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Heartbreak and Hope as Adoption Squeeze Hits Hollywood: “I Want to Smash My Head Against the Wall …”

"People think it's a simple as going to Ralphs and picking a baby off the shelf," says one prospective parent as foreign countries shut down the pipeline and pricey consultants rush to fill domestic demand.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

By last winter, when Emmy-nominated cinematographer Joia Speciale flew to San Antonio to meet the woman who would give birth to her daughter, she had been trying to become a parent for a decade. She’d done IVF. She’d attended a seminar about foster adoption. She’d turned to international adoption, but weeks before she was to meet a 16-month-old girl in an Uzbekistan orphanage, that country banned U.S. adoptions. “That child disappeared,” says Speciale. “It took me months to recover from that.” She hired David Ellis, a law­yer whose Brentwood firm, Adoptions First, has worked with The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, Jeffrey Tambor and Howie Mandel. Ellis found a 20-year-old Texas woman who already had two children and was seven months pregnant. “She seemed very certain,” says Speciale. “She was really poor and didn’t have a job. Her boyfriend was in and out of jail.” On her second trip to Texas, Speciale flew back to L.A. with the mother, who never had been on a plane, and her two little boys.

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Relocation is not uncommon among Ellis’ clients: “Once they get here, they get terrific medical care. It increases the success rate substantially — the birth mother is isolated from a negative environment,” i.e., unsupportive family members. Speciale put the mother and her children up in a Manhattan Beach hotel and hired professional birth-mother companion Darcy Hall at $35 an hour. Hall kept the family of three entertained — at the beach, out to lunch — while Speciale shot episodes of a reality show. But by the time the mother went into labor with Speciale’s gynecologist at Cedars-Sinai, they had bonded, says Speciale: “It was like I had three children, and one of them was a pregnant teenage girl.”

Jackman and wife Deborra-Lee Furness with adopted kids Ava and Oscar.

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After an emergency cesarean section, Speciale got to cut the umbil­ical cord, and the birth mom flew back to Texas two days later. Speciale covered her expenses from the time they were matched until three months after the birth: “I took her maternity shopping. I bought her kids a wardrobe of clothes.” In all, the birth mom’s expenses totaled $20,000, the adoption nearly $55,000. Speciale will send the birth mom pictures annually. Baby Rose is now 9 months old.

With husband Julius Tennon, Viola Davis adopted her first child, Genesis, now 4, domestically in 2011.

Hollywood, where so many of the progeny of A-listers seem to have been plucked from foreign lands or domestic parts unknown for a glamorous SoCal existence, has created the perception that adoptable babies are available to anyone with the heart. The truth is, adoption, which often takes years, is neither easy nor cheap. “I want to smash my head against the wall when people ask why somebody doesn’t ‘just adopt,’ like it’s as simple as going to Ralphs and picking up a baby off the shelf,” says Kimberly James, a production coordinator who was priced out of traditional adoption. Of course, for many in the town, cost is not a barrier: Steven Spielberg, Amy Pascal, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, HBO programming president Michael Lombardo, former HBO head Sue Naegle and Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes are adoptive parents, as are megastars Tom Cruise, Madonna, Sandra Bullock, Charlize Theron, Hugh Jackman and, of course, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, whose brood of six — three adopted from Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam — reportedly is soon to include a little sibling from Syria.

Regardless of means, international adoptions have plummeted during the past few years and are not likely to rise again. In 2014, there were 6,441 international adoptions in the U.S. (including 402 in California), down from a high of 23,000 in 2004. Russia shut down U.S. adoptions after a Tennessee mom bought her 7-year-old adopted son a one-way ticket back to Moscow in 2010, and the discovery of “baby selling” schemes has slowed or stopped the number of children leaving Cambodia, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Nepal and Guatemala. The easing of China’s one-child policy — long a key source of adopted daughters for Americans — quartered the number of adoptions from 2005 (8,000) to 2014 (2,040). The country now bans single people, those over 50 and those with a body mass index above 40 from adopting. Family law attorney Susan Wiesner, whose clients have included musician Ben Harper in his divorce from Laura Dern, brought her daughter Jane home in 2003, just before China banned single women from adopting; the country made Wiesner sign a declaration stating she was not gay.

Mariska Hargitay and husband Peter Hermann’s biological son, August, is flanked by Andrew (left) and Amaya, adopted domestically within six months of each other in 2011.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding‘s Nia Vardalos and her husband, Cougar Town‘s Ian Gomez, have been on waiting lists for Greece and China for more than four years (they happily adopted their first child via the U.S. foster system and are on the waiting list to adopt another child from L.A. County). The family’s celebrity does not affect its place on the list, says Vardalos, who encountered one private adoption attorney who told her he could move her to the top of his list if she wrote a hefty check. Gelila Assefa Puck, wife of Wolfgang Puck, who runs a school for AIDS orphans in her native Ethiopia, believes the decline in foreign adoptions is a good thing: Americans should, in effect, “adopt the whole family” by providing financial support and maintaining contact. “You are forced to give up your child because of hunger, because of religion that won’t let you take a birth control pill,” she says. “It’s a terrible place to be.” Meanwhile, in the U.S., teen birth rates have declined by more than 30 percent during the past 25 years (California’s teen birth rate is lower than the national average, with 26.5 births per 1,000 girls).

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Theron with her first child, Jackson, whom she adopted from South Africa in 2012. She adopted a daughter, August, domestically in July.

It all adds up to more competition for every baby adopted. There’s an army of specialists to match prospective parents with a shrinking number of birth moms and babies. Many would-be parents enlist a private adoption lawyer like Ellis or a facilitator who can be paid tens of thousands of dollars in fees. There also are all-service agencies, like Vista Del Mar near Century City. The birth mother typically selects among prospective parents, who market themselves with a photo album. “It’s true that people who are more attractive tend to get selected more quickly,” says adoption consultant Nicole Witt, who charges a $2,950 flat fee and describes her job as being “like a wedding planner for adoption.” Witt helps clients create profile books. Pro tips: Include playful pictures of yourself with photogenic nieces and nephews; don’t wear your Ivy League sweatshirt (too elitist). Typically, a lawyer or agency will show a pregnant woman three to five books that meet criteria she has specified.

Cruise with his children Isabella and Connor.

In most cases, she will play a role in the new family’s life. “A system based on shame and secrecy is being dismantled,” says Donaldson Adoption Institute CEO April Dinwoodie, who adds that 95 percent of domestic adoptions now involve contact between birth mother and adoptive family. But a match can feel too open. Former Food Network judge Tony Spatafora and his husband, actor Michael Vinton, hired an adoption lawyer and found a potential match, a high school student due in June. Like the couple, she lived in Sherman Oaks. “She was looking to place with a same-sex couple because she wanted to feel like the only mother this baby will have,” says Vinton, a not-uncommon desire among young birth moms. Then they learned she liked them precisely because she could ride her bike to their house quickly. Says Vinton, whose idea of “open” was once- or twice-a-year contact, “The thought was a little startling.” The mother ended up choosing another gay couple, and Vinton and Spatafora still are waiting for a baby.

When Damages actor Jeff Binder and his husband, Kidz Bop music producer Mike Anderson, decided to adopt in 2012, their facilitator suggested they place a PennySaver ad in such adoption-friendly states as Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania. ” ‘Adoption-friendly’ meaning friendly to us and, unfortunately, unfriendly to the birth mother,” says Anderson. In states like New York, a birth mother has as long as 45 days to change her mind; in Florida, that window is only 72 hours. The couple’s ad was not explicit that they were gay: “Broadway actor and children’s music producer yearn for miracle baby,” it read. (Anderson: “It’s Hallmark-awful, but that’s what works.”) A few months later, their facilitator matched them with a woman from Florida who signed the paperwork after giving birth, and Anderson and Binder drove back to New York with their days-old daughter.

Britton adopted her son, Yoby, from Ethiopia in 2011.

Their birth mother was only 14, but nationally, teen birth mothers no longer are the norm. By the time one TV creative exec unsuccessfully had finished fertility treatments, she was in her early 50s. She and her husband turned to facilitator Nikki Biers of The Best Gift Adoptions in Woodland Hills. “You pay a one-time fee [$9,000], and she matches you with a birth mom within two years,” says the exec. The one Biers found was from Las Vegas and in her 40s, with kids of her own. “Being an older parent, I really was hoping we’d find a child with an [emotionally mature] birth mother,” adds the exec, whose son is now 4.

Bullock and her son, Louis Bardo.

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Although avoiding ties to birth families is among the motivations that historically drew Americans abroad, Weezer bassist Scott Shriner and his wife, writer Jillian Lauren, were grateful when their adoption agency arranged for them to meet their son’s birth mother, a teenager from a village in Ethiopia, in 2008. “When I saw a photo album of Ethiopia, I knew that’s where our son was,” says Lauren. For their son, Tariku, the transition to Eagle Rock initially was grueling. A biter and screamer, he was expelled from nursery school. After consultations with a dozen experts, he was diagnosed with PTSD stemming from early separation from his birth mother and institutionalization in an orphanage (he’s now fine and clamoring for a little brother). Adoption pediatrician Jane Aronson, who has worked with the Jolie-Pitts, Mary-Louise Parker and Connie Britton, estimates that a child loses a month of developmental skills for every three months they live in an orphanage. Adopted kids often have issues unfamiliar to U.S. pediatricians, including “malnutrition, developmental delays, attachment issues [and] exposure to infectious disease,” says Aronson.

While Tariku’s parents couldn’t feel more blessed, emerging host programs such as Frontier Horizon and Project 143 (named for the approximately 143 million orphans worldwide) allow parents to get to know adoptable kids in advance. After a sabbatical to volunteer at orphanages in Ukraine, Plan A event-production firm owner Tarin Wilson, her husband and their biological daughter connected with 9-year-old Nastja from Latvia. “We hosted her [around] Christmas for five weeks. She went back to the orphanage and then came back that summer and the next Christmas,” says Wilson. “You really get to see what an important, life-changing decision would be like.” (Each visit cost Wilson about $2,750 to cover travel, chaperones and insurance.) The adoption was finalized 2½ years later, and Nastja now is a thriving SoCal teenager. Wilson believes industry parents are ideal hosts: “They have the means and the interest. You could sign up now, and this Christmas a child could be coming into your home.”