Getting Started With Adoption

Starting a family by adopting may be a second choice, but advocates say it isn't a second-best choice. Still, there is a lot to consider after you've made the decision to adopt a child.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 09, 2003
5 min read

Adam Pertman, a father of two in Boston, adopted because he and his wife couldn't conceive. Kathryn Creedy, a single mom in Vermont, chose adoption because she wanted kids, but didn't want to be pregnant.

Just as there are a multitude of reasons for adopting, there are also many ways to go about it. For those first setting out to adopt, the choices are often bewildering.

Should you pick an infant from a Beijing orphanage, or an older American kid out of foster care? Would it be best to work with an agency, or retain a private attorney? How open a relationship, if any, do you want to have with the child's birth mother.

"The most simplistic answer at the beginning is, educate yourself," Pertman says.

In addition to having adopted twice, Pertman is the author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming America, and he heads up the Evan B. Donaldson Foundation, an adoption policy, education, and research group based in New York.

But he wasn't an adoption expert before he adopted his first child, Zachary, now 9. Like most people are when they first consider adoption, he was in the dark.

Before making a big commitment, like marriage or pregnancy, Pertman says, "We get some sense of the landscape before we jump in." Adoption ought to be no different, but it is. Approaching most of life's milestones, we already have some sense of what's involved. "In adoption, because it's been a whispered secret for so long, we haven't developed those instincts," he says.

Owing to this history of secrecy, you may have negative feelings about adoption, so the first step is to confront that.

Although adoption is "often a second choice," Pertman says, "it's not second best."

"The vast majority of adoptive parents come to adoption through infertility, but there are many of us for whom adoption was our first choice," says Creedy, executive director of the Institute for Adoption Information, in Bennington, Vermont. Like Pertman, she became an adoption expert and advocate as a result of her experiences -- and love for her adopted kids.

"We keep secrets about things we're ashamed of," Pertman says. "I'm not ashamed of how I formed my family. I love the way I did it. I love my kids. We should be proud."

Choosing the right route to adoption means, ultimately, choosing the right child -- not just one that will please you, but one for whom you can provide the best upbringing.

Creedy tells of one couple she counseled on adoption, who were white and living in Louisiana. "They were adamant that they didn't care about the race of the child and that they wanted to go overseas," she says. "A black child did not faze them at all. They were open to any and all possibilities.

"I said, well, I'm glad to hear that, but what is your milieu? In other words, how are your parents going to feel about a black child? And how are your neighbors? And how is the school?"

Upon considering this, the couple changed their minds.

"Their job is to make that child as comfortable as possible," Creedy says. "If they know that relatives harbor prejudices, and they reckon love will conquer all, they're not doing right by that child."

There are children available for adoption in orphanages all over the world -- particularly the developing world. Adopting from another country is a popular option, given that adoptive parents tend to want babies, and babies tend to be more readily available abroad. But by adopting internationally, you'll likely create a mixed-race family, in which case you'd have to be willing to accept all that entails.

Adopting a child out of foster care is another option. In 1999, the most recent year for which data are available, 117,000 American kids in foster care were available for adoption.

Kids in foster care often have "special needs," which can mean a number of things. They tend to be older, for one. Few infants are available. There are also many sets of siblings who must be adopted together, children who are emotionally troubled or developmentally challenged, and some with medical problems.

You may be willing and able to deal with special needs; you may not.

Adoption agencies and attorneys who specialize in adoption are another route to finding a child here in the U.S. Their function is to connect you with a mother who wants you to adopt her child.

In the past, a mother who "gave up" her child to adoption did so in a profound way. After she delivered the baby, it would be whisked away from her, never to be seen again.

Today, the birth mother can choose who will adopt her baby, and negotiate terms for contact over the course of the child's life. In some adoptions, just identifying information is exchanged. In more "open" adoptions, she is entitled to reports about the child from time to time, or she may even be allowed to visit.

"Thankfully, many, many parents today are getting into open adoption and becoming a new type of family," Creedy says. "It's a much more healthy environment for the child."

The idea of having birth mothers involved in their lives can cause anxiety for adoptive parents. But Pertman says fears of birth mothers' meddling are largely unfounded. "They've made the decision they're not going to parent the child. They've made the decision that you are."

Nevertheless, to make sure that things go smoothly, any agency you work with should provide support services before the adoption and for years afterward.

"You want this to be an ethical, warm, loving process and not a financial transaction," Pertman says. But parents do pay steep fees to adoption agencies. "For those fees, you should expect good service, and the service is not just delivery of a child, or that's getting perilously near the line of buying a baby."

In addition to guiding you through the labyrinth of legalities, agencies should provide access to counseling for everyone involved -- you, the child, and the birth mother.

Most importantly, Pertman says, "Be a good consumer -- not of children, but of services."