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Problems, Questions Face First Couple Should They Adopt a Child, Experts Say

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Janice Goldwater is a fan of Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and an ardent supporter of adoption. So when Goldwater, executive director of Adoptions Together Inc., read last week that the Clintons were considering a second child through adoption, she was thrilled.

She was worried, too.

Thrilled because having parents of the Clintons’ stature openly contemplating adoption “is a nice message for adoptees, birth parents and adoptive parents. . . . It’s positive. It says it’s OK.”

And worried because Goldwater knows that, if the Clintons are serious about adoption--a possibility some pundits have dismissed as ludicrous--the path before them is littered with personal and political minefields.

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“My reaction was that it would be interesting to see what type of child they would adopt,” said Goldwater. “Politically, everybody would watch every decision so carefully.” And with every choice, added Goldwater, the Clintons would be subject to politically explosive criticism.

Would they go for a healthy white infant--the baby most couples want to adopt? Or would they adopt across racial lines and anger those who oppose that? Would they take a child with physical disabilities or special emotional needs, requiring a major commitment of time and energy for the busy first couple?

And how much time, speaking of potent political messages, would the first lady take from her White House responsibilities?

For anyone who thought Mrs. Clinton’s comments were aimed at currying political favor, the reactions of experts like Goldwater make one thing clear: talk is one thing. But adopting a baby--especially while in the glare of public scrutiny--is fraught with political danger.

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To be sure, Mrs. Clinton has made clear that, for now, talk of adoption is just that. Saying that “there’s just too much going on in our lives right now,” the first lady told Time magazine that any adoption decision would have to wait until after her husband’s reelection campaign ends.

Adoption experts warn that the president would be subject to plenty of political second-guessing if the first couple were to decide to enlarge their family while in the White House.

If the Clintons--she’s 48, he’s 50 years old--chose to adopt a healthy white infant, they would be drawing from a small pool of the most-sought children, even as they neared the upper limit of most adoption agencies’ limits on age differentials between parents and child. And they would either have to wait for years for a child or move ahead of other waiting couples--an act that would open them to criticism.

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If the Clintons chose to cross racial lines in adoption--a seldom available option that Mrs. Clinton has campaigned hard to open--their decision would be expected to anger some African Americans and some whites, who continue to oppose the adoption by white couples of black children.

And their rearing of, say, a black child would be the object of ongoing scrutiny by some blacks. Would Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass share a place in the Clinton family’s pantheon of admired historical figures along with Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy?

If the Clintons chose to adopt an older child or a child with special needs--a disabled child, a child born with a drug addiction or an emotionally scarred child--the first family, said Goldwater, would be taking on a potentially arduous challenge.

Older children, especially those who have spent long periods in the foster care system, frequently have suffered “attachment interruptions,” which make many of them emotionally volatile and especially needy, according to adoption specialists. As a result, most of these children require, if not special mental health services, at least the sustained and undivided attention of their new parents--a tall order in the case of the busy Clintons.

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All of which raises the sensitive question of how much time the first couple--and, experts said, that means Mrs. Clinton--would be able to spend with the child.

Few, if any, agencies specify how much leave a parent should be prepared to take from work upon adopting a child. But most adoption specialists said they consider a parent’s willingness to set aside time to spend with a newly adopted child as part of their overall assessment of a family’s readiness to adopt.

“If it’s her heart’s desire to have another child, then she would probably want to alter her schedule a bit to do some bonding with the child,” said Paulette Holloway, director of Bethany Christian Services of Maryland, one of the nation’s more conservative adoption agencies. “And especially being wife of the president, knowing the president wouldn’t have a lot of time, it would make good sense to take time to bond with that child rather than turning him or her over to a nanny.”

If the Clintons decided to adopt, details like the first couple’s busy schedule--and, indeed, many of the most intimate details of their lives--would be examined intensely by social workers.

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The “home study” process, required for virtually all adoptions, focuses on everything from the prospective parents’ marital relationship and emotional stability to their physical health, their financial fitness and their reasons for wanting to adopt. Depending on the social worker, it can be a process that is as rigorous, some said, as getting elected president of the United States.

The resulting document would be filed with the court at the time of adoption, although it would remain sealed.

If the Clintons were motivated by political considerations, said Goldwater, it would be up to the social worker conducting the home study to ferret that out. “I would hope he’d be honest enough with himself to take a look at what he was getting himself and child into,” said Goldwater. “If he sat through a home study and was not honest with himself or an interviewer, it would obviously be the child that was hurt.”


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