Despite Obstacles, Many Americans Trying to Adopt From Overseas

Deb Myers and her husband, Peter, are expecting their fifth child this month, a young girl they are adopting from China. They already have three biological children and a son adopted from India.

"A few generations ago, we would have just been getting started," said Peter, a pastor in New Market, Md., of his large family.

Across the country on Bainbridge Island near Seattle, Chris and Rachelle Castleberry are raising twin toddlers Olivia and Vivienne. They were adopted from China last year, after a complex, at times frustrating process that took two years to complete.

The number of Americans deciding to adopt children from overseas is soaring, even amid high costs, mountains of paperwork and as some countries, notably China, are tightening requirements for eligible parents. In 2006, the U.S. Department of State issued 20,679 visas for orphans being adopted from other countries. This is up from just under 7,100 in 1990, but down from 22,728 in 2005.

The number of children adopted from China, the world's most populous country and origin of most orphans adopted from abroad in the U.S., dropped to less than 6,500 in 2006, from more than 7,900 in the previous year. Beginning May 1, China will bar those who are obese, unmarried or don't have a net worth of at least $80,000 from adopting.

With four children and Deb working as a stay-at-home parent and home school teacher, the Myers family did not meet the income level China requires ($10,000 for each member of the family). But they said they made their case by showing they could support the child.
"We were able to show where we are not spending," said Peter.

Advocates hope the decline is temporary, and agencies say it's not due to lack of interest from prospective parents. Domestic infant adoptions peaked in 1970 at 89,200, and dropped off significantly following the legalization of abortion and the availability of birth control. In comparison, 22,291 U.S. infants were adopted domestically in 2002, the most recent data available, according to the National Council for Adoption. That's down from 26,672 in 1992.

At Great Wall China Adoption, an agency based in Austin, Texas, the number of prospective parents has been growing almost twofold every year for the past five years, said spokeswoman Heather Terry. The agency, which specializes in China, placed close to 1,000 children last year, including Olivia and Vivienne.

The Castleberrys flew to China last August to pick up their daughters, who had been in foster care with the same family since a few days after they were found abandoned when they were six days old.

"Our lives are fuller, richer than before," said Rachelle, who works as an assistant vice president at Washington Mutual.

China, Russia and South Korea — three of the countries with the highest number of children being adopted by U.S. parents — are sending fewer children aboard, said Thomas Atwood, president of the National Council for Adoption.

The reasons for this include bureaucratic changes as well as a shift to try to place orphaned children domestically, he said.

Also at issue is the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, which the U.S. has signed but has yet to ratify (though this is expected this year). Created in 1993, it seeks to ensure adoptions take place without the abduction, sale or trafficking of children.

"There are some countries that have indicated that they would cooperate more with the U.S. when we ratified it," Atwood, said, listing Mexico, Brazil and India as some. "Whether that actually happens, we'll have to see."

The process of adopting a child from another country generally costs between $15,000 and $30,000. This can include the cost of travel, immigration processing, an orphanage donation, translation and medical expenses, as well as fees to have the child escorted into the U.S. if the parents do not pick them up themselves. The expenses for domestic adoptions can vary widely, from nothing for adoptions done through the foster care system to as much as $40,000 when facilitated by an agency or done independently.

Some financial assistance is available to parents, in the form of tax credits, grants, loans and even reduced airfare. Northwest Airlines, for example, offers discounted "special delivery" fares for parents traveling to pick up a child they are adopting (but it does not apply to children being escorted out of the country).

Adoptive parents can receive a federal tax credit of about $10,000 for qualifying expenses, such as travel, court fees and any other expenses directly related to the adoption.

With most of the money going to travel and government fees, the Castleberrys said their road to adoption cost somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 over the two-year period.

"The costs come in pieces," Chris said. "I don't think we ever thought 'oh, this is expensive."'

Like the cost of adoptions, the available resources have not changed much in the past 5 years, said Atwood, who noted it could be a challenge for parents to have to come up with thousands of dollars before they complete the adoption, and receiving the tax credit could take a few years.

Federal law requires that adoptive parents make at least 125 percent of the poverty level. But there are other ways to prove you can support a child, and show you can provide a stable home, said Mary Moo, director of Asia programs for the World Association for Children and Parents, a Seattle-based adoption agency established in 1976.

The Myers family could not take advantage of the tax credit because their income level was already very low. But they received a loan through their agency, WACAP, and a grant of a few thousand dollars from a foundation specializing in giving financial aid to families who adopt special needs or older children.

"If the desire is strong enough, you can do it," said Deb, who is deaf, through Peter in a phone interview. Added Peter, "You know it's going to be long process and you know it's going to be a mountain of paperwork. A country is relinquishing one of their own, they have a right to make sure they are giving a child to a family that can take care of it."