Psychologist, Montclair State University
President, National Center on Adoption & Permanency
Lawyer, Rumbold & Seidelman
We should begin by saying that adoption is a nuanced, complex process and we suggest you consult our dedicated course here.
In the meantime, let’s break up the subject between US domestic infant adoption and intercountry adoption, which at a high level, carry similar costs and timelines.
As we envision it, there are 10 critical steps to a US domestic infant adoption, which can vary in type or sequence depending upon whether you pursue an “agency” or “private adoption.”
There are often two forms of domestic infant adoption: “agency” and “private” (also known as “direct placement” or “independent”) adoption.
In an agency adoption, adoptive parents work with a state-licensed agency to handle (or at least coordinate) most, or all, of the 10 steps of adoption.
In a private adoption, adoptive families often lean more on a private attorney to orchestrate the critical steps (though agencies often still play, for instance in step #1, agencies may conduct the “home study,” which we’ll address later).
Whether you pursue an agency or private adoption the costs and timelines are fairly similar.
A major question prospective adoptive parents face is the degree to which they’ll allow for the child’s “birth parents” to receive updates on the child or have ongoing communication. The data largely shows greater levels of ongoing communication coincide with greater levels of satisfaction for all parties involved, however, that is not always the case.
The data tends to show adopted children and parents may be subject to “microaggressions” that can pertain to their adopted history. The earlier, and more often a family talks with their children about the subject, the higher the odds the child will remain happy and confident.
Many adoptions are “transracial” and ”transcultural” and most studies show that families make the greatest strides when they make honest efforts to learn of their child’s “birth culture” and to integrate into their family’s culture.
In the US, most every state law either explicitly states “unmarried adults” are eligible to adopt, or is silent on the terms “married” or “unmarried” (e.g. “any adult person may adopt”).
In reality, the likelihood of adoption will depend upon two factors:
For this reason, it’s important to work with an agency or attorney who can arrange for home studies to be done with evaluators who’ve previously been respectful of a single person’s wishes to parent (e.g. certain agencies with a religious bent may be disinclined to help you).
Similarly, you want your agency or attorney to have a track record finding and working with expectant parents open to the idea of placing their child with a single parent.
While birth moms want to offer their child stability, and many see that in a couple, others perceive a single parent household to be more reliable and free from upheaval, separation, and divorce.
As you can see from the data below, the number of intercountry adoptions (as an example, to the US) has dropped dramatically over the last 15–20 years.
There are a number of reasons for this phenomenon, one being that “sending” countries took measures to bolster domestic adoption within their own borders or to stamp out “unethical adoptions”. In many countries, the hurdles to intercountry adoption have been raised, and as you’ll see, the profile of children being adopted today are different than a decade ago.
While it may seem like there are a dizzying number of countries from which to adopt, the reality is 90% of intercountry adoptions are from eight sending countries: mainland China, Colombia, Ethiopia, Haiti, India, Nigeria, South Korea, and Ukraine.
While it’s generally true intercountry adoptions into the United States are down, as you can see from the data below, that’s not true for each sending country. Adoptions from Colombia, India, and Nigeria have increased (and in the case of India, dramatically) over the last half decade.
The fees associated with adoption can vary greatly depending on the country from which you adopt. For instance, in South Korea, the requirements of adoptive parents to remain in the country longer can lift the total costs dramatically.
How the adoption is finalized will vary from country to country—to some extent this is slightly standardized and streamlined when sending countries are party to the Hague Convention (more on that below). In some cases you may complete and finalize the paperwork in the child’s home country, while in others, you may finalize the adoption in your home country.
Immigration, visa, and passport requirements to bring the child home and obtain citizenship will also vary depending on the country. Having a lawyer and reputable agency to guide you through the process is crucial.
As an example, US Citizenship and Immigrantion Services (USCIS) must approve all intercountry adoptions. They require prospective adoptive parents to be US Citizens and at least 25 years old when filing the petition to adopt if unmarried. Married individuals have no age requirement, and citizenship is only required for one spouse.
Many people associate intercountry adoption with bringing home a young child, and that’s an accurate depiction.
As you can see in the data below, the vast preponderance of intercountry adoptions (at least to the US) involve children ages 1–4 years old. It’s rare for adoptive parents to adopt an infant or child over age 5.
This represents a major shift: as late as 2003, nearly 50% of all intercountry adoptions to the United States involved children under the age of 1; today that number is approaching the single digits.
Today, many intercountry adoptions involve children who’ve been placed in an institution and relatedly may have developmental delays. For parents who adopt abroad, having medical professionals in place to make a diagnosis and treatment plan is critical.
Most studies that compare children placed in an institution versus those who’ve never been institutionalized show a difference in motor skills, strength, and coordination. Below are data from one study of 250+ children living in Romania published in the Journal of Pediatrics.
The degree to which children who’ve been institutionalized “catch up” is a matter of debate and likely a function of the age and duration they were institutionalized and the characteristics being studied.
According to a survey of 1,000 parents who adopted from abroad, nearly half adopted a child with special needs. Below, we spell out the results in a flow chart. Of those parents who adopted a child with special needs, roughly half got the diagnosis only after the adoption had been completed. Of those who received the diagnosis before the adoption, 42% were given an additional special needs diagnosis when the child was brought home. So, in total, over a third of all parents adopting from abroad learned of a special need only after the adoption had been finalized.
If you consider intercountry adoption, you’ll hear a lot about the Hague Convention. Effectively, it’s an international agreement to safeguard intercountry adoptions. The intent is to protect children from abduction, sale, or trafficking in association with intercountry adoption.
The Hague Convention establishes requirements for agencies facilitating international adoptions and regulates ethical adoption practices. To some extent, it also makes the process more uniform and predictable for those adopting from countries that subscribe to it (see the list here)
To adopt from a convention member country, you must use a convention-accredited agency who will be solely responsible for handling a number of services and tasks.
Nearly 84% of intercountry adoptions are transracial. As you can see in the data below, when an adopting family learns and integrates the adopted child’s “birth culture” into their own family culture, that child’ self-esteem grows. Below is data collected on the subject from a study of 241 Korean-born children who were adopted by American parents.
What’s more, when adopting parents engage in “preparation for bias” training with their child, that child is in a stronger position to cope with biases they may face.
Many countries have restrictions on who can adopt and for an LGBTQ couple or a single parent, the process is likely to be more complicated or simply not allowed depending on the country you are working with.
By comparison, the process for US domestic infant adoption or the fostering process tend to be more equitable paths for single or LGBTQ family formation.
At the time of this writing, the COVID-19 outbreak has created significant complications across the globe, and specifically related to intercountry adoption. Some countries have closed their borders or suspended visa services at local embassies, limiting the ability of hopeful parents to bring home a child and finalize the adoption process. If you are looking into intercountry adoption, the risk of interruptions to the process (due to COVID-19 or any other number of political policy changes) is a consideration to take into account.