The Adoption Option: How It Works and What to Expect

Talking to others who have adopted children can give you a sense of what's involved.
Talking to others who have adopted children can give you a sense of what's involved.

While it's hard to find reliable numbers on how many adoptions take place in the United States each year (1992 was the last year national adoption statistics were collected from the states), all it takes to get a little insight into the practice is a quick check of your friends and family. Chances are you know someone who is adopted or who has adopted a child. In fact, about 58 percent of Americans have a personal connection to adoption, according to a public opinion survey conducted in 1997 by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute.

And while it might seem that adoptions are more common today than in years past, the number of adoptions taking place has probably not increased over the years, says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, and author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming America. "What has changed is the nature of adoptions," says Pertman. While they were once veiled in a cloak of secrecy, today "adoptions are much more public and are a much more accepted form of family formation," says Pertman. "As a result we are more aware of it."


In fact, the biggest trend in adoptions in recent years seems to be the increasing openness with which they are being conducted. "Open adoptions," in which birth parents, adoptive parents and the child all have relationships of some sort, are becoming increasingly prevalent, says Pertman. "That is becoming the norm - openness in and about adoption," he explains, adding that the level of openness can vary from the simple sharing of basic information to actual face-to-face contact between birth parents and the child. Adoptive parents, in particular, who once worried that their child may be confused by having contact with his or her birth parents, increasingly are more comfortable with such contact. "Children are not confused when their birth mother is in the picture, nor do they love their adoptive parents any less. Kids are capable of loving more than one person," says Pertman.

At the same time that adoptive parents are becoming more comfortable with open adoptions, birth parents increasingly are shunning the closed adoption arrangements of the past and instead often take part in selecting the child's adoptive parents and stay in contact through the years. "We have found that upwards of 95 percent of all birth moms want some level of communication with the parents and the child," says Pertman. The benefits of openness: greater access to important family medical information for the child, as well as a clearer understanding on the child's part of his or her own heritage and history. For the birth parents, ongoing contact can help ease the sense of loss associated with giving up their child.

In general, there are three broad categories of adoption: domestic adoption arranged independently or through an agency; international adoption; and domestic adoption through a public or social services agency. Which type of adoption works best depends on what you're looking for, says Carolyn Berger, an adoption coordinator with the American Infertility Association. "If you're looking for a Caucasian infant and you're kind of an entrepreneur type of person who doesn't need a lot of guidance, independent adoption might be good for you," she says. On the other hand, adoptive parents seeking more guidance may want to go through an agency, and those who want to help a disadvantaged or special needs child might find a social services adoption is their best bet.

Here is a quick overview of the different types of adoption:

Domestic adoption through a licensed private agency or independently: This method usually involves the adoption of an infant. Most states allow independent adoptions, in which the birth and adoptive parents find each other without the help of an agency. However, parents who choose to adopt this way typically contract a lawyer, facilitator or even an adoption agency to handle the legal aspects of the adoption. On the other hand, those using an agency for the entire adoption process pay a fee and then rely on the agency to connect them with potential birth mothers. Agencies often offer support, as well, including such services as running ads for the parents, offering counseling and connecting adoptive parents with others who have adopted.

International adoption: This is usually done with the help of an agency and typically involves a child who is already living in an orphanage. Russia, China, Korea, India and countries in Eastern Europe, Central America and South America are the sources of most foreign-born children adopted by Americans, according to the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse (NAIC), a service of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Most international agencies favor adoptive parents who will help a child understand and appreciate his or her native culture. Click here for more on international adoption.

Domestic adoption through a public agency: Adopting through a public agency often involves adopting a special needs or hard-to-place child and is the least expensive of the three methods. "This is one way someone can adopt relatively cheaply, but they have to be willing to take a child who may be older or have disabilities or health problems," says Berger. Federal and state funds may be available to help pay for the care of children with special needs. Counseling may also be available. Such adoptions are handled by the state social services agency. Click here for more on agency adoption.

Adoption Costs

Costs to adopt range from nearly nothing for some social services adoptions to $35,000 and up for agency or international adoptions. It can take anywhere from several months to several years to adopt a child, with the longest wait — up to five years — usually involved in adopting healthy Caucasian infants, according to the NAIC. International adoptions usually take at least a year, while adoptions of minority children, hard-to-place or special needs children may take less time.

Meeting the Challenges

As with any family, adoptive families face certain challenges. Some of these challenges start long before they even begin considering adoption, from dealing with infertility, to deciding on which type of adoption to pursue, to helping their child deal with his or her own questions about adoption. Some advice from Pertman and Berger for families considering adopting a child:

  • Get Educated on Adoption "People still too often perceive adoption as second best and generally lack knowledge about what they are getting into, no matter what type of adoption they choose," Pertman says. By contrast, when people conceive a child they often do research without even realizing it. "They read books, talk to friends, watch TV shows. They go to Lamaze classes, and they might subscribe to a parenting magazine," says Pertman. "Too often when we adopt we think, 'Well, I'll pay the fee and then I'll be a parent.'" Instead, adoptive parents need to invest time in research upfront, which can be difficult given the secrecy that has always surrounded adoption. "We don't have enough personal experiential contact with adoption to feel comfortable and have good instincts about it," Pertman says. "And because it has been so stigmatized, we tend not to know the extent of the preparation that is needed."Despite the stigma that still exists, "adoption is a wonderful thing to do if you want to do it. And if you do it properly and ethically, it's just as complete and just as whole and just as loving a way of forming a family as any other," says Pertman. "But it's different," he adds. "Not better or worse, just different." Doing it well and making good decisions requires preparation. "Read a good book, use the Web as a resource, talk to friends who have adopted and figure out if it is for you. It may or may not be, but make the decision based on good information," advises Pertman, who is an adoptive parent himself.
  • Be Prepared to Educate Others While much of the stigma surrounding adoption has eased, some still exists, says Pertman. Consider this: In a survey conducted by the Adoption Institute, 90 percent of respondents had a positive view of adoption, but about one-third said that adopted children and their parents don't love each other as much as parents who have their children biologically. "It's simply not true," says Pertman. "But it's hard to break through those stereotypes because of the decades of secrecy that surround adoption. We keep secrets about things that we are ashamed of, so as a result a lot of people assume viscerally that there must be something to be ashamed of." With such misconceptions, it's not surprising that people often view adoption as a last-resort option.Not only does the stigma affect those considering adopting a child, but everyone involved in adoption also has to deal with a general lack of understanding from those who haven't dealt with adoption themselves. For example, adoptive parents may be asked how it feels not to have children of their own. "We DO have children of our own," says Pertman, who explains that most people don't realize that the language they use can be damaging. "When adoptive children hear that they are not our children, they take that to heart." Adoptive parents, therefore, have an added challenge of helping their child become comfortable with his or her own identity and dealing with a lack of understanding from others.

  • Be Honest About Your Own Feelings "You need to start thinking about what kind of baby you want; what kind will feel comfortable to you," says Berger. "And you have to be very honest. It can mean dealing with your feelings of racism and thinking through the issues that you will have to deal with throughout his or her life." If you're thinking of adopting a baby who doesn't look like you, for example, you have to be comfortable in dealing with questions from your child and others. In addition, if you're adopting due to infertility, coming to grips with your own feelings of loss is important, says Berger. "You need to feel that for the most part you have dealt with your feelings of loss that come with infertility. You don't have to completely resolve them, but you need to feel positive about going through adoption."
  • Be Realistic Especially in international adoptions or adoptions involving special needs children, you must be realistic in your expectations and assess your own comfort level with dealing with problems that might arise. Just as you would if you gave birth to a child who had special needs, you'll need to be ready and able to adapt to the challenges your adoptive child may face. You'll also need to be patient and understand the time frame for the type of adoption you've chosen and the risk of "losing" a child before the adoption is completed, a risk that is usually higher when you're adopting an infant.
  • Be Open Most adoption experts today advocate that parents have some level of openness with their adoptive child, whether it is talking to the child about the fact that he or she is adopted, maintaining links to the child's culture and history, or establishing a relationship with the child's birth parent or parents. Generally children will have a desire to know about their birth parents and where they came from, say Pertman and Berger.As birth coach for her adopted son's mother, "that's how I got to know his birth mother, right at the last minute," says Berger. What she learned in helping the birth mother through her delivery has helped her pass along information to her son. "I'm able to really describe what she looked like and what kind of person I think she was, which really helped him develop an acceptance of himself as an adoptive child," she adds. "At this point, he's very open about it and very proud of being adopted."
  • Be Prepared to Answer Questions Expect to answer questions from your child, family members, friends and even complete strangers. Although comfortable now, Berger's son went through periods of questioning why his birth mother gave him up for adoption, a question Berger was prepared to answer. "I explained to him that she couldn't take care of him. So it's something he has heard many, many times," says Berger, who advises parents to read some of the many books on communicating with an adopted child. "People may even need counseling to be able to come up with the right answers," she adds. Many parents of internationally or transracially adopted children also have found that helping their child learn about his or her culture is healthiest for the child. And, of course, part of communicating with your adopted child should involve preparing him or her to answer questions from other children, especially if your child doesn't look like you.

Christina Breda Antoniades is a freelance writer and mother of 9-month-old Vasili. She has written extensively for, including the Travel Channel Online and Discovery Health Online. In her nine months as a new mommy, Christina has come to learn the joys and pains of parenthood.