Jan. 3, 2006

Welcoming Hannah: Two recent policies make Cornell more adoption friendly

Hannah Qian Yu Yan Scaffido is many things. Above all, though, she is a charmer.

She's easily eclipsed when it comes to physical size, certainly -- and she would be forgiven for being a little tentative in her brand-new surroundings. But this is a child who knows how to enchant an audience.

So when Hannah made her Cornell debut at a party in Willard Straight Hall in December, she took the roomful of adoring strangers well in stride. For the 11-month-old, already at ease in her brand-new American family, the occasion of being welcomed into the wider Cornell family was just another chance to earn admirers.

For parents Joe and Darese Scaffido, though -- and for their 5-year-old son, Alex -- it was much more. It was a chance to celebrate the end of the long, uncertain adoption process and to mark the beginning of their life as a newly expanded family.

Hannah, born in January 2005 in central China, was a Scaffido in spirit as soon as Joe, an assistant dean of students at Cornell, and Darese, an associate director of residential life and judicial affairs at Ithaca College, held her for the first time in the lobby of a Chongqing hotel on Nov. 7. Officially, she became a U.S. citizen when she and her new family touched down in Detroit on Nov. 16.

The Scaffidos are among the first Cornell families to take advantage of the university's new family leave policy, which went into effect Sept. 1 and provides up to 16 weeks of leave time for parents after a child is born or during and after the adoption process. (The policy also allows up to 12 weeks per year of unpaid leave to care for an ill family member). Coupled with the university's adoption assistance program, which also took effect last year and offers employees up to $5,000 in reimbursement for adoption-related expenses, the policy is designed in part to make the adoption process smoother and to give employees a chance to bond with their new child.

For the Scaffidos, the family leave policy gave Joe the chance to travel to China with Darese; without the policy he might have been forced to stay home while Darese went to pick up their daughter alone. The financial reimbursement was also welcome relief. "Everyone here has been great," said Joe. "The new plan allowed me six weeks at half-time pay, which I was able to subsidize with a combination of sick time, personal time and vacation time. The grant covered the majority of our travel expenses. The university has been really generous with benefits."

So while the Scaffidos were prepared for a potentially rocky adoption process, what they got was a process still too long and too slow -- but on the whole remarkably smooth.

When Hannah (dressed appropriately in red) made her first visit to campus with Joe, Darese and Alex on Dec. 8, she was given a welcome fit for a princess. (Not to mention several years worth of diapers from Joe's colleagues and friends in the Office of the Dean of Students.) Hannah took to the attention as she has to nearly all the newness in her life: with grace, plenty of giggles and a disarming grin.

"We have been really fortunate to have a lot of support," said Joe. "It's been an amazing experience."