Building a family is risky business, regardless of how it’s done. Adoptive parents navigate myths, wild rumors and horror stories. But for every learning curve, hoop to jump through and unfounded fear, there are more stories of joy and luck. In the end, adoption, like any family-building exercise, is a leap of faith, and there are several ways to do it.
“I don’t rule out anyone,” says Dean Kirschner Ph.D, the executive director of Adoption Makes Family, Inc., a nonprofit, private agency that does domestic adoptions. In this model, prospective parents work with a counselor to connect with women who are pregnant and plan to put their babies up for adoption. The adoptive parents create narratives about themselves—scrapbooks, letters, web pages—to help birth parents get to know them, and agencies like Kirschner’s screen in, not out. “I don’t look at your age, your marital status or your sexual orientation,” he says. “But the birth parents may.”
While it can be stressful to be at the whim of birth parents, there are advantages to domestic adoption: The process can be fast, the adoptive parents often bring home an infant and there’s an opportunity for the adoptive and birth parents to know each other and their histories, to whatever degree makes both parties comfortable.
Sandy Asirvatham, her husband Kevin and son Miles.
When Sandy Asirvatham and her husband, Kevin, decided to adopt, at age 35, they kept an open mind. Sandy, a writer and musician, explored the terrain and realized that a domestic adoption might suit them best. “I liked the idea of knowing a lot about my kid, both in terms of medical history and the child’s family narrative,” she says. “On a philosophical and political level, I liked that this would be a decision made by both parties.”
She and her husband worked with a private, nonprofit, secular agency in the D.C. metro area. Two years after launching the elaborate paperwork process, they met briefly with a birth mother who’d delivered a newborn currently under agency-sponsored foster care. He was only 4 weeks old when they brought him home. “With Miles,” she says, “the stars aligned, the birth parents were mature and wonderful and we had a very competent counselor.”
When Miles was 5, they tried again—but the second time was thornier. Their adoption counselor seemed less competent than the first; in hindsight, Sandy says, they probably should have asked to work with a different counselor. There were other hurdles: Birth parents seemed to prefer religious couples and childless couples. But they found a birth mother who liked them, and they brought home a baby girl soon after she was born. “Miles fell in love with his new sister,” says Sandy. Then, out of the blue, the birth father made a claim that was within his legal rights; the counselor had failed to provide complete and accurate information about him. “We did the DNA test, and she was taken away from us. We had her for five days. It was the worst thing we’ve gone through in our lives—and I put Miles through that, too.”
The No. 1 fear for people who want to adopt is that the baby will be taken away, says Kirschner, who has been working in the adoption world for 20 years. “There are no easy answers for this,” he says. “My advice is for people to work with a seasoned adoption counselor with a lot of compassion for both the birth parents and adoptive parents.”
“You open yourself up to risk, but it’s all risk,” says Sandy. “We’re now perfectly happy with the family we have.”
In many ways, international adoption offers the opposite experience: The birth parents are an unknown entity, and they have no say in who adopts their child. Sometimes, quite literally, the baby has been left on the doorstep of an orphanage.
The Richard family: Virginia, Madeleine, and Isabelle
“Closed adoptions can be really hard for kids and parents,” says Virginia Richard, a single mother and teacher who adopted two daughters from China. “But I was afraid that an open domestic adoption could result in the child being reclaimed by its birth family. I knew there was no way I could handle it, and with international adoption, you will end up with a child.”
With international adoptions, there are as many variables as there are nations. Countries that work within the Hague Adoption Convention, which protects children and their adoptive parents, tend to do a better job regulating fees and contracts and work harder to prevent trafficking than non-Convention countries. So, for example, Convention countries like China, Colombia, Peru and Vietnam have more stable fees, while in non-Convention countries like Ethiopia, Haiti and Russia, fees can vary wildly.
But any government can be fickle, and things happen. Fourteen years ago, when Virginia began the process with Great Wall China Adoption, the nation had no restrictions on single mothers. She brought home Madeleine in 2001, when she was 13 months old. By the time she brought home Isabelle in 2004, China had become less tolerant of single mothers. In the years since, China has closed itself off to singles, and then opened up again. The 2010 earthquake in Haiti derailed many adoptions from that country, and Russia recently enacted an anti-gay adoption ban. Virginia was delayed by more than a month meeting Madeleine because of 9/11.
The screening process for both domestic and international adoptions can be dizzying, with home studies, background checks and medical reviews. But the bureaucracy involved in international adoptions can become epic. With Madeleine, Virginia found herself on an 11th-hour paper chase that involved a $100 cab ride from Annapolis to Washington, hours spent going back and forth from the State Department to the Chinese consulate and a nap in a park in Georgetown while waiting for paperwork. She failed her first home inspection because of a radiator that didn’t have a cover. “I have so many smoke detectors now,” she says.
Despite the delays, Virginia is sanguine about it: “If I hadn’t been delayed, I wouldn’t have gotten Madeleine.”
Jillian and Rod Fry with their two boys.
Often, this is where the conversation about adoption ends. But there’s a third option: fostering to adopt. There may be no bigger leap of faith than the ones taken by people like Jillian and Roderick Fry, a public health researcher and chemist, who knew before they were married that they wanted to build a family this way.
Although this was not the motivation for the Frys, fostering can be a great option for people who don’t have the financial resources to pay tens of thousands of dollars in adoption agency fees. The Department of Social Services foots every bill and provides a monthly stipend, and the child is covered into adulthood by Medicaid.
Jillian and Rod enrolled in the foster-to-adopt program through DSS, and after training, home studies, medical review, and background checks, they were ready to foster. After several months they got a call in 2010 from DSS about a 15-month-old boy who needed short-term care for about three weeks. Although their goal was to foster long-term, they leapt.
“They called at 11 o’clock in the morning,” says Jillian, “and by 3 o’clock Joseph [name changed] was in our house.” They bought a pack-n-play that afternoon, and their co-workers pulled through with a bounty of baby supplies. “We went from zero to 100 in four hours,” he says. As the months passed, it became clear that this might be long-term, after all. “It changed quickly from babysitting for three weeks to ‘this is our son,’” says Jillian.
After a year, a judge granted Jillian and Rod a year of preliminary full custody and guardianship. Everyone present at court, including the birth parents and caseworker, agreed that the arrangement was working well. A year later, in 2012, the Frys went to court again and were granted permanent full custody and guardianship. Joseph’s birth parents have not had their parental rights terminated, which means that Jillian and Rod can’t legally adopt him—but everyone is comfortable with the situation. Joseph calls Jillian and Rod “Mom” and “Dad,” and his birth parents by their first names.
Once a month, the Frys take Joseph to a play area in a mall or park to visit with his birth parents. “We don’t have court-ordered visitation, but we do it for Joseph, because it’s good for everybody,” says Jillian.
“We tell Joseph, ‘They love you, but they couldn’t take care of you,’” says Jillian. “We’re your forever mommy and daddy.”
Of course, with fostering to adopt, there is the fear of losing the child to claims by the birth family, and Jillian and Rod have met people who lived through that ordeal. Before Joseph was even in their home, they decided to have a biological child—another boy, who is now 3.
“We got very lucky,” she says. Joseph, 5 years old, has been with them for four years. “It’s definitely risky. A child came into our lives, we fell in love, the situation has challenges and we could have easily had our hearts broken. But if people are prepared and go into it with their eyes open, it can be a beautiful thing.”
Adoption at a Glance
Costs Domestic and international adoption through an agency: $20,000-$45,000. Foster-to-adopt through DSS: $0
AGE Most agencies prefer that there are no more than 45 years separating parent and child. Some agencies require adoptive parents to be at least 30 years old.
single? Not religious? already have a child?Nonprofit, private agencies don’t discriminate, and neither do foster care services—but in the case of open domestic adoptions, birth parents may have preferences.
Gay? Nonprofit, private agencies don’t discriminate, but it’s trickier when fostering; laws vary from state to state. With international adoptions, some countries discriminate. Again, in the case of open domestic adoptions, birth parents get to decide.
Trying to get pregnant Some agencies discourage fertility treatments during the adoption process, others don’t.
Roadblocks or DealBreakers
Not having covers on your radiators
Not vaccinating your pets
Intercountry Adoption, U.S. Department of State | http://www.adoption.state.gov
Adoption Makes Family, Inc. | http://www.adoptionmakesfamily.org
Maryland Department of Human Resources | http://www.dhr.maryland.gov