You're bringing home a child to love -- and providing a home to a kid who really needs it. But adopting a baby is daunting. You have to navigate a mind-bending combo of federal and state laws, plus those of another country if you're adopting from overseas. Then there's the fear of heartbreak, as in the story of Baby Veronica, who was taken from her adoptive parents to live with her biological father because of a law intended to keep Native American families intact (after an 18-month saga, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in her adoptive parents' favor this month).
These challenges are surmountable. "If you look at the adoption process all at once, it's overwhelming," says Laurie Goldheim, an adoption attorney in New Jersey and a member of the America Academy of Adoption Attorneys. "But if you take it in sections, it's much more manageable."
Adoption's legal blueprint is designed to protect the interests of all three parties -- the adoptive family, the birth family and, most important, the child -- but it makes for a complex web of procedures that can slow the process. "From state to state, laws can be completely different regarding when relinquishments [the termination of a birth parent's legal custody of the child, which frees the baby for adoption] can be executed, how to deal with unknown fathers who can adopt, and what happens when the child is leaving state lines," says Chuck Johnson, President and CEO of the National Council For Adoption. Intercountry adoptions (particularly those through the Hague Convention, an international agreement regulating the adoption process) can be a similar bureaucratic puzzle. Your strongest defense against the administrative onslaught? Working with an experienced adoption attorney or agency that understands these rules. The Child Welfare Information Gateway, run by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, offers a State Statute Search to help with questions on domestic adoption, along with a directory of public and state-licensed private agencies. Find accredited Hague agencies in the U.S. State Department's database.
Adoption expenses depend on the child and on the agency. Adopting a foster child is typically free, as you can work with a public agency, whereas private agencies cost $5,000 to $40,000 or more. The expenses cover home studies -- when a social worker assesses your living space as an environment for the child -- as well as court and legal fees, and, in some cases, passports, travel, visas, and the birth mother's medical expenses. This government fact sheet offers a breakdown.
Costs vary by country and by state; for example, Nevada waives agency fees when the family is adopting a child with special needs. Sadly, what you pay can also depend on the race of the child: A recent paper from the California Institute of Technology finds that domestic adoptions of white, Hispanic, and Asian babies tend to cost at least $38,000 more than adoptions of African-American babies. The best agencies offer pre- and post-adoption training and counseling, including for the birth mother. Research shows that these social services, while perhaps driving up cost, lead to the most successful placements, Johnson says. Look into loans, grants, tax credits and subsidies that can be used to help fund the journey. Your employer may also help foot the bill.
Unmarried couples generally can't adopt internationally because of laws in other countries, according to Rainbow Kids, an adoption advocacy group. In most states, if you're separated from your spouse but not divorced, you'll still need his consent to adopt. Same-sex couples, who can marry in several states, should have a seasoned lawyer to sift through options: Some states won't allow unmarried people to adopt, and gay couples can jointly adopt in only 21 states; Mississippi and Utah prohibit it outright. But the recent Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act extends federal benefits for adoptive parents to same-sex married couples.
The typical adoption takes 12 to 24 months, but certain factors can slow the process. Having your heart set on a healthy newborn could mean a several-year wait: Only 22,000 U.S. infants are given up for adoption each year. And if you have your heart set on adopting from a specific country, you could face a similar lag time, as some nations are more reliable than others (in 2012, the most successful adoption programs were in China and Ethiopia).
To expedite the process, you might broaden your search for a birth mother, or consider an open adoption; most birth parents want continued contact with the child. By all means use social media sites like Facebook -- most infant adoptions happen by word of mouth -- but be cautious about the heightened publicity: "You're opening yourself up to questions from family and friends, which can be an emotional hurdle, and you take on more risk of being scammed," Johnson says. Opting for a foster care or international adoption might trim some time off your wait, with 104,000 foster kids and countless international orphans waiting for a home Rainbow Kids offers a rundown of international programs; be sure to check for alerts and statistics in the State Departments Country Information database, too.
In rare cases, prospective adoptive parents have been taken advantage of by women who never intended to give their baby up or were never pregnant in the first place, or by incompetent agencies. Changes in inter-country policies, such as Russia's recent decision to halt adoption by U.S. citizens, leave families stranded partway through the process.
Unfortunately, there's generally no recourse to compensate for the time, money, and emotional investment lost. The lesson: Listen to your gut every step of the way. "In my experience, most families knew at some point that things weren't right," Johnson says. Working with well-reputed lawyers, agencies, and countries can lessen the likelihood of having wool pulled over your eyes.
It doesn't happen often, but the birth mother does have the right to change her mind. Consent to Adoption rules vary, but most states require a waiting period -- the most common is three days -- after the child is born and before the paperwork can be finalized. In some states, birth parents can still enforce a change of heart after signing on the dotted line. Check Child Welfare's State Statutes Search for more info.