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Colombian children find new homes in America

By the time Joe and Ronney O'Donnell finished the adoption papers, they had documents thicker than a telephone book. But it was all worthwhile when they finally flew to Colombia to pick up their baby daughter.

''It struck me that we were going to change her life dramatically,'' Mr. O'Donnell recalls. ''But I was confident that some day she would feel we had made the right decision for her.''

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Today their daughter Randi, now five years old, is proud to be Colombian - and equally proud to be a naturalized American. In fact, she once teased her US-born older brother about not being a citizen ''because she couldn't remember him going through the ceremony.''

Randi is one of thousands of adopted Colombian children you're liable to meet at any playground across the US. Although adoptions from Colombia were almost unheard of a decade ago, the South American country is now the second-largest source of foreign adoptions (after Korea).

In fiscal 1972 only 35 Colombians were brought to this country for adoption purposes, immigration statistics show. In 1973 the figure jumped to 107. By 1978 it reached 599, and in 1981 it was topping off at 626 - accounting for almost 13 percent of all adoptions from abroad.

''It takes about 10 years for the word to really spread to the general public that adoptions from a certain country are going on,'' says Jean Nelson-Erichsen of the Los Nnnos International Adoption Center in Austin, Texas.

The large flow of adopted children out of Colombia would not be possible, without its adoption laws, which don't close out foreigners, and without its well-developed social-service institutions. Although many third-world nations have a surfeit of abandoned children, Mrs. Nelson-Erichsen says, ''no country has as many private adoption agencies or as many adoption units in the welfare departments of their cities as Colombia has.''

For Randi, adopted as an infant, the transition to American life has been easy. The challenge is greater for older children, such as Sara, who arrived from Colombia when she was nearly six.

''There is definitely an adjustment period that takes about a year, maybe a bit longer,'' says Sara's American mother, Margaret Bishop. ''The food and the language - it takes a while, but they aren't insurmountable.''

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Like many Colombians, Sara is of mixed Indian and European ancestry, and according to Ms. Bishop she has sometimes felt self-conscious in a new country where racial distinctions are sharply drawn.

''Way back in the beginning, when she was in the testing period, (Sara) would say, 'You can't be my mother because you're white and I'm brown.' And I'd say 'Oh, yes I can!' ''

Sara and Randi both came to the US through the help of a private Colombian lawyer, in cooperation with a regional office of Colombia's Family Welfare Institute. But this practice - in their case legitimate - has since been prohibited in the wake of a recent baby-selling scandal.

A prominent lawyer in Bogota was arrested last year on charges involving the sale of hundreds of children to couples in Sweden, France, and other European countries. He was accused of kidnapping some from rural peasants, purchasing others from pregnant prostitutes, and falsifying the birth records of babies who may not have been truly abandoned.

Adoption workers say most of the illicit baby trade has gone to Europe, where immigration laws are looser than in the United States. But to avoid waiting lists and red tape, some Americans may get involved with adoption operations which, while not blatantly illegal, are nonetheless unethical, says Phyllis Loewenstein of International Adoptions Inc. in Newton, Mass. ''Sometimes it has the trappings of law,'' she says.

Responding to the problem, the Family Welfare Institute has moved to centralize its control of adoption procedures. Adoptions must now be made directly through the head office of the institute, or through one of a half-dozen private institutions it has licensed.

Despite this tightening up, there has been no significant fall-off in adoptions to the US, according to Alford Cooley, acting consul general of the United States Embassy in Bogota. Still, some American agencies report slowdowns in the process, while others have been cut off from their previous sources. And in contrast to the rises of the '70s, the influx of young Colombians is expected to remain more or less level in years to come.

Adoptions are increasing from elsewhere in Latin America and from India, but no country appears likely to match Colombia's record. Looking ahead, Mrs. Nelson-Erichsen predicts that Americans wishing to adopt children from overseas may have to take more initiative, looking beyond sources already established by US agencies.

''They'll have to be more willing to take more of a risk and adopt a child from a country where thousands haven't already been adopted,'' she says.

Meanwhile, Colombian children already in the US are growing toward adulthood. Unlike domestically adopted children, they will find it easy to learn the name of their biological mothers - it is listed on their immigration papers. But most adoptive parents, including Joe O'Donnell, have no fears they will be forgotten in some future search for ancestral roots.

''Look at it this way,'' says Randi's father. ''I've got 18 years to establish a good relationship with her, right? If I don't do it by then, that's my problem.''

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