Ethical adoption is important and the word itself has become a buzzword in the adoption community lately. The thing that is not so obvious is that your adoption being ethical is everyone’s responsibility—both sides of the triad and the agency. Gone are the days where we blindly trust a facilitator or agency to simply be ethical and put no responsibility on our own shoulders. We must decide if the adoption professionals we work with, as adoptive parents, are ethical and if we feel uneasy, move on to another with courage and conviction that it will be better for everyone in the long run.

The thing with ethics is they can be subjective. When it comes to the price of a domestic infant adoption, what are you willing to pay an agency? Is $20,000 ethical and $50,000 not ethical? I’m sure we all can agree there is no set line drawn by which to judge such a thing. It comes down to where we choose to put our money. Some people may think to pay at all is unethical so they will choose in vitro fertilization instead to grow their family (although they’re still paying someone, the doctor, to grow their family, so it’s a really similar thing). It all comes down to how you feel mixed with the education you receive. If, after doing much research and educating yourself about adoption, you feel that it can be done well at a fee of $20,000-$25,000, then stay within that budget and don’t give your money to agencies charging more. They may offer shorter wait times, but there is never a guarantee with wait time. Some families get really lucky and match in six months; some wait four years.

What you should be more concerned with is not the adoption price, but how you will tell your adopted child their story. Most adoptions are semi-open or fully open now. Did the adoption feel right? Like something you can tell your child about without feeling icky? Was there any shady practice going on at the agency you knew about but chose to ignore? Are you going to keep that information from your child? Were there disparaging remarks made about your child’s birth mother? Did you feel she was pushed to do this against her will? Coerced into it somehow? Would that be something she may bring up when it’s 10 years from now and your child hears that she didn’t actually want to do it? How will that make your child view you as being part of that? These are important things to consider. Adoption is not a single event that occurs and then is over—it’s a lifetime situation.

You may have heard recently about Paul Petersen. Many families trusted him (upwards of 75 families plus pending adoptions) as a good Christian man. He appeared so as a faith-based adoption attorney. Turns out, years later, he is arrested when it’s discovered he was likely engaging in human trafficking rather than ethical adoption. He had pregnant women from the Marshall Islands flown to the United States and paid to give birth here and place babies for adoption. Aside from that, the women were kept in poor conditions in one house with mattresses on the floor. Now, I am sure that this would not be okay with the adoptive families who brought these babies home. I doubt they knew how these women were brought here and treated. You can bet there will be a broad spectrum of responses though when it comes to how these adoptive families handle things moving forward. I’m sure some may remain in denial, try to protect their child and their own guilty conscience by never telling the child they were one of these Marshallese babies. Then there may also be some families who do tell their children and explain how awful it is and that everyone has a right to be angry about it.

I hope the Marshall Islands scam will at least cause people to take pause and think back to what they can see in hindsight. What things during the adoption could have been red flags? Was there really nothing wrong? How can these families educate those going through adoptions now to see red flags? Clearly, claiming to be a Christian agency or facilitator does not mean the organization is automatically ethical. There are tons of faith-based agencies in the U.S. We should all be striving for more transparency in adoption agency practices so that everything feels and is ethical on all sides of the triad.

In my opinion, your child deserves to know the truth about their adoption story, piece by piece, as they’re mature enough to handle it. Do you tell a 3-year-old about a rape situation? No. But you will have to decide later if and when you explain that to your child. Maybe you have a birth mother that doesn’t want contact in the beginning but later wants to meet when the child is 4. Are you going to tell your child you refused to have a meeting or that you honored her wishes? The point being are you yourself being ethical in your relationship with her? Are you being honest and willing to communicate? This doesn’t mean bow down to her every command if she is, in turn, treating you badly. If she is hurling insults at you or something then you don’t have to engage. It’s just like any other friend or family relationship—show respect, integrity, and empathy.

I’m confident that our son’s adoption was ethical. Ethical by any standards and ethical enough in my mind that I can sleep at night. I know in my heart, in our words and behaviors, we were not coercive to his birth mother. We were pleased with our agency and their breakdown of fees. We feel his birth mom’s decision to place for adoption was a good choice. Of course, right and wrong can always be debated, and depends on everyone’s idea of ethics, but we can say, for certain, it was a good option. We are so thankful for her ability to see her three options and choose this one. Since we did have such a good experience the first time, we are a waiting family now for a second adoption. I can’t say that we would go through it again so willingly had we not had a good experience. Now, being a waiting family the second time, things have been not as smooth, which is actually the norm.

We were matched with an expectant mom in Fall 2018. After a few meetings with her over the course of a month or so, she decided to parent the baby. It was a stressful experience, but I honestly believed all along she was not going to choose adoption. I just knew. Because of that, we were able to move on fairly easily. In Fall 2019, we got a call that we needed to decide (in a two-hour timeframe) whether we wanted our book to be shown to an expectant mom. The call and debate were because the situation was a bit outside our preferences. I called my husband and we went back and forth and ultimately said we wanted our book shown. After a (fortunately short) time, we were notified our book was not chosen. This situation was really fast but stressful. Since then, we’ve heard from our second agency we’re signed up with that our book was not chosen with them a couple of times too. So, we’ve had an adoption disruption and a few times not chosen. This is more the norm for waiting families. Only time will tell what will happen. We still want the things we did the first time—openness, honesty, and not having any regrets.

A big red flag for us came up while we searched for our very first adoption agency. We found one in Florida we almost signed with; however, the contract wording was not something we could sign. It was misleading and, we believe, unethical. Most agencies will not put an end date or timeline on working with families. This one did—buried deep in the contract—saying we will work with you for a match for a period of two years. That’s it. After that, your money is gone if you have not matched. The agency assured me repeatedly that “everybody matches within two years; it won’t be a problem.” That was not alright with us. We know it can take more than two years sometimes for adoptions. We were not willing to have all our money lost and no baby. Even if it was true that everyone with that agency matched in that timeframe, we felt it was still dishonest for them to make a guarantee like that. I know two other families in our area that are wonderful and one has waited three years and one has waited four. It’s just the way it goes sometimes. It does not mean there is anything inherently wrong with the adoptive families.

This would be a big deal not only from a financial standpoint, but because the agency could become coercive to the adoptive families. Say we were at a one year and six months mark and had not matched. The agency could then become coercive for us to open up our preferences and start blaming us for not being matched yet because our preferences were too rigid. In order to meet their two-year timeline, they may nudge families to accept situations they are not prepared for or comfortable with. Then, the families end up in over their heads and regretting the whole thing. That’s not right for the parents or child. This is not to say our preferences are too rigid either. We are open to some drug exposure, for example, but there are tons of preferences we have to go through and decide on—too much to go into here.

You should also find out what your agency does for post-placement care for birth mothers. Having a Lifetime Healing, LLC (now called Knee to Knee) seal means they have implemented that standard of care for birth mothers. It’s so important for your child’s birth mother to have access to therapy after placing her child. If they don’t have that seal, ask what their program does. Ask how many birth mothers attend group counseling or how many group counseling sessions they hold per year. If you can, talk to other families who have adopted through the agency about their experience. Is the birth mother for that family’s child one they see often? Is she not heard from? Does she get counseling elsewhere? You don’t want to get a feeling that all the birth moms at this agency are sort of disappearing after placement. Now, that said, this doesn’t tell the full picture. Our son’s birth mother, for example, does not attend group counseling at our agency. She never has. She says it’s because she feels she doesn’t need to. If that is her belief, and she is doing well otherwise, then that is what’s working for her. The important thing is we know that if she ever did want to attend birth mom support groups that the agency does have them monthly.

I believe adoption in the U.S. is headed in the right direction. Open adoptions are increasing and closed adoptions are dwindling. More women, especially birth moms, are speaking out about their experiences and this will only increase transparency for everyone. Social media helps as a storytelling platform and, as always, word of mouth is incredibly useful when finding advice on which agency to choose. Stick to your own ethics and have the courage to leave an agency if you feel they are manipulative or shady toward you or the expectant mom. You’ll thank yourself later when you can tell your child you felt good about the whole adoption situation. Adoptive families, birth mothers, and children deserve adoptions to be as ethical as possible.

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Kristin Anderson is an adoptive mother who lives with her son, husband, and two crazy dogs. She loves open adoption and is always looking for ways to help in the adoption community. You can find her blog at