Adoption Pains

Why does the system make it so hard to give an orphan a home?

On the night of Sunday, June 2, 1996, someone set a fire in the entryway of a two-story apartmentbuilding on 17th Avenue in Brooklyn. The fire spread to the walls and ceiling of the first floor, then up the staircase and into the apartment on the left. When the fire trucks arrived at 1:08 a.m., heavy black smoke was billowing from the windows.

"I can vividly remember a woman in the street screaming as we pulled up, `There are people upstairs,'" says John Kroon, who at the time had been a firefighter for just 15 months. While his colleagues hooked up their hoses and pushed their way into the lobby, Kroon climbed a 24-foot portable ladder to a second-floor window. Breaking through it, he climbed into a darkened, smoke-filled bedroom.

The hose from Kroon's breathing equipment caught on a dresser drawer, yanking off his face mask and pulling the dresser on top of him. As he struggled to put the mask back on, he choked on the acrid smoke and felt the intense heat rise further, suggesting that the room would soon ignite. Moments later he found an unconscious woman on the floor, dragged her to the window, and handed her over to another firefighter on the ladder.

Sure that there must be a child somewhere in the room, because there had been a child guard on the window, Kroon felt around systematically, encountering one stuffed animal after another. Squeezing each object he touched, he finally felt something human, huddled under the bed behind a row of teddy bears and dolls. He pulled out a little girl and handed her through the window.

The woman, 30-year-old Elayna Allen, was taken to Victory Memorial Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 1:42 a.m. from cardiac arrest brought on by smoke inhalation. Her 3-year-old daughter, Francine, was taken to Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, where she was placed in a hyperbaric chamber, which delivers oxygen at high pressure. Both of her lungs had collapsed, and a tube was inserted into her chest to remove the gases that had accumulated there. Then she was transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit at Brooklyn Hospital Center.

"Why it dark?" Francine asked when she woke up. A CT scan and an MRI indicated that her blindness was not caused by brain damage, and her vision returned eventually. A few weeks later she had recovered sufficiently to be transferred to the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine at NYU Medical Center in Manhattan. That's where my wife met her.

Michele, then a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was interning as achaplain at the hospital. In early July, Francine's maternal grandmother, Evelyn Allen, requested a visit from a Jewish chaplain. Michele began seeing Francine a few times a week, and she started telling me about the charming, lively little girl with the pretty blue eyes.

One night in late July, Michele broached the possibility of adopting Francine. Evelyn, legally blind and in poor health, did not feel up to caring for her; the father's identity was unknown; and no other relative had come forward. Evelyn was looking for a nice Jewish couple to adopt Francine, and she had asked Michele if we might be interested. We were.

Evelyn said we should call Everett Wattley at the New York City Administration for Children's Services. Wattley agreed to send an ACS caseworker to do a home study, which is required by New York and most other states before a child can be placed with adoptive parents. In addition to an inspection of your home, the study involves probing questions about your family history, marital happiness, disciplinary philosophy, ability to deal with stress, and various other matters considered relevant in evaluating your qualifications for parenthood.

At least, that's what the adoption books say. Our experience was a bit different. On a Thursday morning in early August, ACS caseworker Stephen Francois arrived at our apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, late, sweaty, and exhausted. He had taken the wrong subway and walked over from the East Side. We gave him some water, and he took his blood pressure pills. He sat at our dining table, right near the front door, and surveyed the immediate surroundings, pronouncing them clean. Although we were glad to have passed this test, we were disappointed that he didn't make a more thorough inspection, since we had been up half the night sweeping, mopping, and dusting. Francois told us apologetically that he would have to ask us some personal questions. I steeled myself for a harrowing inquisition. He asked us what we did, where we worked, and how much each of us made. He left after about 20 minutes, saying he would call his supervisor, Wattley, and tell him we had checked out.

Later that day, I talked to Wattley, who said that he had received Francois' report but that the adoption was a private matter and should be handled by a private agency. He recommended several. After a few phone calls, I learned that we would need another home study, criminal background checks, and a lawyer. Through the Jewish Child Care Association (JCCA), I arranged for an "emergency" home study and picked an attorney whose fees seemed the most reasonable.

Five days later, the JCCA's social worker, Dina Rosenfeld, came to interview us. This time, it was more like the interview described in the adoption books. Rosenfeld, an experienced social worker who teaches at NYU, stayed for two and a half hours, asking detailed, searching questions. We were struck by the fact that ACS, which is supposed to be a neutral overseer, did such a lackadaisical job of investigating us, while the private agency that we hired to do a home study scrutinized us much more carefully. It turns out that you get what you pay for, even if you pay to be interrogated. At the end of the interview, Rosenfeld left us with a stack of forms, saying that the background clearances, checking for criminal records and histories of child abuse, were the most important. That night we scrambled to fill out the forms and get three letters of reference.

We were in a hurry because Francine was ready to be discharged from the hospital, and if she couldn't go home with us, she would have to stay in a foster home. All of us, including the hospital staff, wanted to avoid that, since it would mean that a girl who had just lost her mother and gone from one hospital to another would have to live with strangers before finding a permanent home. Francine already knew Michele and me as the people who took her out for ice cream, brought her little presents, blew bubbles with her in the courtyard, floated bath toys with her in the fountain, and picked tomatoes with her in the hospital garden.

It was sad to see Francine, healthy and fully recovered, tied to a wheelchair with a sheet. The nurses kept her restrained that way because most of the other kids were seriously disabled and needed to use wheelchairs. It wasn't safe for a 3-year-old to wander around in all that traffic.

On Thursday, August 22, we took Francine to see our apartment for the first time. She fell asleep in the car on the way there and awoke barely in time to have milk and cookies before we had to take her back to the hospital. We weren't sure exactly what to tell her. On the one hand, we were buying bedroom furniture for her, and the psychologist at the hospital had said we should be preparing her to go home with us. On the other hand, nothing had been decided legally, and we worried about jumping the gun. The feeling of uncertainty was compounded on September 1, when we arrived at the hospital for a visit and were told that we were no longer allowed to take Francine off hospital grounds. Apparently, the administration was worried that we might abscond with Francine, pretending we were going to Baskin-Robbins when in fact we were heading to Buenos Aires.

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