1 of 4
Photo by Jay Paul
2 of 4
Photo by Jay Paul
The Perreca family: Lisa, Asher, Annalise, Alden, Al and Adeline
3 of 4
Photo by Jay Paul
Lisa Perreca with Asher and Annalise
4 of 4
The Perrecas in Vilnius, Lithuania, on their trip to meet and bring home Asher and Annalise in January 2014
Whenever Adeline Perreca and her brother, Alden, asked their parents for siblings, they always got the same answer. “God gave you guys each other. That’s all you get,” Lisa Perreca would tell her children.
That changed on Christmas Eve of 2012. “We were just watching the kids play,” Lisa says. “Al turned to me and said, ‘I’ve been thinking of adopting.’ I’d actually been thinking about adoption, too,” Lisa says, adding with a laugh, “but I also thought we just might need another dog.”
Now married 14 years, Lisa and Al met at a church service while they were students at Liberty University. They attend Spring Run Presbyterian and live in North Chesterfield. Al, 36, is the director of human resources for Romanoff Renovations, a construction firm with 36 offices nationwide. He often works at home, which allows accessibility to the children, but he does travel some. Lisa, 38, has been teaching various subjects in middle schools for 15 years, the last four in Chesterfield County at Elizabeth B. Davis Middle School.
The couple’s children were immediately on board with the idea of adoption and started saving toys for their siblings-to-be. The Perrecas decided on international adoption because, Lisa says, “The United States has very few young children eligible for adoption, since they primarily hope to reunite the child with its natural parent.”
Virginia currently has more than 870 children in foster care, says Rebecca Ricardo, the executive director of Coordinators 2, a licensed child placement agency in Richmond that has offered domestic and some international adoptions since 1988 — but most are age 6 and older. “All parental rights for these children … have been terminated, and they are legally free to be adopted,” she says. “There is a misperception of difficulty about adopting in Virginia, but there are numerous agencies accessible by a link through the Virginia Department of Social Services, which are available for assistance.”
After hearing good reports from several friends whose international adoptions had been handled by the agency, the Perrecas chose Bethany Christian Services to facilitate their case. The agency, which handles domestic and international adoptions, was established as a children’s home in Grand Rapids, Michigan, 70 years ago this month.
Today, it provides adoption, counseling and care services on five continents and in 15 countries, with more than 115 offices in the United States alone, spanning 36 states. Since 1951, the agency has completed more than 27,000 domestic adoptions and more than 13,000 international adoptions. Its four Virginia locations include one at Willow Lawn.
The Perrecas were interested in adopting a young sibling group and were leaning toward Eastern Europe when they discovered two siblings in Lithuania, after viewing thousands of children in Bethany Christian Services’ database. In Lithuania, “when you age out of their foster system, you are homeless and without skills — so we felt we could make a difference for those children,” Lisa says. They named the boy Asher and the girl Annalise. Asher’s given name was Mantas, and Vilte was Annalise’s; both children now have those names as their middle names. Adoption personnel advised the Perrecas to choose a word that would encourage them during the arduous adoption process. They both picked “hope.”
“When we learned that ‘Vilte’ meant ‘hope,’ we just looked at each other, and it was like, that just shows you that she has to be our child,” Lisa recalls.
Caroline Ingram, an adoption specialist at Bethany, was the Perrecas’ case manager. “International adoption can be very difficult,” Ingram says. “We suggest that couples look into three different agencies to find a comfortable fit with the case worker and be in agreement with the agency’s requirements and fees. Bethany is one of several accredited adoption agencies in Virginia.”
Lithuanian social services sent medical records for the two children, and the information indicated that there would be challenges ahead. The Perrecas were told that Asher had cerebral palsy, might not ever walk or feed himself and wasn’t very verbal. Meanwhile, Annalise was reported to have hydrocephalus and other problems. Although the original medical prognosis for the two children seemed daunting, the Perrecas persisted. “We waited until we got another medical report to see whether we needed a van that was wheelchair-accessible,” Lisa says. The second medical report looked far more optimistic, but “we had already decided to adopt them, regardless of their physical condition.”
The Perrecas were kept in the dark over many details during the adoption process, such as the children’s exact location and their last name. “We were told they were twins from Lithuania,” Lisa says. “We learned they were in Siauliai [pronounced “Show-lay,” in the north of the country] from a stamp on an envelope from the orphanage.”
“International adoption is very controversial right now,” Ricardo says. “It needs to be governed closely so that we get accurate information to families for the children they are adopting. Many of these countries do not have the same level of documentation that we have here in the U.S., so it often poses challenges.”
Thirteen months of paperwork and legal gymnastics later, the adoption was approved. “The challenge is getting through the many approvals,” Ingram says. “Requirements vary with each state, immigration authorities and countries, and can change without warning. In the Perrecas’ case, I was required to make four home study assessment visits to meet Bethany’s SAFE [Structured Analysis Family Evaluation] requirements before the adoption — two were in the home, and two were in the office.” These requirements included the Perrecas completing several online courses, focusing on what adoption entailed and gathering information on ways to prepare mentally and get their home ready, as well as addressing any potential problems that a child’s traumatic history might bring up.
“We were asked many questions as one way of determining our ability to care for extra children,” Lisa adds. “Lithuania had a very specific list of questions, which included why we wanted to adopt and how Al and I got along with our own parents at present. We had to have a medical examination stating that we were in pristine physical condition and answer whether there were any convictions or violations in our history. They also interviewed Adeline and Alden.”
In January 2014, the Perreca family boarded a plane to Lithuania in order to meet the children and bring them home. “We took Alden and Adeline with us, because we felt they needed to be part of the process from the very beginning,” Lisa explains. “We [had] sent Asher and Annalise each a photo album, so they had some idea of what their [new] family looked like, including grandparents and cousins. However, they didn’t speak English, and we only knew a few words of Lithuanian. Somehow it worked out, and those two weeks were a time of bonding for the children.” In their orphanage, Asher and Annalise were only bathed once a week in a group tub and seldom went outside or left the room, or groupa, that they shared with about 15 other children and two workers. Their teeth, Lisa notes, were in pristine shape.
Back home, Dr. Debra Cantor, the Perrecas’ longtime pediatrician, noticed that the children’s records showed they had been immunized 15 months apart, casting doubt on their twin status. A bone scan report estimated Asher to be about 3. Birth certificates listed May 23, 2009, as their birthdays; medical evidence suggests Annalise is 5, so the couple accepts that date as accurate for her. Six different pediatric specialists, performing independent tests, agreed that Asher is now nearly 4, so the Perrecas decided that his birthday would be Oct. 10, 2010. “We thought we’d keep it simple: 10-10-10,” Lisa quips, revealing a little of the humor she relies on to face such challenges.
An MRI done locally ruled out cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus for Asher, but revealed septo-optic dysplasia. The condition causes a malformation of the lower part of the brain stem that can have a wide spectrum of effects, including blindness. “Asher’s optic nerve doesn’t seem to be too badly damaged,” Al says. “His pituitary gland is damaged, but still functions normally. He’ll probably need physical and occupational therapy for years, if not all his life, and may be developmentally delayed.” A U.S. geneticist compared an MRI report from Lithuania to the one done in America and determined that it was not of the same child.
Rather than being distressed over any misinformation, the Perrecas consider it a blessing. “We don’t know whether it might have been a glitch in their paperwork or how it actually transpired,” Lisa states. “We’re just thankful that we have Asher now.”
The couple invested $20,000 from their savings to pay for half of the fees associated with the adoption. Both children had special needs, making them eligible for $13,000 in grants ($10,000 from Bethany and $3,000 from Show Hope, a nonprofit that supports families through international and domestic adoptions, particularly those involving children with special needs). Family members donated money, while friends and churches hosted yard sales and fundraisers to cover the rest. Lisa says that if the children had not been eligible for grants, the Perrecas would have borrowed the money.
A lawyer in Lithuania worked with Bethany up until the family left the country with the children; after that, Susan H. Brewer, a Richmond attorney who handles domestic and international adoptions, served as the Perrecas’ attorney. Brewer surmises that some Americans choose international adoptions because “they could be fearful of adopting in the U.S., since a birth parent may be able to come back and regain the child. The chances of that happening in a foreign country are basically zero.”
Brewer explains that most of the trauma and expense occurs before the adopting parents receive a final order of adoption from the foreign country. By that point, generally they have custody of the child. However, some countries don’t characterize adoption as such, instead referring to it as “guardianship.” “If there is no final order of adoption in the foreign country, then the adoptive parents should go through an attorney and have a re-adoption here,” Brewer says. “Also, a re-adoption must be done through the particular state they live in, and then they apply for citizenship status.”
Ricardo says that there are two ways an adopted child is granted visa status in the United States. One visa is called an IR-3, which does not require the children to be re-adopted in the States, because their adoption was completed in the foreign country. This is what was issued to the Perreca children, although the Perrecas elected to re-adopt, which allows them to apply for U.S. passports for their two new children and simplifies other matters. It also established Asher’s new birth date. A second visa, an IR-4, enables children to be adopted without the adoptive parents ever physically seeing the child prior to the adoption completing, but does require that the family re-adopt in the States.
When asked about how they made the decision to adopt, Al says, “I think sometimes faith is more talk than action. Sometimes we forget what it means to serve others. We’ve been blessed, and this was a sacrifice we could make. We’re just ordinary people. There are millions of orphans out there. We can at least make a difference for these two.”
The usual 40-day waiting period between when the adoptive family first meets the child or children and can bring them home was waived for Asher and Annalise, since no one had ever visited them since their birth (meaning there were no other interested parties), and Asher needed immediate surgery to avoid blindness in one eye. That surgery, along with two other minor corrective surgeries he needed, was performed in one day, at Stony Point Surgery, soon after their arrival in the States. “He was so young that the surgeons tag-teamed, believing it would be less traumatic to do it all at once,” Al explains. “The next day, he was up and running around.”
Neither Asher nor his sister has stopped running, especially now that they have a yard to play in. Although they loved music, neither showed any interest in TV, books or anything that involved an attention span, possibly due to vision problems. Annalise had a very severe lazy eye and may have suffered from double vision since birth. “We put glasses on her, and she went, ‘Ooh’ and has never wanted to take them off,” Lisa says. “She may need bifocals by the time she is 7. Basically, she had no hearing in her right ear from chronic, untreated ear infections, which has now been corrected through surgery. She does need speech therapy, but she doesn’t have hydrocephalus, and Asher doesn’t have cerebral palsy.” There is a question as to whether they are even brother and sister, and DNA testing would be inconclusive without a parent’s DNA, but they definitely aren’t twins.
Once settled into their new home, Asher and Annalise thrived, but the older Perreca children had a tough adjustment at first, due to the many medical appointments for their new siblings and extra demands on their parents’ time. “We made a very concerted effort to do things one on one with each child,” Al says, “and that helped.” The older children have become very protective of their younger siblings. Alden, 7, panicked one day when he saw Annalise eat a honeysuckle. Thinking it was poisonous, he forced her cheeks open and pulled the flower out before dragging her into the house. “He was sobbing,” Lisa remembers, saying, ‘Mommy, I think she’s going to die.’ ” There are also glimmers of protectiveness from Adeline, 8. “She is your typical type-A big sister,” Lisa explains. “Annalise loves Adeline reading to her and identifying colors, but Annalise was the top dog in her orphanage group, so it’s a bit of a challenge. From 6:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m., it’s full-tilt. I can handle 30 seventh-graders, but four children give me a run for my money.” Sometimes friends and family pinch-hit while Al is away. Lisa’s sister, Rebecca, came from Austria to help the children settle in when they first arrived. Ingram of Bethany Christian Services has carried out three of the eight planned post-adoption visits with the family. “All of the Perreca children have bonded very well,” she says.
While the siblings obviously care for each other and usually get along, the transition continues to be rocky at times for the older children. “They had this dream of a perfect brother and sister, although we had many conversations with them explaining that their toys might be taken or even broken. Eventually, Adeline said, ‘You’re right, Mama. Annalise is hard to live with.’ I said, ‘You know what? We’re all hard to live with.’ ”
Asher will need additional eye surgeries. Had he been born in the United States — or, indeed, many other countries — all of his issues probably would have been addressed by age 2. One lingering concern is that he drinks copious amounts of water. A physical condition has been ruled out. His doctors believe the behavior may result from early fluid deprivation and should dissipate over time and right itself with proper nutrition, exercise and love. Asher does have a mild growth hormone deficiency, although he grew 2 inches during the first six months he was in the States.
The summer brought added pleasure, as the children learned to swim, taking to water like ducks. “Annalise is a lot more of a follower [than Asher], which makes my life easier,” Lisa says. “She and Adeline have their moments, but they’re a force to be reckoned with when they team up. Asher wants to do everything that Alden does. Overall, they’ve enjoyed having fun together.” Lisa takes a deep breath, then adds, “The school routine will be helpful.”
A routine that Annalise follows religiously is saying her prayers, which include even more than the standard number of grandparents in her new family. She considers herself lucky to have three Pop Pops and three Mar Mars, along with multiple aunts, uncles and cousins, whom they’ve all visited. “When we say prayers, Annalise asks blessings for every family member by name,” Lisa says. “By the time she finishes, I’m sure Jesus is worn out.”
©Nancy Wright Beasley. All rights reserved 2014.