Taking Adoption One Step at a Time

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Like all firstborn children, Alex Eagan has created a whole new world for his parents. Adopted at 9 months old by Steven and Ellen Eagan of Hermitage, Alex “has changed our lives,” says his mom.

“In that way, though, it’s really not that different” from the experience of most new parents, she says, whether they’re adoptive or biological.

According to Adoptive Families magazine, more than 2 million adopted children live in the U.S. today. Some of their parents chose to adopt through an agency; others found a birth mother on their own. Some adopted infants; others chose to parent older children from the state’s foster care system. Regardless of the particular method they chose, all these parents have one thing in common: they wanted a child of their own.

WHERE TO BEGIN

Christine Adamec, author of Is Adoption for You? (John Wiley & Sons), says potential adoptive parents need to ask (and answer) the following questions before pursuing adoption:

  • Should I adopt an infant or an older child?
  • Should I adopt through an agency or attorney?
  • Should I adopt from the United States or from another country? If another country, which country?
  • If I adopt a baby in the United States, should I agree to involvement and “openness” with the birthmother?
  • Am I willing to adopt a child with medical problems? Must these be correctable problems or can I accept long-term or even lifelong problems?
  • Should I adopt a child of another race or of a mixed race? (If you adopt a child from another country, in many cases you have already addressed this.)

Bellevue residents Carla and Alex Hamp – who already have a 3-year-old biological daughter, Maia – decided to adopt after several years of trying unsuccessfully to have another child. “Adoption is something we talked about even before Maia,” Carla Hamp says, “because Alex is adopted, and so is his sister.”

The Hamps first contacted several local adoption agencies to request “as much information as they could send us. It gave us a rough overview of the process and of the different agencies,” Hamp says. They then interviewed or attended seminars with four local agencies before choosing the one they felt most comfortable with. “The initial interview is a good chance to ask questions the brochures have raised,” Hamp says. “It also gives the agency a chance to get to know you, so you both can discover whether you’re a good fit.”

The information available from adoption agencies as well as from lawyers, books, websites and other adoption resources can help prospective parents decide how best to begin the adoption process. Making decisions about the age, race and health of the child you want to adopt can be emotionally difficult. One of the most technically confusing issues, however, is whether to adopt via a private adoption agency or independently, with the help of an attorney.

INDEPENDENT VS. AGENCY ADOPTION

“There’s an attorney involved in every adoption,” says Nashville adoption lawyer Lisa Collins. “The issue is, when do you need to hire one? In agency adoptions, the adoptive parents typically hire an attorney to finalize their adoption. In private adoptions, attorneys may be involved not only to finalize the adoption, but also to work with the birth parents and assist in terminating the birth parents’ rights.”

Those who want to be more involved in finding a baby to adopt – running ads, networking, handling communication with the birth mother -may prefer the independent process, which can be used for both domestic – here in the United States – and international adoptions.

Adoption agencies also handle both domestic and international adoptions, though some may specialize in only one type. Most agencies are private, nonprofit organizations licensed by the state. In domestic adoptions, an agency coordinates birth mothers who want to give a child up for adoption with families who want to adopt. The agency provides biographies of prospective adoptive families to the birth parent, who then chooses from them. In many cases the birth parent and adoptive parents meet prior to the child’s birth.

This process is very different from most people’s understanding of adoption. It’s only recently that “open” adoptions have become the norm. In direct contrast to the secretive and anonymous procedures of the past, adoptions today usually involve contact between the birth parent and the adoptive parents.

There are varying degrees of openness, and it is always possible to find an agency and birth parent who want the same amount of contact you do, whether that means a one-time meeting or regular visits. How much contact the birth mother has with the child after an adoption is finalized is up to the adoptive parents.

Despite TV movies and media publicity to the contrary, “For the thousand or more adoption matters I’ve worked on,” says Collins, “I’ve been through very, very few contested adoptions. In terms of openness in adoption, Tennessee law says that once a birth parent’s rights are terminated, she or he has no legal right to ask for visitation or contact, and adoptive parents have no obligation.

But if the parties want to and agree to contact, that’s fine, though not legally enforceable.” In Collins’ experience, contact prior to adoption is more common than afterward, though she says “Most people are fairly amenable to having the door open to pictures and letters, allowing the child to know they’re adopted and at some point providing information about the birth parent.”


INTERNATIONAL ADOPTION

While Carla Hamp says she and her husband “never even really considered international adoption” due to the expense – it can cost $30,000 or more – and the fact that “there are so many children right around us who need homes,” Ellen and Steve Eagan of Hermitage told their agency that they were open to the idea.

The Eagans tried for a year to have children; after consulting with specialists who told them they were not prime candidates for fertility treatment, they decided to pursue adoption. “It wasn’t like we initially decided, ‘Oh, we have to go international,'” says Ellen Eagan. “But when we met with our social worker, we told her we were open to a lot of avenues.” Four months later the Eagans got the referral that led them to Russia and their son Alex, now 19 months old.

Adoptive Families magazine reports that international adoptions have nearly tripled in the past decade. In 1999 (the most recent data available), 4,348 children were adopted from Russia, followed by 4,101 from China. All in all, a total of 16,369 children were adopted from foreign countries in 1999.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) regulates international adoptions, which can be handled by either an agency or a lawyer. While adopting a child from another country can be quicker than domestic adoption, it is often more expensive and time consuming due to travel and immigration fees and the paperwork required.

The Eagans made two trips to Russia to adopt their son. “The first time, we flew over to see Alex and sign a letter of intent,” Eagan says. “On the second visit, five or six weeks later, we brought him home.” The entire adoption process took about six months. “The paperwork was extremely time consuming,” she adds. “Everything had to be notarized” to satisfy the requirements of Russian courts as well as the INS. The Eagans’ final cost for adopting their son was $25,000.

SPECIAL NEEDS ADOPTION

Special needs adoptions most often occur through a state agency such as the Department of Human Services, though some private agencies handle them as well. Special needs children are identified as those with a medical condition or physical, mental or emotional handicap. Most children adopted through the state have been in the foster care system and were taken away from their birth parents because of abuse or neglect. They are often at least 6 or 7 years old by the time they become eligible for adoption. Ironically, healthy infants belonging to minority ethnic groups may also be designated “special needs.”

Adopting a special needs child is often much less expensive than other forms of adoption. Government subsidies can help offset the cost of caring for a child with special medical needs.

THE HOME STUDY

Regardless of whether you adopt internationally, domestically, independently, through an agency or through the state, one requirement remains constant: the home study. The National Adoption Information Clearinghouse defines this often misunderstood aspect of adoption as “a process through which prospective adoptive parents are educated about adoption and evaluated to determine their suitability to adopt.”

The home study includes a home visit by a social worker, separate and combined interviews of the prospective parents, a background investigation and paperwork that challenges applicants to consider why they want to adopt and how they will parent.

“It makes you think about things,” Carla Hamp says. “It prepares you in ways you hadn’t thought about before.” And though it can be intimidating, the home study is not an interrogation or an investigation into how often you do laundry. “That’s something people need to understand,” Hamp says. “They’re not going to come ‘white gloving’ your house.”

“At first you think, ‘Oh, this is the person who’s going to decide whether we can handle it or be good parents,'” says Ellen Eagan. “But it was really just the social worker coming over and talking with us, interviewing us about why we wanted to adopt and what kind of parents we thought we would be. They look at your home just to make sure you have enough space and make enough money to raise a child.”

In Is Adoption For You? (John Wiley & Sons), Christine Adamec reports that “Almost everyone is approved in the home study process. Only a few are turned down, the usual reasons being a history of alcohol or drug abuse, serious emotional or psychological problems, or other issues that could impair parenting abilities.”


WHAT ARE YOU PAYING FOR?

The National Adoption Information Clearinghouse (courtesy of Adoptive Families magazine) reports the following range in adoption costs:

Domestic public agency: $0 – $2,500

Domestic private agency: $5,000 to $30,000+

Domestic independent: $8,000 – $30,000+

Intercountry private agency or Independent: $7,000 – $30,000

Parents working with an agency might pay an all-inclusive agency fee or pay service by service, depending upon the agency. Adoption costs include the agency placement fee, attorney’s fees, home study fee and birth mother expenses (medical fees, counseling, attorney’s fees and sometimes living expenses). Prospective parents should be sure to clarify what services are covered in an agency’s fee.

The adoption process can be complicated, intense and emotional, but ultimately rewarding. “There are so many children who need homes,” says Ellen Eagan. “Giving a child a home was something that really appealed to us.” She adds that though “the process was extremely emotionally and physically exhausting, Alex is such a joy, a wonderful kid. We feel really blessed.”

Ashley Crownover is mother and freelance writer.


Local Adoption Agencies

  • Adoption Connection of Tennessee, 354-1664
  • Adoption Place, Inc., 365-7020
  • Agape, 781-3000
  • Bethany Christian Services, 242-0909
  • Catholic Charities of Tennessee, 352-3087
  • Center for Adoption (a partnership between Tenn. Dept. of Children’s Services and Family and Children’s Service), 253-3289 or 800-807-3228
  • Children’s Hope International, 309-8109
  • Christian Counseling Services, 661-4433
  • Global Village International Adoptions, 890-3507
  • Heaven Sent Children, 898-0803
  • Madison Children’s Home, 860-4461
  • Mercy Ministries of America, 831-6987
  • Miriam’s Promise, 292-3500
  • Omnivisions, Inc., 460-7051
  • Small World Adoption Programs, Inc., 883-4372
  • Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home, 377-6551
  • Youth Villages, 250-7200

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