It can take a few months, or several years. It can cost a relatively small amount, or tens of thousands of dollars. It can involve a home inspection, a financial review and a background check. But whether it’s done through a public, private or international agency, one part of the adoption process is universal: the anxious, hopeful waiting.
“The biggest challenge is all the uncertainty,” says Emily Belknap, a Charleston counselor who specializes in adoptive and foster families. “People struggle with a little bit of uncertainty, over a job or selling a house. But with something like adopting a child and becoming a parent, which has such a profound effect on your life and identity, it’s just that uncertainty and lack of control. There are so many factors that come into play.”
Indeed, the steps in the adoption process can be overwhelming, especially for someone going through it for the first time. There’s the decision whether to adopt publicly, privately or internationally, which all come with their own pros and cons. There’s the willingness to open your life to investigators, who ensure the adoptive child is going to a good home.
There’s the need for an attorney and a legal action terminating the rights of the adoptive child’s biological parent. Prospective parents are subject to a criminal background check to ensure no past crimes of moral turpitude, a medical exam to ensure they’re healthy enough to adopt and a financial review to ensure they can afford to bring a new child into their home.
“I’ve definitely had people who’ve called me and said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know we had to do all this,’” says Jacqueline Bond Anthony, an adoption attorney with Anthony of Anthony & Moore, LLC in Mount Pleasant.
Public or private?
Domestically, prospective parents in South Carolina have a few options when it comes to adoption, Anthony says. There’s private adoption, done through an agency. There’s public adoption, done through the Department of Social Services. And there is a public-private hybrid, whereby public agencies in South Carolina help place children with parents here through public agencies in other states.
The process can be different depending on which route prospective parents take. Public adoptions through DSS can cost little, given that the state picks up much of the tab, and typically matches parents with older children who have been in foster care. Prospective parents hoping for an infant often go the private route, although it can be much more expensive.
How expensive? “The best answer I always give people is, it depends,” Anthony says. “It depends on what’s involved. The majority of ours cost $10,000 or less, and the prices go up depending on how many agencies or attorneys are involved. I’ve seen adoptions that have cost $50,000 because there were so many people touching it.”
Public and private adoptions can also be starkly different in terms of duration, Anthony says. She’s seen private adoptions happen as quickly as six weeks, and public adoptions take 10 months or longer given the increased amount of paperwork and the longer waits for inspections. Adoptions done through DSS can also involve differences in the “home study,” the catchall term for ensuring the child’s new environment is safe. For example, a fire inspection is not needed in a private adoption.
But in all cases, there’s one thing Cathy Leeke is looking for. “Willing families with beating hearts. Because a willing family is a teachable family,” says Leeke, state director of Lifeline Children’s Services in Mount Pleasant, a private agency that specializes primarily in international adoptions.
“You don’t need to come to the table knowing how to care for a child from a hard place. You don’t need to come to the table as perfect parents. There are no such things. I’m looking for willing families, because so many of the things we need to work on in the home study are changeable. And if you’re willing, you’ll change them.”
The home study, Anthony says, is standard procedure in an adoption of any kind. The duration of the adoption process is typically dictated by the duration of the home study, which examines every facet of the prospective parents’ world: finances, health status, criminal background and home environment.
Home studies are mandatory in all adoptions except for those occurring within the same family, Anthony adds. They’re conducted by a certified adoption investigator licensed by DSS, and the subjective opinion of the inspector can often make or break an adoption.
Hurdles are not uncommon. A public urination charge can exclude a prospective parent from adopting a child, Anthony says, because it can land someone on a sexual offender list. There are cases in infant adoption where birth mothers change their minds about giving up the child. Countries can decide to halt all international adoptions, leaving prospective parents in the middle of the process stunned and heartbroken.
“Parents who are in the preadoption process deal with a lot of loss sometimes. Sometimes it’s loss and grief, like infertility, that’s brought them to adoption. Sometimes there are matches where they think they’re going to be able to adopt this child, and something legally changes,” says Belknap, whose practice, Bridgepointe Therapy, is unique in Charleston in that it specializes in adoptive families.
“They’ve already had this idea in their mind of what their family is going to look like, or maybe even gotten attached to a child if it’s a foster child in their home, and it doesn’t work out. So there’s definitely loss and disappointment. But at the same time, it’s not insurmountable.”
Build a network
Which is why Belknap urges adoptive parents to use the waiting period to gather their own support system. “Once the child’s in your home, when everyone’s in transition, it’s a lot harder to build a network,” she adds. “Connect with adoptive parents before you’ve adopted, so when you bring the child into your home, you have the relationships already established.”
The South Carolina Bar Association offers adoption education programs, including an annual “Family Forever Fair.” DSS provides online resources such as a directory of certified inspectors and a search page with photos of adoptable children in South Carolina.
And throughout the process, keep expectations in check. Belknap has seen older children with fully formed personalities adopted by parents hoping they’ll mirror their own childhoods. Other children may have experienced neglect, abuse or failed matches in the adoption process. Belknap also has encountered parents who want adoption to make up for the difficult relationship they may have had with their own parents.
“They’ve kind of build up this relationship in their mind of, ‘I’m going to adopt this child and feel better,’ or ‘I’m finally going to be a mom like I’ve always dreamed of,’ and they have all these expectations of what the child is going to do for them,” she says. “When really, adoption is all about meeting the need of the child.”