Introduction: The following story is a mixture of our story mixed with details of the entire process, which can seem rather forbidding and overwhelming when you first look at it. Please realize that adoption laws vary so widely between states and countries that it's virtually impossible to give hard and fast rules: if you are interested you must speak with people who have done it. This actually isn't hard: most areas have an adoption group and families interested in the process are more than welcome.
Background: My wife and I decided to have children about 5 years ago. Being fairly young (~30) and healthy, we assumed like everyone else that we'd manage to make a baby the usual, fun way.
Fast forward a year: nothing. Start visiting doctors and get shuffled along from GPs to increasingly more specialized (and expensive) doctors. Various tests and drugs follow, to no avail. The next step is surgery for my wife to see if they can find something wrong. At this point, we took a long hard look at the entire process in front of us and said "No more."
But now where? One of the first things anyone looking at adoption finds is how many choices you have at the start. Domestic/international? Agency/private/social services? Open or closed? What country/ethnic background? The comments ahead are from someone who went domestic/agency/open/transracial, so realize the comments ahead may have a slant.
Foreign or domestic? This will be the first choice you have to make: both have their plusses and minuses.
- Pro: Shorter travel
- Pro: Adoption can be open (see below)
- Pro: Better chance of getting an infant
- Pro: Better documentation of health
- Con: Waiting time may be long
- Con: Adopting more than one healthy, white infant may be very difficult (see below)
- Pro: Possibly shorter wait time
- Pro: Probably more structured process: you'll know when you'll get the child. (Depends somewhat on country)
- Pro: No limit on number of children
- Con: Country may shut down all adoptions at any time
- Con: Probably more expensive once all travel and expenses added.
It's a tough call. Individual reasons may come into play: my wife and I rejected the idea of adopting from Vietnam since her father had fought there.
Ethnic background? Here's where adoption gets interesting (and a bit disturbing). Everyone has heard that there simply aren't enough domestic babies available for adoptive parents: to ask for a child from the US will involve an endless wait.
This is a myth. There is no shortage of domestic children available for adoption. There is, however, a shortage of healthy, white infants. Step away from that trinity and suddenly the picture changes. There are literally tens of thousands of children sitting in foster care today that are considered unadoptable since they lack one or more of those criteria. Two weeks after we got Adam, our agency scrambled to find parents for a healthy baby boy despite a long list of people waiting for a child. Why? His skin was too dark. (We would have adopted him but our agency doesn't allow multiple placements.)
Equally disturbing is looking at the patterns in international adoption. Countries have wildly different fee schedules for adoption, ranging from virtually nothing to well over $20k for the placement alone, exclusive of a myriad of other expenses. Look at the prices and there's a clear trend: the lighter the skin, the more expensive the child.
Adam is biracial black/white. Making the decision to accept him was in some ways easy: we had the support of our immediate family and friends, but our extended family was an unknown. (And in one case, had made actively hostile comments to the idea.) We've been lucky so far: we've met very little resistance from others (including the mentioned individual) to the fact of his adoption. It's hard to hate a baby, especially one as cute as Adam. (In all seriousness, he is beautiful. I think he got the best of both races.)
Long term, what does this mean for us? It changes our outlook on life. Neighborhoods that we would have happily lived in before are now places we probably don't want to be, not because of overt racism but because we simply don't want Adam to be the only non-white kid. We now read "black" magazines, learn African/Afro-American culture and history and study how to style black hair
Will it be enough? I don't know. I'd like to believe that love is enough to raise any child, but Adam will have unique issues being a biracial child raised by white parents. I take heart in the support of virtually every black person I know, but there are things I simply don't know how to deal with. Then again, simply raising a child quickly educates you in how little you know about things anyway.
Agency/private/social services? None of these get good press, but they should get more than they do.
With an agency, you have a group of people who know the process well and probably have contacts at a number of places. Our agency (and most others) arranges for health care and counseling for the birthparents, which was a big plus for us. Fees can be lower than with a private adoption: our agency charges on a sliding scale based on income. However, you're going to be competing with a large number of other families for a limited supply. If you want to take control of the process of finding a child, an agency is probably not the way to go. If you are going international, you will probably have to have an agency to coordinate everything. It can be done privately, but folks I know who tried it shied away when they realized how difficult it would be.
With private adoption, you arrange for a social worker and lawyer to handle the homestudy and then find the baby yourself. This usually involves ads in local+college papers, finding friends of friends, etc. Adoption "facilitators" are becoming more common: these are typically people who act much like an agency in locating a child, but are often unlicensed. Once you've located a birthmother, arrangements vary. You may be expected to pick up her health care costs and possibly even living expenses. While the vast majority of private adoptions work out well, this obviously opens you up to more risk.
Social Services: how many kids do you want? The process is very low cost and can be very quick. The catch: you won't be getting an infant, and the kids typically come with emotional or physical problems. For "non-traditional" adoptive parents such as single men or women or gay couples this may be the only option.
We went with a local, non-religious agency for our adoption. Why? They were very small and our social worker came highly recommended. We wanted an infant, and the counseling offered to the birthmother was important to us.
How much? You don't buy a baby: asking an adoptive parent how much their kid cost is very insulting. However, there are fees (and fees, and fees..) to cover the costs of the birthmother's health care, court costs, paperwork filing, travel, etc. As a result, costs are all over the map: anywhere from $1k-$30k. Domestic tends to be cheaper, social services at the very bottom of the scale.
These costs are offset to a degree by recent legislation that offers a $10k tax credit (not deduction- it comes off the tax, not income) for adoption. Companies may or may not have adoption benefits that can pick up some of the other costs, although things like travel expenses are rarely covered.
Open or closed? You may not have the option if you go foreign, since you probably won't know anything much about the birth family. However, for domestic this can be the hardest call. Most people when they think of adoption imagine the typical closed adoption: the birthmother and adoptive parents never meet, the records of the adoption is sealed and the child will be denied information about their biological parents until they turn 18.
With open adoptions, you may or may not meet the birthparents before the birth, but you will certainly send letters and pictures and probably meet afterwards. Our adoption is open: we met Adam's birthmother after the rescindment period was over and she'll be coming to his birthday party soon. We've sent dozens of letters, exchanged presents and have pictures of her in Adam's room. Frankly, this freaks a lot of people out: they can't imagine why we'd want her to visit or even know anything about him. "Aren't you afraid she'll take him back?"
Actually, we aren't. She gave him to us because she didn't want to raise him. She's young and going to college instead of trying to survive as a single mother.
Brief rant. As a society, we have a serious problem with birthmothers: they rank somewhere around slime mold in the gestalt perception. "How could anyone possibly give up their child? What kind of horrible person are they?" Answer: they're just like us. Getting pregnant by accident is not exactly uncommon. Instead of having an abortion or trying to raise a child when they don't think they can, they manage to have the courage to turn an accident into something good. Why is this considered evil? End rant.
Adam is not our biological child. We should not pretend that he is: he deserves to know who he is and where he came from. He may never be close to his birthmother, but he can be in the future if he wants to be.
Most domestic adoptions today are at least somewhat open: you may not have a choice about this issue if you stay in the country. International adoptions are virtually always closed: you probably will have few details about the child's life prior to the adoption.
Decided yet? The next step: Homestudy Now that you know what you want, it's time to begin jumping through hoops. Homestudy laws vary so widely state to state that it's basically impossible to detail the process, but Virginia is somewhat typical.
For people concerned with privacy, a homestudy will be terrifying. You will turn over details on every facet of your life, including (for us)
That's for a basic domestic adoption: expect foreign governments to require even more.
- A full physical, including tests for STDs
- A criminal background check
- Birth certificates and proof of citizenship
- Every financial detail including amounts in checking/savings/stocks/bonds/401ks, loans, mortgages and credit card debt.
- Letters from non-related, long term references
- All educational records
- A letter from your company detailing your job.
- A detailed autobiography. (Mine ran ~15 pages)
- A timeline of what you do in a typical week. (Our social worker mentioned that nobody ever put down sex on this timeline, so we just had to include it.)
This will probably be followed by counseling: Virginia requires several face-to-face visits and your social worker must visit your home. In our case we also had to take parenting classes which covered both normal child/parent issues as well as those unique to adoption. This whole process can cause more than a little resentment for some adoptive parents when they read stories in the newspaper about biological parents abusing/neglecting their children. It wasn't too bad for me: I just had to remember that somebody we had never met was going to entrust us with a child.
Dear Birthmother: During this time you will also write one of the single strangest letters you will ever see. You need a single page letter introducing you to potential birthparents. Our agency gave us detailed instructions about this, down to the kinds and colors of paper to use. The entire process is stilted: you have to show who you are to a birthparent, but at the same time include a laundry list of info about yourselves and still fit it on a page. Don't forget the attached picture! We went through several rolls of film to get one deemed acceptable by our social worker.
There are entire published books of nothing but "Dear Birthmother" letters. Our agency required us to read one: I could barely manage it. The letters are uniformly bland pablum (to avoid offending anyone) and manage to be sickly sweet at the same time. I wish I could say different, but ours was no better. Writing it was absolutely the worst part of the entire process.
Foreign adoptions get off easy on this: they generally don't have to do one. They make up for this in a blizzard of paperwork that needs to be translated, notarized, re-notarized and then sealed at the consulate. This is an expensive and very time consuming process, made worse by the fact that it's all too possible that it will all be for nothing if the country decides to close its doors, as has happened to a friend of ours. Beyond this point I won't comment much more on international adoption: we have several friends who have been through it, but that's their story.
The wait: You've jumped through the hoops: now a baby might arrive. But when? The wait is so different for different people that it's impossible to generalize. I know a couple that managed to get a healthy white domestic infant in under a month through a private adoption. I know others that have waited years for a foreign adoption.
For international adoptions, you can often have a good idea exactly when everything is going to happen. China is very good about this, for example: you go in a group of 50, know when you will visit the orphanage, know when the court date will be, etc. For domestic private adoptions you have a blizzard of work: placing ads in college newspapers, tracing possible leads, etc. For us, using an agency, it felt rather odd: after all this work we were now expected to do basically nothing and wait for a phone call. This was quite hard for me: my wife wanted to buy all the baby things, read parenting books and magazines and discuss baby issues. I simply couldn't do it. This was a problem for us: it hurt her that she couldn't talk about it.
In our case, we had our first possible hit after about 9 months: a birth family that was a near perfect match for us. Our social worker sounded excited and sure that it was going to work out really well. In short: it didn't. The birthgrandmother decided that she didn't want the child placed and pressured the birthmother into keeping the child. This sort of thing is not at all uncommon, but it still hurts.
Fast forward about another year.
The Call: I'm washing my hair in the shower at 7:30 on a Friday morning when I hear the phone ring. This is a bit worrisome: good phone calls rarely come at that time. When my wife comes into the bathroom crying I'm really worried: who died?
Of course, it was The Call Adam had been born the night before and would be ready to go home over the weekend. A normal, healthy baby boy. Needless to say, this was a bit of a surprise, as we had had no warning at all. This too, is not uncommon. Adam's birthmother had told our social worker to let us name the child. Since we hadn't met we had not had time to discuss this with the birthmother and it can be a bone of contention. Luckily for us, her last name made a good middle name for Adam and we were able to honor her in that way. We picked him up two days later after a blizzard of visits to Target and baby stores to frantically acquire the tons of stuff you need for a child. (Remember, I didn't want to look at the stuff beforehand, so this was my fault.)
Rescindment? This is what gives adoptive parents nightmares. For some period after the adoption (varies by state) the adoptive parents aren't: they are "merely" foster parents and the birthmother may ask for the child back at any time. This actually happens much less than most people think: if a birthmother makes it out of the hospital without the child, chances are she will not rescind. Hospital rescindments are quite common however: I don't know the exact statistics, but our social worker estimates that ~25% of birthmothers will not be able to leave the child at the hospital. In Virginia, the rescindment period is 25 days, which strikes me as about the right length: it gives the birthmother time to adjust while not leaving the entire process hanging. States range from three days to six months.
In fact, we barely noticed the period. As new parents, we were simply too exhausted caring for a baby. We visited our agency a few days after the period had expired to sign some formal documents changing our status, and then we got to meet our birthmother (and her mother).
This was both amazing and awkward. How can you possibly thank someone for a gift like this?
Finalization This process too varies state by state. Virginia requires several visits by a social worker over a period of six months, both at the agency and at home to make sure the child is in good health. Our agency also requires more frequent doctor's visits than is normal for a child. After the social worker signs off that everything seems ok, the final papers can be submitted to the court. For us, this actually took about 4 months: we got the final papers less than a week before his first birthday. It's a bit of an anticlimax: the important papers were signed nearly a year ago at the end of the rescindment period and we've had Adam so long we can't imagine that anyone would think he's not our child.
Now what? Good question. Even more than biological parents, we have no real idea who Adam will grow up to be. In some ways this is liberating: we don't sit and look for traits that we expect to show up. There's no pressure to mold him to be a little me or expect that he'll be good at languages just because my wife is.
Adoptive children have issues that biological children do not, transracial adoptees even more so. While the latest research shows that adoptive children are no less well adjusted than children raised by biological parents, we'll need to be aware of these issues and deal with them as they arise.
One last request: Please, if you talk to adoptive parents, never, ever ask the question "What do you know about the real parents?" This is a rather disturbing question for two reasons
- While many people are willing to discuss their adoption story, other are not. For many, it's an intensely private matter. One adoptive parent I know will respond with questions asking details about the nights the questioner's children were conceived. "So, what position were you in? Was it really good?"
- You're talking to someone who changes the diapers, deals with the tantrums, holds the screaming baby while they visit the doctor, soothes the baby at 3AM, feeds them at 4AM and all the other minutia of raising a child. They are the real parents.
This article is now too long, but I've barely scratched the surface. Adoption's not for everyone, but for anyone looking at an empty child's room and thinking about a long course of infertility treatment, consider taking a step back and looking into it.
A few links