Special Report
Stories by Judy Derr / Photos by Greg Derr
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Editor’s note: Patriot Ledger photographer Greg Derr and his wife, Judy Derr, traveled to China to adopt a baby girl.


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About this series

Greg Derr, 44, has been a photographer for The Patriot Ledger for 20 years. His wife, Judy Derr, 46, is a school psychologist in Scituate. The two adopted Sophie Fahy Donna Yu Derr, 1, in March. They live in Marshfield and share their home some of the time with Greg’s son Nicholas, 7, from a previous marriage.

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Sophie and Judy Derr enjoy some play time in the White Swan Hotel before making going for a physical exam.


There’s paperwork, a Buddhist blessing and last-minute details but, finally, Sophie and her new family head home

This is final part of a three-day series.

When you adopt a child in China, you don’t just pick up the baby and fly home.

That 5,000-year-old civilization steeped in rituals and traditions has set forth its own customs and expectations for adopted children and their parents.

These expectations, I know, come from love. The Chinese care very much about their children, despite the fact that orphanages are overflowing with those who have been abandoned. “Gotcha Day,” the day parents first meet their children, is very formal. And I will never forget the grief on the faces of the nannies as they gave up the babies.

The day after “Gotcha,” my husband, Greg, and I begin to get to know our daughter, Sophie. Just a day away from her first birthday, she is only 13 pounds. Sporting half a tooth, she apparently has never had solid food. Her daily diet is a thick mixture of rice, formula and, if she is lucky, a little beef or chicken broth mixed into the bottle. My unskilled efforts at making formula work, and for the first few hours, she seems OK with this big transition from orphanage to new parents.

But after we’ve fed and changed her, she starts to cry. We can see in her eyes that she is confused, and we ache for her. Who are these people? What am I doing here? Greg moves her crib as close to me as possible. She finally stops crying and sleeps. Throughout the entire night, she holds my finger tightly. As I watch her sleep, I think she is the bravest baby in the world to trust us strangers so quickly and easily.

On the second full day, she begins to smile. Maybe she knows her birthday is here: March 8. How lucky we are to celebrate it in China.

Our guide, Chen Cheng, arranges for a cake at dinner for Sophie’s birthday. She promptly puts her fingers in the icing, sticks them in her mouth and makes a yucky face.

At this first milestone, Sophie is just sitting up. She can’t roll over and is behind on her gross motor abilities, but I am told (and have already seen), that given the right stimulation and support, these babies do fine.

The following days are busy, with an afternoon scheduled to go to Wal-Mart. Yes, there are Wal-Marts in China. Chen Cheng rolls her eyes at these Americans all excited to go to the super store to stock up on baby stuff.

We brave the noise and bus, and I’m happy we do. Sophie is smiling a lot on the bus and eating regularly. I keep waiting for her to look at me and start screeching. It’s true that as a child psychologist, I studied human development at Harvard and know something about attachment. But I get no credit for Sophie’s pleasant temperament.

Her first home

On our ninth day, we are invited to go see Sophie’s orphanage, the Chongren Social Welfare Institute. That is very rare. In many cases, orphanages don’t want people to visit.

It’s March, and it is snowing this particular day in Nanchang. I have planned to stay at the hotel with Sophie, and do so. Greg takes the three-hour bus ride to the orphanage.

He gets pictures of the woman who found Sophie, and the woman who named her. Those are priceless. Greg says it is a new, clean orphanage, and the staff is friendly, constantly holding the babies, which is a good sign.

Our 10th day is tedious: The paperwork for adopting internationally is mind boggling. The stream of documents and requirements continue. We spend two hours completing our paperwork for Guangzhou, where the American consulate is located.

I am actually relieved to be giving up the final bits of money as well. We traveled to China with $9,000 in cash for adoption fees. Foreign governments, we were told, are particular that American money be new and clean, no tears or wrinkles. (We went to three American banks back home to get the bills.)
Sophie reaches for her newly issued Chinese passport in Nanchang. After the girls arrive in the U.S. and become citizens, these will just be souvenirs.

Ready to go

We are given our travel arrangements and are eager to pack and get going. I’m feeling rather sick and a doctor has told me I have an ear infection.

Before flying to Guangzhou, we get Sophie’s passport. She is crying in the picture. I hope that isn’t a sign of some sort! We pack the night before, making sure we are not over the 44-pounds-per-person regulation.

The hotel where we stay in Guangzhou is called The White Swan, and is located on Shamian Island, surrounded by the Pearl River. The American consulate is conveniently located around the corner.

The buildings are from colonial Europe, which is a shock after old Beijing with its stacked apartments sometimes supported by bamboo and otherwise unrecognizable construction. The White Swan caters to a large business crowd and a huge number of couples adopting. It is quite lovely and comfortable.

By now, Sophie has mastered the “up-down” game we’ve taught her - pulling her up and letting her drop back down on the pillows. We are completely smitten; laughing at every “drop” she makes. At night, we swaddle her in her blanket because we were told she was swaddled for her first nine months.

The Chinese have an almost obsessive compulsion to make sure children are completely covered up. They are like stuffed sausages, wearing layer upon layer of clothing, supposedly to make sure they do not lose their chi, or energy. People actually stop and cover your children up if they see any bare skin. No wonder they are called the “clothing police.”

Before we can head home, we have to get our visa pictures taken, and have Sophie’s visa physical completed. We walk across the street to a little shop that caters to adoptive families and each girl has her picture taken again. We walk a few blocks to the Medical Clinic with copies of her passport, a five-page medical form, and the clinic fee. Yeah! Another fee!

In walking the streets, it’s obvious that residents on Shamian Island lead a finer lifer than in other areas of China. Guangzhou has beautiful parks filled with activity. Schoolchildren are all dressed in uniform, lined up outside doing exercises; women and men practice Tai Chi. It is warm and humid, like the South in the states.

Blessings and couches

The day before we leave, we wait for the American consulate to clear our visas. We also board a bus to a temple for a Buddhist blessing for the babies.

It happens to be a special day at the temple. About 50 monks are in prayer in front of three enormous golden Buddha statues. Incense is burning and we wait while they quietly sound their gongs to finish their prayers. For some reason, we aren’t going to be blessed that day at that point, but the children are blessed at an adjoining temple instead. It is beautiful and touching how we all bow in front of the Buddha and receive the blessing.

Finally the finale, the Red Couch Day! Woo, hoo! This day, everyone dresses up their girls in silk Chinese outfits and has their picture taken on a big red couch at the White Swan Hotel. Puffed up peacocks, we parents are, acting like idiots to get our kids to smile. Sophie is in a good mood until I plop her on the couch with 11 other screaming babies. Should have been named the Wailing Wall.

Almost home

We are so excited to get this show on the road and get on the plane. I know the trip home will be tough, but I am eager to get started with this new life of mine. An ancient Chinese proverb says an invisible red thread stretches from those whom we are destined to love. The Chinese adoption community has rewritten the proverb to say an invisible red thread runs from our hearts to the hearts of our girls. It is easy to believe that something greater than paperwork and hard effort has brought our daughter to us.

Our trip home is more than 30 hours - 30 hours, 12 babies, three flights, three gate changes, two layovers, one two-hour delay after a five-hour wait. I sleep for a total of 45 minutes, Sophie for eight hours on and off, and Greg sleeps through anything.

What did we do to deserve this wonderful child, who wakes up with a smile, sways to the music of the wind chimes on our back porch and laughs so easily at the silliest things? This child of ours is the greatest gift we’ve ever received. We will give her all that she could have had in China, which is love from her parents, had they been able to.

Adoption can be risky business

Adoption, domestic or international, has its risks. A birth mother may change her mind; a birth father may challenge the birth mother’s decision; a child raised in an orphanage may be as much as a year behind developmentally.

A couple we traveled with to China returned home without the beautiful baby girl they had come to adopt. In a rare case, the prospective adoptive mother changed her mind. After all the time, money and emotion invested in the process, and after making the arduous trip and meeting the baby, the couple left the country quite quickly.

We were heartbroken for the baby, and perplexed by the couple’s decision. Confidentiality prevented us from knowing the details, though our adoption agency said the baby would be placed on a fast track and probably picked up very quickly by another family. Still, it was unsettling, to say the least.

Learning more

For information about adopting:


“Adopting in Massachusetts,” 84-page pamphlet lists local agencies, state laws and other resources; Center for Adoption Research, Worcester, 2000.

“The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Adoption,” by Chris Adamec, Pearson Education Inc., 1998.

“The Adoption Resource Book,” by Lois Gilman, HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 1998.

“A Passage to the Heart: Writings from Families with Children from China,” by Amy Klatzkin, Yeong & Yeong Book Co., 1999.

Web sites:

naic.acf.hhs.gov: National Adoption Information Clearinghouse.

odsacone.org ODS (Open Door Society) Adoption Community of New England Inc.


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