Adoption: Now There's The Cyber Stork

Alternatives to agencies mean greater eligibility--and risk

When Mary and Tom Glatt of Phoenix set out last year to adopt a baby, they learned the importance of casting a wide net. Mary, 39, owner of a nursing employment agency, prepared a family biography called a "Dear Birthmother Letter" that she distributed to local attorneys. The couple put similar information, along with photos and a video clip, on the Internet. Mary and her husband, a 40-year-old pharmaceutical salesman, also told everyone they knew of their search. A lead from a colleague of Tom's led them to a pregnant teenager who agreed to place her child with the Glatts. Three weeks before giving birth, she told them she was keeping the baby.

But their efforts eventually paid off. After four months of advertising on, an electronic registry of waiting parents, the Glatts were contacted by a 23-year-old student. The young woman had given birth the day before in a hospital near Phoenix. The Glatts arranged to meet her and shortly after adopted her newborn girl. They are the proud parents of Clare, now five months old, and Ian, 10, whom they adopted five years ago.

KEEN COMPETITION. Welcome to modern American adoption. Thirty years ago, couples signed up with an agency and waited for the "stork call" to fetch a child picked by the agency. But thanks to the increasing say that birthparents have in selecting adoptive parents, and keen competition for the approximately 30,000 U.S. infants adopted each year, domestic adoption has become a complicated endeavor. Agencies are involved in no more than half of nonrelative adoptions, adoption professionals estimate. Like the Glatts, prospective parents increasingly seek out birthparents themselves, or hire lawyers or facilitators to do the job for them.

The fact that there are so many adoption alternatives today means prospective parents who used to be turned down by traditional agencies--because they were single, homosexual, or too old--can now adopt. For instance, "a lot of families believe that being over 40 is the kiss of death," says David J. Radis, a Los Angeles adoption attorney. Not so. Of the more than 100 adoptions he handled last year, Radis says half involved parents over 40.

But adoptions involve more risk, both emotionally and financially, than ever before. Indeed, a prime reason more Americans adopt overseas is that the domestic adoption system has become so daunting. Many prospective parents are scared off by stories of biological parents showing up months or years later to initiate legal battles to reclaim an adopted child. In fact, such challenges are rare. A bigger risk is that a birthmother might change her mind before or immediately after the birth, before the baby is placed with the adoptive parents. Experts estimate that 25% to 50% of potential placements fall through.

That can result in financial loss for prospective parents if they have paid the birthmother's living and medical expenses, which many states allow. For the past several years, you could protect against such losses with insurance that reimbursed you for the birthmother's expenses if the adoption failed. But Kemper Insurance Companies, the only insurer that underwrote these policies, stopped doing so in January because the business was unprofitable, a Kemper spokesman says. Experts estimate that the cost of the average infant adoption in the U.S. ranges between $15,000 and $20,000. Expenses can run to $30,000 or more, however, if a placement falls through and the prospective parents have to start all over again.

"DEAR BIRTHMOTHER." What's more, people desperate to become parents may ignore red flags and fall victim to unscrupulous adoption agencies and lawyers. These warnings may include agencies or attorneys asking for a large sum of money before a placement, or a birthmother demanding more money for expenses than agreed upon. The anonymous nature of the Internet provides new opportunities for scam artists. In one recent case, a New York lawyer allegedly tried to sell a newborn over the Internet for $60,000, which is illegal.

That said, most domestic adoptions go smoothly. The key to success is to read up on the basics in books and on the dozens of Internet sites devoted to adoption. Then network like crazy, and be persistent.

A terrific source of practical information is adoptive parents groups. "There is no centralized way to get adoption information, so you have to get out and talk to the people who are doing it," says Stewart Isman, a lawyer who lives in Union, N.J. Three years ago, Isman and his wife, Elaine, attended a monthly meeting of Concerned Persons for Adoption in Whippany, N.J.--and learned about a small adoption agency in Kansas that others in the group had used. They signed up with the agency, which called them several months later to tell them a birthmother had selected them based on their "Dear Birthmother Letter." When the young woman gave birth, the Ismans flew to Kansas to pick up their son, Jared. Domestic adoption is such a word-of-mouth industry that Robert Kasky, head of One World Adoption Services in Hollywood, Fla., an agency that placed 65 U.S.-born infants last year, says: "Our business is 100% referrals. We do not advertise for adoptive parents."

One of the first decisions you must make is whether to sign up with an agency or go it alone with an independent adoption. With the latter, you advertise for birthparents, usually in local newspapers and, increasingly, on the Net. Typically, you put a toll-free phone line in your home so birthparents can contact you. You also hire an attorney to screen potential birthparents, making sure, for instance, that the birthmother isn't taking illegal drugs. With an agency adoption, you typically submit a family biography. The agency then shows three or more biographies to birthparents, who make the final selection. But agency procedures and requirements vary widely.

Thoroughly research any agency or attorney before signing up. Call the Social Services Dept. in the state where the agency is located to find out if it is licensed. Also check whether the Better Business Bureau has any complaints on file. The American Academy of Adoption Attorneys can provide attorney referrals (202 832-2222). Ask agencies and attorneys for references and call them.

It's also important to check state adoption laws, which change often. A handful of states, including Massachusetts and Connecticut, bar independent adoptions. Others, such as Florida and Texas, are popular with out-of-state residents because of their "adoption-friendly" laws. In Florida, for instance, adoptions can be finalized 90 days after placement, compared with six months to a year in many other states.

Finally, if you're willing to accept an older child, federal and state governments have made it easier than ever to adopt children in foster care. Many states, as well as agencies, post photos of thousands of waiting children on Web sites. Many of the children are classified as "special needs" cases because they have physical, emotional, behavioral, or learning problems. Legal expenses for foster care adoptions typically run $2,000 to $5,000, much less than for most infant adoptions.

Adopting in the U.S. can be difficult. How quickly it happens often depends on luck. But unlike fertility treatments, the adoption process is almost guaranteed to work. Says Lois Gilman, author of The Adoption Resource Book: "Once you tap into the adoption network, you'll see that people who want to succeed do."

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