Perception and Reality: The Untold Story of Domestic Adoption
Adoption in the United States has undergone a seismic shift in the last 30 years. How long will it take for popular perceptions to catch up with the new, healthier reality?by Eliza Newlin Carney
In the spring, when Katie and Jeffrey Davis set out to adopt a baby domestically, everyone close to the couple assumed they were in for an excruciatingly long wait. As it turned out, the Davises, who live in Baltimore, Maryland, were matched with a birthmother less than a month after their adoption agency started presenting their paperwork to prospective birthparents. Their daughter, Carrie, now five, was placed in their arms just seven months after they started the adoption process.
"People think that adoption takes five years, just forever and ever," says Katie. "They were shocked that we adopted a baby in the U.S., and that the process went so smoothly."
Domestic Adoption Reinvented
For many years, adoption was defined by fear. Now I see fear diminishing among both our adoptive and biological families.” —Dawn Smith-Pliner, executive director of adoption agency Friends in Adoption, in Vermont
The Davis family's story is not particularly unusual. While international adoption has commanded the limelight for the last decade or so, domestic adoption has remained an untold story. Despite persistently negative and sensational media coverage, domestic adoption today is more transparent than ever before, and increasingly defined by healthier choices for birth families and adoptive families alike.
The fact that more than 18,000 American families successfully adopt newborn babies in the United States every year belies the widespread misperception that domestic adoption is a difficult, time-consuming, expensive, and risky process. The truth is that most families successfully adopt within two years of beginning the process. The cost of a domestic adoption varies widely, from under $10,000 to more than $40,000. According to surveys conducted by Adoptive Families in each of the last five years, the median total cost of a domestic adoption is $20,000 to $35,000, which tends to be considerably less than that of a typical international adoption.
"People watch TV and read the newspapers, and they are scared to death," says Mark T. McDermott, an adoption attorney in Washington, D.C. The most damaging, and most deeply entrenched, conviction -- that birthparents return after relinquishing parental rights to try to reclaim the baby -- virtually never comes to pass.
Almost as far off the mark is the common belief that most domestic adoptions are so open as to constitute virtual "co-parenting." In fact, contact between the birth family and the adoptive family typically involves periodic updates to the birth family, often via an intermediary, an experience that adoptive and biological parents generally support.
New York–based adoption agency Spence-Chapin has developed a handout for expectant mothers considering adoption. This excerpt illustrates accepted best practices in the domestic adoption process.
Bill of Rights
1. You have the right to be free from pressure to make a decision for or against adoption.
2. You have the right to total confidentiality, if you so choose.
3. You have the right to impartial counseling by a trained professional, so you can review all your options.
4. You have the right to choose your baby’s adoptive parents.
5. You have the right to a safe and legal process.
6. You have the right to choose an open adoption or ongoing communication with the adoptive family.
7. You have the right to change your mind about any verbal promise or written agreement made before the birth of the baby.
Domestic Adoptions Outpace International
“A man I encountered while shopping for baby supplies refused to believe that my two-month-old daughter was adopted, because she’s not from China!” —Samantha Cleveland, Altamont, New York
Although fewer adoptions currently take place each year within the U.S. compared to 35 years ago, domestic adoption is far from dying out. In fact, more U.S. families adopt domestically than internationally each year.
To be sure, the number of infant placements in the U.S. has dropped in recent decades. In the mid-1970s, as many as 49,000 American infants were placed for adoption each year. In 2007, the most recent year for which accurate numbers exist, there were an estimated 18,000 domestic newborn, non-relative adoptions.
The drop in the number of newborn adoptions since the 1970s coincides with a decline in the percentage of single mothers placing children for adoption, down from nine percent in the 1970s to 1.4 percent in 2002, according to the National Survey of Family Growth. As the stigma against single parenthood has diminished over the last 35 years, so has the number of children placed for adoption.
Despite the tenacity of myths and stereotypes, domestic adoption has quietly redefined itself over a generation. Adopting parents, once resigned to a lengthy wait at their local adoption agency, now have more options and more information. Birthparents, once shamed and almost completely shut out of adoption decisions, are now involved in the process. Independent adoptions have increased in number and, by some accounts, now represent the majority of domestic adoptions. The Internet has made it easier for like-minded birthparents and adopting families to find one another over geographic distances that used to preclude contact.
From Secrecy to Transparency
“Meeting our child’s birth family gave us information to share with our child at the appropriate time and allowed the birth family to get to know us.” —Vicki Taylor, Virginia
While almost every aspect of adoption is different than it was in the past, it is within the family matching process that the most change has occurred. In private and agency adoptions, rather than merely being assigned a baby to adopt without any background information to share with the child as he or she grows, adopting parents now usually meet or talk with the birth family. Birthparents, by the same token, are empowered to choose which family will adopt their child. Birth families are more likely to have access to counseling and independent legal representation, and, together with the adopting family, determine the nature of contact after the adoption. (Visit adoptivefamilies.com/birthparentperspective to see data from the Early Growth and Development Study results, which offer a glimpse of birth families' choices and attitudes throughout the adoption process.)
Almost everyone involved in adoption today -- adopting parents, birthparents, and adoption professionals -- embraces this new transparency as an antidote to the confidentiality of the past. Birth families are reassured that their child will be well cared for; adopted children have the answers to questions that arise over the years.
Today, families who've adopted domestically often say that initial concern about the role of birthparents is replaced by gratitude for the opportunity to know their child's family of origin. They note the positive aspects of adopting domestically: the opportunity to parent a newborn, and the knowledge they possess about their child's medical and social history.
Getting to Know One Another
“People have a really hard time understanding why we continue to exchange letters and pictures with our child’s birth family. They just assume that we would have wanted them out of our lives as soon as they terminated their parental rights.” —Kirsten Wilkerson, Edwardsville, Illinois
Another misperception about today's domestic adoptions is that they involve frequent, face-to-face contact between birth and adoptive families. Adoption professionals say that the term "open adoption" could more accurately be replaced with "identified adoption" -- that is, adoption in which families exchange identifying information, sometimes via an intermediary. In most cases, before the child is born or the adoption is finalized, the families agree to a mutually acceptable level of contact. Updates are usually provided through e-mail or letters and photos periodically mailed to the birth family.
There is no "typical" scenario, however. Some birth and adoptive families meet infrequently after the adoption, while others see one another more often. Still other families start out communicating only via an intermediary but later decide to meet.
Adoption professionals report that, after the initial reassurance of letters following a child’s birth, some birthmothers move on with their lives. In these cases, contact often diminishes. Dawn Smith-Pliner, executive director of adoption agency Friends in Adoption, reports that contact is sometimes renewed in later years, by either the adoptive family or the birth family.
Domestic Adoption by the Numbers
U.S. newborn adoptions (est)...............18,000
Cost & Timing Data from Adoptive Families’ 2011 Reader Survey
Average time from preparation of portfolio to match with birthmother (excluding time in failed adoption):
6 months or less.....50%
12 months or less....73%
Time from birthmother match to birth of child: Less than 1 months...40% Matched after birth....13%
Families that worked with more than one birthmother before successfully adopting..........38%
Ethnicity of baby adopted:
Total adoption cost (before tax credit or employee benefits):
Less than $20K...... 8% Between $20 and $25K .............17% Between $25 and $30K ................30%
More than $30K..... 52%
Adoption is Forever
“When we tell people that we see our sons’ birthmothers, they always ask, ‘Aren’t you afraid they will take them back?’ They seem to think they can change their minds at any time. We explain the legal revocation period all over again.” —Sonya Dobbins, Indian Trail, North Carolina
The fear that domestic adoptions are legally risky remains widespread. While there are no data on how many adoptions land in the courts, experts estimate that less than one percent of domestic adoptions are legally contested after the relinquishment of parental rights.
Kirsten Wilkerson and her husband, Pete, adopted their daughter, Meghan, less than a year after they began the process. At the beginning, the Wilkersons had fully expected to adopt a child from China or Korea. That plan was driven, in part, by "the belief out there that birthparents would come back to reclaim their child," explains Kirsten, a psychologist who lives in Edwardsville, Illinois.
But chance -- or, as Kirsten says, fate -- intervened. Her doctor told her about a pregnant patient who was considering placing her child for adoption. The doctor wanted to know whether Kirsten and Pete were interested in adopting the baby.
As it turned out, that call never came -- but the experience did get Kirsten thinking. Soon afterward, a fateful conversation led her to another pregnant woman interested in making an adoption plan. As soon as she met Meghan’s birthmother, recalls Kirsten, her fears about a birthmother's change of heart melted away. Three months later, she and Pete were parents.
Breaking Down Birthmom Stereotypes
“Both of our sons’ birthmoms were in their thirties, raising other children. Both were employed, but knew they couldn’t feed another child. People assumed that there was something terribly wrong with them, that they were women who ‘give away’ babies because they didn’t care.” —Amy Santoro, Danbury, Connecticut
Even as domestic adoption evolves, negative stereotypes of birthmothers refuse to die out. Most damaging are those portrayals of birthmothers heartlessly "giving up" their children. In reality, most of them have made a painful, but loving, choice -- one for which there is very little societal support.
Despite the perception that most birthmothers are irresponsible teenagers, many are single mothers who already have a child, and who face economic pressure to place a child. "They are mothers who want the best life possible for their unborn child," says Steven Kirsh, an adoption attorney in Indianapolis.
Understanding is Growing
"Each year adoptive and biological families are more and more educated about adoption, more comfortable with connections. There’s still a long way to go.” —Dawn Smith-Pliner
Adopting a newborn domestically is eminently doable, say professionals. Nonetheless, waiting parents should educate themselves about the process, and about all their options. It's not uncommon for waiting parents to pursue more than one route at a time, filing paperwork with an agency and also networking independently.
Wait times are shortest for parents who place the least restrictions on the description of their dream child.
Many families have already discovered what the rest of America has yet to figure out: that the real story of domestic adoption has thousands of happy endings.
ELIZA NEWLIN CARNEY is a journalist and a frequent contributor to AF. She and her husband live in Maryland with their daughter, adopted domestically.
More About Adopting in the U.S.
While adopting a newborn domestically is eminently doable, say adoption professionals, waiting parents should educate themselves.
• State adoption laws regarding all aspects of domestic adoption, from timing of revocation to allowable fees to professionals permitted to undertake adoptions, vary widely. Families should carefully research their state’s laws, as well as the credentials of any adoption professionals they engage. Find a state-by-state list of adoption laws at adoptivefamilies.com/adoption-resources.php.
• Although most families complete a domestic adoption within 18 to 24 months, keep in mind that specific circumstances (age, profession, location, religion, marital status) may result in a wait that’s on the longer side (see chart above).
• Be wary of any adoption professional who requires up-front fees that come with no guarantee of a placement, adoption experts warn.
• “Probably the biggest challenge is finding the right agency or attorney with whom to work,” says Indiana adoption attorney Steve Kirsh. A good adoption professional will 1) determine which costs are legally permissible, 2) make sure the birth
family receives counseling, 3) ensure that the birthparents’ rights have been legally terminated before placement is finalized, 4) draft a post-placement agreement, and much more.
• On average, domestic adoption expenses total $20,000 or less. However, costs can and do vary widely, depending on factors families may not be able to control, such as higher-than-expected advertising or medical fees.
• For much more information on domestic adoption, including sample budgets, worksheets, and questions to ask a prospective adoption agency or attorney, visit Adoptive Families’ domestic adoption page, at adoptivefamilies.com/domestic-adoption, and pre-adoption website, at theadoptionguide.com. AF also recommends the Child Welfare Information Gateway (childwelfare.gov), a service of the Children’s Bureau of the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
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