Michelle Teofan and Karl Garcia of Palo Alto ended up with double the pleasure -- adopting two baby girls -- after their quest to complete their family netted a surprise ending. The arduous journey to that destination, however, included prejudice, a shadowy tale of how a child came to an orphanage, a nearly intractable bureaucracy, and an adoption in an armed, gated compound.
Teofan and Garcia have one biological child, Fabiana, 5, a kindergartener at Addison Elementary School; they decided to adopt another child after trying unsuccessfully to conceive through artificial insemination in 2004. The couple decided they didn't want to pour all of their money into in-vitro fertilization, which might not take.
"We liked the idea of an international family," Teofan said, sitting in the couple's spacious downtown condominium. They had befriended other couples who adopted from overseas and enjoyed those connections, she said.
Teofan, a telecommunications consultant at BearingPoint in Mountain View, travels widely. She has also spent much time in Latin America. Garcia is a networking engineer for Google.
Accomplished individuals in their careers, the couple hit their first snag when overseas lawyers learned that Garcia was disabled by a car accident and uses a wheelchair.
"They said, 'Don't even try,'" Teofan said.
Teofan has to fight battles all of the time in her high-powered job, so she wasn't about to settle for "no," she said.
The couple hired the Gladney Center for Adoption to help them adopt a child from China. Teofan's sister has a law partner who uses a wheelchair and successfully adopted two children through the center.
Five grueling months passed, full of financial reports, referrals, home studies with a social worker, criminal-background checks and approval from U.S. immigration officials.
"All of a sudden, we hit the Great Wall of China," Garcia said.
The couple's application was rejected-- because of Garcia's wheelchair, the couple were told.
"There was no word of this, no indication this would happen. It was completely out of the blue," he said.
China had begun tightening rules on foreign adoptions, barring people who are single, obese, older than 50 or who fail to meet economic, physical or psychological criteria the Chinese government considers to the child's best advantage, Teofan said. The new rules weren't publicized yet, but Chinese officials were no longer allowing adoptions to people with disabilities. Teofan and Garcia were told an appeal would make Chinese officials lose face.
They had one more card to play, however. When Chinese President Hu Jintao came to the United States last summer, the attorney in the wheelchair hosted a breakfast for visiting Chinese dignitaries. The officials, who included the woman who had rejected Garcia and Teofan's application, were impressed with the upbringing of the two adopted children by a person with disabilities. Gladney representatives later sought to reopen the couple's application, Teofan said.
The couple, however, had started another adoption process in May 2006 -- this time in Guatemala -- where adoption by people with disabilities was not an issue. Los Altos home-study firm ACCEPT Adoptions, moved by the couple's first rejection, waived the fee for a second home-study, the couple said.
Maya, a baby girl, was born on May 7, and Teofan and Garcia prepared for the adoption with another home study and more piles of paperwork. Trying to adopt had taken so long that when Fabiana talked at school about getting a baby sister, her teacher thought she had created an imaginary playmate, Teofan said.
Unexpectedly, the couple soon learned their adoption request had at last also been approved in China. Teofan and Garcia now had the possibility of adopting two infants.
Nagging questions loomed. The couple considered telling China they were no longer interested, but they saw a potential problem if they rejected the adoption after fighting so hard against prejudice because of Garcia's disability, he said. Twins had been a very real possibility had they chosen to go the in-vitro fertilization route, so adopting two girls close in age didn't seem so out of place, he added.
"It was the right thing to do," Teofan said.
The Marriott Hotel in Guatemala City is a fortified compound: fenced, gated and guarded. In the lobby, 25 couples milled around, awaiting the arrival of their new children.
It had become baby central, where gay and lesbian couples and persons with disabilities would be given the gift of a family. An atmosphere of expectation charged the air. The hotel store carried familiar sundries for the traveler -- suntan lotion, spare tooth brushes and razor blades -- but there was also baby food, diapers and formula, an entire store dedicated to the needs of new parents. A special baby room was filled with toys, Teofan said.
Outside the compound walls, it was a different story. Parents-to-be were warned not to leave the hotel grounds with the children. International adoption has become a sensitive issue in Guatemala, where some people feel Americans are stealing the nation's babies, Teofan said. When children left with their new families, they were whisked away in cars from the hotel grounds and taken directly to the airport.
On Dec. 27, 2006-- seven months after they began trying to adopt Maya-- Teofan, Garcia and 5-year-old Fabiana stood in the hotel lobby filled with squalling babies, newly placed into their adoptive parents' arms. At 3 p.m., Maya arrived. Her foster mother, who had cared for Maya since birth, came to say goodbye. Neighbors and family members accompanied her.
"She read a whole letter in Spanish -- (pouring out) her whole heart and soul," Teofan said.
"Maya cried just two hours, and that was it," Garcia added.
On March 19, Teofan and Garcia boarded a plane again, this time, headed for Nanchang, China, nearly three years since their quest for a child began. Nanchang is a 2,200-year-old city, a sub-tropical metropolis in southeast China.
Elise, the baby Teofan and Garcia came to adopt, was found on June 2 on the orphanage doorstep, her umbilical cord still new, according to orphanage officials. It is a familiar tale. Other couples have been told same story, Teofan said.
Elise's face had looked thin in an early photo, and Garcia and Teofan wondered about the quality of care she had received. A later picture showed a chubbier Elise, dressed in a tiny red, embroidered silk robe.
The deprivation of orphanage life became apparent as another couple, upon receiving their new daughter, was told not to worry about her legs. Red rings encircled her calves, where too-tight socks had been left on for a week and left an infection. The beautiful girl had been a poster child for the orphanage, Garcia said.
"What does that say about the kind of care that she got?" he added.
Elise was healthy but is four to five months behind in development from Maya, who is close enough in age that the couple considers them twins. She couldn't hold herself up in a sitting position and is still trying to grasp things, he said.
"It's a wake-up call to remind ourselves that life in an orphanage isn't a good thing. They got very little individual attention," Garcia added.
In three weeks, Elise has made much progress, he said.
With one journey at an end and a new one as a family beginning, Teofan and Garcia are kept busy dividing their attention between Maya, who at 11 months is crawling everywhere, Fabiana, who dotes on her little sisters, and Elise, who is learning about play with siblings. Returning from a shopping trip, happy screeches pierced through the phone line.
"We got doubly lucky," Garcia said.