Until he started kindergarten, Alex Baker assumed everyone was adopted. The 19-year-old freshman at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, who grew up in Altoona, was adopted from Russia when he was 16 months old.
From the beginning, his adoptive parents, George and Susan Baker, talked to Alex, and later his adopted brother, Trevor (who is two years younger), about being adopted from Russia.
"My parents always told us like in baby terms ... 'We're your parents but you have another mom and she loved you enough to give you a second chance,'" Alex said. "I'm very grateful for it. I think it's a blessing in my life."
Mirror Moms photo by Gary M. Baranec
Alex Baker shows off a recent piece of art he created to his parents, George and Susan, on a weekend trip home from college.
Besides, with tan skin, dark hair and dark eyes, Alex looks much different from his parents, who are both fair with light hair and blue eyes.
"There probably would have been some questions anyway," Alex joked.
To the Bakers, there wasn't any other option than being open about the adoption of their sons. As babies, Alex and Trevor often heard about how they were unique and special.
"It's just always been a part of their lives," Susan said. "They knew that's how it was."
It wasn't until he started elementary school that Alex began to better understand the difference between biological parents and adoptive families.
"My parents obviously told me that not everyone was adopted, but I don't think I really understood until kindergarten. Then, I knew it made me special," Alex said.
Being open with children can make adoption a positive experience, said Mary O'Leary Wiley, a licensed psychologist in Altoona who specializes in adoption issues. When Wiley was born, she was placed in foster care in Minnesota for six months until she was adopted. She and her parents moved to Altoona when Wiley was 1. Fairly uncommon at the time, her parents told her she was adopted.
"They were rather progressive for their day. They thought they should be completely honest," Wiley said.
Sharing the adoption story can be a bonding experience for families. For adoptive parents, who may have wanted children for years before they found their children, talking about adoption can be an expression of love, Wiley said.
Making the decision
After many years of trying to conceive a baby, Susan and George started discussing adoption as an option. The couple met with both infertility and adoption agencies until they were certain they made the right decision.
They decided to adopt internationally since the wait was supposed to be quicker than domestic adoption at the time. Both Susan and George were almost 30 and there was the possibility of waiting 10 years for a domestic adoption, at which point they would be 40 years old and considered "too old" to adopt children by most agencies, Susan said.
"We were not willing to risk that. We decided to explore other avenues," she said.
With international adoptions, couples had a chance to adopt an infant or young toddler, and the turnaround time was often less than a year.
"The infant thing was important to us," Susan said.
Russia was the obvious country of choice for adoption because the director of the adoption agency they chose was born in Russia and had many connections in the country.
"We just knew in our hearts it was the right thing to do. It just felt right. When you're going through this process, listen to your gut. It will tell you what to do and what is right," Susan said.
Before choosing an adoption agency it is important to research thoroughly, said Dr. Vincent Berger, psychologist and executive director of Adoption Services, a licensed, nonprofit agency which connects adoptive parents with birth parents.
He said verifying credentials of an adoption agency or attorney is essential to ensure legitimacy. Adoptive parents should also choose agencies which fit their beliefs and desires for the adoption process.
Adoption costs vary depending on the agency. While Catholic Charities charges a fee of $6,000, Adoption Services charges $28,000. Those fees are in addition to the costs of the home study, applications, travel expenses and supervisory , which can total $20,000 or more.
Some agencies allow birth parents to sift through profiles of prospective adoptive parents, which could hasten the wait for some couples or elongate the wait for others.
Catholic Charities, a licensed, nonprofit adoption agency is one such agency. Catholic Charities Inc. of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown places about two babies a year for adoption, which means some couples wait some time for adoption.
"We've had families that hang out, but we also have families who are chosen the following week," said Mary Little, a counselor with Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown.
Other agencies like Adoption Services, however, match birth parents with adoptive parents according to a waiting list, but also some criteria, such as race, religion or marital status, but the birth parents do not search profile data bases or see pictures of adoptive parents.
While some agencies have specific criteria for adoptive parents, others like Adoption Services ensure the adoptive parent is 21 and passes the home study process, which means no history of child abuse, neglect or criminal record. Once the application process and home study are complete, the agency can begin to look for a birth mother.
Adoptive parents must also decide whether they prefer closed or open adoptions. The majority of families in Pennsylvania and on the East Coast prefer closed adoptions, while many West Coast families opt for open adoptions, Berger said.
For many international adoptions, babies aren't allowed to be adopted for at least six months.
Through most domestic adoptions, babies can be united with adoptive parents shortly after birth. In Pennsylvania, however, birth parents cannot sign papers for 72 hours and they have 30 days to officially forgo their rights as birth parents.
It was exactly nine months from the time the Bakers registered with the adoption agency until the day they held Alex at the orphanage in Russia. When they first saw Alex, he was sleeping in the crib. He had to be woken up to meet his new parents, which he wasn't too happy about, Susan remembered.
"They brought him to us and put him in our arms," Susan said, explaining she was overwhelmed with love and joy.
Adoptive parents often express the feelings of true love they felt as soon as they laid eyes on their children.
Karen and Brian Durbin also adopted their two sons, Brayden and Ian (now 11 and 9) from Russia. The Durbins of Altoona describe a story similar to that of the Bakers, and a common feeling of closeness with their sons.
After several miscarriages, Karen and Brian decided to adopt from Russia. Brayden was adopted at 8 months and Ian was adopted at 13 months. The Durbins decided to adopt internationally because they didn't want to experience the possible heartbreak of a birth mother changing her mind.
"We didn't want to go that route. From the very beginning, we wanted to make the baby legally our child," Karen said.
Both boys bonded quickly with Karen and Brian, and adoption was never a taboo topic. When they were babies, Karen and Brian told them stories about being adopted.
"They knew they didn't grow in Mommy's belly," Karen said.
As a toddler, Brayden had plenty of questions for his parents when his aunt was pregnant. "He asked me a lot of questions about growing in my tummy," Karen said.
At one point, the boys were very curious whether they "came with toys" from the orphanage. Karen informed them "All you had was a diaper and a T-shirt, and we had to give back the T-shirt."
Recently Ian came home from school with homework requiring he fill out a paper titled "The Day You Were Born." Students were expected to fill out information about the day they were born
and include newborn photos.
For Ian this was an interesting assignment, since the Durbins have little information about the boys' birth parents, and they don't have any photographs younger than 6 months for the boys.
"I said you're lucky because you don't have to do that homework because your story is so different," Karen said. "So, we made it his own little story. His was probably the most touching because it was so different and he was proud of it. We've always made a big thing about them being so special because they are."
"We don't even really think of our children as being adopted. They're ours in every single way," Karen said.