The ABC's of Adoption

So you’ve decided to adopt a child. Now what?

That you even have to wonder implies that the road to adoption is not a superhighway but a web of avenues, alleys and detours behooving adoptive parents-to-be to stop the car and ask directions. On the Overwhelm-o-Meter, the adoption decision—where to go, whom to trust—falls somewhere between building a nation and picking wall paint. Increasing the confusion is the glut of adoption information on the Internet, which, while undeniably helpful, doesn’t always sort fact from fiction.

Here’s the good news: While there is no one way to build a family, there is one way that would work best for you. It all depends on how you answer questions like these: Do you insist on a blond-haired, blue-eyed, healthy infant? Would you consider an older, special-needs child of a different race from your own? How much contact do you want with the birth mother? Do you want to adopt a child born in the United States, or one from another country? How much are you willing or able to spend?

Twenty years ago, the process of adoption was fairly straightforward. The birth mother relinquished all her parental rights to an agency, which then placed full custody of the baby with adoptive parents (who in most cases had to be married couples under the age of 40 and very, very patient—the process could take years). Records were sealed; nobody except the agency knew anything about anyone else, or could ever find out. But that model turned out to be riddled with problems. It spawned an entire generation of angry adoptees, many of whom doubted their birth parents’ love for them and felt robbed of their identity. Sometimes it was a matter of life and death, such as when an adopted child needed a kidney or bone marrow transplant, and there was no way to locate a blood relative who might be the best possible donor.

Today, in what constitutes the most significant adoption trend in recent years, closed adoptions in the United States mostly have gone the way of the eight-track tape. The majority of adoptions now are “open”—to what degree depends on the desires of both the birth parents and the adoptive parents.

“Open adoption simply means that there’s a minimum amount of information available to all parties,” says El Dorado Hills adoption attorney James Handy of Little Angels Adoptions. “It also has another element, and that is future contact.”

Such a possibility may conjure up images of Big Bad Birth Mom stalking the family, perhaps even trying to take the child back—which Handy dismisses as nonsense.

“Adoption is not co-parenting,” he says. “When you’re talking about contact, most of the time you’re talking about pictures, letters and videotapes.”

Mark Slakey and Vicki Cromwell-Slakey of Elk Grove weren’t afraid of open adoption when they adopted their now 5-year-old daughter ClareMarie in 1999. But they still had to weigh their comfort with the idea, in light of what they’d heard.

“I had talked to a mother who had adopted her son at birth,” recalls Vicki, a 47-year-old English professor-turned-homeschool/piano teacher. “Her son was now 10 1/2, and they were still having a lot of contact with the birth mother. The big issue was who was going to have him for Mother’s Day. I didn’t really want that, and I said that to the adoptive mother. She said, ‘Well, you’d be surprised at what you’ll settle for. You want that child so much, you’ll agree to a lot of things.’”

Alas, the Slakeys needn’t have worried. Their situation veered the opposite way, to the family’s disappointment.

“We can’t get in touch with the birth mother; we can’t find her,” Vicki says. “ClareMarie wants to have pictures of her birth parents; she wants to know what they look like. It’s such a big piece of who she is, especially since she doesn’t look like us.” (The Slakeys are Caucasian, their daughter African-American.)
The Slakeys adopted ClareMarie through an independent adoption facilitator, one of three ways to adopt domestically in California. The others include adoption through a private state-licensed agency or through the state or county welfare department. (About half of the 120,000-plus adoptions completed in the United States each year are stepparent and kinship adoptions, but that’s another article.) While independent adoption practitioners are not licensed or regulated by the state, all domestic adoptions are governed primarily by state law. The state courts finalize adoptions (usually six months after placement), settle disputes and set precedents. Another option is to adopt internationally, which involves three sets of laws: the state of residence of the adoptive parents, the federal government (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) and the child’s native country.

All adoptions require adoptive parents to undergo home studies, which in California may be done after the child is placed in the home. The home study, conducted by a social worker, is intended to determine whether the child will be brought up in a safe, healthy environment and whether the family is physically, financially and emotionally fit for the task. In California, as in all states, it is illegal to buy a baby. That doesn’t mean adoption agencies, attorneys or facilitators can’t charge fees for their services, or that adoptive parents can’t pay for the birth mother’s medical and/or living expenses, as long as paying the expenses is not contingent on the birth mother’s consent to the adoption. Before an adoption can begin, both birth parents, generally, must relinquish parental rights. Parental rights also may be involuntarily terminated by a court of law.
Which brings us back to square one: Once the “have-tos” are fulfilled, there are several variations on the adoption theme. Below, we examine each type, its pros and cons.

Independent Adoption   

If you’ve got your heart set on a healthy American newborn—and don’t mind doing a little legwork—independent adoption may be the answer. Legal in all but a handful of states, independent adoptions are conducted by adoption attorneys or facilitators. It’s an option many birth parents favor because they get to pick the adoptive family and decide on the level of interaction, without having to jump through agency-imposed hoops (such as mandatory childbirth classes when you’ve already had three kids). And thanks to the Internet, your chances of being matched quickly are greater than ever before; more and more birth parents are finding the ideal adoptive families through “Dear birth mother” letters and photos posted on hundreds of websites. Average waiting time for an independent adoption is anywhere from three months to a year, even shorter for non-Caucasian babies. The Slakeys located ClareMarie through the foothills-based Lifetime Adoption Facilitation Center in one month—after only a phone call and no paperwork. (That came later.)

“What surprised me was how easy it was,” Vicki says. “It was like, ‘I think I’d like a baby’ and the phone rings: ‘OK, stop at Target and get a pink blanket and a car seat.’”

But the independent route can take a heavier-than-normal emotional toll—on both sides—if things don’t work out. 

“A myth is that birth moms change their minds a lot,” says Mardie Caldwell, the founder of Lifetime, host of the radio talk show “Let’s Talk Adoption” and author of a new book, Adoption: Your Step-by-Step Guide.
In reality, “adoptive families change their minds nearly three times as many times as the birth mom does,” Caldwell says. “They’ll say, ‘I’ve met her; she has a tattoo.’” (As if the baby will be born with Cupid on his bicep!)

“We had a black family turn down a baby because he was ‘too dark’ and ‘he won’t look good in photographs,’” Caldwell says. “I want to know that families are ready to move forward. Sometimes that takes awhile because you have to go through the grieving of not birthing your own child.”

Once a match is made, “the most stressful time and the greatest risk of the placing parent changing their mind is at separation from the hospital,” says Handy, the adoption attorney, referring to the birth mother’s handover of the baby to the adoptive parents.

Safeguards do exist, however. In independent adoptions in California, not only does the attorney or facilitator screen birth mothers for “reclaim” likelihood, but the birth mother is required to meet twice with a licensed adoption service provider—a neutral third party—to make sure she understands the process and her rights, and is not being coerced. According to Handy, the second meeting must take place either 10 days from the initial meeting or when the birth mother is discharged from the hospital, whichever is later. At this point the birth mother signs the consent, after which she has 30 days to change her mind.
“There are only three states that have longer waiting periods, so California is pretty bad,” Handy says. “It’s only in the last three years that it’s been changed, because it used to be 90 days. Before that it was six months.”
The cost of an independent adoption can vary widely. Couples who can afford it may opt to sign on with more than one attorney, sometimes in another state, to increase their chances of finding a suitable match, but Handy says that’s rare. In general, costs range from $13,000 to $25,000 in this region—less than half the cost of adoptions on the East Coast. Handy also says independent adoptions here generally cost less than agency adoptions, although Adoptive Parent Services coordinator Leah Sheldon of Adoption Connection, a nonprofit agency affiliated with Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco, says either way can be less or more expensive than the other, depending on the circumstances.

No matter what the financial impact, it can be eased considerably through the $10,000 federal adoption tax credit. You can get a copy of “Tax Benefits for Adoption” from the IRS by calling 1-800-TAX-FORM (829-3676).

Private Agency Adoption

Private adoption agencies, which generally are established by religious charities and social service organizations, act as the “middle man” between birth parents and adoptive parents, with birth parents relinquishing parental rights to the agency. All private adoption agencies in California must be licensed by the state Department of Social Services. Unlike independent adoptions, agencies require the home study to be approved before placement, which can prolong the waiting period.

What many find appealing about private agencies is that adoptions usually can be completed under one roof, with a full array of classes and support services for both the birth parents and the adoptive parents.

“Many people feel there is more hand-holding and more counseling in an agency,” says Randie Bencanann, co-director of Adoption Connection.

Ron and Kathy Bauer of Fair Oaks adopted their sons, Andrew, 2, and Joel, 4 months, as newborns through Adoption Connection after researching both independent and intercountry adoption. They ruled out the latter.

“All that paperwork and the thought of traveling a long way to pick up a child—we didn’t want to start out like that; we knew it was going to be a big job anyway,” says Kathy, 43, a stay-at-home mom.

“And,” adds Ron, a 40-year-old marketing manager for Intel, “there are children here who need homes.”

 Although the Bauers found a few adoption attorneys they liked, their decision to go with the agency boiled down to “choosing someone you really want to work with that you feel good about,” Ron says.

“There are people out there doing it for the wrong reasons. Adoption Connection was somebody we thought had their heart in the right place.”

Another advantage the Bauers saw with the agency was a smaller window of time for the birth mother to change her mind. Agencies advise and counsel the birth mother before and after the birth, after which she signs the relinquishment of her parental rights. She has one working day to change her mind. With the 30-day period required in independent adoptions, “I would feel exposed,” Ron says.

The Bauers, who waited about a year for each of their sons, paid about $8,000 for the first adoption. (The second had not been finalized at the time of this writing.) They saved money by paying only for the services they needed and doing some of their own paperwork.

Recently, many agencies have begun incorporating some aspects of independent adoptions. In this new hybrid, called “identified adoptions,” birth parents choose the adoptive parents, just like they do in independent adoptions. Parental rights, however, are still relinquished to the agency.

Bottom line in deciding on an agency: Be certain it’s reputable. Bencannan advises, “Make sure the agency is licensed by the state, ask how many adoptions they’ve done and ask for references.”

Public Agency Adoption

If you’d like to adopt an older child or sibling group, you might consider adopting through the foster care system. This type of adoption is open to people of all stripes, including singles, unmarried couples, mixed-race couples, older people, people who work full time and nonhomeowners—assuming, of course, that they are in good health, make an adequate income, can provide a safe, healthy environment for the child and can document compliance with state regulations.

Sacramento County is licensed for foster-care adoptions through the Department of Health and Human Services. Private state-licensed agencies such as Lilliput Children’s Services and Sierra Adoption Services also specialize in foster-care adoptions. In Sacramento County, there are approximately 1,300 children under study for adoption; of those, 500 are freed for adoption, meaning that permanent homes for these children are needed. Half of the children waiting for adoption in Sacramento County are between the ages of 6 and 11.

One big advantage to public agency adoption is the cost—or lack thereof. Other than a $20 filing fee and a $500 home-study fee (which can be waived based on the adoptive family’s circumstances or the needs of the child), the county charges nothing and even provides funds, regardless of income, to help meet the basic and special needs of the adopted children throughout their dependency. Funds are distributed through the federal Adoption Assistance Program and are tied to the basic foster-care rate structure. Any child receiving funds is eligible for Medi-Cal benefits.

But you can’t just walk in and walk out with a child; first you must become a licensed foster parent, which requires nine weeks of training. Most of the children in the foster-care system have been removed from their birth families due to abuse or neglect and usually have physical and/or emotional scars, which may present extra challenges for the adoptive family.

Enter the Slakeys, who are hoping to adopt for the second time through Lilliput. They want a sister for ClareMarie, preferably a 3- to 5-year-old African-American girl. Mark is completing his foster-parent training, and Vicki will begin hers when he is finished. In addition to ClareMarie, the Slakeys have an 11-year-old biological son, Connor, and Vicki has a grown son from a previous marriage.

“This year, it’s been very challenging for ClareMarie because she’s had to deal with being the only one and not looking like anybody else,” Vicki says. “We’ll see people at the grocery store or the library and she’ll say, ‘Look, mommy, that girl looks just like me.’ She’s been aware of it for a long time. Mark’s like, ‘So we’re adopting a child for ClareMarie.’ Well, in some ways yes and in some ways no. We’ve been told by adoption experts that that’s a good reason for adopting again because it is a challenge for her to be the only one in the family with brown skin. But besides that, the reason we’re adopting again is because we believe adoption is a wonderful thing. This is a life’s work—what God would want us to do.”

She continues, “I think the No. 1 fear people who adopt have when they already have children in the home is, how will this affect the children I already have? And will this be more than I can handle? But I feel very confident that the workers at Lilliput know us, they know what we can handle, and I feel like between them and us we’ll find what fits for us.”

International Adoption

Some people adopt internationally out of an altruistic desire to save a child from desperate conditions. And then there are those who are skittish about adopting in the United States, usually because of a bad experience—or fear of one—with a birth mother.

“It is not uncommon for a family to come to us who may have already had two or three failed domestic adoption attempts,” says Carole Stiles, vice president of Social Services for Holt International Children’s Services, Inc., which has a branch in Sacramento.

Intercountry adoptions by Americans number close to 20,000 a year, almost triple the number in the early 1990s. More than half the children come from China and Russia, followed by Korea and Guatemala, says Stiles by phone from Holt’s headquarters in Eugene, Ore.

Most international adoptions are “closed”: Because the children have been abandoned to an orphanage, there is no contact between birth and adoptive parents.

Adopting internationally is not for the financially challenged; it typically costs between $15,000 and $25,000, sometimes much higher. Nor is it for the instant-gratification crowd; with three bureaucracies involved, there’s a boatload of red tape. Meanwhile, the children aren’t getting any younger. Time of placement depends on the laws of the country.

Says Stiles, “All children placed from Korea are around five months of age. In China, they range from 10 or 11 months at the time of placement to 5 or 6. Older children tend to have special needs. In all other countries, you need to be open to a child at least 18 months old because that’s how long it takes the legal process. Some countries can’t legally initiate adoption until the child is 6 months old.”

Steve and Cindy Ruder of Roseville adopted their 7-year-old daughter Kelly from China when she was 5. One of their biggest concerns was that she would have attachment issues because she’d spent her whole life in an orphanage and foster care.

“All of the information we had about Kelly was that she was going to be very withdrawn and shy,” says Steve, 42. “We already had two beautiful (biological) kids who were well-established. And we recognized the possibility that the child we adopted could have a lot of emotional baggage, and that could disrupt our family life. But Kelly was just great. When we met her, I told her in Mandarin that I loved her; she said ‘I love you, Dad.’ As it turns out, I firmly believe Kelly is our child. She came into our life and has fit within our family structure better than I could possibly imagine.”

To prepare for the adoption, the Ruders had to assemble a dossier—a collection of documents that typically includes financial statements, medical records, birth certificates, a marriage license, a home-study report (China requires four visits with a social worker), fingerprint clearances and copies of passports. This process alone can take six months; the Ruders did it in three.

The Ruders waited about a year before receiving approval to travel to China to pick up their daughter.
“For China, you have to be there about a week and a half,” says Cindy, a 41-year-old social worker for the disabled. “You have to go to the child’s province to do the initial paperwork and then you have to go to (the U.S. Consulate in) Guangzhou in southern China to get the child’s visa and complete the process.”

Looking back, the Ruders have no regrets, and don’t know anybody who’s adopted internationally who does. An added bonus, they say, is their appreciation of Chinese culture through Kelly’s eyes.

“She frequently tells us stories from China,” says Steve, a social worker/stay-at-home dad. “There was a day we had a mouse at school and I took a broom to swish it out the door. She started laughing and said, ‘In China, we take the broom and hit the mouse!’”


His First Mom

by Jennifer Davidson

After my son was born and went home with his new parents, I spent hours frantically scrawling out illegible page after page, trying to explain to him why I had not taken him home with me. Yet it was impossible to map words over feelings, pleading with letters to form meaning that portrayed the melting pot of sacrifice, grief and raw love that lived inside me. I worried that my son would grow up with the same cockeyed perception with which other people would innocently peel away the love and commitment I felt for him and paste them onto the woman who would raise him, simply because I chose his parents instead of becoming one.

My son came to be from an instantly explosive and fantastic relationship filled with fireworks, passion and elements that blinded me to the end of the relationship right around the corner. Yet there I was, alone and pregnant, when wisdom and clarity finally became my friends. They spoke to me about this child of mine, so perfect, so ready for a life of opportunity, so deserving of the home we all wish we had. But I was a single young woman in college, without a job. I was scared of the sacrifices we would be obligated to make just to survive. I was wise enough to see that the life I had waiting for my child was far from wonderful, even far from satisfactory, and I loved him so much more than that. With this clarity, I embarked on the journey that would separate me from my son.

I asked to meet Michael and Renée days after I received and pored over several letters from prospective adoptive parents. I knew this couple was extraordinary the moment I saw their picture. They were casually dressed, not particularly posed, but the image of them sitting together captured a wholesome, peaceful presence that touched me. We met at a local restaurant. I wasn’t surprised that we shared mutual values and interests, but I was thrilled that we immediately liked one another. Instantly, I wanted to cuddle up close to Renée, close my eyes and forget everything I was going through. I wanted to bask in the respect Michael showed me—utterly free of judgment. We talked and laughed and shared all evening, but I never interviewed them that night. It wasn’t a business transaction that brought us together; it was the possibility of becoming family. That night, as we stood outside the restaurant, I looked at these two people and, seeing the parents I wished I could be for my unborn child, asked them to be my baby’s parents.

What began as a commitment out of love for a child and mutual respect for one another grew into a relationship as deeply rooted as a family tree. Our relationship developed naturally, with regular phone calls, evenings out together, trips to the park and doctor visits. I learned Michael and Renée’s pet names for each other, how fast they drove on the freeway and what they ate for dinner, while Renée worried about my sick fish, knew the intimate details of my eternal battle with my hair and amusingly watched me save snails in danger of being stepped on. And together we shared in the excitement of each doctor appointment—so much that my obstetrician snuck an ultrasound into every visit just to watch us squeal with joy at our son’s growth and movements on screen.

We got along so well and discussed so many things, I believed we had it all mapped out. I never imagined we would disagree on anything, and when we did, I panicked. I worried that if I spoke my mind, I might jeopardize the beauty of our relationship. We had never tested the depth of our commitment to one another, and I was scared that it balanced on the fact that I was a “good” birth mother-to-be who didn’t make waves.

 I wanted my son to be fully vaccinated; Renée wasn’t so sure. I wouldn’t sign away my parental rights early; she couldn’t understand why. I wanted to be his only mother in the hospital, while she was preparing to stay with him in case he needed her. Painstakingly, I learned that our relationship was indeed “real” and could withstand our disagreements. Each time we ran into a bump, I tried to look at the larger picture to decide which issues to let go of and which ones I needed to talk about.

Together, we completed Lamaze class and waited those final weeks for the day we had been planning for. Finally, early one morning, my first contraction woke me. It took another 40 hours before my son, Colin, was born. When he finally arrived, I felt on top of the world. He was healthy, beautiful and in my arms. Then it was time to go home.

The moment I had prepared for these last six months could not have felt more foreign to me than if I had been asked to breathe water. I felt hatred toward time as it raced forward to the moment I would place my child into the soothing swaddle of Renée’s arms. My heart wanted nothing more in the world than the experience of “me and my son” to last forever. Sitting in the parking lot with empty arms, watching her calm my screaming son, took more from me than words were meant to tell.

I still have the tormented tissue of those final moments tucked away in a tiny satin bag. It holds the saddest tears I have ever cried. I went home to an empty bed, with an empty womb. As I clutched the thin receiving blanket that wrapped him hours ago, I breathed in deeply and prayed the smell of him would last forever, so I would never forget. I pleaded he would remember the suckle of my breast and the sweet comfort of my voice, and I refused to remove my hospital bracelet and the toenail polish that I wore when he was born. The plan I had worked so hard to make meant nothing to my heart.

I took a mere two days off from school. I returned and began a new job I had lined up a month earlier to keep myself focused. Still, I found myself returning to the places I had spent quiet time with Colin while I carried him. At work, I found myself hoping that the metal chair I chose to sit in was the very one I sat in during my interview with my rotund belly. Every familiar place harbored a poignant memory of a life that would never be. I was a captive of the fundamental wisdom of motherhood, bestowed upon me the first moment I held my son. It was a wisdom that swiftly redirected every breath, every act and every thought into the purpose of a child. Indifferent to my gracious act of love, life had not spared me this gift of motherhood.

 Instead, it left me grieving like a wild animal that had lost her baby, carrying around her dead infant in her mouth, unable to let go.

Yet somehow, I always believed that, no matter what, I’d still be Colin’s mother. But time quickly began to move on without me, strengthening the bond between Renée and Colin. I wasn’t prepared for a world in which he existed where I was unrecognizable. Meanwhile, we held an entrustment ceremony in Colin’s honor to sanctify the trust between us. For me it was an embarrassing, painful discovery as Michael and Renée read a simple passage, declaring a shift in their focus from my pain and gift of my child to their confidence in their roles as real parents. Finally, on the day Colin tried to claw his way out of my arms and back into the safe harbor of Renée’s, I felt like the sacrifice I made as his birth mother had been way too much. It was a permanent disillusion of my innocent hope that somehow I would always be his mom. At 1 year old, my son and his parents moved to Colorado, a thousand miles away from me, to return to the place they called home. I felt I had nothing left except for the small voice that I wished would go away that whispered I must heal and move forward.

It took me five years of frustration and tears to figure out what healing might look like. I knew there had to be a place for me in my child’s life that offered to make amends with my decision that had cost me so much. Yet without guidelines to help me find balance between the fierce maternal feelings I had for my son and the reality that I was not his mother, the road to finding my place seemed endless. Even so, I continued my quiet struggle to find comfort and understand my place in his life. When I thought of myself as his “birth mom,” the phrase elicited nothing but a dead end, a footnote of the nebulous person who bore someone else’s child—nothing more.

Then my friend used the term “first mom,” and instantly, a simple change in vocabulary gave me permission to feel like a real mother instead of an incubator. It allowed me to look in a place that held something far more personal—something only I could give my son as his first mother, without wandering into the forbidden roles and rights of parenthood that I had given up. I realized what I had for him were the treasures of his history, his heritage, his family resemblance and slices of his character and personality. Recognizing these gifts became the calm that quieted my sea of pain and showed me that my special place as my son’s first mom had always been there, waiting for me to find it.

Finding my place was a big step, but I still didn’t know how to give meaning to it a thousand miles away. Then one day, Renée told me that Colin kept the cards and letters I had sent him over the years on a shelf in his room so he could read them whenever he chose. She said they had always been very special to him. At that moment, I felt like the bridge I had never been able to travel was finally built. That day, I began writing a poem for his fifth birthday about the time he and I saved 11 tadpoles from dying. Finally, I had found a way to give my presence in his life meaning. For Christmas that year, I sent him the very same squirrel and bird feeders that I have. In his card, I wrote that I chose these gifts so that whenever he missed me he could look out his window and know that I would do the same and we would see the very same thing, the very same day. It was a gift that said silently, “I will never leave you. I simply could not raise you.”

Four and a half years ago, I gave birth to a daughter, Georgia. Sometimes at night, when I’m lying in bed with my arm around her as she sleeps, I cannot help but imagine what it would be like to have my empty arm hugging my son, too. No one needs to remind me that my life wouldn’t resemble the one I have today had I made a different choice for Colin, who is now 7, and myself. It’s not regret, just a moment in which I whisk my mind to a fairytale land of motherhood where all the dreams we had as innocent mothers-to-be come true. Don’t we all go there sometimes? What is real, though, is  the invaluable role I have in my son’s life. It brings me peace to fulfill the commitment I have always felt for him, and I can only smile at what the future holds.