Jenna and Trevor Henderson knew they wanted a baby, so they started trying immediately after they got married in April 2009. But after six months of no luck, tests confirmed it was unlikely they would be able to get pregnant without in-vitro fertilization. That’s when the Pomona, California, couple knew they would build their family another way. “I had always thought about adoption, because I had a large ovarian cyst when I was in high school and I learned that conceiving might be difficult,” says Jenna. “Trevor and I had even talked about it when we were dating.”
Fast-forward another six months: Jenna and Trevor had signed on with an adoption agency, but so far hadn’t been chosen as adoptive parents. They were hiking in the Sierra Mountains when their cell phone rang through the spotty reception: It was their social worker calling to tell them that a baby boy had been born in Florida. His mother was getting ready to leave the hospital and wanted to set up an adoption for him—and wondered if they would be interested. Within moments, Jenna and Trevor were crying as photos of the boy they would name Theo appeared on their phone. “We saw his face and we knew he was supposed to be our baby,” says Jenna.
Not all adoptions are the result of infertility, of course. “I just felt like there were these kids out there who needed families,” says Annie Gillette Cleveland, a Minneapolis mom whose two sons, now 11 and 13, were adopted from Colombia when they were each 3 years old. “That pulled at my heart more than the idea of having a child who looked like me.”
Regardless of parents’ motivations, the adoption process is different than giving birth. Prospective adoptive parents are required to complete a library’s worth of paperwork, and have to make decisions that will affect their families forever, about how much contact they will have with their child’s birthfamily and whether they can raise a child of a different race or one who has special needs. Plus, some adoptions cost tens of thousands of dollars up front—before parents even get to the costs of raising a child.
Prospective parents also have to keep tabs on the constantly evolving adoption world. “Adoption in America is transforming before our eyes,” says Adam Pertman, the executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and the author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming our Families—and America. “Formal adoption has moved from being primarily about white infants born to unwed mothers being adopted by white parents to being a process where children—many of whom are older, are of color, or have special needs—are being raised by single parents, gay parents, older parents, and the whole range of diverse types of families.”
Sorting through your options can feel overwhelming. But any adoptive parent will tell you it’s worth it. “The adoption process can get a little complicated sometimes,” says Jenna Henderson. “It all becomes worthwhile the second you hold your baby in your arms.”
If adoption may be in your family’s future, here’s what you need to know about the three major types of adoption in the U.S.
Domestic Infant Adoption: Moving toward openness
Pregnant mothers and fathers who decide not to parent their children usually contact an adoption agency or private adoption attorney to make an adoption plan. (Usually both adoptive parents and birthparents work through the same agency. But experts agree that for lawyer-facilitated adoptions, both parties should have their own attorneys.) Today, parents choose their child’s adoptive parents through a process in which the prospective adoptive parents put together a packet of information about themselves (without names and other identifying details) that they give to the agency.
Ranges from $25,000 to $35,000, sometimes higher depending on the birthmother’s medical expenses as well as costs associated with outreach to mothers-to-be considering adoption. Costs include: attorneys fees; travel; home study fees; medical costs for the birthmother; some living expenses for the birthmother, depending on the laws of the states where adoptive parents and birthparents live.
Average wait time
Depends on the adoption, but the process can go quickly. In an Adoptive Families magazine survey, the majority of respondents were matched with a birthmother in less than 24 months. People younger than 25 or older than 45 may have to wait longer.
There are no legal requirements in most states, although most require a home study, which is an evaluation done by an agency social worker. It involves background checks, interviews, and references to determine that you’re able to raise a child. While it’s difficult to predict what a birthmother would choose, young married couples tend to be preferred over older couples and individuals.
What you need to know
Domestic adoptions in the United States are moving toward some form of “openness,” meaning that adoptive families and birthfamilies share information with each other. Children’s Home Society & Family Services of Minnesota, which works with parents in several states and is one of the leading adoption agencies in the country, says that most of their birthfamilies and adoptive families exchange names and addresses. Some information-sharing extends to biological grandparents as well.
While the prospect of having contact with your child’s birthfamily may sound daunting, over 20 years of research at the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas has shown that open adoptions are in the best interest of the adoptee, and benefit the birthfamily and adoptive family as well. “Open adoption is not co-parenting,” says Pertman. “In fact, greater honesty and connections in adoption generally serve the interests of everyone concerned better than the way it used to be.”
For the Hendersons, openness means that they send letters and photos of their son to their adoption agency, which make them available to his birthmother. “She’s a part of his story and we often think of how grateful we are to her for letting Theo be in our lives. As a parent, you want to love and help your children through life as best as you can. As an adoptive parent, that feeling for me is magnified because it’s also about his birthmother, who trusted us to raise her child when she didn’t feel she could. We feel it’s important to be open with Theo about his birthmother, and we hope he’ll understand and make peace with the reasons she chose adoption. We hope he knows that she made this decision because she also loves him very much.”
International Adoption: Rules and regulations change quickly
International adoption began in 1956, when American families began adopting South Korean children after the Korean War. Today, countries with active adoption programs include Ethiopia, Haiti, Russia, Uganda, Colombia, South Korea, and China. The number of international adoptions has declined significantly (from the high of nearly 23,000 in 2004), in part because some nations have slowed down or closed their international adoption programs, says Susan Soonkeum Cox, vice president of policy and external affairs for Holt International, the Eugene, Oregon-based adoption agency that started international adoption. While some get shut down because of government corruption or unethical practices, other countries—including South Korea and China—became economically strong enough to be able to afford to care for their children and start phasing out international adoption. Also contributing to the decline in numbers is that in 2008 the U.S. signed an international treaty that requires more rigorous standards to prevent adoption fraud.
Between $20,000 to $40,000, which includes fees for the home study, dossier preparation, travel, adoption agency, and in-country fees (which might include salaries for caregivers and translators). Some agencies also require a charitable donation (often several thousand dollars) to help children in the sending country.
Average wait time
Varies widely. An adoption from China is currently estimated to take at least four to five years, fewer if you’re open to adopting a child older than 5 or a child with a special medical or developmental need. On the other end of the spectrum, wait times for Ethiopia can range from between three and 22 months. However, wait times in any country can change without warning because of policy changes.
Depends on the country. Colombia, for example, mandates that parents be married for at least three years at the time of their adoption application, have no more than one divorce between them, and no history of a physical or mental health diagnosis. Ethiopia requires parents to be married for at least one year, considers single women on a case-by-case basis, and requires both parents to have a body mass index of less than 40. A reputable adoption agency will provide you with the requirements for each country they work in. Most international adoption programs require parents to travel to their child’s birth country at least once, sometimes more.
What you need to know
“It’s important to think seriously about whether you have the capacity to love a child who is of a different race and culture,” says Cox, who herself was adopted from South Korea. “Understanding race and identity will be a lifelong process and you will be expected to understand and embrace that journey.” Also, Cox cautions against choosing intercountry adoption as a way of avoiding relationships with birthfamilies. “Because of the internet and the advances other countries are making toward openness, more and more adoptees are searching for and finding their birthfamilies,” she says.
Cox and other adoption experts say staying flexible helps when it comes to navigating the complexities that are a part of international adoption. Keeping an open mind certainly helped adoptive parents Kristy and Jacob DeGraw when they were adopting their son Miles from Ethiopia. They were caught off guard when Ethiopia went from only requiring parents to be present at the U.S. Embassy visa interview to requiring parents to be present at the court hearing as well—though the two events are often weeks to months apart. Even though the DeGraws knew they’d do whatever was required to complete their adoption, the idea of traveling to Ethiopia twice in a short period of time was a shock.
Yet traveling to the country changed their lives. “It was one of the most beautiful and life-changing experiences of our lives,” says Kristy. “The poverty was more than we could have ever imagined. But the hospitality of the Ethiopian people is like nothing else. They are beautiful people full of joy and it’s a beautiful country full of history and rich culture. We are so blessed to be a part of Ethiopia.”
Adoption from Foster Care: Building a support system
Many of the children in the foster care system are school age and often part of sibling groups who need to be adopted together. Because these children have suffered the kinds of trauma that necessitated them to be removed from their biological families, the vast majority has some kind of emotional, physical, or educational disability.
Adopting from the foster care system involves little to no costs. Ongoing medical assistance is provided by the government for every child, and 90 percent of foster care adoptions include a monthly stipend in the range of $400 to $600 per child to help with costs until they reach adulthood (the age varies from state to state).
Average wait time
Depends on the circumstances, but prospective adoptive parents who are just starting out should plan on the process taking at least nine months. Wait times are usually longer for young children.
Prospective adoptive parents must first become foster parents and need to have a criminal history check to prove they have no record of endangering children. Prospective parents must also demonstrate an ability to financially support their family without the adoption assistance funding. Most states require you to be 21 and there must be at least a 10-year age difference between parent and child. Every family has to go through training, which is on average 25 hours of classroom time.
What you need to know
You don’t need to be a superhuman parent to be the kind of loving mom or dad these children need. “You don’t have to own a home or drive a fancy car,” says Kathy Ledesma, the national project director of AdoptUSKids, a federally funded nonprofit that raises public awareness of the need for families for children who are in foster care. “You just need to have the capacity to accept and nurture a child and have a good support system.” That means the entire family should be on board, and parents should have access and funds available to take care of the child.
But make no mistake: Adoption from foster care benefits adoptive parents, too. “One of the joys that parents report to us is when children who had little hope because of their social situation or trauma reach normal milestones like graduating from high school or going to college,” says Ledesma. “It’s incredible. When parents can discover and bring out natural talents that were there but hadn’t been nurtured, that’s tremendously satisfying.”
That’s what Christina and Trevor Tutt have learned from their daughter Bailey, who tested positive for fetal exposure to cocaine when she was born. Bailey came to them as a foster child when she was 5 days old and was eventually adopted by the couple. Even though they knew Bailey could have a lot of challenges, they immediately fell head over heels in love. “She was perfect,” Christina remembers.
Now 5 years old, Bailey has been diagnosed with seizures, ADHD, aggression in early childhood, and fetal alcohol effect. But even though Christina juggles speech and occupational therapy appointments with all the normal routines of raising a large family—the Tutts have eight children ranging from 2 to 22—she wouldn’t trade her life as Bailey’s mom for anything. “I know on paper she sounds like an impossible challenge, but she’s a great kid,” she says. “I love her zest for living.”
Elizabeth Foy Larsen writes for Adoptive Families, Mother Jones, and other publications.