From Russia With Love--Children : Families: The former Soviet republic has become a foreign hot spot for Americans seeking to adopt.

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Like many parents-to-be, Joan and John Welborn were excited about the arrival of their first child but terrified about the delivery.

As much as they planned and prepared for the big day, the couple worried there would be complications. As luck would have it, the delivery was smooth and rather painless, although it took longer than most--2 1/2 weeks, to be exact.

That's because the Welborns' daughter, Katya, 2, came by way of an adoption agency all the way from Russia.

"It was a big ordeal, but she's an extremely wonderful kid," said Joan Welborn, 35, an emergency room nurse at St. John's Regional Medical Center. "It's all been worth it."

John Welborn, 37, who works at St. John's as a medical technician, said Katya has changed the couple's lives. "I still wake up in the mornings and I say, 'I can't believe this is my kid.' "

The Welborns are an example of a small but growing number of U.S. couples looking to the former Soviet republic to make their adoption dreams come true. Since the collapse of communism and the shutdown of foreign adoptions from Romania, Russia has emerged as the newest hot spot on the international adoption scene.

Morgan Bates, founder and executive director of Children of Light, a Mill Valley, Calif.-based group that helps arrange foreign adoptions, said that "until February of this year there had probably been only 60 adoptions from Russia."

Adoptions from Russia began in June, 1991, and in recent months "there have probably been 60 per month," she said.

Bates, whose organization finds Russian children for nine licensed adoption agencies throughout the country, describes the situation as a "mild frenzy."

"The word is starting to get out, and people want to get in before it becomes another Romania," she said.

In 1991, Americans adopted 2,287 children from Romania, more than any other country, after seeing media reports of needy children in Romanian orphanages. But that practice ended abruptly that July after widespread reports of black market baby-selling caused the country to halt all foreign adoptions.

As a result, child-finding sources like Children of Light and many adoption agencies were suddenly left empty-handed, and prospective adoptive parents were left without children.

About the same time that Romania was shutting its doors, Russia began efforts to loosen its adoption restrictions. Bates said the changes in Russia offered new hope for many of the couples who had been denied Romanian children, such as the Welborns.

In 1991, after completing most of the necessary paperwork, they learned that Romania had shut down. Next, the Welborns attempted to adopt from Moldavia (now Moldova), but after flying to Bucharest before heading to Moldavia, they learned that because of political unrest Moldavia too had shut down.

Heartbroken, the couple returned home. But Bates told them not to be discouraged, saying she was planning a trip to Russia and hoped to have good news for them in a couple of months.

Two months later, Bates returned with a picture of Katya, whose unwed mother had decided to give her up for adoption.

After seeing the picture and reading the girl's history, the Welborns decided to give foreign adoption another chance. Once the couple's Immigration and Naturalization Service paperwork had been renewed, John Welborn was on a plane to Moscow. From there he made the 10-hour train trip to Katya's orphanage in Minsk, where he arrived on Father's Day last June.

When he walked into the orphanage, Welborn recalled, all the children in the playroom stopped what they were doing, ran over and hugged him and said, 'Papa. Papa. Up, up,' " asking to be picked up.

Katya was the only child who didn't run to him. Instead, she sat in a corner intently eating a banana. Welborn said it took a couple of days before the two hit it off, but after that they were inseparable.

The Welborns plan to begin procedures soon to adopt another Russian child.

Since May, Children of Light has arranged at least 35 adoptions nationwide, averaging four to six adoptions a month. And there is no shortage of children. Officials estimate that in Russia alone there are between 300,000 and 400,000 children living in orphanages.

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