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Overseas adoptions rise -- for black American children

By Sophie Brown, for CNN
updated 8:38 AM EDT, Tue September 17, 2013
Elisa van Meurs with her adoptive parents Bart and Heleene van Meurs on vacation in Switzerland.
Elisa van Meurs with her adoptive parents Bart and Heleene van Meurs on vacation in Switzerland.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • While adoptions to the U.S. are in steep decline, more U.S. children are being adopted abroad
  • The rise of "open adoptions" where birth mothers choose adopting parents has led this trend
  • Most U.S. children being adopted abroad are African American babies, adoption attorneys say
  • Experts: Birth mothers are drawn by the exotic locale and a perceived escape from racism

Editor's note: In this series, CNN investigates international adoption, hearing from families, children and key experts on its decline, and whether the trend could -- or should -- be reversed.

(CNN) -- Elisa van Meurs grew up with a Polish au pair, speaks fluent Dutch and English and loves horseback riding -- her favorite horse is called Kiki but she also rides Pippi Longstocking, James Bond, and Robin Hood.

She plays tennis and ice hockey, and in the summer likes visiting her grandmother in the Swiss Alps.

"It's really nice to go there because you can walk in the mountains and you can mountain bike ... you can see Edelweiss sometimes," said the 13-year-old, referring to the famous mountain flower that blooms above the tree line.

It's a privileged life unlike that of her birth mother, a woman of African American descent from Indianapolis who had her first child at age 15. Her American family is "really nice but they don't have a lot of money to do stuff," said Elisa, who met her birth mother, and two siblings in 2011. "They were not so rich."

I thought it was so strange. I'm here in Holland and they're telling me I can get a (U.S.) baby
Bart van Meurs, adoptive father

While the number of international adoptions is plummeting -- largely over questions surrounding the origin of children put up for adoption in developing countries -- there is one nation from which parents abroad can adopt a healthy infant in a relatively short time whose family history and medical background is unclouded by doubt: The United States.

"I thought it was so strange. I'm here in Holland and they're telling me I can get a baby" from the U.S., recalled Elisa's father, Bart van Meurs, who originally planned to adopt from China or Colombia but held little hope of receiving an infant. "This can't be true." But less than 18 months later, van Meurs and his wife Heleene were at an Indiana hospital holding four-day-old Elisa.

While the typical tale of international adoption is U.S. families adopting a child from abroad, foreign families like the van Meurs adopt scores of U.S. children each year. The numbers are far lower than the thousands of overseas children adopted each year by U.S. families, but over the past decade the number of U.S. children adopted by foreign parents has been steadily rising -- and almost all of the children are of African American descent like Elisa, say attorneys who facilitate international adoptions.

Read more: Why are international adoptions falling?

U.S. laws that allow birth mothers to choose the adoptive family of their children feed that growth, as some prefer to see their kids grow up in an exotic overseas locale rather than the U.S., experts say.

"A family from Indiana might talk about taking their child on vacation to Florida, to Disneyworld. A Dutch family talks about taking their child on vacation to the south of France or the Alps," said Steven Kirsh of Kirsh & Kirsh, an Indianapolis law firm that has helped place hundreds of children with families in Europe.

The van Meurs on Florence's Ponte Vecchio during a family vacation earlier this year in Italy.
The van Meurs on Florence's Ponte Vecchio during a family vacation earlier this year in Italy.

Escape from racism

When Susan, a Florida resident, chose to place her son for adoption in 2006, the social worker gave her three binders with information about three prospective families. But she only needed to see the first binder of a couple from the Netherlands to make her decision. "If my mother had lived, she'd look just like (the prospective Dutch mother)," recalled the 37 year old, who asked that her last name not be used. Her own mother died when she was two months old.

Susan also wanted her son to grow up far away from the life she knew. She was a 30-year-old prostitute addicted to crack beginning a prison sentence when she learned she was pregnant. She did not know whether the child's father was a man who raped her "for hours" or a drug dealer whom she "had done something with" one time, she said. But both men were African American, and she believed the child would face discrimination growing up in the United States.

White people are going to hate him because he's half black ... black people are going to hate on him because he's half white
Susan, birth mother who chose a Dutch family

"There's too much prejudice over here. The white people are going to hate him because he's half black, and the majority of black people are going to hate on him because he's half white," said Susan, who is Caucasian. "And then he'll have to do extra things to prove what kind of a Negro he is, and extra things to prove what kind of a honky he is and I don't want that. I did not want that for my kid."

Even her own daughter, then aged 11, said "she would never accept that n***** child."

Susan is not alone, says Adam Pertman, Executive Director of the Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of "Adoption Nation." Many birth mothers have a perception that their black or mixed-race children will not face the same race issues in the Netherlands as in the United States.

"In the United States, as much as Americans want to believe it's not true, we are still a country where there is a least some degree of racial prejudice. The birth mothers' perception of Holland, in particular, was that the same was not true in Holland. There's that feeling that maybe we can escape those issues if (the child is) somewhere else."

 Seventy Dutch families who adopted U.S. kids gather for an annual Fathers Day picnic in June.
Seventy Dutch families who adopted U.S. kids gather for an annual Fathers Day picnic in June.

Dutch Father's Day -- American style

This past June on Father's Day, about 70 Dutch families who have adopted children from the U.S. gathered at a park outside Amsterdam. The picnic is a time for the children to celebrate their American heritage: "The kids are dressed with a red, white and blue beret in her hair, if it's a girl, (or) they're wearing New York Yankees t-shirts," said Michael Goldstein, a New York attorney who facilitated the adoptions of the picnic attendees.

Bluntly, the U.S. is probably the only country that will allow a gay couple to adopt a child
Michael Goldstein, adoption attorney

Among the families were Marielle van den Biggelaar, a stay-at-home mom and her husband, Marnix, a sales manager for a women's clothing brand, who adopted their two children, Eva, four, and two-year-old Norbert as babies from Florida and New York, respectively. "For the kids it's really important to see that they're not alone and that all these kids have the same history, and they're all adopted and they're all from the same country," Marielle said.

"It's really nice to see them all together and to talk to each other about experiences -- with their hair and with their skin -- and they're all the same people with the same mindset, so it's really fun for the kids and for us, as well."

The couple encourages their children to embrace their American origins, celebrating Thanksgiving each year with other families who adopted children from the United States. "We try to tell them about their culture and about their background," said Marielle, who decided to adopt after years of unsuccessful fertility treatment. "We would love them to (start speaking) English when they're really young because if they want to go back (to America) and if they want to see where they're born, it would be nice if they can speak to ... their parents if they are going to meet them."

Their children stand out in Het Gooi, a village about 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Amsterdam. "They're famous here, where we live, because it's a really white society," Marielle said.

Marielle van den Biggelaar with her 4-year-old daughter, Eva, who was adopted from the U.S.
Marielle van den Biggelaar with her 4-year-old daughter, Eva, who was adopted from the U.S.

Some of the parents at the June picnic were same-sex couples. With laws in some states allowing gay marriage and adoption, the United States is one of the few countries from which gays and lesbians can adopt, and many U.S.-born children sent to the Netherlands have been adopted by same-sex families, according to Anneke Vinke, a Dutch adoption expert at the University of Leiden. In the last five years, 17% of the U.S. children that Goldstein helped to place with foreign families were adopted by gay couples.

"Bluntly, the U.S. is probably the only country that will allow a gay couple to adopt a child," Goldstein said, adding that some states allow couples, gay or straight, to adopt whether they're married or not.

"So the gay families of the world, when they can't adopt in their own countries or don't want to necessarily, and want to adopt a baby, they're going to turn to the U.S."

Why the Netherlands?

Reliable data on overseas adoptions of American children is hard to come by. Last year the U.S. State Department officially reported that 99 American children were adopted by foreign families. But the real number is almost certainly higher, said Peter Selman, an expert on international adoption at Newcastle University in the U.K. who acts as a statistical adviser to the U.N. body that oversees international adoptions.

For example, in 2010 the U.S. State Department counted only 43 U.S. kids who were adopted overseas, but the same year five countries -- Canada, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Ireland -- reported adoptions of 205 children born in the U.S., Selman said. According to statistics by receiving countries, there were 126 U.S. children adopted overseas in 2004, steadily rising to 315 in 2009.

Most American families were, and still are, interested in adopting a white infant
Steven Kirsh, past president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys

"The United States has sent an increasing number of children for overseas adoptions in recent years," Selman said. Goldstein, the New York attorney, also says that the number of outgoing adoptions he facilitates now is higher than a decade ago.

The State Department's system for tracking international adoptions only includes reports from certain adoption providers, such as those accredited under an international treaty known as the Hague Convention, a spokesperson said. Other adoptions involving U.S. children, like those completed through the foster care system, are not counted. "In order to address that shortcoming, we have increased our outreach efforts to encourage receiving countries and public domestic authorities to report the outgoing adoption information to us," State Department spokesperson Elizabeth Finan said by email.

Canada is the number one destination for children adopted from the U.S. -- 148 went there in 2010 -- likely owing to its proximity, experts say. But the Netherlands has consistently ranked second each year; about 250 U.S. children were adopted by Dutch families from 2004 to 2010.

The popularity of American children for Dutch families appears to have grown by word-of-mouth after Steven Kirsh, the Indiana adoption attorney, helped an acquaintance's sister -- who lived in the Netherlands with her Dutch husband -- adopt from the U.S. in the 1990s. Similarly, Goldstein began providing adoptions for the Netherlands after a Dutch family working for the U.N. sought his help for a U.S. adoption.

Adoption attorney: 'The Dutch families were just interested in adopting an infant. The color of the child's skin didn't matter to them.'
Adoption attorney: 'The Dutch families were just interested in adopting an infant. The color of the child's skin didn't matter to them.'

"Most American families were, and still are, interested in adopting a white infant. The Dutch families were just interested in adopting an infant. The color of the child's skin didn't matter to them," said Kirsh, former president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. "We were getting some incredible families adopting -- just the best of the best. It was easy for the birth moms to fall in love with these couples."

Children with special needs

Following the decline in international adoptions, most children being adopted from overseas are defined as having special needs, such as developmental disabilities. The U.S. babies are often not special needs children, although some states prioritize adoptions for non-Caucasian children. U.S. babies going to the Netherlands might have a "minimum exposure to drugs, but usually some kind of lighter type of drugs like marijuana," said Goldstein.

Susan's son was exposed to crack cocaine during the first 10 weeks of her pregnancy, but he has been lucky. "The doctors have said there are absolutely no side effects from the drugs," she said.

As the former crack-addicted prostitute that I was, I had seen so many girls that went through foster care
Susan, on giving her child for adoption

Kirsh says the most common misconception about birth mothers is that they turn to adoption because they want to get rid of the baby or don't love the child. For Susan, adoption was a last resort.

"I tried to get family but I had nobody to take my kid. My grandmother was too old; my father had just had a major heart attack. I had nobody to take him." She even turned to an abusive ex: "I even begged him. I had nobody. Nobody."

Foster care wasn't an option either: "As the former crack-addicted prostitute that I was, I had seen so many girls that went through foster care, and the abuse and, you know, it's awful. It's awful there."

"I didn't want to keep him in foster care. It's not fair. It's not fair for me to think: Well, you know what, one day I might get my life together. Well, you know what? Your life is not together now and your baby needs love now."

An open adoption

Foreign families are generally more willing to have some level of openness than American families, according to Kirsh, and this can make them more attractive to birth mothers. "The Dutch families would, for example, want the birth mother to help name the child, because they wanted the child to have that connection to the birth mother. Almost never does an American family do that."

Dana Naughton, an adoption researcher at the Pennsylvania State University said that the foreign families were involved in some of the first open adoptions in the U.S., where a culture of secrecy around adoptions was once common and children may not even have known they were adopted.

"In some ways these adoptions are pioneering international open adoption. That's not a process that's common in terms of communication between adoptive families and birth families. And to varying degrees it is what underpins this process," Naughton said.

Marnix van den Biggelaar with his 2-year-old son, Norbert.
Marnix van den Biggelaar with his 2-year-old son, Norbert.

For Dutch parents, adopting a U.S. child is luck of the draw -- and the birth mothers hold all the cards. The biological mother of the van den Biggelaars' first child, Eva, chose them as adoptive parents just nine weeks before the baby was due, and Eva arrived three weeks early. "Instead of nine months of pregnancy... we had six weeks only to prepare for a baby -- that was really crazy," says Marielle van den Biggelaar. The van den Biggelaars sent their "dear birth mom" letter to Goldstein, the adoption attorney, in November 2008 and were chosen by Eva's birth mom three months later, in January. The family declined to disclose how much they paid, but in general the amount for Dutch families ranges from $35,000 to $50,000, according to Goldstein.

Two-year-old Norbert is at preschool now and already takes judo lessons, which his mother describes as "all these little guys, two years old, tumbling through the room in little white suits." His four-year-old sister, Eva, is "really sweet and really protective and also sometimes really naughty but that belongs to her age I think," she said.

Their children comprehend the basics of their adoptions -- they were born in a different country and "out of the belly of a different mom" -- and the van den Biggelaars are saving the details for when the children are "old enough to understand and to know what happened and why it happened."

But those explanations can wait. "They're really cute together, they really love each other, and that's really nice to see," their mother said.

Meeting her birth family

One of the advantages for the parents of Elisa van Meurs in adopting from the U.S. was the access to information about Elisa's mother and her medical background. "I can always find her because I have the social security number. I have one sister and she lives in the U.S. so it's not a strange country to me, whereas China is -- and I can't understand Chinese," Bart van Meurs said.

In America I feel at home, and when I'm in Holland I feel at home, too
Elisa van Meurs, adopted by Dutch family

Since Elisa was a baby, her parents have sent a letter and photographs to her biological mother each year through the Kirsh & Kirsh adoption agency.

In 2011, curious to know more about her origins, Elisa traveled to Florida to meet her biological mother and her extended family. Elisa's birth-grandmother and mom told the van Meurs that they were willing to meet Elisa anywhere in the U.S. and Elisa mentioned she would like to meet close to Disneyworld.

Elisa had one wish. She wanted to meet all her family members on this first "meet and greet" except her birth mom. "She thought it would be too much for her to also meet her birth mom then," said van Meurs. She met her birth mom the next morning at Gatorland, a small theme park.

Meeting them was strange at first and she was astonished to recognize familiar features in her mother and grandfather's faces.

"My nose is the same!" she said.

She's glad that they met: "For me, it feels like happiness because I really wanted to know how they looked like (and) because they really know how you are." But now they just go on with their lives, she said, except for the occasional call on Christmas Day and they became Facebook friends. "If (I) go there maybe too much, my mother will miss me or something like that."

Elisa van Meurs on a family holiday to Cap d'Antibes, France in May 2012.
Elisa van Meurs on a family holiday to Cap d'Antibes, France in May 2012.

Asked what she thinks her life would be like had she not been adopted, Elisa said, "I never thought about it, because now I live here."

While she looks forward to traveling to the Alps, her favorite holiday destination is America. Every two years or so, they visit Bart van Meurs' sister near Detroit, Michigan, where Elisa enjoys roller-skating, eating hamburgers and French fries, "all the bad stuff," she said.

"In America I feel at home, and when I'm in Holland I feel at home, too."

Sobriety after prison

In Florida, Susan has been out of prison and sober for four years. She works several jobs, has an apartment and is raising her three-year-old daughter with her fiancée, the girl's father.

She and her American family stay in touch with her son, now 7, and his adoptive family in the Netherlands. They send DVDs and photo albums, and traveled to the U.S. in 2011 and again this February. Susan's daughter, the one who rejected her son before his birth, has even had a change of heart. "She doesn't care about the race anymore," Susan said. "She loves her brother."

I thought it was the end of the world, and it wasn't
Susan, birth mother on giving up child

It's not always easy for Susan to see photos of the son she gave up. "There's always something missing. There's always something gone but I am glad I get to see him growing up. Yes, I am."

And she loves the boy's adoptive parents, especially his mother. "I love her to death. She is just... she's his mom, and that's amazing to watch.

"I don't want girls to be scared," Susan said of other birth mothers considering giving their children up for adoption. "This isn't an ending. It's a beginning. For me, I thought it was the end of the world, and it wasn't.

"I never thought it would be like this."

CNN's Kevin Voigt contributed to this article

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