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2010 Adoption Options

The world of adoption has changed dramatically in recent years. But just as some routes have closed or changed, other paths are opening. Experts and families weigh in on the current landscape and the best options for prospective parents.By Kay Marner

After making the deeply personal, and often difficult, decision to adopt, parents must choose a path to lead them to their child. In 2009, economic, political, and legal changes affected everything from cost and timing to long-standing notions about who can adopt whom from where. International adoption experienced a downturn, while domestic adoption is on the rise.

Prospective adoptive parents may find their options limited, but, with a flexible mindset and careful research, they can find the right path. We spoke with experts and recent adoptive families across the country, to do some of the legwork for you. Here we present an overview of recent changes, data from AF’s 2008-2009 Cost and Timing of Adoption Survey, what’s expected in 2010 and beyond, and up-to-the minute profiles of 10 pathways to parenthood.

2009: A Year of Change
After peaking at 22,990 intercountry adoptions to the U.S., in 2004, numbers have fallen each succeeding year to just 12,753 in 2009. The Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS) is projecting a further decline in international adoptions in 2010.

What accounts for this downturn? In short, international adoption is costing more and taking longer, and the process is becoming more difficult. Travel costs are often an unknown variable, and, in some country programs, these can nearly double the bottom line. Many sending countries have reworked guidelines to meet requirements of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption or to add further protections against corruption. Such overhauls translate into slowed processing of adoptions, and, in some cases, program closures. Some countries have imposed more stringent applicant requirements, ruling out many would-be parents. Finally, many sending countries are encouraging their citizens to adopt domestically. The youngest, healthiest children are being adopted first, so the profile of children available for international adoption is shifting toward older children with special needs.

During 2009, the recession forced many families to change or delay adoption plans. Keeping your finances in order and working with a reputable agency are more important than ever. “We help families run their financials early, to see whether adoption is realistic. For an increasing number, it’s not,” says Judy Stigger, Director of International Adoption for The Cradle. This reality check generally “comes as a shock to a generation of people who have never not been able to do what they wish.”

A Stable Homefront
As international adoption underwent drastic changes in the last five years, domestic adoption has remained a stable option. In 2002 (the most recent year for which the National Council for Adoption has statistics), families adopted 33,065 infants through private agency or attorney adoptions. Anecdotal evidence suggests that interest—and adoptions completed—continue to rise.

“I’ve absolutely seen an increase [in interest],” says Michele Zavos, a D.C.-area attorney, who’s focused on adoption for 15 years. “People who would have thought very seriously about international adoption in the past are now turning to domestic adoption.”

AF reader Elizabeth Brown is one such person. “I think we held some misconceptions about domestic adoption,” says Brown. “But learning about the long waits and changing laws in international adoption led us to look at domestic adoption more seriously.” She and her husband are currently in the process to adopt within the U.S.

The average domestic newborn adoption costs roughly $10,000 less than an average international adoption, say AF survey respondents. The relatively lower cost is a factor for many families who are switching routes. Jo Laws, Domestic Adoption Supervisor for Love Basket, confirmed this shift: “So many countries are closing, and domestic adoptions are expanding slightly as a result. I do think the economy is having an impact.”

Efforts to recruit families for waiting children in the U.S. are also making headway; in 2008, the number of adoptions from the foster system grew to an all-time high of 55,000. For many, the low- to no-cost aspect increases its appeal. Other families consider this route after gaining confidence in their parenting skills. Kris Peters, with the Gift of Adoption Fund, adopted her daughter from Kazakhstan. But now that this single mom is ready for a second child, she’s hoping to adopt a school-age child from the U.S. “I’m older, hopefully a bit wiser, and at a time in my life when I feel prepared to deal with any issues that might arise.” As AdoptUsKids’ recruitment slogan says, “You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.”

Zavos is heartened by the greater acceptance of same-sex couples, older parents, and people with health problems within the U.S. “I see more appreciation for anyone who wants to be a parent, and a broader definition of who will make a good one. As many countries are becoming more restrictive, the U.S. is moving in the opposite direction.”

New Horizons
Although the balance between domestic and international adoption is shifting, international adoption is by no means a thing of the past. Some countries, such as Bulgaria, that had slowdowns while working toward Hague compliance, are gradually making comebacks. Others, like Nepal, that closed while instituting reforms, are once again accepting applications.

At the same time, professionals also expect new adoption programs to open. “Many countries in Africa are just being ‘discovered’ by families and agencies,” says Mary Ann Curran, Vice President of Social Services and U.S. Adoption for the World Association for Children and Parents (WACAP). Sarah Mraz, Director of Programs for Wide Horizons for Children, cites Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo as small, “emerging” programs.

Given the climate of continual change, experts caution parents to vet their agency carefully. “Find out about the staff, how long the agency has been in service, what kind of experience their staff has had,” says Deniese Dillon, Director and Co-founder of Dillon International. “And be sure to ask what they offer in post-placement services. You need to think about the long-term, about being home with your child.” A welcome piece of advice for any hopeful parent, if we ever heard one.

10 Programs for 2010

U.S. Newborn
You may be surprised to learn that approximately 30,000 newborns are adopted domestically each year. About half of these adoptions are facilitated by adoption agencies. The other half are completed with the assistance of adoption attorneys. Although there are differences in the two approaches, and variations in states’ laws, all domestic adoptions involve the same basic steps. After selecting an agency or attorney, all parents-to-be complete a homestudy. Couples or singles then, typically, create a profile, which presents information about themselves to prospective birthmothers. In most cases, a birthmother chooses a family, but some agencies make matches. Matching usually happens during the birthmother’s pregnancy, but 20 percent of domestic adopters who responded to AF’s survey were matched after the baby was born.

Families adopting in the U.S. should be open to some birthparent contact, because identified adoption has been commonplace for years. With adequate preparation, families learn that openness is not to be feared. On the contrary, most embrace the opportunity to stay connected to their children’s first families. Studies have consistently shown that openness benefits adopted children. “It is best for a child to know the realities of his birthmother’s situation, so she won’t be either romanticized or demonized,” says Stigger.

Because families are chosen by, and matched with, a birthmother, rather than a child, parents generally can’t specify gender. The wait may be shorter for parents open to any race. “Our flexibility meant that our profile was shown to many birthmothers, which resulted in a short wait,” says Heidi MacVey, who waited less than three months for a match.

>> Fast Facts: U.S. Newborn
Who can adopt: married couples and single women and men; birthparent preferences and agency guidelines vary

Profile of children: infants; parents typically cannot specify gender; approximately 50% Caucasian, 50% African American, Hispanic, or multiracial

Average time frame: 6 months to 2 years (varies widely)

Average total cost: $27,000-$35,000 (varies widely)

U.S. Foster
The latest figures released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show a surge in adoptions from the public system. The number held steady around 51,000 from 2002 to 2007, then shot up to 55,000 in 2008.

“The dramatic and continuing decline in international adoptions may have a positive impact on adoptions from U.S. foster care,” says Kathy Ledesma, Project Director for The Collaboration to AdoptUsKids. “The economy may also be a factor, since it costs little or nothing to adopt a child from foster care, and many children adopted from foster care qualify for an ongoing monthly government subsidy.” Although figures for 2009 will not be available until mid-2010, Ledesma sees “indications that adoptions from foster care may either stay level or increase in 2009 and 2010.”

The experience of adopting from the foster system varies greatly, depending on whether you are adopting a child whose parental rights have been terminated or are fostering a child, in hope of adopting when he’s legally free. Amber Baker and her husband are in the latter group, fostering two children. “Life has not been easy—we have weekly visitation with the biological parents—but we love these children as our own, and hope that, someday soon, we’ll be able to legally call them ours.”

>> Fast Facts: U.S. Foster Adoption
Who can adopt:
married couples, unmarried couples, single men and women; guidelines vary by state; must obtain foster-parent license

Profile of children: average age 6; individual children and sibling groups, equal number of boys and girls; wide racial/ethnic distribution

Wait from placement to adoption: varies widely

Average total cost: $0-$10,000; 89% receive ongoing subsidies

China regained its status as the top sending country in 2009, with 3,001 children adopted by U.S. families. Yet that number is a far cry from the 6,000 to 7,000 adopted annually from China earlier in the decade.

Several factors are believed to account for this change. The processing of adoptions by the China Center of Adoption Affairs (CCAA) has slowed significantly, leading to waits of six years—and climbing—for healthy infants. (At press time, CCAA was matching dossiers received in April 2006.) Requirements for prospective parents were tightened significantly in 2007. And experts believe that domestic adoption is on the rise in China. While the wait is hard for families hoping to adopt, “it is heartening to know that many of these children will find their forever families in their birth country,” says Denise Schoborg, China Program Director for Dillon International.

China offers two channels: its traditional program, for healthy infants, and the waiting-child program, for older children and those with special needs. In 2009, half of adoptions from China went through the waiting-child program. “We’ve had families matched with a special-needs child within months—or days,” says Curran.

If your dossier is already logged in, “the process of switching is simple, but the decision to adopt a child with a special-care condition is deeply personal,” cautions Schoborg. Special needs range from minor problems, correctable with surgery, to serious conditions that require long-term care.

Some families pursue China’s program and other avenues simultaneously. A recent review by Dillon International found that almost a third of waiting families had adopted through another route or were in the process of doing so. Other families in the traditional program just stay the course—and new families are still signing on. “Despite the long wait, we continue to receive applications for the traditional program,” says Dillon.

>> Fast Facts: China Adoption (information in parentheses refers to waiting-child program)
Who can adopt: married couples only, ages 29.5-49; strict criteria regarding mental and physical health, no arrests or alcohol-related incidents in previous 10 years; both parents high school graduates or equivalent (age limits extended to 30-55; other exceptions made on a case-by-case basis)

Profile of children: 8-24 months; parents may specify age and gender; more girls, but boys are available (all ages with mild to significant special needs; healthy children 5 and older; more boys than girls)

Average wait from dossier to referral: 6 years and increasing (0-6 months); from referral to travel: 6-10 weeks (3-6 months)

Travel: 1-2 weeks in-country; travel in groups

Average total cost: $29,000 (without cost-saving group travel, cost may be slightly higher)

Adoptions from Russia peaked at 5,862 children in 2004, and have been declining since. In 2009, 1,586 Russian children found forever homes in the U.S. Alla Lakov, Executive Director for Stork Adoption Agency, says the reason is simple: “The rules became more complicated.” In many regions, parents’ physical and mental health are now being screened by specialists in-country. Russia requires two trips to adopt, but a 10-day waiting period, following the court date during the second trip, means a lengthy stay or a third round-trip. Either scenario adds substantial travel costs.

With domestic adoption increasing in Russia, Russian children eligible for intercountry adoption tend to be older and/or have special needs. There isn’t a separate waiting-child program; families indicate the age range and degree of special needs they’re prepared to parent, and should be aware that requests for younger, healthier children will lengthen their wait.

“Although there may be revisions to policy guidelines, we don’t foresee major changes in the near future,” says Irina Shytova, Russia Program Case Manager for Dillon International. With a realistic outlook, “Russia is a viable option for families.”

>> Fast Facts: Russia Adoption
Who can adopt:
married couples, no more than 45 years between youngest parent and child; single women 25 and older; strict guidelines for physical and mental health

Profile of children: 10 months-16 years; more boys than girls

Average wait from dossier to referral: 1-12 months, shorter for boys; from referral to travel: 1 week-1 month

Travel: first trip: 5-7 days in-country; second trip (1 month later): 3-4 weeks in-country or third trip after the 10-day waiting period

Average total cost: $50,000+

Adoptions from Ethiopia have risen dramatically, from 442 in 2005, to 1,254 in 2007, to 2,277 in 2009. As numbers increased, wait time has lengthened slightly, but the program remains attractive to prospective adoptive parents for many reasons, including the relatively low cost and undemanding paperwork. In addition, reports of quality orphanage care, with support from U.S. agencies, appeal to families, as do Ethiopia’s progressive views on openness. When in-country, some parents have the opportunity to meet their child’s birth relatives. “Most families see it as an advantage that they didn’t expect to find overseas,” says Curran.

Ethiopia’s historically flexible guidelines have become slightly more restrictive in recent years, as the country imposed quotas on single parents. Singles will probably be ruled out entirely in the near future. Accordingly, many agencies do not accept applications from single women.

>> Fast Facts: Ethiopia Adoption
Who can adopt:
married couples, no more than 40 years older than child; some agencies still accepting applications from singles

Profile of children: all ages; parents may specify age and gender; sibling groups available

Average wait from dossier to referral: 6-10 months; from referral to travel: 4-6 months

Travel: 7 days in-country; escort allowed, but agencies encourage parents to travel

Average total cost: $25,000

South Korea
South Korea was one of the first countries to establish a system enabling its children to be adopted internationally. Its numbers have held steady, from 1,065 children in 2008 to 1,080 in 2009, but there’s a chance that change is on the way.

The Korean government announced its intention to promote domestic adoption and eliminate the need for international adoptions by 2012. While this is an admirable goal, some predict the deadline will come and go with little change. Namyi Min, Korean Program Coordinator for Spence-Chapin Adoption Services, says, “Realistically, Korean officials don’t have the resources or the structure in place for this to happen within two years.” If Korea enforces the 2012 deadline, experts worry about the prospects for harder-to-place older children and children with special needs.

Families often choose to adopt from South Korea for the quality of care children receive. Min cites another benefit: “Due to the long history of international adoptions from Korea, post-adoption programs, such as homeland tours and formal mentoring programs, are already in place.”

>> Fast Facts: Korea Adoption
Who can adopt:
married couples only; ages 25-44; stringent physical and mental health requirements; no arrests; both parents high school graduates or equivalent; applicants of Judeo-Christian faiths encouraged

Profile of children: 8-12 months, both genders; toddlers and older children with special needs

Average wait from dossier to referral: 3-10 months; from referral to travel: 4 months

Travel: one trip of about 1 week; escorts allowed, but agencies recommend (or require) that parents travel

Average total cost: $33,000

With 610 adoptions completed, Ukraine was sixth on the list of sending countries in 2009. Ukraine uses a “blind” referral system. Rather than referring a specific child prior to travel, prospective parents receive a referral in-country, and then meet the child. If they have reason to decline the child, they may repeat the process twice more. The more open the parents are to gender and age, the more likely they are to receive an acceptable referral. Ukrainian officials can refuse a dossier if they determine there are no eligible children to meet a family’s criteria.

Like several other countries profiled, Ukraine is promoting domestic adoption, and, for a time, placed a quota on the number of dossiers accepted per year. There was no quota during 2009, but, according to Iryna Yagilnicky, Program Director for Love Cradle Mission, “no one can say if there will be a quota for 2010.”

>> Fast Facts: Ukraine Adoption
Who can adopt:
married couples only; no more than 45 years between child and oldest parent; both parents in good physical and mental health; no criminal history; no history of substance abuse

Profile of children: officials say children are 4 and older but, in practice, children may be as young as 18 months (boys) to 24 months (girls); may state preference for age and gender

Average wait from dossier to referral/travel: 2-6 months; one long trip (4-8 weeks) or two short trips (7-10 days each)

Average total cost: $30,000

Nepal re-opened for international adoption on January 1, 2009, after closing for nearly two years for system reform. Approved agencies may process 10 adoptions per year. No indication has been given as to whether or when Nepal will raise or lift that quota.

Although the U.S. State Department warned that procedures may remain unpredictable, “the regulations have not been difficult to understand, and we have not received negative feedback about our families’ dossiers so far,” reports the Gladney Center for Adoption’s Intercountry Social Services Manager Wendy Stanley.

Stanley summarized the Nepal program as follows: “One of the biggest advantages is the flexibility regarding adoptive parent requirements. The challenges are the instability and the unknowns as the process unfolds.”

>> Fast Facts: Nepal Adoption
Who can adopt:
married couples ages 30-55; single women 35-55; at least 30 years older than child

Profile of children: both boys and girls; adopted child must be younger than and opposite gender of child already in the home

Average wait from dossier to referral: unknown, Gladney’s first family received referral in 7 months; from referral to travel: unknown

Travel: one trip of 2-4 weeks; one parent required to travel, but both parents encouraged to do so

Average total cost: $28,500

After a four-year slowdown while becoming Hague-compliant, Bulgaria is making a strong comeback as a sending country for international adoption. Kay Montes, International Program Coordinator for Tree of Life Adoption Center, says that her agency has 47 families in-process. “I anticipate that more families will commit as more families complete,” she adds.

Montes, who’s adopted three children from Bulgaria herself, speaks well of the opportunities to bond offered by the system. To supplement orphanage care, parents can hire a “grandmother,” or “Babba,” to play with their children at the orphanage.

Bulgaria has both a traditional program and a “Referral by Request” program for children with special needs. As with most programs, families open to adopting children with special-care conditions will receive a referral more quickly. Montes cites the brevity and ease of the two required trips as an advantage of Bulgaria’s program, as well as its transparent process. “That is very reassuring, not only for us, as an agency, but for our families,” she says.

>> Fast Facts: Bulgaria Adoption
Who can adopt: married couples 25 and older, no more than 45 years older than child; single women; flexibility for parents adopting older children or children with special needs; no medical or criminal issues

Profile of children: average age 4-5; 18 months at youngest; more boys than girls

Average wait from dossier to referral: 0-18 months; significantly shorter for older boys; from referral to travel: 1 month

Travel: first trip: 1 week; second trip (about 4 months later): 1 week; one parent required to travel, but both are encouraged to do so

Average total cost: $25,000; $21,000 for special needs program

Economic conditions in Haiti, one of the least-developed and poorest countries in the world, had created an enormous number of orphaned children even before the January 12 earthquake dealt the country a devastating blow.

Americans immediately began contacting U.S. adoption agencies in droves, but, as in the case of any natural disaster, new adoptions from Haiti halted for an undetermined length of time. A January 14 State Department notice explained: “It can be extremely difficult in such circumstances to determine whether children who appear to be orphans truly are eligible for adoption. Children may be temporarily separated from their parents or other family members.” At press time, most agencies were not accepting new applications and were advising families wishing to adopt from Haiti to wait and see how things develop.

Due in large part to advocacy on the part of JCICS, however, the U.S. granted humanitarian parole to Haitian children who were in the adoption process or had been identified as orphans at the time of the earthquake. Families with referrals began welcoming their children home on January 19, and are completing the adoption process in the U.S.

Dave and Kim Rhodes, from Greenville, South Carolina, are one such family. Kim visited Haiti during high school, and the experience changed her life. “Since that trip, my heart has always been drawn to Haiti,” she says. The couple was about 10 months into the process of adopting, and had received their referral for the little boy they had already named Frankie, when the earthquake hit. Amazingly, they knew within 20 minutes that Frankie was OK—an employee at the orphanage, Heartline Ministries, updated his Facebook status—but worried that their process would be stalled for years. Kim joined with the families and organizations pushing for humanitarian parole, and, 11 days after the earthquake, the Rhodes were able to bring Frankie home.

“We thought we had another year in the process, so there are a lot of books we haven’t read,” says Rhodes. But, of course, she wouldn’t trade having Frankie home for anything. “We’re not so naïve that we don’t expect some hurdles down the road, but we’ll take them as they come.”

The transition has been smoother than they anticipated. “It’s almost as if Frankie’s always been here,” says the new mom of three. “I think it has a lot to do with the way we involved our daughters in the process. There hasn’t been a day since we’ve known about Frankie that we haven’t prayed for him or talked about him. The only difference is that now he’s here.”

As this issue went to press, the Haitian government had imposed new requirements for children leaving the country under humanitarian parole, which added time to the process. “Our story has a happy ending,” says Rhodes, “but we’re very aware of the many families who are still in limbo.”

Kay Marner is a freelance writer. A mother by birth and adoption, she lives with her family in Ames, Iowa.

Photo: Alexa, 3 mos., U.S. Courtesy of the family; photo posted to

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We are in the Ukraine right now in the process of finalizing an adoption and much of the information you have provided in the article is not been our experience. There is no way you could do this process in 2 trips of 7-10 days each and I believe one long of trip of 4-8 weeks is even a bit difficult. We will be here at least 3-4 weeks for the first trip and will return 10 days later for another 7-10 days. If we stayed for one trip it would be at least 5-6 weeks total. Also the availability of children is difficult if you are looking for a healthy child. We were actually hoping to adopt a child 4-6 years old and have learned there are not any available in that age range without siblings which we were not approved for. Also, girls are very difficult to find as well. We were surprised with the difficulty in identifying a child here as we were not presented with a child that even met the conditions of our dossier at our first meeting. I have read that Ukraine may not accept your dossier if they feel they will not have child for you which is why I thought if our dossier was accepted they must have children that meet our conditions but in reality we are adopting a child much younger than we anticipated and a boy rather than a girl as we preferred. Since meeting our new little boy none of that matters but it was difficult adjusting our expectations. Also, what I have shared is not only our experience but what we have been told by our coordinators as the reality here in the country and also by other families we have met and talked with here. As we are experiencing this adoption I have repeatedly thought how important it would be for more resources for families to help through the emotional part of adoption. I know we have a vision of what to expect and the reality has been different and at times so confusing and wondering if we are doing the right thing. Just hearing from other families their similiar emotions has helped greatly but I have not found very resources on this topic. Thanks for taking time to read what I had to share! Lisa Helgestad

Posted by: Lisa Helgestad at 6:32am Mar 20

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