International adoption: What you need to know

With international options becoming more limited, where should prospective parents turn next?

Photo: Erik Putz
Photo: Erik Putz. Embroidery: Esmari Taylor

You’re two years old. You don’t understand English, and you can’t really talk because you have a cleft palate. You were born with it, along with a cleft lip that was repaired in China when you were seven months old. You’ve only been in your adoptive home in Canada for four months, and you’re suddenly recovering from surgery to close your palate. You’re in pain, and your supposedly loving new adoptive parents have put braces on your arms so you can’t touch your face or mouth.

That’s what happened to Maelyn Green after she arrived in Newmarket, Ont.

“I found the three weeks after surgery very trying,” recalls her mother, Jan Gravelle. “I had very little sleep and was dealing with tantrums 24/7.”

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Though Maelyn quickly healed, started speaking English and acclimatized to life in Canada, her (and her family’s) challenges aren’t quite over. The funny and stubborn four-year-old is a real cutie, but, if you look closely, you can see her nose is a bit lopsided due to missing cartilage. She still goes to weekly speech-therapy sessions, and will eventually need extensive orthodontic work, surgery for her gum line and a nose job to replace the missing cartilage.

While parenting a child who has medical needs has been trying at times (and expensive — although workplace and government programs have help offset many of the costs), it didn’t deter Gravelle and her husband, Paul Green, from returning to China and bringing home another daughter, Ailee, who has similar physical problems. “We’re a family of four and we couldn’t be happier,” says Gravelle.

When the couple realized they would have trouble conceiving years ago, they immediately starting planning for a family through international adoption. But what they didn’t know when they first started socking away every spare dollar and pondering baby names is that adoption, particularly international, is harder than it used to be.

Everything, from wait times to requirements for the countries open for business, has changed. While celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Sandra Bullock and Katherine Heigl have made cross-border, multiracial families as hip as designer handbags, the truth is that there’s nothing glamorous about investing thousands of dollars and waiting for years for the phone to ring. “Anyone hoping to adopt right now will have to be very patient,” says Michael Blugerman, an adoption counsellor and the executive director of Children’s Resource and Consultation Centre of Ontario.

“I think a lot of prospective parents are in limbo,” says Brenda McCreight of Nanaimo, BC, an adoptive parent herself and a therapist who specializes in helping families cope post-adoption. “People are coming back to domestic public adoption.”

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Parenting kids adopted through the public system in Canada can also be tough. But, more awareness about the kids waiting for homes here, is triggering innovative programs and better financial support. The bottom line? Adoption is still an option for building a family, but it’s not always an easy one.

International relations

Why all the drama in adoption? Many countries — including Canada, the US and China — signed the 1995 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoptions during the last decade. Signee nations promise to hunt down a child’s relations before putting him up for adoption, seek local families over overseas ones, and follow a rigorous code of ethics to avoid issues like child trafficking.

The convention benefits kids in many ways, but its existence has also trimmed international adoption numbers. In China’s heyday in 2005 (the same year it signed the convention) it adopted out 14,496 children to 17 countries, including 1,871 to Canada.

More recent statistics have yet to be released, but in 2010, China sent 5,471 kids out for international adoption, with 472 finding homes in Canada. Canadians adopted 1,366 children from all nations in 2012, down from a high of 2,222 in 1998.

The Children’s Bridge, based is Ottawa, is one of Canada’s largest English-speaking adoption agencies. It used to process about 200 adoptions a year. That’s now down to about 70. Two Canadian agencies have closed in recent years and most have cut back on staff.

Not only are there now fewer available kids to adopt, but its taking longer for those kids to get here. Wait times from Russia and South Korea take one to two years, which seems to be the average. And it now takes more than six years from China — unless you’ll adopt a child with medical needs like Maelyn and Ailee, then the wait is around one to one-and-a half years. Other countries also have expedited adoptions of kids with special medical needs or HIV.

Children are also older — it’s rare to adopt an infant now; most kids who arrive in Canada are walking, talking toddlers. Hopeful parents open to children with special needs, older children, sibling sets and those who don’t specify gender (worldwide, everyone seems to want a girl) have better chances.

And while China is still the top sender of adoptive children for Canadian families, it’s no longer the far-and-away leader. Agencies have diversified and families now have more choices to ponder.

“We have licenses for 12 adoption programs right now,” says Cathy Murphy, the executive director of the Children’s Bridge. “But they’re all smaller adoption programs — we’ll never have a big China program again.” On the top of Canada’s list for 2011, behind China, were the US, Ethiopia, Russia and Vietnam.

And with more countries comes more instability. Ethiopia was once hoped to be the new China, and Canadians flocked to the application process there. Now, there’s a bottleneck and many agencies here have stopped taking new applications until all the old ones are filled, or have stopped entirely. Over the last three years, Haiti, Nepal and South Africa have all been closed for adoptions, mainly because of concerns about corrupt practices and child trafficking.

These adopting-out nations also have increasingly stringent requirements for prospective parents about age, body weight, finances and length of marriage. Some, like China, used to allow same-sex couples to adopt as single parents in a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. No more. Then there’s quirkier stuff: South Korea won’t accept parents who’ve had more than one previous divorce; Vietnam allows single women but not men; Thailand says morticians need not apply; India will let single men adopt, but only a male child.

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International adoptions are also now more expensive. Cash-strapped agencies, that can get stuck with an in-process adoption for years on end, are now charging annual service fees of $1,000 to $1,500 — total costs for international adoption run an average of $35,000 to $45,000. That covers myriad things including plane tickets, police checks, home study, agency commission, registration fees and usually a “donation” to an overseas orphanage.

Private domestic adoption

Since the rules for international adoption have tightened, it’s become harder for single people and same-sex couples to adopt. So Chad Farquharson and Wayne McGill of Vancouver struggled with their options. They made several calls to the British Columbia Ministry of Children and Family Development, but never heard back. Then they started to hear from other adoptive parents about concerns with private US adoptions, like heartbreaking stories of fraud on the part of birth moms taking money from multiple families.

So they decided to give private adoption in Canada a try. While this is a less costly choice than international adoption, fees for home study, paperwork and agency costs still usually add up to about $20,000. Since birth mothers in Canada can choose who will raise their babies, the goal for prospective parents is to get their story out there through adoption agencies and the Internet.

The website Canada Adopts!, out of Toronto, is one of the first and most successful Canadian adoption websites. It lets people from Ontario and British Columbia post information and pictures about themselves and their desire for a child. It also offers a discussion forum, reading and resource lists, and general information about adopting in Canada.

Farquharson and McGill posted their profile on the site and crossed their fingers. Lawrence Morton, who runs Canada Adopts!, says same-sex male couples do very well with his service. “They promote themselves as: ‘You’ll be the only mother in the child’s life.’ That’s a pretty appealing message.”

The couple had all of their paperwork complete by 2008 and were waiting to be chosen. Two years later, they were contacted by Vancouver Family Services about a pregnant 14-year-old. Weeks later, that fell apart when the girl’s family insisted she keep the child. A week after that, a friend’s niece agreed to let the couple adopt her baby. Then she miscarried. The day they found out about the miscarriage, they got yet another call from Vancouver Family Services about a 23-year-old mother.

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“We had experienced too many emotional lows to believe this one,” recalls Farquharson. Eventually, as they stayed in touch with the birth mom, they started to truly hope it would happen. Grayson was born in January 2011, and his adoption was finalized a year later. However, he does have a serious metabolic condition that requires constant monitoring of his diet. “Everyone walks in hoping for a happy, healthy child,” says Farquharson of his now two-and-a-half year-old son. “But he’s the most agreeable kid you’ll ever meet.”

Public domestic adoption

As both international and private domestic adoptions become more limited, interest is turning to the public system. The Adoption Council of Canada, a national non-profit that promotes public adoption, runs a federal online service that features pictures and stories of kids waiting for families, called Canada’s Waiting Children. It had 5,000 registration requests from potential parents in 2011, up from an average of 3,500.

Adopting a kid who is currently in foster care is definitely the most affordable option. Depending on a variety of factors (like whether or not you pay for your own home study or if you use an agency), public domestic adoption can cost up to a few thousand dollars, or as little as, well, nothing.

“There’s been greater awareness around domestic adoption in Canada. But we still have a long way to go,” says Sarah Pedersen, the executive director of the Council. How far? About 30,000 children and youth are awaiting adoption in Canada, and almost 80,000 are in foster care. Advocates for these kids say we need to get more of them into permanent homes, and we need legal changes to allow more of those in care to be eligible for adoption.

There’s a nationwide push to promote public adoption and make it easier. For instance, the Adoption Council of Canada now runs the Heart Gallery, a travelling photographic exhibit of kids in foster care. It pops up at community centres and malls to attract families. Last January, the federal government announced that foster parents adopting children already in their care are now eligible for employment insurance. Many provinces offer financial support, and things like free counselling and respite care for parents who adopt from the public domestic system, and are gradually loosening up their restrictions. For instance, previously, if you had more than $100,000 in assets, you couldn’t qualify for the post-adoption assistance program in BC. Now you can have up to $300,000 in the bank.

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Expect more: A federal commons committee tabled a report last year calling for a national adoption strategy (adoption is currently a provincial matter), more financial support for families and better practices to keep track of statistics.

“Any adoption is going to be tough, even when you adopt a newborn,” says Pedersen. “But I see a lot of these families, and it melts my heart to see the strides these kids make when they have a family that’s forever.”

But somewhere between the instability of international, the endless waiting game of private and the challenges of public lies an option for those who want to build a family through adoption. The era of relatively quick overseas matches might be over, but some say that’s not entirely a bad thing — it might be leading to a much-needed perspective shift.

“Adoption has never been about the adoptive parent,” says Murphy. “It’s about the fact that a child is in need of a family.”

A version of this article appeared in our October 2013 issue with the headline “The state of adoption,” pp. 108-10.

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