In case you haven't noticed, international adoption is all the rage. Over the last three decades, more than a quarter million children were adopted from other countries, and the trend shows no signs of slowing down. According to State Department visa records, Americans adopted 21,616 foreign born children in 2003 – that's double the number of international adoptions in 1996 and triple the number adopted in 1992.
Thanks in part to large numbers of readily adoptable children in countries like Russia and China and the positive adoptive experiences of celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Christian music star Steven Curtis Chapman, adopting a child from another country may soon become more common than adopting one born in the United States.
Each country has its own eligibility requirements. For example, Korea forbids single parents and anyone over age 45 to adopt, while China bans gay adoptions and only allots 8 percent of adoptions for single women. Joshua Savley, executive director of Small World Adoption programs based in Hermitage, explains, "A general age guideline is between 25 and 55."
Some countries take single parents and others require that you've been married for a certain number of years. A few countries limit the number of children you already have. Some countries don't care, as long as you have the income to support more children. Not many will sanction adoptions to single men, but Guatemala will." Most countries require financial statements, recent health physicals and criminal background checks, too.
How much does it cost to adopt?
Adoption costs vary by country, with China being one of the least expensive at around $17,000 and Guatemala coming in at the high end at approximately $30,000. These prices include everything from applications and agency assistance to home study fees and travel costs. The seemingly hefty price tag is what keeps some couples from considering international adoptions, but Steve and Lori Campbell of Brentwood, who brought their daughter home from China last August, urge parents to reconsider.
"We didn't have $10,000 in the bank when we decided we were going to do this," Lori says. "We used the $10,950 tax credit, our insurance company allotted a $1,000 adoption benefit, we gave up a few family beach trips, and we used creative ways to raise money like a combined family yard sale. We had very little out of pocket expenses by the time we were done." In addition to the federal tax credit, many corporations offer matching adoption donations, and some insurance companies provide adoption benefits. Adoption experts say that money is available in a variety of places if parents will simply ask.
Typically, it takes anywhere from 12 to 18 months from the time you submit your application to the day you hold a child in your arms. "The paperwork is nothing compared to the waiting. That was the hardest part," says Travis Alverson of Lebanon, who recently adopted a baby girl from China. Their adoption took 14 months from start to finish, but Sandra Russell, executive director of Heaven Sent Children, Inc. in Murfreesboro says, "It all depends on the country. In many countries, the process takes less than a year."
That was the case for Melissa and Mark Arend of Franklin, who adopted their son in 2001 and their daughter last August, both from Russia. Melissa says that both times, "the process took about a year from start to finish" but adds that the eager couple completed their paperwork in record time.
Selecting an adoption professional, either an attorney or an agency that specializes in international placement is the best way to begin.
Both will help guide prospective parents through the changing laws and bureaucracy, help you determine which country is the best fit, and provide advice on everything from good hotels in China to what type of formula Russian babies prefer.
Agencies like Heaven Sent Children offer classes on topics such as nutrition, dental care, basic baby care, safety, adopting toddlers and introducing a new baby to older siblings. "A good adoption agency will lead you through every little thing – hold your hand," reassures Kim Alverson.
The next step is a home study. This is a state-mandated review of a couple's financial, medical and psychological well being, completed by a social worker prior to any type of adoption.
The third stage is a big one – choosing a country. Although Guatemala's prices are on the higher end, parents Andy and Elizabeth Hooker say it didn't take as long to get their child.
"Unlike other countries, where you have to stay there for weeks at a time, you can fly down to Guatemala in a couple of hours and bring your child home in four days. Babies there receive top-notch medical care, and we received a constant stream of pictures and updates of our son during the process."
The Arends decided to adopt from Russia because"of its policies regarding the age of parents and its proven success record. In the Campbell's view, "Chinese adoptions were predictable and without hitches. We did a lot of research about the fate of girls in China and our hearts were captured quickly," says lori Campbell.
Next, parents complete an immigration application for their country of choice and sit back to wait for their child to be identified. These two processes can each require months of waiting on pins and needles, and parents frequently cite them as the most difficult stages to endure.
Once a child is chosen and all the paperwork is in place, it's time to travel to a foreign land. The idea can seem daunting to inexperienced travelers, but the Arends say, "We look back fondly on our trips there, the different cities, and the people we met at the orphanages. We learned how our children started their lives and got to experience Russian culture. We now have a connection to that country that will be life long."
The Alverson's echo that opinion, "Don't be afraid of so called 'third world countries.' Our hotels were very nice and the Chinese were the nicest people we ever met. They told us, 'Thank you for taking care of this child.' They were grateful to us, not resentful. They are sincere, good people." If parents can't be away from work or home for a few weeks, Guatemala and Korea provide escorts who fly to the US and deliver the babies to parents awaiting at the airport.
Just as in a domestic adoption, there are follow up visits by a social worker to make sure everyone is doing well once a family is settled at home with its newest member, and some agencies even organize annual picnics or regular playgroups for adoptive parents to swap stories and make friends.
One of the most commonly cited reasons for choosing to adopt internationally is the ready availability of young children. Unlike domestic adoption where parents write "Dear Birthmother" letters and hope to be selected in a process that takes anywhere from a few months to several years, the overwhelming majority of international adoptions go off without a hitch in less than 18 months. In addition, most birthparents in the US choose childless couples over families with existing children, so folks like the Alversons and Campbells, with older children at home, faced potentially longer waits for a domestic match.
Some people go international because they don't require a newborn baby or would prefer to parent a slightly older child. Others harbor a fear of birthparents changing their minds at the last minute or simply aren't comfortable with the idea of an open domestic adoption where their children may have knowledge of or a relationship with their birth family. Small World's Savley says, "A number of families consider it a ministry to rescue children from orphanages."
The flip side of choosing a completely closed adoption is the lack of knowledge regarding a child's health and history. Salvey explains, "Usually these children are found abandoned, so a pediatrician has to estimate their birth date."
Problems ranging from fetal alcohol syndrome to malnutrition and pneumonia are issues that adoptive parents may have to tackle once they return to the US. And there's no way to anticipate a genetic predisposition to future illness because there's no family medical history available.
A developmental delay due to time spent in orphanages is another consideration. According to a study published in 2000, "Romanian, Chinese and Russian children raised in orphanages lose approximately one month of linear growth for every three months in an orphanage."
The children are often physically smaller than most and language delays are also common.
It's ironic that some couples choose international adoption to eliminate the risk of a birthmother changing her mind, only to have the government of the country they select change their adoption rules midstream. Heaven Sent Children's Russell explains, "Countries open and close, they change presidents. The Ukraine stopped taking applications for a while because they are changing their government structure." Korea has also fluctuated in the past on the availability of adoptable children. However, most agencies keep their fingers on the pulse of available countries and can advise you when a particular government is experiencing a change of procedures.
Myths and Misconceptions
- She won't be accepted in our community because she doesn't look like us.
- Babies raised in foreign orphanages are neglected and retarded.
- It's too expensive and time consuming.
The Hookers' response? "That's complete and utter baloney. If it were true, you wouldn't have hundreds of thousands of healthy, happy, internationally adopted children bringing joys to the lives of their families."
Although their Chinese born daughter may not look like her parents, the Alversons say she acts exactly like her American born big brother. Plus, she's absolutely gorgeous. "We can't go anywhere without someone stopping us and telling us how beautiful she is. We've not been anywhere that she's not been accepted," says Kim.
What about those TV programs showing head banging toddlers in decrepit buildings? They frustrate Melissa Arend, mother to two healthy, intelligent Russian born children. "For every sensationalist story one sees about some adoption story gone horribly wrong, there are literally thousands of stories with happy endings," she says. "What strikes you instantly when you visit the orphanage is how much the doctors and caretakers love these children."
If the Campbells had balked at the cost of adoption, they wouldn't be watching their mischievous 2-year-old play with her three older siblings today. Between creative fundraising and taking advantage of existing adoption grants and tax breaks, they were able to make their dream come true. Lori says, "It's very doable if you've committed yourself to the process and you're willing to put forth the effort." There are even charitable foundations, like Shaohannah's Hope, that subsidize adoption costs based on individual financial needs.
The Trip of a Lifetime
If you or someone you know is considering international adoption, education should be the first leg of your journey. Discuss your questions, concerns and hopes with an adoption professional. Talk with adoptive families about their experiences for invaluable insider advice and support. Look inside yourself and ask if your family is complete or if your child is waiting for you in a country far away. Campbell vows, "If your heart is open, then everything else falls into place."
LOCAL RESOURCE: SHOW HOPE
Founded in 2003 by local parents Mary Beth and Steven Curtis Chapman, Show Hope works to help break down the barriers with international adoptions. With a holistic approach to orphan care, Show Hope helps children in four key areas:
- Adoption Aid
- Care Centers
- Pre+Post Adoption Support
- Student Initiatives
Through Adoption Aid grants, Show Hope has helped more than 6,000 children from more than 60 countries, including the U.S. More than 2,500 waiting children with acute medical and special needs have received loving care through Show Hope’s Care Centers in China. Show Hope’s partnership with the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development at TCU and Empowered to Connect has helped bring hope and healing to children around the world with encouraging, research based teaching in Pre+Post Adoption Support. And Show Hope prepares for the future with its Student Initiatives by educating and empowering the next generation of leaders to effectively care and make a difference in the lives of waiting children.
Learn more at showhope.org.
— Deborah Bohn is a local mother and writer.