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A Fort Worth Mom’s Experiences with International Adoption and Foster Care

Meet mom of two Dr. Becky Lee Burk

In honor of Adoption Awareness Month this November, we asked some inspiring moms in North Texas to share their experiences raising their non-biological family. Dr. Becky Lee Burk is a small animal veterinarian living in Aledo with her husband, Michael, and their two children, Ezra, 9, and Libby Rose, 6.

See below for Dr. Burk’s advice to families who may not be interested in pursuing adoption themselves but want to know how they can provide support to other families or birth mothers considering adoption.

For our family, adoption was always Plan A. I was fortunate enough to marry a man who, like myself, had no strong desire to have biological children. When the time came to start planning our family, we were adamant that we wanted to parent a child in need of a loving, safe and stable environment. Both of us had hugely supportive families and friends behind us, which are priceless during what we discovered was a long and sometimes heartbreaking process.

Though we knew we wanted to pursue adoption, we weren’t sure where to start. Neither of us had close family members or friends in the adoption community. My husband was in the military at the time, which required us to move around the country every three years, which complicated matters. We knew that the process could take several years, so we needed to find an agency that would work with us through what could potentially be multiple cross-country moves.

RELATED: Is International Adoption for You?

A casual workplace conversation brought us one step closer to building our family. One day, I said to a colleague that whenever my husband and I decided to add to our family, that we’d do it through adoption. A nearby coworker mentioned that she heard of an adoption event hosted by a local church on the radio, but she couldn’t recall the details. My husband and I both worked full-time, so we couldn’t listen to the radio all day in hopes of securing the details, but this woman’s mother very sweetly tuned in for us during the work day and jotted down all the information.

Hosting the event was America World, an international adoption agency based out of Virginia with people stationed in nearly every U.S. state. It seemed kismet to find this agency – we knew that no matter where we ended up with the military that there would be continuity with our case.

One of the first decisions we faced was choosing to pursue an adoption domestically, internationally or to go the foster-to-adopt route. We weighed the pros and cons, and decided that an international adoption would be the best fit for our family. We sought a placement as quickly as possible with zero chance of the child being returned to their birth family. At that time, international adoption would allow us that opportunity because these children already have parental rights terminated and are waiting to be “matched” with families.

RELATED: Growing Your Family Through Foster Adoption

Next, we had to decide which country to pursue an adoption. International adoption laws and practices change constantly. A country that was open to it just two months ago may decide to shut it down for years at the drop of a hat while you’re midway through the process. (For example, Ethiopia, where we eventually adopted our first child from, recently closed its doors to international adoptions, leaving many families in limbo.) Some countries require a minimum net wealth before you are qualified to adopt, others have constraints on matters like the age difference between child and parents or the number of children already in the home.

During the event we attended an informational meeting about Ethiopia, which had a relatively new international adoption program. Wait times for placement were very short compared to programs in other countries like Haiti and China, so we felt that the likelihood of running into jurisdictional issues would be minimal. We were thrilled with the idea of adding a beautiful Ethiopian baby to our lives. I was so excited about the prospect that I started filling out our adoption application immediately after the meeting.

The adoption process requires mountains of paperwork: financial statements, health exams, blood tests, letters of recommendation. Then there are the training seminars, required books ranging from adoption to behaviors and home visits from social workers, health inspectors and fire department. (This is an abbreviated list.)

Then, each of these materials must be notarized; in some cases, you have to get a state seal and once that’s done you have to get a United States governmental seal; ours was signed by Condoleeza Rice. This is all before your case file is even presented to the country you’re pursuing an adoption from.

By the time we finished the long paperwork process, Michael and I were new transplants to Fort Worth. I drove to Austin to get all of our state seals done in person, hoping that this would speed up the process. It still wound up taking about seven months to get the paperwork ready to be submitted to Ethiopia. Then, the real wait began. We would wait to be matched with our child.

Part of the home study allows adoptive families to state what they ideally seek in their adoption. As first-time parents, we requested a child under one year of age. The wait for a female child was much longer than for a male child, so we also specified that we wanted a boy to again cut down on the wait time.

When we first started to pursue adoption from Ethiopia, the wait to be matched with a child was anywhere from 3-5 months. The number of families seeking adoption from Ethiopia during the time we completed our paperwork skyrocketed, so ultimately it was a little over eight months until we were matched with our son.

The call was a blur, but I recall the important part: we had a son.

As likely any adoptive family will tell you, the call from the agency comes out of the blue. They don’t warn you or even offer, “Okay, we will call with a match in a day or two.” You truly have no idea when the phone may ring and you will get to see your child for the first time. For me, the call came when I was in an exam room with a patient. The moment I received word that the agency was trying to reach me, I tried to excuse myself in a professional manner but I’m pretty sure I just ran out of the room.

The call was a blur, but I recall the important part: we had a son. The agency confirmed we matched with a child and we would receive photos over email of our baby boy. I started screaming a bit after we hung up, and then I immediately called my husband to tell him to meet me at work so we could look at his photos together.

For the rest of the day, I was just walking on air. Michael and I immediately went just goo-goo eyed over his photos. We stared at every single feature, one by one over and over. With only these two photos of our future son to gaze at for weeks and weeks, I was sure that I could pick out our baby based on his ears alone.

It was another three months before we could travel to Ethiopia to pick up our son. Ezra. Fortunately there were many adopting families who had already arrived to meet their children and they would take photos to send back to us waiting families. That way, we could see our kiddos grow even when we couldn’t be there.

One of the hardest things was to know that you had a child across the world that you loved more than life itself even though you’d never even met them and not be able to hold them and care for them. Some children would get sick during their time in the “transitional home” and I felt so sad for the families who could only hope and pray that they would be okay. Devastatingly, some of the children would succumb to their illnesses and pass away. I can’t imagine that loss and I just kept praying over and over and over that God would keep Ezra healthy.

We traveled to Ethiopia the week before Christmas, planning to spend the holiday with our son in his homeland. Being first-time parents in a foreign country was quite daunting. I was a mix of so many emotions that it’s amazing that I could even walk and talk at the same time. But once Ezra was placed into my arms, everything just fell into place and I was at peace. All those nights I spent just looking around his nursery imagining him in it and imagining what our life would be like as parents and as a family were finally all coming to fruition. My husband graciously agreed that I could be the first one to hold our son but after he got his hands on him he didn’t want to give him back. He was meant to be a father and even smiled through being pooped on twice. Upon our return home, we were greeted by our families with hugs, kisses and happy tears.

RELATED: Welcoming a Child Through Domestic Adoption

The adoption journey is long and arduous, and it doesn’t end once you take custody of your child. Without having some kind of support group, I imagine it would be very lonely. We were fortunate to have the support of our friends and family as well as a Facebook adoption group that I am still a member of today. With loving support surrounding us, we were able to continue through the remaining legal processes.

We had to go to an American court for a “re-adoption,” which is where Ezra’s name was formally changed. We also had to apply for our son to become a U.S citizen, get him a social security number, a new birth certificate, et cetera. Annually, we’re required to send updates on Ezra and our family to Ethiopia, along with photos and current health information, until he’s 18 years old.

Ezra was 7 months old when we brought him home. He was such a delight and was so “easy” that I couldn’t wait to adopt again. We waited until he was around 3 years old before we starting pursuing the adoption of another child. This time around, we were in no rush for a placement.

The reality is that adoption can be quite expensive. You not only pay governmental agencies, but also for the care the child receives in country. All told, I believe our adoption was around $25,000. Our government does offer an adoption tax credit to recoup a portion of adoption costs (approximately $13,000), which was a huge help to us—but we still had used most of our savings on our first adoption. For the second, we opted to pursue a matched adoption.

Texas offers matched adoptions through the foster care system. The program matches potential adoptive parents with a child whose parental rights are terminated, which is key for families looking to adopt. Texas believes in reunification, but without parental rights there is an extremely minimal of reunification with birth families. While the child is in your care, you receive a monthly stipend until they are adopted and the adoption fee is only around $1,000.

The process was very similar to our Ethiopian adoption in terms of the paperwork requirements and social worker visits, though the training was much more rigorous. It took around four months to complete training and paperwork. Again, we waited.

In matched adoptions, your dossier is submitted along with your requests to a state database. Using the information in the dossier, the agency will “match” a child to three different families best suited to that child’s needs. Once your family is actually matched to a child, you receive as much information as is available for that child and you can decide if you want to be considered to become their adoptive family. If you decide to move forward, a date is set where the child’s attorneys, social workers and whoever else may need to be present to discuss the three prospective families. After your family is chosen, there’s a six-month period where the child is in your home as a foster child. In between getting to know each other there are weekly reports and regular social worker visits. If all goes well and both the child and family agree, then you can proceed with adoption filings to the court.

Our dossier stated that we were requesting a child any sex, any race, between the ages of 6 weeks and 2 years of age. During the nine month process between submission and when we finally matched with our daughter, we matched with two boys but ultimately were not chosen. Each time, I was heartbroken. I couldn’t help but imagine our lives with these boys, but I knew that everyone wanted the best outcome for both the child in need and the potential parents. I trusted that it would work out in the end.

Ultimately, it did work out for the best. I really hoped to get a girl and Libby is the ultimate diva. When we got the call that we were matched the third time (with Libby), I tried not to get my hopes up too high. After reviewing her file, we agreed to throw our hat in the ring. It seems like everything happened in a quick blur after that. We got another call saying that we were chosen to be her parents and that we should expect her to come into our home in about three weeks.

One of the only down sides of matched adoption: if you have a wide range like us, you literally have no idea what to expect. Libby was born premature and was much younger than Ezra was when we brought him home, so there was a mad scramble to get clothes, formula, diapers and all the other things you panic about when bringing a baby into the home. Again, our wonderful support group of family and friends came together to help us prepare—which was lucky! Instead of expecting our daughter in three weeks, the agency soon called back to say that they were ready to place her into our care in about a week.

We didn’t have to travel to South Texas to pick her up. A social worker was coming to Fort Worth to visit her family for the Thanksgiving holiday so she decided she’d just bring Libby with her on her drive up. I was on pins and needles all morning waiting for them to arrive. When they finally got to our house, it was like the best pizza delivery ever! We filled out minimal paperwork, and that was that. We now had a daughter. Ezra was not too impressed at first but soon came around. He was an enormous help to me during that time, as Michael was deployed quite often with the Navy.

Going from one to two children was way harder then I thought it would be. I was so spoiled by Ezra being such a dream child that I had a very hard time with the adjustment. Libby had some developmental delays and processing issues because of things that happened to her prenatally, and learning how to deal with those behaviors was and is still very hard. She is a firecracker of a girl – loving and affectionate, with personality for days. She is a natural performer who is as comfortable in front of a group of people as she is just by herself singing in front of a mirror.

Adoption has been an enormous blessing to our family and overall it has been an extremely positive experience. I still have no desire to have biological children, and I can’t imagine that I would feel any different about my children if they were mine biologically. To me, my kids are already my flesh and blood.

RELATED: A Monday in the Life of Becky Lee Burk

In honor of Adoption Awareness Month, there are a few things that I would like to share with others who may not be interested in pursuing adoption themselves but want to know how they can provide support to other families or birth mothers considering adoption.

  1. Do not approach an adoptive family and say something like, “These children are so blessed to have you.” While I know that this is said in a loving manner, adoption always come out of extreme loss. Loss of birth parents either to illness or addiction, possibly the loss of a dream of a biological pregnancy for an infertile couple, or the loss of a birth mother who makes the ultimate sacrifice in knowing that she can not provide the best environment for her child and selflessly opts to give that child up for adoption. So while your intentions may be good, opt for something simple like, “You have a beautiful family.” It’s a great way to convey your point without possibly bringing up underlying pain.
  2. Give newly adoptive families space. When a child is placed into an adoptive home there are a lot of adjustments that have to take place both for the adoptive family as well as the child. I know most people can’t wait to see the new child, but the first few weeks are a time for bonding. Families need time get used to one another, to establish a routine, and to “nest”. When they are ready they will let you know but I feel like a lot of families feel pressured to be “on” and present themselves to the world before everyone is settled and that can set some of these kiddos back quite a bit.
  3. Do not tell someone pursuing adoption, “Oh I’m sure you’ll get pregnant now that the stress is off.” When this was said to me, I would immediately reply with, “I sure hope not.” Biological pregnancy was never something we wanted in the first place. I feel that it just inadvertently lessens the adopted child by implying that the next child will be biological and therefore better.
  4. If you are not an adoptive family, please educate your children about adoption. Let them know that families look all kinds of ways. Some families like ours have parents and children who are different colors, some families have two moms or two dads, some have grandparents in the role of mom and dad, et cetera. Overall, our adoption experience has been over the top positive. The only painful things that my kids have experienced have been comments made by young children in their classrooms who simply weren’t aware of what adoption is and therefore made hurtful and confusing comments.
  5. Love on biological mothers as much as possible. If I could speak to my children’s biological mothers I would hold them and never let go. The incredible gift that they’ve given us is unmatched. In a world where the pro-choice vs. pro-life debate is so volatile, I simply ask that you reserve any judgement and just love on these mamas and support them in their journey.
  6. Share positive adoption and foster care stories. While I know families personally who have been affected by a failed adoption or placement, I do feel that those are the minority. When we only hear the horror stories about abuse in adoptive/foster homes it makes birth mothers and potential adoption/foster families less likely to commit and it’s just such a loss. There are many loving families who want to parent and care for these children and sharing positive outcomes is so important.

This article was originally published in November 2018.

Photo courtesy of Lindsey Rebecca Photo