Fighting for Fairness, Part Three

Yesterday, Edie Windsor, an 84-year-old widow, was hailed as a hero for her successful battle for equality in benefits.

In 1955, Rosa Parks, a defiant bus-rider in Montgomery, Alabama, held fast to her ideals, and ended up moving mountains.

Over the years, countless women have effected change while fighting for fairness.

Amy Slack, a 41-year-old mother in New Jersey, aspires to be one of those women. She has spent the past five years fighting to free her daughter, and others like her, from foster homes and orphanages in Guatemala.

(Note: If you missed Parts 1 and 2 about Amy Slack’s efforts to adopt a child from Guatemala, click here and here.)

38649_1553888894251_3696498_n The struggle to unite with Lilly—the Guatemalan baby she and her husband were “matched” with for adoption in late 2007—has caused Amy to become more politically involved than she had ever imagined.

She works with an advocacy group, Guatemala900, which, according to its website, is conducting a campaign to “call attention to the stagnation of the…remaining Guatemalan adoptions that were begun before 2008.”

Amy and her husband, Spencer, joined about 20 other families in hiring an international adoption lawyer to gain support for action in Washington, DC.

She has twice traveled to DC to advocate for the completion of in-process Guatemalan adoptions – once for a march and candlelight vigil, in 2009, and, more recently, with other families and their lawyer to urge the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, to take action. (That’s Amy in the above photo.)

Amy has kept herself abreast of politics in Guatemala, as well.  She knows that Guatemala’s President Otto Pérez Molina discussed the adoption quagmire with a U.S. delegation including Ambassador Susan Jacobs (special adviser regarding children’s issues with the State Department), Alejandro Mayorkas (head of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency) and Fernando de la Cerda (counsel to the Guatemala ambassador in Washington, DC).

Ostensibly, President Molina is committed to expediting the open cases, Amy says, “but in April 2012, he promised that our children would be home in 100 days, and it is now 400-plus days and they are still not home.

“There are a lot of promises, but no action,” she says with exasperation.

Emotionally and financially, Amy needs the battle to conclude. After five years of paying for attorneys and Lilly’s care; making trips to Trenton, NJ, for paperwork; traveling to Washington, DC, for advocacy; and flying to Guatemala to attend hearings and visit with Lilly; the Spencers’ financial burden has become nearly unbearable.

“The drain on our resources has probably been the worst part of all of this,” Amy confides.

To continue the fight and foster care payments for Lilly, the Slacks held a fundraiser at a bowling alley and more than a dozen yard sales. Fortunately, they have also received support from their families and community. “Everyone at my job, at my mom’s church and at my mother-in-law’s work gives us anything they don’t want anymore.”

backsOn a more personal note, she adds that “it’s hard not going out to dinner with the girls cause the money could be used for paying a bill or [something for Lilly], and it’s hard when Ben wants something that his other friends [have] and we just simply can’t do it.”

In fact, the toll on Ben, the big brother waiting for his sister’s arrival, has been heavy, too.  “Ben has had a rough time,” Amy says.  He decided to stop mentioning the adoption at school “because it was taking so long, [the other kids] just thought he was lying.” (Ben and Lilly are together in the photo at right.)

Ben, who is 12, is concerned about his parents’ struggles and has internalized his own frustrations and sadness. Recently, Amy and Ben were able to talk through his feelings, and concluded that Ben would benefit from knowing more about the process.

Out of that discussion, one major decision was made: Ben will accompany his parents to Guatemala to pick up Lilly. And Amy believes in her heart of hearts, as any good mother would, that she will be united with her daughter soon.

 – Linda Williams Rorem, 27 June 2013
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Fighting for Family, Part Two

Most pregnant women, by the ninth month of gestation, are more than ready to part with the baby they have been carrying. By week 40, the most common thought is, “Let’s get on with show.”

In those final days, some of us find solace in thoughts of the Asian elephant, who carries her young for an average of 645 days.  Of course, I wouldn’t be in a rush to birth a 220 pounder, either.

Even so, elephants have it relatively easy compared to Amy Slack, who has been waiting for her daughter Lilly’s arrival for nearly 2,000 days.

582777_421100434603622_1458385784_nAmy and her husband, Spencer, received news of their “match” with a three-week-old baby in Guatemala in October 2007. Since then, their path to bring Lilly to the U.S. has been blocked by legal issues, administrative nightmares and countless other frustrations.

(Note: If you missed Part One of the story documenting Amy Slack’s struggle to adopt a daughter from Guatemala, click here.)

To grossly understate the situation, the Slacks have been on a wild roller-coaster ride.

Earlier his week, as I was preparing to “publish” my first blog post about the Lilly, who is now five and still living in Guatemala, Amy told me to hold tight, as she expected to report good news within a few hours.

Apparently the Guatemalan office that handles adoptions, PGN (Procuradoria General de la Nacion), was ready to release Lilly’s paperwork and allow the adoption process to move forward.

PGN’s job is to review adoption dossiers and analyze whether or not they conform to the guidelines set by the Hague Convention as well as Guatemala’s own requirements.

Last week, a PGN representative said the attorney representing the Slacks could pick up Lilly’s file, and then apply for Lilly’s new birth certificate and passport. With those in hand, the Slacks could obtain a visa for Lilly and potentially bring her to their home in New Jersey by the summer’s end.

However, when the attorney arrived at the agency, he was told the documents weren’t ready, and an additional hearing would be held the following day. There, the judge ordered the documents to be released.

Later, a PGN employee told the attorney that someone else had already picked up the paperwork.

And then, this Monday, it was the same old story. The lawyer went to pick up the paperwork, and was told, “Sorry, it isn’t ready, come back tomorrow.” And so it goes.

This scenario has played out several times in the past two years, despite the fact that at a 2011 hearing, the Slacks gained official approval for Lilly’s adoption. After that time, no additional hearings, documents or psychological evaluations should have been required, although all of the above have since been re-requested, several times.

And so, the Slacks are among hundreds of U.S. families “stuck” in the process. They have visited and communicated regularly with the children they plan to adopt, forming strong bonds filled with love and trust. Yet those children continue to languish in orphanages and foster homes.

And, when the bills mount, frustration grows and hope diminishes, the Slacks wonder how much more they can take.

“What keeps me fighting?” Amy asks. “Well, Lilly keeps me fighting for Lilly. That sweet little innocent girl that calls us mami and papi.

“When people say, ‘All you can do it wait,’ they make it sound like I can go about my normal life and just relax in between bits of news about our case, waiting for the next step,” Amy says. “My days, especially for the past three years, have been [focused on] advocating for Lilly to come home.”

Amy soldiers on. In her “spare” time, outside of working a part-time job, running a household and caring for a 12-year-old son, Amy spends hours  “writing emails to anybody and everybody who could possibly help; reaching out to senators, reps [and] lawyers; [helping to] get letters drafted and signed by Congress or the Senate, getting bills passed, getting our story in the news, re-doing our fingerprints for like the 15th time now, updating our home studies, raising money, worrying about money….

“Every day I am stalking my emails [and] Facebook messages [searching] for [information about] what is happening with other cases that could affect my own, supporting the other families, waiting for responses back from people who could help,” Amy says. “It is an all-day, everyday thought process and in all honesty sometimes a through-the-night thought process depending on what all happened with our case that particular day.”

And the grueling process has left severe collateral damage.

“I have gone through some really dark patches,” Amy confides. “But something always pulls me out, whether it be [my son] Ben, friends, something small but good happening in our lives, a happy day, a good hard laugh over something. And sometimes, a good cleansing cry helps.

“What keeps me positive is the fact that I know why I am doing this, what the outcome needs to be and what the ultimate goal is,” she says. “If nothing else comes out of this mess, my son will see that not everything comes easy. Sometimes you have to fight–and fight hard–for what you want and for what is right.”

And finally, Amy adds, “Lilly will know how much she was wanted by the fight we gave in bringing her home.”

Please come back to Permission Slips on Thursday, June 27, for Part 3 of Amy’s story.

 -Linda Williams Rorem, 26 June 2013

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Fighting for Parenthood

A few years after their son, Ben, was born, Amy and Spencer Slack decided to add to their family. At the time, they couldn’t foresee that their journey would include the heartbreak of conception struggles, the hassle and expense of fertility treatments, the difficult decision to adopt, eight months of paperwork and home visits, agency and attorney fees, and finally, joyously, a “match” with a three-week-old girl in Guatemala.

That was five and a half years, tens of thousands of dollars, eight long flights to Central America and countless phone calls, emails and letters ago. And yet, the Slacks have yet to deliver their child home.

6491_1202682634314_7059715_n_(1)Every Christmas, birthday and anniversary, my cousin Susan, who lives in the Philadelphia area, sends me a lovely letter with news and photos documenting her daughter Amy’s efforts to bring Lilly into their family. Each time those notes arrive, my heart aches even more.

I’m one of the lucky ones: four easy conceptions and pregnancies, four live births, four healthy kids. However, knowing countless others who have struggled with some or all of the above, I don’t take my good fortune for granted.

I don’t know anyone who has struggled for parenthood as much as Amy has. At the same time, I am incredibly impressed with her persistence, patience, dogged determination and years of sacrifice, all to give a little girl a family and keep the promise to love and educate her.

In 2007, Amy and Spencer decided to adopt from Guatemala because they appreciated the Guatemalan foster care system, they hoped the process would be speedy (they were told six to nine months) and they knew that their child would feel welcome in their community.

That year, more than 5,500 children were adopted from Guatemala, 4,700 of which went to homes in the U.S. So, the Slacks had reason to feel optimistic.

In fact, they didn’t have to wait long. They still remember the call about their “match” with Lilly, on Oct. 17, 2007, and the excitement of rushing home to open the official documents that were mailed the following day. “I remember taking the pictures into work [that day] to show everyone our beautiful daughter,” Amy recalls. “We named her Lilly Mireya.”

Six months later, Amy traveled to Guatemala City to meet her precious new baby, who was living with the foster mother that, to this day, still cares for her.

At about the same time, the U.S. initiated the Hague Adoption Convention, an international adoption agreement intended to maintain the best interests of children and their birth families, and to prevent the abduction, exploitation and sale or trafficking of children. However, because Guatemala was not in full compliance by Dec. 31, 2007, the U.S. closed its adoption program with Guatemala.

Fortunately for the Slacks and others, Guatemala passed the Ortega Law, stating that any adoption in process when the law changed should be completed under the laws in effect when it began. So, all adoptions set in motion before the end of 2007 should have been expedited.

Nevertheless, the number of completed adoptions plummeted, and last year only seven Guatemalan children were adopted by U.S. parents, leaving about 100 U.S. families, according to the Guatemala 900 organization, waiting to be united with the children they had formed bonds with. They are “stuck” in the process, yet continue to fight to bring their children home. (Click here to see a trailer for a documentary about these families.)

The Slacks and other families that are “stuck” have formed support groups, Facebook circles and coalitions. They have hired an attorney and urged Secretary of State John Kerry to travel to Guatemala to expedite the “in-limbo” adoptions. They also have enlisted the aid of members of congress.

Amy and Spencer can’t comprehend why Lilly’s adoption has been stalled. The birth mother is still alive; she has attended a handful of court hearings, and has been interviewed and given psychological evaluations on several occasions, to reaffirm she wants the adoption to take place.

After one court hearing, the birth mother joined Amy’s group for lunch, and when asked if she had any questions for Amy, the woman replied, “No, I just want her to love my daughter and give her an education.”

For all intents and purposes, Lilly’s adoption has received a green light. In 2011 Amy received a court approval stating the case should continue under the old notarial process. However, two years have passed, and the adoption has yet to be processed.

Amy has traveled to Guatemala to visit Lilly eight times: with her husband, with a good friend, with her mother, with her mother-in-law and even alone.

Amy and the foster mother are “Facebook friends” and message as often as they can. Amy and Spencer call Lilly on birthdays, holidays and other special occasions, and have lively discussions with the foster mother and Lilly, even though two of them speak very little English, and the other two know only rudimentary Spanish.

Amy, Spencer and other relatives send care packages, clothes, toys, birthday and Christmas gifts and photos to keep their connection to Lilly vivid. The foster mother inserts every photo into an album, and looks at it often with Lilly, so she feels close to the family that awaits her. “Lilly can tell you who everyone [in the photos] is,” Amy reports. “In fact, on the phone she will ask for every single one of them by name – about 10 people in total.”

However, these connections are a poor substitute for adding a sweet five-year-old to their home in New Jersey.  For now, the Slacks have nothing but memories of short visits to Guatemala City, an album full of photos and arms aching to welcome Lilly into their lives.

Please come back to Permission Slips on Wednesday, June 26, for Part 2 of Amy’s story.

 – Linda Williams Rorem, 24 June 2013

A Father’s Legacy: Breast Cancer?

Angelina Jolie publicly outed the difficult medical choices that women face. Her story, however is not unique. My friend Tana Senn faced a similar situation in the last few years. Here is Tana´s story in her own words:

TanaSenn_HeadshotIn 2011, I had a risk-reducing oophorectomy (removing my ovaries and fallopian tubes).

Like Angelina Jolie, I have the BRCA1 gene mutation—an oft-mentioned link to breast and ovarian cancer that is often passed on from one generation to the next.

Unlike Jolie, neither my mother nor my grandmother had breast cancer, ovarian cancer or the BRCA1 gene mutation. I inherited it from my father.

In 2010, my dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. As doctors looked into his health history, they recommended he take the test for BRCA1.

While it is rarely discussed, other cancers like pancreatic cancer can also be linked to the BRCA1 gene mutation, even though it’s most closely associated with breast cancer and ovarian cancer, which usually has deadly implications given the difficulties of early detection.

When my dad disclosed the news that he was a carrier, I took the test…with much trepidation.

A few weeks later, I received the call – I carried the BRCA1 gene mutation.

I was angry, distraught, scared and in disbelief.

I am also a mother. I had to do something in the face of the 50 percent chance of getting ovarian cancer.

Instead of being angry at the genetic news, my doctor advised, be grateful. There are so many diseases out there that we can’t detect early. Or if we do know a genetic marker for them, there isn’t always something we can do about it.  BRCA1 is different. An oophorectomy and mastectomy can take the 50 percent chance of ovarian cancer and the 87 percent likelihood of breast cancer down to less than 5 percent.

I knew I was done with having children, so I addressed the risk of ovarian cancer first. I acted on my knowledge, not my fears, and made a medical decision to improve my outcomes.

A few weeks shy of my 40th birthday, I had an oophorectomy and hysterectomy.  My risk for ovarian and cervical cancers is virtually gone. The surgery also decreased my chances of breast cancer.

Every six months I monitor for breast cancer by having an MRI or a mammogram.  The stress of bi-annual tests is likely to lead me to a prophylactic mastectomy in the future.  But whatever I choose, I will be acting based on powerful medical knowledge.

With my surgery and dad’s death further behind me now, I’m blessed with a new perspective on the entire experience. The key thing with learning your family history and bolstering our knowledge with genetic testing is an ability to make informed decisions and ultimately go on with our lives.

– Tana Senn lobbied for federal legislation to prevent insurance and employment discrimination based on genetic factors, even before her own diagnosis. Currently, she is a Mercer Island City Councilmember.

– At Permission Slips we believe strongly that women need to advocate for their health and take better care of themselves. We are so happy for Tana and her family.

Focusing on the Bottom Line

At a party celebrating the high school graduation of my sons’ friends, I got to peek in on an acquaintance and her two-week-old son.

In that home, the youngest of a large brood was heading off to college, while the oldest, who lives nearby, had just brought new life into the family.

The stark contrast of endings and beginnings not only struck that family, but it also caused the rest of us to reflect on our roles as parents.

babyIt was so much simpler when our concerns centered on a baby’s sleep cycle, milk consumption and diaper content; his intake and outflow.

Back then, we didn’t understand the older ladies who advised us: “Little children, little problems. Big kids, big problems.”

It was hard to fathom how anything could be more challenging than trying to get a baby to sleep through the night, calming a toddler’s tantrum in the checkout line or toilet-training a stubborn three-year-old.

Those of us with teenagers understand those wise women now.

Since my second son has just graduated, I know that this summer will be full of “big problems”:

–       He will work hard to earn money to blow at college parties and concerts.

–       He will spend endless hours “chilling” with his buddies, sensing that everything will change when they all splinter off in the fall.

–       He will fry his skin at the beach, ignoring the sunscreen in my outstretched hand as I chase him to the car.

–       He will skip a few family dinners, when he can’t pull himself away from friends and fun.

–       He will fight with his siblings, shouting, “I’m glad I’m leaving.” They will feel the same way.

–       He will miss his curfew more than once, not employing a phone that is either out of juice or turned off.

–       He will roll in smelling of campfire, with a belly full of burnt marshmallows and a heart full of smiles and great stories.

–       He will question the family rules, stating that he is old enough to run his own life.

–       He will do his best to soil the proverbial nest, so that he and his family will be equally prepared for his departure.

As he stretches his wings and prepares for flight, in a week that also includes his eighteenth birthday, I can’t help thinking of Alice Cooper’s infamous anthem:

“… I’m a boy and I’m a man,

I’m eighteen and I don’t know what I want…

I got a baby’s brain and an old man’s heart…

Don’t always know what I’m talkin’ about,

Feels like I’m livin’ in the middle of doubt.”

It’s hard to be a teenager. It’s equally hard to parent one, and I know what lies ahead this summer for my husband and me:

–       We’ll often wonder where our son is, who he is with and what he’s doing.

–       We won’t sleep well until he returns home safely each night.

–       We’ll remind each other that in September, we’ll sleep better, knowing that when our son is 2,500 miles away, we will be out of the loop.

–       We’ll try to repeat important lessons about schoolwork, respect, dating and partying, and pray that some of our words will sink it.

–       We’ll remind him to separate the reds and whites in the laundry, expecting to see several pink T-shirts at Thanksgiving break.

–       We’ll continue to search for the world’s loudest alarm clock, simultaneously praying for a helpful and understanding roommate.

–       We’ll look at each other and remember the little problems that 15, 16 and 17 years ago seemed so big.

–       We’ll attempt to keep our lectures and worries to a minimum, and try to focus on the bottom line: safety.

Not long before my firstborn left for college, I told him that while I harped on hundreds of petty issues, my biggest concerns were simple and straightforward, and all related to safety: Don’t try, and get addicted to, hard drugs; don’t drive under the influence; and don’t get anyone pregnant.

This mindset was echoed last Thursday, in the entertaining, yet poignant, graduation speech delivered by the school’s messianic band director, Parker Bixby.

After explaining why every Friday he sends students off with the message “Don’t lie to your parents, they love you,” Bixby continued:

There is no one else on earth who is more invested in your future or who loves you more than your parents…who has lived the past 18 years of their lives with the sole purpose of ensuring your future happiness…who has filtered every decision they have made regarding their own future through its impact on yours. It is your parents who look at each of the stupid decisions you have made not as evidence of who you are, but as events that contribute to who you will be.

I don’t expect you to understand this,” Bixby asserted. “You are biologically predisposed not to be able to understand the depth of your parents’ love for you because, if you did, the pressure to make good on that emotional investment would be crushing.”

And so, Bixby explained, his speech would certainly be interpreted on two entirely different levels: what the graduating seniors heard, and what the parents heard. Using two separate microphones, he used several examples to demonstrate this phenomenon, including:

Mic. 1 [what kids hear]: “These have been the best days of your life.”

Mic. 2 [what parents hear]: “Birth to 6th grade was great; I started liking you again in high school, with the exception of junior year. I love you now, though.”

His final translation was this:

Mic. 1 [kids]: “Go forward and find your bliss.”

Mic. 2 [parents]: “Don’t get pregnant.”

All at once, I was reminded of the baby, of the small problems of infancy and the big problems of the teen years, and it all became clear:

The bottom line still is about intake and outflow.

–       Linda Williams Rorem, 10 June 2013

The Thorns in the Rose

The mother wore an expression of joy and awe as she cradled her newborn son and stood before the congregation. The occasion was a child dedication ceremony and her visage could not have been a purer expression of hope and love. The minister whispered and kissed the two-week- old and presented the parents with a rose stripped of its thorns. He said the thorn-less rose signified new budding life and the desire to protect our children from life’s harms and struggles.

The second part of the dedication was a bridging ceremony for high school seniors. Once again parents stood and faced the congregation but this time with their children by their side. The juxtaposition was clear.  The occasion was joyous and anticipatory however the expressions of hopes and dreams were worn by the young-adult children rather than their parents. The profoundness of the contrast hung in the air.

The assembly echoed, “We honor you at this transformative time,” and “May you find among us allies and friends…we share together the sorrow of leaving the past, as well as the excitement of embracing the future.” The minister repeated the presentation of roses but the seniors were given roses with thorns.


He said the roses represented the sweetness of life but the thorns showed that there would be struggles. The parents nodded with the knowledge of hard-won wisdom.  The minister said the thorns should not be seen as a frightening omen. He assured the youth that they were equipped to handle life’s prickly moments, would be supported and would always have a place to come home to.

My son participated in this ceremony yesterday and is nearly ready to leave the nest. We have done our best to deliver him to the altar of his future self. It is a bitter-sweet moment, knowing that he will no longer be part of our daily lives. Yet, I am filled with joy.

In the words of Henry Ward Beecher, “There are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One of these is roots, the other, wings.”

Carol Lewis Gullstad June 3, 2013

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