Katherine and Barry Hart were ready to welcome a second adopted child from Guatemala to their suburban Atlanta home when they saw a greater need in the faces of the tsunami orphans on their TV screen.
"My heart just breaks with those pictures. I called my social worker this morning and said, `Hold on, I don't if know if we want to do Guatemala anymore. Let's try Thailand,'" said Katherine Hart, who adopted her 2-year-old daughter, Jayden, last winter. "I would love to be able to take in even more than one of those children."
But when Hart jumped online, she quickly learned, like thousands of other disappointed couples, that her dream would be next to impossible — at least for the time being.
The State Department has ruled out, for now, the adoption of children from the stricken countries, which themselves are clamping down — partly out of fear of sex trafficking and child slavery. Several Western European countries are following a similar policy.
Government and adoption officials say that because of the chaos in the disaster areas, it is going to take some time to identify which children are orphans. Also, they say the preferred practice in a crisis is to place orphans with relatives in their homeland.
"A child whose family has been ripped away by a wave, probably the last thing they need to do is be rushed away to some foreign country," said Cory Barron, spokesman for the St. Louis-based adoption agency Children's Hope International. "We have to think of the child first."
The department and international adoption agencies caution that many parentless children may be claimed by aunts and uncles, grandparents, even distant cousins in cultures built on strong family bonds. The rest will probably be adopted by families in their native countries or watched over by protective neighbors and friends.
Also, the countries worst affected by the tsunami — India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand — have strict laws governing foreign adoptions.
Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country, does not authorize foreign adoption by non-Muslims and rarely allows non-relatives to adopt, according to the State Department. Indonesia rarely adopts to non-Muslim parents. Both nations require prospective parents to live in country for at least two years before adopting.
The State Department said this week it that will not allow the adoption of tsunami orphans for "many months" and will do so "only if and when these countries decide to make these orphans available for international adoption."
Some international adoption agencies say they have fielded hundreds of e-mails and calls since the tsunami, along with a 50 percent increase in traffic on their Web sites. Online chat rooms were busy this week with inquiries from couples desperate to adopt and desperate for information.
"Anyone know who may be handling?" wrote one woman from Pennsylvania. "One agency? Several different agencies?"
A woman from Wisconsin wanted to take a side trip to pick up a tsunami orphan on her way to China to adopt a new daughter.
Even before the tsunami, couples had to wade through a complex, bureaucratic process designed to limit the number of adoptions.
Just four Sri Lankan orphans went to U.S. families in 2003, while 72 Thai children were adopted, according to the State Department. India, the country with the most liberal policy, sent 472 children. By comparison, China, the No. 1 country for U.S. foreign adoptions, sent 6,859 children.
Sri Lanka and Thailand have long had tough qualifications for foreign adoptions to thwart sex trafficking and child slavery. After the tsunami, Indonesia prohibited the removal of children under 16 from its hardest-hit areas following reports of kidnapping for the sex trade.
For the Harts, the difficulty of adopting is hard to swallow.
"I just don't understand why it has to take so long when they know that there's a child who is orphaned," Katherine Hart said. "I know these kids are going to have some trauma to go through, but these kids need to be loved on now."