Starting the Adoption Process

Parents who've already welcomed children into their homes are eager to debunk the many myths that surround adoption. Our guide will set the record straight and start you on your way.

Common Questions Answered

After five years of struggling with infertility, Kelly and Tom Vandergriff, of Louisville, Kentucky, decided they wanted to adopt a baby. They started working with an agency in April 2002 and were amazed to get a call in July that a birth mother -- who was almost nine months pregnant -- was interested in meeting them. They flew to Oregon to meet her, and two weeks later, they were at the hospital when their healthy son, Landon, was born. "It was amazing," Kelly says. "We were with Landon the entire time, we bonded with his birth mother, who is wonderful, and the whole process only took four and a half months."

Certainly, not every adoption is that quick. But for the majority of couples adopting domestically and internationally, the process is not nearly as daunting -- or expensive or time-consuming -- as they expect. "There are many myths about adoption that may scare couples away from even considering it," says Susan Caughman, editor and publisher of Adoptive Families magazine. To demystify the process, here are answers to the most commonly asked questions.

Where Do I Begin?

Read voraciously, do research online, join a local support group, and start networking with other adoptive parents. The biggest decisions you need to make are whether you want to adopt a newborn, whether to adopt domestically or internationally (most children adopted internationally are at least a year old), whether you are willing to adopt a child of a different race, and whether you would prefer working with an adoption agency or a private adoption attorney. (It is not legal to use attorneys for independent adoptions in Connecticut, Delaware, Colorado, or Massachusetts.)

Both agencies and attorneys help couples prepare the paperwork and fulfill the legal requirements, such as a home study -- an evaluation of your home life and background by a social worker. For domestic adoptions, both screen prospective birth mothers and provide counseling to both sides. The biggest difference between agencies and attorneys is how they find birth mothers. Pregnant women who are interested in placing their children for adoption go to agencies, whereas attorneys and their clients generally advertise and network to find birth mothers. (States have varied laws governing who is allowed to place ads.) Agencies handle almost all international adoptions.

Talk to a few agencies and a few attorneys to see whom you feel most comfortable with. An attorney should be a specialist who has handled hundreds of adoptions, says Mark McDermott, past president of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. When evaluating an agency, make sure it's state-licensed and ask questions: How long has it been in business? What programs and support services does it offer? What are the various fees, and when are they due? How diversified are the agency's services? For example, if adoption from one country is suddenly prohibited, as happened with Vietnam in 2003, does the agency have resources in other countries?

How Big a Part Do Birth Mothers Play in the Process?

With the trend toward open adoption, women who place their children have a lot of say: Up to 90 percent choose their child's adoptive parents and communicate with them before and after the adoption. Even after making their choice, however, about half of these mothers back out before placing their child, says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, in New York City, and author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming America. In fact, it happened more than once to him and his wife. "It broke our hearts, but I fully understood it," Pertman says. Once an adoption is finalized, though, it's very rare for a birth mother to try to regain custody.

A difficult part of the adoption process for many couples is creating a portfolio with photos and information about themselves, and writing an open letter to birth mothers. This is your only introduction to a birth mother, and would-be parents need to create a vivid image of their personalities, interests, home, pets, and philosophy about parenting.

Maureen and Steve Seidel, of Nazareth, Pennsylvania, were wary at first about having to "sell" themselves. "But after attending an adoption workshop, I realized that the right birth mother would read our letter, understand who we are, and find us," Maureen says. And that's just what happened. "Our 14-month-old daughter's birth mother is now a very important part of our lives," she says.

It's natural to feel apprehensive about open adoption and having a relationship with the birth parents. "Most adoptions aren't truly open," Caughman points out. "Often the birth mother chooses the couple, but then they just exchange letters once a year through an intermediary." However, most experts agree that the benefits of working with a baby's biological mother far outweigh the risks.

Why Can Waiting Periods Be So Inconsistent?

The time frame can depend on many factors, including prospective parents' ages, family structure, and state legal requirements. International adoption is more predictable, usually taking less than two years. But couples seeking to adopt a newborn domestically need to wait to be chosen by a birth mother -- and it can take three months or three years. This may account for the rise in international adoptions; there were more than 20,000 in 2001, as compared with 6,500 a decade earlier. Experts estimate there are between 19,000 and 25,000 infants adopted domestically each year. "Don't get desperate and panic," Caughman says. "Adoptions happen every day."

How Much Will An Adoption Cost?

The average total cost for a domestic private adoption is $15,000 to $20,000, Caughman says. Depending on the laws in your state and the birth mother's state, you may need to cover her expenses (medical, legal, counseling, and living costs), and that can add another $10,000 or more.

International adoption, which generally involves paying both U.S. and overseas agencies, usually costs between $7,000 and $25,000, excluding travel expenses. On the plus side: Families with an adjusted gross income under $192,390 are now eligible for a federal tax credit for up to $10,160 in adoption expenses. If you're adopting a child with special needs, you can take the credit regardless of actual expenses. Employers sometimes offer adoption benefits, including leave time and untaxed financial reimbursement.

I'm Gay. How Hard Will It Be For Me to Adopt?

Although American birth mothers tend to prefer heterosexual, married applicants in their 30s, not all of them think alike. Jim Emery and Charlie Spiegel, both San Francisco lawyers, decided to adopt in 1985. They first considered China until they learned that they'd have to hide their relationship. Then the couple began looking domestically. Their first match fell through, but finally, their attorney called with a birth mother who was willing to make an adoption plan with a gay family. Today, the couple's daughter, Nora, is 7. "Every woman who selects a placement for her child is guided by her own personal life and values," Emery says.

Many countries outside the U.S. bar single men and gays from adopting at all. However, they may also limit adoptions by straight single women. Age can be another obstacle, as most countries have a cutoff for adoptive parents somewhere between 40 and 55. But perseverance can pay off. Maro Chermayeff, a single New Yorker, was 38 when she decided to adopt from China. The day she walked into her first adoption agency, China instituted an agency-by-agency quota on single-women applicants. In New York, her wait could have been seven years. So Chermayeff went to an agency in Idaho, where far fewer single women were waiting to adopt. She moved to the top of the agency's list, and 17 months later, her daughter Su Huai came home with her. "I never imagined she'd be so smart, happy, and healthy," Chermayeff says.

Should I Consider Adopting a Special-Needs Baby?

There are hundreds of thousands of adoptable older and special-needs children both in the U.S. and abroad. Today, more and more couples are opening their homes to foster children: According to the most recent figures, there were 50,000 foster-care adoptions in 2000, compared with 36,000 in 1998.

Many states now have special Fost/Adopt programs, in which you can become a foster parent and then adopt a child who is unlikely to be reunited with his family. Sandra and Jeff Gosline, of Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, had already adopted two baby boys through an agency when they decided to adopt a third child through the foster-care system. After the Goslines attended three months of classes mandated by the state to help prepare them for any emotional and behavioral issues their foster child might have, 7-month-old Nicholas came to live with them. They finalized his adoption only five months later.

Although the term "special needs" can be discouraging, it is used to describe almost all children in foster care. However, children's psychological issues often ease or disappear after being adopted. "Once children receive the attention, love, and stability they so deserve, it helps them grow mentally, emotionally, and physically," says Corina Hopkins, of the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange, in Boston. In other countries, the term "special needs" usually refers to medical problems, although they are often correctable conditions, such as a cleft palate.

In the end, there's bound to be a child for every qualified prospective parent, regardless of race, age, or marital status. Maureen Seidel says, "Although the process seems daunting, the reward will be the overwhelming love you feel for your son or daughter, and the gift of a lifetime spent together as a family."

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