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The Challenges and Joys of International Adoption

by Kim Painter

College sweethearts Paul and Mary Jean (MJ) Schaffer married in the late 1980s and always wanted three children.

But life happened, and by the time their first two children, Alex and Natalie, were in grade school, time was running out for the couple to have more biological children. MJ, a stay-at-home mom, and Paul, a financial advisor at CAPTRUST in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, started talking about their options. The couple had friends who had adopted children from Russia and China. Soon, they were thinking seriously about international adoption.

In 2001, they started working with an agency that facilitates adoptions from Russia. A long three years later — filled with paperwork, social-worker visits, mandatory parenting classes, and excruciating stretches of waiting — they found themselves in a rural orphanage several hours outside of Moscow, holding a healthy, “happy, calm, and wide-eyed” five-month-old girl, says MJ, now 54.

An adoption official “turned around and looked us in the eyes and said, ‘Do you want her?’,” MJ recalls. “We said ‘Yes, of course!’” Today, that baby is a typical 13-year-old American girl named Riley.

The Schaffers did not know it at the time, but they were part of a peak wave of Americans to adopt children from abroad. Americans adopted 22,989 children internationally in 2004, and numbers have dropped steadily since then, reaching only 5,647 adoptions in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of State.

The reasons for the decline are varied.

The Schaffers were among more than 5,000 U.S. families to adopt Russian children in 2004, but today no children can come from Russia to the United States because of a Russian law the State Department says is “motivated by political sentiment.” Meanwhile, unrest in Ukraine related to conflict with Russia has slowed adoptions from that country.

Other countries, including China, now try to place most orphaned children with families within their own borders, the State Department says. In still other nations, including Guatemala, adoption programs in need of reform have been suspended while changes are made to meet tougher global standards.

There’s no question that adopting a child from another country “has gotten a little tougher and a little more complicated,” says Paul Schaffer, now 55. But the quest remains well worthwhile, say the Schaffers and families who have adopted internationally in recent years. Experts agree that international adoption remains a great option for some families.

If you are considering expanding your own family in this way, here’s what you need to know:

The Changes Are Not Just About Numbers

If your heart is set on adopting an infant, international adoption is less of a possibility. “The children I’m seeing coming in now are older,” says Denise Bierly, an attorney in State College, Pennsylvania, and director of adoption for the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. “Many are preschool age. Some are even older.”  That’s largely a result, she says, of policies that strongly favor in-country adoption of infants, especially healthy infants.

The State Department confirms that trend. In 2015, just 35 children under the age of one were adopted into the U.S. About 1,500 adoptees were ages one to two; 1,500 were ages three to four; 1,800 were five to 12, and 800 were teenagers.

Another significant change: children available for adoption today are more likely to have special needs, ranging from minor health problems to profound disabilities. That’s especially true for children from China, which remains by far the most common birthplace of children adopted internationally by Americans (followed by Ethiopia, South Korea, Ukraine, and Uganda). In 2005, 95 percent of Chinese adoptees were healthy girls; in 2015, 90 percent were girls or boys with special needs, says the State Department.

The shift means that parents willing and able to care for children with more significant challenges will find themselves on the fastest track to adoption. Some parents are eager to adopt children with challenges such as Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, says pediatrician Dana Johnson, founder of the International Adoption Clinic at the University of Minnesota. Others are more wary, and that’s OK, Johnson says.

“We want to put a child with a family where the family can meet the needs of that child and will be able to parent effectively. It’s reasonable to take all of this into account, to be very honest with yourself about what you can handle,” he says. Prospective parents are asked to go through a checklist of specific conditions they would or would not be able to accommodate in an adopted child.

“We don’t pressure or push families in any direction,” says Deb Harder, adoption information coordinator at Children’s Home and Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota.

All that said, many children coming to the United States have health problems “that we can take care of pretty readily,” such as correctible heart defects, cleft lips, and treatable infectious diseases, Johnson says.

Some children who have spent long periods in orphanages arrive with developmental delays and emotional difficulties that can make it tough for them to bond with their new families, he says. “But the vast majority of families accommodate and do very well with their adopted children,” Johnson says. 

And research shows that, for the children, the benefits can be huge: “The difference between growing up in an orphanage versus with a family is just astounding,” Johnson says.

The Process Is Long And Complex

In June 2014, just two months after starting their application to be adoptive parents, Brian Barch, 32, and his wife, Jena, 29, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, got wonderful news. They had been matched with three potential adoptees from South Korea. 

After a prayerful weekend looking at photos and records, they could not stop thinking about a particular one-year-old boy. “We felt this child was ours,” says Barch, a logistics manager for a cosmetics company.  But it would take nearly two years for the Barches to meet their son, Jude. They finally brought him home in April 2016.

The months in between were filled with paperwork and proceedings in the U.S. and Korea. Meanwhile, Jude was living with a foster family in Korea, and the Barches received pictures as he grew. “It’s exciting to see pictures of your child,” Barch says. “It’s also upsetting to see pictures of your child growing up when you can’t be with him.”

Sara Pensyl, 33, and husband, Marc, 34, of Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania, applied to adopt a child from the Philippines in early 2012. Their application was quickly accepted — and then they waited nearly three years to be matched with a child. In March 2015, they learned that a two-year-old boy was waiting for them in an orphanage in Manila. Then there was more waiting and more paperwork, Pensyl says. They brought their son Michael home in October 2015.

“The adoption process is not for the faint of heart,” says Pensyl, a program manager at a Christian conference center. “You have to want this. You can’t just do it on a whim … If you are not a detail person, this could be unbelievably challenging.”

The differences in those details reflect varying practices in each country, Harder says.

But there are some standard, predictable steps, she says. The first step is to meet with an adoption agency to discuss options and determine your eligibility for various adoption programs, based on factors that may include your age, marital status, and financial health.

Next, comes a home study, a formal review of your home and family by a social worker. The study needs to be conducted by an agency licensed in your state. It may or may not be the same agency working with you on international placement, which must be approved to work in the country from which you want to adopt.

International agencies in the U.S. also must comply with the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, a set of rules that protects children and families. Details on finding accredited agencies are on the website of the nonprofit Council on Accreditation, found at coanet.org.

For their part, prospective parents must attend classes on parenting and adoption and compile an extensive dossier that includes documents such as birth and marriage certificates and results of physical and psychological exams. Pensyl recalls that she even had to get a report from a veterinarian attesting to the health of the two dogs she had at the time. “No one can say they are not thorough,” she says.

The Schaffers remember a similar gauntlet. “It was just tons and tons of paperwork,” MJ says, including references from friends, a police background check, tax returns, and financial statements. “I’d say it took us a year just to gather all of it,” she says.

It’s Expensive

Harder says she tells families to expect a total cost, including travel, court costs, and fees for the agencies involved, of at least $35,000 to $40,000.

There is some risk of spending a lot of money without completing an adoption. Countries sometimes close their adoption programs with little notice, Bierly says.

Barch says he and his wife spent about $50,000 on Jude’s adoption, with a big chunk of that going to cover his excellent foster care in Korea. The expenses came in uneven “lumps,” he says. “We had a $20,000 bill that came at one point, and we were able to get a quick loan.”

Pensyl says her child’s adoption cost about $30,000. She and her husband paid most of that, but got grants from their church and a nonprofit group to cover some expenses. 

One silver lining: the Internal Revenue Service offers a tax credit for adoption expenses up to $13,460, which you can apply to your federal tax bill over three years.

It Can Be A Beautiful Thing

“Each kid’s story is different,” Pensyl says, and she knows that some adopted children struggle to adapt to new homes. “But Michael has adjusted really well,” she says. He was underweight, but has gained nicely. “On paper, we were told he had mild asthma, but we haven’t seen it,” she says.

What they do see is a happy, loving preschooler who has learned enough English to be quite a chatterbox.

Barch says that “adoption has been a beautiful thing for us,” and his son also is thriving, loving, and healthy. Jude’s records said he had a heart murmur, but U.S. doctors do not consider it a problem. Jude also is a toddler who sometimes acts out, Barch says. It has not been easy for him and his wife to “go from zero to toddler” instantly, he says, but it’s been worth it. They hope to adopt again.

“God blessed us with a four-bedroom house,” he says. “We want to fill those bedrooms.”

And Riley Schaffer, the American girl who was once that orphaned Russian baby?  Today, she’s busy with dance, gymnastics, and voice lessons, and appearing in plays, singing in a chorus, and spending typical teenage hours on her phone. She recently redecorated her room and got rid of the Russian dolls and pictures that were part of her childhood décor and a link to her past.

But that does not mean Riley has forgotten her roots. “We’ve always talked about her adoption. She’s proud of it,” mom MJ says. And every March 15, the anniversary of the day they brought Riley home, the whole family celebrates. “It’s just like another birthday.”

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