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.
"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.
"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.
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.
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 4-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.