What Can I Expect in an International Adoption?

June 19, 2020
What Can I Expect in an International Adoption?

If only there was an A to Z guide about what to expect in an international adoption. Luckily and thankfully, the international adoption process and all that comes with it is no longer quite as mysterious as it once was. Before, communication between countries proved difficult, if not impossible, using a wall-mounted telephone and relying on your (and the other country’s) long-distance carrier. Completing paperwork took just a bit longer (if it made it there and back at all) going the snail mail route and the fact that there was little to no research, educational information, or support available. And, if it was, you probably had to go digging for it buried in a chapter of a book on adoption at the library.

Now, fast forward the 65 years or so since international adoption started to become a thing after Henry and Bertha Holt, an evangelical couple from rural Oregon, secured a special act of Congress enabling the couple to adopt Korean “war orphans” in 1955. As referenced in Brandeis University’s Capsule History of International Adoption, we can see how so much has changed.

Nowadays, there is so much information available online that it can feel difficult at times to know where to begin to learn what you want and need to know before pursuing international adoption.

Thankfully, sites like Adoption.org and Adoption.com have taken the time, and done the research, so that you don’t have to go hunting down the one dusty and outdated book in the back of the library. These sites, and so many others, offer up-to-date and helpful information for hopeful adoptive parents to assist pre-adoption, during adoption, and post-adoption.

Beyond the requirements and legal details associated with international adoption, it’s important for you to first understand how this pathway to providing a family for a child who needs one will impact all parties involved. 

Travel.state.gov defines international adoption as the process by which you adopt a child from a country other than your own through permanent legal means, and then bring that child to your country of residence to live with you permanently. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than just that–however, it is very important to understand and recognize that international adoption does involve a permanent geographic move for your child, as well as the other implications of adoption that come with domestic adoption, the term used when the adoptive parents, birth parents, and the child lives within the United States, as described on the Child Welfare Information Gateway website.

Before considering adopting internationally, you should do your research to make sure you know what to expect, what is involved, and whether or not this is the route to adoption that is right for you. 

Getting Started

You’ll want to do your research ahead of beginning the international adoption process to understand who is involved with international adoption–from the countries you may adopt from, to the children who are waiting, to the agencies and support networks available to you.

First of all, it’s important to recognize that international adoptions have decreased dramatically over the past few years for several reasons. But that does not mean that international adoption is closed or that there aren’t millions of children around the world who want and need loving forever families.

Countries Open to International Adoption

Before you get your heart set on a destination country, you need to research whether or not the country is open to adoption from the United States. You can keep up to date on countries and policies here. It’s important to note that just like domestic adoption, where each state has its own set of rules and regulations when it comes to adoption, countries operate the same way. That said, these rules and regulations can change at any time, so it’s important to keep up to date, as well as speak with your adoption professionals for the most current and accurate information. 

Understanding The Hague Convention’s Role on International Adoption

Currently, more than 70 countries are recognized by the United States as the Hague Adoption Convention countries.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service shares that “The Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption is an international treaty that provides important safeguards to protect the best interests of children, birth parents, and adoptive parents who are involved in intercountry adoptions.”

What does the Hague Adoption Process mean for you? By and large, the result of the Convention in the United States was additional paperwork and procedures on the part of adopting families to further safeguard the adoption process. The Convention basically provides a framework for participating countries to work together to ensure that adoptions take place in the best interests of children and to prevent the abduction, sale, or trafficking of children. Adopting through a Convention country helps adoptive families to know that those involved are working with government and private agencies, all of whom are accredited on a national level (domestically) and licensed respectively, and have agreed to follow the requirements of the Convention, adopting ethically with the safety of all parties in mind.   

COVID-19 and International Adoption

Like most of everything else in our world, COVID-19 has also impacted international adoption. The U.S. Department of State currently recommends against any travel and notes that many countries have taken or are taking action limiting traveler mobility, including mandatory quarantines and border restrictions, with little advance notice. In fact, on March 18, the Department announced the suspension of routine visa services worldwide. 

Unfortunately, many adopting families found themselves separated from a waiting child and/or displaced personally when the world first (and very quickly) began to learn about how widespread COVID-19 had become. With travel suddenly halted and borders shut, some families already in the process were forced to put adoption plans on hold and return to the United States. 

Expecting the Unexpected

Like COVID-19, when you decide to pursue international adoption, you must be ready for anything and everything to happen. The world is forever changing politically and socially, and despite your best efforts to keep your international adoption on track and on schedule, you will need to be flexible and ready for your best-laid plans to take an unforeseen 180, so to speak. In no way does this mean that you should not pursue international adoption. It just means that you need to recognize that there will be many things out of your hands when adopting overseas. Domestic adoption is by no means exempt from the unexpected either.

You can help to mitigate potential issues by keeping clear communication open with your adoption professionals and your international counterparts. Ahead of family and friends who may have heard this or that, these people make it a matter of business to stay on top of world events and local events (within home countries) to ensure that your family remains safe and that your adoption process remains a priority whenever possible. 

Same but Different

While international adoption has different and additional requirements than does domestic adoption, you can still count on having to run through the same process, including determining whether or not you are eligible and qualified to adopt, choosing an agency, completing a home study, waiting for a referral, figuring out finances, and completing your adoption here in the States.

In addition to the above, families choosing to adopt internationally also will need to fill out additional forms depending on the country you choose. Hague Convention countries require Form I-800A and countries not a party to the Hague Adoption Convention use Form I-600A.

It’s important for you to know the requirements of the country from which you choose to adopt. Just like with domestic adoption, some of the same criteria will apply, but each country has its own set of rules and standards as well.

The Wait

The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) estimates that there are approximately 153 million orphans worldwide, and an estimated 5,700 more children become orphans every day.

While this number remains high, international adoptions have decreased through the years. For example, according to the Travel.state.gov website, there were 4,058 total international adoptions in 2018. In 1999, this number was 15,719. Of course, much has changed in the world since 1999 politically, socially, and economically. In some cases, the decrease represents improved conditions worldwide with governments and agencies working hard to keep biological families together. In other cases, governments have caved to social pressure, making it difficult for international adoption to take place, despite the fact the number of orphans who live in institutional settings or on the street remains high.

Hopeful families should keep in mind that just as frustrating as it may be to wait for international adoption, there is a child waiting for the same amount of time, if not a lifetime, waiting for a forever family.

Once you have received a referral for a waiting child, you should understand that as part of the international adoption process, many countries require you to stay in-country for a certain amount of time while legal issues are finalized. This time generally spans anywhere from two weeks to a couple of months. Most countries are aware of the hardship this creates on adoptive families and do try to streamline the process as much as possible. However, no one can predict the exact course of events, so you should research your chosen country thoroughly and be prepared for whatever may come.

You Have Arrived…Now What?

No family who has adopted internationally will ever forget the day the couple first met the adopted child face-to-face. And while this moment results in happy tears, 99.9% of the time (unless you’re really good at hiding your emotions–hence the 1%) families should also note that for waiting for children, this moment can be traumatic.

Yes, waiting children are finally being adopted into a loving family, but on Day 1, that may be a difficult concept to understand as the child is being taken away from the only “home” he or she may have known, whether it be a foster situation or institution/orphanage. Be ready and open to feeling all of the feels, but also be ready to take a deep breath and brace and prepare for your child to feel sad and scared, especially toddler age and up, and depending on how much contact you’ve had ahead of time.

Be patient and be ready to comfort your child, especially in those first few moments of what is usually referred to as the presentation.

One great reason for staying in-country is having the opportunity to now focus on and spend time with your new addition, away from well-meaning and eager family and friends back home who may not be as educated about adoption and the impacts it has. You will also have direct access to your child’s caregivers and local professionals, who up until now, know your child’s history, schedule, and routine better than anyone, and who can help you and your child during early bonding.

And while adoption is serious, guess what–there are lots of light moments as well. From the time your child is placed in your arms, you will begin to bond and build a relationship like no other. Of course, this will come in spurts, and each situation is different. For some, especially infants and younger children, this connection may come sooner than anticipated. With others, it may take longer, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to develop a strong and healthy relationship with time.

Depending on your child’s birth country and the situation, plan to spend most of your time just doing ordinary parent/child activities. Enjoy the intimate moments of feeding, bathtime, bedtime, sitting around together doing nothing time. But also take this time while in your child’s birth country to learn about it.

Just because your child will be leaving with you does not and should not mean that you leave the country and culture behind. In fact, your goal should be just the opposite. Get out (together if possible) and see the city, try the food, take in the culture of music and art, get to know the people. Take lots of videos and photographs. Let your child know that you care about the roots and the home country. And make sure to bring some of this culture home with you. Beginning with a new family in a new country can be intimidating at the very least. Letting your child know that you respect and honor his or her beginnings will not only help in bonding as a family but help your child with the adoption and self-esteem as the child becomes aware of the fact (and it will happen) that the United States was not the first home.

Understanding Transracial Part of International Adoption

While the process of international adoption is important to know and understand, how adoptive parents and adoptees process international adoption is really even more important. Back in 1955, there was very little understanding of how international adoption would impact adoptive families, especially the children involved. Not to say that adoptive parents weren’t well-meaning and approached international adoption with the best of intentions, but there was very little, if any, existing research, stats, or studies to work from. The political and social environment in the United States was very different from today. For example, the Civil Rights movement was just gaining momentum during this time, so it’s not difficult to imagine that children adopted internationally were looked upon and treated differently by a vast majority of the population (aside from adoption, which also was still very misunderstood and misrepresented to say the very least).

The Child Welfare Information Gateway defines transracial adoption as “People who were adopted into families with different racial, ethnic, or cultural backgrounds have unique experiences with forming their racial and cultural identity. Resources in this section capture the perspectives of those who have been transracially adopted.”

The adoption community has come a long way in trying harder and doing better to ensure that adoptive families receive the education, training, resources, and support necessary to best help transition children into forever homes by learning from past mistakes, having a better understanding of transracial adoptee issues (by speaking and learning directly from international adoptees), and providing a platform for international adoptive families. The Adoption.org article,What are Some Tips for Navigating Transracial Adoption,” for example, does not sugar coat the pros or cons of what international or transracial adoption will mean for families and provides helpful advice on how to prepare for your adoption as well as how to help your child to stay culturally connected post-adoption. Adoption.org offers dozens of articles and resources covering the many topics critical for adoptive families encompassing everything from understanding what international adoption is, to finding racial mirrors for your adopted child, to learning about and helping your child to deal with the trauma often associated with adoption.

That’s not to say that international adoption is a negative or bad thing. Rather, international adoptees have the potential to flourish and bond with adoptive families with the proper understanding, care, and respect that go along with becoming an adoptive family. International adoption can, in fact, be a source for much joy, adventure, growth, and a lifetime of shared love.

Ready to Go?

International adoption comes with some extra steps and uncertainties, but overall can be one of the most rewarding ways to grow your family. Be prepared for anything while staying focused on the one thing that matters most–your waiting child. The rest will fall into place (or you’ll figure out a way to make it work) one way or another so long as you do your research, are prepared and ready, and work with professionals who can help you through the process.

For more information on international adoption, see Adoption.com’s International Adoption Page, which includes lots of information and links to a Guide, Wiki, helpful articles, a services directory, and forums. Adoption.org offers important information concerning Transracial adoption here. You can view a photolisting of waiting for children here.

Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she’s not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.


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