Liz Kellar

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September 7, 2009
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The path to adoption

Mardie Caldwell knows only too well the deep-seated need that drives adoptive parents. She suffered seven failed pregnancies before turning to adoption.

"It was very hard," Caldwell said.

Her experience launched her desire to help others, and she opened Lifetime Adoption Center in Nevada City in 1986 before moving to Grass Valley and finally to Penn Valley.

Caldwell wanted adoption to be successful for everyone - the birth family, the adoptive parents and the children.

"Seeing people's dreams come true, that's why I do it," she said, struggling to control her emotions.

The adoption process has changed dramatically since the days when a mother gave birth and never saw her child again. Records were sealed and adoption was considered a stigma.

Open adoptions, in contrast, mean the birth mother participates in the adoption process, often choosing the adoptive parents and maintaining contact with the child.

A closed adoption "leaves every day open to wondering for the rest of your life," Caldwell said. "Leaving them open is my driving force."

International adoptions have gained in popularity, but Caldwell wants Americans to realize there are plenty of children right here who desperately need a home.

Many Americans seek a foreign child to adopt because they have a fear the birth mother might take the child away, Caldwell said.

They also perceive adopting a child from a third-world country as a humanitarian gesture, she added.

"They want to give the child a better life, but there are a lot of children waiting right here," she said.

"People just don't have the information" about local adoption, she said. "My mission is to educate people about adoption in the 21st century."

Toward that end, Lifetime Adoption has a national outreach program, and Caldwell often appears on national television as an expert on adoption-related issues. She also hosts an Internet radio talk show and has published several books on adoption.

On Thursday, One World TV was at Lifetime's offices in Penn Valley to film a documentary that will air on PBS, Discovery Health and Fox in November. One World specializes in short public service pieces that are "very powerful," said Lifetime executive director Heather Featherston. "They're used to help raise awareness, to show adoption does not mean good-bye forever."

Thursday afternoon, the upstairs living and dining rooms had been taken over by the film crew interviewing and filming three sets of birth mothers and adoptive parents.

As Theresa Sgrignoli and Spencer, 11, submitted patiently to multiple takes at the dining table, Spencer's birth mother, Laura Curry, waited her turn before the camera.

Curry was "30-plus" and already had five children when she became pregnant with Spencer.

"I did not need or want any more kids," she said. "My boyfriend at the time was not the fatherly type. I said I was pregnant and he said, 'Bye.'"

At the time, the pregnancy made her feel "selfish, stupid and irresponsible," she said.

Twelve years later, she has a completely different outlook on the situation.

"I didn't even know Theresa existed, and now she's part of my family," Curry said. "Our story was very much meant to be. I got pregnant for a reason - this woman wanted to be a mom."

Because Sgrignoli and Curry were matched so early in the pregnancy, Curry said the experience was very much like that of being a surrogate mother.

"I never had any second thoughts," Curry said. "Not once."

Sgrignoli decided to adopt as a single mother at 41.

"My eggs were just getting old and there was no prospective husband," she said. "I'd wanted a child my whole life, but I had waited too long."

After trying fertility treatments, Sgrignoli applied to adopt, knowing her chances as a single woman were slim.

The first birth mother who chose her was 19 and ultimately changed her mind, Sgrignoli said.

"At first, you want a baby so bad," she said. "But I decided I would not pick another birth mom who was so young. Laura was older and more mature; it made me a lot more comfortable."

Still, Sgrignoli recalled, one of the first things she asked Curry was, "What percent chance is there of you changing your mind?"

"I said there was a nothing chance," Curry laughed.

"We had a dream adoption," Sgrignoli said. "It's a luxury to meet the birth mom that early in the pregnancy. It was icing on the cake."

Sgrignoli took Curry to her own physicians, got to see the first ultrasound of the baby and cut the umbilical cord when Spencer was born.

Curry sees the adoptive family about once a year, although Sgrignoli sends her photos regularly.

"Spencer knows he's adopted, but he's Theresa's son," Curry said. "I'm not Mom."

After more than 20 years, Caldwell has seen adoption cycle up and down in popularity.

"When the economy gets tough, people turn to alternatives," she said, adding she just added five newborns in the last five days to their placement services.

Lifetime also works to place older children, whose parents - or, increasingly, grandparents - no longer have the resources to parent.

Adoption "is a really unselfish thing, with the right circumstances," Caldwell said.

Lifetime receives 300 phone calls daily and counselors are available for emergencies 24 hours a day; Caldwell said she recently added 25 phone lines.

"We provide food, clothing and counseling, we try to stabilize the women who call so they can make the right decision," she said. "We don't pressure them."

About two or three women out of 10 end up going through with the adoption, Caldwell estimated.

Some will come back a few weeks later or with another pregnancy, she said.

Prospective parents go through a screening process; the agency accepts about a third of the applicants.

Lifetime has more than 200 prospective adoptive parents waiting to be matched and handles about 160 adoptions a year.

Adoptive parents commit to the agency for two years, but Caldwell said most are matched with a birth family within the first year.

For more information or to arrange for a private consultation for prospective adoptive families, call (530) 432-7373 or visit on the Internet at

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail or call 477-4229.

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The Union Updated Sep 7, 2009 08:45PM Published Sep 7, 2009 08:41PM Copyright 2009 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.