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Open hearts

Holliston family spreading word about benefits, joys of adopting local children from foster care

Doug Schmidt and Maria Salomão-Schmidt of Holliston with Olivia, whom they adopted from foster care. Doug Schmidt and Maria Salomão-Schmidt of Holliston with Olivia, whom they adopted from foster care. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / January 29, 2009
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When friends and acquaintances ask where the Schmidts traveled to adopt their new daughter, the question usually comes with a guess. Russia? China? Guatemala?

"Salem," the Holliston couple answers. As in Massachusetts.

Their 2-year-old daughter, Olivia - a blue-eyed, blond-haired blur of motion with pigtails - has inspired Maria Salomão-Schmidt, 41, and Doug Schmidt, 47. They have organized a class at their church, sent out e-mails, and are telling anyone who will listen about the benefits of adopting children from foster care.

"It's ridiculous there are that many kids out there," said Salomão-Schmidt. "People aren't paying attention to this."

Foreign adoptions have become popular in recent years, with a little help from celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Madonna.

But there are more than 1,000 foster children in Massachusetts who are in need of a permanent home. The Schmidts say the number should be far lower.

The timing of their message may be right. What adoption workers call "the Angelina effect" might start to fade as countries tighten adoption rules and as the economy stumbles, according to Lisa Funaro, executive director of Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange Inc.

"Russia has gone through the ringer, Guatemala is closed," she said. "The options aren't as vast."

For those looking to start a family, adopting locally could be both easier and more affordable, said Funaro. Her agency focuses on children in the custody of the state Department of Children and Families, which provides a portion of its funding. There are no fees for local adoption of foster children, and the adopted child is eligible for free healthcare and state college tuition, she said.

Also, there are often fewer requirements for domestic adoptions than foreign adoptions, since some countries have age limits and other restrictions.

"You don't have to be a two-parent family," said Funaro. "You can be gay or straight, you can own your own home or rent. . . . You can have your own kids, you can be a grandparent."

The foster care system is largely populated by children whose parents have been reported to the state for neglect or abuse. Many of the 8,694 children in state custody might eventually return home, so only a fraction are available for adoption.

The Schmidts chose foster care adoption after deciding foreign adoption came with too much red tape. Still, adopting Olivia has been an emotional journey, born of tragedies and laced with uncertainties.

Schmidt said his wife was initially much more open to adoption than he was. His 13-year-old son Christopher, from his previous marriage, lives with them half the time. The Schmidts' first daughter, Mialotta, is now 5, and then came Sophia, who was born with Down syndrome. Everything changed when she died at 13 months.

"It totally shifts you," Salomão-Schmidt said of their loss. "We want Sophia's legacy to live on."

Salomão-Schmidt suffered two miscarriages after Sophia's death, but she didn't want to give up her dream of a big family. "I joke with people: I saw 'The Waltons' and took it personally," she said. "I like a lot of noise."

The couple started looking to adopt in January 2007 and found Olivia's picture online - she was a "scared little bald girl" with hands outstretched, Salomão-Schmidt recalled of that first glimpse. Olivia had been placed in foster care after she was born with cocaine in her system.

Olivia went to live with them in October 2007, and her adoption was finalized last November. The Schmidts had to finish a required class, a home study involving about six visits, and a psychological evaluation before they could qualify to adopt. Although the process took about a year, Schmidt said it could have taken as little as six months if they had wanted to speed it up.

Doctors believe Olivia probably suffered a stroke early in her life, according to her parents. But watching her play, climbing onto her mother's back, it's not obvious she has any kind of disability. That is partly thanks to physical therapy, but whatever effects Olivia's early life might have on her development probably won't become clear until later. The Schmidts say her language development is delayed.

They have also noticed that Olivia sometimes is extremely anxious around men. When her new father first tried to put her to bed or change her diaper, she would scream inconsolably.

Schmidt said a counselor told him: "You have to stick with it because if you don't, she will never have a chance of having any kind of relationship with a man."

Schmidt said he persevered and now Olivia allows him to take care of her.

Olivia is not unusual for a child who came from state custody. According to Funaro, foster care children come with issues from having been separated from their birth family because of drug abuse, homelessness, or other serious problems.

"These kids have all come into care involuntarily, either through neglect or abuse - that is a trauma in and of itself," said Funaro. "These kids need a lot of attention and a lot of love."

Foster care adoption is not for everyone, and the Schmidts are quick to acknowledge that. But they also feel that many of their peers just don't consider it. Now that they know about the process of adopting close to home, they have set out to educate their neighbors and friends.

"People's eyes bulged when we said 'free college tuition,' " said Salomão-Schmidt.

Foster care adoption might become more attractive as international adoptions become more challenging.

International adoption became widely popular in the 1990s after countries such as Russia and China opened their doors to foreigners, according to Sarah Mraz, director of international programs at Wide Horizons for Children, a nonprofit adoption agency based in Waltham. But now those doors are closing for a variety of reasons, she said. Many middle-class families in China can now afford to pay the fine for having more than one child, said Mraz, and there is a push for internal adoptions in those countries.

Some agencies also facilitate domestic infant adoptions when contacted by a pregnant woman who is willing to give up her newborn.

"We have seen an increase in families interested in domestic adoptions because of the restrictions in overseas adoptions," said Mraz, whose agency handles both types of adoption. Statistics show international adoptions are decreasing in Massachusetts, while foster care adoptions are relatively steady.

In fiscal year 2008, Massachusetts saw 488 international adoptions, according to the State Department website. That's down significantly from fiscal 2004, when 883 children were adopted from overseas.

According to the state Department of Children and Families, there were 778 foster care adoptions last fiscal year, compared with 808 for fiscal year 2004.

In the past, adoptions of foster children were discouraged in Massachusetts because of the emphasis on reuniting families. There were also racial obstacles - it was thought that an African-American child should be adopted only by African-American parents, for example. But both of those attitudes have shifted in the past decade, according to Adam Pertman, a former Boston Globe reporter who is executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. Nationally, foster care adoptions have been rising, Pertman said, and he expects the trend to continue once the recession is over.

"The uptick in foster care adoptions will probably start up in earnest again when economic times become more certain," said Pertman, who noted the efforts of people like the Schmidts "who are getting the word out that this is a positive thing."

Salomão-Schmidt got her wish for a big family, and not just by adopting Olivia. She became pregnant with Isabella, now 1, when they were in the process of adopting Olivia.

Losing Sophia changed them, said the Schmidts, and they saw the adoption as a way to honor her legacy.

"We've given another child the gift of life, even though we lost our Sophia," Schmidt said.

Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820- 4231 or lkocian@globe.com.

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