About to Enter the Adoption Maze? Be Warned: Getting Through Wont Be Easy

updated 12/02/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/02/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Only a decade or so ago, adopting a child was, for the average white American couple, a relatively uncomplicated way of starting a family. Now, as a result of birth control, the legalization of abortion and the erosion of the stigma attached to unwed motherhood, all that has changed. "The traditional supply of kids has dried up," says Fred Powledge, author of The New Adoption Maze (Mosby, $15.95). "Adoption has become a whole new game." In interviews with social workers, adoption agency personnel and both would-be and successful adoptive parents, he discovered the complex, often frustrating rules that must be followed. An adoptee himself, Powledge, 50, hopes his book will help dispel some of the confusion that makes the process so difficult. "I think adoption is a wonderful thing," he explained to reporter Joyce Campbell Seymore, "and I wanted to make whatever contribution I could to ensure that more kids—especially those who were once thought of as unadoptable—would know what it is to have a home of their own."

What is the adoption maze?

It is that intricate set of obstacles, dead ends, false leads and time-consuming journeys that someone pursuing an adoption invariably goes through. It is partly a result of the bureaucracy and partly a result of the perceived shortage of children. Both have helped to complicate the adoption process.

In what way?

Someone who wants a child today and calls an agency will most likely be told that there is a wait of several years. As a result people have been forced to try other methods, such as private adoption, foreign adoption, even the black market. In addition they have to figure out how much money they are willing to spend. Would it bother them to pay $25,000 for a child?

Who is the average adopter?

The stereotypical couple has been practicing birth control for a long time, decide they want to have a child and are unable to conceive. They endure tests, then get the news that one of them is infertile. They finally make the decision to adopt, and in their minds that's the end. What they don't know is that they are at the very beginning of the maze and that only the most determined couples will succeed.

Where should people who want to adopt begin?

Call the library or somebody you know who has adopted. Get a list of the adoption support groups in your town and go to meetings. You'll see people there who have been through the maze. You'll learn which agencies to approach or avoid. If you're pushing 40, you'll want to know which agencies might look kindly on you and which ones won't give you the time of day. You will also hear about interesting alternatives to adopting healthy Caucasian children.

What will someone encounter who decides to work through an agency?

When you first call, an agency may tell you forget it right then and there. They may send you an application, or they may ask you to come to an orientation meeting. It's all part of a weeding-out process. They have hundreds of people wanting the tiny number of babies they can provide. Factors they may take into consideration include age, stability and parenting ability. If you fit the agency's profile, you'll go on to a personal interview and a home study, which involves a series of meetings with a social worker. The agency is trying to let you know its ideas about how a child should be raised. In addition, they may want a lot
of personal information, even including how many times a week you have sex. They can really invade people's lives and justify it as another attempt to find out how normal you are.

How honest should one be?

Some successful adopters I've talked to would advise you to lie your head off. I believe you should tell the truth, but baring your soul could backfire if you misjudge what the social workers want to hear. I think the notion of behaving the way you would at a job interview is just about right.

What should people do who can't wait years or who are rejected by an agency?

They can consider private adoption. Most of these are arranged by lawyers who serve as intermediaries just as the agencies do. Very often they will know of a woman who is about to have a baby and someone who wants to adopt, and will bring them together.

Is private adoption legal?

Not in all states. Illinois, for example, does not technically allow intermediaries to search directly for a child. But they do allow prospective parents to do so. Some of these couples bombard gynecologists and obstetricians with letters. Others put ads in newspapers. Some states, however, such as Massachusetts, Connecticut and Michigan, outlaw private adoption in any form.

What are the advantages of private adoption vs. agency adoption?

It is a device by which people who insist on healthy white infants can get them. It's faster. You don't have to sit there wondering whether you're going to be 50 years old when you get your kid. And it can give the birth mother a chance to find out a lot about the adoptive parents of her child.

Are there disadvantages?

The agencies would argue that it does not provide for a proper home study. In some cases the couples are not scrutinized at all. Most states require a cursory home study, but it often takes place after placement. In a private adoption the birth mother doesn't get proper counseling, and I would also argue that she doesn't get proper legal representation. You've got one lawyer serving as the legal adviser to the adopters, the adoptee and the birth mother. I don't know of any other situation in which a lawyer is allowed to represent all sides in a transaction.

What is the cost of a private adoption?

There are no statistics on this, but my research shows that the lawyer's fee may be anywhere from $3,500 to $10,000. Often there are other charges, such as paying for the medical care of the birth mother. The average agency often uses a sliding scale pegged to income, so that an agency adoption can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to as much as $5,000.

Are many interracial adoptions taking place these days?

The National Association of Black Social Workers has taken a position against the placement of black children in white homes, saying it tampers with the child's sense of black identity. At the same time the organization is trying to get traditionally white-dominated agencies to put more blacks on their staffs. The result is that more black couples are adopting now, and for them the process goes much quicker than it does for white couples.

How are foreign adoptions handled?

There are agencies that do foreign adoptions exclusively. Traditional agencies are getting into the act, too.

Is foreign adoption easier?

If you ask someone who is in the process of doing it, they'll probably tell you no. The cost can be as much as $15,000, and instead of one or two layers of bureaucracy, you'll find yourself dealing with four or five. You've got the U.S. government and the government of the other country. You've got lawyers and very likely an orphanage. The chances for problems developing are phenomenal, particularly if you don't speak the right foreign language.

So what's the advantage?

Speed. Unless you really get balled up, a foreign adoption can be completed in as little as nine months.

What is meant by an open adoption?

It can mean an adoption in which the birth mother and the adoptive parents meet and have an ongoing relationship after the adoption. What it is more likely to mean is simply a greater degree of frankness than before. Some agencies are asking birth mothers to write a letter for the adoptive parents to read to the child at the proper time. Other agencies allow an exchange of pictures but no names or addresses.

Why is this beneficial?

It acknowledges that the birth mother is a human being who cares about her child. Social workers say that there is a great deal of mourning on the birth mother's part after she relinquishes her baby. I believe open adoption reduces that grief, because she isn't sending the baby out into the unknown.

Perhaps the greatest fear of adoptive parents is that the birth mother will appear one day. Doesn't open adoption foster that?

It has been pretty well proven that if people want to find out who their biological parents are or where their biological child is, they can. It is apparently not any more likely to happen in an open adoption. Proponents of open adoption argue that it's less likely because the birth mother's natural curiosity and apprehension are taken care of beforehand.

What course of action should single people, gay couples or other untraditional adopters follow?

The classic way for them to proceed is through private adoption. A lawyer should not be prejudiced against them, although the birth mother and father may be. Foreign adoption is another alternative that is more open to them. Korea is quite strict about requiring married, heterosexual couples, but some of the Central Amercan countries are more lenient in such matters. These people will also have more success if they are willing to take a special-needs child—one who is older or emotionally or physically handicapped in some way, or of racially mixed parentage. Many licensed agencies have pictures and descriptions of children specially in need of adoption.

What type of person should consider such an adoption?

People I've talked to who have done it think that it's the best thing in the world, but they're the first to say it's definitely not for everybody. These kids are often suspicious of adults after being in the child welfare system all their lives, and they don't reciprocate love immediately. But it's obvious that these parents believe the rewards of providing a home for a child who otherwise wouldn't have one far outweigh any risk.

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