It has been a very long time since our last update, and since this year has been filled with a major life-altering event in our lives, we felt it necessary to redesign the site to reflect the changes to our family. Unfortunately, work and daily life with two kids and all the associated chaos does not seem to allow for sleep in a regular 24 hour day, much less time for site redesign. Thus you have been left waiting for a year. It has been long enough! Since the volume of verbiage (some of which you may recognize from emails I sent out along the way) and pictures that go along with the story is so enormous, we will be uploading pieces of it at a time every few days and sending you an update email whenever a new chunk is ready for viewing. Perhaps that will make it more palatable for your reading enjoyment as I know many of you also have limited time for such pleasures. The date of each journal entry will retroactively reflect the approximate end of the time period described in that entry. The Polish version will appear in due course after Baba Yaga has had time to recover from her most recent trip and from the shock after counting the number of pages she will be required to translate into intelligible Polish.
Our Adoption Journey Begins
We last left you knowing that Dante was going to acquire a sister. It seems appropriate to back up a bit and tell you the beginning of the story (which we have mostly kept out of the journal, due to the uncertain nature of the whole endeavor).
In late May of 2006 we decided to begin our adoption journey and started looking for agencies. Due to my Polish heritage, and the uncertainties involved with domestic adoptions, we decided to attempt to adopt from Poland. Our research was quite discouraging as we were told time and time again that Poland only allowed older children, large sibling groups, or children with severe disabilities to be adopted internationally, as Polish citizens in Poland were given priority for healthy young children. And we wanted a single girl, younger than Dante, which we were told would be nearly impossible and that if we persisted with that desire, may require a 2-3 year wait time for a referral. We prepared ourselves for this. After numerous neutral-negative experiences with a few agencies en route, we signed with Lutheran Social Services of New York, which has done a significant portion of the Polish adoptions in the US (there only being on average about 60-100 per year) after seeing the movie “5000 miles” (a documentary about the Rozumalski family adoption using the same agency).
First we had to complete a WA state home study. We were done with all of the endless paperwork and just about to have the home study interview at the beginning of September of 2006 when the sister agency of the Lutheran Adoption Network we were working with suddenly lost its state funding and stopped doing adoptions. We were left in the lurch for a month, until I called LSSNY and realized they had no idea what was going on here. I was counseled to use whatever agency we could find to complete the home study and they waived the additional “out of network fee” as the circumstances had been beyond out control. Our home study was completed right before Christmas 2006, and due to the holidays, Baba Yaga being here, Dante’s birthday, etc, we didn’t actually complete the apostilling of documents and the mailing of the dossier to LSSNY until January 19, 2007.
So you can imagine our incredible surprise when near the end of February, I received a phone call from the Director of the adoption program at LSSNY telling me to sit down because she had a referral for us! Our documents hadn’t even been translated into Polish yet! But apparently there was a little girl who had just been released from “domestic only” adoption status and the judge stipulated that she would agree to an international adoption only if the family “was reasonably Polish”. So my first task was to call the woman who had made the match in Warsaw and talk to her. Apparently she was used to people declaring they were Polish but unable to say much more than “kielbasa”. So she was absolutely thrilled when she realized she could carry on a conversation with me in fluent Polish. She approved us and then we needed to learn what we could about this child.
At the time, the little girl was 11 months old. She was born in the 32nd week of pregnancy in Grudziadz on March 12th, 2006. The birth mother relinquished parental rights at the hospital after naming her Izabela. Aside from having a short upper frenulum, Izabela was born with a heart defect (ASD 2 and VSD I). The heart condition made her eligible for transfer to emergency foster care upon release from NICU, when she was 6 days old. In Poland, emergency foster care is considered a better solution than institutionalization in an orphanage, especially for those children with medical conditions. They can remain in this care for up to 13 months, at which point it must be decided what is to be done with them. Usually, they go to an orphanage if they are not adopted. Izabela was placed with a foster family in Torun who has anywhere from 4 to 6 children living with them at any given time, most of whom have Cerebral Palsy, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, Hepatitis C, and any number of other very disturbing developmentally delaying illnesses.
Izabela was made available for local adoption first, then provincial, then domestic. She was hospitalized multiple times for various things including pneumonia, and was frequently on IV due to dehydration. All any prospective parents could see was a pale, extremely sad child with no motor skills to speak of and with dark circles under her eyes. At 11 months, a few days before I was called, a cardiologist arrived from Warsaw and examined Izabela. He recommended the foster family begin a one hour per day physical therapy regimen with her. In the meantime we received the referral and were wondering how to approach the whole thing and started reading all we could about the medical aspects of her history. The judge requested that before we even begin the adoption/bonding process, we must come to Poland, see Izabela, and determine if this child makes sense for our family. So from April 17th to April 22, 2007, Chris and I flew to Poland for a 5 day trip while Dante stayed with grandparents.
Meeting Izabela for the first time
Convinced we were forgetting something, but nevertheless remarkably calm, the Hays family began Tuesday April 17th like any normal day. Dante went to school, Chris went to work, and I went to get some coffee. But the resemblance to a normal day ended there. Chris rushed to get everything at work settled, I ran to several bookstores in search of Baby Name books, while Dante finished making his “earth project” at school so he could show everyone where Mommy and Daddy were going. He excitedly told everyone he met that day that he was going to spend the next 5 days and nights with Grandma and Grandpa.
After picking up Dante, driving to Dana’s house to leave keys for Baba Yaga, dropping Dante off with Grandma and Grandpa, and leaving the Jeep at Ajax long-term parking at the airport, we discovered that our British Airways flight to London was already 1 hour delayed. I began to worry, as the layover was only one and a half hours. The airline representatives insisted that due to tailwinds the plane would nevertheless arrive on time. The flight was uneventful, comfortable, and quick. And the plane entered London airspace with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately, ground control refused to let the plane land and considerable time was lost circling Heathrow. Once on the ground, taxiing took another half hour. And getting from terminal 4 to terminal 1 took another half hour (a fast walk/slow run broken up by a frustratingly slow bus ride). So our stay in London was very brief, and we were the last people on the plane to Warsaw.
Once in Warsaw, I found things had changed a great deal from the days I remembered. Everything went smoothly until, unsurprisingly, it was discovered that although we had managed to get on our second plane, our luggage had not.
British Airways promised to get it to the hotel in Torun as soon as it arrived on the next flight, so after meeting up with Magda, the translator/agency representative/adoption coordinator, we began our next long trip: a 4+ hour drive to Torun that began with Warsaw rush hour traffic and ended with a 2 lane “international highway”. I occasionally had minor heart attacks as the taxi driver passed slower vehicles with just enough time to dodge oncoming cars.
Magda used this time to reconfirm my “Polish credentials” and my command of the language. Chris enjoyed listening to stories in Polish that he had heard countless times before in English. I swapped from language to language so frequently I never really knew which one I was using at the time.
Once in Torun, we circled the city several times with the neon sign of our hotel in view, trying to figure out which one way streets would allow us access. After several stops for directions, we finally arrived at Hotel Filmar and collapsed from exhaustion and jet lag.
The next morning we took a taxi to the Adoption Center in Torun, where we met the Director of the Center and a child development psychologist who was familiar with our case. An hour or so was spent on introductions and making sure we knew and understood all the medical and psychological details of the child that was being presented to us. It was very important to them to make sure we were fully informed of everything they knew as well as to make sure our reactions were acceptable to them. Clearly this child was not in perfect condition, as she would have been adopted in Poland already if she had been. On the other hand, they made it clear that due to her young age and her relatively minor problems, the powers that be had decided that she must go to a “Polish family”. Everyone seemed pleased that my Polish was fluent (if not necessarily up to date on current slang) and it made it easier for them knowing that nothing was being lost in translation and that I literally understood every word they were saying. I generally allowed Magda to do her job as translator for Chris, though occasionally I couldn’t help myself making things clearer to him in my own fashion.
When it was finally clear we could no longer stand the anticipation (and the foster parents had finally arrived), Izabela was brought into the room with her caregivers. She was wearing a cute little green froggy outfit. My first thought was that she had made up those 8 weeks in size (and then some) and that none of the clothing I had brought her (which was still in the missing luggage) would fit. My next thought was that she looked very tired and sick. It was warm in the room, she was dressed in lots of layers, and she had a fever and a runny nose. And she had that intensely sad look on her face that we had seen in the pictures that had been mailed to us. My heart ached as all I could think of was that I wanted to put a smile on her face, to lift what seemed like a ton of weight off her little heart, and at the same time I wondered how Dante would react to her calmness and quiet. So many people in the room made her uncomfortable and it was her naptime, so after being held a little bit by us, she returned happily to her caregiver, and as everyone around her talked about her, she fell asleep. Both Chris and I took a turn holding her as she slept, curling her fingers around ours. When she woke up after a brief nap, she looked somewhat refreshed, the circles under her eyes were gone, and she was clearly curious as to what was going on. We were already in love, but our hearts were heavy. We agreed to meet at the foster parents’ home in the afternoon after she had had a proper nap.
Over the course of those 3 days we spent about 12 hours at the foster parents’ home.
The foster parents’ place was home to 5 children at the time. The oldest, Marta, is 15 and is their biological daughter. She has Cerebral Palsy and did not get enough oxygen during birth. She is a sweet girl, in 4th grade, who likes to play games on the computer. They also have a 4 year old,Veronika, also with CP. She is the 14th child of a woman who refuses to relinquish her parental rights. She has been in this family since she was 10 months old and she is there as a permanent foster child. Both of these girls can’t walk, though Veronika is a bright and sassy child. The next oldest is Dominika, who is 2 and has Hepatitis C and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. A true orphan, her biological mother died of alcohol abuse and Dominika is in emergency foster care. She is a miniscule walking and running cluster of energy. She looks ill from the virus and is underweight, but we were surprised to hear of the FAS diagnosis, as she did not seem to exhibit any of the obvious behavioral symptoms we have read about. Her eyes are tiny, which is indicative of the syndrome, but she did not seem overly friendly to strangers, was not hyperactive (or no more so than a typical 2 year old), did not seem intellectually delayed, irritable, or easily over stimulated. She did, however, frequently resort to hitting when she did not get what she wanted immediately, and she also refused to eat anything most of the time and tended to carry food at the roof of her mouth for hours without swallowing. The foster parents are going out of their minds trying different doctor-recommended techniques to feed her. Pawel, at about 3 months, was the littlest member of the family, had been claimed for adoption, and was waiting for the paperwork for his new family to be concluded. The poor thing had to spend most of his time in a painful-looking contraption that kept his hips spread apart as he was born with hip displasia. He clearly did not enjoy being in it and cried a lot, especially when he was left alone in his crib (which was a significant portion of the time).
And then there was Izabela.
You could get lost in her big blue eyes. She had a short fuzzy dark blond mohawk. Her short frenulum caused her upper lip to lift higher than it should in the middle. Just recently she had started being able to close her mouth both when awake and when sleeping. This is probably thanks to her constant use of a pacifier, which in this case has proven to be a good thing. We anticipated needing to have minor surgery to correct this, as it seemed to interfere with her smiling ability and may have contributed to the impression that she is such a sad child as the corners of her mouth almost always go down. At home, she clearly knew who to go to for comfort. She identified her foster mother as “Mama”, her foster father as “Tata” and called her doll “Lala”. She was also quite fond of saying “nie nie nie” (no no no). Occasionally, when she wanted to communicate something very important, she would utter a string of unintelligible babbles that almost had a musical cadence to them.
Before the trip, Chris was very worried about potential attachment disorder issues. But his fears were assuaged when Izabela was quite uncomfortable with us at the first meeting, searching the room for her primary caregivers and visibly relaxing when her foster mother finally held her again.
It seems that for the first 11 months of Izabela’s life the foster parents were told Izabela’s heart was a “ticking time bomb” and that she shouldn’t be moved or exercised for fear of overstressing it. In their attempt to obey the doctor’s orders, Izabela languished lying on her back in bed for months. Most of her interaction time occurred during meals, and so she, rightly so, demanded attention in the only way she knew how; by eating every last drop of whatever she was given. When the doctor from the Center for Children’s Health in Warsaw finally determined that she actually needed some intense physical therapy and a lot of folic acid, the foster mother began a one hour a day therapy routine. Thanks to her work, Izabela finally started sitting up and exhibiting interest in holding things. At our visit, she was able to sit up when propped with pillows, and occasionally on her own, and while her gross motor skills were still obviously delayed, her manual fine motor skills were better than Dante’s were at that age.
As soon as we started to play with her, we saw her potential. Determined and unperturbed that things weren’t easy for her, Izabela tried and tried again to make things happen. She tried in different ways, too, which made it obvious she had imagination as well as perseverance. We played with stacking cups: she didn’t have the gross motor skills to stack successfully yet, though she knew exactly what to do; she kept knocking her stack over as soon as she let go of the cup. We did teach her to take two cups, turn them over and bang them together, which she thought was funny and seemed to be making fun of us for doing “the wrong thing” with the cups. We played with a shape sorter, which also turned into a stacking game. We played with a cute little bug that vibrates when you pull the string out. She seemed to love that and while she didn’t have enough strength to pull with both hands, she held on tightly while one of us pulled the other way. We listened to music together and danced. At first, her body stiffened and resisted to being rocked or swayed to the music. She was obviously not used to it. This was a bit of a shock to us as Dante is so completely the opposite. But we started out slowly, and after a while when we put her down while the music was still on, she would continue to rock back and forth on the floor… perfectly in time to the music. We also started teaching her the ASL sign for “more” (jeszcze), to which she took quite quickly.
One of her favorite games was playing with my glasses. So much so that when our luggage finally did arrive I didn‘t want to switch to wearing contact lenses. She never seemed to tire of taking them off my face, handing them back to me (at first she didn’t want to let go, but she adapted), handing them to Chris to put on, and then finally taking them and (hilariously) attempting to put them on herself.
By the second day we had her doing the commando crawl across the mat from one to the other of us! Right handed but seemingly left footed, she struggled to get herself across time and time again to have one of us fly her into the air upon reaching her goal. We could see how easily she tired herself out and could feel her little heart beating fast and hard and hear her labored breath. We weren’t sure how much of this to attribute to her heart condition and how much to her cold. After about half a dozen crawls across the mat, completely initiated by her and never forced by us, she would crawl right up to one of us and collapse onto her back and close her eyes, just for a few moments to rest. If we tried to give her more space, she would struggle into sitting position and bend from her waist to lay her head on us. This was the most adorable and endearing mannerism. It was almost as if she were saying “I’m too exhausted to lift my arms up but can you stay here and cuddle me please because I like you.”
The foster mother had been told not to let her try standing up until she was ready to do so by herself. I naturally tried standing her up during our first visit and was mildly chastised that the doctor did not allow this. Dumbfounded by this restriction, I watched as Izabela was visibly distraught by her verticalness in that moment (probably the first time anyone attempted to put all her weight on her feet). Yet after several hours with us she very visibly began to try to push up off of us with her feet. We sneaked a few standing moments in when no one else was peeking, and found that verticality was not uninteresting, and was in fact quite satisfying.
So yes, undeniably, she was delayed. Physically she seemed like Dante was at around 7 months, mentally more like 9 or 10 months. Were these delays genetic, neurological or pathological in nature? Based on the progress, changes and reactions to constant attention we observed, it seemed unlikely. Once the heart defect either closed up on its own or was dealt with surgically, we thought there was nothing that should stand in her way. It will take a lot of work and love on our part. She will also learn a great deal from Dante (and she will no doubt teach him some perseverance, calmness and introspection).
Chris’s baggage actually arrived the second day, but mine remained missing for yet another day. The third morning, we used an iron to try to dry my hand-washed clothing which had not dried during the night. When my suitcase finally arrived, we were able to bring clothing and gifts to the foster family, as well as the highly desired Reese’s and coffees for Magda and the people at the Adoption Center. As I suspected, none of the 12 month clothing for Izabela fit her at all, though the shoes were a great success, and one of the 18 month sleepers just barely fit. We left the smaller outfits with the foster family for future foster children. Their home has already seen 15 children in the emergency foster care program over the years and no doubt will see more. We noticed a lack of Velcro-closing bibs and planned on filling that void on our next trip.
It is really quite remarkable how the foster family has managed. Laundry goes on pretty much non-stop. Food is also being prepared all the time as every child is on a slightly different schedule. Each child undergoes physical therapy of some sort for about an hour a day. The really young ones spend most of their time in their cribs, being picked up when an adult has a free hand. Once every week or two the kids see a special “therapy dog” who comes to the house and plays with them. It is a state funded program, and it was fascinating to watch the children on the mat in the hallway with paints and paper making handprints, pawprints, discussing colors, counting fingers, etc. The foster family has a special mini van that holds all of the kids for trips, though they don’t get to go outside as frequently as most kids. During the summer they spend more time outside at a summer home about 30 minutes away. Marta is taken to school several times a week, and Veronika just began preschool. The rest are at home most of the time, and though there are 5 rooms in the house, they are quite tiny and the parents have little if any privacy or time to themselves. They love all the children, but also know that they may be taken away from them, so they have to retain a certain degree of detachedness. Otherwise how could they keep their hearts from breaking? The search for a family for Dominika is very painful for the foster mother, who wants her to find a good family and not go to an orphanage. Her 13 months of emergency foster care is expiring soon, but her stats on paper look so bad she has been rejected by every family she has been offered to. Yet none of them have seen her or played with her. I caught the foster mother wiping a tear as she said that if they don’t find a family for her before she has to be sent to an orphanage, she doesn’t know what she will do; maybe she will apply to have Dominika’s status changed to “permanent foster care” in her home.
On Saturday morning, we saw Izabela for the last time before we had to fly home. It was very difficult to leave her there, despite assurances that all will be well and that we would have her home soon enough. I wondered if she would wonder who those people were who came to play with her for a few days and then disappeared. We left her with a Hays family photo album and the foster mother promised to show it to her often. We walked back to the hotel and immediately drove to Warsaw for our last night before our flight home. While we couldn’t be with Izabela, we were quite eager to get back to Dante.
The flight home was uneventful, undelayed, but long and exhausting. We couldn’t wait to do it with 2 kids in tow…
Waiting for a Court Date
After arriving home, securing Dante’s immediate authorization (“She looks very cute”), and obtaining our INS approval to adopt on May 5th, 2007, we began the frenzied waiting game for a court date. We had been told the court wanted everything to go as fast as possible, so we were unable to make any plans for the summer, thinking we would spend most of it in Poland. We were all very frustrated because June and July came and went and despite constant reassurances from the agency, there was still no date.
In the meantime, Dante finished school at Monroe Montessori, had lots of play-dates with various friends, kept taking gymnastics, spent the Fourth of July hiking down to the waterfall in the “backyard” followed by his first real fireworks display in Bellevue, went swimming at the Redmond pool whenever possible, had a great time at Blue Sky Camp, had fun at the Microsoft Company picnic, went to see Circus Gatti in Monroe where he once again rode an elephant, visited the Reptile Zoo, played with Brent and Carmen and their dog Tino when they came to visit from Spain, spent a great deal of time with Baba Yaga, and celebrated Mommy’s Birthday at the Family Fun Center where he played 3 rounds of miniature golf.
Now, when we had gone to Poland for out first trip, we had been instructed by the adoption agency that we were not allowed to communicate with the foster family afterwards “because the judge might not approve”. I was specifically told to “take whatever personal information they might give us, politely smile, and then not use it”. Comforted by the thought that we were in theory going to be going back to Poland soon, this didn’t seem to be a problem. But as the weeks and then months went by, we couldn’t stand not knowing what was going on in Izabela’s life. Near the end of June, we succumbed to our curiosity and wrote the foster family a very polite email essentially requesting a status update, hoping they would not take offense to our action. We were thrilled when they let us know that Izabela was crawling around the entire apartment, that she was pulling herself up in her crib, that she had grown and gained a lot of weight so that “Daddy will have plenty to lug around”, and that she looks at her photo album everyday and points to “Mama” and “Tata” and apparently constantly asks for Tata (it was rather uncanny that they established such a rapport… of course I had to chit-chat a bit in Polish, so I actually got to spend less time with her than Chris did). But she had also become even more attached to her caregivers and cried when she didn’t see them, so she was going through a separation anxiety phase, which made me fret more about the difficulty of the transition. All in all, we were thrilled to have these bits of news, and at the same time just frustrated at how long things were taking.
As you may imagine, it is hard to get anything done in Poland during the summer when “everyone is on vacation”. On August 6th, the day after my birthday, as if for a birthday present, we received notice that we had a court date for September 3rd, that our bonding period was to begin August 20th, and that we should be in Poland by August 19th. Due to the timing of everything, and the fact that Dante was starting a new school the day after Labor Day, our original plans had to change. We had originally planned to stay (all 4 of us) in Poland after bonding, after the court, and while waiting for the verification process and then during the passport/embassy/visa process. But then Dante would miss a month of school, and Chris had been counting on being in Poland in June/July and by September/October things at work were going to be crazy. So instead we decided it would be best to cut their part of the trip short, and planned for them to return to the US right after court, leaving me in Poland with Izabela for the remaining month. As a result all our plans for visiting my family, including my 90 and 95 year old grandfathers (the elder of whom passed away while we were waiting) evaporated.