Nina MacFarlane smiles indulgently at her small, blond triumvirate of daughters. Her husband, Scott, is no less charmed by the sister act.

Cavorting in the kitchen of their Goose Creek home, eagerly awaiting fresh bowls of popcorn, Maria, Sofia and Mariah -- ages 4, 5 and 6, respectively -- are like any other high-spirited kids. They just happen to be from Estonia, a state in northern Europe across the Baltic Sea from Sweden and Finland.

The MacFarlanes are their adoptive parents, though the adjective is hardly needed.

"They are just our children," Nina said.

International adoptions have experienced a decline in recent years, though it has less to do with the number of prospective parents desiring to adopt than on countries limiting or outlawing the practice, according to adoption agencies that have worked with such nations as China, Russia and Guatemala.

But persistence has paid dividends -- four of them -- for the MacFarlanes, whose 15-year-old son, Hudson, was adopted from Latvia 11 years ago.

Scott, an administrator at Naval Weapons Station Charleston's Nuclear Power Training Command, is the son of an adopted father. Nina's dad grew up in an orphanage. Though the MacFarlanes are biologically capable of having their own children, they chose to adopt. The latest additions to the family -- a matched set -- came to the United States a year ago in September.

"We mutually agreed that we wanted a large family," Scott said, "but also agreed that since there are 4 billion people in the world, we didn't necessarily need to make any more. We liked the idea of adoption and started pursuing it.

"But international adoption is a difficult process with a lot of bureaucracy, rules and international laws. You have to go through a lot of government agencies in order to do it. You have to seek out local adoption agencies. And it is a very substantial financial requirement. It is a good bit more involved than the way it is presented in movies."

To some extent, the MacFarlanes are bucking a trend of declining international adoptions, according to their agent, Diana Adams, executive director of Adoption Hope International in Myrtle Beach.

"A lot of the countries that agencies used to work in have slowed down or closed for international adoptions," Adams said. "There are fewer children coming in now than there were in the past 20 years. Guatemala, a big country for this, no longer is allowing them to the U.S. Russia was another major source, but it has gone down considerably because children there are now going into a foster care system.

"China has slowed down a lot, and there's a five-year wait for families now. There are different reasons for each country," Adams said. "And there is an orphan crisis."

Sibling trend

As a result, American couples may be expanding their idea of adoption, she said. "They are looking into some smaller countries like Estonia. Other prospective adoptive families are looking to adopt a sibling group. That's the trend now. In the past they might look to adopt a single toddler. People are looking in other directions.

"But I think the process is fairly consistently the same. It is neither easier or more difficult to adopt. It takes no longer than it did in the past: six months to a year for everything to be completed."

Adams, who has been working the field full time since 1992, started her own agency in 2004. She adopted five children of her own from foreign lands, two from India and three from Russia.

After 31 years in the business, Nina, 49, sold her hairdressing salon to devote more time and resources to their children, though she plans to resume her profession in the near future. Meanwhile, she and Scott are contemplating further additions to the brood.

"We would love to adopt again," Nina said. "We are hoping to go back for Sasha and Sergei, a Russian brother and sister who are living in the same Estonian orphanage. The girls talk about them every day. We have done one of the two mandated trips to visit them already. If I could crinkle my nose and have them here today, I would."

The MacFarlanes, who moved to Goose Creek in 1994, have placed their manageable upper limit of adoptions to 11. And no effort has been or will be made to distance their children from their heritage.

"We embrace their culture," Nina said. "It was their start. We have keepsake boxes for each of our four children. They know who they are and we will not hide anything from them. America is a nation of immigrants, and they are Americans, too. The only difference is their immigration date."

Language has not proved a barrier. The MacFarlanes started with basic nouns, allowing other words to gradually "fill in the gaps and come into play."

"When one of the sisters gets it, she explains it to the other two," said Scott, 43, a master chief petty officer who served aboard fast attack submarines for 23 years. "If they were alone, they wouldn't have that."

Background checks

Scott said that building their family had been delayed by his extended deployments since 9/11. When Nina flew to Latvia to pick up Hudson, now a student at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind in Spartanburg, Scott was serving in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Between the two of them, the MacFarlanes had to pass 13 criminal background checks in order to qualify as adoptive parents. Being a military family, they had to obtain special permission to even enter the countries they visited -- a handshake agreement between these countries and our Office of Homeland Security, as Scott characterized it.

Before adopting Hudson, they had their names on waiting lists for domestic adoption but nothing came to fruition.

"No matter how children come about, whether you have them naturally, a stepchild through marriage or adoption, there are all a gift from God," Nina said. "But in making this adoption work, it's not just what Scott and I are able to do. A whole host of people have been involved in the process to get us to this point."

Adams said it is critical to work with a reputable agency in good standing with their licensing board and with a country that has a good track record. International adoptions in those countries who signed the Hague Adoption Convention on the Protection of Children (1993) must follow its procedures. American adoptive parents also must adhere to directives of the U.S. State Department, whose website, adoption.state.gov, provides detailed guidelines.

But it's all worth it, Adams said.

"I love this work. I love the idea that everything you do makes a difference in someone's life. It is very gratifying. Most people that go into the process are very committed. The reasons people adopt are varied. Some do it because they can't have kids, some because they think it's their mission to do something for the orphans of the world.

"The numbers are heartbreaking, and when you see a family like the MacFarlanes adopting three kids, it makes you feel good about them and the children's future. They will not grow up in an orphanage."

Because of incorrect information supplied to The Post and Courier, previous versions of this story incorrectly identified the nation from which Hudson MacFarlane was adopted.