NEW YORK (AP) -- China remains the country of choice for thousands of Americans seeking to adopt a child, but the time frame for new applications is now often triple what it was a few years ago and many families are enduring uncertain, emotionally draining waits.
"I've gone up and down with it - like a roller coaster ride," said Barbara Duarte Esgalhado, a single mother in Manhattan. She has a 7-year-old daughter adopted from China and filed paperwork in January 2006 for a second adoption that has yet to materialize.
"You find yourself rethinking it a lot more - is this still a good idea?" said Duarte Esgalhado, a 50-year-old writer and psychologist.
Her daughter, Uma, was a big fan of getting a sister when the idea surfaced three years ago. Now, she's ambivalent. "A 4-year-old thinks differently about a sibling than an 7-year-old," her mother said.
The longer waits - projected at three or four years for many new applicants - officially are attributed to the large number of foreigners trying to adopt from China coupled with a smaller pool of available children and a slower review process. The China Center of Adoption Affairs, long respected for its ethics and efficiency, avoids specific promises about how long applications might take.
Infant girls by the thousands are abandoned every year in China, and the nation has been America's top source of foreign adopted children since 2000. But the annual total fell to 5,453 last year, down from a peak of 7,906 in 2005, and further declines are expected as part of an overall drop in foreign adoptions.
Texas-based Great Wall China Adoption, one of the largest agencies focusing on China, says its annual caseload is down by half.
"Unfortunately we've had families who have decided to withdraw from the process," said Great Wall spokesman Leigh Ann Graf. "We have some families who are very angry about the wait times - and others looking at the time as a way to get all those things in that they won't be able to do after they become parents."
The uncertainty has fueled rumors and speculation within the tight-knit community of Americans who have adopted from China or hope to do so. Some believe the longer waits are part of a temporary Chinese effort to scale back international adoptions ahead of the Beijing Olympics in August. Others wonder if China may be phasing out foreign adoptions almost entirely.
"Our agency made clear our wait could be three years, four, five - they just don't know," said Mike Suomi, a Manhattan architect. He and his wife, Jenn, have applied to adopt a second child to become a sister to 5-year-old Olivia, whom they adopted from China in November 2003.
"China is becoming an economic powerhouse," Suomi said. "As far as we know, there's an embarrassment factor to having an inability to take care of your own children."
The Suomis are working with Spence-Chapin, a venerable New York-area adoption agency whose caseload for China has dropped sharply due to the delays. Ann Hassan, the agency's China coordinator, said the wait can be much shorter if parents agree to adopt a child with a physical handicap such as a cleft palate or congenital heart disease.
The Suomis, both in their early 40s, are willing to consider such a child, depending on specifics of the impairment. They also considered adopting from elsewhere in the Far East but found South Korea, Vietnam and Taiwan unworkable for varying reasons.
"China always was the top preference," said Jenn Suomi. "There's no funny business, no corruption, no black market."
They're intent on persisting with the China application, and they work hard to help Olivia handle the longer-than-expected wait for the sibling she wants to call Mei Mei - "little sister" in Mandarin.
"Let's say we wait four years - Olivia will be 9," said her father. "We'll be four years older. That's very hard for us. ... We're ready now, and now we have to wait."
Steve and Katherine Curtis, who live in the Long Island town of Babylon, are trying to adopt a second daughter from China to be a sister to Amelia, who was adopted in September 2006 and turned 2 in December.
"We're always thinking of her," said Steve Curtis, an auto company executive. "Absolutely we think it would be helpful for her to have someone to have a shared experience with."
Their new application was registered last October. They have no clear idea how long it will take.
"We're braced for fact it could be three more years," Curtis said. "You do all you can. Then it's up to the powers that be."
Some applicants feel they're in a particularly precarious position. Theresa Fierro, a third-grade teacher from Clifton, N.J., is a single mother who - like Barbara Duarte Esgalhado - got her current application filed in 2006 shortly before China changed its rules to exclude most single parents.
"The wait is causing some fear," said Fierro, 50, who has a 5-year-old daughter adopted from China. "And it's tough to plan. ... Should I work summer school or not? Should I go on vacation or not?"
For Joann Nix, 48, of Mastic Beach, N.Y., the wait adds to frustrations that had been building up over years of futile fertility treatments.
She and her husband registered two years ago to adopt a Chinese child. They now fear the slowdown could hurt their chances of seeking a second adoption later on.
"It gets torturous some times," Nix said. "There are thousands of kids in this world who need good homes. We want just one."
In a similar predicament is Wendi Caplan-Carroll, 46, of Secaucus, N.J. She has no children of her own, though her husband has two from a prior marriage. She initially hoped an adoption from China could be completed in about 13 months. Now the process has been under way for two years, with no sure end in sight.
"I know some people who gave up, others who decided to adopt from Ethiopia," she said.
"We're not shopping around - we have our heart set on China. It's hard to give up when you want something so desperately."
On the Net:
Families with Children from China: http://www.fwcc.org/
China Center of Adoption Affairs: http://www.china-ccaa.org/frames/index-unlogin-en.jsp
China Adoption Forecast: http://chinaadoptionforecast.com/