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Why Is Adoption So Expensive? A Look At The Rising Costs

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Just two months after giving birth to the son I had placed for adoption, I received an email from my adoption agency addressed to "Dear Prospective Adoptive Parent." It was full of info that would, indeed, have been very useful had I been looking to adopt a child, but as a birth mother, I was on the exact opposite end of that equation. I'd apparently been placed on the wrong email list. And this info included a notification of just how expensive adoption is, including said agency's fees. At the time (2012), the fee paid by an adoptive family for a domestic adoption was $30,000 — the same amount I was making per year at the time. (Today, the fee is $36,000.)

I emailed them back and got off that mailing list, but the number stuck with me. I'd received a lot of info about my son's adoptive family when I was in the process of placing him, including their occupations, salaries, and debt. However, it had never occurred to me to even think about how much they were paying the agency, or the expense adoption must have meant for them.

Four years after the fact, however, I have decided to investigate. Why is adoption so expensive? And how the heck did it get that way?

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The simplest answer is twofold. First of all, there are a boatload of professionals involved in the adoption of a child, and those professionals need to be paid. This is a big change from the early 20 century, when adoptions were often arranged more informally. In an interview with Romper, Katie Foley, Associate Director of Outreach for Spence-Chapin Services to Families & Children, says, “In over 100 years, we've seen the professionals necessary to facilitate an adoption change as [the] practice has changed. For example, 100 years ago, a doctor might be the primary professional in making an adoption happen,” perhaps connecting a pregnant patient with an infertile one. But in 2016, all that has changed.

Part of what drives up agency costs is the fact that adoption professionals need to specialize.  

Which professionals, and how much they get paid, depend upon whether the adoption is domestic, international, through an agency, private, or if it's a second-parent adoption, where the spouse or partner of a child's parent legally becomes the second parent. For the adoption of a child from foster care, a number of costs go down significantly or vanish altogether, because the costs are often absorbed by the public (state or government) agency that has legal custody of the child. In non-foster cases, the adoptive parents bear the burden of the cost.

The other part of the picture is that there are significantly fewer adoptions today than there were in the 1970s, when adoption was at its peak. As Ellen Herman of the University of Oregon’s Adoption History Project tells Romper,

Like it or not, adoption is still a business, and decreased supply means increased cost.

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The average costs of adoption, according to AdoptiveFamilies.com, are as follows:

Domestic Adoption Costs

Through an agency: $41,532

Through an attorney: $35,594

Foster care adoption: $2,811

(Adoptive Families doesn’t measure second-parent adoption costs, but the Human Rights Campaign puts the number between $2,000 and $3,000.)

International Adoption

China: $36,070

Ethiopia: $38,667

South Korea: $46,412

These numbers include everything: travel, paperwork, agency, attorney, etc. China, Ethiopia, and South Korea are the only countries that AdoptiveFamilies.com publishes, because they are the most popular. While most other estimates for international adoption appear comparable, those numbers can sometimes go down significantly if a family is willing to adopt older children, sibling groups, or children with disabilities or medical needs. Here's how those expenses break down.

The Professionals

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If you're looking to adopt, you'll have to pay an attorney, an agency, or both. The transfer of a human into your custody is a big deal with lots of paperwork, and you need a professional. Their average costs, according to Adoptive Families, are within spitting distance of each other: about $13,000 for attorney fees, and $17,000 for an agency (though these numbers change drastically depending on your state, agency/attorney, and situation). You also very well might be working with both an attorney and an agency concurrently, which means you'd pay both.

Even just applying to an adoption agency can cost hundreds of dollars. April Dinwoodie, Chief Executive of The Donaldson Adoption Institute, tells Romper,

Agency fees for domestic adoption average much higher than those for international adoptions, but the international costs get driven up by the travel and paperwork involved.

Part of what drives up agency costs is the fact that adoption professionals need to specialize. For instance, as a birth parent, I had a social worker who only worked with birth parents, and my son's adoptive parents had a social worker who only worked with adoptive parents. This prevented a conflict of interest for our social workers; mine didn't have pre-adoptive parents whispering in her ear. As Kelly Ellison of Your Adoption Finance Coach puts it, “Each professional involved in the process does a specific job, and that's how the prices go up.”

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The only way to guarantee nationwide parental rights for a non-biological parent is by an adoption order. Even a state that doesn’t want to recognize same-sex marriages will still recognize an adoption order.

Attorney fees can range from pro bono to the moon. Other professionals involved in a private adoption might include a facilitator or consultant to connect the adoptive family with a birth mother, though 26 states “prohibit the payment of any fee for connecting an adoptive family with a pregnant woman or obtaining consent to adoption,” according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway. And this is part of what you’re paying for when you pay an accredited agency: You know that they’re legitimate, not a profiteer merely claiming to be able to connect you with birth parents.

Attorneys are also necessary in second-parent adoptions, which are typically sought by stepparents and LGBT couples. Despite Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015 granting marriage to same-sex couples, the parental rights of the non-biological or non-gestational parent are not always guaranteed, because states are not enforcing them uniformly. As attorney Andy Izenson puts it,

If they get into a car accident in Florida and the child has to be hospitalized, the non-biological mother is a legal stranger to the child. In cases where a lesbian couple conceives a child via co-IVF, meaning one spouse carries the other spouse's egg, the biological (but non-gestational) mother is the legal stranger. The only way to guarantee nationwide parental rights for a non-biological or non-gestational parent is by an adoption order. Even a state that doesn’t want to recognize same-sex marriages will still recognize an adoption order. But it won't come cheap.

Getting To Know You: The Home Study

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There's pretty much always what's known as a home study, in which a social worker creates an incredibly detailed profile of the pre-adoptive family. This profile includes their finances, education, employment, medical history, criminal history, personal history — basically everything a woman putting a child up for adoption could want to know. In fact, these profiles are so chock-full of sensitive information that when I was in the process of choosing a family for my child, my social worker read them to me aloud rather than letting me actually see them.

Home studies take three-six months to complete and run roughly $1,000-$3,000. This cost goes up if the home study is international, since more paperwork is involved to comply with international regulations; it shrinks to $300-500 if the child is being adopted from foster care. (This is because the social worker conducting the home study is being paid by a public agency in foster care cases, as opposed to a private agency or directly by the pre-adoptive parents.) Sometimes, if the social worker determines in the process of the home study that the prospective parents require additional training (courses aimed at handling adoption from a sensitive and informed place with your new family), that can cost another several hundred dollars.

Home studies are also required for the second parent in second-parent adoptions, even if both parents have raised the child since birth. Think of it like this: If I'm the biological or gestational mom of our daughter and I'm married to a woman, my wife still has to go through much of the same process to adopt our daughter as a perfect stranger would. So even if our daughter is 5 years old and has lived with both of us that whole time, my wife has to go through a home study and have a background check and have a social worker come to our home, just as she would if she'd never met the child.

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Each country has its own country fee (a flat amount set by that country for adopting from it), which varies wildly from country to country. For instance, South Africa has a country fee of $4,000 per child, while other country fees, like Colombia, can be upwards of $10,000.

This home study costs money to maintain, as well. If there are any major life changes — a change to your living situation or employment, for instance — the home study has to be updated, which also costs money. It also has to be updated periodically (typically every 12 months, but the exact timeline depends on the state, until you get a child or decide to let it expire) in order to remain current. This, again, costs money — as much as $1,000 each time.

International Adoptions

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FILES - A picture taken 12 November 2006 shows US actors Angelina Jolie (L), daughter Zahara (2L), husband Brad Pitt (R) and son Maddox taking a stroll on the seafront promenade in Mumbai. British tabloid 'Sun' reports in its edition from 15 November 2007 that Mentewab Dawit, biological mother of adopted Ethiopian child Zahara, claims back her two-years old daughter. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

International adoptions are an idiosyncratic business, and largely on the decline: According to the State Department, only 5,647 international adoptions took place in 2015 (compared with 11,058 in 2010). Your experience of it will depend largely on which country you choose. Across countries and programs, there’s a combination of children with medical or special needs and those without, averaging toddler-aged but sometimes older and very occasionally younger. Also, a number of countries and programs specify that they are only interested in heterosexual couples.

There’s an interesting line in the Adoptive Families report for domestic adoptions: “Birth Mother Expenses.”

Travel costs are, obviously, a huge cost— about $8,000 on average (which goes up to $10,000 when you factor in your in-country travel expenses). Some programs require multiple visits or require you to stay in the child’s home country for a minimum amount of time, which might be up to several weeks. But there are other non-travel costs driving the cost of international adoption up. The 1993 Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect to Intercountry Adoption established international safeguards to prevent child trafficking. This is, obviously, fantastic. It also means a great deal of paperwork to make sure you’re complying with Hague guidelines, and that paperwork costs money to prepare and submit. Your dossier costs $1,500 on average to prepare, according to Spence-Chapin, and another $500-$1,500 to translate if needed.

Also, each country has its own country fee (a flat amount set by that country for adopting from it), which varies wildly from country to country. For instance, South Africa has a country fee of $4,000 per child, while other country fees, like Colombia, can be upwards of $10,000. Then there’s the cost of the child’s passport, visa, and medical exam ($500-$1,500), including hiring a doctor with experience reading international medical records to review the child’s information. It all keeps adding up.

Birth-Mother Expenses

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There’s an interesting line in the Adoptive Families report for domestic adoptions: “Birth Mother Expenses.” This refers to things like the birth mother’s medical bills, her own counseling and legal fees, living expenses, and travel costs. Many states restrict what kinds of birth-mother expenses the adoptive parent is allowed to reimburse.

My son's adoptive parents didn't pay any of these expenses for me when I was a birth mother; my agency covered my medical bills and gave me a MetroCard every time I visited them. (My son's parents paid the agency a flat fee; my costs weren't broken down and passed onto them.) As broke as I was, I’m glad I wasn’t receiving any further assistance from the adoptive family, as I think it would have made my decision murkier and more difficult. However, whether through an attorney or an agency, birth-mother expenses cost adoptive families an average of $4,000-$5,000.

There are numerous other costs involved, not least of which is the amount a family might pay before having a successful adoption — for in-vitro fertilization, or an unsuccessful adoption attempt, or advertising and networking in search of a birth mother. But the big question is…

What Can Families Do About It?

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There are a number of ways for families to mitigate the cost of adoption, and some adoption professionals are working to make it easier for families to afford. Many of these forms of assistance are via reimbursement after the fact, so there are still plenty of up-front costs. Ellison estimates that adoptive parents "will have to pay 85 percent of the total cost of your adoption. The rest can come from loans, grants, personal fundraising, special events, and other gifts."

One of the biggest ways to offset your adoption bill is with the tax credit. You can receive up to $13,460 per child in reimbursement for "qualified adoption expenses," and this number goes up every year. Also, you don't have to claim it all in one year; if you claimed $3,000 in 2014, then you can still claim the remaining $10,460 credit by 2018. Some states have tax credits as well. Ellison stresses the importance of finding an accountant or CPA who knows how to apply these credits. For instance, Bills Tax Service in Illinois specializes in this credit and will do taxes for families anywhere in the country. Active-duty members of the military can also receive reimbursement of up to $2,000 per child for adoption costs.

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In the context of foster care, "special needs" refers not only to medical conditions and/or disabilities, but also to children who are older, not white, part of a sibling group, or some other combination of factors that have made them "difficult to place" for adoption.

According to Ellison, another resource many people don't even think to investigate is their own employer. Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption (DFTA) publishes a list every year of the 100 most adoption-friendly workplaces, but even if your company's not on the list, it's still worth asking your HR department. According to the DTFA, 52 percent of companies surveyed offer a financial adoption benefit. (And if you want to establish adoption benefits at your company, DTFA offers a free kit to do so.) There are also grants available, ranging from $1,000 to $15,000. Ellison says that many of these are faith-based, based on financial need, or for adopting children with special needs. These grants tend to be incredibly competitive, with "literally hundreds of families applying for the same money." You can start applying at Helpusadopt.org, Resources 4 Adoption, or International Adoption Center, or see if your agency partners with Your Adoption Finance Coach.

If you adopt a child from foster care, you're eligible for a monthly government subsidy — an average of $846 a month, according to Adoptive Families. There is also sometimes a one-time reimbursement available, which ranges from $400-$2,000 depending on the state, as well as health coverage through Medicaid, and sometimes college tuition. Also, if you adopt a child with special needs through an agency, some agencies will waive their fees. (In the context of foster care, "special needs" refers not only to medical conditions and/or disabilities, but also to children who are older, not white, part of a sibling group, or some other combination of factors that have made them "difficult to place" for adoption. Each state defines "special needs" differently.)

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The adoption professional doing their part to make adoption more affordable do so in a variety of ways. Some attorneys will work pro bono or for a reduced rate. Some agencies offer graduated payment schedules, so that you only pay for services as they are rendered and not beforehand, and will connect families with resources. And Delta offers discount airfare for international adoption travel.

Overall, it's clear that money plays a huge role in adoption. The Donaldson Adoption Institute recently released a presentation highlighting some of the problems with adoption today, including the role of privilege and money. According to this presentation, "more than two-thirds of the adoption community believe privilege and money distort adoption." (You can read more about the DAI's Let's Adopt Reform initiative, or sign their open letter, which aims to change the way we talk about adoption.)