An open adoption
Foreign families are generally more willing to have some level of openness than American families, according to Kirsh, and this can make them more attractive to birth mothers. "The Dutch families would, for example, want the birth mother to help name the child, because they wanted the child to have that connection to the birth mother. Almost never does an American family do that."
Dana Naughton, an adoption researcher at the Pennsylvania State University said that the foreign families were involved in some of the first open adoptions in the U.S., where a culture of secrecy around adoptions was once common and children may not even have known they were adopted.
"In some ways these adoptions are pioneering international open adoption. That's not a process that's common in terms of communication between adoptive families and birth families. And to varying degrees it is what underpins this process," Naughton said.
For Dutch parents, adopting a U.S. child is luck of the draw -- and the birth mothers hold all the cards. The biological mother of the van den Biggelaars' first child, Eva, chose them as adoptive parents just nine weeks before the baby was due, and Eva arrived three weeks early. "Instead of nine months of pregnancy... we had six weeks only to prepare for a baby -- that was really crazy," says Marielle van den Biggelaar. The van den Biggelaars sent their "dear birth mom" letter to Goldstein, the adoption attorney, in November 2008 and were chosen by Eva's birth mom three months later, in January. The family declined to disclose how much they paid, but in general the amount for Dutch families ranges from $35,000 to $50,000, according to Goldstein.
Two-year-old Norbert is at preschool now and already takes judo lessons, which his mother describes as "all these little guys, two years old, tumbling through the room in little white suits." His 4-year-old sister, Eva, is "really sweet and really protective and also sometimes really naughty but that belongs to her age I think," she said.
Their children comprehend the basics of their adoptions -- they were born in a different country and "out of the belly of a different mom" -- and the van den Biggelaars are saving the details for when the children are "old enough to understand and to know what happened and why it happened."
But those explanations can wait. "They're really cute together, they really love each other, and that's really nice to see," their mother said.
Meeting her birth family
One of the advantages for the parents of Elisa van Meurs in adopting from the U.S. was the access to information about Elisa's mother and her medical background. "I can always find her because I have the Social Security number. I have one sister and she lives in the U.S. so it's not a strange country to me, whereas China is -- and I can't understand Chinese," Bart van Meurs said.
Since Elisa was a baby, her parents have sent a letter and photographs to her biological mother each year through the Kirsh & Kirsh adoption agency.
In 2011, curious to know more about her origins, Elisa traveled to Florida to meet her biological mother and her extended family. Elisa's birth-grandmother and mom told the van Meurs that they were willing to meet Elisa anywhere in the U.S. and Elisa mentioned she would like to meet close to Disneyworld.
Elisa had one wish. She wanted to meet all her family members on this first "meet and greet" except her birth mom. "She thought it would be too much for her to also meet her birth mom then," said van Meurs. She met her birth mom the next morning at Gatorland, a small theme park.
Meeting them was strange at first and she was astonished to recognize familiar features in her mother and grandfather's faces.
"My nose is the same!" she said.
She's glad that they met: "For me, it feels like happiness because I really wanted to know how they looked like (and) because they really know how you are." But now they just go on with their lives, she said, except for the occasional call on Christmas Day and they became Facebook friends. "If (I) go there maybe too much, my mother will miss me or something like that."
Asked what she thinks her life would be like had she not been adopted, Elisa said, "I never thought about it, because now I live here."
While she looks forward to traveling to the Alps, her favorite holiday destination is America. Every two years or so, they visit Bart van Meurs' sister near Detroit, where Elisa enjoys roller-skating, eating hamburgers and French fries, "all the bad stuff," she said.
"In America I feel at home, and when I'm in Holland I feel at home, too."
Sobriety after prison
In Florida, Susan has been out of prison and sober for four years. She works several jobs, has an apartment and is raising her 3-year-old daughter with her fiancée, the girl's father.
She and her American family stay in touch with her son, now 7, and his adoptive family in the Netherlands. They send DVDs and photo albums, and traveled to the U.S. in 2011 and again this February. Susan's daughter, the one who rejected her son before his birth, has even had a change of heart. "She doesn't care about the race anymore," Susan said. "She loves her brother."
It's not always easy for Susan to see photos of the son she gave up. "There's always something missing. There's always something gone but I am glad I get to see him growing up. Yes, I am."
And she loves the boy's adoptive parents, especially his mother. "I love her to death. She is just ... she's his mom, and that's amazing to watch.
"I don't want girls to be scared," Susan said of other birth mothers considering giving their children up for adoption. "This isn't an ending. It's a beginning. For me, I thought it was the end of the world, and it wasn't.
"I never thought it would be like this."