On July 30, 2012, I arrived home from 6 weeks in Poland with our fifth child, our fourth child through adoption and our only internationally adopted child.
This was an unexpected journey in many, many ways. We never expected to adopt internationally. We never expected Poland would be a country we ever visited, much less adopted a child from. And we never expected we would adopt a child with only one eye, one ear, half a jaw, right coronal craniosynostosis and a severe cleft lip and cleft palate. As it turns out, we cannot predict our future and sometimes one email can change your life forever.
We never would have imagined Poland. Now we wonder what would have happened to us if we had dismissed that email as out of the question. Or worse, what would have happened to our beloved son?
The Start of the Journey
Just over a year and a half before we came home with our Polish son, we began to have that tell-tale feeling that we needed another child. It has happened four times before and I recognize it well. The two oldest started making comments like, "We need a million more kids in this house!" and "When are we going to get some more babies?" Of course, there's that warm glowy feeling when you see a baby while you're out or at church which slowly grows to an insistent thudding and shaking of your whole being: Must.Have.Child.Now.
Finally we started the process again with the Oklahoma Department of Human Services. We knew we would be waiting a while through DHS for a child younger than our youngest (3 years or younger) but that was OK. I joined a listserv for prospective and current adoptive parents of deaf/hard of hearing kids because we knew that since I was enrolled in an ASL Interpreter Program we were definitely open to deaf/hard of hearing children.
In the middle of this process, in October 2011, my Deaf/hard-of-hearing listserv received the following email with the subject line of:
"10-month old baby boy awaiting adoption": We are advocating for placement of a spunky and developmentally on track little boy in Poland who was born with microtia, no right eye and a cleft palate. I am happy to discuss details with any interested family. Poland prefers married couples but will place children with single mothers depending on circumstance. He has had excellent care! Please email [our agency] for information.
I saw the email and asked Matt if I should inquire for more information. He said, "It never hurts to ask." Well, please, he knew this baby was as good as in my arms.
I emailed and asked "how bad are his facial deformities?" (I didn't know "craniofacial differences" is a better term) and the agency rep said, "I am happy to send photos." I'll admit that it took me a few minutes to take in all of Lukasz' face and let it settle in. The uncorrected cleft lip and palate were severe; the unformed right side of his face complete. But I fell in love.
The agency told us they were wrong, he was eight months old and sent more details on his needs. The agency representative gave me an overview of the process. The first thing that I took in was the required 6 week stay in Poland. How would we ever leave our lives here for 6 weeks, let alone the expense of maintaining another home for 6 weeks?
In addition, just because we were interested in this little guy, they could not promise him to us. Our dossier, once complete and accepted in Poland could then be submitted for him to the Adoption Authority because he was a child identified by the Authority for international advocacy but they could choose another family for the referral, they could decide for any reason that we were not the right family or a Polish family could come in and submit a dossier for him. Polish families always have priority.
The agency was extremely upfront that even though they were authorized to advocate for this child, if we decided to enter the international process solely for Lukasz, we might not get his referral and find ourselves in a Polish adoption program waiting for another referral or out of the application, homestudy and other fees if we did not want to continue in the Poland program. It was scary. Not to mention that we had no idea what his life or ours would be like with so many issues.
Research, Research, Research
I researched his medical conditions which, based on the photographs, were obviously more involved than the email stated. Until we committed to the program and received his referral we would not have full medical records to examine. I at least knew immediately after we received the photos that the microtia mentioned in the email meant "no ear" in his case. I reached out to support groups on yahoo for conditions that looked like his and contacted craniofacial surgical teams and our family doctor for their opinions.
We started looking into costs: the international home study, the overall process and medical costs. Medical opinions ranged from, "he could be in diapers for the rest of his life" to "no big deal, he has one ear and one eye, he'll be fine." However, all the doctors agreed that he would require ongoing surgical intervention for the first eighteen years of his life and that each of those craniofacial surgeries would be medically necessary and necessarily expensive. But somehow we knew that even though the unknown was terrifying, we wanted him.
We decided we needed to wait until the end of the year to make sure we would be able to afford the adoption in addition to his out of pocket medical care.
In the meantime, I researched the process of adopting from Poland, generally, and through this agency, specifically. I should mention that my husband and I are both attorneys so we were not about to be sideswiped by incorrect information or an adoption scam.
Ultimately we decided to pursue Lukasz' adoption even with the fear that his referral many not come to us. That fear just lit a fire under us to get all of our paperwork done at breakneck speed before anyone could come in before us. In my eyes, he was (and is) the cutest thing ever and I just knew that if anyone else saw him, they would want him.
Our time line is atypically short for Poland adoptions only because: We were open to some pretty significant medical issues;
- Our amazing homestudy agency that was moved to finish our Haugue homestudy in about a month after learning all the details about Lukasz;
- The agency's in-country rep who wasted no time in filing paperwork and requesting court dates; and,
- The devotion of the adoption center's director to Lukasz. She was at his birth, named him after her son and so desparately wanted him to have a home as quickly as possible. She knew the medical institution he was living in due to his needs was unacceptable. When the institution did not want to correct his palate, she helped find a surgeon that would make it happen. That woman was all business, suffered no fools and was definitely in control and I love her with all my heart.
Our application was accepted by our agency on January 10, 2012 and we received the official referral on May 10, 2012. We took a week or so to discuss the medical records with doctors and surgeons. We were concerned that an eye exam indicated he may not be able to see in his one eye and that the medical institution now stated that they thought he was totally deaf. Could we handle a deaf and blind child?
It came down to whether we wanted to take the leap of faith into the unknown that every adoptive parent must make. There are too many unknowns in adoption to expect a smooth ride in any adoption. You cannot expect to know even nearly everything about the birth parents or the adoptive child prior to bringing them home.
The faith you leap with can only, at best, be educated and confident that you can do what it takes to parent and love his child appropriately. We took the leap. We accepted the referral. The negative information and opinions just did not feel right to us.
We, flew to Poland on June 20, 2012 and were home on July 30, 2012. Ten months from learning vaguely about him to bringing him home isn't too bad!
Some would think that just 2.5 weeks notice for traveling to Poland for 6 weeks is too short. Not us. We were ready to toss a few outfits in a suitcase and leave the next day if we needed to. As it was we had just enough time to arrange with our parents to keep the kids at night for the two weeks my husband would be gone and for a sitter to watch the kids during the day for the duration of my absence.
We finally arrived in Warsaw on June 21 and were met by the in-country representative who then drove us immediately 2.5 hours to the little town of Lomza where Lukasz had finally found a foster home five weeks earlier. The Court had already had the hearing to allow us to have Lukasz with us for the two week bonding period so the next day we drove to the Adoption Center and met Lukasz.
He came in with his foster parents who obviously loved him. They had decided to foster him because he was so in need and fostering had become a calling to them. His foster father had his professional quality camera and lenses and was in tears through most of the meeting. His foster mom told me that Lukasz had just learned to walk at 16 months and had been so underfed at the institution that she had to feed him through the night the first few weeks. He was SO small. He was wearing 6-12 month clothes and they were still big. He had never been outside until he came to their house.
It took some time but Lukasz finally warmed up and climbed into my lap. He could obviously see! We were not sure about his hearing but there seemed to be at least some. Finally, the foster parents made tearful good-byes. They gave me EVERYTHING they had for him; every toy, every pair of shoes, every outfit. Their love was immense.
We took Lukasz back to our hotel for the weekend. We spent those two days walking around the village, playing, trying to get to know him and getting used to the second glances and various responses Lukasz' uniqueness naturally inspires. On Monday, we returned to the Adoption Center to meet with the Director and the psychologist to tell them if we wanted to continue with the bonding period and adoption. We did. We were given permission to complete the bonding period in Warsaw and after the meeting that is where we went.
We spent the next 2 weeks in Old Town, Warsaw, walking through history all over the city. We let Lukasz play with his food for the first time. We took a day trip to Krakow. The Adoption Center Director and psychologist came to our apartment to assess the bonding. The director told us more about Lukasz' life in the medical institution. On July 6, 2012, we returned to Lomza for our final court date.
During that hearing, we were asked why we wanted to adopt Lukasz, if we understood that this was permanent and that he had many medical needs. Would we provide the surgeries he needed? The judge asked many personal finance questions: how big was our house; how much debt did we have, how much did my husband make annually, etc. Of course, we had answered all these questions in our paperwork but it was different having to answer vocally in open court.
Then the Adoption Director and psychologist spoke. They told the Court about Lukasz' birth, his birth mother's lack of interest and that they were so thrilled that we had come for Lukasz. They felt that Lukasz was very lucky. We assured them that we felt lucky.
The Court took a few minutes and came back with the Adoption Decree. We returned to Warsaw, and my husband returned to the US the next day. I completed another 3 or so weeks in Warsaw (the appeals period) visiting and revisiting museums, the zoo and camping out at WiFi spots and, when I wanted to feel like I was home, Starbucks. Finally the in-country rep took me to Lomza to complete Lukasz's Polish passport application. Once we received the Polish passport we were able to submit all necessary documentation to the US Embassy in Warsaw and in just a few days we had his visa to travel to the US.
On July 29, 2012, we left Poland and Lukasz automatically became a US citizen upon processing through customs in Minneapolis on July 30 (his Certificate of Citizenship was automatically sent to us 8 weeks later). Arriving in Oklahoma exhausted and stinky, we were greeted by both sets of grandparents, Daddy and four siblings.
The Journey Continues
Lukasz went through the typical attachment bonding stages and is now fully integrated into our crazy family. He wrestles and plays with his siblings. He hears better now that he has a tube in his ear. The untreated ear infections while in the institution were why the staff thought he was totally deaf. He sees perfectly in his one eye and his speech improves daily. He attends deaf education classes and signs to communicate as his speech improves. He has already had several surgeries to correct sleep apnea and persistent strep infections. In February, he had cranial vault reconstruction to correct the craniosynostosis that would have been correct at just a few months if he had been born here. Soon he will receive a BAHA to provide some hearing on his right side.
We are on a steep learning curve as far as social interaction and reaction to his differences. He doesn't seem to notice comments or stares (and there are a lot) but he will. Until then, we take a "come and ask about it" attitude and treat his appearances as nothing to be ashamed of, secretive or sad about. If we accept his differences openly, others more readily do as well. He was born with an outgoing, strong willed personality so we think he is going to be more than okay as he grows and becomes more independent.
Adopting all of our children was a miracle. Adopting from Poland was a lesson in being open to whatever unexpected opportunity comes our way.
Visit the Poland Adoption Area of RainbowKids to learn more about adopting a child from Poland.
A Family Story Contributed by Children's House International