Bringing Home Baby
Updated: Sep 9, 2019
Several Oxford families have chosen to cross the globe to complete their families, walking the daunting path of international adoption.
Written by Sarah McCullen | Photographed by Joe Worthem
The Burns Family
After their 4-year-old daughter asked if they realized there were children in the world without parents, Anna and Brodie Burns started researching adoption agencies. In December 2017, they submitted their application to adopt through Lifeline Children’s Services. Having been on mission trips to Mexico and Ecuador, the Burnses knew they wanted to adopt from Latin America, and in June, they brought their 2-year-old daughter Lucy home from Colombia.
“We chose international adoption because if we hadn’t chosen her, her quality of life would be hopeless,” Anna Burns said. “In Colombia, once (orphaned children) reach maturity they don’t have long-term resources, so she would have just aged out of the system and become a lady of the streets.”
Once families decide to adopt, they must consider whether they are willing to adopt a child with special needs. Lucy has hydrocephaly, or extra fluid around her brain, which limits her physical and speech capabilities. Doctors expect her to walk and talk after extensive therapy, but even if not, Anna knows Lucy was meant to complete their family of five.
“She has the most beautiful smile,” Anna said. “To be a small part of what God can do in her life is so worth all the cost.”
Colombia, along with China, South Korea and Haiti, is one of the easiest countries to adopt from. However, adoptions must be coordinated through an accredited agency like LCS. A significant part of the process is the home study. It’s a grueling four- to five-month process involving paperwork and interviews by a social worker who probes into the applicant’s life and past.
Once the application and the home study are complete, an in-country agency employee works on matching a child with the family. When all agree on the match, the family travels to the country where they meet the child and finalize the adoption. It often takes weeks to secure the child’s American citizenship, and, according to consideringadoption.com, international adoptions typically cost between $20,000 to $40,000.
“People often hear the cost and turn away,” Burns said. “But our social worker said she never declined an adoption for financial reasons. If you are led to adoption, God will provide the funding. We had a fundraiser to cover a $5,625 bill, and we raised $5,725. It just happens.”
The Carpenter Family
Like the Burnses, Jill and Joey Carpenter were open to adopting a child with a disability. Ultimately, their decision matched them with their son Witt, now 7, adopted from China in 2014. Witt has arthrogryposis, a condition that limits movement in some joints.
“You have to specify what you’re open to, and there were a million possibilities that we had to go through to weigh,” Jill said. “We checked that we were open to club feet.”
The Carpenter’s agency, also LCS, sent out weekly emails listing children with more complex needs, and that’s where Jill first saw Witt’s photo. They requested to review his file, and learned more about Witt’s physical condition — he might never walk. When files are requested, the family has two weeks to make a decision. But that same week, Joey was hospitalized.
“We felt like we couldn’t make a sound decision right then,” Jill said. “We let Witt’s file go, and for months I thought about him.” Then, our social worker called me two months later and said she pulled his file for us not realizing that we had already looked at him.”
The Carpenters agreed that Witt must be the child meant for their family. He’s had two surgeries to correct his clubfeet and a contracted knee, and now he is able to walk.
The Carpenters have three other children. Their oldest, Maddie, said she remembers the day Witt came home, but it feels like he’s always been there.
“He laughs at things, which makes everyone else laugh, and he makes everything better,” Maddie said. “He just makes our family more fun.”
The Schmelzer Family
When family friends adopted a baby girl from China, Alison Schmelzer was still in high school. But she set her heart on following in their footsteps.
“I knew international adoption was a thing, but I had never seen it first hand until then,” Alison said. “I already had two brothers, but I begged my mom to adopt a baby girl from China. She said ‘No, we’re too old,’ so I just said ‘Okay, well I’m going to do it one day.’”
When Alison met her future husband Jody, she told him early on that she planned to adopt from China. Jody was on board, but when the couple married, the demands of work and raising their three kids quickly took over.
“It wasn’t like we said ‘Remember that little girl from China? Yeah, we’re not adopting her anymore,’” Alison said. “Life just got so busy with tight budgets, we were tight with our time, tight everything. So for seven years, we just didn’t talk about it.”
One day while their kids were napping, Alison stumbled upon a blog written by a Nashville family who had adopted a child from Ethiopia. Alison followed their story for several months. She realized the time had come to adopt — not from China, but from Ethiopia.
“(But) Ethiopia scared me,” Alison said. “This family in Nashville had a whole community to support them, and we didn’t have anybody. I wrestled with it for about six months before I felt like I could bring it to Jody.”
At first, Jody wasn’t sure it was the right decision. But the next morning he came upon Psalm 41.
“The first verse says ‘Blessed is he who considers the helpless,’” Jody said. “And I broke. There is nothing more helpless than an orphan.”
In 2008, Alison and Jody took the first steps on the journey toward adopting. They followed in the footsteps of the Nashville family, submitting an application to the same agency, All God’s Children International. At the time, Ethiopian adoptions often took less than a year, but in the midst of their process, the government put a hold on adoptions due to national turmoil. It took 3½ years for the Schmelzers to finally bring their daughter Caroline home.
“She was 13 months old when we brought her home, so when we started the process, she wasn’t even born yet. She was just a sparkle in God’s eye.”
Caroline’s father had given her up after her mother died, when she was just four months old. She only weighed 8 pounds and was severely malnourished.
“All children are a miracle, but she really is a miracle,” Alison said. “She was so sick, (but) by the time we were matched, she was happy and doing just fine.”
Matches are based on compatibility between the family’s desires and ability to provide care for the child’s needs. Jody and Alison matched with Caroline on paper, but their relationship was rocky for the first several months.
“We were bringing home a 1-year-old, but she was old enough to be super scared of us and not attached at all,” Alison said. “We had to literally teach her how to trust us. She had no sense of belonging to a family, especially not a white family who spoke English. Still, to this day, that was one of the hardest seasons of my life.”
Today, the Schmelzers remember Caroline’s heritage by celebrating Ethiopian Christmas and the day she came to America by eating cake, wearing clothes from Africa, and reading her favorite book, “E is for Ethiopia.” Adored by her siblings, 7-year-old Caroline is now a seamless fit into the Schmelzer family,
“I always prayed that when I saw her I would just know that she was ours, and when we got our first picture of her, we said ‘Oh my goodness, she has Jody and Carson’s smile,” Alison said. “She looks like us.”
The Meurrier Family
Meredith Meurrier had wanted to adopt since building a friendship in college with a girl from Korea. But just like the Schmelzers, she and her husband Michael were busy with work and raising their girls, Myla and Selah.
But then one day when her youngest was about a year old, Meredith happened upon that same Nashville family’s blog and felt the desire to adopt welling up in her again.
“I finally told Michael ‘I don’t think God is done with our family,’” Meredith said. “I didn’t really know what that would look like, but I asked him what he thought about adoption.”
Michael said he had been thinking the same thing, and in January 2012, they decided to adopt from Ethiopia. Unsure how to start the process, Meredith reached out to Alison Schmelzer.
“She was so helpful in us getting started,” Meredith said. “We were using the same adoption agency. But in spring 2012, Ethiopian adoptions all but shut down.”
The process came to a screeching halt. But several of the Meurriers’ friends had adopted from Taiwan, so the Meurriers decided to switch countries. They matched within a few months, and brought their son, Ramsey, home in September 2013 when he was 15 months old.
Despite the joy, families often struggle as the child adjusts to life with a strange family in a foreign country.
“On blogs and stuff, they come home and everything’s perfect,” Meredith said. “No one talks about how hard it is when you come home.”
“All of a sudden you have a new addition, and he doesn’t speak English, and he realizes he’s somewhere different,” Michael said. “The schedules and the food are different, he doesn’t hear his language. And it’s hard to remember that when you’re not sleeping. It feels like forever, but in reality (the adjustment period) was only about six to eight weeks.”
The Meurriers’ trials equipped them to offer encouragement and advice to other adopting families, like the Burnses, the Carpenters, and Brooke and Timothy Gibson, who are in the process of adopting from India. They all share in the life-long journey that is international adoption and are willing to help interested families get started.
“Meredith is now part of this really cool adoption community, and that’s one of the blessings of struggling through what we did,” Michael said. “Alison helped her, and we’ve gotten to help other families.”
“I just want people to know that if this is something you’re considering, there are people who have done it, and it is so, so worth it,” Meredith said. “The support here is strong.”