That's an excellent question.
If you have no experience with international adoption, I'd suggest starting by going to the website of the U.S. State Department at adoption.state.gov. On the home page, go to "Learn About a Country" and click on the dropdown box. Select a country and click "go". When you get to the country's page, click on "Expand All" and begin reading. To avoid wasting time, please remember that:
1. You will almost never be able to adopt from countries in Western Europe and the English speaking world. Those countries, which are relatively prosperous by world standards, tend to have few adoptable children, and make laws that limit international adoption to give their own citizens first priority. So don't bother clicking on Ireland or France or Italy, even if you are of that country's heritage.
2. You will almost never be able to adopt from an Islamic country, although there are a few exceptions if you are a practicing Muslim. For one thing, Islam defines adoption differently from most Western countries, considering it more like what we call foster care or guardianship, where the parental rights of the biological family are not severed and the child may return to the bio family if situations warrant. As a result, the USCIS cannot grant an adoption visa to the child, as a formal relinquishment of parental rights and the creation of a Western style adoptive relationship are required by law. Some Muslim countries do not allow any adoptions by Westerners, especially Americans, because they do not feel that it is possible for a child to be raised as a good Muslim in Western society.
3. Adoption from a country in the midst of a natural or man-made disaster, such as an earthquake or a civil war, is never possible. Adoption is a legal process, and there must be functioning courts, government offices, and so on. Also, in disaster areas, family members often become separated, and it may be difficult to determine who is actually an orphan in need of new parents.
As you look at certain countries, consider the following:
1. Does the country allow international adoption at all?
2. If so, what are the characteristics of the children deemed eligible for adoption? Do they fit with your expectations of the type of child that you can parent? As an example, some countries find that it's easy to place children below school age domestically, so they allow only children of school age to be adopted internationally. Some countries allow only children with identified special needs to be adopted internationally. In many countries, the available children may not be of your race, and you may need to be open to the challenges of transracial parenting. In some Eastern European countries, the available children are often of Roma (Gypsy) heritage, and you need to be open to this often stigmatized minority.
3. What are the foreign requirements for adoptive parents, with regard to things like marital status, age, health, income, and so on? In some cases, you may not meet a country's requirements. Be aware that many countries still do not permit gay and lesbian people to adopt. Also be aware that some countries have weight or BMI restrictions, believing that obese people are likely to die prematurely, while others prohibit adoptions by people who take antidepressants or have had a history of cancer. And recognize that some countries give priority to prospective parents who are of the same heritage; as an example, Hong Kong (whose program is separate from the rest of China), almost never places healthy young children with people overseas who do not have Chinese ancestry.
4. What is the expected time frame for an adoption? Adoptions do not happen quickly. While some older or special needs children may come home in a year, many countries have an 18 month to 2 year time frame, and there are some countries where much longer waits are common.
5. What travel requirements are there? Very few countries allow escort, because they want families to experience and develop an understanding of their child's birth heritage. Most countries require only one trip, of a length that can vary from a week to a few months. Some countries require multiple trips, however, or give the option of one long trip or two shorter trips. Do the travel requirements work well with your work and family obligations?
6. Is the process well established, or are you looking at a country that rarely places children internationally, that has a new program, or that has a history of problems? If you are very risk averse, stick with countries that have had a long history of working with the U.S. on adoption issues, and that are known to have a relatively stable, clear process.
7. Has the country ratified the Hague Convention on international adoption? In general, Hague adoptions take a little longer and involve a little more paperwork, but offer more protections for the children, their birthparents, and their adoptive families.
Once you have narrowed your list, you can begin getting additional information on agency websites. As an example, you can begin getting a sense of which programs are the most costly. In general, travel is the largest component of an adoption's cost, so a person on a constrained budget may want to avoid countries that require multiple trips or long stays overseas. You can also begin to get a sense of which countries work with a lot of American agencies, and which serve only a few. Some families prefer programs where they have many choices of agency and can find one that "feels right" to them. Be aware that, unless you are adopting from South Korea, you do NOT have to use an agency in your state, though you will need to have a homestudy by a provider in your state. With South Korea, you generally need to work with an agency licensed in your state and authorized by the South Korean government to place Korean children with Americans, if you are doing a "healthy child" adoption; most states have only one to three such agencies, and a few have none. However, if you are adopting a child with special needs, you may have a somewhat broader choice of agencies.
Do be aware that most foreign countries do not permit independent adoption or let you pick your own child. But even if you find one, remember that, given the U.S. Universal Accreditation Act, you MUST use a Hague-accredited agency or a Hague-approved attorney (there are very few of those) as your primary provider. You must also use the foreign country's international adoption process, rather than its domestic process, even if it seems shorter and easier, or else you won't be able to get a visa for your child to come to the U.S. In addition, you must also follow the I-600 (non-Hague) or the I-800 (Hague) adoption process carefully.
By the way, while you are on the State Department website, take the time to look at some of its other sections. As an example, there is good information on the Hague Convention and Hague-accredited agencies, which may help you. There are also updates and alerts regarding specific countries. In addition, you can find information on how to be sure that your child can become a U.S. citizen.
Once you have identified some "possible" countries, begin to think about your own comfort level with a child from them. As an example:
1. Do you currently have friends or colleagues from those countries? Are there people in your neighborhood or community from the countries? It will be important for your child to see other people who are from the same background, and who are good role models.
2. Are you willing to incorporate things from those countries, such as foods and artworks, into your life? Are you willing to join in celebrations of the country's holidays, which may be held in the U.S.?
3. Are you willing and able to join adoptive parent groups focused on those countries? Knowing other families like yours can be very helpful to both you and your child. It is especially important for a child to know that there are other families like his/hers, and to grow up with other children who have had similar experiences.
4. Might you be willing to return to those countries down the road, so that you can take your child to see his/her place of origin and develop even greater respect for his/her heritage?
5. How comfortable are you with helping a child deal with certain common negative stereotypes about people from the countries? As an example, you may find that White people may think that an Ethiopian boy is going to be violent or steal, while Black people may tell him that he isn't Black enough because Ethiopians have different facial features and hair textures from most Africans and African-Americans.
6. How willing are you to deal with certain medical issues that occur more commonly in adopted children from certain countries, but that may not be recognized prior to adoption. As an example, there is a higher incidence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders in Eastern European adoptees, and symptoms may not be fully evident until a child is of school age.
I would strongly recommend meeting as many adoptive families with children from the countries you are considering, as possible. The parents can give you good advice about agencies, travel, costs, medical issues, and so on. And seeing the children can make you realize that you really have a strong sense of being drawn to a particular country.
Sometimes, in fact, while you may do all your research and such, you will simply wake up one morning with a strong feeling that your child waits for you in a certain country. And following your heart, as long as you have done your homework, is often the way you should go. It was for me. I KNEW that my child was in China, and in 1997, I brought home my wonderful daughter. She was 18 months old then, and is 21 years old now. She is simply amazing, and I couldn't be happier.
Sharon
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Thank you so much for all the in-depth information. I really appreciate all your help! I will definitely be referring others to your answer as well.