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Choosing to love

Many parents search their hearts - and sometimes the world - to adopt a child. New government statistics punctuate their stories.

By CURTIS KRUEGER
Published September 16, 2003

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[Times photos: Chris Zuppa]
Courtney Diercks, 6, rests in her bedroom of her Tampa home before finishing getting ready for school recently.


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Cathy Diercks, 43, combs daughter Sydney's hair as the 4-year-old brushes her teeth in their Tampa home recently.
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Courtney Diercks talks to her grandmother, Betty Smith of Largo, during a birthday party for Courney's younger sister, Sydney, last month.
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Click here to view larger version of graphic.

ST. PETERSBURG - Tricia Davis was twentysomething and single when her parents decided in their early 50s to take in a 7-week-old foster child.

Her parents hoped to adopt the boy, so Davis started calling him "little brother." But after a series of events she never could have predicted, she now calls him her son.

Davis got married, and her mother grew ill. So Davis and her husband, Shane, a car salesman, decided to adopt little Jonathan, a process that was finalized in August.

"It would have been heart-wrenching for everyone to have him leave; he was one of our own," said Shane Davis, 25, of St. Petersburg.

The Davises' story is theirs alone, but just about every adoptive parent can tell an epic tale of a search to find a child, and of how the child changed their lives.

Now the U.S. Census Bureau has gone beyond the anecdotes and produced its first report on adoptions in America. The report, based on the 2000 Census, reveals several trends in the United States and in Florida. Among them:

Adopted children tend to live in somewhat wealthier homes. Adoptive parents earn a median income of $56,000 per year, compared to $48,000 per year for parents living with their biological children, according to nationwide data.

More than one in 10 of the adopted children in Florida and the U.S. are from foreign countries. In Florida, the greatest number came from China, Colombia and Russia. Nationwide, the top three were Korea, China and Russia.

The vast majority of adopted children still come from the United States - about 87 percent of them nationwide, and 89 percent in Florida. Also, about 64 percent of adopted children in Florida were born in the state.

About 68 percent of Florida's 82,000 adopted children are white, 20 percent are African-American and 3 percent are Asian. About 13 percent are of Hispanic origin. (Hispanics can be of any race.) Nationwide, about 64 percent are white, 16 percent are African-American, 7 percent are Asian and about 13 percent are Hispanic.

The data reflect the vastly different choices adoptive parents make. Unlike people planning to give birth to a child, with people contemplating adoption, "you can actually fantasize about the child and you can make it a reality. You can decide if you want a boy or girl, you can decide if you want an Asian child, if you want an Eastern European child," said Cheryl Huston, regional director for Adoption Resources MAPS International, which has offices in Tampa and Bradenton.

Anthony Marchese, a Tampa adoption attorney, said there is no way to generalize why parents want to adopt children and under what circumstances, except "an intense desire to distribute unbounded love to a person not biologically related." He cited one couple he worked with whose express purpose was to adopt an HIV-positive child.

Marchese, who exclusively handles domestic adoptions, said he was surprised to hear the census data showed parents have a higher median income than other parents. "A lot of my clients are blue-collar workers, firemen, teachers, police officers, normal people just trying to raise a family."

Adoption can be an expensive process; foreign adoptions can cost $20,000 or more, and domestic adoptions can be just as costly.

However, adoptions through the foster care system, such as the Davises', can be accomplished at little or no cost, said Cheryl Kerr, adoption services counselor for Family Continuity Program, which operates in Pinellas and Pasco counties. Several factors, not just cost, go into the decision of whether to adopt foreign or American-born children, Huston said. "Sometimes people don't want to travel internationally." Fears of terrorism have added to that reluctance to travel, Huston said. She said she expects Central and South American adoptions to increase, because those journeys are shorter and feel safer to many Americans.

But Huston said she could not explain why Colombian adoptions are high in Florida, according to the 2000 Census data. She has not heard of many parents adopting from that country. "I have to tell you, that surprises me."

Many people thinking of adopting are still dealing with a sense of grief and loss because of infertility. Often, Huston said, "their first reaction is well, let's find one that maybe looks like us," which would often lead to a domestic adoption.

But foreign adoptions have attractions. China, the most common choice among Florida international adoptions, has an abundance of children up for adoption because of its policy limiting families to one child. The Census data show roughly 600 children from China were adopted and living in Florida. Two of them live in Tampa with their parents, Jeff and Cathy Diercks, who made their choice for reasons that differ from most. Many adopt after learning they cannot have children. But Cathy Diercks, 43, said she has long believed that adopting was a worthy way to have children, because there are so many in the world without parents.

"I've just always seen that there was such a need, that there's so many homeless children out there. That's something that has always been on my heart. Fortunately, my husband agreed."

For the Dierckses, giving birth was their backup plan. It turns out they didn't need the backup plan.

After months of paperwork and waiting, they made two separate journeys to China, adopting both Courtney, 6, and Sydney, 4, before they had turned 1.

Now Sydney loves to play dress-up and wants to be a mermaid when she grows up. Studious Courtney enjoys math and science, but also is looking forward to playing soccer this year.

"It's an amazing gift from God that all this worked out," said Mrs. Diercks, who is a stay-at-home mom. Her husband owns an investment advisory firm.

The Davises feel blessed by their new family, too. And Jonathan, the "little brother" who became their son, was not the only twist in their tale.

While in the adoption process, Tricia Davis became pregnant. So in less than two years, she acquired a husband, an adopted son and a biological daughter, Hailey. Now they're a family of four.

Mrs. Davis stays home with the children, and 3-year-old Jonathan adores his 4-month-old sister. He says things like "She's so pretty" and "I love her."

Tricia Davis says, "I would call it a whirlwind, just because everything happened so quickly."

- Times staff writer Matthew Waite contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press.

For information

To adopt through Family Continuity, call Cheryl Kerr, (727) 451-3007, ext. 1837.

[Last modified September 16, 2003, 02:02:55]


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