So you want to adopt a baby …

… then head to the United States where it’s an easier, but more expensive, process than in Ireland. By Caitriona Palmer in Washington

Adoption in the US is mainly privately run. UK government minister, David Miliband has adopted two American children

By Caitriona Palmer
Wednesday January 02 2008
When Faith Allen wanted to adopt a baby, she turned to the yellow pages. Allen, 37, a professional writer from North Carolina in the US, had suffered many painful years of infertility and in 1999 decided to adopt.

A friend recommended a nearby adoption agency but the three- to five-year waiting period seemed much too long to wait. That’s when Allen decided to turn to the phone book.

“I wound up stumbling upon a wonderful agency,” said Allen who admits that she “got lucky” with her find.

Nearly two years and $12,000 (E8,000) later, Allen’s dearest wish was finally realised when she became a mother to a little baby boy named Nicholas.

When news of his birth broke, Allen and her husband packed their car and drove six hours from North Carolina to Georgia. For two days they waited anxiously in a friend’s house until the baby’s mother signed the papers. Three days after his birth, they had Nicholas in their arms.

Allen’s long but successful journey to parenthood is a typical story of American adoption. Although the number of available babies in the United States has declined in recent years, many states, particularly those in the South, seem to have a healthy pool of available children.

Unlike Ireland and Britain, adoption in the United States tends to be a faster process, where adoptive parents can be paired with a birth mother earlier — during her pregnancy. But adopting an American baby is a more expensive proposition, mainly because private agencies must charge for services that would be bankrolled by the state in Europe.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and his US-born wife Louise recently adopted a newborn baby boy from America — their second adopted son from the country. According to Miliband, his wife’s nationality made America an obvious choice. But speedier adoption services in the United States must also have been an incentive.

For those eager to adopt in America, the initial steps can be just a click away. Privatised agencies staffed by child welfare social workers advertise openly on the web, attracting potential clients with savvy slogans and guarantees of “delivery within four months”.

With costs ranging from $20,000 to $35,000, nearly anyone — single, married or gay — can offer a child a home. As long, of course, as they can afford the fees, pass intensive home-study assessments and background checks, and compete for the attention of their would-be children’s birth parents. The thriving adoption sector in the US might seem an extension of America’s insatiable consumerist appetite, but experts say that babies are definitely not for sale.

“Americans aren’t out baby buying, which is what too many people perceive us as being,” said Adam Pertman, the executive director of the Evan B Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York and author of Adoption Nation. “They are overwhelmingly providing homes for kids who really need them. And I’m not sure what the downside to that is.” Pertman said that the massive agency fees cover the costs of essential services — services that are provided free to those engaged in domestic adoptions in Ireland.

“It’s not done through any federal or state financing. Somebody has to pay for all that — all those medical services, social services, counselling services and social workers salaries,” he said.

“That goes a long way towards explaining why there is so much money involved. Sometimes we overpay for those services … sometimes those services are eminently reasonable. But they’re services,” he said.

The situation in the US differs greatly from the struggling domestic adoption system in Ireland and Britain where the availability of contraception and the lessening stigma against single parenthood has seen the number of available children — particularly babies — slow to a mere trickle in the past decade.

In 2005, 253 domestic adoption orders were made in Ireland — the majority of which were ‘family adoptions’ involving stepchildren. Consequently the majority of Irish parents eager to adopt must look towards other countries, particularly China, Russia, Vietnam and Thailand.

“Currently the two most popular countries are Russia and Vietnam,” said Derek Cregan, co-chair of the Inter-country Adoption Association in Ireland and a father to two young boys adopted from Russia. “China is open for adoption, as is India, Thailand and the Philippines. But they’re all very slow.”

According to a spokesperson from the International Adoption Association in Dublin, the waiting times for Irish parents wishing to adopt abroad vary considerably.

“We are aware that the total period from expression of interest to completion of assessments, and receiving a declaration from the Adoption Board can amount to four or five years,” she said.

In Britain, the situation for prospective parents who wish to adopt children within the country is equally bleak.

Less than 4,000 children are adopted there each year out of 80,000 in care. And strict restrictions on exactly who can adopt mean that many British couples — particularly those over 40 — are forced to adopt internationally.

In the US, the paltry welfare system reportedly makes it hard for many poor single parents to contemplate keeping their children. In the case of Nicholas, according to Allen, his birth father was no longer in the picture and his mother — despite being in her thirties — recognised that her baby needed more than she could offer

“Her life circumstances were such that she was working two jobs and had very little time available for raising a baby,” said Allen.

In the US, adoptive parents are also obliged to pay some expenses for the biological mother during her pregnancy, which can range widely depending on her circumstances.

“In the state in which we adopted, expecting mothers may only be paid money for medical expenses, housing and food, and even those amounts have a cap. Our agency said that the average request for funds is $2,000, but my son’s birthmother only requested one bag of groceries,” Allen said.

Irish families who wish to adopt privately from the US are free to do so, according to Thomas DiFilipo, president of the Joint Council on International Children’s Services in Virginia. “Approximately 800 American children a year find a home and a family with citizens from other countries such as Canada, Mexico and France,” said DiFilipo.

There are no citizenship or residency requirements but prospective Irish parents would have to undergo the same procedures as any American family in addition to registering with the adoption board in Ireland.

Regardless of the rules, adoption is often full of uncertainty.

“From the day I decided I wanted to become a mother to the day I became one, four-and-a-half years passed,” said Allen. “That was five Christmases and four Mother’s Days with empty arms. That was the hardest part.”