Adoption

If you've ever thought about adopting a child, you've probably already asked yourself some very important questions: Are you ready to devote your life to another person? What kind of parent will you be? Once you decide to make the commitment, many more questions are bound to follow.

The process for adopting infants in America can be bewildering (you can expect the paperwork to weigh more than the child), and adopting an older child opens up a whole different set of uncertainties. Before you start down the road to adoption, you should learn everything you can about the process. Here's a look at some commonly asked questions about adopting in America.

How do I go about adopting an infant?

Infants are a precious commodity. Nobody knows the exact numbers, but the demand for healthy babies far exceeds the supply, says Mady Prowler, assistant director of communications for the National Adoption Center.

The best way to start is to do some research. Go to adoptive parent support groups at local churches and community centers. Join online groups that host message boards on adoption or visit the Web site of the Child Welfare Information Gateway. Check out books and magazines in your public library. Ask for brochures on adoption. Many agencies will send background material for free.

When you do make a decision, there are two basic approaches: You can go through a private adoption agency or try to find a birth mother on your own. Most people prefer to work with agencies. For one thing, independent adoptions are illegal in some states. Also, agencies offer a little more security. Reputable agencies are usually licensed and are accountable to state agencies. Although many people have successfully bypassed agencies to adopt babies directly from birth mothers, in some cases people pursuing independent or Internet adoptions have paid thousands of dollars to a birth mother who later decides to keep her baby -- and the money.

If you decide to try an independent adoption, you should start by hiring an adoption attorney. Adoption laws vary widely from state to state, and you'll need someone to steer you through the maze. For starters, your attorney can show you the legal way to find potential birth mothers. In some states you can place ads in the newspaper or on the Internet. Another option is to send all of your information to a crisis pregnancy center or local obstetrician. Once a potential mother is found, your attorney can help you make the final arrangements.

A good place to find an adoption attorney is through the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. When interviewing attorneys, ask yourself these questions: Is the attorney able to answer your questions? Does the attorney convey your needs to the birth parents, and are you aware of theirs? Can the attorney be reached after hours if you have a question? Do you know what the costs are upfront? No matter which you choose, ask any agencies or attorneys you contact for references. Then follow up and call them.

How should I choose an adoption agency?

You can find an agency by looking in the phone book or checking out the directory from the Child Welfare Information Gateway at http://www.childwelfare.gov. Be sure to shop around. You can check with other adoptive parents to see if complaints have been filed with a particular agency. Although most adoption agencies are dedicated to building families, a few have had a history of complaints and even fraud.

You should generally stick with agencies that are licensed by the state. Before you sign anything, check the agency's record with authorities in charge of licensing. You should also contact a state adoption specialist, the state attorney general's office, and the local Better Business Bureau.

Questions to ask the agencies include how much counseling they give the birth parents, whether they allow you to meet them, how much the fees are, and whether they can be paid in installments. Be wary of agencies that require all fees to be paid upfront.

How do I find older children to adopt?

There's no shortage of older children available for adoption. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, more than a hundred thousand kids are waiting for the right family to come along. These kids are in the foster care system because their birth parents couldn't or wouldn't give them the care they needed.

To learn about adoptable kids near you, contact your local Department of Social Services or Department of Public Welfare. You can also find children on the National Adoption Center Web site (http://www.adopt.org).

Don't older children usually have behavior problems or health issues?

It's true that many children in the "system" face significant obstacles. Many have been neglected, abused, or abandoned by their birth parents, and their lives may not have drastically improved when they became wards of the state. For these kids, adoption is often the last, best hope. "A lot of these kids are very resilient, and they will do very well in a secure, loving home," Prowler says.

To understand the challenges you may face, adoptive families should learn as much as possible about the child. Ask about the birth parents and if there are any medical reports about a child before making a decision on a referral. In addition, be sure that the child has been evaluated medically and behaviorally, then seek out a physician knowledgeable in any conditions the child has. This way, you'll be able to anticipate the child's future needs and what you'll be signing up for in health care costs, commitment, and possible effects on your other children and your marriage. Fortunately, the state gives support to families whose adoptive children face disabilities and other health issues. They are eligible to receive financial aid for medical costs, specialized services, and other adoption-related expenses. (On average this amount can be approximately $250 to $350 a month, or as high as $1,500.) With help, love and support, many children do recover and go on to live a happy, successful life.

Am I eligible to adopt?

In years past, adoptive parents had to fit a certain mold: Married, heterosexual, young, wealthy, and healthy. Even today, some private agencies may hold parents to such narrow criteria. In general, however, only one trait really matters: the ability to provide a stable, caring home.

Of course, not everyone can meet that lofty standard. Before they can adopt a child, all prospective parents have to go through a "home study." In this step of the process, a social worker visits the home, takes a look around, and asks you about your childhood, family history, current family relationships, health, employment, finances, approach to parenting, and so on. Prospective parents may also have to attend a workshop on adoption.

How long does it take to adopt?

It depends. Because many agencies now involve birth parents in choosing adoptive parents, wait times are highly unpredictable. If you adopt a Caucasian infant through a private agency, expect to wait at least a year -- and maybe even five years or more. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, the wait for African American infants is generally six months or less.

If you want to adopt an older child, you won't have to stand in line. The system is designed to give these children stable families as quickly as possible. Once you complete the home study and find a child, the actual adoption will be swift and easy.

How much does it cost to adopt an infant?

The costs of adoption can vary as dramatically as the waiting times. According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, adopting an infant through a private agency can range from $5,000 to $40,000 -- or more ($10,000 to $15,000 is common). This money covers agency fees, childbirth expenses, counseling for birth parents, and the home study.

People who think they can save money by avoiding adoption agencies are often in for an unpleasant surprise. If they try to adopt an infant on their own, they'll still have to pay birthing expenses. And then there's the cost of advertising for a birth mother (where advertising is legal). And don't forget the attorney fees. All in all, independent adoptions can be even more expensive than agency adoptions. Though according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway, prices can go from $8,000 to $40,000, with the average price ranging $10,000 to $15,000 or more.

How much does it cost to adopt an older child?

In stark contrast to infants, older children can be adopted at little or no cost. Prospective parents may have to spend a few thousand dollars for travel and attorney fees, but many states will reimburse such expenses. If you adopt a child with "special needs" (which in some states may simply mean she or he is over 3 years old or a racial minority), you may be eligible for a government subsidy to cover the cost of the child's care.

Where can I get more information?

Adopting a child can be an extremely rewarding experience, but it can also be confusing. Fortunately, many organizations and experts are dedicated to helping people work through the process. For more information on all aspects of adoption, contact the Child Welfare Information Gateway. You can also find many excellent books and magazines on adoption at the library.

People who have already adopted children may be the best resource of all. Ask around. Find someone who can discuss their experiences, regrets, and joys. Who knows? In a few years, it could be your turn to be the expert.

References

Interview with Mady Prowler, assistant director of communications for the National Adoption Center

National Adoption Information Clearinghouse. Adoption: Where Do I Start? March 2011.

Adoptionservices.org. How long is the wait to adopt a child? 2011.

U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. AFCARS Report, Current Estimates as of July 2010.

National Adoption Center. Home Page. http://www.adopt.org

National Adoption Center. Frequently Asked Adoption Questions. http://www.adopt.org/assembled/FAQ.html

Child Welfare Information Gateway. Adoption Options At-a-Glance. March 2011. http://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/f_adoptoption.cfm

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