Laura was 10 months old when her parents first set eyes on her. The small and somewhat frightened child was living in an orphanage in China, and Wally and Liz Hufford had traveled halfway around the world from Nikiski to make her a part of their family.
At the time, the only word little Laura could say was "jai jai," the Chinese equivalent of "big sister."
Now, at 6 years old, Laura Jun Hufford has become a precocious Alaskan child. She may be a little shy at first, but she warms up with an open and talkative manner. She's adventurous and rarely frightened. And, she's getting ready to accompany her parents on a trip back to her native country, where she will become a "jai jai" herself.
American parents adopt thousands of foreign children every year, and the number is constantly rising. In 1997, when the Huffords adopted Laura, there were about 12,700 foreign adoptions in the U.S., and most adopted children came from Russia.
By last year, the number had risen to more than 20,000, and China had become the No. 1 country for adoptions.
Teresa Brown, a recently retired teacher, is an adoption specialist on the Kenai Peninsula. Brown picked up one of her two Chinese daughters at the same time the Huffords met Laura, and for the past two years, she has served as a social worker, helping families through the arduous process of adoption. She said about 95 percent of couples choose adoption due to infertility.
Laura, 6, is eager to become a "big sister."
Photo by M. Scott Moon
It's not an easy choice, she confessed. Screening for adoptions is incredibly rigorous, and the entire process can take ages.
Wally and Liz's journey to meet Laura began long before they stepped on a China-bound plane.
The couple met about 14 years ago at Nikiski Elementary School. Wally, originally from Wyoming, teaches speech at both Nikiski and North Star elementary schools. Liz, who came to Alaska from California's San Francisco Bay area, has her own classroom at Nikiski Elementary.
Clearly, the two teachers have an affinity for children. After they married, they decided they wanted to be parents.
They began looking into adoption about eight years ago.
"We went to an informative meeting, and this little girl from China was there," Liz recalled. "She was very cute. That persuaded us."
Laura Hufford and her father Wally look for frogs on the shore of Island Lake in front of the family's home.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
After about three months of research, the couple hooked up with Heritage Adoption Agency, which handles international adoptions.
Brown explained that even these beginning steps can take a long time. Typically, she said, a couple will target their first agency because they know someone who used it. But that's not always the agency they end up using, she said.
"A lot of times, you don't make a connection on the first call," she explained. "You find an agency that works for you. It depends on what you're looking for a domestic adoption or foreign, what type of child. Those are things a good agency or a good social worker walk you through."
Often, these are difficult decisions. First, there are several types of adoption. For example, some choose domestic infant adoptions, wherein the birth mother chooses the adoptive parents and the couple takes custody of the child right after it is born. Others, like the Huffords, opt for foreign infant adoptions, though in those cases, "infant" means any child under 2 years old. Still others decide to adopt older American children who are in the custody of a state agency.
The Huffords display some of the piles of paperwork they accumulated during the adoption of their first child. The paperwork continues to pile up as they attempt to adopt a second.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
In addition to choosing the type of adoption, couples also have to make decisions about the child they will adopt.
"I ask them to tell me about their dream child, because at this point, it is a dream child," Brown said. "It's funny, a lot of times couples have very different ideas about what they want. One parent will want a boy, and one will want a girl; one will want the child to look like them, one won't care."
Many times, the process stops here, because the parents realize they need to come to a consensus on such decisions. For those who make it through that part, though, the home study begins.
"It's one of the most intrusive things you'll ever go through in your life," Brown said.
Social workers screen candidates and help the potential parents complete the mountains of paperwork required to adopt.
"You do a lot of paperwork," Wally said. "A lot," emphasized Liz.
Among the requirements are letters of reference, financial disclosures and fingerprints. It all takes time. Fingerprints alone can take anywhere from eight weeks to six months, Brown said. The social worker also completes a thorough criminal check, and the parents have to write autobiographies.
"A lot say this is the hardest part," Brown said. "They dread it."
But, she said, the autobiographies give social workers a picture of the parents' emotional state. They also help the parents identify their parenting styles.
Then, the social worker takes all the information and writes the legal document incorporating the parents' financial and emotional ability to provide a stable life for a child. Often, Brown said, if something looks less than perfect, she will give parents pointers on what to work on before writing the document.
"The last thing you want to do is write a negative home study," she said. "That will follow them through the whole process."
That completes what Brown calls the "nuts and bolts" of the process. Next, she said, comes the waiting period.
Couples pursuing domestic infant adoptions wait for a birth mother to choose them. Those adopting internationally wait for a "referral."
"It's a very emotional experience," Brown said. "It's very similar to pregnancy."
The Huffords received a photo of Laura from Chinese authorities before they left for China. A copy hangs on their refrigerator door.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
She said couples will go through emotional changes, and often women's hormones "go crazy."
"It very much mimics pregnancy," she said. "The only difference is the body doesn't change, though a lot of people do gain weight."
Finally, the referral comes. Domestic adopters receive a picture of the birth mother so they have some idea what the child will look like. Foreign adopters receive a picture of their child as well as a medical release. It's up to the parents at that point whether to accept the referral but, Brown said, "It's so hard to say no when you see the face."
If the parents accept the referral, it's back to waiting: either for the child to be born or for the foreign country to say it's time to go. In international adoptions, the countries can require quite a bit of a waiting period. China, for example, has about a six-week waiting period. Guatemala is two months.
For the Huffords, it took almost eight months.
"There were a lot of unexplained delays," Wally said. The first picture he and Liz received of Laura was taken when she was 2 months old.
But finally, it was time to go.
Wally and Liz made their way to China in July 1997, nearly 21 months after beginning the adoption process. Recalling the trip last month, the couple could say only that it was "surreal."
"The trip is really a roller coaster," Wally said.
Taking only a couple of carry-on bags, the couple flew from Kenai to Anchorage to Los Angeles to Seoul, South Korea, and finally, to Guangzhou, China. Along the way, they met two other couples traveling from Oregon to pick up adopted children from the same orphanage. Teresa had flown to Shanghai a week earlier and would meet up with the group in Guangzhou.
In a journal the Huffords kept along the way, Liz called the trip from the airport to the hotel "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride," as culture shock overwhelmed the couple. The whole group was staying at the White Swan Hotel, also known as the "Baby Hotel."
The hotel serves many adopting parents, as it is about a half-block from the U.S. Consulate, yet another stop in the adoption process.
The day after they arrived in China, the group of adopters toured "The City of Goats," with guides, taking in a bit of local culture and trying to distract themselves from the tension of waiting to meet their children.
The third day was spent at the Ministry of Adoption office, where the Huffords officially became Laura's parents. It also was the day the Huffords learned they would not be traveling to Laura's orphanage in Meizhou, but rather orphanage staff would bring the children to the parents in Guangzhou.
Then the day came. It took several hours for the staff to make the trip between cities and complete all the paperwork on their end, and the parents sat in apprehension throughout the day. Their guides one with the parents and one with the children kept in contact by cell phone, and the parents had a step-by-step account of where the kids were.
At last, a call came that the children were in the lobby of the hotel and about to come up in the elevator.
"It had been a long morning that stretched into a long afternoon, but the minutes between the time Jack called from the lobby and the time we saw the group coming down the hall seemed to be an eternity," the couple wrote in their journal.
The parents were ushered into a hotel room, made into a sort of "staging area" and handed their children one at a time.
"I guess sometimes a person will grab the wrong child, then they don't want to give them back," said Wally, explaining the formality of the procedure.
Finally, after waiting more than two pregnancies worth of time, the Huffords held their child for the first time.
"She was more beautiful than we ever imagined," they wrote.
According to the journal account, Laura was frightened at first, reaching for the familiar orphanage staff. But the Huffords soon gathered information about her schedule and diet and took her to their room where the family got acquainted.
"Liz and I took turns holding her and looking at her," Wally wrote. "She was so pretty with long eyelashes, stunning eyes and an adorable face."
They remember watching her sneeze for the first time.
"Immediately afterward the most beautiful smile spread across her face exposing the cutest little teeth I have ever seen! That moment will be etched on my memory forever," they wrote.
The family shared their first meals, their first nights, their first trip to a zoo, even Laura's first bath literally, as most Chinese orphanages apparently give children sponge baths rather than placing them in a tub.
There was a little more paperwork, then the Huffords flew back to the United States, where they spent a couple of weeks visiting family and friends to introduce Laura and get her used to a new atmosphere.
Over the next several months, the Huffords went through the obligatory checkup sessions to make sure everything was going all right.
But for all practical and legal purposes, they were now a family of three instead of two.
Now, about six years later, the Huffords are looking to add another face to the family.
At 6, Laura is absolutely a Hufford and an American. She's bright, friendly and definitely the child of a pair of teachers.
A student at Nikiski Elementary School, Laura lists learning activities among her favorite hobbies.
"I like doing my math and reading," she said. "We always have an assignment every night to read a book in the reading folder. Almost every night I read."
She also says she enjoys writing, jumping rope, biking, kayaking, picnics and birthday parties (hers is at the end of August).
All three Huffords enjoy being outdoors. They take an annual trip to Denali National Park and go on family hikes and ski trips. The lake right outside their back door provides an opportunity for kayaking and hiking.
They also share books about Chinese culture and adoption, helping Laura build her identity. And, they said, it helps to have so many adoptive families in the area.
Each year, families from the area who have children from China or other parts of the world get together to celebrate the Chinese New Year. This year, the event got so big it had to be moved from a private home to the gymnasium at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School.
Overall, though, Liz said there's very little difference between raising an adopted child and a biological child.
"There's no challenge to raising Laura, except maybe keeping up with her," she said.
Though Laura has learned a little about her native country, she said she doesn't remember anything about living in China. Still, she's excited to get to visit the country again and to become a big sister.
"It would be fun to have a little sister, somebody to play with," Laura said.
The Huffords already have completed the majority of their paperwork, as well as the home study, to adopt their next daughter. Now, they're in the middle of a particularly long wait for a referral.
The SARS epidemic in mainland China halted all adoptions in the area for weeks, and though the epidemic is over for the most part, the Huffords still are waiting to learn the identity of their second daughter.
They do, however, already know what her name will be.
"Mom wanted Madeleine and Dad wanted Sara," Laura explained. "I wanted Emily. We all agreed on Emily."
Once they get the OK, the family will travel back to China. This time, Wally and Liz said they hope to actually visit the orphanage to see where their child is from. They also want to spend more time exploring the largest country in Asia.
That, Brown said, is typical.
"The first time, you want to leave the country as soon as possible, because you're afraid they're going to take the child back," she said. "The second time, you're more relaxed. You know it's your child."
Regardless of how the trip turns out, though, they said they just want it to be soon.
"Waiting is the biggest challenge," Wally said.
But, Liz added, it's worth it.
"All of the sudden, you've got a wonderful person in your life," she said, looking lovingly at Laura. "You learn so much from her."
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