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Big family, big rewards

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WEST VALLEY CITY — At the house on Rosemary Street, parents and kids ranging in age from 8 to 22 are jammed into living-room furniture like flowers in a vase.

Yet somehow, this five-bedroom house feels spacious, though it's home to a nine-member family: Bart and Patti Barker, their four biological sons, one adopted daughter from Colombia and two adopted Nigerian-Tongan twins.

Maybe that wide-open feeling comes from the lack of elephants in the living room.

Bart, a Salt Lake County commissioner turned consultant, and his wife Patti talk openly about the challenges of trans-racial adoption. Though they already had four boys, they don't hesitate to explain why they went to South America to adopt Ana Maria, now 15, and then adopted Ammon and Amaleah, 8-year-old twins born in Salt Lake City.

First, the Barkers always wanted a big family — and not only in terms of numbers. They knew, Bart says, they were meant to have more children. The events that led to their adoption of these three children seem serendipitous, even now.

Bart and Patti first explored adoption of a Guatemalan baby, but that process was fraught with problems in 1987. Then, they learned through an attorney of a Colombian woman who was too poor and malnourished to care for her baby daughter. The woman named her Ana Maria — the same name the Barkers had already chosen for the child they hoped to adopt — and together they worked with an adoption agency to start the legal process. Ana was born Nov. 17, 1987, but a judges' strike in Colombia, and then a long Christmas vacation, delayed completion of her adoption. So Patti and Bart flew south at the end of January and waited for nearly two weeks. Finally, they brought their daughter home Feb. 13, 1988.

Well, not exactly finally.

In 1995, the Barkers were in touch with a Salt Lake adoption support group in hope of adopting again. That summer a social worker called Patti about a woman who, as she was expecting twins in early July, would choose an adoptive family from several "portfolios" that couples had submitted.

The social worker invited Patti to her home, where the two women talked about where to start. "As I was leaving, I handed her a picture of our family. I said, 'Let me know if I can do anything. I'll be up all night,' " putting the portfolio together. That was June 22. The babies weren't due for another two weeks.

"The social worker called at 11 that night and said, 'The mother's gone to the hospital. She's in labor, and she wants to talk to you on the phone.'

"We probably talked for 45 minutes while she was having contractions. Then she wanted me to come up and meet her," in her room at University Hospital. "When I got there, she had just barely had Ammon. I waited with (the birth mother's) sisters" until Amaleah was born 27 minutes later. On the morning of June 23, Patti and Bart were chosen to be the parents of the newborn twins.

The Barkers haven't stayed in contact with their children's birth parents, by choice of the birth mothers. But they take care to honor Ammon, Amaleah and Ana's ethnic heritage, spending time with Tongan members of their LDS ward and finding library books about Colombia and Latin America.

Might they take their kids someday to Polynesia, Colombia or Africa?

"Those are great dreams," Patti says. Overseas travel probably isn't in the family's budget, at least in the near term.

Meantime, domestic trips, be they shopping on Redwood Road or exploring New York City, can get interesting.

"Once we were walking in New York, and we had five children with us. A woman started making comments about 'people have too many children,' " Bart remembers. In a disparaging tone, the woman added, "and then they adopted another."

Patti, a classically polite Utahn, momentarily bristled. "You don't see them naked or hungry, do you?" she shot back at the woman.

Ben Barker, the second oldest of the siblings, remembers when the twins would attract attention at the grocery store. They'd get tired of shopping and start to cry, and "I wondered if somebody would think I was taking them," as in kidnapping the toddlers. "That's when I noticed the looks people were giving us," Ben recalled.

Most times, though, "you're too busy dealing with their needs to worry about how people are looking at you," adds Patti.

The Barkers cope with moments that are particular to adoptive families, times when hurtful words are shouted and hang in the air.

"Sometimes it's hard for the children to know they were adopted," Patti says. Adoptees have to live with questions about why their birth parents didn't keep them. They tell their adoptive parents things like, "My birth mom wouldn't do this to me," and "I wish I hadn't been adopted."

It's painful to hear that, Bart says. "But you need to remind yourself of where they're coming from."

As Ana, Ammon and Amaleah grow up, their parents also think about how they will cope with discrimination. Patti and Bart both grew up in the Salt Lake Valley and went to school and church with Latinos and Pacific Islanders; both express a love for the two cultures. But they don't claim to know firsthand what it feels like to be brown-skinned in this state.

"I probably haven't prepared them for racial prejudice," Bart admits, "because I've never thought of them as being different from me."

Talking openly about such concerns bodes well for the family, says Kathy Searle, a Utah Adoption Exchange program manager at the Department of Child and Family Services. When couples express interest in trans-racial adoption, "it varies from people who say color doesn't matter — and that's a naive view — to those who say, 'I'm concerned; what are the issues?' "

Searle is the mother of nine children, six of whom are adopted: two from Colombia and four who are African American. She counsels adoptive parents about raising children of color and encourages them to give ethnic differences due attention. "Some parents worry about how (their adopted children) will be accepted in their community and how they will be accepted by their extended family," Searle says. "Those concerns are what we like to hear. It's naive to think that love will take care of everything."

Support groups do exist in Utah for Caucasian parents with Asian or African American children, and the Utah Adoption Exchange offers a post-adoption hotline. Searle teaches a class titled "Color Matters." "The only ones who can say that color doesn't matter are white people," she says. "Color does matter," of course, to people of color.

The Barkers want their kids to feel pride in their ethnic identity — and in being members of their adoptive family. Over the years, Bart says, people have remarked on how "generous" he and Patti are to "take in" their three youngest. They don't see it that way. "Our attitude," says Bart, is "how fortunate we are to have them."

E-MAIL: durbani@desnews.com