Dawn Davenport, author of The Complete Book of International Adoption, shares her insight about adopting from China. She talks about the different adoption options, adoptive parent requirements, choosing a Chinese adoption agency, surviving the home study, how much it will cost, and much more.
Do you need more advice about adopting a child from China?
Read her book, The Complete Book of International Adoption.
Talk about preparing to be an adoptive parent. How do you decide if international adoption is right for you?
You do have a number of options when you’re thinking about adopting. The basic options are, domestic adoption, and that can mean either a birth mother placement or a newborn infant adoption, or adopting through foster care. Or you can go to international—and there really are different processes. And it depends somewhat on what you’re looking for—the age of the children differs between all three of those options, and the process is different as I mentioned before. With a newborn domestic adoption, the birth mother is selecting the family. So some families feel like either they don’t want to have to try to market themselves or sell themselves to a prospective birth parent, or they don’t feel quite frankly that they’re going to be chosen, for whatever reason. Maybe they are a single parent or maybe they are an older parent, or they already have a child or whatever. Their perception would lead them to think that they would not be chosen, so that might skew the odds and shift them towards the international adoption route.
Walk us through the process of adopting a child from China. Kind of give us an overview of what happens between the time you decide to go ahead and do it, until your new child arrives in your home.
China is an interesting country right now to talk about, and in some ways, I think it may well be the future of where other countries are going to move in international adoption. There really are two different parallel tracks for adopting right now from China. One is what we kind of usually call the traditional adoption program, and the other one is the special needs or waiting child adoption program. And they’re quite different, and certainly the waiting times are hugely different. The initial beginning stages are pretty much the same. You select a placing adoption agency, and then, if you don’t live in the same state or nearby that agency, you also then have to choose a home study agency. The first step is you start collecting all the paperwork that’s required by China. Things such as marriage certificates, divorce certificates, there’s a list of documentation that China requires. At the same time, you start the home study process, which is both an evaluation and education process. They should be going on simultaneously. The home study provider, usually a social worker, is going to be educating you about adoption, but at the same time, he or she will be evaluating you to be in compliance with both your state laws as well as the requirements of China. Then once you get all that stuff together, your home study, at the end, is going to either recommend or not recommend you as an adoptive parent, and then you get all the paperwork that you need and it’s all compiled into something that’s called a dossier and the dossier is then sent to China. The programs then kind of start differing. If you’re going the traditional program route, the Chinese adoption bureaucratic agency, called the CCAA, takes your dossier, puts it in the queue of a lot of other dossiers, and then when your time comes around, matches you to a child. The child usually is healthy, although whenever we’re talking about international adoption, it’s more of a term of art, because we know that children that have been institutionalized can have some health issues. The issues in the traditional program are considered relatively minor, and the children are usually between the ages of ten months to fifteen months, something along those lines, there’s some variation. The waiting times now for that program are exceptionally long—four years plus, and no one really knows what’s going to be happening in the future. There are some who are saying it might decrease at some point, others say it will not. If you’re wanting to adopt a child with special needs, you submit your dossier to China and then you are able to get information about certain children who they’re looking for families for and you select the child that you feel you’re best able to parent, and you notify the CCAA of your intent, and then that child is matched with you. Waiting times there vary depending on what kind of special needs you’re willing to accept, but most people I’m talking with, from the time they submit their dossier to the time they have their child at home, it’s often less than one year.
How does the Chinese adoption process differ from other international adoptions?
Well, certainly one way is the really long waiting time right now. If you go with the traditional, sometimes called healthy child program, it is really an exceptionally long period of time right now that a family would have to wait. Another difference, it’s going to seem somewhat of a contradiction to what I just said, but the program is very systematic—it’s a path that has been trod before, and once you are in line you know what to expect and things just kind of plod forward. In some ways people would take exception to that by saying that anytime you have this long a wait, that’s a rut not a well-trod path, and I would agree with that. But there are not a lot of big surprises, it’s a very stable program, even though most people are very disappointed with the exceptionally long wait. You don’t get a lot of upheaval in the program. A couple of years ago they changed some of their adoptive parent requirements, but even then, it was well-known in advance that these changes were going to be coming down the pike, so there’s a predictability to the Chinese program that’s not there for all of the programs.
Talk about choosing an agency to assist you. What should you look for when evaluating a Chinese adoption agency?
Well, a lot of the same things you would look for in evaluating any adoption agency. I like to say that this is the second most important decision you’re going to make in the adoption process, the first one, of course, being whether or not this is the child for you to parent, but at Creating a Family, we’ve put a lot of effort into providing resources for families in how to choose an agency. We recommend a three step process, and the first step, it’s really what I like to think of as the first cut—you’re making some of the big, broad general decisions now—do you want a local agency or a national agency? Do you want a small agency or a large agency? How many years of experience are you going to feel comfortable with? You also, of course at this stage, want to make sure that they provide pre-adoption education and if so, do they stress that? Is it convenient for you? I should add that in any international adoption, it is required, although, truthfully, it’s a fairly minimal amount, only ten hours of pre-adoption education, and you’re going to weed out any agencies at this stage that don’t stress pre-adoption education. And the other thing you’re going to want to look for at this stage is what type of post-adoption services, because the goal of the first step is to narrow the huge universe of adoption agencies down to a manageable few, so you want to make sure that any agency you select is going to have some post-adoption services. From my perspective, it is important to choose an agency that provides humanitarian aid or support, if not in China, in other countries, because I think we want to encourage the selection of agencies that give back in some way, and we include a lot of resources. The first step really can be done primarily online, and it should be. And we include a lot of links to help you kind of figure all that out, as well as how to help you think through some of the big decisions. Hopefully at this point you’ve narrowed the universe down to a few, so in the second step, we have a list of questions for you to ask the agency, and I really think that’s important. At this point, you don’t want to do it online, you want to call up or meet if it’s a local agency, have a face-to-face or voice-to-voice conversation with the agency and ask these questions. And then after the second step, you’ve narrowed it down even further, then we come to the final cut, so to speak, and that’s when you’re doing a little snooping, you’re doing your background checks, you’re going to check on their licensing, you’re going to check on any complaint history, then you’re going to try to get some references, check on their reputation, some in which can be done online, some of which cannot. And last but certainly not least you’re going to be comparing the total cost by using different agencies. So that’s the basic approach that we suggest to use when choosing an adoption agency.
Dawn, is there any place online where you can find photolistings of Chinese children who are in need of adoption?
Yes, there are, most of them are password-protected, as is required by the CCAA. The children that are looking for families are the waiting children, the children with special needs. Some agencies have a specific list of children that they’ve been given by the CCAA to try to find homes and information on those children—maybe or maybe not photos—but information on the child—the age, special needs and any medical information—is available on the adoption agency site, and you don’t even have to necessarily have a dossier or an application in with that agency, you may still be able to access those lists. And then there is what’s called a shared list, which any agency that is licensed by or authorized by China to place their waiting children, would have access to. Some agencies provide access to families, some don’t. Most provide some type of access to those lists.
What are the rules and requirements for Chinese adoptions? What are the qualifications to be an adoptive parent?
China has a very specific list of requirements. It raised a bit of a stink when they changed their adoptive parent requirements a number of years ago, but they’re very specific, and again, some people would say it’s a disadvantage to the Chinese program, their specificity, and their rigidity of what they’re willing to accept. But on the other hand, you don’t often have people who get very far in the process. Any agency that places many children ought to be able to look at your family and say whether or not China will accept your family.
What are the costs involved with a Chinese adoption? I guess for a family considering adopting from China, what kind of funds should they have available before starting the process, and are there any organizations that can assist you with the cost?
It’s hard to give an exact cost, simply because part of the Chinese adoption process is traveling to China and it somewhat depends on how many people you have going to China. It would be entirely possible, between $18,000-$23,000 plus travel, and yes, there are places that provide either loans, certainly through banks or second mortgages or whatever, but there are grants, usually it is income-dependent, although sometimes children with more severe special needs, there are other grants that are not income-dependent. Keep in mind that we also have the tax credit, the United States tax credit, is applicable to international adoptions as well.
You talked earlier about the home study process. Talk about that, what’s required to adopt a Chinese child, and how the whole process works.
You know, I’m glad you asked that question, because the whole process is set up to feel intimidating, you know that’s not why it’s set up, but the reality is, it’s such an intimidating process to so many parents, and it really needn’t be, but no adoption agency, and no country is looking for that perfect parent, as if that entity ever existed. Who possibly is the perfect parent, certainly none of us who are parents, and the adoption home study process is not really looking at all for the perfect parent, so a lot of the fear people have going in is misplaced. There are two sets of requirements for the home study. One is the requirements of your state, and the second is the requirements of China. You have to have, for instance, fire extinguishers, upstairs windows that a child can’t fall out, some states require that if you’re using well water, that you’ve had the water analyzed, things like that. It’s basically set up for safety reasons for the child, and China’s requirements are not particularly onerous from the home study standpoint. They’re looking for a certain amount of education to understand about raising a child that is of a different race and ethnicity of the family, things like that.
Talk about planning your adoption trip to China. Will the adoption agency you choose help with this, and are there travel agents who specialize in arranging this type of travel?
One of the unique things about adopting from China, most agencies send families in groups, so you will often be traveling with a group of five or six other families that are also going to be adopting in the same province that you’ll be adopting. Some agencies arrange for the flights, often the parents arrange for their own flights, but they meet up and they are met at the airport by an agency representative who stays with them the entire time and does the translating and is taking them to the places that they need to be for the court dates, things like that, so it’s a relatively seamless process.
I’m sure that most adoptions go smoothly, but have you heard of any horror stories or other significant problems with any Chinese adoptions?
Of course, there are always the exception, so yes, there are disturbing stories from the family’s perspective. They are by far the exception, particularly in China, because again, China’s process is fairly predictable, but I think that families sometimes struggle with the initial reaction of a child who has been institutionalized, sometimes it’s a wonderful reaction, where the child is very complacent or very happy, other times the child is quite sad. That’s certainly not a horror story, it’s actually to be expected, and can easily be worked through. Sometimes there are unknown health issues. That’s pretty unusual in this program, but it certainly could happen, and you are looking for an agency that can work with you and help you get medical care for the child and help you understand what the child’s issues might be. Again, these are certainly not the standard, particularly with Chinese adoptions.
Are there places online where you can read adoption stories from parents who have gone through the process before you?
Yeah, that’s the beautiful thing about the Internet right now. There are lots of places. Creating a Family has a group on Facebook where people routinely share these types of stories. There’s China Adopt Talk, another great forum for people who have adopted from China. There’s a wonderful Yahoo! Group for Chinese children that are adopted. In the early 1990s, it was certainly a lot harder to find others who are going through the process at the same time.
Your website, CreatingaFamily.org, is one of the leading sites on adoption and infertility, and really a tremendous resource. You’ve mentioned a few, but what are some other websites and discussion forums and blogs that you can recommend for someone considering adopting from China?
There’s in-person groups, called Families with Children from China. Almost all major cities have in-person programs, they meet up, and I cannot recommend them enough. It takes a lot of the fear away to meet other families who are going through this. RainbowKids.com is a wonderful resource. In particular, what I like about their site is their special needs page. It is, in my opinion, the best out there. Good information on what it means to parent a child with this specific condition. I blog as well under CreatingaFamily.org/blog. Our Little Tongginator, which is such a cute name, that’s one of my favorites. There’s one called AdoptionTalk, she blogs on general adoption, but she is specifically a mom of children from China. The Gang’s All Here!, it’s another really fun one, from a woman that adopted from China, I love that one too. There are so many that are good out there that you worry you’re leaving somebody out, but those are three of my real favorites.
What are the biggest mistakes that people make when going through the process of adopting from China?
I think sometimes people choose an agency very rapidly, and they don’t spend enough time really doing their research. If you follow our three step process, I’m not promising that it’s quick, it’s not, but it’s not overwhelming if you are narrowing it down each step of the way, because the most time consuming part is the very last step. Not wanting to spend time with the education part up front, just hurry up, get me my kid, oh yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever you’re saying, yeah, yeah, yeah, as far as education. I really think it helps. Go ahead and allow yourself the time to be educated up front, which should be a part of what your agency is requiring of you. Long-term happiness depends on selecting the right agency and preparing yourself beforehand. So I suppose if I had to pick just one, that would be it.
Dawn, any other advice for a family considering a Chinese adoption?
One of the things that I’m encouraging families to do is to open up their concept of what type of child their family would best be able to parent. I think that a lot of us have in our head what is meant by special needs, so we automatically rule out that program thinking that we’re talking about a child with really huge problems, and clearly, children with really big problems—cerebral palsy, Down syndrome—any of those types of really big time problems, are a part of the special needs program, without a doubt. But there are also children that are available for adoption with medically correctable issues. Or not life-threatening issues, like a child who’s missing fingers or has a length discrepancy, a child with a visible birthmark, or a child who happens to be a little older, although adopting older children, you do need to go in with your eyes wide open, but nonetheless, they’re still children. So I think that it’s helpful for people to become educated on what we mean by special needs, particularly if they are interested in adopting from China now, because the traditional program, the waiting times are such that it’s prohibitive for many people.
Dawn Davenport is the author of The Complete Book of International Adoption. She is also Executive Director of Creating a Family, a non-profit providing education and resources for infertility and adoption.