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Overseas adoptions give pause

In the days following the Sept. 11 attacks, Sharon McNeil started to worry _ but not about airplanes, hijackers and anthrax. She kept imagining that Middle Eastern terrorists were going to attack her family during their upcoming trip to Kazakhstan.

Her fears subsided when she focused on why she was traveling 7,400 miles to the former Soviet republic.

Mrs. McNeil and her family left Thursday to pick up Olga, a 9-month-old, blond-haired girl to be called Victoria Bailey when she arrives home in Largo later this month.

"I went through a period where I was freaking out," said Mrs. McNeil, a 33-year-old nurse, before the trip. "Now, I don't have any qualms about it."

The McNeils and other would-be parents are continuing with overseas adoption plans despite the attacks and subsequent terrorist scares.

But many others _ particularly those who are just starting to collect information about the process _ postponed making a commitment or lost interest altogether in the weeks after Sept. 11. Adoption agencies in Florida and around the nation reported huge drops in inquiries.

Although interest is starting to bounce back, some agency officials still estimate it will take months before the number of inquiries returns to where it once was _ presuming the war and terrorism do not escalate further.

"It's not quite back to normal," said Amy Bleich, who works with prospective parents at Tedi Bear Adoptions in Jacksonville. "But it's beginning to pick up. People still want to have families but are being much more cautious."

Would-be parents have given many reasons for reconsidering international adoptions: a fear of flying or getting stranded abroad, possible delays in the process, a worry that some countries will stop allowing Americans to adopt, and the economic downturn.

But agency officials say most adoptions are proceeding as they always have _ with the usual problems _ and people's fears are unfounded.

"It's emotional, not reality," said Susan Caughman, publisher of Adoptive Families magazine in New York. "Adoption agencies are doing a lot of hand-holding these days."

Experts in foreign adoption say the process already has been growing more difficult for Americans in recent years _ some of whom have encountered trouble unrelated to Sept. 11 in countries that are revamping procedures.

Post-attack misperceptions, they say, have added to what sometimes can be a frustrating waiting game.

"It just made us more resolute in our plans," said Wynn Wargo of Clearwater, who will travel to China in January with her husband, Steve Armil, to pick up their daughter. "But that's not so for everyone."

Proceeding as always

After the hijackings, New Beginnings Family and Childrens Services in Largo didn't get a single request for information in September. Or in all of October. So agency director Barbara Graffeo took out an ad in the newspaper to lure people back.

Adoption Services Associates in Texas e-mailed people who had expressed interest in adoption. Other agencies relied on word of mouth to remind people about the children waiting overseas.

Agency officials stress that parents shouldn't waver now because adoptions are proceeding as they always have with only minor delays since Sept. 11 for people who had flights canceled or were affected by staffing changes and shifting priorities at U.S. embassies and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"We want to encourage families to do this _ not to think of the dangers," said Joann Lynch of the Gift of Life adoption agency in Pinellas Park. "Giving birth is a risk. Adopting domestically is a risk. Adopting internationally is a risk, too."

Foreign adoptions continue to grow in popularity with a record number of children _ more than 18,000 _ adopted by Americans last year.

The entire process can take six to 18 months, depending on the country, but prospective parents usually are successful in getting a child because the number of children far exceeds the people willing to adopt. The children, usually a few months to a few years old, live in orphanages or occasionally in foster homes after being abandonned by their birth parents.

And prospective parents don't have to worry about a birth mother changing her mind after they have taken a child home, like in the United States.

That's not to say there aren't drawbacks in other nations that can make adopting difficult. Some countries restrict the weight, age, religion or even sexual preference of adoptive parents. Romania has even stopped its program while it revamps the process.

"This is the normal course of events in adoptions," Caughman said.

Most people who have lost interest in adoption were just starting to consider it. Those who have signed contracts agreeing to spend $16,000 to $26,000 are still moving forward.

"The people already in the pipeline are going anyway," said Tim Swanson, owner of Federal Travel & Cruises in South Florida, which specializes in travel for foreign adoptions. "The families deciding whether to start the process are not."

A handful of people have postponed trips to pick up their children. Others have requested that an adoption agency official accompany them or escort a child to the United States for them.

"There have been a lot of questions, but no one has backed completely out of the program," said Carol Silver, also of Gift of Life.

Some nations are

less desirable now

Some of the most popular countries from which Americans adopt children have become less desirable since Sept. 11.

These days, Americans are shying away from adopting nations geographically close to the fighting or that have "stan" in their name. That includes former Soviet republics, particularly Kazakhstan, that had been favored for their young, white children.

"They're looking more at the map," said Jennifer Massie, a social worker at Lifelink Child and Family Services in Sarasota.

Americans adopted children from every corner of the globe last year, although most came from Asia, Central America and Eastern Europe with China and Russia topping the list. Some countries, including hot spot Afghanistan where officials estimate one in three children are orphaned, don't allow foreign adoptions.

But in recent weeks, some prospective parents have asked their adoption agencies to change their preferred country to one in Asia or Central America. Interest has peaked in places far from the action.

Kazakhstan, a nation of 16-million people between China and Russia, supports the United States in the war, but some people are scared to travel there because it's only a few hundred miles from the fighting and almost half its citizens are Muslim.

Judith Keiderling left for Kazakhstan two weeks ago with her daughter, Chris, who is adopting a baby girl named Aliya.

"We're all concerned about the dangers and we have family members who have expressed concern over whether our decision to go is wise or not," Keiderling said before she left. "But we are going to bring back this precious child."

Agency officials say Kazakhstan's popularity has grown in recent years as more parents come back complimentary about the process, the nation and the healthy, young children, many under a year old.

Sharon and Tim McNeil, who left for Kazakhstan last week, were drawn to the nation because they were matched with a baby who looks like Alex, the energetic 3-year-old they adopted from Russia.

When they received word on Oct. 24 that they could travel, some friends questioned their decision to take Alex with them, but the McNeils wouldn't consider leaving him behind.

"The bad things that have happened have happened in the United States," said Tim McNeil, 45, a systems analyst. "We were more worried about problems here than there."

_ Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.