born addicted to drugs or with neonatal abstinence syndrome are medicated with methadone or other drugs to wean them out of their addiction, which can take days or weeks. Adoptions from the Heart, a private adoption agency with licensing across the Northeast, reports that 70 percent of the newborns placed for adoption through the agency have suffered from prenatal drug or alcohol exposure.
Ohio, one of the states most ravaged by the opioid epidemic, reports a flood of children entering the foster-care system owing to the crisis. The state reported 12,654 children in foster care in 2013. Since then, it’s seen a 23 percent increase in children entering the foster-care system, according to the most recent numbers from the Public Children Services Association of Ohio. At this rate, there will be 20,154 children in foster care in Ohio by the year 2020.
A stable and nurturing home is the greatest marker of success for a child who was exposed to drugs in the womb.
Drug-addicted babies go through painful withdrawal and, depending on the drug, can suffer possible developmental difficulties for years. The long-term effects of prenatal drug exposure remain uncertain, but studies dating back to the crack-cocaine crisis of the 1980s show that a stable and nurturing home is the greatest marker of success for a child who was exposed to drugs in the womb.
Not only does adoption provide a child with a stable and loving home; it also can have a powerful impact on the birth parents, the adoptive parents, and their families and communities as they unite for the sake of a child.
Charles Murray in his 2012 book Coming Apart tells the story of two Americas: the world of the new upper middle class, represented by the fictitious city of Belmont, and the American lower class, represented by “Fishtown.” The two populations do not come into contact with each other. Belmont thrives, with its strong family life and work ethic; these traditions have eroded in Fishtown, leading to poverty, drug abuse, and violence.
While reading Coming Apart, I took the “Do You Live in a Bubble?” test that Murray includes in the book, and I was surprised to learn just how insulated I was, even though I’m a first-generation American. But domestic adoption popped my bubble and opened my eyes to Americans across the country whose lives have been affected, directly or indirectly, by drug abuse, violence, poverty, prostitution, homelessness, and incarceration.
How brave and deserving of respect and gratitude is the woman who forgoes the joys of parenting and makes the decision to give her baby a new lease on life. A mother who places her child into another woman’s arms as she says good-bye is often engaging in an act of incomprehensible selflessness, simultaneously tragic and joyful.
In December, we spent an unforgettable day in family court finalizing the adoption of our baby boy. Adoption ceremonies in court are a brief window of happiness in a place filled with custody battles, abuse cases, and criminal matters. The court we attended once scheduled adoption ceremonies only on Fridays, hoping to end the week on a positive note, but decided that pockets of joy needed to be sprinkled throughout the week.
On that day, in the presence of our lawyer, the social worker, and other court employees, the judge decreed that our son would be “entitled to all the same rights and privileges and subject to all the same duties and obligations as if he has been born to the adopting parents.” In the coming months, we will make the same promise to our daughter.
Like many Americans, we see the turmoil around us and often think, “What can we do? How can I fix the opioid epidemic? What can we do about the crisis of the family?” I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve learned one thing we can do: open our homes and vow to shelter, feed, educate, mold, love, and protect all of our children, the next generation of Americans.