Curtis Whicker said people in China were stunned when he and his wife, Tana, mentioned that they were raising 12 children in Montana and were visiting to adopt another child.

In China, a county of more than 1.3 billion people, a one-child-per-family policy has been in place since 1979.

“It’s not for everyone, and certainly not a choice for anyone in China,” said Curtis, an audiologist at Holy Rosary Healthcare in Miles City.

The Whickers made the 6,000-mile trek from Miles City two weeks ago to adopt 8-year-old Thalia into their brood of 12 other children — four biological, three from Haiti, two from Ethiopia and three from China.

They arrived back in Montana on Wednesday evening after a 24-hour flight from Beijing. Thalia rode the escalator down at Billings Logan International Airport waving to her new grandpa, whom she had been getting to know over Skype in the past weeks.

“I knew she’d know me when she saw me,” said Evan Thorley, now the grandpa of 20 grandchildren.

Thalia carried with her a stuffed panda bear and smiled ear-to-ear as her grandpa recorded her arrival on video.

Thalia was one of more than 600,000 orphaned children living in China, and one of about 300 living at the Bao’an orphanage in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province.

“She got to see snow for the first time on our way back,” Curtis said. “She’ll be seeing a lot of firsts — a land without tall buildings and cars, to begin with.”

Four years ago, the Whickers adopted two children from Ethiopia, thinking the adoptions would be their last.

But when Tana saw a photo of Thalia online in January, she said the girl tugged at her heart.

“We didn’t go looking for her, she found us,” Tana said. “I knew instantly that she was ours, even though I wasn’t even sure what country she was from.”

Although new parents are often told little about the abandonment of children like Thalia, the Whickers learned that she was left between the third and fourth floors of a hospital when she was about 3 months old. She has been living at the orphanage ever since.

“Being a girl, and having Down syndrome — both factors were working against her for placement in China,” Tana said. “There are a lot of cultural fears about kids with special needs.”

Boys are often prized by parents for cultural and economic reasons, and orphaned children are likely to be girls.

Last year, 2,697 children were adopted into the United States from China. The number is more than 70,000 since 1999, far more than from any other country, according to the U.S. State Department. It is estimated that 95 percent of the children who are adopted out are girls.

“Once kids reach the age of 16, they generally have to leave the children’s welfare institute and move into adult insane asylums, where they are in an awful situations, many starved and molested,” Tana said. “I can’t see that and do nothing.”

After the couple’s first adoption, they decided that they were in a position to help other children.

Tana stepped away from her profession as a speech pathologist several years ago and has devoted her life to raising their children.

Adopting children from China can cost time and money. On average, it takes 18 to 24 months for the application process — which includes an inch-thick dossier of background material — and can cost upward of $25,000.

When Christina Schye of YES Kids, a nonprofit organization in Yellowstone County that supports Down Syndrome Awareness, learned of the Whickers’ hope to adopt Thalia, they raised $1,000 to go toward their expenses.

“You really have to have the heart to adopt, and the Whickers do,” Schye said. “It’s a phenomenal thing, and their situation has given me a lot of faith in humanity.”

Schye, who also has a child with Down syndrome, learned of the family through Reece’s Rainbow, an adoption ministry that aims to rescue orphans with Down syndrome through adoption.

They believe Thalia is in good health — with speech and language development being her biggest need, Tana said.

The Whickers have tried to construct a life for their children that include cultural traditions from each of their countries. They eat with chopsticks, cook a variety of ethnic meals and celebrate events from each of their children’s birth countries.

They have also introduced their own traditions — one being that when an adopted child turns 13, the Whickers take the child on a trip to visit their birth country.

During the trip to adopt Thalia, the Whickers’ 13-year-old daughter, Lily, accompanied them to China, where they visited the orphanage she lived in, just a short 30-mile drive away from Thalia’s orphanage.

The Whickers say adopting another child isn’t in their plan, but they hope to be advocates of other people adopting.

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