Adoption quest has happy ending
by Kelly Feser Eells
Lillian Natasha Pope, at just 9 months old, already has a passport.
The daughter of Ojai residents Karl and Donna Pope, she received
hers at the U.S. Embassy in Almaty, Russia, the country of her
birth and where she lived until Dec. 29, 2001.
Lilli's father, Karl, is as "American" as they come,
describing his and wife Donna's journey into the Russian world
of adoption with the pithy and, typically, witty style other
cultures expect from a member of capitalistic society: "It
ain't the Hilton" (appraising the "... fashionable
Hotel Kazakhstan" in Karaganda, Kazakhstan). "A sad
testimony to a political system that was supposed to provide
Utopia for the masses" (assessment of the future - prostitution,
drug dealing, petty theft - that awaits unadopted Russian children).
"It's Ground Hog Day for the next three weeks" (summarizing
the couple's yearning to bring their daughter home).
But Pope is as sentimental as any new father, just as he was
with Thane, Stacy, Sydnee, Darci and Derek, his older children.
On one of the daily "bonding" visits to the orphanage
- two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon - he
notes that he'd "never seen Donna happier. It's all worth
the work, the trip, and the $25,000 for the joy in her eyes.
All women deserve to be a mother at least once."
His love affair with their new daughter reminds him of "how
much fun it was to bring Thane home from the hospital in a rainstorm
... give Derek a bath, wondering how he'd turn out." Playing
with Lilli, he said, lets him relive "the joy of watching
Stacy take her first step; Darci do a double twister from the
10- meter tower; and Sydnee arrive through the double doors of
the maternity ward at Ojai Hospital." Until Lillian came
along, Derek Pope, at 25, was the baby of the family.
Pope acknowledges that this time around, he is a bit more relaxed.
"With Thane, I worried about every breath he took,"
he chuckles. Also different is the adoption process itself, which
he had been through with his middle child. The series of home
visits, where social and/or case workers assess the prospective
adoptive parents in their own environment to gauge their level
of "parenthood preparedness," plus the mountains of
paperwork, "fingerprints, background checks, etc.,"
are "newer" components of the always emotional process.
After his first wife died, Pope was single three years. Then
he met and married Donna, who had long wanted children of her
own but knew it would be a challenge. They were considering surrogacy
when a friend of theirs, who had adopted a baby from the Ukraine,
"turned us on to the New York agency (that facilitated Lilli's
adoption.) There are some 60,000 babies awaiting adoption in
Russia," Pope said, adding that the enormous stigma attached
to unwed motherhood accounts for much of the problem in Karaganda,
where Lilli was born. "Most of the girls are Muslim, attending
the local university." The birth mothers' relative youth,
combined with their religious beliefs, was a plus, as each is
a positive factor in the overall health and well being of a developing
From start to finish, the adoption took a little more than a
year. The Popes spent five weeks in Russia, from Nov. 19 until
Dec. 29, 2001, the average length of time spent in any foreign
"adoption friendly" country, i.e., China, Guatemala,
Columbia, etc. (South Korea is one of the few, if not the only,
countries that "delivers" the child, via paid escort,
to the prospective new parents.)
The Malootka Orphanage, where Lilli lived the first seven and
a half months of her life, is typical of many such facilities
in countries still adapting to a "new" political system.
Though clean and efficient - "like a first class day care
center" - there is only one nurse for every 12-16 babies,
and therefore little to no one-on-one stimulation. Consequently,
all of the children are behind in development, about one month
for every three months of life, though these developmental delays
begin disappearing almost immediately with some special parental
attention. And, by the time most children are two or three, depending
on the age they were when adopted, they will have "caught
up" with their peers in every way.
Pope is looking into establishing a summer program in Ojai, similar
to one he and Donna were impressed with in New York, where "five
kids from Russia stayed with foster families in the summer, getting
to do kid things" but, more importantly, letting prospective
parents get to know and love them. Pope would like to bring "eight
to ten kids here," show them a good time, and, hopefully,
"see if they can get adopted. A lot of kids who are three
and four, well...they probably won't get adopted (in Russia).
They're too old." Even if the children weren't permanently
matched with local families, he knows the experience would be
beneficial for all.
"I'm an entrepreneur," he smiles, then adds, "some
of these kids have never even ridden in a car before. The looks
on their faces..."
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
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POPE holds her new daughter, Lillian Natasha Pope.