There’s a moment, when Skye and Katherine Potter are seated on their couch leafing through old photos, that mom and daughter break into the same high-pitched giggles of delight.
“Baby Panders!” Katherine Potter exclaimed, thumbing to a kitten photo of the now-14-year-old Calico, whose full name is Pandora, sunning itself in the family’s Spokane Valley living room.
“That’s my cat,” Skye Potter said, grinning.
The shared affection and mannerisms are undeniable, but for years the Potters have had to answer lots of questions about their relationship from stumped nurses, school administrators and the like. Skye Potter’s Indian skin and hair are darker than her adoptive mother’s features, leading to many awkward questions over the past 16 years since Katherine Potter brought her child home from an orphanage in Calcutta.
Now, the Central Valley High School junior is using a public platform through pageants to push international adoption, a cultural exchange that has waned significantly in the past decade.
“Adoption was such a big part of my life,” said Skye Suraja Potter, whose Indian name means “lotus flower.” “I think it was such a good thing for me. I think a lot of kids should have that experience.”
Skye Potter participated in February’s Miss Spokane Outstanding Teen pageant, donning traditional Indian dress and performing a Bollywood dance that took her months of practice to perfect. Each participant chooses a platform, and Potter’s was the importance of adoption.
“A lot of people who can’t have kids or something, I think it’s kind of silly for them to get surrogacy when there’s so many kids out there that need homes,” she said.
Katherine Potter and her husband, Geoff, knew they wanted to adopt from India in the early 2000s. Katherine Potter’s family has a history of adoption, and Geoff Potter had met several people from Southeast Asia during his time in the U.S. Air Force.
But the process, despite the couple working through an agency, was far from certain. India has traditionally been one of the larger sources of adoptees in the United States, with hundreds of children being brought to America each year, according to data from the State Department. China is by far the largest, with 1,475 children adopted in the United States in 2018, despite worsening relations between the countries due to an ongoing trade dispute.
A different problem reared its head when the Potters were trying to bring Skye, the baby they’d only seen swaddled in photos by her ayahs (nurses), back to their home, then on a military base in Oklahoma.
“We had everything, and we were supposed to go in October,” Katherine Potter said. “They had an election, and a new judge came in and he canceled the orders, because he wanted to go and sign them.”
The bureaucratic move delayed the family from meeting for four months, and when Skye was brought back to America, she had fits at night because of the separation from her ayahs.
“You have to kind of remember that it starts with a loss, the child has lost their parents,” Katherine Potter said. “It’s sad. There’s some sadness there. That doesn’t mean you can’t go on past that and have an amazing family, but you have to be able to acknowledge that, and not sweep it under the rug.”
Skye Potter said her parents have always been upfront about her heritage and celebrate it in the home. Indian artwork hangs all over the house, including a painting of Krishna and Radha that Katherine Potter bought in Calcutta when she picked up her daughter.
There are also statues of Buddha and the Hindu god Ganesha, and the family dines on traditional Indian cuisine when they can.
“My mom made it a big deal in this house,” said Skye Potter. “It kind of helped a lot, too.”
“That’s very important to us,” said Geoff Potter. “We incorporate it into our lifestyle, because she’s our daughter.”
Skye, Katherine and Skye’s sister, Gwyneth, all traveled back to India and the orphanage where she spent her infant months following Skye’s eighth-grade year. Katherine Potter said Skye was the first to revisit the place after being adopted.
The family moved to Illinois for several years, then to Spokane Valley a decade ago, where Skye Potter said there was far less diversity than the other places she’d lived. In response to the puzzled questions and side looks that greet the Potters, they’ve adopted a lighthearted embrace of the situation and joke about the stereotypes.
In the middle of a conversation about Skye Potter’s recent loss of her driver’s license due to a few too many fender-benders, the teen cracked a joke.
“It is true about Asian women drivers,” Skye Potter said, laughing.
The Potters are thankful they chose to adopt when they did. Geoff Potter said he believed that if they tried to adopt now, the process would be a lot more difficult. The numbers suggest that’s true.
The State Department has issued a report each year since 2008, when it took over the administration of intercountry adoption, per the standards of the Hague Convention international treaty. In its first full report in 2009, the department reported 12,753 international adoptees into America. Last year, that number was just 4,059 adoptees, a reduction of nearly 70% in just a decade.
“We are seeing a huge drop,” said Mark Iverson, an attorney who’s been practicing adoption law in Spokane for the past several decades. Iverson attributed the recent dip in numbers to U.S. policies surrounding immigration, and the State Department reported that Chinese adoptions fell 23% in 2018 as the two countries became embroiled in a trade dispute. But the report also notes that China’s rising economy and relaxing of family planning laws have caused a decline that predates the recent trade spat.
Iverson said requests for international adoption assistance is rare at his offices in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, and that domestic attorneys usually only become involved after the child has been relocated to the United States and needs to be legally adopted in this country.
Despite the decline, Skye Potter and her family urge those considering adoption to take the leap. She even plans to adopt from India when the time is right.
“It’s very rewarding, but it’s also very hard,” she said. “Not on the kid, but also on the mom, too. You’ve got to be ready. You can’t second-guess this.”
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