Thursday, June 26, 2008

3 Reasons Why Military Families are Well-Suited for Adoption

1. We have an unusually high tolerance for bureaucracy. Forms, notaries, arbitrary office hours, waiting rooms and sign-in sheets, stamps and control numbers -- we've seen it all, and have been living it for a career. After a few years, you just eventually grow numb to it all. Building a dossier isn't really that big of a deal. The process of clearing most CONUS installations prior to PCS is just as hard, if not more so.

2. We are used to having our personal fate decided by arbitrary and distant administrators. Promotions, assignments (moves), and school opportunities are routinely decided by anonymous boards or administrators far away, based on policies and requirements that are frequently shrouded in secret. Every three years or so, your family gets pulled to some new location -- all faithful servants of a personnel system designed during WWII. So, the whole notions of arcane dossier acceptance policies, nationally centralized adoption authorities, and esoteric quota systems all seem perfectly natural to us.

3. Unmatched system of social welfare. If you think your only qualification to be a parent is that you once (barely) completed Basic Training, have no fear. The vast array of DoD-sponsored social services that are part of you well-earned compensation. Here is a look at some of the offerings at our small local garrisons. Don't forget health care, legal services, after-school programs, recreational programs, youth sports, family-friendly dining facilities, regulated child care, and much more.

On a bit more serious note, I think military families might also tend to be more open to international or trans-racial adoptions, as well. Many of us have traveled or lived abroad extensively, and that will definitely change your perspectives on different peoples and cultures. From my personal experience, I will say with certainty that my own travel has dramatically increased my sympathies and sensitivities towards other cultures.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

First Five Days Home

We have made it through the first five days with Vic intact.

In fact, in keeping with our entire international adoption process defying most of our expectations, our initial adjustment as a family with Vic has been much easier than expected.

We've averaged one wake-up per night with Vic, but it hasn't been too painful. I change his diaper while Laura prepares a bottle, and he's asleep within five minutes or so. In short, he is sleeping very well. His appetite is also improving. He is just super-curious about everything, because his entire environment is very new to him. We are experienced believers in the Babywise method, so we are trying to establish a rigid schedule of two naps and an early bedtime every day.

I'm quickly learning that the homecoming did not mean an end to the arbitrary documentation process. It's acute for us because of our overseas military status. Here are some of the tasks we have been working towards:
  • Command sponsorship - began application on day of arrival, discovered we need to get EFMP screening. Travel over to clinic to discover EFMP requires and appointment with the doctor, and that requires DEERS enrollment. Check.
  • DEERS enrollment - completed Tuesday morning.
  • TRICARE (military health insurance) enrollment - completed Tuesday afternoon.
  • EFMP screening appointment - completed Tuesday morning (after DEERS enrollment).
  • SOFA certificate application - the SOFA certificate is essentially an unrestricted visa issued by the US military authorities here. Laura applied for it this morning at our local passport service. It's a bit unnerving, as they must send Vic's Kaz passport to Heidelberg. However, the SOFA certificate is what will supersede the 90-day visitor's Schengen visa that currently allows Vic into Germany.
Once his passport returns with the SOFA certificate, another potential headache looms. Vic's IR-3 visa, issued in Almaty by the US Embassy, is only good for six months. However, an IR-3 visa issued to adoptive parents employed overseas should be valid for the duration of the employment (source, PDF). The embassy knew this, but declared they could not print the correct, extended expiration date due to a "technical glitch". No, I'm not kidding, I couldn't make this up. So, it remains to be seen whether we'll have any success petitioning the Frankfurt Consulate for an extension.

If we are not successful, this means we have to get Vic back to the US before mid-December, when his current IR-3 visa expires, in order for him to get automatic US citizenship.

In other news, check out our first family picture below, taken just after our first Mass together this last Sunday.

Here's a quiz for our non-local readers to answer in this posting's comments: notice anything different about Laura in this photo, or earlier ones? Go ahead, guess away, and guess bold.

For our local friends: no spoilers!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Back Home

At the airport in Stuttgart, Germany, 9:10 AM this morning.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Thank You AAPA

I posted a slightly different version of this note to the Adoption for Americans Abroad forum. Randy Barlow and Ken Gardner of AAPA were our home study providers.
Many, many thanks to Randy Barlow, Ken Gardner, and Jane Santos of American Adoption Professionals Abroad for their tremendous support, encouragement, and assistance throughout my family's adoption journey.

My wife Laura and I recently adopted from Kazakhstan. As an overseas military family, we absolutely couldn't have done it without Randy and Team AAPA. After our year and a half of preparation, it felt really weird to stand in a judge's chambers in Karaganda and see Randy and Ken's original home study document sitting on the judge's desk.

To me, there was no greater endorsement of their work than the compliments the Kazakh judge payed. He stated that he wasn't going to read the entire contents of the home study aloud in court, because if he did, everyone would want to move to Germany and live with us in our house. Suffice it to say he was highly impressed with the quality and content of the home study document.

Randy also stood by us through some very painful (and arbitrary) USCIS immigration issues, and he bent over backwards to help us get the non-problem resolved. He also provided us with a lot of short-notice extras and advice that we needed along the way.

My wife Laura is in Almaty, Kazakhstan this week on trip #2, completing the immigration processing of our 12 m/o son Victor Hugo. If the respective Schengen and US visas are delivered as promised, she and Vic should be flying back here to Stuttgart on Friday morning.

Thank you again, Randy Barlow and Team AAPA, for helping us to grow our family. We will be in touch soon to schedule our first post-placement report.
Unrelated update: sorry about the problems with the Twitter updates on the left sidebar of this blog. I didn't realize the overlapping problem until someone pointed it out (thanks, Cookie!). I removed my own Twitter updates from this page, so you should be able to now enjoy Laura's unfettered.

I also added some links at the top for the reference-type articles on this site.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

German Visa Application: Das ist richtig!

Well, as you have seen by Laura's recent Twitter update, it appears that she had success with her meeting at the German Consulate today. She's applying for a visitor's (Schengen) visa, to allow Vic entry directly into Germany prior to travel to the US at a later date. While speaking with her by phone late today, it seems that the appointment and application went very well.

Laura even mentioned that the German consular officer was impressed with with the documentation that I had organized for Laura. Wow - in the world of international adoption, that's an enormous compliment for me, especially coming from a German. That's sort of like the Bishop telling me I'm a good Catholic, or General Petraeus telling me I'm a good Soldier.

So, we remain hopeful that the Schengen visa will be ready for pickup on Thursday. Tomorrow, Laura has her interview with the US Embassy in Almaty. Best case, Vic's passport with the US IR-3 visa will be ready tomorrow evening, so she can then get the German visa inserted into the passport on Thursday morning. Our plan is for Vic to have both a German visitor's visa and the US IR-3 immigrant visa when he leaves Kazakhstan. The visitor's visa will get him through German Immigration, giving us 90 days to get his command sponsorship and SOFA certificate here locally.

A special thanks from us personally to Herr Andreas Schorle of the German Consulate in Almaty. We appreciate very much his email responsiveness, his clear instructions on exactly what documentation we needed to provide, and his understanding of our unusual situation. He is a refreshing find in the otherwise arbitrary and complicated immigration maze.

I started writing a post tonight describing what we've learned about immigrating an adopted child directly back into an overseas SOFA country, but I've decided to wait until I can organize my notes and references a bit better.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

What About the Dip-Tet, Bob?

Those of us following along with Laura's Twitter updates (see sidebar on left) are excited to see that she took custody of little Vic today, Father's Day, and had a relatively uneventful flight back to Almaty. What a great Father's Day gift for myself, and one full of special meaning for us. My own Dad, Vic's namesake, passed away unexpectedly a year ago. We flew to Kazakhstan to meet Vic on the one year anniversary of his death.

Gotcha Day and Father's Day, all at once.

Of course, Laura and I both tend to deal with the heavier or more stressful events in life with humor that is frequently totally inappropriate. Adoption is no exception for us. When I called Laura at her Almaty apartment tonight, her first words were, "we got ourselves a baby!" See, there is nothing about our adoption that we can't find some parallel to in the quirky Raising Arizona. In fact, we feel there's very little about marriage or children that can't somehow be linked, however abstractly, to Raising Arizona. Those of us who have seen the movie know, of course, that it isn't explicitly about adoption (at least, not adoption in the legal sense), but I'd still recommend it as worthy entertainment for anyone trying to adopt.

(Warning: below clip somewhat longish and NSFW)

This excerpt is a favorite scene from the movie. It captures all - the insecurity of new parenthood, the futility of measuring up to (unworthy) others, and the cruelty of infertility.

Juno is another excellent movie that IS explicitly about adoption (trailer), and much more recent. It's very entertaining, and it has a great message as well.

I'm praying and hoping that Laura's immigration processing goes well this week, as Laura must negotiate the many cheerful, helpful, and customer-service-oriented offices that guard national borders against the scourge of legally adopted children. She has double the administrative load of a typical international adoption. Recall that we must process both US and German immigration authorities, as we are Americans who live in Germany, and we are planning for Laura to travel directly back to home here in Germany. Even after she returns back here to Germany, we must then process a third and separate immigration authority of sorts - US Army Europe (USAREUR). Our experiences to date indicate that the USAREUR authorities make German immigration officers seem downright friendly - and yes, that's saying a lot.

I remain optimistic that Laura will handle all of this with ease. She's extraordinarily much better at persuading and negotiating than I am. My own track record over the last few weeks is illustrative. I've managed to get my virtual butt chewed via email by:
  • The chief of the aforementioned USAREUR office (I offered to share adoption immigration information with other families - whoops!)
  • My own agency's director (for inquiring about different travel options)
  • The VOLUNTEER leader of a VOLUNTEER organization (for a VOLUNTEER action I took as VOLUNTEER part of an organization, totally non-adoption related) - apparently, you no longer have to get paid to be abused by supervisors
So, it's probably for the best that I allowed Laura to travel alone and unafraid. She's well armed with every conceivable piece of documentation, including the highly coveted Verpflichtungserklärung. This is a sort of formal obligation affidavit that the German authorities issue after collecting a bunch of paperwork from us (to include 25€ worth of currency). It allows Laura to apply for a Schengen visa at the German consulate in Almaty.

Don't worry, I can't pronounce Verpflichtungserklärung either.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Hold on baby, Mama will be right there...

I'm leaving for the airport in a few minutes, but thought I'd share my itinerary..

Lufthansa flight 1357 Stuttgart to Frankfurt dep 11:15am arr 12:05
Lufthansa flight 648 Frankfurt to Almaty, Kazakhstan dep 1:20pm arr 11:50pm

Return flights are scheduled for June 21, Saturday next. Which is my brother's birthday!!! Big year for him, think he's turning 80. ;o)

My suitcase is ginormous and packed once again with diaper cream - all from donations that poured in while we were gone to Kaz on our first trip. We're also bringing goodies to our friends in Karaganda; good German coffee for our Peace Corp friend, scented hand sanitizer and people/fashion magazines to the interpreters.

Wish me luck next week during the embassy shuffle between the US & Germans. Knock wood that all goes as planned and we have no troubles bringing Vic home directly to Germany instead of going to the US immediately. Cross fingers, knock wood, and send good vibes to all the stone-faced paper shufflers.

I won't be bringing my laptop this time, so that means no new photos until I return with Little Bit. However, once I'm on the ground in Kazakhstan, I'll be sending twitter updates so you should be able to see where in the process Vic and I are at & how everything's going.

Gotta run. Baby's waiting. :D

Monday, June 2, 2008

Reader Writes: Sibling(s) Preparation?

Loyal reader Angela asks:
I have a broader question - what did you all do to prepare Jack for your departure and absence? How did you communicate with his while in-country? Did you have a set calling time? Skype? Anything you can share about this topic will be helpful - our son Luca is pretty close to Jack's age. We weren't sure whether we would take him or not and now are fairly sure he will stay home (GULP!).
Thanks for following the blog, and thanks especially for the insightful question.

We decided to leave Jack (age 5) at home mostly because (1) he's in a really good kindergarten program, although he still hasn't chosen between the Computer Science or the Pre-Med tracks, and (2) he's very close with his grandmother, so we had no worries entrusting him to her care.

I haven't really given much though to how we've prepared for this. More than anything, we've been very open and straightforward with him throughout the process. Laura bought him some recommended children's books on international adoption that we've read to him. It's tough to gauge exactly how much these helped, but Jack does have a very good understanding of what's going on. During our first trip, he told anyone who would listen that his parents were in Kazakhstan getting his baby brother.

The hardest part for him to grasp is probably typical for the age -- he just doesn't comprehend the scale of time. Tomorrow, next week, and next month just sort of all blur together -- basically, anything that isn't happening right now.

Leaving him at the airport for the first trip was admittedly a lot harder on Laura than it was for me. She's only been away from him for a weekend or so previously. I've had to spend an entire year away from both Laura and Jack due to my line of work. Sadly, separation is something you can practice, although the experience doesn't make it a lot feel any easier.

We've been pleasantly surprised at Jack's enthusiasm to date. He tells us how he's going to play with his little brother, and that he wants him to sleep in Jack's bedroom. However, as an older brother myself, I know that the honeymoon period will likely be very short-lived. As Jack succinctly put it, "I think we're going to need new toys." We've both tried to give him some heavy doses of one-on-one time as reassurances that, in spite of all the current new baby talk, he hasn't been forgotten. Last weekend was Legoland, and this weekend is a Dad-Lad camping trip (complete with guns and everything!).

Jack's grandmother was very good about calling our apartment in-country by standard telephone 2-3 times a week for us to chat with Jack. We could tell he was having a lot more fun with Grandma than he would be with us, so we found that very reassuring.

In short, I think the decision to leave or bring a sibling child is very personal and very dependent on many factors -- there is no single right or wrong answer. Regarding the process, we found that our 5 y/o could readily understand and support what we were doing. We were very comfortable being straightforward and honest with him. We are very fortunate that a grandparent was available, willing, and supportive enough to watch our son during our absence, and during Laura's second trip when I will be working.

We would certainly be interested in hearing from adoptive parents about sibling integration after the adoption. Specifically, what issues did you anticipate or not anticipate, and what techniques did you find that worked well or not-so-well?

Finally, an old joke that Laura and I re-cycled after our first trip...

Q: How many people can you fit on a Karaganda city bus?

A: Always one more!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Karaganda Map for Adoptive Families

In an earlier post, I had mentioned that I was putting together a Karaganda map that showed the location of key items of interest for us during our visit. Well, I have been working on it a bit more, and thought that there was only one location that might be too sensitive to publish -- that being the location of the apartment where we stayed, as will presumably future families.

View Larger Map

So, I removed the apartment location. It was located within walking distance of the end of the 01 bus line as shown on the map. All the other apartments used by families with our agency were all located in the downtown area, within walking distance of the City Mall and other key sites. Everything else on the map is public domain, so I'm comfortable with sharing it now.

The big lake feature near the central part of the map is the huge Karaganda park. It's possible to walk through this area from the baby house to the downtown area. The walk takes about 15-20 minutes, depending upon pace. It is a nice area to stroll and people watch, and to generally see a nice sample of the Karaganda population, especially when the weather is nice.

Be sure to read my previous post "Revealed: Karaganda's Eight Best Kept Secrets" for more information about some of these locations.

If there are any locations or features that readers would like to see added, please ask by commenting below. If I know where it is, or can find it, I'll add it!