When it comes to adoption, there’s no such thing as “normal.” Just ask Christina and Kevin Kindt. The couple just had their biological child in August, but they’re already parents to three other children: 5-year-old Elizabeth and 3-year-old Natalie, both adopted as infants from foster care, and a 1-year-old boy (name withheld), whose adoption from foster care is still in progress.
Though not the typical family, the Kindts are far from alone. According to the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2 percent of American children are adopted. After being shrouded in silence and secrecy for much of its history, adoption is coming out of the shadows, becoming more mainstream and more open, says Adam Pertman, author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming our Families — and America.
Would-be adoptive parents still face challenges, including choosing which type of adoption to pursue, figuring out how to pay mounting fees and navigating the exploding world of online adoption information.
Opening Doors: Adoption Comes Out of the Shadows
Because states are not required to record the number of private, domestic adoptions, it’s hard to pinpoint just how many children are adopted each year. In 1992, the last year this type of data was compiled, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute reported that nearly 127,000 children were adopted in the US, including those adopted domestically, internationally, out of foster care and by step-parents (which account for 42 percent of all domestic adoptions). All told, there are more than 1.5 million adopted children in the US.
That means adoption touches most schools, neighborhoods and extended families across the country. The Donaldson Institute’s 1997 survey (the most recent one available) found nearly 60 percent of Americans have a personal connection to adoption, by knowing someone who has been adopted, adopted a child or has placed their child with an adoptive family. And because so many adoptions have been veiled in secrecy, the real figure is likely much higher.
Those types of secrets are dying out, though. Today, only 5 percent of modern adoptions are “closed adoptions,” in which the birth parents and adoptive parents have no contact and birth records are sealed, and 95 percent of agencies offer open adoptions, which allow for ongoing contact between the adoptive family and the birth parents.
That’s good news for everyone touched by adoption; research from the Donaldson Institute shows that open adoptions are associated with greater satisfaction with the adoption process for all participants—adoptive parents, adoptees and birth parents. Birth mothers who have ongoing contact with their children through open adoption experience less grief and greater peace of mind. And adoptees have access to their biological families and medical histories.
In international adoptions, ongoing contact between birth parents and adopted children can be harder to arrange, due to logistics, language barriers and a host of legal and other complications. But those, too, are slowly cracking open. When Lacey Yantis and Scott Blank traveled to Ethiopia earlier this year to adopt their one-year old son Ermias, they met his birth mother and learned that the date listed on his birth paperwork is wrong—he was born a month earlier. (This type of inaccuracy is not uncommon in international adoptions, says Yantis.)
Families Without Borders: International Adoptions
International adoption can be a good option for families seeking an infant, like Yantis and Blank (nearly half of the children adopted internationally are infants and 90 percent are under 5, according to the Donaldson Institute). But those who dream of international adoption face a number of hurdles: first, choosing an adoption site from a dwindling list of countries open to US adoptions. Under tighter regulations, the number of international adoptions appears to be tapering off: after reaching a historic high of 22,884 children in 2004, it fell to just 12,753 in 2009.
Russia, one of the top countries of origin for American parents adopting internationally, is now closed to prospective parents in the US. Guatemala, Haiti, Rwanda and Vietnam are also on the “closed” list, while China and Ethiopia have cut international adoptions drastically and stretched waiting times for adoptive parents.
The waiting game adds to the mounting costs involved in adopting internationally, as attorney and agency fees pile up over the course of months and years. The Donaldson Institute reports that parents adopting internationally can expect costs up to $25,000 for visas, immigration documents, agency costs and program fees charged by the home country.
Lacey Yantis places her family’s adoption fees between $25,000 and $30,000—a total that doesn’t include travel to Ethiopia or lodging and living expenses during their three-week stay. Adoptive parents traveling for international adoption also face costs related to time off work and childcare for the children staying at home during the trip.
Home Sweet Home: Domestic Adoptions
While wait times for some international adoptions can stretch out for years, domestic adoptions can be relatively swift. According to Adoptive Families magazine, 34 percent of US parents adopting a newborn domestically were matched with a child within three months; 19 percent brought their baby home within four to six months. Couples who choose to adopt domestically have several options: private (or “independent”) adoptions through an attorney or an adoption facilitator, adopting through an agency or adopting through the foster care system (sometimes called “public adoption”).
How can prospective parents choose which type of domestic adoption to pursue? One factor is cost. Agency and private adoptions are the more expensive route. The Donaldson Institute pegs domestic adoption costs for agency and private adoptions at $4,000 to $30,000. It’s a wide range that includes costs for home studies, post-adoption supervision and court fees.
Another factor is the age of the prospective adoptee. The Kindt family’s experience notwithstanding, newborn adoptions through the foster system are relatively rare—only 2 percent of children adopted through the public system are newborns, according to the Donaldson Institute.
Thanks in part of federal financial incentives enacted during the Clinton administration, public sector (foster care) adoptions increased 40 percent between 1995-1998. By 2008, 55,000 children were adopted from foster care. Foster care adoptions aren’t as prohibitively expensive as other types of adoption—there are no agency fees, legal fees are often minimal and reimbursed by the state, and parents can claim the adoption tax credit (as can parents adopting internationally or through an agency or attorney).
Building a Family
The first step for couples considering adoption: talk to others who have adopted, advises Lori Ingber, Ph.D., president and founder of Parent Match. “Ask them which agency they used, or which attorney. Ask them about their experience. Talk to as many people as you can.” You want to choose an adoption attorney or facilitator with significant experience with adoptions, she notes—not a friend of a friend who practices law but specializes in DUIs or divorces.
Take advantage of the Internet’s expansive power for research, referrals, information and support—many agencies now have Facebook pages where prospective parents can ask questions, share victories and support each other through tough days.
Most importantly, parents should follow their heart to build a family that’s uniquely their own. The Kindts may not be a cookie-cutter clan, but that doesn’t bother their happy children in the least. Instead, Elizabeth is puzzling over her soon-to-arrive brother’s birth. “Adoption is so normal to her, that she’s trying to figure out why this baby doesn’t need to be adopted,” says Christina. “One day, she figured it out, though, and told everyone ‘Mommy has a baby in her tummy. And he’s already adopted!’”
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three.