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Internationally adopted kids visit homelands to learn about heritage

| Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011

Pictures of James and Xiaoli Carr's last trip to China spill from the sides of their family album, no matter how carefully you hold it.

The spine wore out a long time ago.

"It was cold there," says James, excitedly pointing to a snapshot of the siblings in Tiananmen Square. "I want to go back."

Chilly weather wasn't all the pair encountered during their weeklong visit last November to the country of their birth, their second together since their adoptions became final.

As children adopted internationally during the peak years of the late 1990s and early 2000s have grown older, more American families are traveling to their children's native lands as a way for them to connect with their heritage. But parents worry: Is it a positive approach• At what age might a child best grasp the differences in culture?

Child experts offer this advice: Don't push too hard.

"It's a good idea to let the child set the pace, rather than force the situation," says Laura Knight, who teaches child psychology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Generally, children can have mixed feelings when returning to the country of their birth. Some can feel an emotional attachment to the country as soon as they step off a plane. Others feel nothing at all.

And that can all be tied to a child's maturity and their age when they left the country, Knight says.

James and Xiaoli, both 10, tussle playfully over the remote as a rerun of "SpongeBob SquarePants" plays for the umpteenth time on the TV in their Plum home. They each were born deaf, to different parents, in China's Henan province, and were sent to separate orphanages at the age of 2. They now live with their adoptive parents, Johnny and Beth Carr, who have two birth children, plus a third adopted child. James was adopted in 2005, and Xiaoli in 2007.

"We've always encouraged them to have some kind of knowledge of their heritage," says Johnny Carr, 41.

James spent the first few years of his life in a rundown orphanage that was no bigger than the average two-bedroom home in Etna and offered no structured deaf-education classes. One of his instructors was able to teach him with sign language on her own.

"I miss her," James says. "I want to see her again someday."

Xiaoli has studied sign language formally for less than four years; the orphanage where she lived did not have a deaf-education program.

While happy moments of their trip to China last year are chronicled in family albums and on Facebook, there were sadder, more reflective moments.

Tears welled in James' and Xiaoli's eyes as they walked among scores of children staying in the orphanages they once called home. Some of the faces were familiar.

Children they once knew, played with and swapped clothes with were there, still waiting to be adopted.

"It's sad," says Xiaoli. "I want them to be with families, like the one I've got."

Internationally adopted children eventually will have questions about their heritage, says Holiday Adair, a counseling psychologist and chair of California University of Pennsylvania's psychology department, so it's a good idea for parents to do what they can to keep their children in touch with their culture.

"It's always positive to keep them in touch with their roots," says Adair, whose 9-year-old daughter was adopted from Russia. "It can be done with foods, observing certain holidays. It doesn't always have to be a big, expensive trip somewhere."

Lauren Case has no memory of the tiny South Korean village where she was born in 1989. She was given up by her birth parents when she was a few days old, and adopted at 4 months of age by David and Vickie Case of Sewickley.

She had no interest in visiting her birthplace until she got into college, which led her to go to Korea last summer. While there, she was reunited with Lee Wha Yong, the woman who fostered her until the Cases' adoption paperwork came through.

"She remembered me," says Case, 22. "Of course, she didn't recognize me and I didn't know her. ... but she remembered my name, who I was."

Back then, Case was known as Sang Hee Lee, which means "gentle, pretty face" in Korean. Case left the country with a keepsake -- an undated photo of the woman cradling Case as an infant.

Otherwise, Case says she felt little attachment to Korea.

She learned some tidbits about her birth parents. Her mother was a short woman who worked as a beautician, and her father, a laborer, had a fiery temper. Case also discovered she has seven siblings, possibly all still in Korea, although she says she has no real desire to search for them.

"There's still a lot of shame associated with illegitimate children there," says Case, an international relations major at Kalamazoo (Mich.) College.

"It's nice to know they're out there," she says of her siblings. "But it's just a different life over there."

International adoptions slow

China, for years, had been fertile ground for American parents who were looking to adopt orphaned children. A one-child-per-household policy had prompted many Chinese parents to give a baby up.

Now the Asian superpower has joined a growing number of nations that have cut back on international adoption, opting to boost domestic foster-care programs and improve local adoption.

"There's simply a lot more challenges out there for American parents who are looking to adopt from other countries," says Sam Wojnilower, coordinator of international services for Wynnewood-based Adoptions from the Heart, which has an office in Greensburg.

American families adopted 224,000 children from other countries in the past decade, according to the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs, which oversees international adoptions into the United States. That includes roughly 11,000 in Pennsylvania during that period.

China traditionally has accounted for nearly one-fourth of all international adoptions to the United States since 1999, but has significantly scaled back foreign adoptions in recent years.

About 3,400 children from China were adopted by American families in 2010, compared with 7,000 children in 2004. Adoptions from China that once took a year or less to finalize now can take four years.

In all, 422 foreign children were adopted into Pennsylvania homes in 2010, compared with 1,191 in 2005.

The United States also has become more scrutinizing of nations that have developed reputations for having corrupt international adoption policies. Children, particularly those from Third World nations and some Asian countries, have been passed off as orphans, only to have been bought by parents living in America, says Marianne Novy, of the Pittsburgh consortium of Adoption Studies.

The United States' entry into the Hague Convention -- an international agreement aimed at preventing children in other countries from falling prey to human-trafficking schemes -- is seen as a crackdown on some of those nations, while playing a role in the adoption slowdown.

Adoptions from nations such as Guatemala, Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam have largely ceased since America's April 2008 membership in the Hague Convention.

South Korea has slashed international adoptions because it has become embarrassed by how many children it has given away over the years.

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