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N.C. Attorney And His Wife "Save" Two Guatemalan Children
(Article first appeared in North Carolina Lawyer, a publication of the N.C. Bar Association.)

By Clifton Barnes

Like other children in Guatemala, they may have lived in a hut made of cardboard boxes or sheets of tin with no electricity and running water. They wouldn't know their father, and their mother would be raising her other children, perhaps leaving them without adult supervision as she tried to earn money. Or they may have ended up in the streets or in a rundown orphanage.

Luckily for two Guatemalan children, bankruptcy attorney Tom Waldrep and his wife, Ellen, went through the costly and otherwise sacrificial steps necessary to adopt them and bring them to Winston-Salem.

"I truly believe that when a child is adopted from Guatemala, the parents are literally saving that child's llife and giving them a chance for a future," said Lisa Piratzky, who is a local coordinator for a fellowship and adoption support group known as Circle of Friends for Guatemala. "The mortality rate for children under 5 is very high due to the poverty-stricken conditions in which they live, if you can call it a life."

But, in many ways, Waldrep, a board member of the North Carolina Bar Association, looks at it selfishly: "I've found that when you volunteer for something - whether it be working at a homeless shelter, serving the legal profession and public through the North Carolina Bar Association or adopting a child - you get out of it a lot more than you put into it."

The Waldreps are putting a lot into it as they are raising five "natural" children - Kerry, 22; Mimi, 14; Brian, 11; Megan Eileen, 9; and Matthew, 6; and now two adopted children - Catherine Rebecca, 21 months, and Michael Francisco, 11 months.

"We obviously love kids and we waned more kids," Waldrep said. "We had already contributed to the gene pool five times. Plus, there are religious reasons why we were interested in adoption."

Devout Catholics, the Waldreps point to several related passages in the Bible including one form the Book of Luke which reads, "Jesus realized the intentions of their hearts and took a child and placed it by His side and said to them, 'Whomever receives this child in my name receives me, and whomever receives me receives the One who sent me.'"

Still it took a family meeting where everyone had a say about whether or not to go forward with the adoptions. It was a unanimous decision - from Kerry, a senior at Georgetown University who championed the idea a couple of years earlier after volunteering in a Bolivian orphanage, to Matthew, the youngest who simply wanted a little brother.

"It was there that I first saw how many children need homes, and how easily it seemed to me that our family could adopt," Kerry said of her time in Bolivia. "I was thrilled when my parents told me that they planned to adopt. I think that my family is luckyk to have such a loving home - the more family we have to share in the love, the better and stronger our family becomes."

For several years, the entire family volunteered as they hosted children from Belfast as part of a summer program for Protestant and Catholic children, 9-11 years old, from Northern Ireland that was designed to help them learn about each other in peace.

"That program enriched our family," Waldrep said. "It was a positive experience for us. It was a natural progression from us hosting children to adopting."

Once their youngest child entered school, "we thought it's now or never," he said. Although he and Ellen both agree that it's not too late "even if you are older."

However their age, each 44, did prove a hindrance for most U.S. adoption agencies. Plus, nearly all children in the U.S., regardless of race, will eventually get adopted and that's not the case in other countries.

They decided against getting children from Russia because the fetal alcohol syndrome rate is high. And they decided against getting children from China because you can't get a boy from there, and they wanted a boy and a girl.

They decided on Guatemala, and went through Carolina Adoption Services. The main reason women give up children in Guatemala is the poverty. "However, there are strong family ties there and they tend to treat their children well," Waldrep said.

Paperwork generally takes six months in the U.S. and another six months in Guatemala. The government there has to approve the woman giving up theh child. There are also anti-adoption groups there that fight foreign adoptions, Waldrep said. "They spread rumors that the children become slaves or they are used for their organs," he said.

Their first trip down to Guatemala in January 2001 was both frustrating and gratifying. Tom and Ellen were expecting to bring back a boy and a girl but the boy's mother, at the last minute, wanted the son back.

After an experience with the court system there that made him even prouder of the American justice system, the judge ruled that the Waldreps could take the child. But there was an appeal.

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"The appeal process can take two years and during that time the boy would stay in an orphanage," Waldrep said. "Rather than put him in an orphanage, we decided to send him back to his mother."

If the mother really wants him and can care for him, the couple agreed she should keep him. However, it was an eye-opening experience.

"Attorneys there are not advocates like we are used to here," Waldrep said. "The judge has so much power that you just don't challenge a judge." He said that a judge can forbid an attorney from ever practicing in front of him or, in their case, her again for basically any reason.

"You are subject to the whim of the judge and what kind of mood he or she is in," he said. "It makes you appreciate teh rights and powers even the individual in this country has."

Still, they were able to come home on Jan. 7, 2001, with their first adopted child, which they named Catherine Rebecca. Rebecca was her original middle name.

Ellen, who has a master's degree in education psychology and has done developmental testing on babies for a local children's hospital, spent time getting Catherine up to speed developmentally with other children her age.

Meanwhile, they decided to keep looking for another boy in Guatemala to adopt. Working with Carl Hocke, the Guatemala program coordinator for Carolina Adoption Services, and Dr. Francisco Montiel, a pediatric neurologist in Guatemala, they found one last September.

This time the process went much smoother and they spent a couple of days in Guatemala filling out paperwork before bringing Michael Francisco home to North Carolina.

"I felt anxiety and loss when the first adoption did not go through," Dr. Montiel said. "I also felt their happiness and sense of fulfillment when they finally took little Francisco home."

While they call him Michael, Tom and Ellen did indeed give him the middle name of the doctor who was so helpful to them. While not knowing each other long, the doctor and the Waldreps made quite a connection.

Dr. Montiel said he felt the Waldreps warmth and honesty from the first moment. "How can you describe the colors of the rainbow to a blind person?" he said. "What I can tell you is that I am a much richer person for having met them and shared a few moments."

Hocke said he also grew quite fond of the Waldreps. "They are an absolutely wonderful couple," he said. "They are the finest individuals and examplars of good parents. Quite honestly, they remind me of those large family TV shows where everything just seemed to be truly good and healthy."

Piratzky said good adoptive parents are those who can give unconditional love. "Think about it," she said, "if you are willing to accept a child from another culture, race or ethnic group who looks nothing like you, and never will, yet you take that child into your heart and home, as your own and provide for him or her, you are a special person."

The Waldreps say that adopton is not for everyone but they hope more attorneys will do it. "At some point, it requires a leap of faith," Ellen said. "For attorneys, that can be a little hard," she said with a laugh.

"Yeah," chimed in Tom, "I had a list of questions that weren't ever going to be answered." Also, cost is a consideration as it can cost between $30,000-$40,000 to adopt. The Waldreps say they have made choices such as not having a country club membership and not buying expensive cars.

Race was never an issue for the Waldreps however and they say they have only had "overwhelmingly positive comments" in that regard. "Most simply say something like 'I wish I had the energy to have more children,'" Ellen said. She paused and added, "So do I."

Tom said, "Well, kids keep you young... Kids are our lives."

Clifton Barnes, who served as executive editor of North Carolina Lawyer, was director of communications of the N.C. Bar Association from 1987-2002.