Six-month-old Nathaniel Thomas McFadden and 6-week-old John Matthew Denner are pioneers in a new era of open adoptions in Kansas.
Their birth and adoptive parents, working through Catholic Social Services (CSS) in northeast Kansas, are working together to make the babies' lives the best they can be.
Nate's adoptive parents are Rita and Mike McFadden of Lawrence, and his birth mother is Jeanette Daly of Topeka. John's birth mother is Kim Nelson of Lawrence, and his adoptive parents are Dean Denner and Cia Verschelden of Manhattan.
They are among a small but growing number of birth and adoptive parents opting to work together with the support of such agencies as CSS for the benefit of the children.
"He's just too wonderful for us not to share," said Mike McFadden during an interview last week in the family's home south of Lawrence. "He's quite a gift."
NELSON, who has returned to school and work since her baby's birth, said, "I think it's the wave of the future," and Denner, in a phone interview from Manhattan, added of his new son, "I don't want him to have a hole there he has to fill with fear or fantasy."
Barbara Marden, a social worker who is pregnancy and adoption counselor in the Lawrence CSS office, said open adoptions were new in northeast Kansas for Catholic Social Services, which specializes in arrangements for newborns.
Many private adoptions, handled by lawyers or doctors, are open, she added, but don't include the counseling element that CSS provides.
In traditional adoptions, Marden said, no information is exchanged. In semi-open adoptions, which CSS has done for years, an agency serves as intermediary between birth and adoptive parents, usually for the passing of an annual letter with photographs.
IN OPEN adoptions, the adoptive parents are selected by the birth parent, a face-to-face meeting is held before the child is born if at all possible, the two parties share full identification information and agree to establish an ongoing, meaningful relationship.
Marden said CSS was inspired to do open adoptions by more requests from birth parents to meet adoptive parents and by a how-to workshop given here by a Michigan CSS staffer who has been doing open adoptions 12 years.
Nelson, a 24-year-old former Kansas University student from Beloit, became the Lawrence CSS's first birth mother to opt for an open adoption plan.
In an interview last week, Nelson said she became pregnant a month after completing drug rehabilitation at Valley Hope in Atchison. Drug-free for more than a year now, she added that at least her timing was right for the sake of the baby's health.
NEITHER pro-life nor pro-choice, Nelson said she simply wanted her child to have a chance at life. She noted that her own life wasn't at a point that would allow her to give him "what I didn't have as a child."
Nelson's parents divorced, and her mother remarried during Nelson's unhappy childhood. "It was real painful a lot of times. I didn't want to put a child through that."
Her physician, Brad Phipps, steered her to CSS.
"After I came here," Nelson said, "I didn't need any other options."
CSS' open adoption plan fitted well with "the tools I'd learned to live by at Valley Hope," Nelson said, noting the importance of openness and honesty.
"I don't hide things," she said. "I learned that in drug rehab."
Daly, a high school senior during her pregnancy, was referred to CSS by her school nurse and initially selected a semi-open adoption plan.
LIKE NELSON, Daly had experienced her own parents' divorce and was looking for a stable family to adopt her son, she said in a phone interview from Topeka.
Supported in her adoption decision by her mother and twin sister, with whom she lives, Daly selected the McFaddens from a group of five couples on the basis of letters they had written.
"They sounded real nice," Daly, now 19, said. "I liked the stuff they thought was important" including the couple's promise to let her child know she loved him.
Nelson selected Denner and Verschelden as her child's adoptive parents because they, too, "sounded perfect."
The couple have three other children, Patty, 12, Emma, 4, and Abe, 21 months. Abe is also an open adoption baby. Verschelden is on Kansas State University's social work faculty, and Denner is the family's homemaker.
READING their letter, Nelson said she instantly felt "these are the ones." She said she was especially concerned about both the mother and father being loving and caring, and able to show those feelings to the child.
Denner said that when he and his wife first considered adoption after Emma was born, they had in mind older children. But soon, they learned of the great need for adoptive parents for mixed race and minority children, including babies.
Abe's birth parents are both black, he said, noting that Abe's birth mother visits every few months and has brought her own mother by once. John Matthew is biracial.
In open adoptions, which are not allowed in every state, some people fear the birth mother may someday "snatch off the kid," Denner said. He thinks just the opposite is true.
"IT FEELS a lot more comfortable knowing who that person is," he said. "I feel we're exceedingly fortunate to be in this position."
Mike and Rita McFadden, unable to have children of their own, first considered adoption in 1977. They applied to CSS in 1988, seeking a child of similar ethnic background of either sex and agreeing to a semi-open arrangement.
"When we started getting into this adoption process," Mike McFadden said, "I thought open adoption was a fad.
"I felt threatened."
Two weeks before Nate's due date in May, they met with Daly and her mother at the CSS office in Topeka and launched themselves on a course that would lead to the open adoption.
McFadden's primary pre-meeting concern: "I was afraid she might change her mind."
DALY'S REACTION to the McFaddens: "I thought they were a cute couple a fairy tale family."
They talked for three hours.
Daly said she knew she couldn't afford to give her baby the things he needed, including maybe even the ability to feed him, but the McFaddens could. Mike, 39, is a wildlife biologist with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, and Rita, 38, works in the office at the Lawrence Kmart Distribution Center.
Mrs. McFadden said she thought birth parents tended to pick adoptive parents they had some similarities with and, after their first meeting, she and her husband began to feel an affinity with Daly as well.
To the McFaddens' delight, the young woman asked them to be present for Nate's birth, to experience the initial natural bonding that she wanted to forgo since she was not going to keep him.
"I THOUGHT it would be neat for them to be there," Daly said.
"We jumped on it," Mrs. McFadden said and then Daly went past her due date.
"We were climbing the walls," McFadden recalled.
Finally, they got the call that Daly's labor was to be induced. When they arrived at St. Francis Hospital in Topeka, they discovered that Mike McFadden's first cousin unaware of the impending adoption was Daly's delivery nurse.
In the waiting room, Mrs. McFadden said, Daly's mother pronounced them parents "One minute ago, you guys had a son," and Mike's cousin called them to come hold the baby, still unwashed from his delivery.
In the nursery, Mrs. McFadden added, "we got to watch him get his first bath. We gave him his first bottle. We tucked him in the first night."
DESPITE their joy, McFadden said, "We were pretty concerned about her (Daly's) welfare.
"It was a pretty hard thing she did."
The next day, they all spent more time together in Daly's hospital room. By then, the McFaddens were thinking "it would be neat" for Nate to have a relationship with his birth mother, as well as his birth grandmother and aunt, but they didn't know how Daly would feel about that prospect.
Back home, alone, recovering from the birth before returning to school, Daly said she "had an empty feeling, like something was missing." When her CSS social worker told her the McFaddens were interested in an open adoption, "it was the neatest thing in the world." Her mother and twin sister, she added, thought it was "really great," too.
SINCE THEN, the families have spent more time together including a Halloween gathering at which Nate was costumed as Mickey Mouse.
"We smile all the time (now)," Mrs. McFadden confessed. "Sometimes I think I'm going nuts. I'm driving to work and I'm just smiling."
Nelson, who elected to spend some time with her baby before turning him over to his adoptive parents, recently visited him for the first time since the special adoption ceremony she arranged at which he was officially transferred to them.
The visit, she said, was emotionally difficult but "I definitely don't regret any of my decision.
"I can't think of anything I would change about it at all."
She's now night program director at First Step House, a half-way house at 345 Fla., for women recovering from chemical dependency and their children. She lived there when she first left drug rehab.
SHE'S ALSO attending Johnson County Community College and hoping to enter the American sign language instructors' program there in January.
Denner said Nelson's reaction to the recent visit was probably a healthy sign.
"One of the values of open adoption is to be able to be honest," rather than hiding those feelings away inside, he said. "I admire her for her strength to be able to come and be with us and deal with us and hold him and love him."
Daly, now graduated from high school and hoping to attend Washburn University next semester, said she planned to proceed one step at a time with the McFaddens.
She said she'd leave it to them to decide how and when to explain her relationship to Nate and noted that she felt comfortable with their invitation to call or visit whenever she wanted.
BOTH DALY and Nelson said they continued to rely on counseling from CSS after their babies' births. Both also said neither of the birth fathers chose to be involved in the adoptions.
Mike McFadden said he'd learned a new respect for what birth mothers who give up their babies go through.
"I didn't have any respect for someone who gives up a child," he said, "but she could have terminated it (the pregnancy) and not gone through it all.
"It was a real hard thing she did."
If birth parents are in an unstable environment for raising a child, he said, he hoped more would think twice about an open adoption.
"Adoption," he said, "is not a soul-rending process."