Congratulations! If you’ve made it this far in your search for information on how best to become a “forever family,” then you’ve probably already absorbed one of the cardinal rules for ensuring that you make the most of the pre-adoption period: Learn as much as you can, while you can, before you begin the whirlwind job of parenting.
Whether you’ve already signed on the dotted line with an adoption agency or are still just contemplating international adoption, it’s important to think about the preparations, decisions, expectations, and emotional ups and downs of this period.
What follows is are 10 common-sense steps to help you get the information and support you need, keep your sanity, and enjoy the planning. Consider the list a launching pad for lots more exploration and discussion, and get ready for the ride of a lifetime!
Prepare yourselves to parent. There’s no such thing as too much information. Most families use an adoption agency, and you can expect your adoption agency to require you to take training Welcome the opportunity to learn all you can. There are also online courses available to prospective adoptive parents.
“Read, read, read. Can’t say it enough,” says Carrie Craft in “Preparing to Parent the Adopted Child” on About.com (http://adoption.about.com/od/international/a/preparetoparent.htm). Scour the internet for information on everything from adoption agencies to the country(ies) you’re considering, what you can expect of children who have been institutionalized – as is the case with the vast majority of children adopted from FRUA countries – financial aid, resources in the community once you adopt, issues such as loss and bonding that are common to all adoptees, and even general parenting.
Read books on adoption, international adoption, and parenting. You can find these in your local library, at a local bookstore, through online bookstores, at the FRUA website through its partnership with booksellers, and through other adoptive parents who may be willing to lend a book that was particularly helpful to them.
Connect with other parents through FRUA, through your agency, or through online chat rooms and blogs. Ask adoptive parents to walk you through the process and flag any problems they had that you might be able to avoid.
Ultimately, you want to be as prepared and knowledgeable as possible so that your expectations of your child and yourselves as parents are realistic, you know where to go for help if problems arise, and you can take the inevitable complications that occur in the adoption process with a little more equanimity.
“The adoption process is by no means an easy one, but the more educated and informed you are, the easier and smoother the process will go,” says kir.org, Kids Radio Network, in “Baby Adoption Information.”
One note: You will read and hear information about potential medical, developmental, behavioral, learning, and emotional complications for children adopted from institutions and environments with pre-natal drug and alcohol abuse, malnutrition, and poor pre-natal care. Some concern is appropriate and healthy, according to many international adoption experts, who say that it will lead to one of two positive outcomes: an adoption that is likely to succeed because you are aware of potential issues and of the resources and support to help you and your child; or a decision not to adopt because you don’t feel equipped to handle any such issues that might arise.
“It’s the prospective adoptive parents who are not worried that worry me,” says About.com’s Craft, a longtime adoption columnist. If you do feel hesitation after the reading and the training, “Take a step back and ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ You will know in your heart the right answer to that question,” she adds. The experiences of FRUA families tend to support Craft’s recommendation; some can even pinpoint the time when they knew that moving ahead with the adoption was the right thing to do. Still others will tell you that they benefited from a pause in their adoption process to give additional thought to whether they were ready.
Concludes Dr. George Rogu, Medical Director of Adoptiondirectors.com, on InternationalAdoptionStories.com, “All of my successful adoptive families were those people who were educated on the potential medical and behavioral issues that may occur. They expected the worst, hoped for the best, and worked with their child. When problems arose, these parents sought out professional support services in order to help them.”
So, who can help you sort out what to worry about, where to find help, and how to deal with the stresses involved?
Support is critical. Start lining it up now to help you navigate the adoption process and to help your family through the post-adoption adjustments and beyond. Let extended family and friends know you’ll need some extra support during this pre-adoption time. Don’t be afraid to ask for help in very concrete ways – someone to drive with you to your state capital to get an apostille on a document, for example, or to advise on the necessary equipment to care for a baby. When family and friends offer help, take it.
Seek out other adoptive parents through FRUA, your agency, other adoption support groups in your area, and online. Whenever possible, attend gatherings of these parents – FRUA chapter events or waiting parents evenings, agency events for families, and others. Face-to-face, online, or by phone, don’t be shy about introducing yourself and asking questions. You can get information on agencies, the adoption process, travel issues, and area resources such as local pediatricians who have international adoptees as patients. You can also get encouragement and advice on how to handle the stresses and strains of the adoption process and just generally make contacts who can be helpful post-adoption, as well.
“The key to success is having realistic expectations, re-evaluating expectations periodically, and knowing the resources beforehand so that you can pull that rabbit out of the hat whenever you need to. A good sense of humor is probably helpful, too, but support is probably more important,” says Dr. Jane Aronson, one of the early adoption medical specialists and a FRUA Advisory Board member, on Orphandoctor.com.
Maintain realistic expectations so you won’t be disappointed frequently. There are many unknowns in this process and plenty of opportunities for disappointment or feeling like a bad parent. Take Dr. Aronson’s advice: Do your research; and set appropriate expectations. Don’t plan, for instance, to throw a huge party to introduce family and friends to your child as soon as you arrive home. You need to give your child time to adjust to the new environment and to bond with you first.
Do expect the unexpected in the pre-adoption process, and try not to get frustrated. This is where that sense of humor comes into play. Countries will demand new documents in the middle of your dossier preparation; documents may even be lost; court dates will be moved up or back, and you may find yourselves flying overseas on short notice or once again pushing back the date when you can finally bring your child home. Every adoptive family has a story to tell about something that didn’t go right. Do your best to take the inevitable setbacks in stride.
Know who you are, whom you want, and what you can handle. This may seem self-evident, but giving thought to these questions early in the process will save you time and disappointment. For instance, you may think you know the characteristics of the child you want, but are you sure you know how your partner feels? If you disagree, how will you work this out? Would you both be OK with a trans-racial adoption? Do you know what racial identity issues can arise as your child grows up, and how you would handle them? Do you prefer an infant or an older child? Boy or girl? Sibling group? Could you handle a special needs child? What inner resources and strength do you have to love and nurture a child who turns out to have special needs years after the adoption? Do you have a faith, family, and friends to sustain you? Do you have the financial resources to handle any post-adoption medical, developmental, behavioral, or learning issues? Do you have other children whose needs must be considered? Can you appreciate the culture of your child’s birth country and seek out ways to help your child learn and value the culture?
Perhaps equally important, what if the referral for that “perfect” child doesn’t come along? Like many other life-changing events, adoptions are a product of opportunity and availability. How flexible are you? What if the darling girl in your referral turns out to be the youngest of three siblings waiting for a home? If the adorable boy who is the apple of every eye in the orphanage also has a cleft palate? If the sweet-looking toddler clearly becomes attached to your husband on the first visit but won’t give you the time of day? Realize that there is no such thing as a “perfect” child and that, when you sign up to parent, you are signing up for any challenges that child may introduce.
Thinking through some of these issues within the family will help you choose an agency, identify the birth country(ies) that you are interested in, and move ahead more quickly toward getting a referral. Talking with the agency and other adoptive families and support groups about potential complications will help you avoid delays and disappointment if issues do arise with referrals as the process unfolds.
Choose the right adoption agency. Aside from agreeing to take a particular referral, your choice of an international adoption placement agency may be the most important decision you make. A good agency can help you avoid undue complications, navigate unexpected situations, make your travel easier, and generally support you at a time when you need lots of support.
Note: Some families have used facilitators rather than an agency. Before contracting with a facilitator, do be certain to do the requisite background checks and make sure that the country you want to adopt from will allow you to work through a facilitator.
You may use the same agency that you used for your home study or a different agency, depending in part on whether your preferred placement agency also does home studies. You will find potential agencies through local seminars that they or other organizations give for prospective adoptive parents, through recommendations from other adoptive parents, through the Joint Council on International Children’s Services (www.jcics.org/membership_directory.htm) -- an agency trade group – or through such online sites as Adoptive Families magazine (www.adoptivefamilies.com/internationaladoption.php).
It helps to have some idea of the birth country(ies) that you are considering because many agencies work in specific countries and, within a country, in a specific region. (Note that some countries have restrictions such as maximum allowable ages for adoptive parents or whether same-sex partners can adopt.)
You’ll want to know whether you feel better using a local agency versus being comfortable with working by phone and Internet with an out-of-town agency.
Don’t hesitate to talk to several agencies and compare them. Ask a prospective agency for proof that it’s accredited to operate in the countries where it says it operates, and don’t be shy about asking for references of families who have already adopted through the agency. Don’t hesitate to ask about the backgrounds of the agency principals and the people who will be working with you. Find out about support services the agency provides, both during the process and post-adoption. Get a fee estimate, and don’t be afraid to ask for the details supporting the costs outlined or to compare fee estimates supplied by different agencies
Beyond these considerations, your choice of an agency will be governed by your gut sense of how well you can work together. You will want to feel as though you have not only a competent, but a supportive, agency that will understand your needs.
Create a budget: “Adoptions are expensive, whether domestic or international, so making a plan for the budget and how to pay for the adoption is very important before beginning the procedure,” says kir.org. International adoption placements generally cost $15,000-$20,000. “While you can receive averages for adoption cases you will never know exactly how much your adoption case will cost before you become involved in it,” cautions the kir.org section on adoption. “Having a budget you stick to will help you realize whether or not you are financially able to begin adoption procedures.”
Note: You will want to be sure that you factor in such costs as travel expenses, child care for a sibling at home, and potential post-adoption costs for medical evaluations and other post-adoption needs.
Do share your budget with agencies as you interview them. They may be able to suggest sources of financing. In addition, you want to make sure you don’t sign a contract with an agency and then discover part way through the process that the costs are stretching you beyond your financial limits.
Sources of financial help: Your employer may be a source of adoption financing. The U.S. military offers its members help with recouping the costs of adoption. Some banks will make adoption loans. You might even be able to raise funds through your faith community. The federal government offers a post-adoption tax credit, and some states allow adoption tax deductions.
Have the medical information in your referral reviewed to determine as best you can how healthy the child is and is likely to be. Choose an international adoption clinic – or, if you are lucky enough to have a pediatrician in your area who is experienced in treating internationally adopted children – to review your referral from the agency. These medical professionals are experienced in decoding the medical information in referrals and offering you a sense of where the child falls on the risk spectrum for potential medical, developmental, and other issues. Most have seen and/or treated many children adopted internationally.
There are international clinics around the country; most are associated with a hospital and/or university. (One source for a list: www.ftia.org/resources/clinics.asp.) They do referral evaluations frequently and often will advise you on travel preparations, standard tests to get for your child when you return, and other resources in your community. Some will also be on call for you while you are traveling so that, if unexpected medical issues present themselves when you meet your child, you can get help with an evaluation. Many will see your child after you return and evaluate the child’s health, do a set of standard post-adoption tests to check for parasites and other issues common in international adoptions, and recommend treatment or early intervention programs, if necessary.
Many developmental and cognitive issues may not be evident based on the information provided by the adoption agency and may appear months or years after the adoption. Most medical professionals will offer a risk assessment in the pre-adoption evaluation, and parents need to make an effort to understand the risks and know where to go to get help if issues do arise.
Start identifying the resources you will need after your child comes to live with you. As we’ve noted, FRUA, the international adoption clinic, your agency, and other adoptive parents will be great sources for this information. One important resource to identify: a pediatrician who understands international adoption issues. You can find a pediatrician through the sources above or through the Adoption and Foster Care section of the American Academy of Pediatrics (www.aap.org/sections/adoption/default.cfm). You’ll want to brief the pediatrician on your child’s medical report and schedule the first visit soon after the adoption. You may even want to have the pediatrician on call while you’re traveling to help with any medical issues the child might have.
Find out about early intervention programs in your area to help with any developmental issues that might be present in your young child. Your pediatrician, county or city, or a local university could tell you.
For older children, learn enough of their birth language to allow for basic communication. Find fluent speakers of the language who can help you communicate with the children initially. Visit the school where they’ll be enrolled and talk to officials about grade placement (at cognitive level, not necessarily age) and the extra support the child will need, at least initially – English as a Second Language programs and the process for evaluating a child for special-needs support if progress is not occurring, for instance.
“Families need to know what resources are available in the local and national community, and they need to know the nuts and bolts of how to access these services before the child arrives,” says Orphandoctor.com’s Dr. Aronson.
Record, record, record. You might think you’ll never forget the highs and lows, the day you got your referral from the agency, the touching about-to-be parents card your cousin sent at just the time you needed a boost. But time takes a toll: You will forget some of these. While you’re waiting, start keeping a record of everything – your thoughts and feelings; the information from the agency; all your purchases; the fun gifts and cards from others; the plane tickets you buy to travel, and more. Not only will you be prepared for any mishaps with lost documents or faulty memories about who does what during the adoption process, but you’ll have priceless information to pass on later to your child in the form of a lifebook and conversations on Adoption Day or at other times.
Take care of yourselves. Adoption takes a physical and emotional toll. You’ll have lots of decisions to make and a few unexpected glitches to confront. Plus, you’ll be parenting a new child soon. You need to be up to these challenges. Get plenty of sleep and exercise (a great stress reducer); eat healthy foods; and continue to do those hobbies or activities you enjoy. For more tips on making the most of the pre-adoption period, see the article on this page by Dawn Davenport on “Surviving the Wait.”
“The old proverb is right: Time does indeed move slowly for those who wait” for a child, Davenport says, “and after a few months, slow takes on a whole new meaning. Keeping busy is the only way to survive.” So, stay busy, stay healthy, stay informed, stay flexible, and keep your sense of humor!
To give you a sense of the vast store of information about the pre-adoption period, here are just a few sources for further information. FRUA doesn’t necessarily recommend these as opposed to others. Take some time, and talk to others and browse the Internet, your local library, or a bookstore for sources.
The Handbook of International Adoption Medicine, by Laurie C. Miller
Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child, by Patty Cogen
The Complete Book of International Adoption: A Step by Step Guide to Finding Your Child, by Dawn Davenport
10 Steps to Successful International Adoption: A Guided Workbook for Prospective Parents, by Brenda K. Uekert
http://adoption.state.gov: U.S. State Department
www.adoption.org: general adoption information
http://www.adoptioninstitute.org: Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute
http://www.russianadoption.org/adoptionfaq.htm: help with Russian medical terms
http://www.cdc.gov/travel: travel information
www.findingyourchild.com: general adoption information
www.rainbowkids.com: general adoption information
“Preparing Families for International Adoption,” Pediatrics in Review, July 2004, http://www.adoptmed.org/publications
“Adopting an Institutionalized Child: What Are the Risks?” at http://www.adoption-research.org/risks.html