St. Augustine couple finds love, chaos with international adoption
By Jill Houser | firstname.lastname@example.org
The young American parents cried softly in the back seat of the car as it bounced and jolted through the streets of Liberia, Africa.
It was midnight on a Sunday in November 2006, and a young woman was driving the couple from the airport in Freeport, Sierra Leone to Monrovia, Liberia. The woman told them they wouldn’t be able to bring all three girls they’d come to adopt to St. Augustine. “They lived with their birth parents until yesterday,” the woman said. “Two of them are at the orphanage and one of them is at the house where we are going.”
Zac and Natasha Anderson had had no idea the little sisters whose photos the adoption agency had been sending them over the past year still had parents. Nor were they prepared to not bring all of them home.
“What are we doing? Let’s turn around and go home,” Zac remembers saying. “This is ridiculous.”
Zac took Natasha’s soft, pale hand into his own heavily tattooed one. They sat motionless. The drive over pot holes and jagged earth could not shake them from their devastation. All they could do was pray.
When Zac and Natasha arrived at the house, CJ, their middle daughter, was in one of the beds downstairs. A nanny woke her up. CJ wanted nothing to do with the blue-eyed, white couple. They let her stay there that night.
The second night, the Andersons brought CJ into their room at the missionaries’ house and tried making her sleep in the small bed next to theirs. CJ refused and stood up all night. At one point she let the edge of her head rest on the bed. The whole week they were in Liberia, CJ didn’t say a word.
“She hated us,” Zac said. “With good reason.”
The young couple wrestled with why it was okay to rip three little girls from their parents just to take them out of poverty. “This decision is going to be made one way or another,” Natasha remembers people saying. “You’re going to be these kids’ parents or it’s going to be somebody else.”
To make matters worse, the girls’ mother requested to meet the new parents. Wide-eyed and overwhelmed, they agreed to have a conversation with her. “I thought I was going to throw-up,” Natasha said.
“It was helpful, for closure,” Zac said. “She was thankful.”
But it was awkward. The woman was distraught and crying—which is not acceptable in the Liberian culture. Natasha cried with her and hugged her. She told the woman she didn’t have to be strong. This was the time to cry.
It was more than the Andersons had ever imagined would happen in a place where they were already out of their comfort zone. How do you comfort a woman whose children you are taking? How do you adopt children who have loving parents who don’t want to leave them?
A few days into the trip, Natasha and Zac were taken to an orphanage to meet their other two daughters—Christy and Zoe.
The Andersons played with them for less than an hour before they had to leave and soon go back to St. Augustine, with an unwilling toddler. CJ, who’d been given a passport long before her younger and older sister because of an eye defect, made for a jarring transition in the Anderson household.
Natasha, 29, and Zac, 30, were married 10 years ago. They beam about the first time they saw each other. “We met at a family reunion,” Natasha laughs. “My brother and his sister had a baby in high school.”
Though Natasha was a little alarmed that Zac had just gotten a tattoo of a naked woman on his forearm and dropped out of college, the couple soon realized they had a lot of dreams in common—including adoption. They married nine months later. “Not because I was pregnant,” Natasha said.
The two started an apprenticeship at a tattoo shop in Jacksonville. They loved the environment, tattooing each other. Zac and Natasha also worked grueling jobs such as lawn mowing and factory work. Then, Natasha became pregnant.
The Andersons had their first child, Selah, two years after they married. As a toddler, Selah was a fireball of energy and delight. She was outgoing and passionate about life and Zac and Natasha knew they could handle more. “I grew up next to a family who were all different shades,” Natasha said.
Zac wanted to adopt because he said it is biblical. “It was true and right religion to care for the widows and orphans,” Zac said. He had a job with AT&T that paid well and had free insurance, so they started looking into foster care through the state.
Social workers told them horror stories. They were told that every foster child is there for a reason. “The system is so messed up and [the children] get tossed around so much it didn’t seem like there was any hope,” he said.
“The CIA World Fact Report had just come out and Liberia had the highest infant mortality rate at the time,” Zac said. (As of 2009, Liberia has the third highest infant mortality rate in the world.)
Natasha heard horror stories about Liberian children being unruly because it’s a war-torn country. The couple looked up agencies that adopted motherless children in Liberia and went for the challenge.
They found Acres of Hope, an agency in Mason, Wis., specializing in adoptions from Liberia. The Andersons told the agency they wanted one child, maybe two. After a brief home study, Acres of Hope gave them a referral for three sisters. “We said ‘awe, three little girls’,” Natasha laughed.
“We prayed about it,” Zac said. A year later they were on a plane to pick up what they assumed would be three adorable sisters who couldn’t wait to be taken to America.
“A lot of times adoption agencies don’t tell parents what they really need to know—it’s not all about hugs and kisses,” said Robert Cantu, child and adolescent psychotherapist and Flagler College adjunct professor.
Cantu was previously a clinical director for a special needs adoptions agency in South Carolina. He said the more children agencies find homes for, the more money the state will give them. “In all honesty—I would never adopt,” Cantu said. “Not just anyone should.”
Tracy McDade, the program director at the Jacksonville Children’s Home Society of Florida, the Acres of Hope practices seem unusual and unethical. “The Hague Treaty in 2008 was supposed to eliminate those agencies,” McDade said.
According to McDade, the Hague Treaty provides a strict formation for international adoptions and raises agency standards. She said it was supposed to eliminate certain adoption agencies. McDade said all of the agencies she works with are well established and recommended.
“We have 15 different contracts with adoption agencies,” McDade said.
None of the agencies answered questions for this story, including Holt International, a reputable agency founded 50 years ago. Acres of Hope didn’t answer questions either. These agencies may not be doing anything illegal by misinforming or withholding information, Cantu said, but they are causing a lot of parents more grief than necessary.
Most reputable agencies, such as Holt International, don’t allow international adoption from any African country besides Ethiopia. Acres of Hope provides links on its website for future adoptive parents about adoption issues and Liberian history and problems.
Cantu further noted that an adoption agency in Ponte Vedra adopted children from Romania after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The agency gave little preparation to new adoptive parents and approved couples who met the minimal Florida law required in a home study.
“They’re merchandise,” Cantu said. “Might as well sell cars.”
Six months after the Andersons brought CJ home, Zac and a friend returned to Liberia to pick up the other two girls who now had their passports. Natasha stayed in St. Augustine with Selah and CJ.
“There were a lot of UN vehicles,” Zac said. “There were people on their cell phones in the jungle.” They drove over pot holes and past a soccer stadium in ruins. A band of children chased their car down the street.
Zoe had been in-and-out of the hospital with malaria, twice. She was sickly and malnourished. Zac was horrified. Zoe was nearly 1-years-old and still the size of a newborn.
“Christy was in an orphanage for six months. It was all it took for that glazed look—like just that cold—,” Zac doesn’t finish.
“They had a hierarchy going on in there,” Natasha said. “She came home kind of like an inner city kid in America. Like a thug. She was conniving, she’d steal and she was deceptive. You could just look at her and tell she was up to something.”
While CJ adapted to her new life in only six months, her older sister Christy would bully strangers when she arrived in St. Augustine. “It made me fearful,” Natasha said.
The children only knew about ten English words—although Acres of Hope had told them the girls knew English. Also, they’d been told the sisters were really young, but Christy was already 5 or 6-years-old. No one knows their precise ages, as they were born in a jungle and it’s not Liberian culture to celebrate birthdays.
“[The agency] tells everybody they’re 3 and 4 and then you get them and they’re going through puberty,” Natasha joked.
“Everybody probably knows that younger is more attractive to prospective adoptive parents,” Zac said. “The doctors would ask us what their prenatal and postnatal care was and we’d just laugh.”
Natasha had to toilet train the girls. She had to teach them what a hug is. Who God is. What “I love you” means. She had to teach them about the sun and the moon and knees and elbows. Public school was out of the question. And so for the past three years, Natasha has been with Zoe, CJ and Christy day-in and day-out.
No self-help book could have prepared the Andersons for this life. Though Acres of Hope withheld information and led Zac and Natasha to believe certain things—they’ve managed.
“I asked God to use every breath that I breathe to serve him every day,” Natasha laughed, remembering her prayer from years ago. “Be careful what you pray,” she began to cry.
Their biggest concern now is the baby on the way. Natasha rubbed her belly and grinned at the thought of the little boy inside. Piper, a Soft Coated Wheaton Terrier, sat on the floor next to the couple. Natasha twirled the hair covering Piper’s eyes until it is stuck up on top of its head.
“We’re not wealthy or anything,” Natasha said.
Zac recently started a new job. He works as the ministry developer and coordinator for Coquina Community Church in St. Augustine. It is good preparation, as Zac and Natasha are considering becoming missionaries in Miami.
They are ready to leave St. Augustine, what they describe as a small, rather racist town. The Andersons live in a predominantly black neighborhood. Natasha said the family is constantly looked at and judged.
“Just even going to Jacksonville feels like a freeing metropolis,” Zac said. “There are couples walking around who aren’t the same color, no one looks at us twice. No one is making comments about our kids’ hair.”
Natasha said people often stop in the driveway to ask if they can do her children’s hair. “If they look like they have white parents it’s because they do,” she laughed.
“It’s just hair,” Zac said. He is wary of the day the girls are curious about their birth parents.
Cantu said there is a genetic link and children often feel they have to resolve why they were adopted. Cantu had to wonder the same thing when he discovered his birthmother at the age of 40.
“Am I that bad of a person that I was given away?” Cantu said, mimicking a child’s thought. “If I was bad enough my mom didn’t want me—that is horrific. I can’t cope with that. So actually—what must have happened is my mom was probably a princess and I was kidnapped.”
Cantu said that parents looking into adoption should have no expectations. “Don’t expect [the children] to love you. Hope that it happens, but don’t expect it.”
The Andersons are lucky. Christy left her bullying days behind and is now inseparable with Selah. The two recently went to the Jacksonville Zoo with their father. “We got to walk behind the scenes,” Selah said, jumping up and down.
“We held snakes and alligators,” Christy said.
CJ had surgery on the growth behind her eye. She wears a patch sometimes, but with glasses has 20/20 vision. “I like to color,” she said.
Zoe, the sickly and malnourished infant is now 4-years-old and dreams of adulthood. Standing shorter than Piper, she peers around the room with her dark, almond-shaped eyes, contemplating future careers. “A library,” Zoe said.
Natasha laughed. “I’ve never heard that before,” she said. “Are you an intellectual?”
Zoe giggled, hugging a stuffed animal. The girls ran off and played with Piper in another room.