6 Tips on International Adoption

How to prepare yourself for red tape, delays, and surprises as you adopt your child.

American couples and singles have long adopted children from overseas. But in the past decade, the number of international adoptions has nearly tripled: According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), 18,669 immigrant visas were issued to orphans in 2001, up from 6,472 in 1992. If you're thinking about adopting a child from abroad, here are six things to do -- and consider.

1. Find an experienced adoption facilitator. International adoption can be a complex, bureaucratic process, involving not only one -- but two -- countries. That's why a reputable adoption agency, with an established program in the country you wish to adopt from, can be an invaluable resource. (The same holds true for an adoption attorney or facilitator with overseas experience.)

During the adoption process, your agency should be able to assist you with your paperwork; offer up-to-date information about changes in either country's adoption policies, procedures, or laws; and maintain contact with adoption officials and facilitators in the host country. They should also be able to ensure that travel within your child's birth country goes smoothly, and that any problems in the adoption process -- either here or abroad -- are handled expediently and well.

2. Get organized. Before you're able to receive a referral, you'll have to complete an enormous amount of paperwork, fulfilling the requirements of your state, the U.S. government, and the birth country of your future child. What's more, rules and regulations may change during your "paper chase," forcing you to fill out new forms, gather more documents, or submit to a procedure -- such as being fingerprinted -- yet again. While the process can undeniably be frustrating, it helps to have an organized system of retrieving and filing documents, and to know that your agency is well organized too. Lost or misfiled paperwork can cause delays! Ask other adoptive parents and your agency for tips on handling the paperwork process.

3. Be prepared for delays. Even when things are going smoothly, and you've done your part in moving the process along, U.S. and foreign government agencies work on their own timetables and may not get things accomplished as quickly as you'd like. Though it's hard to remain patient, try to understand that certain aspects of the adoption process are out of your control. For instance, you can gather documents and meet your agency's requirements in record time, but you can't force the INS or a foreign government to process your application (and give you a referral!) any more quickly.

4. Try to remain flexible. Occasionally, a foreign country will suddenly close or temporarily suspend its adoption program for economic, political, social, or other reasons. Before you sign up with an agency or attorney, ask what will happen if a program you've applied to suddenly closes or is suspended. Can you transfer your paperwork to another program without too many problems? Ask yourself whether you'd be open to adopting a child from a different country. For instance, will you only consider a child from Eastern Europe, or would you adopt a child from Latin America or Asia?

Another risk of international adoption is that travel to your child's birth country may be delayed or hampered by situations beyond your control. For instance, an outbreak of a disease (such as SARS), unexpected social or political turmoil in a nation, and/or the threat of terrorism against Americans may force prospective parents to temporarily postpone travel plans or to proceed with caution. If you're worried about the risks involved in traveling abroad, your best bet is to work with an experienced, reputable agency whose host-country facilitators will do their best to ensure your (and your child's) safety. Or look for a program, such as South Korea's, where children may be brought to the United States and parents aren't required to travel.

5. Take a leap of faith. Most foreign-born children who are available for adoption live in orphanages or with foster families and may have been relinquished at birth or at a few months of age. Often, nothing or little is known about their birth parents, the medical and social background of their birth family, or the quality of the birth mother's prenatal care. What's more, children who live in orphanages may have emotional and/or developmental delays, which can be temporary or long term, depending on the length of time they've spent in an institution and the quality of care.

Before you choose a particular country to adopt from, research different programs, and ask your agency, facilitator, and other adoptive parents about the general health and welfare of the children. Be prepared to take a qualified risk, and know that most children who are placed for adoption overcome minor delays and illnesses with the proper love, nutrition, attention, and medical care.

6. Get ready for a great adventure. Even with all its inherent risks and uncertainties, international adoption remains a viable and rewarding option for thousands of American couples and singles each year. In fact, adopting a foreign-born child offers unique opportunities to travel to a child's birth country, learn about a second culture, and integrate it into your family life. In short, prospective parents have the chance to become a bicultural family, which, in and of itself, can be a wonderfully enriching experience.

Sources: U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Holt International Children's Services, The Complete Adoption Book by Laura Beauvais-Godwin and Raymond Godwin, Esq.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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