Diane Kunz started with the desire to change one child's life.
But 13 years after adopting her first daughter from China, she now has hopes of helping every child, at home or abroad, who is growing up without a family.
Kunz, of Durham, is the mother of eight children, four adopted and four biological. She is also one of the nation's leading advocates for adoption, quietly changing national policy and helping thousands of families bring home children.
She and another adoptive mother are the founders of a think tank, the Center for Adoption Policy, based in New York, which aims to remove barriers to adoption. The group's work has won national awards and made Kunz a player on an international stage. Along the way, Kunz has also become a sort of guru for people going through the complex process of adoption.
She does most of her work from her home in Durham, baking chocolate chip muffins one minute and sitting in on a conference call with the State Department the next.
She has been a corporate lawyer in New York and a professor at Yale, but she says this job -- for which she receives no pay -- is the true work of her life.
"Every child has the right to a permanent, loving family," Kunz says.
A life of surprises
Kunz, 56, seems as surprised as anyone at the turn her life has taken since she helped found the center eight years ago. As a young woman, she never imagined herself as an impassioned social activist or a Brady Bunch-style mom.
The only child of Jewish immigrants, Holocaust survivors who settled in New York City, she spent much of her early life earning a law degree at Cornell University and working long hours at a corporate law firm in her native city. She and her husband, Tom, whom she met in law school, didn't have their first child until 1986, 12 years after they married.
She eventually had four sons and went on to become a history professor at Yale. She never even thought of adopting until the mid-1990s, when Chinese children became available for international adoption and she and Tom read a story about the phenomenon in The New York Times Magazine.
Once they learned more about it, they felt compelled to use their wealth, earned in successful law and academic careers, to help an orphaned child. Adoptions often cost tens of thousands of dollars, but that was no obstacle for them.
"We just had a feeling that we could do this," Kunz says. "We've been very lucky, and we felt this was the right thing to do."
They brought Eleanor home in 1996 and watched the child, who might have been doomed to life in a Spartan orphanage, blossom under their care. Soon, one child led to the next.
Their spacious home and the help of a nanny has made a large family easier for the Kunzes than for most. The younger children attend private school, and the Kunzes still get to go out alone once a week for dinner. Because of their advantages, they came to see helping unparented children as a moral obligation.
"Once you save one person's life," Tom Kunz says, "it's kind of hard to sit back and say, 'That's enough.' "
Over the years, Kunz, like many adoptive parents, became something of an expert in the tricky process of adoption. She met another adoptive mother in New York, Ann Reese, who has two children from Romania, and they began to talk about all the many difficulties of bringing parentless children into their homes.
Some of the barriers were ideological, such as a bias against placing black children with white parents, but others were simply bureaucratic snags, problems such as transferring health insurance between states.
"We just started conversations about, gee, this is wrong, and why aren't there people working on this?" Reese says.
Eventually, they decided to combine their expertise to help children stuck in foster homes or orphanages.
Four years ago, Kunz and her husband moved to Durham, and she continues her work from her home beside a golf course.
Now, Kunz and Reese are a sort of SWAT team for adoptive parents in desperate situations.
When thousands of Chinese adoptions were nearly stalled last year because of the technicalities of an international treaty, they negotiated with the State Department to allow those families already in process to bring their children home.
Also last year, when the U.S. government refused to issue visas to several hundred children given up for adoption in Vietnam, Kunz became both a sort of social worker and lobbyist on their behalf. U.S. immigration officials said there were problems verifying that the children had been abandoned by their parents.
Barry and Donna DeLong of Durham were among those denied visas for the boy they wanted to adopt from Vietnam. Barry DeLong said there was no evidence of wrongdoing in their case, and the Vietnamese government was willing to allow the adoption. So they joined several Americans who went to Vietnam and adopted their children, even though they were not allowed to bring them back to the United States.
They, like many, were prepared to stay in Vietnam permanently if the U.S. government refused to issue their children visas. They had been living in Vietnam in a state of near-panic for weeks when Kunz began offering legal advice to them and several other families via e-mail and conference calls.
Barry DeLong said she was a calm yet forceful voice in a time of chaos. And he thinks it was partly her influence that, after several months, persuaded U.S. officials to relent and grant the children visas.
"I got a sense from her that this was where she was going to stay," DeLong said. "And if this person [in the U.S. government] wanted to continue in a happy career, they couldn't just blow her off."
Looking at each child
In addition to helping would-be parents, Kunz is also working to mute growing opposition to international adoption. Groups such as UNICEF say that allowing wealthy Westerners to adopt children from poor nations is a Band-Aid solution that fails to address the fundamental issues that cause child abandonment.
Kunz says she looks at the issue from the perspective of each child. "I would be happy to have a world where there is no prejudice and no poverty and no war," she says. "But right now, there are unparented children."
She says the best solution to problems that have stymied international adoption in recent years is to ensure an ethical process. The center is helping the State Department create more stringent guidelines for adoption agencies and pushing for harsher penalties for those who perpetrate fraudulent adoptions.
Kunz can talk about her work for hours. But on this day, she is interrupted by the patter of feet. Her three youngest girls bound into the room, giggling and shouting, followed by their nanny. Soon they are jumping into Kunz's lap, crawling around her feet, demanding hugs.
The center's work has become her vocation, but she says her own family -- built in part by adoption -- is her greatest reward.
"It's a cliché," she says, "but it's true."
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